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In Defense of Dogged Little Outposts

November 26, 2019 by

“A stranger might ask why there is a town here at all. Our children might ask. And who could answer them? It was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills.… That’s really all it was meant to be.”

These words describe the little town of Gilead, Iowa, in the book Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. She sure knows how to string words together artfully, and I especially love the phrase “dogged little outpost.” Sometimes Danthonia feels like a dogged little outpost too, especially when we are at the mercy of the elements (as we have been this year), blasted by wind and smoke and dust. This seemingly endless drought can be discouraging, particularly at this time of year, when some remember the snowy, candlelit Christmases of their childhoods; Christmases so different from this one.

Nativity in an Australian Shed Painting by author

But what was the first Christmas actually like? It also took place in a dry and inhospitable country, with rocky soil and scattered mobs of livestock. Water was scarce, and maybe there was smoke and dust in the air back then, too. Maybe this Christmas more than ever, we Danthonians can imagine the Holy Family traveling dusty roads from the backwoods town of Nazareth – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) – to the dogged little outpost of Bethlehem (a journey of about ninety miles) with a tired donkey. Maybe this year especially, we can picture the wise men making their way through arid regions with their caravan of camels, or the shepherds out in the hill country, like Australian drovers, always looking for just enough fodder to keep their sheep alive, always seeking a reliable water source.

It seems like all through history, God has made use of humble places to further his Kingdom. Many of the Old Testament prophets were rough men of the wilderness, more like early pioneers than cultivated city folk. Some say that John the Baptist grew up in a remote outpost of Essenes, an ascetic Jewish order. The first Christian communities were themselves dogged little outposts in the Egyptian desert.

When the mighty Roman Empire fell and barbarians burned the libraries of Europe, when violence and war were everywhere, isolated monasteries in Ireland and Scotland continued to live a life of peace. Some of these were on tiny islands like Skellig Michael, just a rugged black rock jutting out of a roaring ocean. There, simple folk enriched the meager soil and illuminated manuscripts. It seems nothing special, but it was from such places that missionaries eventually brought the Gospel back into continental Europe, up to Iceland, over the ocean to North America, and across to Russia, where once again dogged little outposts of believers sprang up in the huge forests. They quietly transformed the country from a wilderness of wild warring tribes to the land of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

It seems that the places we call “godforsaken” are often the very places God has not forsaken at all. We may not see it, but something good is growing at the fringes, like the tenacious little bluebell flowers that have been popping out of our dusty soil lately.

The narrator of Gilead, John Ames, describes traveling with his father into Kansas during the great drought of 1892. “The roads were terrible… swamped in dust where they were travelled and baked into ruts where they were not.” All the stores are shut down, so they couldn’t even buy food. Strangers showed them hospitality despite their own hardships. John describes the place they stood one evening as “parched and sun-stricken. It was hard to imagine the grass had ever been green.…” There, in the “howling wilderness,” the boy looked up at the sky:

I thought I saw the sun setting in the east.… Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.… We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them.… My father said, ‘I would never have thought this place could be beautiful.’

So you see, beautiful and unexpected things can happen in the least likely places and times, even in the middle of droughts and at the end of dusty roads. Isn’t that the Christmas story too? Today is Marilynne Robinson’s birthday, and so I conclude with one more quote of hers, this time from her essay “Wondrous Love”:

I have a theory that the churches fill on Christmas and Easter because it is on these days that the two most startling moments in the Christian narrative can be heard again.… If we sometimes feel adrift from humankind, as if our technology-mediated life on this planet has deprived us of the brilliance of the night sky, the smell and companionship of mules and horses, the plain food and physical peril and weariness that made our great-grandparents’ lives so much more like the life of Jesus than any we can imagine, then we can remind ourselves that these stories have stirred billions of souls over thousands of years, just as they stir our souls, and our children’s.

A day will come when our children will have grandchildren of their own, and they’ll sit on the porch and reminisce about the dry and dusty Christmas of 2019; a Christmas not to be forgotten.


About the author


Donal McKernan

Donal McKernan lives with his wife Cornelia and two children at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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