Out of the Common Order
Dreaming new ways to do mission
By Thomas Riederer
Since 1999 I have been living with my family on Kibidula, a quiet 4,776-acre mission farm in the bush of the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. God has granted me a break from the bustling life of Western society. Here, away from modern civilization, God has taken me into His own school, to teach me His lessons directly from nature and through cooperation with Him and others.
I am learning about agriculture—the ABCs of education; about organic farming with its life cycles and the flow of nutrients; and I have gained a new love and admiration for God’s creation. The spectacular African night sky, far away from any artificial light, puts the speck of a life that is mine into the right relation to the endless universe and to a loving almighty God.
Another valuable lesson I’m learning comes from living and working within the setting of another culture and in cooperation with members of our multicultural mission team.
This African experience has taught me that “the life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action.”1 Almost everyone would agree that much of modern life brings us into acute danger of losing this wisdom. Unfortunately, not many have the courage to take action and initiate the much-needed change. Not that we lack action as such, but (if I may put it this way) we lack the contemplation and the action derived from it. Benumbed, we continue to drift away from a life of wisdom toward mere busyness. We live our “life of respectable conventionality, a life professedly Christian,”2 knowing in the depth of our hearts that we are lacking something. This void and the incongruence of our life with our professed core values finally contribute to a sense of deep unfulfillment.
Lately, while contemplating these things in my search for wisdom, I wondered what it means that “all things seen become … the interpreters of the unseen,” a thought I’d found in Ellen G. White’s book, Education.3 How do we learn from nature? How do we distill its wisdom and make the seen the interpreters for the unseen?
Lessons for an Experiment
I was granted a glimpse of what this kind of nature teaching could be when I learned about an interesting experiment in Kenya.
In 1952 an Austrian investor set up a cement factory at Bamburi, north of Mombasa. The tropical coastline forest was removed, and limestone was gouged out and processed into cement. After more than 20 years of activity, the cement factory had left an ugly scar on the landscape. Nothing grew there anymore.
“God wants the different nationalities to mingle together, be one in judgment, one in
But in 1971 the Bamburi Portland Cement Company decided to try to reduce its negative environmental impact; hired an ecologist, René Hailer; and gave him the task of reintroducing life and nature into this desert-like area. Hailer went on to transform this wasteland into a lush, green wildlife sanctuary.
How did he achieve this? His solutions were derived from the example of untouched nature. In an act of faith he planted Casuarina equisetifolia, the “whistling pine,” and successively built an ecosystem.
At first nothing grew besides the “whistling pine.” He studied his forest and discovered large millipedes feeding on the pine needles. With the help of his children, he collected these millipedes and introduced more of them to his experimental forest. Soon their excrements were producing humus, and other plants were able to grow. After the millipedes, other animals and plants were introduced, each with a specific purpose.
Observation of nature was the key to Hailer’s success! He observed, drew lessons, and then introduced other components to his ecosystem.
At the beginning it was very fragile. He had to control everything very tightly. All signs of imbalance he had to detect promptly and take careful measures in order to establish balance again. Interestingly, as the ecosystem grew more complex, less control was needed. Finally, the system became so complex that it was impossible to understand all the interactions between its different components. But surprisingly, the more complex it became, the more stability it gained. Amazingly, though increasing complexity eventually becomes incomprehensible to our minds, it thereby gains sustaining stability.
Nature and the Bible in Harmony
I was impressed by the experiment. And looking deeper into nature, I realized that, universally, simple principles allow complex interactions, leading to the stability of the whole system. This discovery got me all excited, and it sparked the hope of finding new startling insights into life’s secrets. What does the “seen” teach here about the “unseen”?
Here, again, the book Education presented me with a key to the answer. It urges that because God is the author of the Bible and the Creator of our world, we need to harmonize the two, nature and the Bible. One will help to explain the other. (Not that we will ever penetrate into all mysteries of life or of the Bible! There will always remain many unexplainable paradoxes. But this duo will teach us numerous new lessons.)
In Ezekiel 1, we encounter a scene of incomprehensible complexity, similar to that witnessed in Hailer’s ecosystem. It describes inexplicable interactions of wheels and living creatures.
“To the prophet the wheel within a wheel … all seemed intricate and unexplainable. But the hand of Infinite Wisdom is seen among the wheels, and perfect order is the result of its work. Every wheel, directed by the hand of God, works in perfect harmony with every other wheel. I have been shown that human instrumentalities are liable to seek after too much power and try to control the work themselves…. God in His providence is preparing a way so that the work may be done by human agents. Then let every man stand at his post of duty, to act his part for this time and know that God is his instructor.”4
Apparently the complexity that Ezekiel describes here has to do with our human interactions within God’s work. From nature we just learned that complexity furthers stability, and the bookEducation (which I’ve come to call my student’s manual) tells me that “the same laws which govern the things of nature and the events of life are to control us.”5 Obviously God likes complexity in nature; and He must also have intended that this principle should govern our human interactions. If we allow Him to do His job in His church—as He does in nature—we will marvel at the incredible results.
It’s probably because of our mental limitations that we want to make things comprehensible, easy to understand, easy to fit our simple frame of reference. Our insecurity, our selfishness, and our lack of trust in God and in one another prevent us from adopting God’s methods. Instead of letting God hold the reins, we anxiously strive to control others and everything. What do we achieve? We lose complexity, and with it the dynamic conditions of stability. In this we not only restrict others but are tempted to suppress God’s acting in our lives.
“Let me tell you that the Lord will work in this last work in a manner very much out of the common order of things, and in a way that will be contrary to any human planning. There will be those among us who will always want to control the work of God, to dictate even what movements shall be made when the work goes forward under the direction of the angel who joins the third angel in the message to be given to the world.”6
It is God’s intent that every person be directed by His hand, working in perfect harmony with every other. As we enjoy the “otherness” of our fellow Christians and benefit from their different views, our personal experience will be enriched. Finally this life of acceptance will lead to synergy, a high form of corporate creativity, in which the people involved come to new, highly creative ideas or solutions that they would individually never have been able to conceive. This synergy grows only in an atmosphere of mutual trust and reciprocal valuing of each other’s individuality.
Will this not ultimately prepare the church for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit?
The underlying divine principle in nature, as well as in these complex human interactions, is selfless love, a love that will lead to “joyful service.” This love is the simple algorithm for this complicated “wheel game” of people interaction. Visualize this network of relations. All have one purpose and are subject one to another. How simple in its design and how complex, how difficult is its dynamic end result! As in our example in the nature ecosystem it finally leads to an inherent stability in the church. Why? Simply because “The complicated play of human events is under divine control.”7
“There is no person, no nation, that is perfect in every habit and thought. One must learn of another. Therefore God wants the different nationalities to mingle together, to be one in judgment, one in purpose. Then the union that there is in Christ will be exemplified.”8
Not really by design but by God’s providence our present mission team at Kibidula has experienced what happens when “different nationalities … mingle together” and “learn of another.” We are Americans, Canadians, Swiss, Norwegians, Belgians, South Africans, Tanzanians, and Zambians working closely together. This “mingling” has called each of us out of our comfort zone and has led to a tremendous personal growth process. It also has helped to eliminate polarizations that normally develop in interactions in a less complex group. It has brought a stability to our team I have never witnessed before! How I marvel at God’s wisdom!
Will It Work?
How far can you carry this push for complexity without creating anarchy? There’s a basic principle that is foundational for complex relations to function: Order! “Order is heaven’s first law!”9 God’s law sets the stage for these complex relations to work and “perfect order is the result.” In His work of creation we see so much order paired with complexity and diversity that we have a hard time remaining satisfied with our own human deficiency in keeping tidy.
Order, yes; but let us not be among those “who will always want to control the work of God”10because this “leaves so many forces of the church unused” and “closes up the way so that the Holy Spirit cannot use men.”11 Rather, let us “leave behind a maximum of organization with a minimum of life and head toward a minimum of organization with a maximum of life,”12 and watch in awe as God is allowed to finish His work with the power seen at Pentecost!
1 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, p. 51.
2 Ellen White, Education, p. 264.
3 Education, p. 102.
4 Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 260.
5 Education, p. 103.
6 Special Testimonies for Ministers, series A, No. 6, pp. 59, 60 (italics supplied).
7 Education, p. 178.
8 Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, pp. 180, 181.
9 Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 200.
10 Special Testimonies for Ministers, series A, No. 6, pp. 59, 60.
11 Ellen White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 9, 1895.
12 Strategic Plan of the Euro-Africa Division 2000-2005, by Ulrich Frikart; pp. 3, 4.
Thomas Riederer is a Swiss dentist serving as director of Kibidula Farm Institute, a mission organization in Tanzania, working with the Outpost Centers International (OCI).