Monday, February 27, 2017

May God Make Me Like a Tree

Me and this tree we've "grown up" together.

It was planted the same year I arrived in Uganda, in 2010. A small sapling then, it has certainly become a more "adult" tree in the last seven years.

Every morning and multiple times a day I see this tree. It's in line of sight of my island front door. At times this tree has "grown" better than I have. The admonition of "bloom where you are planted" is familiar, but personally I don't take it enough to heart and see how should it be lived out in my day-to-day life.

But this tree grew right where it was planted. It has endured torrential rain and incredible thunderstorms, as well as incessant heat and humidity, and bugs - lots of the latter. It continues to stand tall, with its branches raised to the sky. Others (like those in the background) were planted at the same time, but they haven't grown as much as this one.

What if you were a tree instead of a human being? Would you be okay to remain where someone else decided you should be? Would you be fine when the rain and sun beat down on you, and you couldn't take cover? What about when pesky insects bothered you, how would you respond, when you can't even move your branches to brush them away?

God created some of His creation to be stationary and others to be more mobile. He could have easily given trees legs and let them move about as they wanted, instead He gave them roots to remain and go deep, and grow up and out.

Once "barren," now full of life.

When I arrived back on the island in January, this tree had lost all of its leaves and looked "naked" and somewhat dejected. But in a few short weeks, it has put on new leaves and even blossoms. Different varieties of birds are rejoicing again in the new "garments."

Unlike trees in my U.S. homes, some Ugandan trees put on leaves almost as soon as they lose the old. There are no months of hibernation and barrenness; life continues without interruption in an ebb and flow. We may assume a leaf-less tree is dead, but it is not. Life is there, but in the right time and season, it will be displayed for all to see.

Sadly, I can make the same assumption about myself or others. I don't see the leaves, the "evidence" of life or of God working, but He is and in the right time, that life will be seen and the glory will go back to Him.

I personally love trees and believe they are amazing, unique and beautiful. How many times are our memories connected to a tree or a particular one is known as a landmark, letting us know we are in a familiar place?

May I grow and flourish where He plants me, offer shade and protection to those in and beneath my branches, remain as a landmark to point others to the Creator, and believe there is always hope of new life because Jesus is both the Giver and Source of Life.

May God make me more like a tree. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Invisible Thread

My Beautiful Family - Sister Leah, Mom Bonnie, and Dad Fred.

They say “home is where the heart is,” which means “home” can be any number of places.

For the first three decades of my life, “home” meant one place, where I grew up, where my family lived. But, the last seven years have broadened my definition of “home,” to more closely match my opening sentence. Where your heart is, is where home can and will be.

Last Saturday, Jan. 21, I returned to one of my “homes.” Landing at Uganda’s Entebbe airport in the wee hours of the morning, the sweet smell of charcoal fires and the warm moist air greeted me. A short two-hour drive (compared to the four to six hours it can sometimes take), brought me home to Jinja to the Peterson family. They welcomed me back with open arms.

The phone calls, message, and hugs from friends here have let me know I was missed – and I missed them as well.

This week I spent three days with my Shepherd’s Heart ministry family during our annual retreat. I relished the time for hearing testimonies, for reconnection, more hugs, and missed conversations.

The dear SHIM Family (minus a few dearly-missed members).

I savored my three months in the U.S., in my other “home,” and thank God so much for the connection times with family, friends, churches, and supporters. And, to be honest, having easy access to sour cream, American cheese, and Taco Bell wasn’t bad either. ;)

I left the U.S. feeling refreshed, renewed, and reminded that I belong to several homes – where I came from, where I am, and a third – where I am going. I was incredibly blessed as folks throughout my time in the U.S. welcomed stories and reports about the ministry in Uganda, and offered encouragement and support for myself and my teammates in Uganda.

Sharing at The Bridge Church in Longview, Washington - one of my greatly-loved home churches.

While America and Uganda often seem worlds apart, I sensed an invisible, but real thread tying the two worlds and homes together – a love for God’s work and His people. I was amazed as I listened to people, with tears in their eyes, expressing their desire to be part of what God is doing in the islands. I marveled at how people who had never nor may ever visit my second home would feel compelled to listen, pray, and give toward the work.

It is a miracle in how God unites His work and His people around the world. As children of God, we have the blessed privilege to witness and join this global vision and plan that began before time and will likely continue after many of us are gone.

And, knowing God holds and weaves the “invisible thread” brings me much joy, an abiding peace, and an eager anticipation for what is ahead.

Professional family photograph taken by the talented Jennifer Selberg,

As far as I know, only one of my messages was taped, but if you are interested in listening, you can go here and look for "Don't Give Up" shared at The Bridge Church on Oct. 30, 2016.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

More Travels East (and South)

Evening brushstrokes of our Creator God. (Seen in Grantville, PA.)

Blogging in recent months has become more difficult for me, as evidenced by the fewer posts written since June. At Many times, I have difficulty putting into words my experiences, thoughts, and emotions; like I can't rightly find the right narrative to adequately express what is happening around me and in me.

But, I am going to keep trying...and thanks for sticking with me as I stumble along. :)

About two weeks ago I returned from visiting my sister, Leah, who lives in south-central Pennsylvania. The visit included a 1900+mile road trip to Mississippi and back to visit the home office of my missions agency. The people I met and with whom I interacted were the highlights of the trip, aside, of course, from spending lots of quality time with my sis'. ;)

My beautiful sister Leah and I.

You know, for those in the family of God, the Body of Christ is so broad and rich!

Leah lives and works at Summit International School of Ministry, a small Bible college. I delighted in spending time with passionate young men and women who are dedicating two years to solely seeking the face of God. Two "formal" opportunities afforded me the chance to share about the work in Uganda and I loved the students' interest and probing questions. In chapel services and informal conversations, I witnessed a generation that is ready to take the world by storm for Jesus.

The group gathered for an evening session of "Missions Prayer"
at Summit International School of Ministry.

While these young people are essentially launching into lives and ministries for propelling the Gospel message worldwide, I also met up with fellow missionaries, including veterans of more than 30 and 50 years,who inspire me by their continued focus and energy toward God's calling. In their own words, one never really "retires" from service in God's kingdom.

In the home office of Global Outreach International in Tupelo, MS, I connected with dear people who tirelessly work to support, in a myriad of ways, more than 200 Global missionaries working in nearly 40 countries.

You have heard the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child," well, might I say, it takes a vast and diverse team to support a single missionary - from handling financial support, overseeing newsletters, paying insurance and other bills, to rallying prayer support, and more.

Rory Tyer and Steadman Harrison, of Global's
leadership team. share at the missions conference.

The "Made for Mission Conference," put on by Global Outreach and Hope Church in Tupelo on the first Saturday in November, emphasized that each Christian is made for mission, not just those who for a time wear the label of "missionary."

Carolyn Jacobsen, missionary to Uganda,
challenged us to be aware of what
God is doing around us and in us.

Informative and diverse workshops broadened our thinking and ideas of what it looks to be intentionally missional every day - with our neighbors, others we meet in the course of life, and some we need to actively seek out, like immigrants and refugees.

As Leah and I traversed the many miles between Pennsylvania and Mississippi and back (driving through Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Ohio), we stayed over with two women whom I first met in Uganda. Both served, for different lengths of time in Africa, and now continue to faithfully shine their lights in the communities in which they find themselves. They blessed us with gracious hospitality and comfy beds - welcome relief after many hours of driving.

So fun to see friend Mindy in Ohio!

I am discovering faithfulness is not determined by where God has called you - New York versus Jinja, Uganda, or the rural versus the urban, but in what He has called you to - a continual abiding in the Savior and seeking channels through which to pour out His love and grace.

Some may question the strength and potency of today's American church, but the real test lies with the individual Christian. And, in recent weeks, I have been challenged and encouraged by brothers and sisters across the U.S. who are faithfully representing Christ and sharing His transformational message of redemption.

Christ is the Head of a unified body, but each part plays an important role that another cannot perform in the same way. Be faithful to the places and people to which He calls you and the Body of Christ will be enhanced and strengthened as you do so.

Summit on a beautiful fall day.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Going East

Eastern Oregon, near Pendleton.

For someone who lives in East Africa and has made multiple trips to various points along the East Coast of the United States, I hadn't actually traveled very far east in my own home state of Oregon. Until this weekend.

My parents and I just finished a four-day road trip of 1000+ miles over to Oxbow, Oregon, a small unincorporated town right on the Snake River and the border with Idaho.

How God connected me to Oxbow is a cool story. Jodie, who also grew up in Clatskanie, and with whom I was acquainted in my growing up years, reconnected with me on Facebook a couple of years ago. She became interested in the ministry in Uganda and presented information to her church, Oxbow Christian Fellowship. This year, this tiny church began supporting me on a monthly basis.

I was mystified, but also incredibly blessed to be taken up by this congregation, none of whom knew me, except Jodie, whom I had not seen in quite awhile. Immense gratitude and admittedly curiosity motivated me to visit Oxbow to meet this amazing group of generous Christians.

The Wallowa Mountains stand guard over an eastern Oregon valley.

Driving the nearly 450 miles from Clatskanie to Oxbow allowed us to take in the incredible fall foliage of eye-popping reds and yellows, and the varied scenery of Oregon - from evergreen tree-encrusted hills to tall sheer rock walls, to snow-dusted mountains and rolling farms, to riverside towns, and communities nestled in barren hills. We were awed at God's creation, showcased in our beautiful state. This trip confirmed again to me how beautiful Oregon really is and how it is displayed in the state's amazing contrasts. (I admit, I am biased, but non-Oregonians also say it is a beautiful state.)

Can you see the towering canyon wall reflected in the river below?

Jodie and her family graciously allowed us to stay in their comfortable vacation home, near the small, but rushing Pine Creek and situated in a canyon, with towering hills behind and in front of us. Oxbow, just a mile away, is primarily populated by employees of Idaho Power and their families. Idaho Power owns a several dams on the Snake, including the two closest to Oxbow - Hell's Canyon and Oxbow dams.

The Howard family loves to explore and a 45-minute Saturday jaunt took us to nearby Hell's Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America at nearly 2.5 miles deep. Again, we were awed at the rugged beauty, and the canyon's immensity spoke to me of God's unmatched power. Only He could carve rock walls miles high into a beautiful river gorge.

Hell's Canyon - more beautiful than its name suggests.

Dad and Mom in front of the canyon. 

Hell's Canyon Dam

Later, we went off the beaten path to the ghost town of Cornucopia, an old mining town, which was a happening place in the late 1800s. At one time, Cornucopia had one of the six largest mines in the U.S., and it is believed there are still rich deposits of gold and silver and other minerals in the hills and mountains, waiting to be discovered. Anyone want to go mining? :)

An old building in Cornucopia.

The Cornucopia Jail.

Because of the warm welcome of the Oxbow people and the folks at the church, we immediately felt at home and the sharing on Sunday was made easier as I felt like I was speaking to a group I already knew, and thus was put at ease.

Me with Pastor Bill, wife Shelly, and little Nathaniel.

Oxbow Christian Fellowship

Looking over to Idaho. (Still amazing at the bigness of those rock walls.)

How God connects His people - those in a small, hidden town in Oregon to others on nearly forgotten islands in Lake Victoria - only He really knows and I still can't wrap my head around it. But, just as His incredible creation marveled us this weekend, His weaving of lives and stories to accomplish His greater purposes, puts me in awed reverence at His wonderful love and grace.

We serve a God who takes our breath away.

The stunning fall foliage.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Soul Appetite

I started a new habit awhile back. It's amazing how a simple choice can have widespread and welcome benefits.

One of the first things I do in the morning is drink approximately a glass full of water. I am not a morning person, so I usually wake up groggy. I used to think my body was shouting for coffee, but no, it needs, craves water. If you sleep 6-8 hours a night, likely you likely haven't had anything to drink in that time. And, even if you did, your body needs more.

Drinking water first thing helps clear my head and wake me up. And, it makes me want more water throughout the day. I am now daily drinking more water than I ever have and I feel better. It's easy to become dehydrated, and in this climate, it happens quickly.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to realize my body needs water, not coffee, first thing in the morning. I have also cut back on drinking sodas - what I thought my body "needed" is not true.

I often don't know what I really need as an individual on so many levels - physically, spiritually, relationally, emotionally.

Earlier this year I read "Soul Keeping," by John Ortberg. In it, I learned that the soul, the most important part of you, is often the most ignored and neglected part. But, when our souls are healthy, the whole of us can be healthy, too. And, this can only happen when my soul is in sync with God.

"The soul is the aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates, and enlivens everything going on in various dimensions of the self. The soul is the life center of human beings." (Dallas Willard, quoted in "Soul Keeping")

The soul has a big job - correlating and integrating our will, mind, and body. Each of these also seem to have their own will and desires that drive them. The will can vacillate between my human will and God's will for me. The mind has thoughts and feelings constantly flowing through it. The body is "filled with all kinds of appetites and all kinds of habits."1

For example, I may "will" to rise early to spend time in God's Word, but when the 6 a.m. alarm goes off, I don't not "feel" like crawling out of bed, instead focusing on tired thoughts and not yet wanting to face the day. My body doesn't help, especially if I haven't trained it in a habit of rising early and it greatly desires sleep. The soul, then, has a big challenge to make sure my will, mind, and body are on the right track and working in sync.

Too often though the needs and desires of my mind, will, and body are deafening compared to the quiet whispers of my soul for rest, for peace, for solitude. And because I am so used to giving in to my will, mind, and body and their whining and their tantrums, I give in.

My mind wants to watch a television show, but my soul does not need it.

My body craves sweets, caffeine and carbs, but those aren't good for my overall health.

My will demands for its own way, but rebels against God's life-giving commands.

And, when these three dominate, my soul is left shrinking and dying, ignored and neglected in a corner.

What happens when my soul is given what it needs - communion and union with God, peace, rest, solitude, freedom, blessing? It gains strength and courage to rightly corral the wily, rebellious parts of me into an integrated, whole person - able to relate well with God, with others, with the whole of creation.

What does your soul need? Or rather what is your soul craving? Have you, like me, given too much time and attention to the cravings and yearnings of our wayward wills, minds, and bodies?

Take time to pause, pray, and listen. Ask God care about the health and condition of your soul. Remember, it's the most important part of you.

1 Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You, by John Ortberg

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Beautiful and Broken

A view from the top of Lingira Island, looking out over Lake Victoria.

My island home is a beautiful place. 

I know my (biased) opinion is shared by others since visitors also make the same observation.

Imagine a tropical island with diverse trees and flowers, profuse birds and interesting wildlife, puffy clouds liberally painted across an expansive canvas, cooling breezes blown off the vast lake, views of incredibly striking sunrises and sunsets - each one taking your breath away. Night skies are studded with precious age-old "gems" - seen more clearly above when away from city lights.

Lapping on the beaches, the lake water is an ever-present source of one of earth's greatest treasures - life-giving water.

There are no cars and motorcycles (except maybe one) and thus no artificial pollution and annoying traffic jams, unless you count the cows and goats loitering on the walking paths.

A rainbow and island huts.

The island villages seem quaint with their narrow meandering paths twisting between the crowded grass-thatched mud houses. Bright-eyed children with big smiles play here and there, creatively recycling discarded items for their playthings.

Many agree the island is a beautiful place.

But, like the rest of the world, the island is also marred and broken.

A forest of trees has been slowly reduced for more urgent needs like firewood or making charcoal to cook food to fill hungry stomachs. Poor planning means replanting has not taken place. And, without the plentiful trees, less rainfall means the island is drier than it used to be - and gardens, animals, and people suffer.

Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world and Africa's largest, is far from "fresh" or "clean." Human pollution has contributed to extremely high levels of e coli and other harmful bacteria. Wading and swimming risk exposure to sickness or disease-causing parasitic worms.

While the removal of the forests made way for more gardens, an on-going struggle exists between the farmers and the apparently richer and more powerful animal owners. Hungry cows and goats can easily decimate an acre of crops, which took a family days and weeks to cultivate. Local leaders' laxity and corruption stifle justice and fairness.

Health care is limited or non-existent on many of Buvuma's 52 islands. Simple, preventable sicknesses and injuries may go untreated, becoming gravely serious. At times the wide-eyed children display signs of malnutrition and worms, with their unnatural orangish-brown hair and swollen stomachs.

Adult supervision is limited as siblings only a few years older are left in charge of younger brothers and sisters, ensuring they are fed, taken to school, etc. Consequently, child predators or those seeking sexual satisfaction take advantage of loose moral codes, offering paltry payments in exchange for stealing virginity, introducing life-altering diseases, or causing unwanted pregnancies. Girls and young women are often seen as commodities in the villages.

As reflective of the greater culture, men dominant in the islands - taking the women they want as "wives," until another catches their eye. Domestic abuse and violence are more common than not.

Children of the islands.

Most children grow up in mixed and fractured families, with siblings of different mothers or fathers. Larger families are often parceled out, with kids put in the care of an aunt or grandparent, whoever is deemed more able to feed and care for their basic needs.

Selfishness, ignorance, poverty, disease, abuse, exploitation, injustice ...these comprise the underlying reality of the islands...

...of the world...

...of my heart...

...apart from the Gospel.

Every day I desperately need the Gospel of Jesus, to embrace the fact God loved me, though unworthy and deader than dead in my sins, and not seeking Him in my sin-blinding stupor.

God saw us as beautiful, but very broken. His incredible love took action, sending His precious and holy Son Jesus into such a broken, sin-wracked world to a life of humility and humiliation. God sent Jesus to buy us back - to redeem us from slavery, from darkness, from sin, from death, from separation from our Heavenly Father.

The powerful, redemptive Gospel of Jesus is for my heart, for your heart, for your neighborhood, for my neighborhood. Yes, the world is very broken, deeply scarred by sin, but it is not beyond God's amazing redemption.

In the split second after the Fall, God enacted His redemption plan, relentlessly and passionately pursuing His image bearers - for thousands of years, even in this very moment and the next one. He has not given up, nor should we. At times, the situation of the islands (and the world is general) is overwhelming and discouraging, but God asks us to continue living and declaring the Good News, until He says "time's up."

And, until the time is up, we must embrace the God News, believe it, apply it, share it, declare it, shout it. We must live it and proclaim it every day, to every person, in every possible way.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Seeking a Homeland, Part 3

If this world is not our home, when and where is a Christian at “home”?

At what point do we attain the state of being settled and satisfied, feeling “at home”?

Is it only when we reach Heaven, our eternal destination? I sincerely don’t believe so.

In Part 1 of this series I urged us all to choose not to settle here, not to view this world as our permanent dwelling. In Part 2, we looked at God’s pursuit of being with man, and when man could no longer be with God, how God chose to be with man.

But being confined to a cloud or a Tabernacle and coming and going in and out of our world was not God’s ultimate aim.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-2, 14

At a predetermined time in history, Jesus, the Eternal Word, stepped into our world, donning human flesh, to dwell among us. The word “dwelt” here is akin to a baby inside its mother’s womb – it is inside the mother, not near, but fully within the womb. Jesus chose to be inside our world, among us, with us, as us.

Among the prophecies God gave Isaiah concerning Jesus and His coming was a very significant name – “Immanuel,” meaning “God is with us.”

If there was a message God kept repeating to mankind since the dawn of creation it was this – “I want to be with you. I want you to be with Me.” 

And He went to the greatest lengths to make this happen.

Jesus entered the world as we all do – as a baby.  He could have chosen any type of entrance; after all He is God and Creator. But, Jesus entered the world as each of us has – through the pain of childbirth, born as small, helpless, needy individuals, born under the law, born as weak flesh (Gal. 4:4).

“This intimates not only that he was really and truly man, but that he subjected himself to the miseries and calamities of the human nature. He was made flesh, the meanest part of man. Flesh bespeaks man weak, and he was crucified through weakness, 2 Cor. 13:4. Flesh bespeaks man mortal and dying (Ps. 78:39), and Christ was put to death in the flesh 1 Pet. 3:18. Nay, flesh bespeaks man tainted with sin (Gen. 6:3), and Christ, though he was perfectly holy and harmless, yet appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3), and was made sin for us, 2 Cor. 5:21.” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary)

Like each human has or will experience, he also died – not suddenly or unwillingly as us, but by laying down His own life. In His death, He broke and defeated what and who have kept us separated from God’s presence since the fall – sin and Satan.

He forever defeated these that prevent each of us from reaching “Home.” For all who receive Him, He made it possible to enter by “the new and living way” into God’s presence – freed and forgiven (Heb. 10:19-22).

“In the beginning God created the perfect home for your soul: a garden of perfection where He could be with you. That is all God has ever wanted. Because of our choices, we separated ourselves from God, but He relentlessly pursued us, offering us a way to return to Him and be with Him.

“Because we no longer live in that perfect garden, we sometimes forget that He is there, and we continue to live without Him.”1

Like Adam and Eve, we run away from “Home.” We try to hide. We attempt to cover our sin and our shame. Like the prodigal, we think we can find satisfaction and approval and wholeness elsewhere – in other people, other things, other pursuits.

But, God our Father, is persistent in His loving pursuit. He seeks, He finds, He welcomes us back – always with waiting, loving arms.

“That’s just how God works with us – He relentlessly pursues us because all He has ever wanted is to be with us. He reaches out to slaves, people in prison, and people like me doing silly, foolish things and says, ‘Welcome back.’”1

“Your soul will never find rest unless it finds its home. We find it in the simple daily discipline of asking ourselves, ‘Is God here in this moment?’ If He is not, He can be…God invites you to let your soul rest in Him.”1

1 Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You, by John Ortberg.