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: