01 September 2014

Prayer Points — September 2014

01 SEPTEMBER 2014 — "Whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).  So I took an injury in ministry; today my right thumb is "draining" into a homemade bandage and the back of my neck boasts a small, round band-aid.  In fact, I type this Prayer Points one letter at a time with my left index finger.  These tongue-in-cheek "badges of courage" were earned in last week's ministry trip to Yumbe District in the far northwestern corner of Uganda—mostly because I am too soft-skinned.  We did some vigorous work in the community as an expression of no-strings-attached love in the name of Christ.  I literally learned how to swing a hoe, clear a field, heap potatoes and applied my limited knowledge to scrubbing concrete floors and collecting rubbish in the streets.  In the process of these labors I developed a couple of monster blisters (think Blister-zilla) that got seriously infected with something I think I am happy never to identify.  But, the far better development ... far better than any "battle scars" ... was the opportunity gained through loving service to preach the gospel of Christ's great grace.  We had prayed for an "open door for the ministry of the Word" (Colossians 4:3) only to discover that God answered our prayer through us; through hoes and slashers and bags of slimy rubbish that still smelled like gin and tobacco ... and a couple of infected blisters.  So I am on a two-week regimen of penicillin, but that is a small price for the opportunity to share Christ's love with a thousand people on the edge of a war zone.  [See Yumbe Outreach appended below and Yumbe photos on my Facebook page.]

News — Thanks to many of you who have shown prayerful concern for us since our last communiquè.  We have received at least some news since then; which for information-gatherers, as we are, is a relief.  However, the news is sad.  We have been officially dismissed regarding our expressed desire to proceed with fostering and adoption.  So, what seemed like a "sure thing" (direct quote) is now a "full stop" (direct quote).  Too bad our hearts dared to slip into excitement prematurely—we had tried valiantly to remain detached.  But upon further reflection, if our greatest mistakes in life are borne out of love then we are not fools, even if we might feel foolish.  It is likely that adoption as a concept may emerge again in the future, but not in the way or in the direction we had started to believe.  As with so many other things in life, there is creation, then death, and then—if it is God's will—resurrection.  Thanks for praying; we now have the clarity for which we were asking.  

School — The Rees Family Home School has commenced for the 2014-15 academic year.  We know that summer has "done its job" in the kids when starting school is a welcome routine to the boredom that comes in mid-August.  Props to Shellie for somehow juggling to teach calculus (with Seth, 12th grade) and cursive handwriting  (with Jocelyn, 3rd grade), Canterbury Tales (with Emma, 10th grade) and Tom Sawyer (with Abby, 8th grade) and The Fellowship of the Ring (with Nate, 6th grade) and about 100 other things simultaneously.  Honestly, for those of us who would strongly prefer not to home school, home schooling without reliable Internet, libraries, laboratories, or the chance to include fine arts is a genuinely high cost for service.  Such endeavors have swallowed up Shellie's time and energy to the exclusion of practicing nursing at the clinic, which is also sad.  But she has helped me seriously and professionally by cleaning and dressing my infected wounds ... to the glory of God.

31 August 2014

Yumbe Outreach 2014

17-24 AUGUST 2014

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There and back again—a pilgrim's tale.  This tale is told and retold many times in many forms by many people.  This time, however, and this form of "there and back again" carried a team of 35 people from New Hope at Kasana in the central region of Uganda—mostly teenagers and a few advisors—580km (348m) to the extreme west and north of Uganda where the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan meet Uganda in a rough knot.  The UN's camp for "Internally Displaced Persons" (a.k.a. refugees) which we passed along the way, though it was at that time empty, nevertheless served as a stark reminder of the grim reality of war in this volatile corner of the globe.  Houses were built in clusters for safety more than aesthetics.  Strangers were viewed with understandable suspicion as the ghosts, so to speak, of maniac militiamen still loomed in the people's memories.  

Midigo, the village for which we aimed inside the dusty Yumbe District, was literally the end of the road—58km from the nearest petrol and two hours from the nearest electricity with a language and a culture of its own, even within Uganda.  In all, it took twelve hours to get there—which averaged a pathetic 48kph (29mph)—but the pace of ministry accelerated dramatically once we arrived.  I struggled to keep up at times feeling every one of my years and every kilogram of my excess girth.  

Our ministry plan was simple: "Love must be sincere" (Romans 12:9).  So we loved in tangible, tactile ways with the belief that love needs no translation.  And when the people inquired, which they did, we explained that Christ's love had radically changed us from the unlovely and unloving people we once were into a new people who love as He loves; and that His love can change them, too.  Thus beginning with love, we gained credibility for our preaching to come later in the week, which proved wise ... and safe ... and redemptive as we heard testimony of seven people (and maybe many others in the silence of their hearts) who looked to the Savior for salvation from sin and the gift of eternal life.

Thanks for praying and tracking with us.  It was a very good, very stretching week.  Listen in on some of the conversations that captured the heart of the week....

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"Good morning," I greeted passers-by in English many times since I had zero words in the local language of Lugbara.  Often I would hear back, "I am fine."  [In my head I would continue the conversation sarcastically, "Hello, Fine.  My name is Kevin."]

Said the elderly clan leader (through a translator) as he leaned on his cane, which was a very worn out, upside down five-iron golf club: "What is this: helping the elderly with their gardens, cleaning the town's trading center while the vendors stand around and laugh, slashing [mowing by hand with small scythes] the hospital grounds, conducting a football [soccer] tournament for the entire district without asking for anything in return?  We have had many teams come here in the past but none of them dig in our gardens."  The paraphrased reply from our team leader sounded like this: "We have been blessed by God in order to bless others in His name [Genesis 12:2-3]."

"Uncle Kevin, are you feeling alright?  We didn't see you at dinner last night."  "I am well," I said.  "Thank you for asking.  It was only that I was more sleepy than hungry [for a 10pm meal after a 16-hour day of praying, digging, slashing, cleaning, greeting, visiting, and crisping in the relentless sun]."

"Kevin, this officer and his [armed] men have been sent by the village elder [in whose garden we weeded three days earlier, the one who leaned on a five-iron to stand up] in order to keep back those who have been plotting to throw rocks at you and your equipment."  Fully aware of both the reality of enemies of the gospel sent out from the m*sque and the weight of this gesture in light of the trouble it may cause him later on in town council meetings for appearing to condone a threat to Isl*m, I said, "Thank you, sir.  That is very kind.  [Thank You, Lord, for allowing us to find favor in the eyes of the clan leaders in Midigo.]"

I was meditating upon and praying through Matthew 16:13-16 — "When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, 'Who do people say the Son of Man is?' They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' 'But what about you?' He asked. 'Who do you say I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.'”  Correspondingly,  I asked God in one of our 5:30am prayer sessions, "Lord, this is the verse that I believe You are putting on my tongue.  As difficult as it may be for M*slim ears to hear [because of the undeniable deity and sonship of Jesus, which are both blasphemous to Isl*mic thought], please give me the opportunity to share it with someone this week.  Amen."

A few days later I knew what I had to say as our hospital visit was winding down with Bryan, an elderly man who has been in the hospital for several months with severe asthma. "Who do you say that Jesus is, Bryan?"  Bryan took no time to respond, saying, "Jesus is Isa, one of the [lesser] prophets."  Without wanting to inch toward a debate, I held my ground in light of the verse burning in my heart: "That's what some people say, even the Qur'an, about Jesus.  But He is more than a [lesser] prophet; He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  [And what I wanted to add but the moment passed and the language barriers wouldn't permit: "Won't you, Bryan, let Jesus answer the question of His own identity Himself instead of merely accepting public or religious opinion about Him?]  But I did conclude the visit this way: "Bryan, this is the question that everyone must answer—who do you say that Jesus is?"

"We want to believe," said a small group of ladies to the members of our team that branched off to share Christ's love in the women's ward at the hospital, "but can we confess back at home?  Here, there are too many people around.  We know that if we forsake Isl*m openly, then the community will harass us, maybe burn our houses, beat us, or even kill us."  As reported by those who were there, it was said, "Yes, they may harass you, but God is able to protect you."  [Later on when the entire team was sharing the day's highlights this was appropriately added: "Faith is personal, but never private.  You can call upon the name of the Lord anywhere and He will hear and save.  But there is a mysterious correlation between public confession and genuine faith so much so that an absolute unwillingness to confess Jesus before men serves as a strong indication that there was, after all, no new birth; no reconciliation of the sinner with the Father through the redemptive work of the Son (Mark 8:38)."]

"So you didn't die," my mother commented when I called her on our return trip.  "No, Mom, we didn't die."  All the passengers in my car overhearing my side of the conversation laughed because they too had loved ones who were anxiously waiting to hear what happened during the week of overt evangelism in an entrenched stronghold of Isl*m.  Many thought that there would be open opposition and a good chance of violence aimed at our mission team.  But largely we were welcomed, embraced, and invited to come back ...  if God wills it. 

29 August 2014

The Biggest Little Nation I've Ever Seen

Sixty miles (100 kilometers) is not a great distance.  It is the distance we used to use for estimating how much longer our Stateside road trips will take when prompted by the ubiquitous kid-question: when will we get there?  The conversation in the car sounded like my 6th grade math teacher, Mr. Neelon, giving the class one of his dreaded word problems—"I don't know; you tell me: if we are traveling at 60 mph and there are 60 miles left until Grandma's house (not counting traffic or potty breaks), how much longer do you think it will take to get there?"  "One hour," grunts the backseat.  "Well, if you knew the answer, then why did you ask?"  (Sadly, sarcasm is what I think my kids will inherit instead of math skills.)

Sixty miles in Uganda, however, is never—not by a long shot—the standard for measuring travel time.  Nor is 50 miles.  For instance, from Kasana to the city centre of Kampala is approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers) ... so that's even twenty "clicks" less than the 60-mile-standard.  The best time to downtown Kampala we've ever ... EVER ... made is 2.0 hours on a Sunday morning when there was no business traffic (lots of other traffic, but at least most businesses were closed).  And, except for the first 15 miles on dirt roads, the rest of the way into the city is tarmac and one of the best roads in the entire nation with painted lines along some stretches, some paved shoulders, even a few speed limit signs ... but no traffic lights.  [In a city of 2 million there are only about 8 traffic lights, total—go figure!]  So, 50 miles in 2.0 hours, that's an easy word problem, Mr. Neelon; solving for rate = 25 miles per hour.

For all points moving away from Kampala the rate of travel improves, but only slightly and for different reasons.  Not so much traffic, so that's faster, but there are much poorer road conditions including both official and unofficial speed bumps in every village, so that chews up some of the gain.  The net result is about 45 mph.  Uganda is roughly the size of Arizona.  At an average of 25 mph in town and 45 mph in the country Arizona/Uganda might as well be as big as Texas—a never-ending expanse.

The Art of Walking Slowly

Here is the exercise: walk as slowly as feels culturally acceptable, for instance, along a somewhat populated sidewalk toward the bus stop.  People are no doubt passing you by, but not staring at you like you're in some kind of parallel universe.  

Now, go even slower; say, half your current speed.  That's the art of walking slowly.  In San Francisco or Indianapolis walking that slowly may cause people to start giving you a wide berth, perhaps fearing that you're getting ready to collapse or puke or foam at the mouth or whip out a sawn-off shotgun.  In New York City or Boston or Washington, D.C. walking that slowly may cause a beat cop to start tailing you for observation and prompt the NSA to start a file on you and tap your mobile phone. (Oh, wait, if we are talking about the United States of America then the feds already have those taps planted and that file started).  However, in rural Uganda, 1/8 speed is normal and 8/8 speed is unthinkable unless you are ready to foam at the mouth or whip out a sawn-off shotgun.

At this artful pace, locals can walk miles and never develop a single bead of sweat on their brow even in the blazing sunshine.  Of course it takes forever to arrive—which drives me nuts—but that's no large matter to our amazing new neighbors.  After all, what's so urgent that arriving any earlier will yield any benefit whatsoever?  I, on the other hand, have not stopped sweating day or night since December 1, 2013 when we left the States and turned off our (wire-tapped) mobiles for a projected five-year term. And I actually sweat MORE at such a slow walking pace because it is an unnatural state with no end point in sight.  ("Do I pass?  If I pass, do I pass on the right?  If I pass, do I greet?  If I greet, do I say ‘wasuxze otya’ or ‘osibye otya’ or ‘oli otya’ or ‘gebaleko’?")  

This speed is slower than idle; I'm constantly riding the brake.  Is there a neurological control center for walking speeds?  If there is, I think I need someone to dial down the idling speed in my brain.  There's more chance for success in that than in changing the culture out there.

Stop Looking in Our &@%£ Windows!

"Really, I mean it.  Can you see the scowl on my face?  Whether or not you understand my English, you can interpret my facial expression: stop looking in our windows!"

Okay, so I wasn't as aggressive or explicit as the above monologue suggests, but I was angry and I did say directly—"Stop looking in our windows!"  For months now when the local children finish with school for the day and they don't want to go directly home (for there are chores waiting for them, no doubt), they have been loitering around our duplex—especially the kids whose mothers work here at Kasana, and especially when it is raining because there is a large, covered breezeway between the house and the detached kitchen.  Most of the time it has been just two or three particular boys, but sometimes ... corresponding to the severity of the rain ... there are thirty children making a racket on our front step.  Of course there are no parents supervising (which will have to be another rant for another time), so the "pack mentality" starts to manifest itself: boldness in numbers.  Without shame or discretion many crowd around our windows (remember there is no glass in windows here, just screens, security bars, and wooden shutters with 1/2-inch gaps in between each panel) and peek in with cupped hands around their eyes to shield out the glare.  They would sneak around the back of the house, too, and peer in.

Curiosity is not a good enough reason to repeatedly do this.  They know that they are doing wrong.  They know that I would be completely within cultural norms to grip as many as I could grab, march them to a nearby shrub, select a switch (a "papapa"), and bend them over my knee for some swats—I've certainly seen it happen other times in the course of a normal day to see a child get caned, in public, often by someone other than a parental figure.  [But I still can't get over the biblical instruction that a child's discipline is a prerogative of a parent, done to build relationship not to publicly shame; not just something any adult can do (cf Hebrews 12:5-11).]  Even still, I could escort these Toms to a parent/guardian who, with one word from me, would give the culprits a spanking for the memory book.

But truly, it's not just the kids who stare.  The adults—especially those without much contact with Westerners—stare at us constantly as well.  Personal space is not a tribal virtue.  For example, a man was sleeping under the eave of our roof outside our bedroom window. If it weren't so funny it would be disturbing.  (When did he arrive?  What did he see?  How many times has he done this?)  But he was eventually discovered by us because he was snoring so loudly it WOKE US UP from a deep sleep.  I mean really sawing logs—we got a nice sound recording of it on Shellie's phone.  After we stopped giggling, I went to report to the night guard about someone sleeping on our step only to discover it was that night guard himself who was catching "forty winks."  So up the chain of command I went with my creepy report; I think he lost his job.  But seriously, there have been others who have shown flashlights into our windows at night.  Come on!  Curiosity is not a good enough reason, so stop looking in our &@%£ windows!

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.