Give We Sense

Thank you very much, brothers and sisters, for the privilege of speaking in your chapel today. I am not a preacher but I want to reflect a bit on a sermon I heard last summer. My wife and I and some friends of ours were visiting fellow Christians in Sierra Leone, West Africa. We made a few visits in the capital, Freetown, then headed to Kabala, an up-country town far to the north, to visit people in our Reformed sister churches there. It was an unforgettable visit, sweet with fellowship and new friendship, and poignant with recognition of all that these folk had endured in recent years. We heard a sermon while we were there by Mr. M.B. Jalloh on the text of I Kings 3. Its title in Krio, the Leoneans’ English-derived Creole tongue, was “Give We Sense.” Mr. Jalloh told his people that just as God wanted to know the desires of Solomon’s heart and to grant him his deepest request, God wants to know our hearts and wants to give us what we need. Like Solomon, we should be asking God for “sense,” for wise and discerning hearts. It was a message I will never forget, made all the more profound by the context.

With bright sandy beaches and lush green peaks and plains, Sierra Leone can look like paradise. But in recent years, Sierra Leone has been a living hell. Go and see the film Blood Diamond for a bit of an idea of what went on there from 1991 to 2000. It was a brutal and meaningless civil war, fed by illegal drug and diamond trading. Gangs of rebels, often young boys who had been kidnapped, brutalized, and kept high on drugs, sucked the life out of villages and terrorized the inhabitants, raping and maiming them, then torching their homes before moving on. After years of these horrors and insincere peace talks, a British invasion in 2000 quickly ended the rebellion. For the next five years a U.N. peacekeeping force occupied the country. Poorly supplied, underpaid, and undisciplined, many of the peacekeepers made their way by extortion. Villagers were not sorry to see them go.

Now, six years past the end of the fighting, the country still struggles to recover. Freetown, the capital city on the coast, is swollen to three times its prewar population. The city has no electrical power, and the water system is dangerously close to failure. The strain of staying alive is evident on people’s faces. Up country, where we were visiting, resilient farming people are trying to rebuild their lives. They are putting food on their plates, but the schools are overcrowded and poorly supplied, burned-out modern homes and businesses often get replaced with only mud-brick traditional dwellings, and a generation of teens and young adults face life without the ability to read or write. Kids have no shots, and many suffer with measles and malaria. The average life expectancy is about forty.

So if you were in their situation, what would you ask God to give you? Surely, God’s people in Kabala pray for help all the time. They pray, fervently, for their daily rice, and for the rain and seed and health and strength to raise it. Children fall sick and there is no medicine; parents plead with the Lord to heal them. Yet here in this biblical story, God comes and asks what Solomon wants, and Mr. Jalloh assures his audience that God approaches them, too, saying, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Jalloh tells them that he struggles with Solomon’s answer. There is so much that we need, he says, that we do not have. A long life, some material blessings, some protection from those who would do us harm. But see what Solomon asks for: a discerning heart, the wisdom to distinguish what is right from what is wrong, for the sake of justice and good order in the land. Mr. Jalloh pleads with his hearers to ask God for the same thing: “Give we sense!” If we ask and receive wisdom and discernment from God, he says, then God promises that the rest will follow.

So what we saw and heard among this movement of new Christians in up-country Sierra Leone was really amazing. In a land where the task of rebuilding is so immense, and the daily struggle to make it is so challenging, here were Christian brothers and sisters, some of whom could not read and write, asking for wisdom and discernment. This was big-picture thinking of an amazing quality. Indeed, it was wisdom born, I believe, out of the experience of extreme distress and the meltdown of government and the breakdown of social norms. People had learned, through it all, to have radical trust in God. Here were up-country, village people trusting God’s word and coming up with wisdom that on a secular level it has taken decades for the Africa studies experts to discover.  What does Africa need? After fifty years of opinions regarding the emerging nations of Africa, the experts are finally saying something quite basic. Africa needs wise rule–good governance, transparency, accountability, and discernment–for administering justice and promoting the common good.

Our Christian brothers and sisters in up-country Sierra Leone seem to know those things intimately. And they were bold to take it upon themselves, as New Testament people of God, as agents of God’s kingdom, to ask collectively for what the Old Testament portrays as the privilege of a king. Not “give me sense,” but “give we sense.” In an amazing coincidence, our pastor back home in Grand Rapids preached on the same text a month later. It was a good sermon, but the focus was entirely different. It was on our individual needs and experience, all about “my God and me.” Our Leonean brothers and sisters were thinking in much more collective and communal terms. “Give we sense.” They know what we need to rediscover, my colleagues. We are in this struggle for God’s reign together. We need to think and pray and act in together terms.

I am too much the novice and the foreigner to know with any certainty what wise and discerning people should decide to do in up-country Sierra Leone to make things better. But what I saw these Christian people doing was deeply impressive. We met a lady named Kumba Sesay, who has taken in twenty-nine widows and orphans, provided them with food and shelter, and helped the children go to school. Kumba has been taking reading classes herself, humbly providing a good example to others. Her husband, Joseph Sesay, is a leader in a Christian community development agency that missionaries from Grand Rapids had been forced to leave during the war. It is performing well under Leonean leadership and is now taking on projects of national scope, including one to put deep wells and sanitary latrines in 100 towns and villages; and another to provide school fees and adult literacy classes to thousands of girls and young women. These initiatives seemed to be taking place according to a high level of wisdom–conferring with and deferring to local authorities, and involving local people in the planning, execution, and long-term management of projects. God was granting our Leonean friends their request. He gave them wisdom, and, as a result we hope, the blessings of longer life, a more bountiful supply of goods, and peace and order might multiply for them and for their troubled land.

So God allowed us to see our brothers and sisters at work and in thought in Sierra Leone, and it blessed us in ways beyond our imagining. My friends, Africa is now one of the great heartlands of world Christianity, and the people we met there are now among the world’s more typical Christians. Their way of reading the Bible and discerning its message is now among the “normal” ways in which God’s word comes to believers today. That can be a tough thing for northern Christians to acknowledge. Grand Rapids is not at or near the center of God’s work in
the world today. We live here on the spare northern margins of Christianity’s work in the world. Much more rapidly than many of us proud northern Christians can accept, we are encountering powerful and authoritative words from the southern church.

There is a cliche making the rounds in America, even repeated by some African spokesmen, that the church in Africa is “a mile wide and a foot deep.” African Christianity has its problems, but usually when I hear this phrase, I think it applies more closely to Christianity here in the North. I met non-literate people in Sierra Leone whose wisdom and spiritual depth I can only hope to attain some day. Lord, give we sense.

Joel Carpenter is the director of the Nagel Institute and the Seminars in Christian Scholarship program at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.