How Awesome a Task: Reading Psalm 8 in South Africa

How Awesome a Task: Reading Psalm 8 in South Africa

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The Drakenstein Mountains are my favorite view. Walking from my room to the chapel for morning devotions at the retreat center In Harmonie, on the wine farm La Motte, the glory of the sky as the sun rose behind these peaks and sent shafts of pale gold across the indigo expanse made my heart beat fast with joy. I smiled wide with delight as I breathed in the fresh fragrances of the indigenous fynbos flora. Even as the crisp cold of a southern hemisphere winter night lingered into the morning, the dawn song of birds that had woken me up an hour or so earlier evoked happy memories from my South African childhood.

In this glorious setting it was my privilege in May 2018 to collaborate with a gifted on-site worship team in devotional exercises during the first accelerator gathering of Triga Ventures, a South African nonprofit that “helps equip entrepreneurs in the building of redemptive ventures, with the vision of solving some of Africa’s most pressing challenges while bridging the inequality gap that pervades our society.”

Much as I was moved to awe by the landscape between the South African towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, I was moved even more by the conversations with Triga Fellows during these four days. Listening, for example, to Nomaswazi Tinus of African Mamas Crafts talk about her venture’s aim “to showcase the beauty of African crafts and the resourcefulness of African women.” To Mahlatse Langa of Gold Youth about her passion “to support the creation of profitable businesses that address the education crisis and the socio-economic divide in Southern Africa.” To Annelize Kotze of MovePretty about the global brand of “athleisure” wear she and her colleagues dream of building, starting in South Africa. To Fouché de Wet and Teodor van der Spuy of #Imagine, about their “nationwide network of churches and organizations involved in teen ministry and the equipping of young people to equip themselves to live out their vocation as disciples of Jesus,” always with an emphasis on building bridges between communities: black, brown, and white, poor and rich, rural and urban.

Both the setting and the conversations resonated with my reading of Psalm 8 during our devotional times. We read and reread an improvisation on the psalm by Jim Cotter from his volume of prayers, Out of the Silence: Prayer’s Daily Round (Cairns Publications, 2006).

“When I look at creation, even the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars majestic in their courses,
the eagle riding the air, the dolphin ploughing the sea,
the gazelle leaping the wind, the sheep grazing the fells,
who are we human beings that you keep us in mind,
children, women, and men that you care so much for us?

“Yet still you bring us to life,
creating us after your image,
stewards of the planet you give us as our home.
How awesome a task you entrust to our hands.”

The psalms are paradigmatic for our prayers. Here are 150 things we can say to God, as theologian John Goldingay suggests. And here is the gymnasium of the soul, to borrow from the fourth century Bishop Ambrose of Milan. Prayer is paradigmatic for our other practices: as we pray so, over time, we come to live. Our responsiveness to God is made up not only of our words but also of our works.

At the door to the chapel one of the retreat center staff handed me a small fragment of mirrored tile, to consider my own reflection—image of God, even though shattered along with the broken world. “You bring us to life, creating us after your image.” Max De Pree, a former CEO of the Michigan office furniture company Herman Miller, wrote about the workplace implications of viewing humans as the image of God in his insightful little book, Leadership Is an Art (Michigan State University Press, 1987): “Each of us is needed. Each of us has a gift to bring. Each of us is a social being and our institutions are social units. Each of us has a deep-seated desire to contribute.”

I am excited about the present and future work of Nomaswazi, Mahlatse, Fouché, Teodor, Annelize, and their Triga Fellow colleagues. I am excited to watch how—in the years ahead—they will improvise on Psalm 8 not only with their words but also with their works. How they themselves will image God as they build their for-profit and nonprofit ventures. How their stewarding will create workspaces in which a multitude of their fellow Africans will similarly be able to live into the reality of the divine image. Experiencing what it is like to be needed by those alongside whom they work. Experiencing what it is like to bring their gifts to fuller expression. Experiencing what it is like to genuinely connect with workplace colleagues. Experiencing what it is like to give expression to their deep-seated desire to contribute to an Africa that prospers.

Ever since these four days, every time I read Psalm 8, I see the Drakenstein Mountains and the faces of these African entrepreneurs. These mountains, these lives have become living glosses on the psalm for me—embodied commentaries that rise from the margins of my memories whenever I pray these words in my private devotions or in the common prayers of the church.

About the Author

Gideon Strauss teaches at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Ont., and is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice in Washington, DC.

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