As we traveled to Mchambo Local Church this weekend we had to stop on the dust road because an ox cart was blocking the way, turned sideways in the road. The drivers had removed some of the wood from the load and placed it behind the back wheels to be sure the cart didn’t slide into the ditch behind it.
One ox stood passively, waiting. But the other was obviously exhausted to the point of confusion. He was twisting and turning under the yoke, trying to swing his body away from the cart until he was perpendicular to the other ox. But the yoke held his head firm. One driver was on the road with a long switch beating the beast’s back side to get him back in line. But the ox refused – or was unable – to cooperate.
I sat behind the driver’s seat, grateful that Jeff was tall enough to block my view. I couldn’t watch the misery of the animal or the cruelty and desperation of the driver.
Mai Abusa said, “They have probably made many trips today and the animals are just too tired to go on. I peeked around Jeff again only to see the ox had laid down as best he could, contorted because his head was held by the yoke. Again, I hid my eyes.
I don’t know how the animal recovered – out of will or fear – but then it was on its feet again and with much prodding and lashes the two oxen straightened the cart and moved just enough for us to pass.
When we returned a couple of hours later there was no sign of the struggle. And as we got closer to the trading center we saw the same cart, thankfully empty by now, heading back along the path.
So much of the Bible had seemed so distant, if not irrelevant, to me before coming to Malawi. Stories of shepherds and women at wells, ritual cleansing and towels around waists, and oxen yoked together. They were not much more than beautiful posters in Sunday School rooms. But now…
These are no longer metaphors that I struggle to understand; they are weekly realities. I pass boys on the roadside doing the thankless job of shepherding goats and cattle for long hours in the hot sun or through the rain. Women rise before the sun to walk long distances to draw water from wells or rivers for daily tasks of cooking and washing. Before every meal someone, typically a woman, stands at a basin with a pitcher of water to assist each person wash his or her hands. The chitenjes wrapped around women’s waists serve as towels, tissues for their children, and to wipe sweat from their brows. And oxen are still yoked together for those with enough good fortune to own them, providing brute strength and labor in the gardens and villages.
To compare a yoke that “is easy and light” with the yoke that the oxen suffered under this weekend allows me to appreciate in new ways Jesus’ offer to take up his yoke. In Nashville we were yoked by the culture; our jobs, our student loans, the expectations and goals were piled high onto the cart. I think we were stumbling just as I witnessed on the dust road. We began to twist and turn but could not free ourselves. The relentless bills, the persistent call to volunteer, commit and produce kept at us, driving us back into our positions and inching forward.
But by God’s grace we have accepted a new yoke. And the burden is so much lighter. We still have monthly bills and still worry about the balance at the end of the month. And granted, the burden of student loans has simply been deferred. We are not so far into this journey that I can still see the other yoke leaning in the corner. But as we learn to live under new direction it collects more dust. Unafraid of the one driving us and certain that the load will never be more than we can bear, we move forward with a new lightness and new freedom.