Alone in a desert and no church to go to!
The last time churches were closed down in England was in 1208, when the Pope made an interdict because King John was a naughty boy. Yet today churches are closed throughout Britain and many other countries including Italy and the USA. This time it was not a naughty king or an authoritarian pope but a tiny virus.
What should Christians do when they can’t go to church for worship?
There have been various responses and some clergy have live-streamed services with only themselves present, either in church or at home. Often these have gone down well and are fulfilling a need. Hats off to all who have done this.
But are we too church worship-centred?
As the events crowded in on the news I recollected that half a century ago, I simply could not worship weekly with other Christians in a church, simply because there were no churches where I was and there were also no other Christians I could join with either.
For a period of 14 and a half months I spent a full twelve months living isolated in the middle of desert, miles from anywhere, 20 miles from the nearest human habitation. Because of my isolation, public worship was only possible on rare occasions and thus most of the time my worship could only be private. Yet I would say that despite little fellowship in churches with other Christians my faith grew and thrived.
I had two options. Either I worshipped on my own, or I didn’t worship.
How did I end up in that situation?
After graduating in geology I accepted a post as a geologist at Kilembe mines in the Ruwenzori mountains of Uganda, and worked both in the bush as an exploration geologist and underground. Without being asked, after ten months I was told I was being transferred to South Africa, but I didn’t know whereabouts in that Apartheid-ridden land.
My time in Uganda was enjoyable, though the racism on the mine got me down. I spent six months in all in the bush as an exploration geologist.
Kilembe opened the 1950s and closed in the 70s courtesy of Idi Amin, despite consdierable Copper reserves.
That involved geological mapping , soil sampling and looking for minerals. I lived in a tent in a little clearing in a forest. On one occasion I had to go to a more remote area by foot and ended up in a tiny tent listening to lions roaring as I went to sleep.
I soon got involved in the local church, All Saints, Kilembe in the Ruwenzori diocese. I went to both English and Lutoro services and ended up as churchwarden shortly before leaving the country. I also went to Balokele (Revivalist) prayer meetings, where about six languages were used in prayer. When in the bush 150 miles away I went to the local Anglican Church conducted in Lutoro. As I was the only white I was treated like royalty, which was embarrassing. My whole experience of being part of the Church of Uganda was very uplifting.
As well as public worship and prayer meetings, I followed a daily pattern of bible reading and prayer – the classic evangelical Quiet Time, which was strengthening in a different way. The public and private worship were like two legs enabling me to move forward.
But I had to leave Uganda.
As the VC10 descended to land at Jan Smuts Airport in Jo’burg, I still was not over-pleased. A fortnight before I was told –not asked – that I was being transferred to South Africa, and I was dreading Apartheid. I had turned down a mining job in South Africa because of Apartheid and made sure I was in independent Africa and thus took a post at Kilembe Mine in Uganda. I had loved Uganda and enjoyed my church, All Saints, Kilembe and a lot of African friends, which was not really approved of on the mine by white colleagues. I was met at Jan Smuts airport by the company’s office manager, a podgy 30 year old, who took me to get a coffee. He was fairly affable and asked;
“How did you get on with the ******** (Afrikaans word of Arabic origin)?”
Feigning ignorance, I replied, “What do you mean?”
He said, “*******(nasty word often used in To Kill a Mocking Bird)”
I retorted in a most tactful way, “Oh. They were great to get on with.” I pulled some photos out of my briefcase and showed him one of me holding the hand of an African girl of my age, guiding her over a plank bridge. I am sure she’d approved! He was not amused, and believe it or not, we never got on! He was the worst racist I met in South Africa despite getting to know a lot of Afrikaners.
The chief geologist, a Dutchman, was friendly and told me to explore that weekend using a Peugeot 404 truck and so I went to the Voortrekker Monument. On the Monday I went to the office expecting to be sent to Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. He showed me an aerial photograph and pointed to some smudges. “I want you to see whether that ancient mine at Numees could be viable. They got copper out in the 1840s” I was stunned as it was empty mountainous desert – the Richtersveld -, part of Namqualand in Northern Cape Province. It was absolutely empty. I was told to camp there at the mine and to find a source of water. We got our water from the Orange River 15 miles away. It was also 15 miles from the nearest habitation – a diamond mine – and only 90 from the shops. Two weeks later another geologist and I set off staying in Kimberley en route and set up camp. Ian arrived from Windhoek and then we drove 150 miles on dirt roads to find labour in Steinkopf.
a typical Richtersveld scene
It was like being dumped on Mars as the area was so harsh. But I was to survey two ancient mine prospects and then map the whole area of a thousand or so square miles. There was a problem. It was a Cape Coloured Reserve run by CAD (Coloured Affairs Dept – for the Bantu it was BAD – Bantu Affairs Dept) and we had permission ONLY to go to those two prospects – yet I produced a map of hundreds of square miles by daily breaking Apartheid laws. I got stopped by the police once on a mountain track up Helskloof (Hell’s Valley). I couldn’t just squeeze past as there was no room and you always stopped to speak to other drivers – usually once or twice a month. They soon realised I was a rooineck so had to speak English. They were utterly lost so I told them how to get back to civilisation. My coloured assistant thought it funny as we carried on our killing ourselves laughing. I should have been arrested.
a modern map, showing the National Park. When I was there it was a Cape Coloured Reserve. The only tarmac was for 10 mls east of Pt Nolloth. I was halfway between Kuboes and Lekkersing, which are 40 miles apart. There was no habitation in those 40 miles
It was a geologist’s paradise helped by the fact that the only geologists who’d ever been there were Rogers in 1914 and de Villiers and Sohnge in the 1940s. I nearly disposed of Sohnge when he and others came to visit the area and while describing the rocks as we drove along, I drove off the road and down a bank. My guide was De Villiers and Sohnge’s Geological memoir published in 1944. Almost immediately I reckoned that they’d got some of the geology wrong as they thought the thick Stinkfontein formation was about 2300 million years old. I lopped a billion and half off after a day in the field that, but then had to find convincing reasons, which I did. At the same time a German geologist from the University of Cape Town was coming up and we arranged to meet to the west of Hilda Peak i.e. within a few square miles. He said “Look for a white Land Rover.” It was there in a vast sea of sand. We more or less agreed on the geology of the area, and our separate conclusions have stood the test of time reasonably well.
My first stint was from mid September to early December and thus early summer. It was hot, and not the best weather to do surveying as by 11 o’clock the surveying poles simply shimmered in the heat. The following year I spent from mid February to the end of November living in a caravan in three different places – all illegal.
NO CHURCH TO WORSHIP IN
Now let’s leave the fantastic geology and consider my church life. Actually there wasn’t any. I once visited the local Cape Coloured minister from the Dutch Reformed Church at Kuboes (said with a click). He was friendly, but scared to talk to me. Gone were the days when Ugandan priests spent five minutes with their complex handshakes and gave me a tribal name. I realised the political situation prevented any fellowship. I knew there was an Anglican church in Springbok 180 miles hence, so that was out. So, on my first trip I only went to church one Sunday when we went to Cape Town. Apart from that I never darkened the door of a church. As a result I went to church in Jo’burg in mid September, Cape Town in October and then Windhoek in December. There I went to the cathedral for a few weeks, and joined in with Rev Steve Heyes and Dave de Beer, who later got banned, and then was back to Jo’burg for Christmas, where I had a few contacts given to me by a missionary doctor from Uganda. For six weeks I could go to church with people I knew.
Come mid-February I was back on the road for a 1200 mile plus drive back to the Richtersveld. I had to pick up a caravan in a place called Karasburg before crossing the Orange River. For the rest of the year I had three camps scattered around the Richtersveld. Apart from the church at Kuboes, which Apartheid prevented me from attending, I did not know of any “white” churches within a hundred and eighty miles. (Afrikaans-speaking churches were out of the question as all Englishmen were Communists! One of my nicknames was Comrade Mike!)
THE ALTERNATIVE – OR WAS IT VITAL ANYWAY?
So what was my solution for my worship and spiritual food? In a sense, I was lucky that I’d become a Christian through OICCU (Oxford Inter-collegiate Christian Union) in my last term just before graduating in geology. (Thank God – literally- that was before Creationists and ultra-calvinists took over OICCU as they did soon after I left.) CUs had one, and only one, guide for personal prayer and worship – the QUIET TIME. This was not amenable to sacramentalists as the emphasis was on systematic bible reading and informal private prayer not using any set forms, and preferably at a set time in the morning. When I got to the Richtersveld I was half way through Search the Scriptures, a 3 year guide for reading the whole bible. Thus almost every morning I read my chunk of scripture and then prayed. It was very simply and some would say monotonous, though the Bible isn’t!
There I was in the middle of the desert and very much on my own. Part of the time I had a white colleague who was more than disinterested. For eight months I was on my own with three Cape Coloured assistants. Those who have not lived with Apartheid don’t know the reality of that racial chasm, as beyond behaving morally and non-discriminatingly, it was not possible to have social, rather than formal relations which were inevitably tinged with Baaskap. That sounds extremely lonely, but I only once felt alone when I had no sleep for three nights when a desert wind buffeted my caravan preventing sleep. My radio packed up so for six months I had no radio. I spent most weekends staying with a geologist on a diamond mine on the Orange River, some forty miles away. His wife was Dutch and during the war had thrown potatoes at German soldiers and then ran! Each week I went shopping at the local big town, Port Nolloth (pop 800) and had to ring the head office in Jo’burg and then waited two hours for the call to come through.
My Godsend came as result on going on a trek over the Drakensburg mountains in the New Year. One leader was HR at Kimberly Diamond Mine. I met up with him when I drove from Jo’burg in February. He said he’d put me in touch with the Methodist Minister of Orangemund on the north side of the Orange estuary – a De Beers diamond mine and highly secure due to the diamonds. Shortly after I got a letter inviting me to a service, which was held monthly in a private house in Alexander Baai Diamond mine on the south side of the river. On the appointed day I went after being cleared by security at the entrance – the police knew all about me. It was unnerving that police and security knew who I was, but it turned out that Van Riebeck was in charge of security. I went to the house and said “Is that Mr du Toit, I am Michael Roberts and the minister told me to come here.” Van Riebeck and Daphne du Toit, a couple in their 60s, gave me a warm welcome and I joined the service with less than a dozen people. After the service we went up the river for a braai (BBQ). Most were Afrikaners, including a Mr Burke, which worried me, but I couldn’t find warmer people. Most were 55 plus – I was 23 at the time – except for a young couple with a toddler. This was the local meteorologist and his family – Willy Taal. We never kept in touch, but twenty years ago I discovered he was a priest in Blackburn’s twin diocese of the Free State. There cannot be many churches of any denomination which have produced such a high proportion of clergy – two out of twelve. The du Toits were a fine Afrikaner family and almost adopted me! Whenever I passed through Alexander Baai I called in. He was in charge of Security, so those at the gate were told to let me in. I never nicked any diamonds. Diamond mines have very strict security and are surrounded by high barbed wire fences. Over the river in Oranjemund, owned by de Beers, the security was far more stringent and no one was allowed into an area of about 30 by 100 miles without security clearance. This was the Speergebeit, which clearly could not be policed as it was such remote desert. It was impossible to get permission to enter. However on one occasion with a French, Dutch and German geologist, four of us went deeply into the Speergebiet to study the fantastic geology, and compare it with the Richtersveld. The du Toits and I kept in touch for years until both died in the 80s. Once I called into the house and there were two visitors. Van Riebeck said they were government officials and they were clearly Afrikaners. He then told them that I was Communist Englishman and needed watching! They looked very uneasy but Van Riebeck was having fun. I might as well have been the Revd Michael Scott.
Apart from my personal contacts, I probably only went to eight services in the du Toits’ house. It was traditional Methodist fare, with non-methodist attempts at singing. I suppose many would say it was plain boring and stuck in the Ark, but here were a tiny group who came together to worship once a month. Yet, all the key aspects of worship were there; Bible, prayer, worship, singing and communion. It clearly sustained the regulars and it helped me no end both spiritually and socially. Perhaps the church’s faithfulness is also seen in Willy and I being ordained. I can hear objections, “It’s only a handful meeting in a house and not even weekly.” That is factually true but totally untrue.
You could say that the worship was nutritious but not exciting. Army or expedition rations! There was no band, clapping, incense or anything else. Just a plain boringly trad Methodist service. However it had the basic ingredients; Bible reading and sermon, Prayer both confession and intercession, Hymns sung after a fashion. We sometimes had communion, but always went up river for fellowship over a braai (BBQ). But before anyone says “how boring”, please read Acts 2 42 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That is what we were doing.
As it was no bells or whistles it was rather like my lunch box when go off for a long day in the mountains. My food is basic! A sandwich with cheese or beef, tomato, raw carrot, apple, multigrain biscuits and, depending on the season, sweet coffee or sweetened squash in the summer. That clearly works as the last time I had a problem over food and drink was in 1961, when at fourteen I cycled over 80 miles in temperatures in the upper 80s and nearly flaked out.
During the year I made several visits to Cape Town attending various churches including the cathedral, a brethren assembly and an interdenominational church. They were fleeting visits but helpful to me, and gave me spiritual shots.
Getting to an Anglican Church was fraught. There may have been a chaplaincy at Oranjemund on the north side of the Orange River, but the security was greater than Fort Knox. The nearest parish was Springbok, which would entail a drive of 180 miles each way, mostly on dirt roads. I once went to a communion in a house in Port Nolloth – there were four including the priest.
Thus I could rarely get to church more than once a month. Today that would count as occasional worship. Somehow I had to obtain spiritual nourishment for the intervening four weeks. So for virtually every day of the month my nourishment was my early morning QT!! Quite simply, Bible reading followed by prayer. I can almost hear many reading this inwardly groaning and muttering “How boring.” “What about the sacraments?” “What about fellowship with others?”
There was no alternative. Except not praying.
By the time I arrived in the Richtersveld I was reading much of the Bible for a second time and I was finishing off Search the Scriptures. At least on a second reading things which baffled me before came clearer – but maybe I am more baffled now. I am sure some would say that all this smacked of fundamentalism, but I kept hitting the rocks on Genesis and was appalled when I read the odd writer, who took Genesis literally. It was also fascinating reading the Exodus and the Patriarchal wonderings in a desert. The Richtersveld is very like the area around Sinai. I’ve never been one to try to get a special daily message from bible reading, as I took it in a more cumulative way.
When it came to prayer, I followed a mix of the two standard formulae, which are still valid today. ACTS is still recommended in Alpha.
ACTS and TCP
However the basics of all worship, private or public, are there
I won’t go into details on my petitions but will conclude with one which came up in my last few months there as it was a daily concern and scary.
Earlier I wrote that sharing in public worship and spending time in private prayers was like walking on two legs. In the desert I could not walk on two legs as one leg was missing. Hence I had to spiritually hop. So I spent most of my time hopping and only occasionally walking on two spiritual legs when I could get to a church for worship.
I feel that the closure of churches over Corvid-19 is like removing one leg. Thus many will have to continue by spiritual hopping in the absence of church worship.
But here lies a serious problem. People will only be able to spiritually hop if they were walking on two legs before. Despite teaching and exhortation on personal prayer and bible reading I wonder how many church members actually do pray in a semi-structured way at home beyond “God bless mummy, God bless daddy and God bless the pussy cat”. I would suggest personal bible reading is at a premium – indicated by how few know their way round a bible. This comes out so often in talking to church members. It is not new as our college principal, John Cockerton, said he caused considerable embarrassment to a congregation when preaching, as he asked, “how many have read the whole Bible?” In other words hardly any of a loyal congregation.
Yes, many clergy are streaming on-line at present, and there will be many great innovations here. But in the long-term there needs to be more emphasis on private worship and bible study, in order to sustain Christian in normal times when they can worship and in abnormal times when they cannot worship in public. I am not willing to give a formula for this time of prayer. This applies whether digital worship becomes widespread or not. I cannot help feeling that digital worship could turn out to be a bit of prosthetic leg, but I may be wrong. In my Distance Teaching in theology I note many cite an electronic version of the Bibel as if they looked it up specially for the essay. There is nothing to beat a battered Bible. The danger is some Christians will find themselves legless, if they don’t develop a private as well as a corporate spirituality.
My daily work as a field geologist gave another element, which has always been strong with me, and that is being in Creation, in both a practical and mystical way. I would see this more as a prehensile tail, rather than a third leg! (Karl Barth may half like this, but not some eco-Christians today.) Prior to becoming a Christian I was enraptured with the outdoors and mountains – and still am. This started in my family life. My earliest memory is seeing Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling. Part came from reading one of my father’s books The Spirit of the Hills by the Himalayan mountaineer Frank Smythe, who died in the Himalaya about the time we went to India. It’s odd that at his death he was only a few hundred miles from us in a vast land. Some climbing friends taunted me for being a mountain mystic and others considered me a poofter for taking photos of flowers. Why shouldn’t you take a photo of an orchid when you are fifty feet off the ground on a vertical cliff? It was a bit tricky. You have two feet placed as securely as possible, hold on with one hand and then with other hand, open the camera case, focus and take the photo. And then carry on up the vertical face. Simples.
The Richtersveld is an incredibly awe-inspiring and beautiful landscape. It is not unlike the area around Mt Sinai, with craggy bare mountains and dramatic forms. Much of my day in the field was flip-flopping between awe and wonder and sorting out the scientific details of the geology. As much of the area was ancient sandstone, among other things I had to work out from what direction the rivers which deposited came from. And if there were pebbles or larger stones I had to work out where they came from. I also became highly competent at recognising copper minerals and spotting them in cliffs.
Rosyntjiebos mountain. I camped below it and climbed it to map the geology
With the emphasis today on forest bathing I was both creation and desert bathing most days. I still do as much creation bathing as I can. Though there was no flowing water in the valleys I often went up one dry valley looking at perfect outcrops not covered in vegetation and then at the top crossed over to the next valley to return to my Land Rover before it got too hot in the early afternoon. I often ran out of water before I got back to the Land Rover and always hope for a spring. I usually found one, but had to test the water before drinking to ensure it was not too full of myriad salts. To counter salt loss I drank a tumbler full of salty water when I returned to camp.
Apart from the geology and the starkness of the mountains, I often found the Atlantic mist rolling in from the west dropping the temperature to a freezing cold 15 to 20 degrees. The flora was fascinating in the dry season with various succulent plants, which varied from half-dead tiny things to the majestic kokerboom .
Most years they were desiccated and dormant but when there was heavy rain, that is two inches in the spring, they sprang to life. Even more so were the flowers, including the Namaqualand daisy, which transformed the desert in September. I was lucky to be there in a wet year. It is brilliantly captured by Isaiah;
Isaiah 35 vs 1-2 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
It was incredible the way a dusty flat plain would be transformed into a blaze of colour in a matter of days and then return back to its arid state after a few weeks.
One incident sticks out with me. For a week I had been totally confused over the geology of a large area and just couldn’t get my head round it. Then one day thirst demanded a short rest and while having a drink I looked over at the valley slope opposite and its geological structure suddenly became screamingly obvious to me. The whole area was riven with faults. I remember muttering to myself, “So that’s how You did it!” Now is that a naïve Christian approach or was I right? I go for the latter and see science as unravelling and understanding God’s works. Maybe I ought to express it in a more sophisticated way?
Creation bathing – or the old fashioned enjoying nature – was not new to me, as it was part of my childhood as my parents walked and enjoyed wildlife. We sometimes went to parts of the North Downs where orchids were common and my mother’s favourite flowers were the Pasque and Vipers Bugloss. To me it was just normal and almost a daily routine, like an apple a day. At fourteen I took up cycling but preferred to explore than to compete and soon after on a scout camp climbed Snowdon for the first of fifty or so times. At seventeen I was in Snowdonia learning to climb and then had to get home to Surrey. So I hopped on my bike near Capel Curig and peddled away, first climbing the Snowdon Horseshoe and daily getting nearer home. The most awe-inspiring part of that trip was cycling up a narrow valley full of disused mines above Aberystwyth in a thunderstorm. It was almost pitch black at the height of the storm. A few months earlier that year at Easter I was staying at my uncle’s vicarage at Lake Vrynwy. Needless to say I had my bike and did some superb mountain routes. (I was a mountain biker before mountain bikes.) The most significant was cycling over Bwlch Maen Gwynedd in the Berwyns, where I cycled and dragged my bike up to nearly 2500ft. The top of the pass or bwlch was WOW. The whole panorama of Snowdonia was in front of me and to add awe to wow a thunderstorm was passing from south to north over the mountains. That convinced me of God, but I never told my uncle, or my mother. It was another five years of sitting on the fence before I turned to Christ, after reading C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity, having been sold a copy by a member of the CU, who is now a Baptist minister in France. We’ve kept in touch.
Now back to Creation bathing. In the Richtersveld I could do it in the most dramatic ways as one can when you visit the Grand Canyon or see a lion going in for the kill. Far more important is to see the wonder of the Creator reflected in the wonder of the smallest aspect of creation. Thus today I noticed a hoverfly taking nectar from a dandelion. It is too easy to overlook things like that. We need to cultivate as part of our worship and daily life, a sharp eye for the beauty of nature around us. It also helps to have a moderate knowledge of natural history, which is becoming less common today. At present I visit a small wood close to home every few days. Since January I have been watching the bluebells slowing coming into leaf and a few days ago two plants were almost in flower. Revising this a few days later some are in flower. Two minutes before that I watched a treecreeper creeping forty foot up a tree. With all the emphasis on creation in the church today, we forget that until twenty-five years ago creation and the care of creation were almost ignored.
I spent a year in total in the desert and I could attend “a” church only on about dozen occasions and even then had to drive, or fly, between 60 miles and 500 milesto do so. Thus for most of the time I had to find an alternative, which I found in my private prayer and worship, which was totally non-sacramental. I will admit that even now after fifty years of my “forced isolation” I still find my private worship more significant than anything else. Dare I say church worship comes second? In these Corvid-19 days, we are being forced to leave church worship on one side. The question is whether all have their own private worship to sustain them.
Looking back over my time in the ministry, the church has always put more emphasis on public worship than private prayer. Public worship must be sustained by meeting together, but private prayer is sustained by the individual, with or without the fellowship of others. However, if you only have public worship and no private prayer, you have nothing if the public worship is removed. I fear that may the case for some church members today. You become spiritually legless and cannot even hop.
Now that is enough,but earlier I mentioned one item in my intercessions.
For my last three months, one thing was very high on my list of petitionary prayer as it was very worrying and unnerved me every day. That was; safety from snakes. Due to the wet spring not only flowers came out in abundance, but also snakes and I saw them frequently. The two most venomous ones were the puff adder and cape cobra.
I had two close calls with snakes. The first was when I walked past a bush and a snake shot out and aimed for my calf. It only just missed! Luckily it was a Rhombic Skaapsteker (sheepkiller), which is slightly more venomous than a grass snake. It was scary as I did not know it was a skaapsteker while I was under attack. It could have been a mamba.
On another occasion I was descending a scrub covered hill I suddenly realised I’d put my left foot a few inches from a sleeping Cape Cobra.
I did an Olympic Gold medal jump out of the way. Now I was over an hour from my Land Rover and then an hour from the nearest human, and the venom is fatal in two hours. Now just imagine if it wasn’t four inches………..
Maybe prayer helps. Is so this was a precise answer to prayer and on target!
So I was four inches away from writing this.
So, to conclude;
We need to emphasis two-legged worship (and our spiritual prehensile tail);
Worship in a place of worship
Worship in private I any place.
(and creation bathing)
Michael Roberts Ist April 2020