When Donkeys Talk
“Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey and she said . . .”
“Who has let the wild donkey go free? Who has loosed the bonds
of the swift donkey?” (Job 39:5)
It was my first night in the “bush”, as the Africans call it. I couldn’t sleep. I was zipped up as tightly as possible in a nylon sleeping bag trying to keep from being bitten by mosquitoes. As I have fallen into the habit of saying, “I was sweating like a pig.” The truth is, I have no idea whether pigs sweat or not, but it sounds like a good description of being radically hot to me. Truthfully, it had been about 3 months since rainy season and the mosquitoes were not that bad, but I had saturated myself in insect repellant with 100% deet just in case, and now I was zipped up tightly, determined that malaria would have to search really hard to find me. The bug spray itself seemed to have raised my body temperature about 15 degrees. It was February, so it was only about 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but we were in a walled-in enclosure trying to sleep on what I will loosely call the front porch of the mayor’s guesthouse. The guesthouse is basically a cement slab, with walls made of mud bricks mixed with a little concrete and covered by a tin roof. It is divided into two rooms, and on the front there is a walled in, and covered porch. It was much too hot to sleep inside, but it seemed far too exposed to the wild in my mind to sleep out in the open like the missionary. After all we were in the bush of Africa.
But it was not trying to sleep on a concrete floor in the heat that was keeping me awake. It was the incredible experience that had just taken place in a remote village in Mali, West Africa. We had arrived, four of us, in the city of Bamako the day before on a Vision trip to engage three different unreached people groups in search of where God might use our small church in advancing His Kingdom. The missionary had picked us up about 1 pm, told us to grab our sleeping bags and whatever we needed to spend the night in the bush. That just sounded very safari-like to me, not to mention dangerous. We had turned off the paved road and begun the experience of traveling down a dirt road in West Africa, which has permanently removed any interest I might ever have had in going four-wheeling. As we road along, our missionary, Steve, told us more about the place to where we were going.
“An African bushman discovered this village and came and told me that they needed the Gospel,” Steve said. “I was out here three weeks ago on what I think was the first time the Gospel of Christ had been shared in this village.” Periodically he consulted his GPS to make sure he took the right turn in the road (no road signs). “I preached Ezekiel 33,” he continued, “and spoke of being a watchmen, and how we had come to announce to them God’s Good News. The villagers were interested, but there were no visible decisions. They invited us to come back and talk with them again. A couple of other missionaries in West Africa and I have covenanted together to be a little more direct in presenting the Gospel to Muslims. I was going to do a simple Gospel presentation tonight, but you can do it if you like, and I will translate.”
“I would love the opportunity,” I had said, and my mind began to race with excitement about preaching the Gospel where it had never really been proclaimed before. I thought, “this must be what Paul and Barnabus felt like as they left Antioch for the first time.” What must it be like to hear the incredible Good News of Christ, when you have never even known there was a Jesus? How should I preach this message so that it is clear when they have no background framework on which to hang the stories of Jesus? The missionary had suggested the “Romans Road”, but I had never really learned that presentation. I settled on telling the story of Creation and then heading to the Cross as quickly as possible. I began to cry out to God, “Lord, please use me tonight. Help me make this clear. Help me get out of your way so that You can accomplish what You desire in this village. You do not need me. You allow me to be a part of what You are doing. Thank you for this incredible moment of opportunity that you have provided for me. Only Your Holy Spirit can change a man or woman’s heart. Glorify Your name.”
As I continued to “sweat like a pig” zipped up tight in the sleeping bag that night, I continued to also reflect on the rest of the events of that day. We had arrived in a small village adjacent to the one where we were planning to spend the night. Steve had said we would greet the chief and essentially get permission to be in the village. As the landcruiser had come to a stop, children, women, and a few men immediately swarmed all around us. The missionary pointed out the ground around a well near the care where African killer bees also swarmed. “They won’t bother you,” he grinned, “if you don’t show any fear.” I hoped he was just messing with us.
The children were covered with dust and their faces caked with mucous from trying to breathe in the dust filled environment that was typical of that region most of the year. The surroundings looked more like a scene that would come out of the first century, not the 21st. No mater how much we try, it is hard to describe the poverty in this part of the world, and yet in spite of the conditions they live with day by day, everyone’s face wore the biggest smiles that I think I have ever seen. Our new missionary friend explained to the group of villagers that we had come to greet the chief, but we were told he was not there. Instead we discovered that some of the elders would speak with us. We explained why we were there. “We are teachers of God’s Word and we have come to share Good News with the people in F-village.” One of the elders then said, “If you are sharing Good News from God’s Word, then don’t go there, stay here and tell us.”
“They are expecting us,” the missionary explained. “But, we will stop by here tomorrow and tell you the Good News.” As his smile exposed his missing teeth, he said, “That is good. We will gather the entire village to hear your story.” Having gained his blessing to be in the villages, we loaded back into the truck and headed for our destination. This had been my first experience engaging West Africans. This had been my first exposure to life in a village in the bush country of Mali. What beautiful and friendly people, and so eager to hear the message of God.
Arriving in F-village, we began to walk through the village and greet people. The women were cooking what looked like French-Fries. The missionary stopped to buy something and I thought, “Good, I can eat, and french fries, just like home. Probably no ketchup.” “Here, try this,” he had said. It was not the fried potatoes I had seen, but rather some fried beans. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to wash the taste out of my mouth with lukewarm water. As we greeted the Africans, Steve explained in the language of their people group that we would be telling stories from God’s Word that night, and he invited them to come.
We had returned to the courtyard of the mayor’s guesthouse, where we had some more first time experiences. I had bathed out of a bucket in what some might call a latrine, but the missionaries affectionately call a “squatty potty”. After a hot day in a dusty climate and a long ride into the bush, the bucket bath was amazingly refreshing. Then we had our first African meal, eating out of a common bowl with our hands. It was something made of ground millet with some kind of peanut sauce. It wasn’t particularly tasty, but these four newby Americans were proud of ourselves for having eaten “African style”.
About dark we had made our way back into the heart of the village, and there in an African courtyard by the light of a kerosene lantern we shared the Gospel. I don’t know whether there were 20 people or several hundred. I could only see the front row of eyes, but I could hear the murmurs of many more. I was a little nervous stepping up to speak in this strange environment, but that quickly passed when I realized how near God seemed to be. “I have come to share with you truth from the Word of the one true living God,” I said, and then paused for Steve to translate. I began to share the Genesis account of Creation up through Adam. I had heard of a presentation called “Creation to Christ”. Although I had never learned that presentation, I knew the Creation story and I quickly hurried to the Cross. After sharing for about 30 minutes, I asked if anyone had questions. “What do you mean, eternal life? What is that?” came the first. After answering that as best I could, another one asked, “What do you mean, Son of God?” Quickly I was becoming acquainted with the reality that these people had an entirely different framework of reality from the one that I was trying to introduce to them. Yet in spite of everything, the Holy Spirit was working.
After answering a few more questions, we invited anyone interested in knowing more about following Jesus to return to the mayor’s guesthouse with us. As I recall, ten village men followed us that night back to where we were staying while in the village. The missionary and the African bushman that had first reported the village to him said to me, “We aren’t sure they really understand. We want to make sure they count the cost and understand what it means to follow Christ,” Steve explained. “Because it is late, let me talk with them, and when I finish I will tell you what has been said.” So for about an hour and a half, the missionary talked with the ten men, and as nearly as I could tell did his best to talk them out of becoming believers. Obviously, that was not his intention, but in spite of his best efforts to be sure they knew it was a serious commitment, nine men surrendered their hearts to Christ. Then we spent another hour teaching them how to pray and more time after that finding out who could read so that we might give them Bibles. We stood around a wooden table in the courtyard between the mayor’s guesthouse and office building with flashlights letting some read to us from the Bibles we had. The moon was bright and to me the temperature was very warm. The African men were wearing jackets and told us they were getting cold. Finally, we prayed with them and said our good-byes. The men told us they were leaving before daylight to go to another village for market day. As we prepared for bed, I had no idea whether I would ever see these men again this side of heaven.
So I couldn’t sleep. It had been much too incredibly exciting to see what God had done. As I drifted between reflection on the day and prayer for these new believers, I heard the braying of donkeys in the background. A donkey can make some of the most horrible sounds I think that I have ever heard, especially in the middle of the night. As I listened to the donkeys, my mind drifted back to a statement one of my best childhood friends had made to me. I was visiting him at the college he attended at some point during my senior year of college. It was early morning in a dormitory shower, much like a man’s locker room. Out of left field, Terry said, “Brad, all I can say is this. If God can use a donkey in the Old Testament to speak, then I guess he can use you.” Now lying in a village in West Africa I thought to myself, “I guess God can use someone like me.” I knew that Terry was talking about the time when the prophet Baalim was not obeying God, and God had surprised him by opening the mouth of his donkey and letting the animal speak. As I lay in my sleeping bag, I could not help but think, “Terry was right. God can take a preacher from a small church in Hopkins, SC, and place him in a village where I don’t know the language, don’t know much about the culture, and yet let him share the story of Jesus. By His Holy Spirit He can change lives. Yep, I guess if God can speak through a donkey, I guess He can use even me.”
It would be a few trips on down the road many months later that this comparison to a donkey would come back to me again. On that occasion, our team would settle in for the night. Usually the first night or two in the village the excitement of the day keeps everyone talking for a while like a group of youth at summer camp. Finally, everyone was about to doze off in his or her mosquito tents (we were better prepared this time), when again a donkey began to bray. One of our male translators said, “Brrraaaad; your brudder is calling you.” We all laughed ourselves to sleep after that but once again I was reminded, God can use even a donkey to deliver his message. In fact, God can use anyone who is willing to make himself or herself available to Him. Sometimes, when God uses an old donkey like me, the seeds of a church can be planted in a village where the Gospel has never been before. And sometimes those seeds will bear fruit that results in other villages hearing the Gospel.
Burro, donkey, jackstock, are all names that they are known by, but I am told that the correct name is ass. The latin name is “equss assinus”, and it is the smallest member of the horse family. There are some interesting facts available on the Internet about donkeys. They actually originated in the African desert, which makes the donkey an appropriate animal for describing some of the truths and stories in this book. Donkeys are affectionate animals and need companionship or they will become depressed. Ultimately the same is true of humans, don’t you think? It is interesting to reflect upon the story of the prophet’s stubbornness and how God used a donkey to speak in Numbers 22. In fact, this is a good moment to simply call attention to the fact that God seems to specialize in using people that by human standards may seem to be very unlikely choices. Consider that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene on the morning after the Resurrection and then you can move in any direction in the Bible. Abraham proved to be a liar and adulterer. Moses was a murderer hiding on the backside of a desert when God called him. Jacob was a con artist and Samson had a weakness for women. Rahab was a prostitute, Elijah battled depression, David was an adulterer and a murderer. Peter denied Jesus and failed at the most critical moment, and Paul was a man that heavily persecuted and tormented Christians before God called him. John Mark got homesick and deserted the cause, but came back strong later. We could go on, but the reality is God uses ordinary people, even unlikely people to do His work in the world.
“Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have–right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start–comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.” (I Corinthians 1:27-31, MSG)