Five Days in Uganda: Waking Up in Africa

 

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If you can imagine what footsteps on gravel sound like, mixed with the morning serenade of birds and crickets and the whispers of early risers….this was my alarm for Monday morning, 17 October, 2016. I’m not certain if I slept, or if anyone else in our bunkhouse did. But we all, every one of us, could not make it to a window fast enough at first light.

What does Africa look like?!

To our surprise, the jungle is not enveloping us. And the tropical sun hasn’t greeted us. But instead, our little abode is situated in a clearing, in a cul-de-sac of red dirt showered with crystalline rocks of the type you’d find in a souvenir shop in the wild west of America. The sky is pale with unhappy clouds. Out the back door we see the parking area for vehicles, which appear practical, boxy and mostly all white (at least originally).

Trees beyond the edge of grassy, tall weeds. A few cinder-block style buildings here and there, sterile in contrast to the wild green backdrop nature provided.

The air is fresh, pure, but heavy in spite of the cloud cover. And it’s only 8am.

At the front of our living quarters is a cement porch and step down to the single-file worn path that connects each home – 4 in total, for the missionary families who have braved this adventure. The porch soon becomes a favorite morning spot for quiet reflection, a quick sip of instant coffee and readiness for the unrelenting equatorial heat. A blooming hibiscus bush greets us at the edge of the porch and large, carefully spaced trees grace the landscape beyond, no shortage of natural beauty here.

After a quick shower, all sleepy eyes assemble and shuffle down the path a few hundred feet to our neighbor’s home, the Hurley family. Just like ours, theirs is all cement floors, a constant gathering place for the red dirt and debris that is stowawayed on our shoes. The large, open floor plan is welcoming, enhanced by simple pleasures like candles, fall-themed decor and reminders of God’s Word painted, framed and chalked throughout.

Danielle, Shannon’s wife, introduced herself much like he did – embracing each one of us in arms full of love. She invites us into her small talk, expressing often her gratefulness for our team, until Shannon comes back from his morning bible study. One by one, members of his SOS staff trickle in for introductions and insights, explaining how each of them has a vital role in the success of the ministry here in Kubamitwe.

We learned quickly that these saints among us enjoy long, sincere hugs. Greetings and goodbyes aren’t complete without these sweet exchanges, in Uganda. I make a mental note to bring some of that home with me.

I also learned that Shannon Hurley is a visionary. He’s been gifted and blessed and obedient to use that for God’s glory and expanding His kingdom. Standing in the shell of the future Pastor Training Center,  Shannon spoke to us with was contagious passion and excitement for what he believed God would do on this property.

Yet, he wasn’t the only one with endless energy and an obvious love for the children and families that SOS serves. Cue Solomon Kavuma. As Headmaster of Legacy Academy, Solomon spends his days surrounded by young students from the village. He proudly led us around the school grounds, sharing and showing us the quality of education these children are receiving at Legacy. The program consists of a well-rounded curriculum, modeled from the original Legacy Academy in CA. Academics are rigorous but the foundation is laid with biblical instruction. Contrary to the way Ugandan children typically are taught – simply to hear and repeat – Legacy students are encouraged to think more critically, to study, question and assert their own answers as teachers ask provoking questions about the material and scripture.

There is a time and place for everything…even recitation. What a blessing to hear a kindergarten-first grade class quote multiple lengthy passages of scripture, including the reference. How many of us, or our children can do that?! They are smiling unashamedly, some of them, noticing the curious visitors in their classrooms, yet continuing on with their work at the direction of their skillful teachers. They brush their teeth, only here at the school, outside at porcelain sinks lined up on the sidewalk and leave their shoes, setting upright to avoid being filled with ants, also outside the classrooms. There is order and yet time made for playing. Lunch is served under a tent in the courtyard and spontaneous soccer matches become recess.

Many of these children would have no future beyond farming with their families and caring for elderly parents, if they lived that long, if it weren’t for this education. Beginning with learning the alphabet, how to write their names and much like kindergarten in America, the exciting prospect of learning to read. These bright, young children are the epitome of the true value of an education, taught with love and discipline that extends beyond just them, but also to their parents and families. This education will make a notable difference for them, not only now but in the future, Lord willing. It could mean for them, a home that withstands the rainy season with more than a thatched roof. It could mean the desire to marry one partner and raise a stable family. It could mean a goal set, a dream realized, a hope filled – for the 250 children currently enrolled at Legacy, in a remote village in Africa.

God is good.

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Five Days in Uganda: Part One

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Eleven people. Father with daughter. Mother with son. Two families, an eye-doctor and a nurse. God united us as a team to venture outside of comfort zones and time zones, to a village more than 7600 miles from home.

All from diverse backgrounds. Each with a unique, God-given life purpose. Sharing one aim: to love as Christ.

Uganda Mission Trip – 15 October, 2016

We arrived at the famous but indescript Entebbe International Airport at approximately 10pm local time. Fellow passengers, mission teams, aid workers and rogue adventure seekers, mixed with a few locals to form a haphazard line for yellow fever card inspection, followed by a series of security measures for customs approval.

Next, the monumental task of baggage claim. All 33 pieces.

As if sent by God to rescue our waning enthusiasm for this never-ending leg of travel, appeared a wide-eyed man smiling from ear to ear. He greeted each of us with a mammoth-sized hug that screamed “Welcome!” – a comforting familiarity in a sea of mysterious foreigners.

Shannon Hurley, founder of SOS Ministries in Uganda, was the face that connected the dots between Westfield, Indiana in the U.S. and here…Africa.

Though it was a relief to finally see the end of two back-to-back eight hour long flights, our journey to the slightly remote village of Kubamitwe was hardly over. We stepped outside amidst a few purposefully placed tropical plants, into the balmy air at what was now 11:30pm on a Sunday night. No parking garage. No bus shuttles. Simply a short walk across a parking area, struggling to push multiple carts loaded with a mish-mash of suitcases threatening to topple.

Shannon announced that he had driven a small vehicle that could hold four passengers and the rest of the group would board the mini-bus that several young African men had begun piling our suitcases into, through a side window. I wondered if it were indicative of a sketchy ride that loomed, when we formed a circle right there and prayed. Rather, praise for safe travels thus far was given – indeed, we were thankful.

Like a scene from an independent film, Caribbean-style music blared on the radio in the front where the driver and his friend held our fate, and the right-side steering wheel. Exhausted as we were, there would be no dozing, for me. With luggage piled high at the rear, we bounced along and away from the airport, wind in our faces through the open windows.

Into the night. Introducing a conglomeration of sights, smells and sounds one would imagine as part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. An adventure. The interlude to our destination, to our mission. Godspeed.

Traffic lights and caution went out the window along with my peace. Our driver and his “assistant” talked without pause, hands gesturing wildly, while my ears strained to adjust to the accent and fluxation of their native tongue. Wishing the young man at the wheel would pay more attention to the way ahead, and through.

Through the crowded streets riddled with people walking, selling, risking life on motorbikes, dodging cargo and the occasional farm animal.

Back home in America, this night would look more like a deserted city, sidewalks rolled up as families would be snugly sleeping ahead of a busy Monday morning workday – only a handful of stragglers with business attire undone, returning from corporate seminars. But on the contrary, here, people were hustling and bustling as if unaware of the late hour. Music and neon lights in stark contrast to the rickety vendor stands lit with a small fire or hanging light bulb.

Familiar but not, the street food so eloquently depicted by Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel, cooking and displayed amidst open flames and mothers with babies strapped to their backs, so surreal (a word I would later use to bridge a gap with a new friend).

Surreal.

Quite shocking. Exhilarating, truth be told. Careening wildly into the unknown. Losing sight of Sir Shannon, who started out leading this train, carrying one family and leaving the rest of us to wonder if, and when, we would reach the village. We were at the mercy of this man whom lived a world away from Pleasantville and paved roads with stop signs and roundabouts.

And speed limits.

I wished he would slow down. And keep his eyes on the road littered with opposing cars and swaying trucks that whizzed by us so close we could’ve touched them with our fingers that tightly gripped the seat backs in front of us, void of seat belts that might save us from the impending head-on collision I imagined. Distinctive looking Isuzu trucks, whipping past on the wrong side, a sensation I found startling. And just as I thought we were traveling too fast, he pushed the pedal further, dirt flying, my heart racing.

An hour or so after passing through Kampala, we took a sudden turn off the main road, onto an even more rugged, loose red-dirt path lined with vegetation only visible by the lights of our two-vehicle caravan. Is this what “the jungle” looks like? Still motoring at a speed that seemed too dangerous without a clear view of where the road was leading, no view of what lies around the next curve. It was like a safari ride, dust billowing and following behind our vehicle. But at night. In the pitch dark.

And then a sign. Literally. SOS Ministries. Legacy Academy.

The wild growth cut back and tamed to reveal a gravel driveway. A concrete dwelling. Where’s the porch light? I can’t see anything beyond the interior lights of the van. Standing at the front porch, in the grass and something bites my leg. And her leg. And his leg. Ants. (In the daylight tomorrow, we discover their size – which explains the discomfort.)

We’ve arrived in Africa. There’s nothing more to see tonight. There are bunk beds in each of the four bedrooms, windows open to the sound of a million crickets and a slight breeze.

Is it even possible to sleep? Where am I?

Morning will tell.

…to be continued

All Things New

imageWhen I was a child, we always had dinner together at the round table in our kitchen. Sitting here now, I can picture in my mind a handful of signature dishes my mom prepared for us regularly…like that creamy tuna casserole that was a staple in the diet of every family in the 70’s. Like sloppy joes, meatloaf, and the dreaded shepherd’s pie. Can I get an amen?!

Things have changed so much.

Back in the day, we could count on these meals, the product of mom’s labor of love, as if she had penciled them in on a monthly rotation on her secret calendar. It was her repertoire. There was more of a variety and always something new when it came to  desserts. After all, she was the Martha Stewart of cakes, cookies and countless sugary delectables we couldn’t wait to devour. But those weeknight dinners were as regular and predictable as the seasons.

And that’s ok.

In all that’s chaotic, shifting, topsy-turvy in the world today, it would be comforting to know exactly what was going to happen from day to day, like those routines we all easily grow fond of. Rituals. Traditions. Habits.

But often, we get stuck in the rut of those familiar ways. This produces a mechanical, almost robotic motion as we muddle through our days. It’s as if we’re not paying attention, not deliberately choosing, like flipping on the auto-pilot switch.  Walking on the worn-out printed shoe patterns we’ve laid down on the polished path of our daily life. Never thinking, contemplating. Maybe even bawking at anything that doesn’t resemble our own personal norm, much less anticipating something new.

Something new.

“…he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17)

It’s not good to be stagnant, not growing. We can be so stuck in a pattern of “how it’s always been” that we aren’t flexible, but hardened to the idea of being pliable for God to do a new thing in our lives. In the life of a believer, this is the redeeming factor that will set us apart – to be made daily into the image of Christ. And that’s not going to happen if our minds and hearts are stubbornly positioned to cling to the “old thing.”

The struggle is real. I know.

I enjoy reminiscing about childhood favorites, warm memories of home, family, church, and everything that exemplifies love and happiness from the past. It’s good to remember. To be reminded. Even remembering the not-so-good has its rewards. To recognize how far we’ve gone, grown, been healed. The Lord’s faithfulness is celebrated in remembering His presence during hard times, His goodness when people weren’t, His strength when we are weak. Holding on to the best memories, repeating the traditions, carrying on the lessons from hardships…are part of who we are, who we become.

But I am longing to see, to be near, to be joyful in what He’s doing NOW. I want to get excited as I pray many times for something or someone and anticipate the creative way He’ll answer. I say “Surprise me Lord!” And, since His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts….He WILL surprise us! Let your eyes and heart be open to recieve the blessing of God’s ministry, that is always doing a new thing. Turn your gaze from the old ways, the beaten path. Look forward with eagerness in the ordinary moments, to how He will use you, how He will speak to you and bless you through someone else, through a missed appointment, a sudden change, a seemingly impossible situation.

God works in mysterious ways. Though He’s ever faithful and we can trust His character….we can never predict how He will so beautifully take our pitiful ashes and turn them into masterpieces. Sometimes it will be our choice to go a new direction but other times He may have to shut a door to block our steps. Either way, when we venture out in this new direction, we’ll be amazed by the power and depth of His love. Love so pure that He can’t stand by and watch us remain the same, unchanged, stuck.

There’s something to be said for “going with the flow.” A certain degree of flexibility is like well-prepared garden soil – making fertile ground for new things to grow. Start small. Try a new restaurant. Take a road trip to a small town outside of your county and explore. Be patient when plans get cancelled and ask the Lord, “what next?!” Look for opportunities to talk to someone you don’t already know. Bridge the gap between you and another person. Forgive. Share a meal with a stranger. Join a group study or class. The possibilities are as endless as the sky.

Are you looking? Do you hope for something new? Step out in faith instead of using an outdated map. Can you smell change in the air? I do! Or maybe it’s just mom’s casserole waiting for me in the kitchen. 🙂

 

The Terribly Bad, No Good, Rotten Day

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It’s always been exciting for me, the first day back to school. New clothes, backpacks, supplies. And the send off.

Seeing the big yellow bus appear to whisk them away, that’s always been my favorite part.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. We have fun and enjoy the carefree days of summer just like the rest of you. But at the end of two months, two very long months, I’m ready to be in bed before 1am, have a reason to be up and alert by 6am, have groceries that last more than a day and to have some peace. A few moments of peace.

Who am I kidding?! I want a few hours of peace!

Truly, I’m excited as they disappear down the street, excited for them. To reconnect with friends and meet new teachers and start fresh.

Today was that day. I jumped up when the alarm sounded at 5:45am, turned on their lights, gently shook them and yelled, “It’s time to get up!” After bacon and pancakes and last minute rushing around to find what should’ve been ready last night – like I’ve said a million times before, but some things never change – we gathered on the driveway outside for the obligatory “first day of school” photos.

And then, there’s that moment when your son asks you to take a photo of just him, without his brother, with his phone.

And in a split second, you glance at the phone and instead of the camera being ready for a shot, it has gone back to the photo album and you see what you cannot un-see.

That moment when you see on your son’s phone what makes you ill and should not be in the photo album of this, this child, this not so much a child in some ways but so naive and clean and innocent and pure in other ways.

A gasp from me. A look of bewilderment for him. “What?!” he asks. “This.” I hand him the phone.

That back to school moment ended like a guillotine dropping. Whack! And I wanted to cut someone’s head off, lob it clear to kingdom come. I don’t know what I really wanted. His brother asked what was wrong. I blurted it out. And turned to go inside, shut the door and tried to breathe.

Breathe.

Tears and words and sickness. I tried to keep going,  going ahead with eating, doing laundry, cleaning up. And in between saying “Why God? Help me.” All came crashing in around me as I curled up in a blanket on the couch. Sleep. It’s a good escape, right?

Have I just wasted my whole life and failed? What good has any of it done? Does anyone listen, or remember, or even care?

I sometimes feel so discarded and of no value. What is the sum of my life? I’ve poured my heart into 5 children and none of them, not one, seems to be a reflection of that effort. I understand that each of them will be who they are, have their own story, follow their own path, and so forth. Yet, I wonder, what is the point of all the toil, the pain, the sleepless nights, the striving and running around and stressing. And praying.

Praying. Able to move mountains but not shape one    single   decision?

I would move mountains for them if I could, but apparently I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t strive enough, hurt enough, smile enough. Love enough? Live righteously enough? Pray enough?

Someone said, “Their life isn’t over yet.” Well, no it isn’t. But what point is there if all the lessons are ignored, the wisdom tossed aside and they settle for cheap versions of “love”, unneccessary hardships, strained relationships, endless searching for pleasures that fall short of filling the void?

What point is there, if they go through their whole life and come to the very same conclusion – asking, “Have I just wasted my whole life?”

Ann Voskamp put a damper on my pity-party. Here’s what she said. I pray it encourages you too!

Dear You… a letter for all of the hard weeks

 

 

 

 

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Do you ever feel like you’re living someone else’s life? That you don’t belong where you are? That something just isn’t right?

Unsettled. Discontent. The urge to run.

What is that? Do you feel it too? Or is it just me?

So many questions. I know. I’m taking those thoughts to the One who I trust to answer. Even if the answer requires some serious reflection, serious changes. Changes inside of me.

While I write this, the music plays melancholy. Headphones drown out distraction. My headphones. Their headphones. Drowning out noises.

Noise. It used to be noisy.

In this house. This house that never welcomed me. This house not mine, no matter how hard I’ve tried. Tried to hide what I hate. Tried to like. Tried so hard to just be at peace here, in the darkness.

Shadows I can’t explain. Something always lurking.

It’s not working. It’s tearing me up inside. And it shows on the outside too.

We’re told to be content. Be content in all things. And I see all these people who are. Are content. Or so it seems. God says that we can have peace and joy and contentment, in spite of our circumstances. In. All. Things.

All things. Hardships. Tragedy. Illness. Strife.

Imprisonment. Real and perceived.

It’s not that bad, though. Hard yes, but tragedy, no.   It’s not that bad that I should be discontent. I have all the things, the stuff. The comforts. The people. The life. More than many.

More than many.

But all I can see now is less than some. Less connectedness. Less purpose. Less potential.

Less love.

Do you ever feel that? That you have less love? I know, shame on me.

All the photos of happy families, anniversaries and even death. I see more love in death sometimes, than in my life. I see all the photos, of kids and parents, of family. The vacations, time spent laughing and playing together. Together. As a family.

Family.

That’s it. That’s what is missing. Family. In the simple sense of the word.

I’m not discontent. But grieving. Grieving what will never be. Grieving what was. Longing for what should be.

God never meant for us to live this way. This brokenness. This apathy. It doesn’t glorify Him. It doesn’t draw people to His saving grace.

If we followed Him, if we did more than listen – we’d have more of that abundant life and less of this messed up version of living. We’d have more connectedness. We’d discover our purpose. We’d be more about people and less about stuff.

We’d be more content. Families would stay together. There would be more love.

So. I should get on with talking to the Lord about this “feeling” that keeps rearing its ugly head and following me around. I’m sure He’ll tell me that, in spite of my mistakes, in spite of others’ mistakes…our sins, really…there can be redemption. The broken, the apathy. The grieving. The discontent. The lack. The blindness. It can all be redeemed and traded in for something better. His better.

I want that. His way for me. Abundant living.

Do you want that too? Have you asked Him for it? Do you see His response in your life?

 

 

 

 

 

Body Parts

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When people say, “It takes all kinds,” that’s no joke. For things to work properly and efficiently, requires many hands. Each of us depends on a variety of other humans with unique skills and abilities, everyday. The truth is, apart from each other, we are nothing (like me without coffee some mornings!).

Life here on earth is simple, yet multifaceted. We are one, but many. Even within the basics, like shelter, food, clothing…there is a dependence on those with more knowledge in that specific realm. Not just knowledge, but also experience. And hopefully, wisdom.

I wake up in the morning with a roof over my head, a dark room to stumble through, respite from the noisy world, because of people who have what it takes to build houses. I can enjoy my daily bowl of steel cut oats, apple slices, and so on, thankfully, because there are people who grow, cultivate, distribute and sell these items that I and my family, and yours, need for sustenance. Get the picture?

Romans 12:4 depicts this dependence on one another in the same way a body functions – one body, with many members…all with different purposes. And Paul goes on to tell us that we have gifts that differ, “let us use them.” He sets a standard of exellence for us to follow, for the best possible use of our gifts. “With zeal.” “With cheerfulness.”

As with our human bodies, each part, each “member” has a useful role to play. Each person has value. Every skill is needed for the whole to work as it was intended and for all to benefit.

Ironically, I was thinking about my car while driving this morning. And my brother-in-law. He’s a mechanic, and has been his whole adult life. Some might consider that a low-on-the-totem-pole job (I’m sure he’s made to feel that way sometimes). It’s dirty, hard work that we take for granted. But for those who have a passion for the way engines work and love the intrigue of diagnosing and fixing a problem when things go wrong…this is a terrific job.

We shake our heads and say, “That’s not for me.” Right on, it’s not. That job is for them, the ones who have been given that task, “according to the grace given.” My brother-in-law has been given grace to perform the role of car mechanic, as if he’s serving the Lord, but also as a member of one body. And the rest of us have our own assignment, our own passions, and talents, that the Lord has given us to serve others with.

Each of us has a role to play, but with locked arms on the stage of life, each depending on the next, all serving this one body that we collectively make up.

And it makes me realize that I so appreciate, yet fail to show it, the folks that we’ve decided are “behind the scenes.”

The car mechanics. The retail clerks. The chefs. Janitors. Truck drivers. Pilots. Think about this…the bakers, construction workers, trash collectors. The pastors. Farmers Mothers. And so many, many more.

If your child grows up and wants to go to work in a field that seems to you…a little less than what you’d hoped for, stop. Rethink it. Recognize the value in that role, that member, that human. Your child is vital to this body. This body needs the skills that your child possesses and will be lacking without.

So a big shout-out, with genuine gratitude, to ALL of the members of this beautiful body of humanity.

It takes all kinds.

The Light in the Kitchen

 

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The house is quiet now.  The scene has gone dark. Missing are the blue lights, cell phones, computer screens and tv. No more open-close of the refrigerator. Creaking floors are silent. Even the birds outside the kitchen window have taken shelter for the night.

There is a void, of movement.  And voices. Bickering. No, it’s more than that. Frustration. Hurt.

And fear.

It’s just me now.  And the light in the kitchen.

The humming of the dishwasher, the only sound. And the typing. My fingers anxiously willing the toxic emotions to leave my body. Even after retreating, hiding in the closet, trying to stop the madness with some words from the wise, closing my eyes tight and praying for God to please help…there are things that need to come out, that can only be released in written words. And I’m taken aback by this urge to express, following the temptation to lay on the floor next to the forgotten shoes and sleep. Sleep and forget.

At 7:15am this morning, the sun spewed orange fingers out over the fields behind our house and greeted us on our way to school. Sometimes my boys and I share prayers or music. Other times conversation. Rarely silence.

I said aloud, “Thank you Lord for the beautiful sunshine, new and different everyday!”

Then He held my hand, surging courage into my heart for an awkward conversation with a friend. He whispered love through my hands to care for two precious little girls while their mommy ran errands. And He surprised me with an extra boost of energy to go on an evening walk with a tummy full of fettuccine.

But then things went dim. Went sour. And like a shooting star, it was beautiful and then gone. All gone.

One word leads to two more words and quickly a barrage smacks me right up side the face. My son, the one who lays his head on my lap each night and asks me to run my fingers through his hair, he was in a mood. The sting of his words, familiar. Hauntingly familiar. Yet freshly painful every time. Repeating that “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” And so it goes.

Beautiful sunrise, happiness, and we almost made it to the finish line of this 24 hour period. It’s amazing how it all can change in a few confusing moments and make your heart go sick. Blind you from the days’ joys. Wipe it all away…seemingly.

This one small child can whip me with words so callous and condescending. And he doesn’t even know the meaning of condescending. It’s embarrassing, humiliating – but this repetitive dance with disrespect and degradation sends me cowering, desperate for an escape. It makes me fearful. Fearful of it’s power. Fearful that it will gain momentum and destroy everything in its path. Destroy me. And the lies loom large. Like a flash, for a moment, I’m believing that my son is an abuser and I am his victim. And I should just go to sleep, forever.

I check to see that all is clear. I step out of the closet. Under the door to my bedroom is a note. I read words seeking forgiveness, in the most simple child-like form. It’s far too innocent in comparison to the stabs he inflicted earlier.

The light is on in the hallway and I go in to my son’s room. He’s laying on his bed, looking spent, staring at the ceiling. A tear escapes his eye.

Again, the Lord takes my hand. He leads me to cross the bridge, close the gap, dry the tears. He reaffirms that His light will never fail to transform the darkness. Just a few words, and “I love you”, “Goodnight”, and I close my son’s door to end the day.

Now it’s just me. And the Light in the kitchen.