01 August 2014

Prayer Points -- August 2014

01 August – “Teach us to number our days” (Psalm 90:12).  The metaphysics and the physics of the space-time continuum are strange companions.  Brilliant minds have confirmed that time is not a mathematical constant.  And in our simple lives, we experience the same principle: that time must fluctuate.  Although there is no equation that governs experience as it governs physics, we nevertheless know intuitively and bear out in the wrinkles that are starting to form around our eyes that time both runs and crawls simultaneously in Uganda where there is ever work to do and yet never much to show for it.  The calendar demands that it has been a month since our last newsletter, but in our gut we marvel that these 31 days seem to have taken months to elapse.  Nothing happens in our days, however, everything happens in our moments.
                We continue to wait for every decision that remains on someone else’s desk to decide, but still we cannot escape the demands of each day.  So August comes and finds us still knowing nothing official—about adoption, about permanent placement, about our short- or long-term place—and that is admittedly wearisome.  But all the while the water still needs fetching, the dishes still need washing, and the car still needs its oil changed.  For instance, I have, in this last 7-day stretch, taught 13 hours of lectures over three days to two different classes of students.  With little more than 24 hours of advanced warning I binged on the two resources I brought with me and trusted the Lord for spontaneous remembrance for a seminar on Exilic and Intertestamental History.  Then after, with little more than a few days of preparation for two day-long seminars on Western worldview, I picked up where Intertestamental History left off and carried the timeline all the way through to Postmodernism and the spiritual crisis of the current age that has effectively questioned everything—God, truth, ethics, morality, and even the questions themselves.  [Gasp—even the memory of it is exhausting.]  Those were long/short days in the classroom where all of our waiting provided little insulation to all of the hurrying that need demanded.  And then as fast as greased lightning I went back to the long task of slow waiting.
                “Rejoice in hope” (Romans 12:12a) — Please pray with us to fight for the power and the perspective to rejoice; not about the moment, per se, but in hope that overarches and invades the moment.  There is much wrong in this world, but beauty and victory and glory exist—as the prophet declares in the present tense, “The whole earth is full of Your glory” (Isaiah 6:3).  It will take diligence to fortify our hope-o-meters and to choose to see our present through the promises of God.  Many times, as now, I am reminded of the ageless line in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, Aurora Leigh, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God: / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, / The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries, / And daub their natural faces unaware” (Book VII, lines 821-825).
                “Be patient in tribulation” (Romans 12:12b) — Please pray with us for a supernatural capacity to be patient inside trial.  Simultaneously please pray that we will not attempt to bypass the trial through our own cleverness or escapism.  Patience, at its very root, is remaining under the pressure until God sees fit to remove the trial or to pull us through the trial, so this—like all things—pivots on the fulcrum of belief in Christ.

                “Be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12c) — Please pray with us for constancy in prayer.  We don’t know why prayer works or why God commands us to pray or why God meets us in prayer or why God seemingly waits to move until we pray; but we do know that Scripture is crystal clear on prayer—pray! Pray!! PRAY!!!  It is an easily forgotten truth that here, and everywhere, we are in battle.  To spiritualize a Tom Clancy line—“the radio is the greatest weapon man ever invented” (A Clear and Present Danger)—prayer is like a two-way radio.  It would be consistent with any enemy’s strategy to disrupt all lines of communication.  In that way, constancy in prayer (i.e. keeping the radio turned on and tuned in) is vitally important, and directly attacked, especially in light of an evangelistic outreach I am planning to join (August 17-24) in Yumba, Uganda, which borders both South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, is 99% M*slim, extremely poor, and somewhat militant.  We go to help the one church in the entire region, do community service, and build relationships leading up to the showing of the Jesus Film at the end of the week.

Where All the Unwanted T-shirts Go

Yes, indeed, the low-quality, pink, Phi-Beta-Kappa 2003 Pledge Week T-shirts from the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff have lived to see another day.  I saw a twenty-something Ugandan man wearing one proudly and fashionably as he strutted along in Kampala.  The same “on top of the world” posture describes the man with that knock-off Hello Kitty T-shirt with some misspelled English motto silk-screened across the front.   I don’t know what to say about the orange T-shirt I saw boasting the stenciled words across the shoulder blades: “Las Vegas County Prison.”  Someone clearly threw these shirts in the "unwanted pile" in some other country and they flowed downstream all the way to Uganda—the river delta of all wanted T-shirts.

At the market in Mukono a few days before Christmas 2013 I saw, to my amazement, many truck-loads of heavily-used, cotton-blend clothing, bundled in huge burlap bags, passed hand-to-hand to a swarm of vendors who were fanning out to resell these clothes for 1,000 or 2,000 shillings each (about 40-80 cents).  But what was so remarkable is that on many of these items there still remained the home-made, hand-written price-tags from so many of our American yard sales and thrift stores: 25-cents "by A.G.", 75-cents "as is," $1 "missing a button" or "needs new zipper."  This is apparently the end of the line for the world's textiles.

The T-shirt that wins the award for being most noteworthy, however, is the one I saw on a pedestrian observed during our last trip to Kampala.  The T-shirt words were all spelled correctly and the logo was genuine—1999 American League Central Division Champions, Cleveland Indians.  But I thought, "Wait a second.  The Indians didn't win the Division Series in 1999.  They lost to the Boston Red Sox, who played and lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series."  Sure enough, I checked and they didn't.  It must have been part of that sad lot of T-shirts printed to sell at the stadium just in case the Indians won their series.  But they didn't, so 15,000 or so overly optimistic T-shirts were sent down the river to a country where there is no baseball, no idea where Cleveland is located, and no notion what an "Indian" is (except for the businessmen who own and run all the electronics stores in Uganda).

There Is Always Room in Uganda

We have started a list of things we've seen carried on the local motorbike taxis known as boda-bodas.  A boda carrying 5 ... yes, 5 ... adult men.  A boda carrying 5 children is nothing compared to one carrying 5 adults except that this one was driven BY A CHILD who was at most 13 years-old!  A boda carrying: another boda, a large door, a windshield, a bed frame, a mattress, several rolled-up sheets of steel roofing, a full-sized upholstered sofa, a huge bundle of 8-ft. sugar cane from side to side (danger: wide-load on an under-powered motorcycle), a coffin, a 2000-liter plastic water tank, a Nile Perch that was so large it drooped off each side of the bike so far that the nose and the tail almost dragged the pavement (credit seeing this one to J.G.), a man carrying his own bicycle on his lap, a semi-truck tire, a security guard with the butt of his AK-47 bouncing nervously on his knee (hopefully without live ammunition in the cartridge), a woman trying desperately—but ultimately unsuccessfully—to hold her umbrella open at full speed against the rain, and a man using his wheelbarrow—ingeniously and successfully—as an effective cross between an umbrella and steel armor against the wide-world.

Of course there are untold times we've seen live chickens, turkeys, goats, hogs on bodas going to or from market, uncounted bunches (we've seen as many as 8) of matooke (bananas) on bodas that easily weigh 110 lbs. (50 kg) each, and unrecorded pyramids of 6, 8, even 12(!) 40-liter jerry cans full of water (45 lbs. [or 20 kg] each) draped quite strategically all over these mechanized beasts of burden.  Today we saw a man carrying a 20-ft. length of pipe on his shoulder WITHOUT HOLDING IT OR STRAPPING IT DOWN, JUST BY BALANCING IT IN THE CROOK OF HIS NECK.  The women passengers who ride side-saddle, even while carrying babies, without holding on to the bike are the most balanced of the lot given the way boda-bodas insanely weave in and out of traffic.

Enlarge the vehicle: compound the capacity for cargo and collateral damage.  A matatu (taxi-van) is rated for 14 passengers, but we've known 24 crammed inside.  The coach buses—many going from Juba, South Sudan to Nairobi, Kenya via Kampala, Uganda—run with huge, untold numbers of people and luggage driving extremely fast.  Many of these buses are so out of alignment that they literally drive with the rear 4 to 6 ft. swayed to one side or the other; like a furious trapezoid daring the on-coming traffic to chicken fight.  A lorry (a semi-truck) is apparently unrated for capacity since they are consistently so heavy they cannot manage going uphill at more than 20km/h.  The lorries loaded down with enormous bags of charcoal for cooking are the worst; often with several men sitting on top of the cargo without any concern for safety of any kind—theirs or others'.  We've never been to Kampala without seeing one of these top-heavy lorries flipped over in a ditch and the Lord only knows what happened to those men, if any, perched on top.  One lorry hauling petrol was in a wreck a few years ago, according to the news, and the petrol was leaking out in rivulets.  With the driver out of commission and therefore unable to protect his boss’ considerable investment, opportunist pedestrians where running up to collect "free" gasoline in whichever container they could find.  But a spark ignited the entire rig and vaporized several of the freeloaders.  I guess "free" is not really free after all.

Mosquito Net Sanctuary

One would think that a thin, mesh barrier made to hang over and around the bed would be useless in 99.9% of all domestic applications besides the one for which it was designed.  And such a thought would be correct.  But beyond keeping most (not all!) insects (and arachnids and, from what some colleagues have reported, large rodents!!!) from disturbing our sleep—including the fraction of those insects that happen to bite which also happen to carry the malaria parasite—there is another unexpected benefit to a mosquito net.  The mosquito net has provided an unexpected, however fragile, sanctuary.

Inside this cathedral of nylon are our two pillows and a set of linens—sacred relics we brought from the Homely Land.  Inside its wispy walls we don't have to worry how little of the language and culture we have actually learned or how weak our resolve is to do this "Africa" thing all over again tomorrow.  Inside it, especially after 9pm and until 7am, we have respite from parenting, retreat from nearly hourly knocks on our door from all sorts of people (since we are on one of the main roads in Kasana), and refuge in our books and DVDs (however many times we've read or watched them, which is considerably high).  Inside it we have about 8 cubic yards of space—of sanctuary—that still remains somewhat specially dedicated; somewhat "ours."  We have come to learn that we need a space that is safe, set-apart, and somewhat screened-off; that we need a space just to "be."  Outside we are, well, outsiders.  That will never change, though it may lessen some.  Inside we can and should be insiders wholeheartedly so that we can brave the outside again in 10 short hours.

Woohoo, the Power's Back On--Hurry Up and Charge Your Devices

Media addiction is something I was hoping we would leave behind in America.  Sadly, even though media dependency has lessened here "in the bush," it has not been eradicated in the hearts and minds of the Rees family.  The number of hours under the influence of artificial, multi-sensory stimulation is far less, certainly, but the place media holds in our life is the same as ever.  We still think about media far too much; whether or not the power is on.  It still bothers us far too deeply when media is out of reach.

The power infrastructure in Uganda is laughable.  [Of what little they do generate, a large percent is sold to Kenya—an agreement, I understand, that will last for 50 years (who is the genius who thought of that one?!?).]  My summary is an unintentional indictment on the modernization of East Africa.  Sorry.  I know it has taken huge amounts of effort to get it running this smoothly; this was a completely ravaged country with its many wars in the 80s and 90s.  But how can business boom without reliable energy?  Fifty percent outages (the unofficial tally from our vantage) will push businesses into other countries and keep entrepreneurs at bay.  But that is macro.  On the micro side—we know when the power is off; we can sense it in the air.  And when the slightest buzz emits from the breaker box, we know that power is back.  Our ears are now like finely tuned electricity detectors.  "Woohoo, the power's on—hurry up and charge your devices," is the announcement.  But not before the appropriate application of cynicism: "Wait, don't trust it.  First give it a minute or two.  Let's see if it is lying to us."  Half of the time the first flash of power is only a tease; electricity is a bitch.  Same for the Internet.  The gauge for a wireless signal floating invisibly through the air—one bar, two, three, four, five out of five bars—rarely corresponds to reality.

Even trying to settle for a low-tech option is a bother.  For example, with the World Cup knock-out round starting this week I've tried to find, buy, and set-up a television and it tune in to a local analog channel for the small chance that some matches might be broadcast.  Half-way through the process and I've stalled out.  I tried for a used tv, but the seller wanted only the mzungu prize (3x or 4x fair market value).  "Sorry, for just a little more I can buy new."  So I bought new—not cheap even when converted to American prices—but no channels without an antenna.  So I recruited a Ugandan friend to join me in hunting down an antenna (and to bypass the expected mzungu mark-up).  We found one, but it was the big kind for the top of your roof, not the little kind that sits on top of the tv itself.  Seeing as I don't own this house I had to seek permission for a rooftop antenna.  But before I could even get permission to put an antenna on the rented house I learned that one has to erect a 40-ft. pole for an antenna like this one; any lower and it would be unable to receive any signals.  Ugh.  At this rate the World Cup will be over.  I have reached the conclusion that I have as much chance of winning this one as the US football (soccer) team (ranked #13) has getting through the first round this year grouped with Germany (#2 in the world), Portugal (#4 in the world), and Ghana (who has knocked the US out of the last two tournaments).

04 July 2014

African Politics: Do You Really Even Know What the Word "Democracy" Means?

The Fourth of July is just 04/07/2014 here.  No red, white, or blue.  Just another work day.  The ‘Muricans who live here (about 10 families) will celebrate Independence Day with a game of whiffle ball this afternoon.  No fireworks—although there are plenty of grass fires as it hasn’t rained in two months—no John Philip Sousa, no Star Spangled Banner, no America the Beautiful. 

By contrast to celebrating the American Independence and the virtual invention and establishment of representative democracy in place of the heavy-handed monarchy that the Colonialists knew all too well in 1776, yesterday I saw a commercial where His Excellency the President, General Yoweri Museveni, was soft-campaigning for his 2016 presidential election.  It was clever actually, including a jingle that apparently everybody knows; even those who cannot read or write but who have access to a television every once in a while.  Interestingly, however, and completely un-surprising it is that that two minute TV spot, which played on the lobby monitor while I was waiting for my daughter to finish in the dentist’s chair, did not mention Museveni’s 2005 referendum to abolish presidential term limits or the hushed pressure that visited Museveni’s opponents during the 2011 election.   Of course His Excellency is above any legal accusation since he took office in 1986, and I would never suggest otherwise.  But a taxi driver I recently hired would beg to differ.  He dominated our conversation as we jostled along through the Industrial Section of Kampala with highly passionate remarks about how the President paid each member in Parliament 50,000,000 shillings to overturn term limits and regularly appoints his own family members, clan-mates, and lackeys to key political offices.  Of course, I disbelieved the taxi driver who just twenty minutes before was telling me that the spot where the Coca-Cola bottling factory is built used to be a forest where Dictator Idi Amin used to dump the bodies of his political and perceived opponents.

Now wars have started over lesser trigger-points, I would suppose, so I would hate to contribute to any explosive rumor-mongering about current political administrations… and I would hate very much to be kicked out of the country, which is always a real possibility, or have my corpse tossed in a forest.  So this short reflection is not that.  Just for the sake of argument, if a theoretical politician were to sink to thug-tactics in the morning but then speak about being democratically elected in the afternoon I would have a political-science “bone to pick”—whether it was Rod Blagojevich or Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama or John Smith running for the local school board in Blandville, Iowa.  (I think I fancy myself a fearless journalist sometimes).  A question in my mind for the imagined press conference, to which I would never be invited, even in my own fantasy, would be fairly sharp: “Do you really even know what the word ‘democracy’ means?” [It is a good thing that such considerations are merely academic and rhetorical seeing that our world leaders are and have always been as squeaky-clean as the Mouseketeers!]


I mean, wow, the United States of America has a ton of problems.  John Adams proved prophetic when he said that this system, which they labored to set up at the end of the 1700s, only works with “moral people.”  Or in other words, once immoral or even amoral people elect and are elected, there would be no way to keep corruption at bay on a governmental level.  But even with our political woes—whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House—I am terribly proud of our political system.  I love the fact that the founding fathers were contemplating Isaiah 33:22 when they proposed embedding a series of checks and balances into a three-branched form of central government—executive branch, legislative branch, and judicial branch.  “For the LORD is our judge, The LORD is our lawgiver, The LORD is our king; He will save us” steered the pervading thought in the room and convinced them that no one individual ought to have all three of those offices, save God alone, as was the case with the king of England at the time.  Yes, that makes Americans distrustful of leaders from the onset—that is a true weakness.  But that also makes Americans brave enough to speak up against unlimited power—which is a true strength.  Maybe my thoughts will revert back to non-political things on July 5th.

01 July 2014

Prayer Points -- July 2014

01 July – “One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed” (Proverb 19:17).  But who is rich and who is poor?  It is an important question that has been keeping humans spinning for centuries.  Does the rich man sleep better or worse at night than the poor man?  Does the poor man have deeper or shallower relationships than the rich man?  What are the parameters of wealth, really?  Does the good life really just boil down to dollars and cents?  Don’t ask the smiling preachers who sell obscene amounts of books with titles somewhat close to: “You Are Supposed to Happy and Rich All the Time,” “God Believes in Your Success,” “Christianity Without Suffering: God’s Original Plan”—these plastic personas will give you the same formulaic cliché, whether in Africa or America: faith + Jesus = financial prosperity.  [Please pick up on my heavy use of sarcasm!]
                When we first arrived in Uganda we saw—and could not see past—the dirt roads and the barefoot children and the handmade brick shanties.  But those characteristics, while they remain in every village and town and city, no longer dominate our sight because we’ve come to learn that having a scarcity of paper money is not the same as being poor.  True, many of the people we know might have to scramble to break a 10,000 shilling note ($4), but at the same time they have access to a square of land on which to grow enough food for their families.  So, are these resourceful folks rich or poor? 
                That is not to say that there are not serious and devastating needs on all sides; there are.  But it is only when there are no opportunities that poverty seriously enters the equation.  Poverty is not necessarily the lack of money; poverty is the absence of shalom (credit to When Helping Hurts).  The shalom of God—which is much larger than but mostly translated as “peace”—is a primarily relational term; it is a relational harmony in all spheres: with God, with humans, with self, even with creation.  When there is no shalom there is poverty.  If the woman who owns no shoes but has relational harmony in many of her spheres, then she is wealthy because she knows shalom (even if she never heard the word).  Whereas the man who owns half of Manhattan—but knows only relational disharmony in his spheres—is biblically impoverished; he is a stranger to shalom.
                But having said all of that … *sigh* … we get asked a lot for money, for jobs, for contributions, for the opportunity to buy overpriced chickens and products we don’t need.  A lot.  It takes wisdom to know when to say yes and when to say no; wisdom we apparently don’t have because it wears us thin sometimes trying to figure it all out.  Seriously, we would like prayer about this.  Our unofficial count is between 30-40 “asks” a month.  We don’t want to be misers, but we still are trying to figure out our family budget and the many expenses that we did not and could not anticipate.  Furthermore, we feel the tension embedded in the reality that all the money that is available to us is not “ours”; it is the Lord’s and comes from donors like you who give to the Lord and for the advancement of His kingdom, not necessarily to finance a home-based chicken industry, or line the pockets of corrupt police men who entrap “tourists” over non-existent traffic violations, or start a medical clinic.  (Yes, these actually happened to us in recent days.)  [Please pick up on our stress level over this issue!]
                Praise God — We have received back all our passports, except Shellie’s, from the process of obtaining permission to live and work in Uganda.  Shellie’s paperwork has been approved but not yet finalized, so we are waiting the “two weeks” for her passport to return with a stamp in it.  But, to illustrate the previously mentioned stress, we did not know immigration would require over $2000 in fees for our family, nor that most of these fees will need to be paid out again next year.
                Praise God — We have received about 75% of our home school books, but are still praying for a way to get the final, vital supplies before August so that we can begin the next academic year.  This cost ($1000), however, we were expecting and it has planned for it.  But cash flow is tricky.

                Praise God — We anticipate a new expense that we want to submit to your prayerfulness.  At the (surprise) leading of the Lord, we have been proceeding by faith over the last four months about the possibility of adopting two almost 3 year-old boys from the baby house here at New Hope Uganda.  Nothing is certain, but with wise counsel and appropriate caution we have started the application process for widening our family to include these children.  With it will come, if the Committee accepts our application, legal fees on both the Ugandan side and the American side of the adoption.  If you feel that the Lord is leading you to help with this happy expense, then we would by all means welcome your fellowship in this, potentially long, journey.  We cannot share much information yet, but as we are given permission we will share more to any of you who wish for the full story.

12 June 2014

Love: the Better Way (Addendum)

Addendum—Having contemplated, studied, written, preached, adapted the introduction of this sermon into a blog, permitted a recording of the sermon to broadcast on the local Christian radio station, and re-read my notes all over again, it occurs to me, perhaps three days too late, that the Lord may have answered a deeply-seeded, long-term prayer of mine in this passage.  I didn’t recognize the answered prayer until I was praying this morning (Wednesday) about completely unrelated things to an empty carton of an “already expired,” nothing-special sermon.  Yet, it seems to be one of those rare a black-and-white-into-color moments.

I have long desired that I could hear plainly the voice of Christ.  Frankly, I have feared that I was somehow defective because never more than seldom did I hear the voice of Christ.  Some parishioners I’ve been privileged to know over the years have testimonies of hearing the Savior’s voice on a frequent, if not daily, basis.  These testimonies I’ve secretly disbelieved and set aside dismissively—which now I accept (though I still cannot agree with how they are applied)—because in them by comparison I’ve felt inwardly indicted by my virtually silent pilgrimage to the eternal city; because Christ clearly said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27).  Hearing the voice is the litmus paper test of inclusion or exclusion.  True, I have heard the Shepherd’s voice—not audibly, but distinctly and undeniably—on two or three occasions these last two decades.  “Is that enough?  Is that normal?  Is that problematic?”—my inward courtroom dialogue echoes off the rocky walls of my cavernous heart, yet with no answers … only accusations.

But I had a thought, albeit intellectual at first and as of yet unstudied against the full testimony of Scripture.  And this thought has steadily grown.  What if the voice of Christ is, in fact, known to me and more frequent than the two or three times the internal testimony of the Spirit stopped me still in my tracks?  What if His voice comes through well but somehow carries the intonations and dialects, so to speak, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John … of Moses, David, Paul and Peter … of the forty or so biblical authors I have come to know as beloved friends ever since I lost every friend I ever knew in order to follow Christ?  Could it be that simple?  Could it be true?  I thought that Paul, for instance, “had my ear” all these years when it really might have been all along Christ speaking through Paul’s organized, legal, precise language?  Could it be that I have been actually part of Christ’s flock after all, however confused?  Could it be that His voice of ownership over me I have mistaken as the mere voices of Jeremiah or Hosea or James or Jude?

While that thought was growing; while it was starting and stopping and starting again; while it was living and then dying and then resurrecting, I repeatedly prayed my aforementioned prayer:

“Lord, You have promised Your people in the past—even after long, dry patches of disobedience and severe discipline where the word of the Lord and the exhortation of the prophets were so flatly refused by the people that they ceased to flow and were hidden—that, notwithstanding, there would be divine guidance given once again. 

Although the Lord has given you bread of privation and water of oppression, He, your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher. Your ears will hear a word behind you, "This is the way, walk in it," whenever you turn to the right or to the left (Isa 30:20-21). 

“Lord, You have said that to those.  You have promised that to some.  Can You say and promise that to me?  Be my “Teacher no longer hidden.”  You can speak; of course.  You are the Great Communicator, but will You speak to me?  Will You cause me to hear with recognition and understanding when You say, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ whenever I come to a fork in the road?  Father, all it seems I need sometimes is for You—or even someone You have sent—to tell me if I am on the right path; if I am doing the right thing, or if I am making a mess of this life You’ve given me.  ‘Just keep going … you’re doing it … I’m pleased with you … this is the way, walk in it’—to hear that kind of encouragement would be enough, Lord. 

“I know I’m not supposed to ask for a sign.  If this is such a disbelieving prayer, please show me that, too, and I will repent.  But most of the time, I don’t know if I am even close.  I know I put off an image of confidence to colleagues and congregations, but I honestly have no idea where I am.  I might have made a poor decision many years ago and never been aware.  I could be leading my family according to a map of my own faulty understanding all the while thinking it was wisdom.  I just don’t know.  Not knowing is the hardest part, I think; harder than even admitting I’ve been wrong and retreating back to the beginning.  Where is the path and am I on it?  Please condescend to my low state, to my simple wits, and guide me.  I am lost without You.  Amen.”

That, or something close to it, has been my prayer for years.  Boiled down version: “Can You just tell me if I am on the right path?”  Maybe all of this wrestling offers some psychological insight into my difficulty with navigating and my fear of getting lost and being the one responsible for everyone’s distress with no way to rectify it.  I don’t know and the energy to analyze it all over again is, frankly, too exhausting even to attempt.  But then I circled back to 1 Corinthians where I preached last Sunday.  (Or was it God guiding me back there?  I’d like to believe, although it seems presumptuous to conclude, that it was He.)  “I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31b).

“I will show you a still more excellent way”  Does that not sound an awful lot like, “This is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21a)?  “Pursue love” (1 Corinthians 14:1a).  Does that not sound an awful lot like, “Whenever you turn to the left or to the right” (Isaiah 30:21b)?  “Love is patient; love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4).  Does that not sound an awful lot like, “You will hear a word behind you” (Isaiah 30:21a).  “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12a).  Does that not sound an awful lot like, “He, your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher” (Isaiah 30:20b)?  “The greatest of these [other graces and standing over all the spiritual gifts] is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13b).  Does that not sound an awful lot like an answer to my praying, “Can You just tell me if I am on the right path?

Love—this is the right path; this is the right thing.  “This is the way, walk in it.”  The way is love; the destination is love.  This is the voice of the Shepherd although it sounds an awful lot like Paul.  This is the word spoken by the Teacher although it sounds an awful lot like Isaiah.  Maybe I am not lost after all.  Maybe I’ve been found all over again.  Thank You, Lord.

09 June 2014

Love: the Better Way (Introduction to Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then the love of the Lord must be the destination—the perfect maturity—of wisdom.
Love—God’s love—is unlike anything on earth: the more you give away, the more God supplies.  It is so unique that the New Testament writers basically invented a new word for it: agape (A.T. Robertson, “1 Corinthians 13:1,” Word Pictures in the New Testament).
This kind of love doesn’t come from us.  We can’t mine it from a rock.  We can’t catch it in the sea.  We can’t draw it up from the depths of our hearts.  We don’t have this kind of love, but we need it.  Yes, we have lesser loves: warm feelings, we like to hold babies, we desire to make others happy, and we have romance.  We may do a favor, but most often with an expectation of a bigger favor in return. 
But this kind of love is the genuine concern for the well-being of someone else actively expressed for no reason other than the giver is loving and wants to express his character by blessing someone else … even someone undeserving … even at great personal sacrifice … even without repayment … even without proper thanks.
We have been told many times that humans are basically good; that deep down all are loving and that it is only our situation that causes our basic goodness to turn bad.  But this is simply not true.  Even when we are in ideal situations, we still refuse and reject love, lie, cheat, murder, intimidate anyone who is lesser than we are and flatter everyone who is greater.  We are just like Adam and Eve who had the best situation possible yet preferred darkness over light, the serpent’s lies over the Father’s promise, the independent grasping for knowledge over the wisdom that comes only through relationship with God.  But even though we lack love, we still need it, desire it, and know acutely its absence.  We have a hole in our heart where God’s love once fit.  But ever since we scorned God’s love, no lesser love satisfies or soothes or properly fills that space specifically designed to house agape.
Often counterfeited, often imitated, often redefined, but never duplicated, never replaced, never surpassed, the love of God is so unlike everything we can know on this earth that we must conclude it comes from somewhere else.  Love is so unique that we have to agree with the Scriptures—that love comes from God alone.  And He gives us this most excellent love most completely in His Son, Jesus.  This is the gospel—we were created by love to recognize, enjoy, receive and give love, but because of our sin we lost both the love itself and the ability to find it again or recreate it on our own.  But love in the person of Jesus came and found us.  By grace through faith, we are transformed by Jesus’ amazing love from loveless persons to a people of love.  But here is the trouble—we who have been transformed by love to become a people marked by love are not giving preference to love, not showing love, not seeking love.  Even the spiritual gifts that Jesus gave because of love—gifts given to empower us to love to one another the way that God loves us—these same gifts we are using to destroy others instead of build them up.  This is serious trouble!
On a building site, it would be serious trouble when the boss gives excellent bricks, but instead of building the walls the workers uses the good bricks to throw at one another.  In the classroom, it would be trouble when the teacher gives excellent information, but instead of using that information to spread learning among the classmates, the students use the information to block learning and tear down fellow classmates.  In the church, it would be serious trouble when the head of the Church gives excellent gifts, but instead of using those gifts to serve one another in love we use them to compete, to embarrass, and to neglect others while exalting self.
Love is not just a nice feeling.  It is an attitude, a decision, a purpose, and a destination in our spiritual journey.  Love is how Paul describes a Christian who is growing.  And the absence of love is what Paul defines as immaturity.  All through this letter Paul has been confronting them with their immaturity.  Notice that Paul does not try to solve lovelessness or immaturity with rules!  This is exactly where we might expect a list of rules. “Love your sister.” “Give your brother a hug.” “Tell each other that you are sorry and you’ll do better next time.”  “If you fail to love again, you’ll have to mow all the grass from the house to the road.”  “If you use another unkind word you will have to pay me $5.”  No!  Paul knows that rules cannot help love, cannot cause love.  If anything rules only stir up sin.  So instead of issuing rules, Paul lifts our chins up so we can see the better way out of our immaturity—God’s love. 
Only God’s love can produce love—not rules, not religion, not self-righteousness, nothing from us.  The center of human love is “me.”  But I don’t need more of “me.”  I need Jesus.   The center of God’s love is Jesus.  Therefore to love like God loves is to give the world Jesus.  Love—in action—is doing whatever it takes to help us and others to see Jesus, to believe Jesus, and to grow into the image and likeness of Jesus (adapted from John Piper, God is the Gospel, p. 154).

There’s a better way.  The better way is love—more excellent in quality than all the gifts combined (13:1-8a), more durable through time than all the temporary and partial gifts (13:8b-13).

01 June 2014

Prayer Points -- June 2014

01 JUNE -- Six months in Uganda today and the report is good.  We really are doing okay, healthy and happy and plodding along "mpola mpola" (slowly slowly)--praise God.  This day also marks a larger milestone for me--twenty years in vocational Christian ministry.  Permit me to pause here in the middle of the road--a road I never would have guessed might bring us to East Africa--and give glory to God for bringing us this far.

In most other jobs, I would imagine, twenty years might bring a gold pin, or tenure, or partnership, or an office with a door.  But two decades in the gospel ministry, while it has many sublime blessings, has zero of those kind of employment perks.  Instead, I've had to reinvent myself from scratch (really it has been the Lord who has established me time and again) from youth pastor to worship leader to associate pastor to senior pastor to church planter to senior pastor again to discipler of leaders (though still waiting to hear exact wording regarding my most current post!).  Nine major job changes, nineteen moves spread over three continents, but one calling--to make disciples who make disciples who also make disciples (2 Timothy 2:2).  But we've met some amazing and inspiring people at every turn; people of whom the world is not worthy.  I may not have a key to the executive washroom, but we do have a strong fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ who would literally stop and pray the moment we asked, who would skip a meal if that were the only way left to feed us, who have remembered our birthdays right along with their own relatives' birthdays.  For this I give glory to God.

I've been to the absolute, unspeakable bottom of life where I believed nothing except the resurrection and could pray nothing but the six words of Psalm 119:94: "I am Yours, Lord--save me."  I've been privileged to find the mercy of the Lord lifting me up out of the miry pit and setting my feet once again on solid ground.  I even tried to get out of the ministry once years ago, but found that the words of God burn within my heart even more when I choke them back into an artificial silence.  For this I give glory to God.

Twenty years also holds, this month, nineteen years of marriage--a gift for which I am perpetually unworthy--and five arrows in my quiver--a reward for which I did absolutely nothing to earn and plenty to un-earn (if that were possible).  My beautiful, faithful family has followed me all over the world because they, too, love Jesus; not because this road of discipleship is like-able nor because I made an über compelling case to repack our memories into cardboard boxes (again) or sell them (again) at an insulting fraction of their worth in our umpteen yard sales over the years.  While I have consistently gained family, I am conscious that far better men than I, with far greater pressures, have lost families even after leading and loving them far better than I have mine--a fragile mystery which I can't resolve except for the grace of God.  For this I give glory to God.

Maybe I'll still be breathing oxygen in twenty more years from now, maybe not (after all, we know our existence does not depend on oxygen but on Christ who is our life).  By some fickle sense of premonition, I kind of never expected to live this long.  So, if I'm still here at age sixty, and not already "there," may I be singing then as I am now:

To God be the glory, great things He has done
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin
And opened the life-gate that all may go in
Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord!  Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord!  Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father through Jesus the Son
And give Him the glory, great things He has done


15 May 2014

Image of God

IMAGE OF GOD 
BORNE UNIQUELY IN HUMANS AMONG ALL CREATION
AS REVEALED IN SCRIPTURE
A Biblical Anthropology and Sociology

Final Project – New Hope Uganda Institute for Childcare and Family
Kevin Rees– 15 May 2014

“What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” – Psalm 8:4



ASPECTS OF "BEING" AS ENDOWED BY GOD

1.  Relationship—the WHO question

            Humans (male and female) were created out of relationship (Trinity), as an aspect of relationship (community), and for the purpose of relationship (unity) thus equally and distinctly establishing them as primarily relational beings sourced in God, essentially spiritual beings answerable to God, and beings originally enjoying harmonious fellowship with God, others, themselves, and creation.

2.  Image-bearer—the WHY question

            Unlike the rest of creation, humankind shows, enjoys, and is able to reflect God's character to the rest of creation as a great honor and a significant ministry.  Regardless of age or marital status, males show and reflect parts of God's image in their masculinity, especially conforming to the image of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King thus showing up in life as respectability when aligned and repentance when misaligned.  Regardless of age or marital status, females show and reflect parts of God's image in their femininity, especially conforming to the image of Christ as Companion, Helper, and Life-Giver thus showing up in life as respectfulness when aligned and repentance when misaligned.

ASPECTS OF "DOING" AS ENTRUSTED BY GOD

3.  Stewardship—the WHAT & HOW questions

            Out of relationship with God, specifically and carefully placed by God over creation, humans (both male and female) are given a productive and creative task, thus displaying together the image of God as Relational-Worker.  Males, as chief-stewards, tend (provide) and keep (protect) with foresight and wisdom over and for that which and those whom have been entrusted to his care.  Females, as co-stewards with men—as full yet distinct counterparts—offer essential help and support (especially relationally but also practically) with the dignified work given to humankind to govern over God’s creation.

4.  Headship—the WHERE & WHEN questions

            All that has been endowed and entrusted to man (male) by God in general is specifically applied to certain of his relationships in particular for the purpose of leading those special relationships to a deeper intimacy with God through sacrifice, love, humility and faith.  Woman, especially (but not exclusively) within the context of marriage, guide and assist those relationships given into her sphere of ministry toward a deeper intimacy with God through respect, submission (a voluntarily "coming up under" the covering of her head as a mark of worship and devotion to God), help, and faith.

Biblical Masculinity
            Jesus Christ is the perfect example of complete manhood, (notably without marriage, therefore establishing—for both genders—that complete personhood does not hinge upon marriage or children).  Men display an important reflection, yet incomplete without cooperation with women, of God's glory in their masculinity.  Gender is eternal by God's design.  Though gender does not anatomically apply to God, He has decidedly and unswervingly explained Himself in Scripture as male.
            As God is the Initiator and Pursuer of relationship and responsibility, so correspondingly man is an initiator and pursuer of relationship and responsibility with intentional action and purpose as he faithfully abides in God.  Man is endowed by God with authority and entrusted by God with strength in order to use his derivative authority and strength not against but rather for blessing and empowering others—especially the weaker ones—sacrificially and lovingly for the explicit purpose of leading those—especially those few, special relationships entrusted into his care—toward deeper intimacy with God by faith.

Biblical Femininity
            Jesus Christ, although He was masculine, is also the perfect example of complete personhood for women since personhood is defined by relationship to God and only secondarily expressed in connection with (though not derived from) other humans.  Women display an important and otherwise unknowable perspective of God's glory in their femininity.  Gender is eternal by God's design.  Though gender does not anatomically apply to God, and though God explains Himself as male throughout Scripture, God nevertheless also exhibits perfectly (what seem to the human experience) feminine characteristics as well as male; but His self-revelation is never androgynous, thus males and females together in unified relationship reflect most completely the image and glory of God.
            As God is the Helper and Giver of Life, so correspondingly woman is a helper and giver of life physically, emotionally, and spiritually as she faithfully abides in God.  Woman is endowed by God with a joint- and voluntarily-supportive authority—equal in essence yet distinct in role—with man over creation.  She is entrusted by God with strength—especially an inner and relational strength—unique in creation, complementary, and essential—together with man—for expressing the manifold perfections of God.  She uses her derivative authority and strength to support relationally and practically God's purposes on earth within the beautiful ministry of "coming alongside" those given into her care toward deeper intimacy with God by faith.

Biblical Marriage
            The Trinity has decided and designed that faithful, biblical marriage best reflects His glory, especially in terms of unity with diversity and headship with voluntarily "coming up under" God's authority by faith.  Biblical marriage is, therefore, never casual, disposable, optional, polygamous, nor is it ever homosexual as these lesser, counterfeit, and unholy unions destroy the reflective aspect of God's glory in marriage and ruin the image-bearing role in and through the married couple.  While God is always "for" this ideal expression of human relationship in biblical marriage, that does not therefore suggest the He is displeased with singleness or childlessness, nor does it mean that He ever ceases to desire that those who are enslaved to the bondages of anti-biblical unions come short of repentance and redemption.
            As God is the Three-Who-Are-One divine Being and simultaneously the One-Who-Is-Three divine Persons, so correspondingly biblical marriage—mirrored in the Christ's relationship to His Church—is the best of all examples in creation of spiritual, volitional, emotional, physical unity forged from diversity while maintaining distinction without inferiority.  The husband and wife together, neither assimilated into nor lost among the other but individually and collectively relating to God and to each other within God's revealed will, display this grand, voluntary, humble, costly mystery of unity most completely to the entire created order.  As the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in essence with one another yet happily submissive in relationship to one another, so likewise the interrelationship between God, the husband, and the wife show a complex reflection of this cooperation—the Lord is the head of man, the husband is the head of the wife, and the wife is the full counterpart of her husband.

Biblical Singleness
            Biblical singleness, like biblical marriage, seeks after and claims as normative the complete personhood of every individual in Christ separate from but necessarily expressed through human relationships.  Therefore, it is God's expressed will that every person be complete in Christ and to carry that completeness (not behavioral perfection) into all other callings and every other human relationship (not seeking to find personal completion inside those calling or relationships).

Biblical Family

            Biblical family, as the Lord allows it whether biologically, spiritually, or through adoption, flows from biblical marriage which stands upon biblical personhood in Christ.  Biblical marriage produces not merely physical children but whole yet originally unmolded image-bearers of God who need to be nurtured and trained in the fear and admonition of the Lord toward biblical completion in Christ, toward biblical manhood/womanhood, through a season of biblical singleness, toward (perhaps) biblical marriage, and into (perhaps) biblical parenthood and grandparenthood.  This production of eventual biblical parents of the next generations is the family's equivalent to the church's pattern of making disciples of those who make disciples themselves of Christ to the glory of God.