I was not sure what to expect. When our mission team from Iowa traveled to Zimbabwe in October, Gary and I had a chance to go on a safari ride early one morning. Because of my schedule, we arrived a day later than the rest of our group.
Having been on several other safaris during previous trips to Africa, I have always been fascinated by the opportunity to experience the beauty and wonder of wildlife. In Africa, the “Big Five” were originally the five animals that were the most difficult to hunt on foot. Today the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and cape buffalo are still the five animals that many tourists look for.
As we begin our early morning safari, I revel in the stark landscape of the African bush of the Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Preserve. The game park is home to the Big Five as well as sable antelope, eland, zebra, giraffe, kudu, waterbuck, impala, and hyenas.
Experiencing the wide variety of animals and birds in the African bush is pure delight, but we’re especially looking for rhinos. After a half hour, our guide points out several black rhinos on a plateau far in the distance. As we draw closer, we observe a mother rhino, a baby male who is suckling, and a four-year-old female. Various colorful birds are flying around, and zebra, deer, and a warthog are grazing on the plateau as well.
We stop at a safe distance to watch the scene, which reminds me of the Peaceable Kingdom that we read about in Isaiah 11. In this traditional Advent scripture, all creatures co-exist together in harmony and peace.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea.
I think about John August Swanson’s much-loved serigraph Peaceable Kingdom, which is a visual illustration of Isaiah 11 and a copy of which hangs in our living room. Created in 1994, Peaceable Kingdom embodies a central theme of Swanson’s art: the hope that people can live together in harmony based on the Christian values of kindness, love, and peace.
The scene on the plateau is both serene and surreal. Then, over to the right, a huge male rhino slowly makes his way through the bush right past us. Our guide tells us that the male is the father of the baby and the four-year-old girl. He also says that this particular male rhino killed a four-year-old son a few years ago because the son was a threat to the father’s territory. “There’s just not enough land in this preserve for the father and son to co-exist,” explains our guide.
The mother and daughter rhinos are on alert as the father continues to approach. All of a sudden, as the father moves closer to the mother and baby, the daughter attacks! She rushes toward her father and engages him in battle. Why? Our guide says that she fears the father will kill this baby boy, too. I’m watching all this with my mouth agape. Finally, the father backs off and slowly ambles back into the bush.
Our guide says that when the baby boy gets a bit older, they will have to remove him to another national park because, like before, the father will not tolerate another male to share his territory. Meanwhile the zebra, deer, and warthog continue to munch on leaves, unconcerned about the battle raging around them.
This is Mother Nature: God’s world. But is this plateau really the peaceable kingdom? Is this the circle of life where so many creatures are coexisting beautifully? I wonder. John August Swanson’s creative, visual re-telling of this biblical vision enables us to see the story through new eyes and rediscover the power and meaning of the story for our own lives. He challenges us to look at ourselves, re-examine our world-view, and see if we’re living as we should be.
The story of the rhinos reminds me of The United Methodist Church, less than three months before the special General Conference in February 2019. On the plateau in Zimbabwe, it seemed idyllic at first. Different animals living together, respecting each other, acknowledging that they share the land and the resources. When the father walked out of the bush onto the plateau, I assumed all was well. After all, they were family! A mother, father, girl, and baby boy. Then, out of the blue, the happy family fell apart.
In the same way, we United Methodists can live well in community with one another. I’ve experienced it over and over! We honor people of other Christian denominations and faith traditions and work together to make a difference in the world. Open hearts, open minds, open doors. There is more than enough for all. We are loving and gracious … except to our own brothers and sisters in The United Methodist Church. The differences that we are willing to accept in other groups we cannot tolerate among ourselves. Just like the black rhino, we are threatened by our very own.
We will have an opportunity to gather together in February as the Peaceable Kingdom. Will we continue to attack each other because of one area of theological/biblical interpretation where we do not all agree? Will we position ourselves on the plateau of General Conference so that we can face off against each other? Is this God’s desire for us as United Methodist disciples of Jesus?
Or can we meet in the middle of the plateau and join hands and heart? Can we humbly acknowledge that we hold much more in common than we think? Do we desire the synergy of living and serving together with one heart and mind, despite our differences? Do we become stronger when we can leverage our diversity to reach more people with the good news of Jesus Christ?
I’d like to think that the father rhino loved his son, but in this particular game preserve, there was not enough space for them to coexist. We United Methodists also want to love each other across all theological spectrums. There are so many life-giving ministries in which we engage as the body of Christ. So what if we found a way to offer even more space to each other so that we can stay together under a larger umbrella? What might that look like? What if we invite everyone to be a part of the peaceable kin-dom of God, where each person and all creatures are indispensable in the circle of life? And what if, as Isaiah prophesizes, a little child shall lead them? Will you follow? It’s not too late.