Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 3
Dr. H.W. Norton is professor of Christian Missions at RTS. A veteran missionary to Africa, Dr. Norton earned a B.A. degree from Wheaton College, an M.A. and Th.M. from Columbia Bible College, and a Th.D. from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. Former president of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and dean of the graduate school at Wheaton College, he is also the former director of Cameo, assisting in the development of theological education overseas.
The wings of the single-engine Cessna shaded us from the strong rays of the morning sun at the Tandala Mission Station three and a half degrees north of the equator in the northwestern corner of Zaire. In the hangar Colene and I were saying goodbye to our African friends and missionaries as we were concluding our first visit in 33 years to our African honeymoon home. One of our friends, Ndeke, a trusted brother in Christ since our arrival at Tandala in 1940, was standing with us that April morning in 1983 in the cool shadow of the Missionary Aviation Fellowship plane.
As we watched the MAF pilot meticulously loading boxes, bags, and suitcases into the Cessna’s cargo areas, Colene expressed our regret that we could not give Ndeke a sanduku for his Bible and personal effects – paltry few as they were. For he had told us a few days earlier that someone had stolen his sanduku – his “safety deposit box.”
But Ndeke smiled and turned to us saying, “Madamo (madam), when we leave this world, we’ll leave all our sandukus (boxes) behind!” Ndeke’s comments were indeed apropos. No packing, no overweight baggage when the soul takes leave of this world! But he had more in mind than the chaos of squeezing bags and boxes into vacant spaces on the plane. Ndeke was about to teach us a very big lesson about priorities in our recent “retirement.” what is Important? when we departed Tandala in December, 1949, Ndeke was a church elder (mokolo) prayerfully and positively facing and resolving the problems encountered by the young African church. He had counselled the weak, adjusting their lifestyles to the pattern of Christ. He had strengthened those who were struggling on the narrow way, pressured by their non-Christian families to deny the teachings of Jesus and affirm traditional Ngbaka values. Now, in retirement at the close of his life, he had nothing to show materially for a lifetime of hard work. In fact, the robbers who entered his adobe brick house found nothing of value in his sanduku, so they took it! But he had the Lord and his family. And together, we had a trusting relationship which enabled us to share our burdens together and to pray about these “material needs.” Consequently Ndeke had no complaints. Not one.
Ndeke was still a teenager during the early days of the mission when the gospel was first announced to the Ngbaka tribesmen in 1924. The Ngbaka’s gory cannibalistic behavior was known for a thousand miles when Ndeke opted for Jesus Christ and became an early disciple of the Lord Jesus in the “forgotten corner” of the Congo.
There were no schools where Ndeke could learn to read, except the one just opened by the Fumu (Protestants) at Tandala, but he did learn – barely. With his exceptional memory he also memorized many Bible verses. Although formally uneducated, he had a keen mind and the ability to learn new ways of planting corn and building rectangular mud houses with clean esobi thatching. Soon, he became the capita (head man) of the Tandala mission, supervising the schoolboys in their practical work and informal learning as they began to plant corn in rows.
His integrity and trustworthiness as a stalwart believer and disciple of the Lord Jesus established his reputation as a quality Christian. His was an integrated faith, and he loved the Lord with his whole heart. With unfailing tenderness, he brought his oldest child, a mute and blind daughter who had fallen into the open fire, for daily burn treatments early in our ministry. Ndeke’s Lord was sovereign over blindness, burns, and heartache. So he worked with the Lord in the healing process.
Ndeke rejected opportunities for employment with commercial enterprises. Success for him was not geared to promotions and salary increases. His values squared with Christ’s. The Lord was sovereign over all aspects of his work. He worked for the Lord to please Him, and he was “paid” by the Lord. Consequently, he modeled the Lord for thousands of African youths who observed in him the Biblical work standards and the power of Christ to live out those standards.
Actually Ndeke’s riches were the schoolboys themselves as they developed in Christ. Two of Ndeke’s schoolboys went on to earn medical degrees to minister to the urgent medical needs of their African brothers and sisters. Another earned an academic doctorate at a university in Belgium. Still another just returned with his doctorate in ministry from a North American seminary to serve on the seminary faculty in Equatore Province of Zaire. Such valuables as these could not be locked up in a Ngbaka “safety deposit box!” Ndeke really did not need a sanduku!
Under the wings of that Cessna several years ago, Ndeke’s toothless grin seemed to radiate the peace of the Prince Himself. “Kenda na malamo! (literally, ‘go well’),” he exclaimed, as we climbed into the plane. A few years later he, too, “went well.” The message reached us, “Ndeke is with the Lord.” Now, he has it all, the fullness of his salvation in Christ Jesus, his Lord.
A Rewarding Retirement
Colene and I have retold the story of Ndeke on many occasions during the last seven years. His values have strengthened our values. Sometimes it seems that we struggle to achieve the goal of most adults – retirement, when we intend to have it all. We will have fun, travel, do what we’ve always wanted to do and couldn’t, plus a thousand and one other things that spell self-indulgence.
Ndeke has helped us review our retirement goals and the principles affecting our retirement lifestyle. When we began our ministry 50 years ago, 700 million people were unreached with the Gospel. Today, the number is four times that, or about three billion. Therefore, we found we must empty our sandukus and pour all our ebbing resources into one last, great concerted effort to share Christ with all peoples. So, when the unsolicited invitation came to join the missions faculty at RTS, we could not conscientiously, before God, refuse.
The Lord Jesus introduced His disciples to the concept of the Great Commission when He gave them this command on His first recorded evangelistic tour: “Take my yoke upon you and LEARN of ME… and you shall find rest unto your souls!” (Matthew 11:29)
With the awesome collapse of communism, symbolized by the destruction of the Berlin wall and the dismantling of the communist parties in the various eastern European countries, additional millions can now learn of Christ. Yet, western Christians find themselves locked in their safety boxes, anchored to time payments, credit card indebtedness, and a mindset glutted by the glitter of the “good life.”
In the concluding decade of this millennium, we Christians have an unprecedented opportunity to share the Gospel, proclaim Christ and allow Him to give Himself through us as we are teamed with Him and LEARN of HIM. (Phil. 2:5 ff)
Perhaps before the end of this year, the first of the closing decade of the twentieth century, we will avail ourselves of the privilege extended to us by the sovereign Lord, to take His yoke upon us and learn of Him. Ndeke’s spontaneous counsel still echoes from the grassy airstrip at Tandala: “When we leave this earth, we’ll leave all our sandukus behind!”