Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Light Chasing the Darkness

A view of Katonga village on the eastern end of Lingira Island.

 Katonga village had a reputation.

The second largest of the three main villages on the island, Katonga had been known for its stronghold of alcoholism and witchcraft. If you wanted to "party" on the island, go to Katonga. One of the primary witch doctors lived there (until about four years ago when he was eaten by a crocodile).

The oppression and darkness could literally be felt as you entered the village with its random scattering of mud homes, shops and bars. Few of the village's many children attended school.

Churches had started there and later "collapsed" because of sin in the congregation, a lack of a good foundation, and other damaging factors. The remaining Christians were few and despised by their neighbors.

As a ministry of SHIM we often prayed for Katonga for God to bring light and change there.

And He is doing it.

Around two years ago, Philip, an elder in the local church, began teaching discipleship classes for the handful of Katonga believers. Faithfully, he would open his home each week for prayer and Bible study - shining the small light with which he had been entrusted.

Then over days and months other people of the village embraced salvation and those who had been backslid returned to their faith. And the small fellowship began to grow, slowly by slowly.

Members of the Katonga fellowship with other island friends. Elder Philip who started the weekly gathering is pictured fourth from the right. We said goodbye to Philip that day as he moved to the mainland to be with his family.

 Oliver, a mother of many, came to salvation after her home was burned by fire and the local Christians reached out to her as she spent most of her days under a tree with her young family.

On a recent Sunday, Andrew of Katonga stood before the church and told of being away from Christ for about eight years and having recently returned. Viewed as a "pastor" on the island, there is no doubt that his wayward ways had also caused others to stumble. And yet, the "prodigal" had come back. (I put pastor in quotes because of the many island pastors have had no formal training - some cannot read or write - and yet are put in leadership positions in the church.)

In those eight years as a prodigal, Andrew spoke of being "caned" by God as his Heavenly Father attempted to get his attention. "God has been wanting me to serve, but I have always refused," he said on that recent Sunday.

In those years, he lost several thousand dollars and suffered the death of three children, including his only son. It was at the burial of this dear and long-awaited son, that Andrew turned again to the truth of God's Word and realized how far he had fallen.

Now, Andrew says, "I have come back to serve."

He and his wife knelt before the church to be prayed for as a couple and a family. It will take some time for Andrew to recover the ground he lost and to again be fed with the "milk" of the Word, so he can someday teach and lead others, including his own family.

One of the women of Katonga being baptized in 2011. She and her husband were among the local leaders, before leaving the island later in 2011.

 It's a good thing that God is patient. With all of us.

Even as Katonga appeared to be so "dark" for so long, God's light was there. He never gave up on Katonga. By His grace and faithfulness that light has grown and is expanding.

Now Katonga is an example to the other island communities and its believers are challenging others by their growing faith and godly examples. Presently, the majority of the village's children attend school and families go to church together.

Since the Fall God has been working to restore mankind to Himself. Some areas and some people seem harder to "reach," yet God does - not - give - up. He loves His children so much that He will continue to pursue them, even the prodigal with the hardest of hearts.

I praise God for His love and faithfulness toward Katonga and its people. And I look forward to the work He will continue and accomplish there.

"And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns." - Philippians 1:6

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Heart of the Violation

After yesterday's joy-filled post, today I was reminded of one of the annoying realities of the mission field.

Honestly, I feel violated. And it is because of something I let get out of hand.

I only knew of his presence because of the irritating sounds he made, not because I actually saw him. Sneaky fellow. I would wake up at night to hear his gnawing - directly under my bed. Attempting to shut him up so I could go back to sleep, I would shine the flashlight his direction or shake the bed to make him very aware of my presence. But, he was persistent and would generally just keep gnawing, gnawing.

Finally, I traced his hiding spot - a pink suitcase, in which I was storing mostly books and a few other odds and ends. The suitcase had been abandoned by a visitor several years ago, so I had been using it for storage. A broken zipper was the cause of it being left behind and it seems that fault had led to bigger problems.

Yesterday as I went looking for a textbook in said suitcase, I confirmed the hiding place of my unwelcome visitor, and not only that but what he had been doing there.

Making confetti. Or rather, making a nest. So, he was actually a "she." And she was a...rat.

The broken zipper was not a big enough entrance for mama, so she gnawed a bigger hole through the plastic and fabric of the suitcase's shell. She then took liberty to chew the edges of a number of my books and notebooks, as well asbookmarks, plastic bags, fabric and other assorted items being stored inside. Presumably all of the gnawing and shredding was to make a nice little nest for her little rodent brood.

All of the books are still readable, except for one novel that I wasn't particularly interested in. I guess she showed me her preference in reading material - devotionals and such. ; )

Those things not visibly chewed were soiled - yuck. This afternoon my stomach was turning as I carefully emptied the suitcase of its marred contents, wiping off each item and salvaging what was worth saving. Even after washing my hands multiple times, I feel dirty.

I am annoyed - at the rat. But I guess I really shouldn't be. She was doing her part in the cycle of life and though she had alerted me multiple times to her presence by her aggravating and persistent gnawing, I had ignored her and now was left with the pieces (literally) of her nocturnal maternal work. (Thankfully, there were no little rodents still hanging around as I cleaned out their "nest" today.)

Pests, including rats, lizards, bats, snakes and insects, are an everyday reality here on the missionfield. It seems we are always cleaning up their "messes." Unfortunately, we have had a growing problem with rats lately, ever since our cat "disappeared" last year. But the problem had not become personal until my stuff was "violated."

This whole "mess" reminds me of the "pests" of my heart. The sins or weaknesses that are obviously there, but I often choose to ignore them. "Pests" like anger, guilt, jealousy, ungratefulness, bitterness.

What seems hard for me to really get is that the longer I ignore these, the bigger the messes they create. And the more damage they do - some of it irreparable.

God has been reminding me of these heart "pests," especially as I have been listening to Andy Stanley's "Enemies of the Heart," an audiobook focusing on four deadly heart enemies - guilt, anger, greed and jealously. Yep, I admit it, they are there - in all of their ugliness. That also makes my stomach turn.

Rather than ending on a sad or discouraging note, let me just say Jesus is the Exterminator of all exterminators when it comes to sin, and He can restore, renew and heal what we thought was impossible.

We just have to let Him in and give Him time and space to do His transforming work in our hearts.

So, when the heart messes become too-long-ignored and overwhelming, turn to Jesus. Nothing is impossible with Him.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Grace"Full" Joys

Me with Sunday School Teacher Immaculate and her students who memorized for Bibles on Namiti Island last weekend.

Originally, I had titled this post "Joys and Challenges," but honestly the recent joys have overshadowed any challenges. :)

Let me give you a run-down of some of my joys of late:

- People - I am extremely grateful for the people God has placed in my life. Being on the missionfield has caused me to meet folks from all over the world and around the U.S., including from my own home state of Oregon, whom I had never met before. There is a special bond that takes place as you work, pray and sweat alongside others who have the same heart and mission.

- Petersons - Among the people dearest to me here is the Peterson family - Pastor Bob, his wife Michelle and their four kids. Though they also hail from Oregon, I had never met them before they came to Uganda, just a few months after me back in 2010. But now they are like family! I relished the last few days I had with them last week before they head to the U.S. for furlough for a few months.

- Family - E-mail and Facebook are great, but there is just something about seeing the faces and hearing the voices in real-time of your dear family. For the first time ever, I Skyped with my sister last week! Then on Mother's Day eve I had a very nice phone call with my mom (and dad, too, though he mostly listened as mom and I talked. :)

- Changes - For someone who naturally does not relish or embrace change, I find myself often in the midst of it. SHIM frequently hosts visitors and teams for as short as a day or two or as long as several months. I love the friendships that form during these times and so enjoy staying connected with people via the web.

- More Changes - When I think about my arrival in 2010 I realize how many good changes have taken place on the island, at the school, at SHIM and elsewhere, and I know God is the instigator of it all. Sometimes growth and change are a s-l-o-w process, but God is faithful and always continues and completes what He begins. (Look for the next post to be about one of God's island "sheep" returning to the fold.)

- Growth - Yesterday's island church service was awesome! We always have a much smaller congregation when the students are away on break, but to see the growth and maturing of the local Christians as they exercised their gifts for the edification of the body was so, so special! And the worship was infused with joy as we praised our King - the Giver of all good gifts!

Proud owners of new Bibles!

- Hunger - How could hunger be a joy? Because people are hungry for God's Word! Last weekend while in the "upper islands," I had the blessing of listening to 20+ people (including more than 18 children) recite the books of the Bible. They were ecstatic as a new Bible was placed in each of their hands. It was as if you were handing them a priceless treasure, which the Word of God is! About 25 more have also memorized for Bibles (in English, Luganda and Swahili) - the hunger is only increasing, not diminishing!

- Grace - This is my new favorite word. Every day God pours out His blessings upon us because of His grace. It has become my mantra of late. Think about it...Even before the creation of the world, He chose us to be adopted into His family (Eph. 1:4-5). Because of His grace. He raised us from death to life (Eph. 2:1-7). Because of His grace. Not only did He choose us and save us, but He planned good things for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Because of His grace. And we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Jesus (Eph. 1:3). Because of His grace. I could go on and on, but we are His because of His grace. Meditate upon that for awhile. Because of His grace.

So, you may be thinking that with all of these joys, I must be floatin' on air around here. No, not really. I have had my recent bouts of homesickness, loneliness, frustrations, disappointments, hurts and facing my own inadequacies and weaknesses, yet when I reflect on God's grace and His abundant love and good purposes toward me, those challenges become stepping stones not barriers on God's path for me.

I am not unique, He has, is and wants to do the same for you.

What has brought you joy lately?
Have you seen evidences of God's grace in your life?

An Upper Island sunrise. (To see more Upper Island photos, visit my Facebook page.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Island women worshiping during a seminar last year.

At times it seems strange to me to be a missionary where the majority of people are known as "Christians." Wikipedia lists more than 85% of the Ugandan population as Christian. But is that really the case?

The longer I am here the more I understand the breadth of the "Christian" definition. It includes Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, Seventh-Day Adventist, Orthodox Christians and "Other" Christians. Those who trust in Christ by faith through grace are known as "born agains." The latter can and do suffer persecution from the former. (To "persecute" means to "pursue with harassing or oppressive treatment, especially because of religion, race, or beliefs; harass persistently."

Indeed, the beliefs and lives of these "Christian" groups can be very, very different from one another.

I was recently reminded of this by my friend Annet.

There is a photocopy shop here in Jinja that I frequent - Ebenezer Secretarial Bureau and Stationery Shop. It is a hole in the wall on bustling Main Street and one might miss it if it weren't for the large mustard yellow sign out front on the sidewalk. Annet works there and has always impressed me by her kindness, efficiency and multi-tasking abilities. I also recently learned she is a born-again Christian.

Last week as I brought Annet more work she told me her father had passed away the previous week. He had cancer, but seemed physically strong so his death was a shock to her family. I asked how her mom was handling the loss and Annet's story unfolded further.

The youngest of 10 children, she is the only believer in her Catholic family. She gave her life to Christ while attending a Christian primary (elementary) school. "I think I got saved seven times," she said with a smile, noting every time an invitation was given to receive Christ, she would raise her hand. Around the age of 12 she came to a greater understanding of the meaning of salvation and the forgiveness of sin.

With her young faith growing and the completion of primary studies, Annet's world turned upside down for the worse as her parents told her they would no longer pay her school fees, unless she converted back to Catholicism.

Knowing she could not reject salvation and her Heavenly Father, she made a tough choice. She would work and pay her own fees in secondary school. For five years, after attending school from around 8 a.m.-5 p.m. she would go to a Muslim home and do housework, working late into the evening. Exhausted, she would return home and sleep, only to rise early and begin again. Those were difficult years for Annet.

After Senior 5, she was unable to pay the school fees and dropped out, later enrolling in a secretarial course. She now has a young daughter, Hannah, and struggles to care for her and Hannah's needs. Her family continues to exclude her, saying she is not a part of them and calling her names like "stupid." Annet has tried to share her faith with her loved ones, only to be ridiculed and laughed at. She has a love for teaching children and leads the Sunday School at her church. One day she would like to go back to school.

Unfortunately, Anne't story is not at all uncommon here. I have seen a number of children who are raised in a particular faith, but if they desire to become "born-again," they likely face persecution - rejection, ridicule or even abandonment. Such realities make it very difficult for young men and women to make that important decision of choosing Christ.

I think of Agnes who attended Lingira Living Hope, a Christian school, for several years. She heard the gospel on multiple occasions and I and others talked to her a number of times. I believe she was very close to that all-important decision, but I believe the staunch beliefs of her family and fears of how they would react held her back.

From the outside, Uganda appears very friendly to Christianity, but Satan is a deceiver and he has blinded many with fatal "mixtures" of truth and falsehood. From what I understand, when the Catholic and Anglican faiths were brought in decades ago, the people did not abandon their cultural and animistic beliefs, they only added to them. The use of witchcraft in combination with these faiths is not uncommon here, which is likely why there is persecution from such followers toward those who are genuinely born again.

Much of this persecution is not obvious and often occurs behind doors in homes, families, the workplace and in neighborhoods and communities. 

After listening to Annet's story, my respect and admiration for this young woman grew ten-fold. And I was reminded that genuine followers of Jesus Christ are persecuted around the world, sometimes in places we don't even expect.

We need to hold up one another in prayer to remain strong in Christ in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which we are to shine like bright lights in the world. (Phil. 2:15)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Meant to be One

I want to convince you to become a missionary, especially if you are not one already.

Yes, you heard read that correctly. I want you to become one.

Before I moved to Uganda, I thought "missionary" was a life path a Christian could choose, one of a myriad of options, like becoming a pastor, worship leader, a teacher at a Christian school, or any other career path a Christian could be called to.

But it's not true. Not according to the Bible.

Being a missionary has a lot less to do with where you are and a lot more to do with the message you are called to carry and the mission for which you have been commissioned.

Over the last few years, based on experience and from what I have read, God wants all of us to be missionaries.

"Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 - See also Mark 16:15 and Acts 1:8)

Jesus' final words to His disciples before ascending to heaven, were not just for those men and women, but also for all of us who would come after. After all, disciples making disciples making disciples is a replicating process. It began those many years ago and has continued through the centuries, decades and years, which is why you and I are aware of the truth of the Gospel today.

But this disciple-making venture is not for a select few, it is for all of Christ's disciples. Each one who has been redeemed has been redeemed for a purpose - to bring God glory and to help bring others to live in that same Divine purpose.

So, you may ask, how is that done?

"Living missionally is about being available. It's about taking advantage of every opportunity, big and small, to point another toward knowing Jesus. It's about investing in people, even those with whom you wouldn't normally spend time. It's about loving them enough to let the Holy Spirit guide your conversations into matters of eternity, about praying earnestly on their behalf, and patiently letting Him draw them to Himself through your reflection of His character, regardless of how long it may take. Ultimately, living missionally is about pursuing the heart of God as relentlessly as He pursues ours." (From "As You Go - Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students," by Alvin L. Reid)

Being a Christian means entering a life of discipleship - following our Redeemer and obeying and learning from Him, and helping others to do the same. It is not for an elite group, it is for you and I - to do daily, practically, passionately, until God calls us home.

So, are you willing to be a missionary? Right where you are? In doing what He has called you to do?

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