Ugandan Shillings For Sale

Currency Exchange

Just when you thought you’d read the last update about Uganda… But this has become such a comedy of errors that I couldn’t resist sharing.

Uganda’s currency is the Ugandan Shilling (UGX). When I visited, the conversion rate was approximately 3,500 UGX to 1 USD. I traded in a couple hundred bucks to have plenty of spending and giving money, and returned home with 232,000 UGX (approximately $65). I assumed that would be easy to exchange back into dollars, but…

The first full day we were in the country, we stopped at a local hotel in Kampala and exchanged our money there. I think our team leader had a relationship with the people who owned that particular currency exchange. She is originally from Uganda and has brought teams over several times. In any event, I had no trouble exchanging cash into shillings, and I even got a pretty reasonable rate.

We then traveled all over and were in country for 15 days (read more), but at no point was there an opportunity to convert this money back into dollars. For the duration of the trip, I had assumed that we would go back to the currency exchange before leaving and buy back dollars on our way back to the States. That, or we’d exchange at O’Hare when we arrived. But we did neither. There was no time scheduled into the trip for either activity. But as I sat on the shuttle back to TIU from O’Hare (after returning home), No big deal, though. After all, O’Hare will charge you the highest possible fees on what is likely an already-bad exchange rate, so I figured I’d find a bank (mine or otherwise), and get’er’done. In any event, I wasn’t worried.

Ugandan Shillings

A month or so after getting back, I set aside an hour to visit a local Chase bank (my bank, but a different branch; I was running errands in another suburb). I figured I’d get this simple task knocked off my todo list. I walked in, asked to exchange money, and was asked to wait for a personal banker. So far, so good.

Restricted currency?

Chase BankWhile still in line, the “concierge” — what else do you call the guy standing around in the lobby asking you how you are and directing you to the right place to do whatever it is you came to do? — struck up what I’m sure he thought would be small talk.

Well-educated, professional banker guy: What currency do you want to purchase? (I guess he assumed I was going to somewhere, not returning from somewhere.)

Jeff: I’m recently returned from Uganda, so I need to exchange Ugandan Shillings for dollars.

IMF LogoBanker guy: Ug-a-where’s-that?

Jeff: Uganda. In E. Africa.

Banker guy: Oh yeah! What’s their currency?

Jeff: Ugandan Shillings.

Banker guy: I’ll check to see if we exchange that.

Jeff (getting nervous): Okaaaaay.

Banker guy (returning a few minutes later after conferring with the powers that be): I’m sorry, we don’t exchange that currency. Uganda is on some crazy list of countries which aren’t economically stable enough for any bank in the US to trade their currency.

Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the list. Some acronym. Not IMF Article 14 countries, but sounded like something similar. At any rate, he insisted that Uganda’s currency was restricted, which sounded funny to me, because UGX is probably one of the most stable currencies in the whole of Africa. So if they are restricted, everyone in that whole region would be restricted. And I bought them, so why can’t I sell them?

At any rate, Chase was a bust.

Not on the Bank of America list, anyway

I jumped back in the car, and proceeded with more errands. But the longer I thought about it, the more I thought that was ridiculous. So, the next Chase Bank I saw (still not the one by my house, but…), I pulled in there too. This person at least knew that the problem wasn’t some restrictions list. Rather, he said, Chase uses Bank of America’s service, and BoA does not trade UGX.

Jeff: Why not?

Second Chase banker guy: That’s a great question, but I have no idea. In fact, we even looked up the Bank of America Foreign Currency FAQ, but that was of no help. Amazingly, BoA evidently supports 138 currencies (there are a total of 180 world currencies), but not Ugandan shillings.

Jeff: Any suggestions?

Banker guy: Try 5/3 Bank. They do weird things.

Jeff: Okaaaaaaay.

I know! A competing bank!

Google maps got me to 53 in the next town over. I went in there, and the personal banker I talked to was more like the first Chase guy.

Third banker guy: We don’t do it, and I have no idea why.

Jeff: What service do you use? BoA’s?

Banker guy: Remind me what a bank is again.

Jeff: Sighs explosively on his way out the door

Maybe a Currency Exchange?

Now I’m sitting in my car thinking, “It’s probably not worth it, and I’ve already spent too much time on this. But I can’t give up now!”

So, I start searching the web. First really obvious search: exchange uganda shillings for dollars. I’m brilliant, right? Here are the results:

UGX Search

These look good at first glance, but if you dig in, what you’ll find is that every site listed tells you what the exchange rate would be, but no site listed will actually do the exchange. I guess, in the eyes of the Western world, converting UGX to USD is a purely theoretical exercise. Well, I’m sure if Warren Buffet wanted to, he’d be good. But not me.

Finally, I looked up the nearest Currency Exchange. I had resisted doing so until this point, because I figured these would have the worst possible exchange rate. But if nobody else will even do it…

Jeff: Works through the phone tree at site #1

Grumpy currency exchange lady: What do you want?!

Jeff: Do you exchange Ugandan shillings for dollars?

Grumpy currency exchange lady: We don’t. Call our headquarters branch downtown. They’re the only ones that even remotely might be able to help you.

Jeff: Okaaaaaaay.

No problem. I called the mother ship in Chicago, and worked through an even bigger phone tree…

Jeff: Finally, a human being.

Expertly-grumpy currency exchange lady: What do you want?!

Jeff: Please tell me you exchange Ugandan shillings!

Currency exchange lady: Get out a here, kid. You’ve got no future!

Jeff (sobbing): You don’t have to be so grumpy about it.

Currency exchange lady: You want friendly, talk to my cousin at the DMV.

*click*

Net-net… No luck at the currency exchange.

Help me O’Hare Int’l Airport, you’re my only hope

Okay, what I should have done in the first place… Knock it out at O’Hare and take the hit on the exchange rate.

As it turns out, I had to pick up my wife at the airport as she returned home from an international trip a couple weeks later. Surely, this will get the job done, even if it’s at a terrible exchange rate. So, the day finally came… I’m on my way to pick her up at the international terminal, and she called saying she’s ready to go.

Jeff: Can you walk over to the currency exchange and ask if they exchange shillings? I’ve got them right here, and I’ll run in to exchange them when I pick you up.

My amazing wife: Of course, my dear! (walking over to the nearest currency exchange lady) Do you exchange Ugandan shillings? It would make my husband SO happy if you do.

Grumpy airport currency exchange lady: Ug-a-what’s-that?

Jeff (listening over the phone while driving): double face palm

Guy next to me in traffic: honks angrily

My amazing wife (to me): Let’s never speak of Ugandan shillings again.

Yeah. Totally on board with that.

The moral of the story

Moral? There ain’t no… Wait. I guess there is a moral… DO NOT leave a third world country with their currency still in your pocket. Convert it back there or give it away. But don’t come home with it.

There is, in fact, a happy ending to this story. I thought I was just going to have to eat the $65. But as it turns out, our team lead from my trip to Uganda — who is a native Ugandan and returns home at least once a year — was willing to buy back my shillings. So, the plan is to make the exchange when I get back to school in a few weeks. Woohoo! God bless you, Amanda!

That was easy.


Image credit:
1) Main image ???
2) Ugandan shillings — Buzz Kenya
3) IMF logo — IMF site
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Lord, it belongs not to my care

Walking with Jesus

Lord, it belongs not to my care
Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And this Thy grace must give.

If life be long, I will be glad,
That I may long obey;
If short, yet why should I be sad
To welcome endless day?

Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
He that unto God’s kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.

Come, Lord, when grace hath made me meet
Thy blessed face to see;
For if Thy work on earth be sweet
What will Thy glory be!

Then I shall end my sad complaints
And weary sinful days,
And join with the triumphant saints
That sing my Savior’s praise.

My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.

— Richard Baxter (1615-1691)

I had never heard this hymn before, but I encountered it recently in J. I. Packer‘s amazing book Knowing God, where he quotes the first two stanzas. I was curious, so I hunted down the full lyrics. This hymn is so powerful, and absolutely packed with rock-solid theology. I’m in love!

Think about some of what Baxter is saying here, which (by the way) he dedicated to his wife who had demonstrated godly perseverance through what was reported to be a brutally difficult illness…

His purpose for me

If life be long, I will be glad that I may long obey…

It is my place in this world to know God, to glorify God, to delight in God, and to obey God. If I live a long life on earth, it is not for my benefit, but rather so that I might serve God longer, better, more fully. Life isn’t about me. It’s certainly not about my happiness or my fulfillment or my consumption of the things that I desire. It is about steadfastness in my obedience to God (that is to say, my love for God) over a lifetime.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)

His destiny for me

If short, yet why should I be sad to welcome endless day?

We tend to think of this life as an exercise in “grab all you can while you have the chance.” But in reality, this life is nothing compared to what God has planned for His kids. Moments after we die, we will struggle even to remember what the fuss was all about in this life — promotions, possessions, problems, posturing, and the like. And for the Christ-follower, we shouldn’t have to wait for the next life for the things of earth to grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things… (Philippians 3:8)

His way made for me

We enter the Kingdom of God through Jesus, the only door (John 10:7-11). And on the way, He asks far less of me than He Himself gave for me. But that doesn’t mean that He demand everything. He bids me to come and die — to trade all this world has to offer (not much, really, by comparison) for citizenship in His Kingdom and fellowship in His family (Matthew 16:24-26).

this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

His sufficiency for me

My knowledge of that life is small, the eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all, and I shall be with Him.

We really can’t imagine heaven (1 Corinthians 2:9). We don’t really know what we will someday be, but — spoiler alert! — we know that we will be like Jesus (1 John 3:1-2). And we know the way to that new life only to the extent that we know the One who leads us to it (John 14:4-7). And for those you know and trust Him, who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, that’s enough.

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The Sum of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Catechism

jesus-teaching

I wrote this last fall and had originally intended to publish it then. Better late than never, I guess. It is the result of significant reading and study for one of the core systematic theology classes in the M.Div curriculum at TEDS, specifically focused on anthropology (the study of human being), christology (the study of Christ), and soteriology (the study of salvation). This “paper” is formatted as a “catechism,” which is a book of instruction in the Christian typically organized in question-answer format. We were given the questions, and expected to write succinct answers that would be of use in training Christians in some key aspects of the faith. I had to be succinct (there are always word count limits on these things), so some of the answers are a little more terse than I would like. But the fact is that many books have been written on each question. Either way, I’m not going to rewrite it; rather, I’m publishing it pretty much as I turned it in.

Hope you find it interesting and useful. I’d love questions / discussion!


1. What is the Gospel?

The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23b)
See also: Mark 1:15; John 10:10; Col 1:12-14

The Gospel is the unparalleled good news about what God is doing for us in Christ, specifically that His incarnate life, death and resurrection make it possible for fallen, sinful people to be reconciled to Him in true, abundant and eternal life. The Messiah, Jesus, has established a new Kingdom in which He reigns over a new regenerate and perfected humanity. He invites all people in all places throughout all of history to become citizens of His kingdom by turning from their sin, believing on Christ, being declared righteous before God, being joined to Him in intimate and eternal fellowship, and being renewed in His image.

2. What is the nature of sin?

Sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4b)
See also: Rom 1:20-25; Ex 20:1-20; 1 John 1:8

Both in the act of creation and in His spoken commands, God reveals His character (nature) and expectations (law). Human beings are uniquely empowered to choose to act in harmony or discord with God’s nature and to obey or disobey God’s law. Sin is the conscious choice to live in discord and disobedience. It is rebellion and lawlessness, betrayal of God, and an implicit rejection of the true, abundant and eternal life for which human beings were designed by their Creator; the fundamental denial of reality.

3. What are the consequences of sin?

The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23a)
See also: Isa 53:6a; Eph 2:1-3; Rom 7:14ff

The consequences of sin are manifested broadly in creation and particularly in human beings. Beginning with Adam and Eve and proceeding through every generation, the rebellion and lawlessness of humankind has established our guilt before God (status), corrupted our nature so as to incline our hearts toward evil (habitus), and manifested itself in continuous sinful choices (actus). In each, we live in discord with God’s nature and in disobedience of God’s law, and if left unhealed, our sin separates us from God and poisons the created realm. Therefore, decay and death reign in this world, such that the natural result of unregenerate life is death and eternal separation from God.

4. Why am I implicated in Adam’s sin?

Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)
See also: Eccl 7:20; 1 John 1:7; Eph 2:1-3; Jer 17:9

As representative and biological head of humankind, Adam represented all of humanity in his sin. Moreover, because human beings are individual persons who share a single human nature – a dim reflection of the Triune God, who is a complex unity of three individual Persons who share a single divine nature – Adam’s fall brought condemnation (status) and corruption (habitus) not only upon his own individual person but upon the whole of human nature, which he shares with all people in all places throughout all of history. Thus, in a real sense, all of humanity was present in Adam’s sin by virtue of our shared nature.

5. What did Jesus’ death accomplish?

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:17)
See also: Eph 2:19-20; Isa 53:4-6; Rom 6:1-10; 1 Cor 15:20-28

In His incarnation, the Son fully assumes our human nature, but remains – by His divine, perfect righteousness – uncorrupted by it. Then, having lived in perfect harmony with God’s nature and in perfect obedience to God’s law, Jesus freely became the atoning sacrifice for all humanity, paying an infinite price for humanity’s transgression against God’s infinite righteousness. Because all who have been elected by God and responded in saving faith are joined to Christ, we are transported with Him through death (out of imperishable humanity and the clutches of sin) into new imperishable life. This results in:

  • Redemption – Christ pays the ransom required to liberate us from bondage,
  • Propitiation – God’s just wrath is turned away,
  • Expiation – we are cleansed from sin,
  • Justification – we are declared righteous,
  • Reconciliation – hostility between God and man is abolished,
  • Adoption – we are legally transferred from Adam’s old family to God’s new one,
  • Sending the Spirit,
  • Sanctification – indwelling, transformational work of the Spirit,
  • Establishment the Church,
  • Cosmic victory; Christ defeats death and evil spiritual powers in all creation.

6. For whom did Christ suffer and die?

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear … to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb 9:28)
See also: Rom 9:6-29; 2 Tim 2:10; Rev 17:14

In one sense, Christ’s death makes provision (the possibility of salvation) for all of humanity; however, in another sense Christ’s death makes application (the actuality of salvation) only for the elect. Whereas God’s desire is that all people would be saved, it is fundamentally impossible simultaneously to save all human beings while ensuring the sovereignty of human choice. Therefore, only the elect can be saved, so Christ’s death is ultimately only for the elect.

7. Who are the elect?

[God] chose us in Him before the foundation of the world … predestined us for adoption to Himself as [children] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will
(Eph 1:4-5)

See also: Eph 1:4-5; Rom 8:29-30; 2 Thes 2:13

“The elect” are a specific group of human beings who have been sovereignly and secretly chosen by God before the creation of the world to be saved – united with God, adopted into His family, and made citizens in His kingdom.

We affirm that, because God always and only acts in complete harmony with His perfect love, goodness, justice and power, His approach to human history constitutes a redemptive system than which none more effective or efficient can be conceived. We also affirm the mysterious compatibility of God’s sovereign election unto salvation with man’s responsibility to meaningfully choose Him — to personally appropriate God’s grace through saving faith.

We deny that God arbitrarily or capriciously chooses people to be saved while others are callously left to perish. We affirm instead that God chooses individuals to be saved in order to maximize His glory, maximally communicate His goodness, and the redemptive reach of His Kingdom, so that God is proven perfectly just in His choice.

8. What is grace?

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. (Eph 2:8)
See also: Eph 1:7-14; Titus 2:11-14

Grace is the unmerited favor of God – to receive from God what we do not deserve and could not earn. First, to all humankind, God extends common grace, by creating and sustaining the life of sinful beings in a beautiful world in which God dramatically restrains the effect of sin. However, to the elect alone, God also extends saving grace, which rescues them from death unto new life in Christ. We affirm that human beings cannot earn or merit the favor of God manifested in these graces, both of which are the outpouring of God’s undeserved love. We also affirm the irresistibility of God’s grace, acknowledging that human beings can no more refuse God’s grace than they can earn its benefits.

9. What is saving faith?

“The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
See also: Rom 4:13ff; 1 John 1:9; Jas 2:14ff

Saving faith is the human response to God’s irresistible grace. It is the inevitable outworking of God’s election and necessary for salvation. Saving faith consists in the human choice, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to repent and believe the gospel. To repent is to reject and turn from sin in order to live in harmony with God’s nature and obedience to God’s law. By this, believers submit to God’s work in uniting us with Christ. To believe is to know God, to cultivate a personal trust in Him, and to put one’s weight down on His promises. By this, believers purposefully abide in a life-giving union with Christ. We affirm the active, ongoing nature of these choices – not single moments of decision or evidenced in words, but demonstrated in a lifetime of active decision.

We affirm that God’s saving grace is a precondition for man’s saving faith and that man’s saving faith is in response to God’s electing grace. We therefore affirm that God elects individuals to be saved in such a way that the same individuals freely choose Christ, as a consequence of God’s election. We deny that God’s election is an imposition of His will upon the elect, that election is a result of God’s foreknowledge of human choice, or that human choice is in any sense a prerequisite for God’s election.

10. What is union with Christ?

Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable… For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Cor 15:50, 53)
See also: Eph 2:4-7; John 15:4-7; 1 John 4:13

Adam is the original head of humanity. His rebellion against God corrupted human nature and made death inevitable for all people, apart from God’s grace. Jesus Christ became man and defeated death in order to inaugurate a new humanity, whose nature is unstained by Adam’s sin. Christ’s atoning sacrifice makes it possible for all those who have been elected by God and responded in saving faith to be rescued from our union with Adam in his perishing nature, and united with Christ in his imperishable nature. By this union we receive the most significant benefit of salvation, which is Christ Himself. Because we share Christ’s new nature, it can well be said that we live in Christ, and because we are indwelled by God’s Spirit, Christ lives in us. Likely, the closest human metaphor is marriage, in which a man and a woman become “one flesh” in intimate communion with one another.
We deny, however, any comingling or ontological confusion of the Person of Christ and the individual believer. We also deny that this union in any sense results in the believer’s absorption into God, the diminishing of human being, or equality with God.

11. How, through justification, can sinners be deemed righteous?

Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them. (Rom 4:7-8; c.f. Ps 32:1-2)
See also: Rom 1:16-17, 3:20-30, 8:1-4; Phil 3:9

Jesus Christ led a life of perfect harmony with God’s nature and perfect obedience to God’s law. Although He alone in history deserves thus to be declared righteous before God, He instead took upon Himself the death and separation from God which are the penalties God justly requires for our sin. Because of His sinless life and infinite righteousness, Christ’s undeserved death can be accounted the atoning sacrifice and full payment for the sins of all people in all places throughout all of history. Therefore, all those who have been elected by God and responded in saving faith are declared blameless by God (status), receiving the righteousness of Christ. As a result, we have been united with Christ, and enjoy a new nature (habitus) which is free from bondage to sin and threat of death.

12. What is sanctification and what does it have to do with the Holy Spirit?

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Cor 3:18a)
See also: Rom 6:15-22; 2 Pet 1:3-11

All who have been elected by God and responded in saving faith undergo daily surgery at the hands of the Holy Spirit, as He works in our hearts and lives to increasingly realize our identity in Christ. To that end, the Spirit matures our love for God, grows our capacity to live in harmony with our new nature, and increases our obedience to God’s law. Although perfect conformation into the image of Christ is the ideal, the Spirit’s refining work is fully realized only upon our final resurrection and glorification in the Kingdom of God. In the meantime, the Spirit changes us to increasingly realize our new natures (habitus) and to love and serve God in growing Christlikeness (actus).


Image credit:
1) Jesus teaching – TalkOfJesus.com
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Three Theological Reflections After Uganda

Kingdom Reflections

I went to Uganda with two objectives. First, to engage and learn from the people there. I wanted to meet them, be exposed to their culture, and generally expand my knowledge of people who are far away and very different from me. Additionally, if God were to call my family to teach or pastor in the majority world, we are committed to saying “yes.” But we – especially I; my wife spent a summer in Guatemala in her 20’s – really have very limited knowledge or experience with which to know what we’d be saying “yes” to. So, my second objective was to increase that knowledge and experience. What would it be like to be a pastor or seminary professor in Uganda or a place like it?

I feel these goals were met, at least on a limited basis. I did meet lots of wonderful people, learn about the place, and experience the culture. And I definitely have a much better sense of what we’d be getting ourselves into if God were to send us there when I graduate from seminary. As an important aside, I don’t feel called in that direction at all. If anything, my time in Uganda pushed me closer to accepting the idea that God might be calling us to pastoral ministry here in the States. I think my role could be to help people in this culture to question their assumptions about who God is, who they are, and about the Kingdom of God.

Einstein QuestionsWhat I didn’t really count on when I left for Uganda was that I would come home with some deeply-probing new questions. Of course, I looked for the theological implications attached to and underpinning my experiences while preparing and while I was in-country, but I wasn’t really expecting my theological reflections to fall into totally different categories than the questions that were pressing on me as I was preparing to go. I guess I should have expected that, but I didn’t. What can I say, I’m a bit slow.

Instead, when I got home, I found I was spending a lot of mental cycles on three specific questions. Having devoted a few weeks of thought and prayer to them, I’d like to share my current thoughts. They will no doubt continue to evolve, but here’s where God’s got my head and my heart at the moment…

1. What is success?

SuccessGod’s definition and the world’s definition of “success” don’t exactly align. Let’s talk about terms like success, development, and contentment. and how they really apply to our lives and to the experiences I had in Uganda. And let’s analyze some practical, real-world situations to test our theories.

Read more about success

2. How does Matthew 25:31ff relate to my trip to Uganda?

Sheep and GoatsJesus once told a story about two groups of people – those who go out of their way to care for others, and those who do not. He calls them “sheep and goats,” respectively, and is explicit about the Shepherd’s separating the two groups – one to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34), and the other to be sent away “cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v41). So, Jesus is deadly serious (as usual), and makes it clear that the stakes are high (as usual). And how, in this story, does the Good Shepherd distinguish between the sheep and the goats, between those who will inherit life and those who will be eternally punished? And how does this story relate to my trip to Uganda?

Read more about love, sheep and Uganda

3. What can the Western Church do for Ugandan?

New Map of the Christian WorldMany people think of Christianity as a European religion. But that’s simply not the case. Many people also think of countries like the USA as brimming with abundance, needing to give, give, give, and countries like Uganda as impoverished and sorely lacking. Consequently, many in the West (with stellar motives!) feel they need to rush to the aid of the rest of the world. But I’m not sure it’s really that simple. I think we might need a new map of the world.

Read more about new maps and global theology

Conclusion

If you actually followed each of these links, then we’ve covered a lot of ground. Thanks for sticking with me.

I sincerely hope you haven’t read all this thinking that I’m in any way anti-American or anti-Church or trying to be overly critical of the West. That’s not my goal; nor do I feel those kinds of things. But I do think that we need some perspective, and many of us (myself included) need to be jarred out of our tidy, snug comfort zones from time to time. It’s so easy, in all our luxury and peace and (false?) sense of security, to cruise through life on autopilot or to draw a sense of comfort or superiority from exactly the wrong things. But it isn’t our expressways or healthcare or paychecks or technology or creature comforts that make one successful or secure or that really means much of anything in the final analysis. Ultimately, it’s our obedience to God, and our worship of God, and our love for God and people that matters. It’s not what we possess, but Who possesses us. And we need to think through the implications of these truths, which is what I’ve tried to at least begin doing here.

God used my trip to Uganda to teach me about Himself and about others who are different from me, but I’m still learning. I have a long way to go. Thank you for sharing the journey with me. I can’t wait to see what new experiences and lessons await on the next leg of it.

In the meantime, may God bless us all as we travel.


Image credit:
1) Reflected castle – PACE reflections
2) Questions – Exam Professor
3) Success – The Odyssey Online
4) Sheep and goats – Adapting to Change and Growth
5) Christian world map – Maps on the Web
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Uganda Theological Reflection #3: A New Map of the World

New Map of the Christian World

After I returned home from my short-term missions trip to Uganda, an insightful member of my church asked me, “What can the American church do for the church in Uganda?” Great question! Having spent time reflecting since then, I thought I’d share a few comments here in response to his question.

Trade in realism

Big-fish-small-fishFirst, I’ve heard it said that the Church in the West suffers from a superiority complex while the Church in other parts of the world suffers from an inferiority complex. Many African Christians (and churches) fit this stereotype, and certainly many American Christians do too. So, I would say that the first thing the Church in the West can do for the Church in the majority world is to make room for them to draw up a seat at the table. And the best thing the Church in a place like Uganda can do is to expect that place to be there, grab a chair, pull it up to the table, and contribute.

Work together

I would encourage Ugandans to actively study and write theology, and I’d encourage Westerns to joyfully read it and give them feedback. And vice versa. Work on books together. Study and teach together in each other’s schools. Preach in each other’s churches. Get to know each other. Share your gifts. Think of yourselves as the single family  that you really are (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The theological perspective of someone who grew up in Mbale is no more or less important than the theological perspective of someone who grew up in Chicago. There is only one God and one Spirit, who lives and reigns and indwells the lives of both of them (Ephesians 4:1-6), and who is far too big for any one cultural history to be an adequate lens through which to glimpse His glory.

Grow in humility

Even so, when I was in Uganda, the locals there were so eager for us to open the Scriptures to them. They were so humble, continually focused on how much they had to receive from us. Here in the States, I have so rarely witnessed that kind of eagerness to hear the word preached or that level of humility demonstrated in receiving it. If anything, what I most often experience is a sense of “yeah, I already know that” or “what’s your point?” or “let’s fight about something tertiary and trivial.” But in Uganda, it was an ongoing sense of, “I’m so glad you’re here to teach me” and “I can’t wait to learn from you.”

Sure, that plays to my ego, but I wonder if it’s a realistic appreciation of who knows what. I wonder if they might be overestimating me and underestimating themselves. Yes, I’m in seminary and studying under some of the finest theological minds in the whole world, but they’re the ones walking with God every day in dry and difficult places, pouring their hearts out in prayer, and learning to really depend on the Lord. My steadily-increasing knowledge can be so theoretical and esoteric at times. Theirs, most emphatically, is not.

And don’t forget that a) the only way for us to know anything about God is that He reveals it to us, and that b) God reveals Himself however and to whomever He wishes. Sure, He can and does use a ton of formal study for that purpose, but that’s not all He uses. How much diligent theological study preceded the burning bush in Moses’ life? Now, you tell me, where is one more likely to encounter a burning bush like that in this world — on Trinity’s campus or in the slums of Namatala?

Learn that we’re following God, not vice versa

footprints-following-dadWe in the West need to stop assuming that we know God better than anyone else in the world because we have more churches or more resources or a lingering sense of the rule of law (or whatever) than other nations. We need to stop acting like we somehow take God with us when we go somewhere. I suspect that many Christians in Uganda are closer to God than many who would claim the name of Christ here in the States may ever be. By and large, the Christians in Uganda have learned how to pray. They know what it means to be the Church. Many of them spend their days and nights crying out to God for daily bread or to heal a child, trusting God to provide what they cannot provide themselves. Broadly speaking, they are living in submission and dependence and, frankly, joy. Most of us in the West, on the other hand, have no idea what it means to pray for daily bread, because we have a week’s worth of bread in the cupboard and years’ worth in the bank. We fundamentally believe we can provide for ourselves and create our own individual utopias. And we work really hard every day to pull it off, completely ignoring (for the most part) God’s explicit warnings that life doesn’t work like that. Here in the West, there isn’t always that much difference between the way an atheist works and the way a Christian works, while in Uganda they’re so pumped about the gospel that they’re routinely giving their businesses names like “God is Awesome Boutique” and “Jesus Saves Bookstore.” And I submit that very few Christians in America have a mature, committed, biblical view of the Church.

Learn from them

In Uganda, they dance and shout and cry when they worship, while many of us stand still and sing in monotones. Personalities are diverse, but I can’t help but wonder if it has more to do with the fact that they actually know God, so their joy is much harder to suppress or contain.

We are too busy to care for the people around us or even share a meal together with someone from church outside our immediate group of friends or not on a designated small group night. Meanwhile, in Uganda, Christians depend on one another every day. The church where I preached in Namatala was conducting a weeklong fast that week, so they were going to be eating and praying together (after fasting all day) every single night that week … and that was after 5-6 hours together on Sunday. Try making that announcement at your next small group meeting! We are distracted by many things, but they spend a lot of time and energy on what truly matters.

And if you were to compare the % of annual salary American Christians give to their local church to the % given by Ugandans, how do you think that would turn out? I searched for comparative global statistics, but didn’t find them … just a bunch of articles about how giving in the US is meager and getting meager-er. Nonetheless, I think it’d be pretty safe to assume we Westerners aren’t leading the charge here.

Bottom line… maybe they should be sending missionaries over here.

Welcome them to the party

woman-welcoming-guestsI guess my point is that the American Church shouldn’t be thinking it terms of going overseas to rescue the poor people of Uganda. In many of the ways that really matter, they’re far richer than we are. And we don’t take Jesus to them. To be honest, I think they need to re-introduce Jesus to many of us.

If we’re going to engage them at all (and we should!), the Church in the West should welcome the growing branch of our family in the South and East into the global theological community with open arms. Provide moral support and encouragement. Pray for them. Spur them on to love and good works (and good theology)!

Be a faithful big brother

We’re like a big brother who has grown lethargic and cynical, a little lazy and kinda full of ourselves. First thing we need to do is stop feeling so superior. Even setting aside the fact that those who think they’re first are going to end up last in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:16), the truth is that in many ways they’re ahead of us. Let’s humble ourselves, and come to realize that our baby sister has grown up. She’s now a beautiful, smart, capable young woman, who needs our encouragement to come fully into her own, not our cynicism or arrogance or condescending supervision.

older-brotherYes, we still have much to teach, but we also have much to learn. Let’s tackle the boundless and glorious project of theology together. Let’s tell our sister every chance we get that she doesn’t have to be more like us to be beautiful. She’s already beautiful. She doesn’t have to do everything the way we do it to be successful. She’s already more successful than we are in some key areas (see my first theological reflection). And let’s exhibit half the eagerness (and the grace!) to learn from her that she consistently exhibits in her desire to learn from us. We’re older, but I’m not sure we’re wiser. And what sibling worth his salt thinks he’s “better” than his little sister?

The West has achieved much in the last handful of centuries. There are many ways in which we’ve honored God and served this world. But whatever we are and whatever we’ve achieved, we got that way by walking with God and by soaking in God’s grace, not because we’re “wiser” or “better” or have more stuff. And whatever our Father did for us, He’s doing for His other kids as well — wherever they’re from. It just might not look the same as it did for us. For anyone who has ever observed how different siblings can be, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.


Image credit:
1) Christian world map – Maps on the Web
2) Big Fish, Small Fish – What Michael Likes
3) Child following dad – Teacher For Jesus
4) Welcome! – Open Church
5) Siblings – Thought Catalog
Posted in Theology, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Uganda Theological Reflection #2: Love, Sheep, and Uganda

Sheep and Goats

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…

Matthew 25:31-32

Early in our second week in Uganda, after a rare day of rest, our team leader, Amanda, asked me to lead the team in a short devotional. I felt led to focus on Matthew 25:31ff. In this text, Jesus is teaching about God’s expectations of His children and the judgment that awaits those who don’t take Him seriously. He has just finished talking about the dangers of missing our bridegroom’s (Jesus’) coming if we’re not paying attention (vv1-13) and about suffering God’s wrath if we fail to wisely invest what He’s given to us (vv14-30). Now, Jesus turns to a story about two groups of people: those who go out of their way to care for others, and those who do not. He calls them “sheep and goats,” respectively, and declares that the Shepherd will ultimately separate these two groups – one to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v34), and the other to be sent away “cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v41).

So, Jesus is deadly serious (as usual), and makes it clear that the stakes in His Kingdom are high (as usual). But how, in this particular story, does the Good Shepherd distinguish between the sheep and the goats … between those who will inherit life and those who will be cast out? The deciding factor is whether or not we love others. When someone is hungry, do we feed them? When they are thirsty, do we give them something to drink? When we see a stranger, do we welcome them? When someone is naked, do we scare up some clothes for them to wear? Do we visit those who are sick or in prison? If you can answer yes to these questions, then you, my friend, resemble Jesus … who had everything, but emptied Himself and poured Himself out for those who had nothing (Philippians 2:5-8). Even to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

Applying Jesus’ Story

Visiting the SickHaving recounted Jesus’ story, there are two questions I want to work through here.

First, how does this passage, in general, relate to my trip to Uganda? Given my recent short-term missions trip, where am I in Jesus’ story? Does the fact that I went to East Africa, walked among really poor people, helped them get food, played with and loved on children, preached the gospel, worked with addicts, prayed over the sick in local hospitals, visited prisoners to share God’s word and pray with them, supported poor farmers in starting new businesses, etc … does all that mean that I have fulfilled Jesus’ requirements in Matthew 25? Can I check the box and consider myself to be a high-quality candidate for sheep-ness?

Um … no.

This passage isn’t about what we’ve done, it’s about who we are. It’s not about one trip anywhere, it’s about a way of being that intersects with our everyday lives. In other words, Jesus is demanding a lifestyle in this story, not an event. Get on a plane or don’t. Go far away or walk across the street. It could be something a bunch of people in your church will find amazing or something no one will ever know about. He’s calling for a pattern in your life – an everyday, ongoing decision to be a certain way, not to do a certain thing on a certain day.

Soup KitchenAm I the kind of person who buys homeless guys cheeseburgers or walks by them on the phone without giving them a second thought? Am I the kind of person who, when he hears someone is sick or hurting, hurts a little too, thinks to stop and pray, and maybe even visits them occasionally? Am I someone who stops to help an elderly person struggling with a grocery cart (or whatever), or do I have places to be … every time? Do I know the first thing about what goes on inside prisons and hospitals, or is that someone else’s problem? Have I spent any time at all with people who are very different from me and live in contexts I don’t really understand, or is my life (and my church) a place to gather with people just like me?

Jesus is saying that our answers to these questions tell Him who we are. Are we like Him – giving to others of ourselves – or like Satan – taking from others for ourselves? Because a tree will be known by its fruit (Luke 6:43-45). And a child of God will be known by the manner of her life with regard to these things.

And my second question from the passage…

Who are “the least of these”?

When I was giving this devotional in Uganda, our team leader Amanda asked, “Who are ‘the least of these’ in this story?” At the time, I was struck by the question, and didn’t really have an answer for her. But now I do, and here’s what I would say…

homelessBy referring to “the least of these” in His story, Jesus is making the point that no one is beneath being the recipient of the kind of care He’s describing. The person who is hungry or thirsty or estranged or naked or sick or imprisoned … that person isn’t necessarily “the least of these.” Neither is the person who feeds or clothes or welcomes or visits … or the one who doesn’t. Jesus is saying that, at any moment, each of us … any of us … all of us could be “the least of these.”

In other words, there are no limits to the kind of person we should love. Jesus does not engage in conversation about someone’s “deserving” our compassion or love or sacrifice. He’s saying that it’s not about the other person, it’s about us. Just like you didn’t earn His grace when Jesus left heaven and died on a cross for you, neither do others deserve whatever (very, very small thing, by comparison) we might give up for them. Because Jesus has already sacrificed everything for him, even the person we might be tempted to think is the least worthy to receive love or compassion or an act of kindness from us … that person represents the Son of God, who counted him “worthy” of His very life. And that person, if she surrenders her life to Him, will be “worthy” to be represented by the Son of God before the throne of His Father.

The most hardened criminal … the worst sex offender … the least attractive person you can imagine … the most annoying and frustrating person you’ve ever met … the most sick … the one with the least physical (or intellectual or emotional or spiritual) resources … For every single one of these people, and a billion more, Jesus left heaven, became a curse, poured out His blood, and is willing to stand in their place, bearing the brunt of all their sin. And He did it so that, when God asks, “Who is this?”, the answer might be “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

So if we aren’t also willing to love them, then we can’t say that we love Jesus either.

Are the desperately poor people I met in Uganda “the least of these?” Maybe. But if they are, it’s not because they have far fewer physical resources than I do. In Jesus’ economy, I could be far poorer and more naked than they are. Sometimes, those who appear to have the most are in fact the ones with the least, and sometimes they don’t even know it (Revelation 3:15-22). It’s about different economies — mine vs. Jesus’, this world’s vs. the Kingdom of God’s. Even the person who is “least” in my twisted, sinful, human economy is worth Jesus’ love (demonstrated by His blood). So, he has to be worth mine too. And if he isn’t … if he’s naked and I do not love him enough to give him a shirt or she’s hungry and I don’t care if she starves, etc. … If there’s no place at my table for them, then there will be no place at the Father’s table for me. It’s as simple as that.

Then, how shall we live?

Clothing DriveWe can’t fix everything that’s broken in this world. And that’s okay, because it’s not my job to “fix” things. God is the One doing the fixing, and He’s far better at it than we are. Ultimately, He will restore everything that is broken and make all things new (Revelation 21:5). Just you wait; it’s going to be amazing! But what people often miss is that we are the tools in His hands to do so, the members of His body which act under His headship, and the sons and daughters He is making more like Him everyday (not just in our being but in our carrying out the work He’s given us). So He sends us to love and care for and help others … just like He would, except there’s millions of us “doing even greater things than He did” (John 14:12-14) when Jesus walked the earth.

No, I can’t fix everything, and neither can you. But I can be the kind of person who routinely turns aside to help in Jesus’ name, like the Good Samaritan did (Luke 10:25-37). It would be pretty hard to “turn aside” every time, but most of us don’t err on the side of “overdoing it” when it comes to helping others … especially those we don’t know and who can’t give us anything in return. But for children of God, for those who are self-proclaimed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, it should be the routine pattern of our lives to take the time and energy and dollars to care for those around us who need a hand. If the pattern of my life is to walk by a person who is sick or poor or naked or hungry without even noticing them, or to notice and disregard, or to say “next time” every single time, or to “buy God off” with a check while safely never interacting with hurting people … then I might have need for some serious concern whether Jesus will recognize me at all, when I finally meet Him face to face.

Food DriveWhen you get the prayer list, do you actually pray for the sick … maybe even visit them occasionally? Are you even subscribed to the prayer list?

Have you ever bought a homeless guy a sandwich? What would you say is your ratio over the last 5 years of “buy a sandwich” to “walk by with a perfectly justifiable (in your own mind) reason not to”? Is it 1:5? 1:10? 1:1,000? Zero? What do you think Jesus’ ratio would be? Of course we can’t do it all, and we can’t do it every time … but we can do something, and we can do it regularly, right? And there’s a LOT of us. What if we were all paying attention and straining every sinew to increasingly be like Jesus?

And that’s the point: Are you training your mind to think and your heart to desire and your hands to behave LIKE JESUS? The Spirit changes you, but you are responsible to “cooperate” with Him (Philippians 2:12-13), and in everyday life I think that looks like “training” … doing something that you can do today to be able to do something tomorrow that you can’t do today. See also 1 Timothy 4:6-10. So we pray and we submit and we lead our hearts and we allow God to renew our minds (Romans 12:2) … and we notice those in need, even “the least of these,” and we turn aside to love on them a little.

[A man enamored with his own self-righteousness], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.

Luke 10:29-37


Image credit:
1) Sheep and goats – Adapting to Change and Growth
2) Flowers in the hospital – The Telegraph
3) Soup Kitchen – St. Joseph’s Church
4) Homeless man – Housing Alliance Delaware
5) Clothing drive – People of our everyday life
6) Food drive – Know it All group
Posted in Bible Stories, Theology, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Uganda Theological Reflection #1: What is Success?

Success

Success and “Development”

Our first week in Uganda, while staying at Uganda Christian University, we attended a symposium on development. As I shared in that day’s journal post, Ugandans are heavily invested in “development.” By this they mean, in my words, seeking answers to the question, “How can we improve our country?” They spend a lot of time and energy, especially in academic circles, talking about that. And it’s evidently a pretty hot topic in much of Africa in general. So while we were there, our hosts organized an evening of interaction between the honors college students at UCU and our team from TIU in the States. We met in a large classroom at the school, created several blended circles (containing students from both contexts), discussed the issues as we saw them, and tried to come to some meaningful conclusions about what it means to be “successful” and to “develop” a nation like Uganda (or the US, for that matter).

DevelopmentInterestingly (painting with a pretty broad brush), many of the American students described “success” and “development” in emotional or spiritual terms, while Ugandans described them primarily in physical terms. Put another way, when American students talked about “success,” they described being happy or fulfilled or obedient to God’s call on a person’s life. They also talked a lot about serving others, which was interesting and refreshing to hear. Ugandan students, on the other hand, largely spoke in terms of materially better lives — acquiring more money, better jobs, nicer homes with more amenities (like TV’s or kitchen appliances), improved education, healthcare, transportation, etc. We talked for a couple hours, and had some very interesting interactions, but didn’t come to any definite conclusions as a group.

However, having spent significant time pondering and praying through these questions over the last few weeks, I’m prepared to at least take a stab at some definitions which I’d like to share. I would define “success” as an “individual” concept, which involves embracing the life to which God has called me. And I would define “development” as a corporate or national concept, which involves creating systems (of government, etc.) that empower individuals to be successful.

Succinctly,

Success – Increasingly becoming who God designed me to be
Development – Organizing systems which increasingly empower individuals to be successful

These definitions betray the fact that I’m not particularly interested in getting everyone nicer stuff or making everyone happier — myself included. I don’t think it’s about feeling fulfilled or living longer, better lives, etc. I think success is bound up in surrendering to God’s sanctifying work in one’s life, and leaning into the work of the Spirit of God to make sons and daughters out of selfish rebels.

Personal Success

This will look different for every person in every place, which is why I label “success” as “an individual thing.” Of course, there will be common elements – such as turning from sin (repentance), tearing down idols, training for godliness, being free of that which enslaves us, etc. – but “success” is between me and God. He defines it differently for me than He does for you. Note that I’m not defining success for me or anyone else in detail. Note also that I’m not advocating an isolated, individual life; rather, I’m saying that God’s plan for you is unique, not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to the Christian life that can be stamped out by mass production in the lives of His children. God’s definition of success for one of His kids can’t be written down and systematized (so that others can follow the steps to achieve it). It’s about a relationship, a walk with God, in which we communicate with one another. He changes me, and I embrace that change. He tells me where to go and what to do, and I go there and do that. He confronts me with the world, and I’m content to be with Him in those circumstances. This is success. Not following rules or acquiring stuff, working hard or being happier, but walking with God in this world and becoming more like Jesus.

Learning by Example

So, if the details are so diverse and individual, how can we know success when we see it? How do we keep ourselves from making faulty assessments of success by leveraging the culture’s rules instead of the Kingdom’s? And how do I evaluate and learn from the lives of the people I met in Uganda? Well, perhaps one way would be to walk through a few real-world scenarios, and think through them theologically. So that’s what I do here. My hope is that these will serve as a crucible in which we can apply our definition of success to our individual lives in very practical (and theological) terms.

Monetary Success?

moneyAm I successful if I earn $20,000 per year? Well, maybe. I’d need more info to decide. If you earn $20,000 because you’re lazy or undisciplined when God designed you and desires for you to make $80,000 per year, then no. If you make $20,000 when God has called you to be a missionary to a remote part of the world and live off $8,000 in annual missionary fundraising, then also no. But if God has called you to a vocation that pays $20,000 a year, and you do it with excellence and joy, even though you could have done something else that would have made more money, then yes, you are successful indeed. Maybe that’s being a pastor in a little rural church that can only pay you that much. Maybe it’s a job at Starbucks which you took to be on mission out among people now that your kids are older and in school all day. Maybe it’s the best you can do in the first year of starting your own business (or for other reasons). I don’t know. The question isn’t how much you should make, it’s what God has called you to do and whether or not you’re obedient and joyful in doing it. By the way, the “joyful” part matters. If you’re doing what God called you to, but belly-aching and irritable while you do it, then I think your success evaporates. You might as well just go ahead and tell God “no,” because you haven’t really said “yes” if you’re grumbling all the way.

Success of Location or Status?

Are you successful if you live in the US? Perhaps. Is that where God told you to live? What if you live in Uganda? So much sacrifice! Surely you’d be successful then, right? Again, it depends. Where did God send you? Are you successful if you’re the CEO of a Fortune-100 company? What if you’re a single mom working two minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet? What if you’re a tradesman in the majority world? What about a fast food job in the US? In all these cases the answer is still, “it depends.”

I think a better question is: When you conducted the 2017 planning meeting for your life, was Jesus there and what role did He play in the meeting? If you locked Him out, it’d be hard to claim success, no matter what you do. Same thing if you invited Him, but ignored most of what He said. But if Jesus sat at the head of the table and facilitated the meeting, and now you’re working from the mission statement that He established, then you are successful whatever you have and wherever you are. If not, then whether you’re rich or poor, famous or unknown, 1st world or 3rd, you’re probably not as successful as God would like you to be. You may need to consider redefining “success” in your life.

Ask the Lord, He’ll tell you. And I think the first thing He’d say is that success is more about what (and who) possesses us than about what we possess (Luke 4:8; Deut 6:4-5).

Contentment as Success?

DevelopmentBut surely there are limits to this thinking, right? What if you don’t have a roof over your head or nutritious food or clean drinking water? We met people in Uganda who were drawing their drinking water from a muddy creek 50 feet downstream from where the cows were relieving themselves in the same creek. Is that just supposed to be okay? Should the person drinking that water (and experiencing horrible diseases as a result) just be satisfied with that, and we’ll call it “success”? Surely they can do better, right?! Surely God isn’t calling anyone to that, is He?!

Again, I think the answer is complicated. There’s a lot going on in this illustration. First, for the one drinking from the creek, success isn’t about their physical health. If a person gets sick and has a very hard life and dies far younger than he would have if circumstances had been different, it doesn’t necessarily make him unsuccessful. It’s how a person lives that matters. Does she spend the time she has on earth honoring God or not? Is he grateful for what he has or angry because he don’t have more (or other)? Do people learn to walk with God and accept His Son in the face of hardship (or maybe because of it), or do they curse God for not giving them what they want (or deserve!)? It’s variables like these which will determine their success, not how clean their drinking water is. And that’s not only true of the person drinking contaminated water in Uganda, but also of the person born with a congenital defect in the US or who gets cancer at a young age in France or who is killed in their 20’s fighting a war in Russia. And it’s true of middle-class Americans who have more than most people in the world can even imagine, but who spend their days working for themselves and politely shaking their fists at God for not giving them even more, while they barely even notice the rest of the world.

It’s not about where you are or what you have, it’s about who you are and how you worship.

Contaminated RiverAlso keep in mind that the person drinking the contaminated water isn’t the only person whose success we should be measuring in this example. What about the person from Chicago watching her drink it? Am I successful if I stand by and do nothing? To me, that’s the more interesting question, and we’ll get to a more robust answer when I address my second theological question (coming soon). But I’d say that the same conditions apply… Am I obeying and honoring and worshipping the Lord? If I don’t care about the people drinking that filthy water (and God will not be mocked; my words mean very little, when He can see my heart … and the actions that heart produces), then it’s unlikely that I can be in any sense “successful” in the Kingdom of God. If I love them, but cannot help – because let’s face it, you can’t directly solve every problem you encounter in this world – then that’s different. But let’s not be too quick to assume I “can’t” help, or assign too anemic a definition to the word “love.”

If I feel bad for her in the moment but forget about her the next day… If I throw money at the problem without carefully thinking through what would actually help this person or the affect that money would have on the local community … If I take the time to give more carefully but with a heart of obligation … I would submit that none of these are very “successful.”

If, on the other hand, I love them as people (not projects!) and I’m with them in their difficult circumstances, but don’t try to “solve” their problems, that might be (in this particular instance) the closest we can come to “success.” And if God is calling me to help, and I take the time to help well, then yes, perhaps we could get a well dug and provide clean drinking water for a bunch of people. How awesome would that be! And how “successful.” But the questions are, “What is God doing here?” and “How is God calling me to participate in that?” and “How well am I loving these people?” Those are the questions that matter.

In other words, it’s not as simple as people sometimes make it out to be. In no sense does having the money to send a check, or even actually sending that check, somehow equal “success.” Neither does “feeling bad for them.” And neither does getting out of my comfy chair to go to Uganda to meet people much poorer than me … though that’s a pretty good first step. Caring about them, loving them, seeing them as real people who have a history and a story and whom God loves … taking the time to ask the Lord what He would have me do in relation to this new information (that people actually drink from garbage-and-poop-filled creeks in the slums of Uganda; something that had never occurred to me before I experienced it) … these are all positive steps that probably lead toward a life of “success.”

One more example…

Vocational Success?

ProstituteWhat about the woman living in the same Ugandan slum who’s just trying to feed her children, so she works as a prostitute or brews moonshine and sells it on the black market? Is she “successful”? Is she a failure?

Wow, so complicated. Is sleeping with a bunch of men for money sinful? Yes. Is that sin wiped away because it seems to be preventing one’s children from starving? No. Does that make it the lesser of two evils, such that Jesus looks with great compassion on this woman and would tell me to mind my own business if I dared to accuse her in His presence? Probably. Should I be spending ten times more effort attempting to empower her than I do judging her? Absolutely.

There but for the grace of God go all of us. Maybe God’s answer to her nightly prayers for freedom from the life she’s living is … YOU. Maybe that’s why you’re there. And maybe not. But again, if you don’t see her as a person, rather than the embodiment of sinful behavior in which you’re (wrongly!) convinced you could never engage, then you become the problem, not her. And I think we have plenty of biblical precedence from which to understand that (e.g. Luke 18:9-14). If I stand in judgment over this woman, God may judge me far more harshly than He will her (Matthew 7:1-5). It may very well be that the prostitute in the slums of Namatala will be far greater in the Kingdom of Heaven than (and possibly even rule over) the wealthy American who encounters her for five whole minutes, casually finds her life distasteful, and walks away forgetting they ever met.

Conclusion

So, what is success? The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the purpose of humankind is “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” As a general principle, I’m not sure how to say it much better than that. But when it comes to sorting through details, or applying this statement in our individual lives, or processing the kinds of experiences I had in Uganda, more than a pithy catechism answer is required. Hopefully this post helped us to tackle some of the complexities in this question. It’s just a start, but hopefully a helpful one. It’s certainly served me (and preached to me) to write it; I hope it’s helped you to read it as well.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

Isaiah 61:1-3


Image credit:
1) Success – The Odyssey Online
2) Putting pieces together – M2M Sage
3) Money – Flickr
4) Planting – Daily Development
5) Contaminated River – The Disease Daily
6) Prostitute – Barrister NG
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