Feb 7, 2012

At times I think of Livingstone

David Livingstone
David Livingstone via Wikipedia
We are counting a number of blessings. For two weeks the surrounding community was without a public water supply. Because we had our supplemental water system in place, we were able to keep the preschool open, although attendance suffered because so many children did not have clean clothes to wear.

Now, however, the public water supply has been restored and preschool attendance is better than ever. The power outages are down to one blackout of three to four hours duration about every 10 days. We are harvesting plenty of our own cassava, bananas and limes. I have five young ladies in confirmation class and we are planning a retreat for all our youth in Barquisimeto.

At times I think of David Livingstone. When I was six years old, I found a biography of the great Scottish medical missionary and explorer in the church library of Trinity Lutheran Church, Yale, South Dakota. Livingstone's life and adventures were the stuff of a boy's dreams. His biography was like a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard or maybe all three of them put together. If it had been 20 years later, I would have thought that Livingstone's life was like an Indiana Jones movie, only it was real and Livingstone was a man of faith.

English: David Livingstone Memorial Church, Bl...
David Livingstone Memorial Church, Blantyre, Scotland via Wikipedia
David Livingstone was born to working-class parents on March 19, 1813, in Blantyre, Scotland, about eight miles from Glasgow. From an early age, he showed a keen interest in both the Bible and natural science. At age 10 he began working in the Blantyre cotton mill (no child labor laws back then). However, the owners of the mill did provide night classes for their employees and, despite long hours at the mill, Livingstone studied Latin, Greek, botany, geography and other subjects.

By 1836, he had saved enough money to study medicine and theology at the University of Glasgow while still working part-time as a cotton spinner. By the end of 1840, Livingstone had received his medical license, been ordained as a Congregationalist minister, and sent to Africa by the London Missionary Society.
From 1841 until his death in 1873 Livingstone journeyed through the interior of central and southern Africa. He would stay with the local people until he learned their language, preaching and studying the botany and natural history of the area.

The Royal Geographical Society awarded him a prize and a gold medal for his discovery of Lake Ngami in the Kalahari Desert in 1849. In 1851 he reached the upper Zambezi River, and in 1855, discovered a spectacular waterfall on the Zambezi which he named "Victoria Falls". Reaching the mouth of the river on the Indian Ocean in May 1856, Livingstone became the first European to cross the width of southern Africa.

English: It is possible to swim at the edge of...
Victoria Falls via Wikipedia
Livingstone was one of the first medical missionaries to enter southern Africa, the first in central Africa, and he was often the first European to meet local tribes. He won their trust as a healer and was particularly sought for his skills in obstetrics, the surgical removal of tumours and ophthalmology. Livingstone was a prolific writer and his journals, letters and published narratives provided observations on African diseases such as tropical ulcer, scurvy and malaria. He was one of the first to administer quinine in a dosage that is now considered effective and thus, unlike previous expeditions in Africa, his parties of explorers suffered a comparatively low death rate.

Livingstone briefly returned to Great Britain in 1856, where he did many speaking tours and published his best-selling "Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa". He left for Africa again in 1858, leading a government-funded expedition to further explore the Zambezi River. However, this time Livingstone encountered a series of cataracts and rapids that blocked any more navigation of the river, and in 1864 the British government recalled the expedition.

In addition to this setback, Livingstone suffered great personal loss when his wife, Mary, died of malaria while accompanying him on the expedition. Nevertheless, the members of Livingstone's second Zambezi expedition were the first Europeans to sail on Lake Malawi, and the scientists appointed to work under Livingstone contributed large collections of botanic, ecological, geological and ethnographic material to scientific institutions in the United Kingdom.

The delta of the Zambezi River photographed fr...
Zambezi Delta via Wikipedia
In 1865, back in England, Livingstone published "Narratives of an Expedition to the Zambezi," which led the Royal Geographic Society to underwrite the costs of his next expedition. He pushed further inland, discovering Lakes Mweri and Bagweulu in present-day Zambia, reached Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, and pressed on until he reached the Congo River. After a lengthy period of no communication, the outside world considered Livingstone to be "lost", and journalist Henry Stanley, who would go on to become quite an explorer in his own right, set out to find Livingstone. This resulted in their famous meeting near Lake Tanganyika in October 1871 during which Stanley uttered the famous phrase: "Dr Livingstone I presume?"

Despite failing health, Livingstone refused to leave Africa and on May 1, 1873, he died while kneeling beside his bed in prayer. Two loyal servants carried his embalmed body overland to the Indian Ocean, a journey of nine months. The body (or at least most of it) was buried in Westminster Abbey in a solemn national funeral. However, his African friends cut out his heart and buried it under a mpundu tree.
Livingstone monument caption burundi
Livingstone Monument, Burundi via Wikipedia

Livingstone considered himself a Christian missionary to the end, although he was criticized during his lifetime for making few actual converts and despite really gaining most of his fame as an explorer, naturalist and outspoken opponent of the slave trade in Africa. But he came to see his role as more of a trail-blazer for future missionaries and it is hard to argue with that.

For example,  a series of Livingstone's addresses at Cambridge University so fired up young students that the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) was founded in 1860. And that was only the beginning. Thanks to historic European missionary activity and the training of native evangelists (which Livingstone also pioneered), the number of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa has grown from just 9% of the population in 1910 to 63% today. Africa now is home to 390 million Christians, more than three times than 35 years ago and further statistics from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity show that the Christian population of Africa is likely to grow by another 200 million by 2025.

Now, granted that I did not have current statistics on the growth of Christianity in Africa in the 1960s, as a boy I still was impressed by Livingstone's story. In fact, I was so struck with admiration that I would rule out a career for myself in foreign mission work for 30 years or so. David Livingstone was a larger-than-life figure that I could not hope to emulate, any more than I could be Tarzan, Allan Quatermain or Indiana Jones.

Certainly the world has changed in innumerable ways since the glory days of the British Empire. I thank the Lord that we live in a world that is connected by satellites and worldwide communication networks. That means both new ways to reach people who have not heard the Gospel while remaining attached to friends and family.

Also I now realize that the task of proclaiming the Gospel to all nations does not depend entirely on heroic accomplishments, as inspiring as those feats may be. We all may do what we can in this great task, according to the gifts that God has given us. From that perspective, I am grateful as well that all that I have to deal with is the periodic lack of running water and electricity rather than man-eating lions and angry slave traders.

But here is the most important lesson that I now realize may be learned from the story of David Livingstone. Who would have thought that a Scottish boy working 14-hour days in a cotton mill and struggling to learn Latin and Greek in his spare time would have made such a difference in the world? We all can make more of a difference than we might imagine if we simply follow where the Lord leads us.
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