At about the same time that I was writing my previous Sunday post, my brother was dying.
At the top of this page is a picture from the outback. Just to right of centre you can see an old iron-clad hut which is the only remaining structure from the Mission era of Warburton Ranges. Much of our brief friendship happened right there in the “Share-A-Din”; as it is known amongst the Christian workers that share it’s often noisy welcome. Sometimes we met at his home where I would wait at the gate to be welcomed, rather than boldly knocking on the door itself as we do ‘over east’. The discussion often rose from a verse in his ever-present bible, which would lead to other passages that we read aloud in Ngaanyatjarra and English. He was always keen for me to practice his tongue. If we were speaking by phone he would secure my promise to post him the various passages that we had discussed in very large print on account of his failing eyesight. Occasionally we drove to a couple of fenced off acres a short way out of town which were his pride and joy. We would first sit in silent awe outside the gate, and then begin a guided tour – with historical commentary – past a couple of tidy houses, some camels, a donkey perhaps, and bough-sheds that were perpetually under construction for future Christian Conventions that were a part of Livingston’s grand vision. Once we squatted down on tiny concrete slabs in the red sand, all laid out in neat rows under a burning sun, like cheese-toast in a griller. These had been the floors of corrugated iron huts, one per family, in a former colonial era. Not for the first time my friend wept openly as he told me about the suffering of his people. Then we might sit under the welcome shade of a peppercorn tree …and sing. Livingston always led (always, in everything!), and I would follow along in a hymn, a gospel song or two, sometimes in English, sometimes not; and even the odd country and western number. Then came a rambling, deep and humorous conversation that covered all manner of topics but returned to shared joys and concerns in our respective families and churches. And then we would pray. And sing, perhaps; and pray. I think that my status as a grandfather (at only 47!) was just as vital to these exchanges as my credential as a fellow pastor.
We had know each other in the early ‘80s when I lived in Warburton, an isolated Western Desert community roughly half way between Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie, but our friendship proper did not begin until we met in the same isolated settlement in mid 2008. I had returned to Warburton with one of my daughters and some close friends to witness the dedication of Mama Kuurrku Wangka (‘Father God’s Word’, or the Ngaanyatjarra Bible); and to farewell two friends who had made the translation of the Bible their life’s work and were retiring to Alice Springs. The Livingston we met was very changed from the rough and ready young man we remembered; and had become a senior leader in church and community. I had grown up too, and Livingston would introduce me to others with a thespian retelling of my history as the young fellow who had worked with (or perhaps for) his father in the Community Store so many years ago; the very same boy that his father used to speak of, Livingston claimed, “as a son”.
The last time we met was Easter in 2010 when I spent three weeks in the ‘Share-A-Din’ and we journeyed together to an Easter Convention. Back then I was still travelling light, with a manual wheelchair, a backpack and a pair of sticks. I remember the wheelchair was somewhat confronting for Livingston. He made quite a joke about pushing a white fellow around, and the more people we came across the bigger the joke got! On my final morning in Warburton Livingstone arrived at the Share-A-Din puffing and rushing, with only half an hour to spare before the flight. He had been away on funeral business, and I had thought I might not see him again. But he had returned, and there was just time for a cup of tea, and some talk, and – as always – prayer. At the last he stood up, with the wide grin of a person about to giggle at their own joke,
“Next time I see you”, he said, laughing, “we’ll have a cup of tea in glory; we’ll be having a cup of tea at the Heavenly Banquet!”
I was taken aback! But in the next moment I reckoned that he was right: this really was goodbye for us. I trusted him to know this, just as I had come to trust his knowing about many things. Livingstone was something of a rascal; he was never a man to retire in the crowd. He was strong willed and proud; and he well knew the power of his family name and the position of influence he commanded. But in his mid-life experience of a radical conversion to Christ he had seen something so true, so good, and so bright, that whenever he spoke of it I was convinced.
On a second visit to Warburton later in 2008 I made a pledge. This was not a passing undertaking; it was the earnest outcome of prayerful deliberation with my wife after returning home from the Bible dedication. My enduring promise to Livingstone – if he would accept it – was that I would support the Ngaanyatjarra church in whatever way I could; by visiting, by praying, by building bonds of friendship between our church ‘over east’ and his church in the far west.
“They raise their voices, they shout for joy;
from the west they acclaim the Lord’s majesty.
Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord.” Isaiah 24.
If you can believe it, I pledged my life to this. I didn’t know then that within three months I would have picked up a walking stick; or that on my return to Warburton in 2009 I would be using a pair of them; or that my final trip would be made in 2010 by wheelchair. How often have I pondered that pledge, and the calling I followed in making it, and the frailty of my fulfilment? Sometimes it feels like a cruel joke; a pointless and hopeless enterprise. But that is merely a human perspective, and I hear Livingstone’s voice laughing it away, and, in the same breath offering his oft-stated resolution; earnest and solemn,
“We’re going all the way brother; we’re following Him, you know? All the way”.