Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Loving the Weeds

This season the rains brought incredible relief from the dry & hot months of Jan-Feb. We waited, expectantly, and we rejoiced as a family to be able to plow and hoe in our garden, mix our fertilizers (compost, chicken and cow manure), plant our seeds, and then deal with our weeds. Weeds!?!

Okay, we have not enjoyed dealing with our weeds. In fact, I loathe weeding; most people do. I hate that part of the curse. I'd rather just enjoy watching everything grow: cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, watermelon, green beans, black beans, carrots, beets, corn, and sweet potatoes. And the more I plant, the more weeding is needed. 

It reminds me of the parable in Matthew 13 where an enemy sewed weeds into a field of wheat. Instead of pulling up the weeds, however, the master declared that they must grow together until the harvest. Wheat and Weeds growing to maturity side by side? And this, Jesus says, is a picture of the kingdom of heaven; sons and daughters of God growing to maturity alongside sons and daughters of the evil one (vs. 37-39).

As I look around the villages here, I am surrounded by pain, suffering, disease, and death. I see great evil oppressing and enslaving people, holding them in bondage, wounding children and destroying men and women. I see witchcraft, drunkenness, abuse, neglect, HIV, fatherlessness, crime, and injustice. Do I ever despair? Do I hide or want to run away from it all? Honestly, at times, "Yes!"

And in all of this bleakness, I know there is more that I do not see.

But then I am reminded that as the darkness grows to maturity, as the weeds seem to be overtaking the crop, God's kingdom is growing to maturity right alone side of it all. In fact, in the mystery of God, He has ordained that it is through the weeds, through the trials and persecutions, through the sufferings and struggles, that His church grows to maturity.

And in all of this promise, I know there is more that I do not see.

The fatherless are made fatherless no more, widows are protected and defended, the broken are made whole, and enslaved hearts are set free. There is grace. There is joy. There is love. There is life. Where God's people dwell, the darkness is dispelled.

In the beauty of mystery, I am not only called to put up with the weeds, but I am called to love them, to reach out to them, to live the grace of God before them, and in Jesus' name to lay down my life for them. 

The Gospel is for the wheat and the weeds, the "good news" for the world. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died for weeds like me, and through His power He transforms weeds into glorious wheat (non-GMO of course).

I better go out to my garden and give my crops and my weeds some attention. I think I love weeds after all. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Giving the Gift of Relationship

For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon
the name of the LORD
and serve him with one accord.
From beyond the rivers of Cush
My worshippers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,
Shall bring my offering.
                                                                     Zephaniah 3:9-10

Christmas time is always a sweet reminder of God’s faithfulness to the nations. The long awaited promises coming true, the bursting forth of the Gospel- the Good News- to the ends of the earth, beginning in the unlikeliest of places. The pagan-astrologers from the nations, drawn to come and see in order to go and proclaim, a microcosm of what has been and what will yet be. The power of Babel reversed- I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, and the sure and certain hope that indeed, Uganda (along with many other African nations) has a certain place alongside the wise men to yield offerings at the feet of Jesus and to speak to us today in our own need- From beyond the rivers of Cush (Ethiopia- Nile?), My worshippers… shall bring my offering.

Many Africans do not have much offer, materially that is. And yet how funny it is that we too often make the giving of material gifts the highpoint of the celebration of the greatest gift humanity and the world has ever known. Yes, Jesus was a material Gift, God Himself wrapped in human flesh. Yet the Gift was that which heals and sets the heart free, which reveals itself to the poor and lowly, redeems broken manhood and womanhood, and restores broken marriage and family. The Gift restores relationships, first with people and God (those who receive this gift and turn from sin and self to Jesus), which allows grace and love to flow in our hearts toward one another, grants the gift of lived repentance before one another, grants real the lasting relationship.

It is the wealth of relationship that distinguishes many Africans from those of us from the West. It is in relationships that Africans quickly note the poverty of most Westerners. And it is here, in the place of the gift of relationship, that Ugandans have much to offer to each other and to us in response to the King born so many years ago. For it is in relationship where we join together to worship God and enjoy one another with one accord.

I remember our first Christmas in Uganda. We had only one child (that seems a long way off from our current five). We were culturally exhausted. I had attempted a Christmas Eve candle-light service that left me disappointed and frustrated. We missed family. And then we had to be in church on Christmas day by 10am for a four-hour Christmas service followed by a community meal (probably not eating until 3!). Everything within me wanted to rebel. It simply went against my individualistic Christmas expectations of family time at home. But we made it through a hurried Christmas morning, enjoyed singing and dancing with God’s people, and feasted together in a community meal. But above all, we enjoyed one thing: relationship. And when all was over we crashed for a Christmas-nap!

After ten years we have made new traditions, and one of them is the joy of celebrating Christmas in the joy of relationship in community. And so this year, once again, we join with our brothers and sisters here, we join with the fatherless who have found their Father along with those who are still searching, we join with friends and true Ugandan family, to delight in the One who came to undo all of the sorrow and brokenness unleashed on the world through our self-exalting worship of the creation and desire for things above God Himself (i.e. sin). We rejoice in the hope that demolishes our pride, brings together nations, and gives us freedom to walk in the gift of relationships.

This year, consider offering to one another, to family, friends, loved ones and unloved ones, a gift in response to this Greatest Gift that we celebrate- give the gift of relationship: share the central meaning of Christmas: Jesus, and then give the gift of time (unplugged and media-free), the gift of forgiveness, the gift of serving, the gift of repentance, the gift of humility, the gift of love-in-action. This is the offering of God’s worshipers, the Gospel on display, hearts exalting in Jesus, drawn back to God and to each other, which surely is what Christmas should be all about, both in America, here in Uganda and around the world.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Secret Idolatry of a Misplaced Identity

“It is no wonder that John Calvin called the human heart an idol factory, after all, its greatest idol is the idol of self.”

The questions fly through my mind; I can’t make sense of them. My emotions are all over the place; I can’t force them into submission. Why does this happen with each world-change, each culture-change, each community-change, each job-change?

I experience this internal agony intensely with each culture-hop, every two and a half years, give or take. No matter how much I try to prepare for it, I cannot avoid the six or eight weeks of internal wrestling, questioning, and soul-searching. In some ways I feel like a man who has lost everything, forced to take on a whole new identity. And that is the core issue, isn’t it? Identity.

All orphans wrestle with the issue of identity.

It is core to the orphan heart.

It is core to the human heart.

Who am I? Underneath it all. When all is stripped away. At my core, who am I?
Or perhaps the question really is, what defines me?

The loss of identity in the life of a child is the foundational place of the wounding of an orphan’s heart. The loss of family, and specifically the loss of fatherhood, leads to a loss of identity, which leads to a loss of belonging and purpose. But what about me?

What defines me? On the surface it seems easy enough for me to answer. I am a husband and father of five plus two. I am a missionary. I am a West Virginian. I am a Christian. I am a teacher. I am a shepherd…I am…I am…but there is more. There is more to who I am than a job, a place, or a role can capture. These are all transient things. There must be more.

When I arrived in the States a year and some months ago, I felt rattled, stripped. My confidence was lost, my very purpose questioned, my worth and value felt lowered. I felt lost and cut-off. Wandering. Stripped naked. With one step onto that airplane: 1. the culture that I had grown to feel secure in- gone in a day. 2. The relationships, friendships and community that defined my daily life- gone in a day. 3. The job and responsibilities my mind carried and delighted in- gone in a day. Without these, who am I?

I was made for more.

Seasons of life thrust this reality upon all of us: Birth, Death, Marriage, Retirement (or the thought of it), Kids Moving Out, Job Change, World Change.

In all of these, at my core I am revealed. In what am I placing my confidence? What am I basing my purpose on? Where are my worth and value grounded? My heart, that so quickly latches on to unstable, changing, or even false reality for pleasure, purpose, fulfillment, definition, identity, is painfully revealed.

I am not…but I am…becomes so crucial to this wrestling soul. Truth that confronts this ever-changing reality.

I am not a missionary. I am not defined by culture or state or country or ministry or stuff or savings or possessions or even extended family…all of these are gifts to point me to the One who defines me, makes me, calls me, entrusts to me (often for a season).

I was made for God.

I am an adopted son of the Most High God. I am loved with an everlasting, unchanging, unfailing love. I am part of a family that transcends nations and languages. I am a part of a Kingdom that is bigger than my understanding and more valuable than my earthly treasures. My worth and value are grounded in God and God alone.

I am His.

In this light my secret and seductive idols are revealed. Beyond the external ones that cling so tightly for control and affection, down deep to the internal ones that lie embedded in “good things” that wrap themselves in insecurity or false security, in titles or praise of men, in familiarity and cultural norms and values. My misplaced identity in culture, community, profession, entertainment, standard of living, comforts and stuff, are brought to nothing in the light of His Kingdom and calling.

When all else is stripped away, who am I? I am simply His. What else can I do with the idols that claw at my soul like thorns in my side, the fruit of my misplaced identity? The Spirit cries out: Cast them down.

He is enough.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Beauty of Growing Into Two Families

                If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Lk. 14:26

                The call of the Gospel comes to each one of us in different ways and in different circumstances, yet it always comes powerfully with the same foundational calling- die to yourself, count the cost, lay down your life and follow. Our Lord’s words have hit us in our complacency over and over again on our journey of faith, revealing our comfortable self-seeking hearts, while gently drawing us back to the place of surrender, even of those things that we hold dearest.
                When we left the States ten years ago with our ten month old, ten bags, and anxious hearts, we felt deeply the rending from family and cultural familiarity. I remember Laura Beth crying as we sat on the airplane as she thought about her Mom missing out on Elisha’s growing up. She shed tears because she couldn’t even say ‘I’m sorry’ for taking away the joy of a grandparent watching their grandkids grow up. The rending we felt was painful, yet the joy of surrender and following Jesus was before us.
                Over the years we have had the privilege of growing into two families, one on each side of the world, as we have experienced the reality of God’s Kingdom, where we are adopted into this beautiful cross-cultural, multi-ethnic bride, and given the gift of Family. When we left Uganda a year ago to return to the States, we felt the rending from family on this side of the world more powerfully than ever before. It was genuinely difficult to return to the States for the year, a testimony to God’s grace in our lives and the depth of relationships that He has gifted us with here.  We both found ourselves saying “I’m so glad we’re not leaving permanently”.
                Now, after a year in the States, incredible time with both of our families, the birth of a new niece, the wedding of a precious sister, weekly taco night with cousins, the healing touch of the life-giving community at our church, we sat on the airplane with that ol’ so familiar feeling of rending. But this time, as we count the cost, we know the beauty of the gain that accompanies it. We are looking forward to what our Father has for us in this season that He has us planted here in Uganda. Will you pray with us as we settle back into life here? Pray that our Father would give us clear leading and direction- that we would be a blessing to the family here, as we labor to live the Gospel and bring God’s Fatherhood to the fatherless and to the families of Uganda.
                After probably the best flying experience we’ve had as a family (which of you were praying for God’s grace and covering as we traveled?), we arrived safely in Uganda and back in Kasana almost two weeks ago. We have settled in well, even as we had the joy of hosting a team from Alpine Church in Utah. It was a great week with them, even as we were upside-down trying to adjust and unpack. It was fun to be back with the children of Samuel Family, and of course a Saturday of fun, games, and a pig roast was just what we needed to feel back at home!
                Finally, for those of you who have been praying for Laura’s little cousin Gabriel, thank you. If you have not seen the updates on Face Book, here’s the situation in a nut shell.  After seeing his life nearly slip away, God has graciously in his mercy been healing him day by day.  He’s completed his first round of chemotherapy and has been responding very positively. Please be praying for God’s grace to him and his family.  He has a long road ahead of him. If you wish to follow their updates or give to them financially, here’s their blog via Caring Bridge: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/gabrielfleming/journal/view/id/53a9d70cab28b96517bd8bdb.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kony2012- a Response from Uganda

Before you read this- follow this link to watch a 5 minute video that New Hope Uganda has put out concerning Kony: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10150633238866705

Are you tired of hearing about Kony? I hope not. We’ve been living with him in our backyard for many years. I am truly thankful for the publicity that the video Kony2012 has generated regarding Kony and Northern Uganda. Many people are asking, What do I do with this? Can we really make a difference in this whole Kony issue and the suffering he has caused? What should our response be? It is my hope and desire that every person who has watched the video and been touched by God for Uganda can understand the BIGGER picture of what's behind Kony, can grow in understanding the shortcomings of the video itself, and also understand how to be a better part of the healing of his atrocities here in Uganda. I’ll try to briefly hit on these three issues.

1. The BIGGER Picture of What's Behind Kony and God’s work in his Wake
Let me begin by saying that I would LOVE to see Kony brought down and taken in to stand trial for his crimes. I would love to see those who have been "ruined" by him gain some sort of vindication in this world and I'd love to SEE justice prevail against Kony on this side of the veil. But I also know that our view of justice is not always God’s view. As Job reminds us, God does not govern the world according to our view of His justice, but according to His Wisdom. God has not forsaken His people nor made his people to suffer in vain. I know that this thing has not caught God off-guard, that He is in control and that Kony is working on a divine time-table and that his end WILL come. The Gospel will go forth and the healing of the nations will come. So how do these work together and what is God calling His people to do in response to the reality of this man’s abuses, injustices, and atrocities?

The video creates a response for many of us of “Wow, we really can do something to bring Kony down! All we need is to get involved and get the US military involved and we can do this. Then there will be NO MORE abduction and children can sleep easily at night. The bad guy will lose.” If only it were that simple. But for the goal of the video it is that simple, and that’s its appeal. Yet the issue is NOT that simple and is truly beyond the scope of this article.

While the West tends to simply view Kony as a terrorist who can be brought to justice through military power, the reality is that BEHIND Kony is deep Satanic bondage and power. Kony is in a line of witchcraft-using children-abusing “warlords” who love POWER- demonic power, material power, and power over people through fear. There is deep and serious spiritual bondage here, beyond the simplicity of a simple “Let’s go get him!” This Satanic ritual did not begin with Kony, but was passed on to him from his predecessor in the “use fear to control people” line of control.
The reality that we all need to face is that to bring Kony down will not change the foundations on which his regime was established and currently uses to maintain its “power,” that is apart from God Himself intervening. Another Kony will arise and terrorize wherever he can get away with it.

There is a group here made up completely of Ugandans called “Intercessors for Uganda”. They understand the various spiritual aspects to Kony and they have been engaging in serious prayer for many years that God would break down these spiritual strongholds and that the Kingdom of God would shine forth, both through his evil and atrocities and in their coming to an end. We often do not think about how God IS WORKING through all that Kony has sought for evil. In the words of Joseph in Genesis 50, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” Granted, we will never understand the full picture until eternity, but in-country it is incredible to see how the Church has risen up and been challenged to love and live the Gospel, to reach out with tangible compassion and mercy on those in need. Amid many stories, one place in particular that was hard-hit by Kony witnessed an incredible Jesus-centered reconciliation movement between various tribes that had both believers and even some non-believers seeking forgiveness for past wars and wrongs committed against one another. There are other stories like this that point to God’s Glory being unveiled even through the atrocities that Kony has committed, yet in the light of the darkness that Kony has spread, it can be easy to miss the light of the Gospel shining forth in its midst.

2. The Shortcomings of the Video Itself
I was a bit surprised to NOT see or hear more about the reality of the peace in Northern Uganda over these past years (the video would give the impression that Kony is still troubling Uganda to people who are being exposed to this for the first time). One article I read put it like this, “Moreover, analysts agree that after concerted campaigns against the LRA, its numbers at this point have diminished, perhaps amounting to 250 to 300 fighters at most. Kony, shadowy and illusive, is a faded warlord on the run, with no allies or foreign friends…” Of course, this is debated, but Uganda is not the Kony hot-spot anymore. He seems to be lurking in DR Congo and Southern Sudan. But at the same time we do NOT want to see him return to Uganda either!

My biggest concern was when the video was speaking about the help being given to the children of Northern Uganda. This is where you move into what’s really happening on the ground. The focus was on one MAIN thing- SCHOOLS. One Ugandan woman in the video spoke and said, “The best you can offer a child is by letting them be independent and that is by providing education (bold mine).” In essence, this captures a pervasive and dangerous philosophy.

While most of us here in Uganda understand the need for GOOD schools and education that has the ability to touch and impact lives, education must be seen in the context of the needs that are much GREATER and DEEPER in the lives of hurting children. Is the BEST thing you can offer a child really INDEPENDENCE through EDUCATION? The answer must be NO. Education cannot replace family, and independence (a characteristic of the orphan heart) leads to self-reliance, isolation and ultimately death. We need to beware of the danger of meeting the external needs of orphans instead of their greater and deeper needs, creating cultural orphans who simply perpetuate the cycle.

We are convinced that the best thing you can offer a wounded child is loving, caring FAMILY. And of course the greatest thing you can offer is ultimate HEALING through the Gospel of Jesus, discovery of the perfect Father-God, and inclusion in the great, beautiful and diverse family of God- this is true and freeing DEPENDENCE, and is also the place where healing is lived out. This is what we need to be looking at for the long-term care and healing of the children of Northern Uganda.

Obviously, working with New Hope Uganda, I am very keen to what “Western baggage” and philosophies can do to children. I’m also aware of the danger of meeting external needs of orphans instead of their greater and deeper needs, creating cultural orphans who simply perpetuate the cycle. New Hope’s ministry in Kobwin is focused on healing children recovered from Kony, and though “small” in the light of the great need, we rejoice that right now there are around 20 children living in “families” who are gaining an education, but on a deeper level are experiencing true and genuine healing- and that is a beautiful thing.

3. How to be a Better Part of the Healing of Kony’s Atrocities Here in Uganda
While I’m all for the tangible ability for young people to get involved in bringing Kony down and helping (which the video makes possible), I also want to guard against an “America can save the day” mentality, which quickly reminds Ugandans of colonialism and the mentality that has been perpetuated here by many well-intentioned westerners that we have all the answers, even to questions you don’t have. We as westerners need to understand that Ugandans are doing MUCH to lead in the care for the children of the North, they have done much to resist and see Kony brought down, and many Ugandan organizations are having great impact without western leading- even our Kobwin ministry is almost completely Ugandan led and run (as one example).
The book When Helping Hurts has some good insights into this discussion, as much Western “help” can actually end up hurting. We need to remember that partnership in the truest sense of the word is a two-way street, one where both parties recognize they have needs the other can meet, both seeking the good of the other. It does not fill the “need to be needed” mentality that I have seen many Westerners carry over here to Uganda, and it does not bolster an “I’m helping you from up here, you who are down there” mentality. To move beyond these natural initial responses takes good teaching and solid cultural exposure.

So what is a proper response for people being touched by God in a genuine and compassionate way to help in Uganda? 1. Pray- consistently and with purpose. Pray in the larger realm for God’s Glory to be manifested in the midst of the darkness. Pray for the works going on in Uganda and for broken children to find genuine healing through God and His people. 2. Research and find out what is happening in-country. What are Ugandans doing? What are solid local organizations and churches doing who understand the broader issues and what are THEY saying that they actually need? 3. Support is good, but partnership is best. Find out how you can truly partner. 4. Check financials of any ministry you are considering working with. If only 30% or 50% of the money given is actually getting “on the ground” or directly to those in need, you should step back and re-evaluate. Any organization has overhead, but HOW MUCH is being used and for what purpose?

Feel free to write with any thoughts or comments.