Monday, November 13, 2017

Common Bonds: Links between Uganda and USA (3 of 3)

When I travel to other countries, I politely badger residents with questions. I realize no single person is an expert in his or her culture, but they provide a window into their home country's worldview. Inquiry allows me to peer into these windows. (Forgive the creepy metaphor!)

One afternoon I asked Damali about cost of living in Uganda. "What are the most expensive parts of living here?"
Gordon & Tim at Baby's Home with Damali
"Medical expenses," she said. Affordable health care is neither universal nor  easy to access. Medications do no come cheaply. Neglected childhood vaccinations lead to nagging adult problems. The spread of disease, lack of clean water, and distance between good clinics makes medical life difficult.
Tim at village school, where we provided a medical clinic and school supplies.
Damali proceeded to explain the way family members share financial burdens. If an uncle or cousin is sick, you might foot the bill. If a grandmother or niece dies, you might pay for the funeral. And mom and dad--if they're alive--cannot always cover the cost of education, added Aisha. It may be an older sister or auntie who pitches in for your fees.
Uganda team eats lunch with Aisha and Melissa from Sonrise Ministries.
"But God provides," Aisha added dogmatically. She shared a story to prove it. Feeling the weight of compounding expenses and little money, she lamented and prayed. Days later she found a pile of cash among a stack of clothes. Providentially, the stash of shillings and school invoice matched. God provided.
Image result for money in uganda
I also asked Sonrise workers about hobbies, foods, worship services, and their personal testimonies. They, like people from my church, were saved by grace through faith. Their children, like mine, enjoy running about and playing games. Their Millienials, like ours, are glued to their phones, peeping into others' lives through the global glowing window called Facebook. (Also creepy!).

I saved my final question for Pastor Ivan on our drive to the airport. Pastor to pastor, I wondered, "What are the key values people hold in Uganda?"

"I think they are no different than yours," he replied. "People want to be safe, loved, and make a difference. This is true most places."
Barbed wire, gates, and walls surround most homes in Uganda to promote security and ward off thieves.
I agreed. The common bond among humans is greater than the sum of our differences. Media exploits our distinctions, glamorizing extremists and giving preference to odd behaviors of fringe groups. We are trained to focus on skin-deep dissimilarities--pigmentation, gender, religious garb, tattoos, dialect, and geography--overlooking the biblical teaching that every person bears God's image (Gen. 1:26-28).

Lest I am misunderstood: this is no plea for pluralism. International travel and interracial friendships reinforce the need for universal dignity and finding middle ground. But not all faiths lead to God.

Refugees and immigrants, Boomers and Millennials, people of color and those pale as the moon, dysphoric and homophobic share a common link to Eden (Acts 17:26). And God has a common longing for all peoples: He wants us back (v. 27 cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). He even made the way possible and personal in Jesus (v. 30-31; John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Whether in Uganda or the United States, God calls all peoples to turn back to Him in trust. For those living stateside, we may be at a disadvantage.

"It is easier for people in Uganda to have faith," Pastor Ivan said. "It is all we have. In the United States, the need for God is not felt. You can provide for yourselves."

So it seems. But self-preservation and self-sufficiency is a myth. It is a fog covering the glass house we Americans live in. I am glad I had a week in Uganda to see it from the outside and be reminded of my deep and lasting need for God.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Looking Poverty in the Face - Uganda Update (2 of 3)

We ascended a rough clay road to arrive at the slums. Daniel, one of the Sonrise Ministry directors, prepared us for our task. While one of the Mirmbe girls visited with her family and delivered food, we would take a tour of Masese, one of many slums near Jinja.
"The children will come up and hold your hands," Daniel said. "This is okay. Just do not touch your face afterwards. These children are very dirty."

We squeezed out of the compact Toyota, and a swarm of children surrounded us. Dusty children, snotty children, shirtless children, shoeless children, and children carrying smaller children grasped for our hands. They smiled and chattered in their native tongue. We marched together between single-room houses and storefronts, up and down inclines, over puddles and around trash. One child pushed a makeshift toy--a cracked CD tacked to a yardstick--the whole length of our promenade.
Daniel led us to a home belonging to one of young ladies from the Girls' Home (i.e., Mirembe). Inside the windowless, six-by-eight home, the aunt reclined. She was one of six living in the house. An unknown sickness hobbled her.

We ducked into the dim enclosure, and I knelt to pray, reaching for the woman's hands. Upon closer inspection of her face, I could not tell if she was twenty-five or sixty years old. Poverty is a thief, stealing life and vitality. I prayed simply, asking God to bless this aunt and her home.

Children in the slums look tired but happy. Adults in the slums appear hardened. They may have come to the city looking for work, but finding none, they settled for four walls and a metal roof. Many men turn to booze, one of the Sonrise workers told me. The family we visited, had fixed their hope on their niece getting out, getting educated, and returning to rescue them from economic despair. Sadly, their niece may be no older than nine; the aunt may not live another nine years.

We said our "Amen," and "Farewell," and then directed the mass of children back to our parked vehicle. They grabbed at our hands, poked at our bellies, tugged on our skirts, and clung to us until we departed. As soon as we piled in the car, we began scrubbing our hands with wet wipes and rubbing them with sanitizer. The chemical assault to my senses was unable to wipe away the stain of extreme poverty seared in my mind.

"You will always have the poor with you," Jesus said, diffusing the ire of the disciples at the waste of precious ointment Mary poured out on his head (John 12:1-8). But his axiom does not erase the bitter sights of extreme poverty when you view them firsthand. Dirt and grim, over-sized shirts and undressed babies, junkyard toys and inebriated men, trash piles and piss puddles, small dark homes and herniated bellies.

Nor does Jesus' axiom tell us what to do about poverty. So I knelt, looked poverty in the face, and prayed for God's blessing. It's a start. But Jesus' brother James said, "Do more than see and pray. Give." (James 2:14-17). And just because we cannot give to every need, doesn't mean we should not give to any needs.

I, for one, certainly have more than I need. So I kneel and pray: "God, make me generous."

Monday, October 30, 2017

Adoption Is Not the Final Word on Orphan Care

Our social worker informed us we were the fourth or fifth best option for our would-be adopted child. Liz and I had just begun the (would-be five-year) adoption process. We felt God leading to “care for orphans” (James 1:27) by bringing one or two into our home. Lest we get a messiah complex, our case work set us right. We were far down the list of good solutions.

Best case scenario: Mom and Dad raise and love him.
Second best: a loving family member provide him a home.
Third: someone from Ethiopia.
Then: an Ethiopian or African-American couple from the States.
Finally: a humble, middle-class White couple from the Midwest.

The enumerated list (and our low position on it) sobered me. But it also misled. Fortunately, on a recent trip to Uganda, God disabused me of one myth of orphan care. For more than five years I have equated “care for orphans” with adoption. The Christian Alliance for Orphans estimates 153 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents (See their White Paper on ). It is a colossal figure, nearly impossible to erase when financial, legal, and political forces enter the mix. To find an adoptive family for each of these children is a fantasy.

Two weeks ago, God showed me another way to care for orphans. After a week of observing and interacting with Sonrise Ministries in Uganda, I met fatherless and motherless children who were nonetheless surrounded by numerous aunties, uncles, brothers, and sisters. Though they were short on personal space and wardrobe options, they were rich in food, love, and learning opportunities. Sonrise Ministries exploited a gap between scenarios two and five above—demonstrating family for the fatherless need not be nuclear.
In a sense, Sonrise was birthed in an orphanage. Four of its directors grew up together in a children’s home founded by an American veteran and evangelical Christian. Several other Sonrise leaders and staff members aged out of the same home. They were not all blood related, but they were family. And their passion for orphan care grew out of personal experience.
Sonrise started as a Baby Home, but it grew to capacity. They added a Children’s Home, making space to expand and educate children as they developed. The Children's Home, likewise, ran out of room. They added a Girl’s Home for females plucked from the streets, which, too, has no space to increase.
So they started building: schools and homes in disparate villages. They started digging: wells for water and trenches for farming. They’ve kept on praying: for protection and growth, wisdom and provision.
From the outset of our adoption, God used a social worker to disabuse me of a messiah complex. For this I am grateful. But I wish I would have been more attentive to other means of orphan care. Adoption is not the final word on orphan care. The children of Sonrise Ministries have been knit into a big, beautiful, non-nuclear family, short on fathers, but flush with the love of countless aunties and uncles. 

It took a week-long trip to Uganda -- rubbing shoulders with followers of Jesus who are crafting a family and future for the fatherless -- for God to reveal another effective way of caring for orphans. I witnessed God doing beautiful work where others might only lament the ashes. 

First in a three-part reflection on my week in Uganda.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Questions and Answers from the Hot Seat

During the Engaging Hour at our weekly Sunday morning services, we have invited people to sit on the "Hot Seat." It provides an opportunity to field anonymous questions--on past experience, present struggles, future dreams, and personality quirks--from fellow church members. The Hot Seat lets us peer into one another's lives. It is a safe place to share stories, practice introspection, and laugh together. Deeper awareness of self and others is the goal.

These are the rules:

  • No one is coerced to sit on the Hot Seat. 
  • Questions may provoke thought, but not pry.
  • You have 18 minutes. Go!

Yesterday I sat on the Hot Seat, but it barely warmed up before the timer went off. So I decided to answer the remaining questions here on my blog. I'll try to keep it shorter than 18 minutes. Go!

How did I ask Liz to marry me? 
Following a romantic dinner of Subway and viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, I convinced Liz to walk with me in the snow. We bundled up and followed a predetermined path to the Winona Lake Hillside. We arrived to the glow of luminaries lighting the aisle to the stage. A giant snowman that I built earlier in the day awaited us; the diamond ring, set on his carrot nose by Liz's younger sister-in-law shined in the dark. Like a gentleman, I bent my knee, took her hand, and proposed marriage. She agreed, tearfully, and we celebrated by making snow angels on the hill.

What practices help you in your prayer life?
I am an unfocused pray-er. My mind twists and turns in the silence, often ending in a rehearsal of my sermon that God doesn't need to hear. So I require the aid of some routine. I spend a minute or two in silence, meditating on an attribute of God or simply presenting myself to Him (Here I am.). I journal some prayers, always noting specific points of gratitude. I often read a Psalm to guide my thoughts. Occasionally, I will open my prayer notebook, which lists people and areas I talk to God about (e.g., family, church, personal goals). Finally, I often fall alsleep reciting the Lord's Prayer.

Who influenced my salvation?
My dad took us to church for a year during my childhood and every Christmas and Easter thereafter. These services planted a seed. A neighborhood family invited me to VBS in fourth or fifth grade. By middle school, I started to attend youth group and church regularly with the Beall/Gillespie family. It was then I encountered Jesus personally. I continue to work out my salvation with fear and trembling with the help of God's Spirit, family, friends, church, podcasts, and many good books.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
I want to live in the Here-and-Now until I reach the New Heavens and New Earth, and I'm not just being romantic or complacent. I love the lot God has given me. My wife envisions us growing old and dying in our current home. I envision it happening after a steak dinner on a Friday while we sleep holding hands.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In the same house, but not dead. At the same church, and it's still alive, too. I'll be approaching fifty, so I expect to be offering as-needed care to my adult children and aging parents. Sensi speaks is full sentences and can read Garfield books to himself, but remains in our home. Liz and I will love each other even more deeply. Several aspects of my ministry will have shifted. I will have finished a D.Min. program, preached through most of the Bible, developed younger leaders to share more of the responsibilities at Leesburg Grace (whose name will officially be Leesburg Grace by then). I will focus more of my time on writing and equipping others; I will better accept my weaknesses. My facial hair will pass the creepy stage. A Boston Marathon medal will hang on my shelf.

What is your 10 year vision for Leesburg Grace?
In the past month I've heard this phrase a hundred times: The mission does not change, but our methods must. I concur. The desire to see every follower of Jesus in our congregation becoming full in Christ, united in love, and strong is service remains constant. I will continue to refine and focus on the nineteen markers of spiritual maturity. Our culture of loving welcome (showing care to show Christ) will persist. A decade from now I will continue to pastor our church; however, by then, a committed, creative core team of others will lead with me. We will begin to see some of the slow-and-steady maturation spill into life transformation, especially for those who have never walked with Jesus. Moreover, we will have deployed a few full-time kingdom workers and partnered in a church-plant. Additional staff, updates to our music stage, and a freshly-paved parking lot would also be nice.

What do you enjoy most about being a pastor at Leesburg Grace?
I love to preach, teach, and let thoughts of God fill my mind. I love the variety and flexibility pastoral ministry allows me both with my schedule and weekly duties. I love to create new things and the freedom afforded to do so by our beloved congregation. And, of course, I love the motley band of Jesus' followers we call Leesburg Grace.

Why is Michigan better than Ohio State?
It is not. (And whoever said there are no bad questions was wrong. This question proves it.)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Lost Art of Lingering

I have developed the spiritual discipline of lingering as an essential part of pastoral ministry. I linger in the sanctuary, hospital room, coffee shop, front porch, and family room. Some would even say I linger in my sermons: they can get long!

Lingering is the ability to draw out, extend, and prolong a connection or conversation. People I linger with are not always comfortable with it. Truth be told, neither am I.

Sitting for eight hours in a car with someone else, I can endure. I accept my context and do not dream of jumping out of a moving vehicle (most of the time). But when I go beyond an hour at the table with someone, my skill in lingering is tested. My focus wanes, eyes gloss over, and body begins to pulse with nervous energy. I look for lulls, escape pods, and excuses to move to the next thing. How sad, and yet, not unusual.

Just the other week, I struck up a conversation with a neighbor while walking my dog. His daughter (whom I mistook for a son...oops!) sat quietly in the stroller. I greeted him before he set out on a jog. It was clear he did not want to linger.

Two blocks away, I spoke with another neighbor. Back and forth we discussed the weather, local produce, and rapid growth of my children. "Well, I shouldn't keep you," he said. He repeated the line twice before I took the hint and stopped lingering.

If it is not our busy schedules, boredom with conversation, buzzes and beeps from our ubiquitous phones that forestall lingering, it's our general dis-ease with silence. Lulls make us feel awkward. Pauses are pregnant with our insecurities. So we distract or excuse ourselves from lingering.

In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle addresses our reluctance to linger with "The Seven-Minute Rule," learned from a college-aged student. It takes seven minutes for a conversation to morph into something meaningful. Rather than go to the phone when a conversation sputters, "Let it be." Turkle explains, "Conversation, like life, has silence and boring bits. This bears repeating: It is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other. Digital communication can lead us to an edited life. We should not forget that an unedited life is also worth living" (pg. 323).
Cover art
Life, edited or not, rushes by. Lingering forces us to slow enough to enjoy it. Lingering allows us to pace ourselves so we can draw out, extend, and prolong our time with people. God made us for relationship. Lingering makes our relationships richer.

(NOTE: If you skimmed this post, you should go back and linger over it.)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Not Forgotten

"God has no abortive processes or forgotten [people]."

Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner wrote this in his Ecclesiastes commentary, reflecting on the enigma of time and enduring work of God (3:1-15). Allotments of times, stages of life, and seasons come and go. Humans, like dogs, return to dust (3:16-22). The fruit of our labors ends up in the hands of other men. We are, all of us, forgotten.
But God does not forget us. None of us:

From the second story window of Martin's Supermarket, I watched a widow walk to her car. Her husband died two years ago. Her grief has lost its edge. Those who accompanied her through the valley of the shadow of death have moved on to more current crises. They forget her unless they see her. God does not forget her.

I talked with a former missionary after yesterday's service. He spent no more than two terms abroad. He returned home with little to show for his great sacrifice. He toiled in various trades until retirement rolled around. Most people see him as a kind old man, forgetting (if they ever knew in the first place) his contributions to God's kingdom. God does not forget him.

A young man confessed his struggle with pornography recently. Over the years, some close friends challenged him, prayed for him, encouraged him. The young man made progress and relapsed and progressed some more. Years passed since his initial confession. The struggle, although lessened, lingers, but his friends have forgotten his regular need for accountability. God does not forget him.

Recently some peers shared their struggle with infertility. They had moved beyond "just trying" to various forms of intervention. They called on doctors and drugs to increase their odds. They asked friends to call on God. Each month marks a failure to conceive. Each new birth announcement, often shared by friends who have momentarily forgotten their struggle, resurfaces their pain. But God does not forget them.

Add to these personal accounts, the biblical narrative, replete with barren wombs, enslaved people, aging prophets, and unfulfilled promises. Waiting, wandering, and exile describe a vast portion of the biblical plot. Their plight results from their forgetting God.

Bud God does not forget them. "[He] has no abortive processes or forgotten men." None of us.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Show Care and Listen Hard

Listening is hard work. I especially feel this after preaching a sermon. (My congregation probably feels this during the message.) Post-sermon conversations are shrouded in fog. I'm coming off a holy mountain, my bald head shining with perspiration but bereft of thought. I stutter through small talk, nodding and blinking and shifting my weight. I have to pin down my thoughts and focus my eyes; they tend to wander.

This happened again yesterday. Ironically, I began our worship service with a call to Hear others' hearts. It is the second principle of our current theme: Show care to show Christ.

Up until a month ago, I explained this opaque phrase with anecdotal stories. But a recent session at a church leaders' conference compelled me to Brand and Wear my church's mission.* So I did what every good pastor would do: I made CARE into an acronym and a purchased a T-shirt with our meme.
The acronym took three or four iterations, but I finally landed on the following:

Sphere of influence -  pray God uses you where He places you
Hear their hearts - approach others as an active listener
Offer help or hospitality - let your home and hands give credence to your words
Words of hope - let God speak through you when the time is right

I am currently in a CARE campaign, Teaching the theme on Sunday mornings and Wearing the shirt midweek. I've noticed when I wear a shirt advertising my church, I'm not self-conscious, but wearing a shirt saying "Show care to show Christ," has helped me redouble my friendliness (or zip up my hoodie).

So back to my bad listening: Following the sermon I engaged someone in conversation. I asked a question and received a response. I asked another question. Another response followed. By my third inquiry, I realized I was less interested in answers than filling air space. I registered the words the woman said, but her heart was far from me. And when I looked into her eyes, I could tell: they brimmed with tears.

The man who had just taught the "Show Care" brand (and wore the shirt to sell the theme), failed to apply the product. Listening is hard work if the goal is to hear another's heart. I paused, letting the air space stretch out. I confessed to God my callousness. I asked the woman another question, but this time tuned my ear to her heart. It beat.

*Dave Ferguson led the session at the RightNow Media Conference. He shared the BLESS theme of Community Christian Church (CCC), as an example of developing "missional intentionality" in his people. BLESS, like SHOW, is an acronym. Ferguson borrowed his template for creating cultural change at his church from Andy Stanley, whose process includes six-steps: "Name It, Brand It, Wear It, Teach It, Institutionalize It, Recognize It." Dave Ferguson did not wear a shirt that said "BLESS," but the graphics people at his church designed some cool signage.