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A sailor’s last rite sendoff

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Most mornings by 5am I boil filtered rusty water and pour it into an REI brand field French press loaded with grounds.  Because most of the good coffee gets exported, Uganda is left with the dregs.  There are a few bags of the premium left behind for a serious fee, but my shillings usually don’t balance that scale.  Either way I have learned that even rejected coffee tastes pretty good at 5am.

7 minutes to steep!  So I stare at the clock on my phone for 7 minutes.  I need my coffee.  Sometimes I find myself counting one thousand 58, one thousand 59….7 minutes!  I press, I pour, I scoop the raw grain, Lugazi planted, picked and processed sugar into my blue ceramic cup.  From there it is out to the thick Rastafarian crafted eucalyptus chair on the back porch.  I call it the “back”, though really it is the front…but it appears that “Architect Chaos” asked “Corner Cutting Contractor” to build the house backwards.  Or is it?  I personally like it this way.

In a few moments the valleys nighttime moans will be silenced by the gruff chant like singing from the speakers mounted atop the plaster domes of the multiple mosques scattered about.  They are telling me to pray to Allah, but I am reminded to pray to Jesus.  Then all too soon my quiet time will be trampled underfoot by Kampala.  The sun will rise chasing the night back down to her dungeon, while coaxing the day out to her toil; diesel puffing taxi vans rumble forward, gangs of motorcycles for hire begin taking their rightful spots throughout this city of disrepair, dilapidated kiosks open their doors onto the trash littered red clay for another day of commerce; selling airtime, or beauty products, or haircuts, or fruits and vegetables or more.

And squeezed in between or standing out on a broken chunk of concrete sidewalk a man, always a man, mixes flour, vegetable oil, water and salt.  Eventually he will adjust his tattered dirty umbrella, the one that shouts “chapatis sold here” even though the misspelled printed words have long faded into oblivion.  Then, Chef Chapati will fan up the charcoal fire under his stained pan, slap some oil on top and fry and stack, fry and stack, fry and stack…  And I tell you that there is little better than a chapati, a greasy piece of fried flat bread, for breakfast; unless of course you have an extra 500 shillings (21 cents).  For that small coin you can have the chef chop up some cabbage and fry it up with an egg and roll it in a piece of that bread.  And there you have it; a “rolex”, which I think is broken English for “Rolled Eggs.”

Back to my chair; dawn is now threatening.  The mosques are still crackling, men sing while feedback mocks.  I am reminded of a funeral.  Out across the valley the view blocking hill is a dark shadow with pulsating pins of bluish, yellowish or whitish lights poking through.  But predictably soon the sun will splash pink rays over the horizon giving birds reason to sing praise and mangy yellow dogs reason to sleep.  The roosters disregard this daily event as they seem to never stop declaring their self imposed crown.

But first the ground fog must thin making way for a daily dose of smog; the pin lights will create a faint glow above the dark hill.  And above, an ever so wispy flag like cloud drapes gently over the hill as though the hill itself were a coffin soberly awaiting a sailor’s last rite sendoff into the lake.  If only I could hear taps being played my war analogy would be complete.  But thankfully that tune ended 2000 years ago when the General declared “It is finished” (John 19:30), then went to and through the grave.

That mighty tool called faith

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We’ve moved to yet another home here in Uganda; number 6 over the past 6+ years.  Like 4 of the other 5, this one appears older than it actually is; plumbing fixtures in constant disrepair, meandering wires hiding dirt stained switches, glass panes, if not broken or missing, soon shall be.  Like the others, even more so, the architect organized the rooms following blue prints stamped by chaos.  Yes!  Somehow we love this home.  God continues to bless us!

The property is enclosed by locally made bricks.  While the inside has no pretention of ever having had plaster, the outside does.  The neighbors see an aging face; peeling paint and chipping plaster slowly revealing crumbling brick.  In this battered security wall I’m reminded that even the canopy of a fig tree forest fails to cover the sin of man.

That said, what catches my attention most lurks beyond these walls.  We look over a valley toward Lake Victoria.  The only thing blocking a rent-doubling view of the lake are more hills like our own, each enveloped by the same dusty cloud of smog haunting all developing cities.  Smog is interesting because it’s easy to see when looking from afar.  In fact the further it is the more obvious it becomes.  And while that same smog never seems to hinder the observer I’ve come to know better.  Though I don’t see properly my own sin stained cloak I’m certain it’s there.  Even without the burning eyes and irritated nose, I know I’m surrounded.

And drowning in the smog are the many sounds.  Gossipy dogs barking, dozens each blurting its own bluesy tune.  Rusty lorry trucks screeching, moaning and spitting.  Explosive backfires and blown retreads remind the soul of the ongoing spiritual battle both beyond and within.  Children shrieking with joy…or is it fear?  Perhaps both.  Out from a local mosque a man recites an Arabic song and beyond yet another.  Elsewhere a congregation claps and sings in response to a preacher’s promise of health and wealth.  Still elsewhere a rapper preaches inner rage.  The smog seems to orchestrate an organic yet sightless symphony of sad songs wallowing in a swirling swamp of emotion.  Romans 8:22 comes to mind:

“we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”

But the songs of the many birds try to negate the ugliness and remind me that beauty is still here, albeit endangered.  Perhaps the birds see it differently as they sore above it all.  I’m reminded of two verses in Matthew 10

30 “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  31 Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows”

From where I sit, what I see, smell and hear, with my own misguided senses I cannot believe this Scripture.  But a mighty weapon has afforded me more.  As I see men fall by the thousands, or more, as I see men take friendly fire from well intentioned “relief” organizations, I’m reminded that while the battle rages on I’m capable of believing what Jesus says.  With that mighty tool called faith, one no larger than a mustard seed, I know who sits at the right hand of the Father.  I know that fallen soldiers kneel before the King listening to those eternal words “well done good and faithful servant”.

We have returned to the field and you, our support base, remind us that it is worth the battle because the war is won.

A day or so in the life of my family and me; part 3

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Yes the journey continues.  All that! along with the Jinja town homeless k’jong children that eat third world trash only to chase it with a sniff of gasoline fumes, the prostitutes that have given up all hope and work the streets in an AIDS infested land, the adult male opium addicts that somehow manage to walk comatose half naked, or sometimes completely naked, from trash pile to trash pile in search of food,   the insane that walk in front of cars some getting hit and others not quite yet, and the babies that play in the muddy sewer water in the Muslim market where I purchase my lunch for 50 cents…if I have a predictable routine this is it.  Yes this is a day or so in the life of not only me but also my family.  But what’s worse is that this is “the day in the life” of countless millions of Ugandans who were not born with a travel visa good for virtually any nation in the world.  They are stuck.

I must be honest, quite often I hold this all in struggling to look up to the Lord for answers.  I want to scream at Him with serious accusations.  Attacked by the devastating pain that inundates my five senses, if ones soul can be bruised mine is.  But then I am reminded that God is God and God is always good.  Several years ago just after being told I only had two years to live I can remember worshipping with eMi USA at their Friday morning chapel.  The very last song we sang was “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman.  The refrain spoke loud and clear to me at that very moment:

You give and take away

You give and take away

My heart will choose to say

Lord, blessed be Your name

Today I choose to say the same; “Lord, blessed be Your name”.  God is God and God is always Good even when I do not fully understand…

…I wrote this about a year ago.  Since then we have been to the USA on furlough and are now back in Uganda but have moved to Kampala for the next assignment.  I recently found out that my hardest working mason grew up and continues to live in Acholi Village.  He is Sudanese.  I asked him why he still lives there.  He told me that when he was young his father abandoned his family and returned to The Sudan.  Now he alone takes care of his mother and siblings.  He also told me that the best place for him to reach out to his community is right there in the middle of it all.  His church?  It’s the one behind the pit latrines.  When he is not working for us he is improving his church.

I had started thinking that none of the young men in Acholi Village ever worked.  It turns out that many do.  I just never see them because they are working.  And they work hard.  And they get paid little.  But my Sudanese friend, Emma, knows that treasures await him in heaven. 

Emma humbles me.

A day or so in the life of my family and me; part 2

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Where are the fathers and grandfathers you ask?  There are a handful of older men scattered about among the women and children.  And they are not as idle as the younger generation.  They are not at all idle.  In fact they are usually walking somewhere quite drunk looking for some more homemade brew; the sludge the local ladies ferment on plastic tarps which they spread out like bed sheets below the equatorial sun just next to the dusty dirt road.  Each day my truck faithfully kicks up dust adding to this murky concoction.

But beer is not enough.  It’s not uncommon for one of these men, looking to escape reality, to drink a bad batch of waragi (local gin) poisoning himself to death.  Oh yes that appears to be his fate and depending on the family and his status, which seems mostly determined by age, he may or may not receive a coffin.  Regardless if the buzzards and flies, or a witch doctor for that matter, don’t find him first he will definitely get dropped a few feet into a hole then covered with the same class of soil found on the walls of his sagging grass thatch roofed mud hut…ashes to ashes, dust to dust.let the little children come to me...

Now the younger men, when not working, and they never seem to, cram 5 men onto one of four short rickety oily timber benches.  The serious bow in the middle of these long seats makes me wonder why they don’t collapse, but somehow still they never do.  For the westerner this defies physics…not here in Uganda.  Perhaps I am seeing God rework one of his own natural laws, symbolic of the relentless compassion he is showing humanity; a world that does not deserve as much.  But God is so full of grace.

So what’s going on that so many men need to share these benches?  Well it’s not church, not school and it’s not work.  They play a board game called “omweso”… all day long, day after day after day.  Then on Sunday there is church, a dilapidated sagging shanty at best.  The ladies, some of whom produce the ever fermenting millet beer, or sex trade, others of whom work at the local brewery, blanket wrap and swing their undernourished dusty reddish black children onto their backs while the ones that can stand faithfully follow behind.  They then take the short trek to the church that squats in the mud stained grass just behind their own shacks.  This church is nestled near the makeshift pit latrines complements of the same dusty architect who piecemealed the church building; this sort of juxtaposition brings many thoughts to mind, none positive.

But the young men? Without flinch they remain mesmerized by their time killing god “omweso”.  Sometimes I wonder if they have even noticed that omweso is stealing them from their children.  Then from the church just beyond the latrines a preacher calls “let the little children come to me”.  The journey continues.

Part three later…

A day or so in the life of my family and me; part 1

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The following is another update I sent out during the month of April 2011 (a year ago) before our last furlough.  Again this is not where I am at today.  I am posting it now so as to better describe a journey.  After 2 more posts I will be posting this year’s updates.

Some ask what it’s like here, but for several reasons I seldom go into too much detail.  One being that it seems that opening up ones heart leaves one too vulnerable to scrutiny.  And when I feel most vulnerable, as right now, this sort of inspection can feel soul crushing.  Interestingly it’s when I need to open up most that I fear doing so.  But how can it really hurt?  After all God examines my heart far more intimately than anyone else.  I shiver at how much I fool myself when the fact of the matter is God sees it all.  Still somehow I see a fig leaf as clothing adequate for hiding my fears from His omnipresence.

Regardless right now I believe that God wants me to put in writing “a day or so in the life of me” and I had better do it quickly before this “courage” runs through the fingers of my clasped hands, gone forever.  And if interested, perhaps you might feel the raw underbelly of life here and then pray for me when I have no words of my own.  It’s hard to express this stuff because it feels as though once spoken, or in this case typed, the ocean of tears capable of pushing a tsunami will start never stopping.  And suddenly people will look the other way embarrassed leaving me far more aware of God himself… I’m starting to talk myself out of this.

Yesterday as nearly every day I left the Jinja office and crossed the Owen Falls Dam heading for my home in Njeru, which is on the “wrong side of tracks” as it were.  I say the “wrong side” for a few reasons.  One because most western missionaries in this region seem to live in Jinja Town separated from one another by what seems to be only two broken winding tarmac roads that grind their way through a maze of razor wire defended compound walls.  Having only one thin bridge and a sizeable river between us and “them” leaves us feeling a bit vulnerable since we live through and next to a village that reeks of IDP camp conditions; Conditions that when joined with man’s inclination to sin, crimes of desperation are birthed.  And this infant wrapped in a tattered ill-scented blanket woven with threads of sewer, disease, hunger and addiction suckles on ignorance; refusing to ever wean.

soon translucent

Interestingly this slum is called “Acholi Village” because most of the villagers are Dinka from Southern Sudan not Acholi from northwestern Uganda, otherwise known as the West Nile.  Either way sometimes when driving through a young man or two will make a throat cutting gesture with their finger and yell “keal da muzungu” (kill the white man).  It’s eerie for sure but the worst is when a 4 or 5 year old boy copies the gesture.  The boy usually faithfully fulfils the learned ritual then runs away since he still has transparent fear in his spirit.  Now transparent, soon translucent and surely one day soon, angrily opaque.  But sure enough they are learning the trade and shall one day become “men” just like their older brothers and possibly deceased fathers.  And if they do not wind up dead or in prison they have the few remaining “men” scattered around to look up to. In the meantime on a well behaved day these little ones stand in their worn-out reddish brown feces stained shorts, or simply naked, and mostly yell “muzungu bye!” or “you gimme sweetie” or they say nothing at all and just throw small rocks at my truck.

Part two later…

…so why are you not feeding my children?

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…so I admitted the truth of the matter, that I cannot listen to Him unless he gives me the faith to do so.  I cannot stand in this dump and truly love God unless he gives me the faith to do so.  I cannot in fact see Jesus in the sewer unless He gives me the faith to do so.  So I asked that God quiet my soul long enough that I might hear from Him.  Then I asked God for the Faith to believe what He tells me.

Suddenly my fears stopped screaming at me.  My spirit became quiet.  Around me there were a dozen or so species of birds each singing its own timeless melody, proclaiming the perfection of Christ.  The waves honored Gods laws as they played the beach like an eternal piano.  The clouds above gathered like a choir so that Gods creation on the highlands would receive refreshment.  The invisible breeze sang a love song to the King as it grabbed seeds from the trees scattering them along the ground, distributing His great wealth.

Beautiful for sure, but it was the pounding and scraping rhythmic tune that caught my attention most; another among the God Songs that I all too often ignore.  Just beyond my sight a man was tiling his garden so that he might feed his people.  I then imagined another man beyond the farmer, seated in a wooden boat painted with a coat of mildew, calling back to the farmer as though in poetic refrain “Pray for good weather.  God willing I shall return safely tonight with my family’s dinner”.

I then realized I have been receiving blessings beyond belief all along.  God breaks my heart so that I may have a small glimpse into His.  God allows trash piles to break my spirit so that I must rely on His.  God allows sin to tempt me so that when I fail I can appreciate all the more his faultless time on earth.  God gives and takes away so that I may not wander from his hand, the mighty hand that sustains me.

Every day I am blessed because I get to see Jesus as he chooses to reveal himself to me between now and when he returns.  He may not have opened my eyes to see those “horses and chariots of fire” but he has given me the faith to believe they are there chomping at their fiery bits.  I do not see that, but God has opened my eyes such that in the homeless child, the prostitute, the drug addict, and the ill-equipped husband and father I can see Jesus revealing himself to me.

The question I have been asking of God “Why are you not feeding your children?” is backwards.  Today God slugged me in the gut with this question; “Steve you say you are my servant…so why are you not feeding my children?”

Matthew 25

   34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

   37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

   40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 

I asked something more of God

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The following is an update I sent out during the month of April 2011 (a year ago) before our last furlough.  This is not where I am at today.  I am posting it now so as to better describe a journey.  Please excuse the fact that it is out of order.

Seas of LifeThe sea of life has been turbulent for me lately.  So this week I’ve taken a few days off for some R&R.  Perhaps since this is not my culture my mind exaggerates how hard it actually is, but I doubt it.  It’s harsh and for a while now I have needed a rest.

During this break on Lake Victoria I’ve tried hard to talk less at and listen more to God.  After all He already knows my long desperate list of needs before it ever reaches my lips.  He has always known them; He’s God.  The problem is not that God wants to know my will so therefore I need to tell it to Him, rather the problem is that I halfheartedly want to know His will and all too often fail to allow him to tell it to me.  Why?  It is a scary proposition when your focus on the Lord is blurred by the world.  And when you think you know more about your needs than does He.

I really have been trying to listen to Him, but my fears and frustrations have me hijacked.  Seeing a bloated dead man get pulled out of the lake, having Melinda tell me she just killed a 3 foot long venomous boom slang snake in our living room under the oversized cushions on which the girls play, always wondering if the cash is coming next month for our basic needs, has me shell shocked.As distributed by disease

All this and more has overwhelmed me.  The bellows have stoked life into that smoldering lie deep within me; the one that God is neither behind nor in front of me.  I have been overwhelmed with a dreaded feeling that perhaps God is not holding my Family and me in His arms.  Scriptures meant for someone with far greater faith than me, such as “my grace is sufficient”, comes to mind.  I remember some personally butchered version of 2 Kings telling me that I am surrounded by “horses and chariots of fire”, but when I look I see piles of burning trash with fellow human beings no longer avoiding the rats as they pick through what remains of my overindulgence.  People that desire a small bite of fish and bread as might be distributed by a disciple instead receive dysentery as distributed by disease

Many of the men on my jobsites have broken bread with rats and vultures, but never a western missionary.  Some of these same men know what it means to lose it “all”.  Yet somehow they still raise their hands and praise God for His provision.  What amazing faith.

On course?In recent months I have been asking God a lot of questions, but never pausing long enough for an answer.  My big question has been “God why are you not feeding your children?”

So during my recent time away I aggressively pursued a difficult pause for my spirit.  Then this morning as I prayed I tried hard to think of nothing and to ask for nothing.  But I couldn’t do it!  On my own accord I’m far too selfish to listen to God without submitting my personal petition entitled “God I Want…”.  Finally I had to be honest with Him and admit I do not know how to just be quiet and listen.  I do not know how to listen to Him when my personal will groans atop this mountain of trash many call “Man is Mostly Good”.  So then, rather ironically, I asked something more of God…

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