Reflections on Kenya & Uganda: Above the Canopy

August 25, 2013

Next stop on our great Africa adventure itinerary was Kakamega, Kenya. Two features drew us to this city in the west:  the Kakamega Forest Nature Reserve, home to many unique birds, and the Kenya office of Village Enterprise. I will cover VE tomorrow, but for this Sabbath, let me share some thoughts evoked by the experience of walking through a rainforest before dawn.

The Kakamega Forest is an equatorial, tropical rainforest of about 250 square kilometers. It used to be the eastern end of a vast forest that stretched uninterrupted all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. But over time, especially in the last 100 years, the human population explosion and clearing for farming and grazing has isolated this Kenyan patch from the greater (and shrinking) whole. It fosters a unique ecosystem and harbors animals and birds rarely seen anywhere else. But the forest’s density (another sign of health) is diminishing; conservation efforts are underway and not fully effective.  

It rains here—a lot—and the red earth is muddy after a storm that starts our visit. As the shower abates, we take a walk through the grounds and gardens of Rondo Retreat Center, our lodging for two nights. Kakamega Rain Forest (Rondo Retreat)Binoculars in hand, we are here to see some of the unique bird species at home under the canopy. But we are disappointed. The forest is too thick! Think of Tolkien’s description of the great Fangorn Forest in The Lord of the Rings, and you get the idea. Sun cannot penetrate to the forest floor. Birds, heard but not seen, can flit about undetected. You somehow know they are there, but you cannot get sight of them for identification. The only way to view birds, from the ground, is to get back onto the road and get a little distance from the trees. But on this day even that effort yields poor results.

The Christian life is often like this experience. The blessings, the consolation of faith in our Savior Jesus Christ, are real, and yet half the time we cannot see them out in the open. It is a matter of faith without sight to know that God is present and active, God surrounds us with his love, and we are known and redeemed by his merciful salvation in Jesus Christ. Those truths are colorful and pervasive, and yet we cannot see them for the forest that envelops us. “Now we see in a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We see leaves rustling in the wind of God’s Spirit, but we do not see the Spirit directly. What we are called upon to cultivate as followers of Jesus is a perspective, a heavenly view of what is real. To illustrate:

We were told that a particularly good way to appreciate the rainforest was to hike up a big hill before dawn in order to see the sun rise over the canopy of trees. Our guide Winston met us at 5:30 a.m. and we walked one mile up the road to a forest trail entry point. We heard the birds wake up; we heard the colobus monkeys give shrill warnings to each other (staking out their territories); and we heard the delicious silence of early morning, as we walked by flashlight. We climbed another 40 minutes to the top of Lirhanda Hill with plenty of time to spare before the sun peeked over the distant horizon. Along the way, we heard avian activity amidst the trees. Winston recognized birdcalls and told us what we were “seeing,” but they didn’t “count” according to our personal rules for checking birds off our list. Another disappointment.

Once we got to the top of the hill, we could see for miles. Above the Rainforest CanopyStretched before our eyes was a dense green blanket of tree cover, and above it a few large birds floating in serene command of the scene. As the rising sun illuminated the treetops to the point of glowing, we recognized an entirely different atmosphere here above the canopy. It was light, airy, and free. C. S. Lewis captured the contrast in the Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair. In the Underworld where the witch reigned, it was dark, stuffy, and confining. She had managed to convince all her minions that there was nothing beyond this bleak reality. Yet, the children of Narnia and their companion the Marshwiggle had dropped into the Underworld from up above, and they knew there was something more to life than this oppressive place. They knew there were sun, and air, and breezes, and vistas up above. Lewis used this image to convey the perspective of faith and hope that is gained by seeing reality from God’s vantagepoint.  And we, tramping through the rainforest, believed Winston—though we could not see proof—that there were amazing birds within a stone’s throw of our path. So we listened and appreciated what we could perceive and trusted that he was right, and that we had “seen” it.

You and I may feel ourselves to be in a dark, discouraging place sometimes. But we are reminded that there is far more going on around us than the eye can see, and God is Lord of it. Sometimes we simply must climb the hill and get above the fray in order to experience the serenity of God’s dominion.

One year at the PCUSA General Assembly, the week had dragged on and we were waiting for a particularly difficult and controversial piece of business to come before the Body. Interminable delays pushed the debate time back, and I was about to lose my marbles. So I pulled out my iPod, stuffed the earbuds into my ears, and cranked up the volume on a Michael Card album called Unveiled Hope. [This 1996 album puts to music all the hymns and songs that appear in the book of Revelation.] I distinctly remember with some amusement the moment when heaven and earth met:  the Presbybabble was a steady undercurrent of words and sentences while, at the same time, a splendid rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy” rushed in waves over the whole scene. At that instant, I saw the sovereignty of God, the insignificance of much of our talk, and the deep need to tap into the glory that is God’s movement over, under, and through us by his Spirit. I almost laughed out loud in delight and still recall this moment when the matters of this world envelop me like a dark forest. Under the canopy we see evidence of God at work if we look for it, and someday we will see from above the canopy the full glory of our Risen Lord and the completion of his purposes for us.

Tomorrow: Village Enterprise and Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

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