30 November 2014

Everywhere Epiphany

The conditions were just right.  A soaking then drizzling rain, zero-to-calm wind, and fog together made it a burn day.  After all, those burn piles of yard debris were not improving with time.  Soon the snows would arrive, so I needed to jump on this task.  Heck, I wanted to.

Maybe it is the primeval nature of it all, but I find it occasionally necessary to build an outdoor fire.  All other activities that might have gone into that day now must not.  The display would be amazing.  My back will ache before the afternoon sunlight turns rosy again.  But—and my late father-in-law would attest—there is something inherently unsafe about open burning in the mountains.  It deserves respect, if not a little fear, to go with the power.

I gave myself until 8:30 am for my second cup of coffee and then donned the mud boots.  Last night’s pizza boxes, all the dryer lint I could collect, and the partial bottle of lighter fluid from beside the grill—these helped start the fire under the dripping wet, 6-foot tall, 10-foot wide pile of branches collected from across the property from previous tree work.  “What am I forgetting?  Ah, yes, I mustn’t forget the matches.”  But more than burning (and perhaps better) I received also a word picture—an epiphany really—about the gospel ministry during my day burning.  The ministry deserves respect, if not a little fear, to go with the power.

Consider some precautions.  All extraneous flammable materials—including the ones I brought to the scene—must be well removed.  After all, a careless ember could spark a forest fire; faster than a horse, ravenously and indiscriminately hungry, jumping from treetop to treetop.  So, I raked all the other leaves and brush 12 feet away from the blaze.  I positioned the lighter fluid even further away, hidden behind a tree trunk.  I lugged out the garden hose just in case, although everything in the forest was heavy with precipitation.  Shovel, hard rake, axe, and wheelbarrow each stood at hand. Since every fire needs three things to live—fuel, oxygen, and heat—I was prepared to give or to take away any or all of the three as the situation demanded.  

The analogy to ministry is not a difficult one to see.  It is a similar process between lighting a brush pile and making disciples.  There are many concurrent activities and concerns; many factors that can either smother the fire or carry it out of control into the realms of damage and division and death.  But this should be mentioned first—the goal is not fire, the goal is a controlled burn … and a controlled burn requires forethought.  Some de-emphasize the whole formal education and mentorship parts of ministry preparation saying, “We just want to get started.  The need is so great.”  And who can argue with that?  But how many of the same ones who impatiently skip preparation are complicit in lighting entire forests afire without owning their part in the destruction or amending their ways before doing it all again in a different forest?  There are flammable materials all around the ministry, some of which we bring in—past angers, juvenile willfulness, messiah-complexes, and depraved hearts that John Calvin famously and accurately described as “idol factories.”  Preparation is incredibly shepherd-like.

Now the blessed work begins.  I collect twigs and branches of varying diameters from the center of the pile where last night’s rain did not fully penetrate.  I split a nearby wedge of softwood into narrower and narrower wedges.  A match put to the dryer lint stuffed into the pizza box spritzed with accelerant is only the beginning; a necessary but short-lived flare.  This huge pile would never ignite with an accelerant-dependent or paper-thin flash.  So before the moment comes and goes in this initial blaze, I must be ready with kindling of all sizes within reach.  Although I was never a boy-scout, I kneel down in the mud to build my A-frame of sticks as the pizza boxes roars to life.  Blocking the breeze, blowing life into the embers, and coaxing the process along with a prayer I never tire of hearing the crackling of the first twigs and seeing the release of steam trapped inside.  When it happens, then I know I am into the next phase of fire-development.

It cannot be stated often enough or well enough that the ministry contains, and even requires, all types of people.  Some are quick to light, like newspaper, while others are excellent at carrying the burning process from cardboard to small branch.  A few in our midst are accelerants—where “a little dab will do”; even fewer are matches.  Some are half-consumed logs from previous burn days.  With a skill for identifying them, one might be able to find people who are like wedges of poplar that can heat up the fire hot enough to catch the maples which can heat up the fire long enough to catch the oaks—and once the oaks catch, then even green wood will burn.  Every once in a while a mammoth stump of locust can burn for days and days and still be too heavy to roll.  (One such stump smoked for nearly a week after the fire was extinguished).  But a safety-tipped match will never light a locust; not even a locust twig.  There are multiple kinds of diameters and densities and proximities and qualities that work, or fail to work, together for building a sustainable, controlled burn.  The ministry leader will know this and train others in the whole process—not just in how to strike a match and watch it burn.  Once again, the goal is not fire; it is a controlled burn … but really, with the wide angle lens, the goal is training others how to make controlled, sustainable, safe, productive, and long-lasting fires who can also train others in due time.

While it is somewhat risky to leave such a young flame at this early stage of a burn day, I know that such a large pile of debris needs the same fire-starting process to be started on the other side of the circle—so the ends can meet in the middle.  There is quite a bit of rushing back and forth at first to keep these two fires going.  But, since the first one caught with a little bit of a head-start, I can go and “borrow” a firebrand from the one to aid the other.  Not any smoldering stick will suffice.  The borrowed torch must be a solid branch that is white hot otherwise it will go out before I walk the ten feet around in the rain.  But if I can encourage the fledgling side with a robust portion of the established side, then both sides can benefit.  The risk of weakening the strong without truly strengthening the weak is always a possibility, but sometimes a gamble is required.

The placement and redistribution of hot coals is a skill and an art form; a risk and a reward.  It is almost like the ministry of a bishop, I suppose.  The assessment of the health of several churches and the wise placement of “fuel, oxygen, and heat” in strategic places is all but gone in the wider Christian subculture today.  That is too bad, but certainly understandable.  Churches have been burned by other churches so often and so badly that it is arguably easier for one to exist independent of the other.  Trusting a leader to move people and resources around for the health of the larger body of Christ is virtually non-existent within or across denominational lines.  Nevertheless, the Scriptures are clear—we are not independent.  The missionary spirit—being “ready to go willing to stay”—would help the at-large church more than it costs the church or threatens the churches who are so insecure to release their clutches on their territory.  Yet most churches still maintain a “ready to stay willing to go” attitude, if not a “must stay and scorn those who suggest otherwise” spirit.  But that lends itself to a lopsided burn.

So, the fire is catching.  The coals are dropping deeper into the heart of the burn pile and a symphony of fire-music is starting to sing.  The larger branches are now igniting the logs that crisscross this brambly maze.  But the hard work is just beginning.  This 6-foot tall by 10-foot wide pile of branches is only part of the wood that needs to be burned today.  I must now go and gather other branches for the fire.  The physical work is tough to drag these limbs up the mountain slope and throw them on the fire.  But the opportunity for burning will not last forever.  “Today is the day for burning.”

Analogous leaps to Jesus’ words are justified: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).  But there is a caution of being a ministry or a minister that only tries to attract the others to itself or himself.  Jesus’ words are true, but the way He “brings them” to Himself is not by attracting them but by sending His apostles out to them—“As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

My burn pile metaphor breaks down at this point.  I cannot “apostle-ize” my fire to go to the other smaller collection of stick around the property, the community, the world.  I cannot commission the sparks or launch the coals.  But what I can do I am doing—I teach my sons how to start a fire, how to manage it, how to prepare for it, keep it safe, enjoy it while it burns.  I can explain to them why fires are occasional necessities on this mountain, in this cubicle-oriented existence.  I can show them that their father is not looking to get out of work, but who values work and the beauty of a well-maintained square of earth because it has a worship quotient to the Lord of glory.  I can give them real responsibility with the one fire while I start another one 100 yards up the hill.  I can let them use the axe, feed the fire with branches they collect, and stoke the fire with a green branch.  And when the time comes, I can trust them to start the fires without my supervision so that they can—wherever God leads them—maintain the square of earth entrusted to them for a season of time to the glory of God.  And, really, that is the best and only sustainable way the fire spreads—through equipped, inspired, and commissioned fire-shepherds who have a mind, heart, and will to pass to the next generation what was passed to them.  We are not merely keepers of the flame.  We are stewards; both of the flame and the flame-stewards of next generation and even the process.  “Come with me; today is a burn day.”

One last element of my burn day must be highlighted—the unknown element.  Excellent preparation and particular skill don’t exactly guarantee success or safety.  I cannot know with certainty how things will go with fire.  A stiff gust of wind make kick up.  A strong fire may inexplicably fizzle.  A seemingly dead fire may unexpectedly reignite.  I have seen sparks shoot 30 feet in the air and land 50 yards uphill—more than hot enough to light the dry leaves all around the house.  Yesterday, on two occasions, fiery projectiles found their way down my shirt.  Also, when I was breaking a branch into a manageable size, the broken end hit me in the side of my head hard enough to see stars.  The unknowns are always hovering around unseen yet certainly present.

Ministry is the same.  Humanly speaking, there are no guarantees of safety or success.  We have the promises of God in place, thankfully, or none of us would be even talking about ministry.  But when it comes to fire in the hands of people, there are no certainties.  The unknown element—to build or to destroy—transcends us and supports a healthy level of fear that the most mature Christian leaders possess.  There is an acceptable level of skepticism in ministry—for even Jesus did not entrust Himself to everyone, for He knew what was in the heart of man (John 2:24-25).  The minister is a participant with, but not the ultimate controller of the fire.  He will be wise to remember this vigilantly.

So Moses’ burn left no ashes.  My burn left nothing but ashes.  But the same God of epiphany speaks.

01 October 2014

Prayer Points -- October 2014

01 October 2014  “There are beggars and then there are choosers.  Pick one; you can’t be both.”  I have said this modern proverb.  I have used it.  I have believed it.  I have even repeatedly applied it to my kids when they attempted to “play both ends against the middle”— to use another modern proverb—usually involving a disastrously sloppy bedroom.  But as I sit in my own disastrously sloppy bedroom of scattered and half-emptied boxes—with now obsolete papers newly received from immigration permitting us to live and work in Uganda for three more years, winter clothes that we left behind from the equatorial climate but need again as autumn crisps the night air here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Smirnoff® bottle-caps swept out from inside and under the couch thanks to our irresponsible but “could’ve been much, much worse” renter—I have found the limits of this less-than-biblical proverb in this unexpected place.  There are beggars and then there are choosers?  No!  There is a third option—there are receivers.
Confined to ourselves—left to our own resources—we are neither capable to choose God nor forced to beg for the mercy of Christ or the guidance of the Spirit or the love of the Father.  He offers.  He testifies.  He provides.  We trust.  We turn.  We receive.   We say, “What do You have for us, Father?  By faith we lay aside any ‘hoop-jumping’ because You tell us that You intrinsically want to give good gifts to Your children.  By faith we lay aside any emotional manipulations because You tell us that You see, search, know, and lead hearts that are devoted to You “in the everlasting way” (Psa 139:24).  By faith we lay aside trusting in ‘best foot forward’ self-righteousness, ‘résumé elaboration’ tactics, and ‘dog-eat-dog’ competitiveness.  What do You have for us, Father, for the sake of Christ?  Already—from eternity past—which good works have you established for us to walk into because You teach us that this is Your will as a result of (NOT in order to achieve!) the new birth inside Christ’s New Covenant (Eph 2:10)?  The antenna is all the way up, Lord.  The hands that You have emptied are open before You to give or to take away (Job 1:21).  The passions and gifts and experiences that You have sovereignly woven together into us are not ours to wield but Yours to use; to steer our lives as You see fit (Pro 16:9).”
Upon a deeper look, perhaps beggars and choosers are not viable options after all.  Perhaps there is only receiving/non-receiving in the kingdom of Christ.  Perhaps reception is the only posture of faith.  Humanly speaking, I am not pleased but rather nauseated at the thought of my children begging me or others for daily provision.  They do not need to “butter me up” in order to coax me into providing for them.  Buttering up and a reluctance to provide are actually signs of deep brokenness not family unity.  I do not enjoy but rather abhor the prospect of my children choosing when or if or how to respond to the love that I lavish upon them.  They do not need to apply leverage in order to tease benevolence to the surface of our relationship.  Leveraging and a pokey benevolence are actually signs of deep dysfunction not family intimacy.  There is only reception—happy, safe, and profound reception—in the gospel.
Inside the language of family—where the gospel shines extraordinarily brightly—there is only reception; only by faith.  Anything other than a posture of reception bleeds into the heartless language of business transaction, of co-dependency, of tyranny, or worse … of slavery.  I have, as a wicked human example of fatherhood, wanted nothing less than to give my children good gifts.  So—as Christ extends His genius teaching in Matthew 7:11—“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him.” If that is true about the character of our heavenly Father—and it is—then there is only receiving from Him with the belief that His gifts are good and entirely sufficient … without begging and without choosing.
With the obvious differences conceded, this unexpected place—with the contents of a life strewn all around the room—reminds me of another unexpected place where a conflicted man, who was undeservedly yet nevertheless undeniably called to lead despite of—and arguably because ofbeing shelved for years, took off his shoes because the place where he walked was holy ground.

Kevin & Shellie Rees
113 Guffey Mountain Road, Fairview, NC 28730

12 September 2014

The End of the Road

I have delayed posting this "end of the road" announcement for a week because I thought a better way to communicate its finality might take shape.  But it hasn't.  So, since many of our readers and encouragers (and perhaps detractors) solely read about us via this blog ... and because our many months of asking for prayer about life and ministry in Uganda were done in the public arena, I feel like I should at least post this official communique "as is" in full view.  I continue to hold good-faith disclosure of information as a high value personally, a gift of dignity to our friends, and also an act of worship to our God whom we emulate.  In this week since writing this urgent prayer alert, we have flown back to America and—just two hours ago—crossed back over the threshold of our house.


URGENT: the Rees Family status with New Hope Uganda has rapidly and monumentally changed.  We are unexpectedly and immediately leaving the Ugandan mission field and attempting to create a sabbatical situation in the States until at least the end of December 2014.  Your continued support for us through this sabbatical would be very welcome, as we have no other income, but we intend that all gifts sent to our missionary support account with New Hope Uganda should be finalized by 31 December.  This Friday, 12 September, we fly back to the North Carolina, seeking the Lord’s wisdom and power and provision into a next step for life and ministry.  Now, let me try to explain … if you care to continue to read … but honestly, I am having a difficult time trying to explain it to my own self.  This has been—undoubtedly—the weirdest six days of my professional life.

The acceptable wording is: “After nearly a year of consideration it has been discovered that our gifts and skill-sets are redundant inside New Hope Uganda organizationally.  Therefore, it has been amicably decided by all involved that we should use these traits in other ministries with neither ill will inflicted nor injury suffered to the unified testimony of the evangelical church in Uganda.”

07 SEPTEMBER — "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4).  There is only a shade a difference, on the surface, between mourning and self-pity.  But there is nothing similar between mourning and self-pity at the level of the heart.  Mourning is grieving a death; a strange but common experience we must walk through many times in this land east of Eden which we have inherited.  But God is in this shadowy place with stories of home and—because of His presence—the place of mourning becomes blessed since "God [is] the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords" (1Timothy 6:15).  

Self-pity, on the other hand, is a tactic and a campaign that we mount with the acrimonious belief that we must soothe ourselves (since no one else cares), convince ourselves that we alone are right (above even God), insulate ourselves from further pain (often through manipulation or hatred) and rectify our uncomfortable situations (which is not redemption, but the ageless heresy of self-atonement).

The temptation to plunge into self-pity is palpable; and I confess to have lapsed into it during brief moments this week.  But faith is whispering in our ear, "This is the way, walk in it."  So, this is where and how we walk ... by faith into mourning and unto hope, that God Himself—not the people involved, per se—has allowed this hard, weird, stunning, sad, annoying, stressful, disappointing, stupid, relieving, confusing, infuriating, and traumatic week to enter into our story for His own glorious and unexplained reasons.

Without wanting in any way to undermine New Hope Uganda or the New Hope Uganda leadership—for they have deliberated and acted according to what they genuinely believe is God's will for themselves as leaders and for New Hope Uganda as an organization—we have calmly and carefully (and with godly counsel from the outside) decided that we must leave Uganda immediately.  

On Monday of this week—just six days ago, I can hardly believe it—we learned that New Hope Uganda does not see our family "as a fit for now" with what they are trying to build here in Uganda—not without changing our fundamental personalities or gifting.  This was a complete shock to us, since not a syllable of this perceived "misfit" was breathed to us in any form in any of our fifteen months with New Hope Uganda or ten months in country.  This shock, undoubtedly, we are still going to have to "unpack" for some more months.  Granted, there have been many hours of meetings since Monday's meeting, many hours of prayer, many letters written and even a few intentionally deleted before delivery, but this decision by New Hope Uganda concerning us has proven to be a "game-changer" and we cannot remain here in good conscience—although the leadership has repeatedly asked us to stay as members of the community (but not as ministers).  As gut-wrenchingly hard as it was saying goodbye to the dozens of people—including our directors who, as a testimony to their depth of character, expressed love to us—who trickled into our breezeway yesterday and today, we are completely convinced that this is the right thing for our family right now, even if some might see it differently and verbalize in a different way when we are not around.

We will continue to live on support until 31 December 2014 and transition back into the house we have in Fairview, North Carolina until something firm takes shape.  We have no jobs, and no leads on income, but we still want to do the ministry that God has burned into our hearts—to make disciples of Christ who make disciples again in due time (2 Timothy 2:2).  The partial or complete lack of confidence that some have had in us has not shaken but stirred up even more our confidence in God and His promises.  By grace, we have left all bitterness at the cross.  We depart with absolutely no regrets and with our heads held high—not because of any unconquerable spirit that we feign to possess, but because God is the "Lifter of our heads" (Psalm 3:3).

Please pray for us since such a crisis is never over as quickly as it erupts.  We continue to pray for the sale of our car, which will quickly become grocery money and Thanksgiving turkey and fuel in the car for interviewing for pastoral positions in the near future.  Please pray for our marriage; that it remains as solid in peacetime as it did under fire.  Please pray for our children; that they each can express their griefs received over the last few days and bring them all to the Man of Sorrows.  Please pray for our traveling, our re-entry, and the energy to rehash this trauma over and over again as happens whenever we re-establish conversations with friends and family.  Please pray for wisdom and a way, if God leads, to find a godly counsellor with whom we can all debrief.  Please pray for New Hope Uganda leadership as they face the unending pressures of bringing the fatherhood of God to the fatherless.  Please pray for the children at New Hope Uganda who this morning had to say yet another goodbye to another person in their tumultuous young lives; that it would make them long all the more for the day when goodbyes are forever finished in the eternal fullness of Christ's new Day.  And please pray that the prayer which mobilized us to Uganda would be taken up by new intercessors and disciple-makers and pastors and parents; that Uganda might become the missionary-sending force of tomorrow throughout Africa and beyond.

Kevin and Shellie Rees, together with Seth, Emma, Abby, Nate, and Jocelyn
113 Guffey Mountain Road, Fairview, North Carolina 28730

11 September 2014

What Is Left Unsaid

“What Is Left Unsaid”

What is left unsaid fills the mind, not the brain.
Words unspoken yet speak at the heart.
Ten thousand waves roar but break on the beach,
Whereas friend betrays friend with a kiss.

What’s left unsaid screams and swears, twists and shouts;
Upturned brow, furtive glance, rictus smile.
Accusation shrugs ‘neath his paper-thin shroud,
Whereas silence mounts up like a storm.

What’s left unsaid; always worse.  Always.  Worse.
Some insist that ignorance is bliss.
Words released soon drift away on the breeze,
Whereas unheard echoes e’er resound.

What’s left unsaid is not unsaid to all,
Carefully dosed out to just the few.
When the time comes many gawk at the show.
Whereas silence makes one walk alone.

What’s left unsaid is yet noticed above;
With cupped ear, the Lord hears more than prayer.
Idle or planned, man’s words fill up His book,
Where the last word is His in the end.

KAR—10Sept14—Kampala, Uganda

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!