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
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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
Posted in Theology, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Love Me More

Humble Prayer

I don’t know if anyone can understand what it means to be a Christian if they don’t relate to this song. Every single line in it tells the story of the gospel. If you aren’t amazed that God would want anything to do with you, if you haven’t wondered why God didn’t just leave you in your sin, if you think you’ve never called God’s love “a lie,” then how can you possibly comprehend how far down God has to reach in order to rescue you from the dominion of darkness and transfer you into the Kingdom of the Son He loves (Col 1:13)?

If we want to honor God with our lives, then we approach others in the gratitude and humility that comes from knowing that we have done nothing to earn God’s love. And we approach God with our faces bowed very, very low.


I can’t believe that you still want me
After everything I’ve done.
I can’t believe that you still want me to be with you.

I was sure that you would leave me
With the mess that I had made.
I was sure that you would take away your love.

But I was wrong and you’re still here.
And your love, it carries all my fear.
There’s nothing I can say,
There’s nothing I can do
To make you love me more.

You’re the only one who loves me
Just the way I am.
You’re the only one who loves me so perfectly.

And even when I told you
never call on me again.
Even when I called your love a lie.

But I was wrong and you’re still here.
And your love, it carries all my fear.
There’s nothing I can say,
There’s nothing I can do
To make you love me more.

Love Me More
New Map of the World, Paul Colman Trio, 2002

But the amazing thing is that God did reach down that far to save us. He sent His one and only Son into the world, so that we might live through him (1 John 4:9), that He might be the payment for all our rebellion and sin. He made His who knew no sin to be sin for us — literally to become a curse on our behalf — so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

There’s no greater truth, no more important story, and nothing more significant to which you could be called than citizenship in His kingdom and member in His family. But there’s nothing you can do to earn that calling; it is the gift of God. Receive that gift in humility and gratitude, knowing that the price He paid to extend it is literally unfathomable.

I find this song to be a reminder of that amazing love — God’s amazing love. I hope you will too.


Image credit:
1) Humble prayer – Keith Kettenring
Posted in Psalms, Music and Worship | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Uganda Travel Log: The Journey Home

Location: Kampala, Uganda to Brussels, Belgium to Chicago, USA
Monday-Tuesday, May 29-30, 2017

Flights to Uganda

The day has finally come. After being away from home for 15 days, today we embark on the 2-day journey home. First, we’ll drive across Kampala, down the peninsula to Entebbe International Airport. That will take awhile in typical Kampala traffic. Next, we enjoy the time-consuming procedures associated with international travel. Then, a quick hop south to Kigali, Rwanda (not shown on the map due to scale problems, but there’s a zoom-in below). Then, we’ll fly north across the bulk of Africa and the Mediterranean, to northern Europe (Brussels). There, we’ll lay over for a couple hours, then hop across the northern Atlantic to O’hare. Then through customs, back to Trinity in vans, grab my car, and drive home. The total trip will be about 30 hours. Ugh. Here’s how it played out…

It took awhile to get to Entebbe, but not nearly as long as we feared it would, so we had time to stop at a beach resort there to chill for a bit before heading to the airport. Entebbe is a peninsula jutting out into Lake Victoria (the largest lake in Africa), so I enjoyed a beach, fruity drinks, some sugar cane to chew (first time for that), and a good book (getting a head start on some of my theology reading for the fall).

Entebbe Beach Entebbe Beach 2

After a relaxing couple of hours on the beach, we packed up and headed to the airport. Two things that I found particularly interesting while getting there…

Where we’re doing, we DO need roads

First, I got a glimpse of the new Entebbe-Kampala Expressway.

It’s not finished yet, so we didn’t drive on it. But we drove under an overpass, and I looked up some pictures of it since I love that sort of thing (and wanted to share them with you). This project promises to be extremely significant and beneficial for Uganda. It’s a direct shunt of modern road (similar to what you might see in the US) which will connect the Entebbe International Airport to Kampala, the capitol and largest city in the nation. It then loops up around the NW side of the city to serve as a bypass around the crazy traffic normally experienced there. It’s almost done, and I think it’s going to be a game changer when it’s finally done! Yes, they’ll get to move freight and people more efficiently on this one road. But I think it will also give them the bug. I suspect people will begin to demand more once they get a taste of this kind of road. We’ll see.

I believe this is the actual underpass we drove through, which caught my attention:

entebbe-kampala-expressway

Also, here’s a site with some great pictures of the work in progress.

And here’s a picture of normal traffic in Kampala. So, I’m thinking words like “expressway” and “bypass” could become fast favorites among the Ugandan people.

Traffic in Kampala

Airport Security

Second, I was a bit astonished at how much security we went through to get home.

First, on our approach to the Entebbe airport, we literally had to disembark the bus at a gate on the road outside the airport. We then walked through metal detectors and were wanded on the road, while a soldier drove the bus through a vehicle security checkpoint. While we watched the bus drive by, I had nightmares about their dragging all our luggage off the bus and going through it, but they didn’t (thank God!). We then piled back onto the bus and proceeded to the airport.

After we finally got to the airport, we went through metal detectors and passed our luggage through scanners to get into the building. Then we checked our luggage. Then we went through another security checkpoint, where they scanned us and our carry-on bags, and asked us “where are you going?” questions while scrutinizing our passports. We hung out in the concourse until our gate was announced, then we went through another security checkpoint to get to the gate. Then they scrutinized our passports again before letting us on the plane.

When we touched down in Brussels, we disembarked the plane with no issues. Our layover there was a couple of hours, so it provided us with the opportunity to have a bite to eat and jump online to check in with family (though it was the middle of the night back home). But before we boarded the flight from Brussels to the US, we went through another set of “why are you going to the US?” and “where have you been?” questions to get our passports approved. Then of course, we went through customs in the US.

By my count, we went through 8 distinct security checkpoints between Kampala, Brussels and Chicago. Do you feel safe?

Travel Mercies

Okay, enough of that. Let me rewind and share a couple things about the travel itself…

Hop to KigaliFirst, we didn’t fly straight from Kampala to Brussels. We made a quick stop in Kigali, Rwanda, about 50 miles SW of Entebbe. When we got there, those heading for Europe (or on to the US) stayed on the plane while some disembarked, others boarded, and still others vacuumed and cleaned literally around our feet. My first time remaining on a plane while it turned over. Interesting. The entire exercise (depart + fly + land + turn over + take off again) took about about 90 minutes, and then we were on our way straight north to Brussels — about a 9 hour trip.

I was all excited to get an aisle seat, since we were in economy, and back there, anything that assists with legroom is key. But I was less excited when a not-at-all-concerned-about-the-person-behind-her African woman sat down in the seat in front of me, and — even before we had pulled away from the terminal —, reclined her seat as far back as it would go. Not a good sign. In fact, no matter what was happening, whether she was sleeping, eating, talking to the lady next to her, or up out of her seat walking around or in the restroom, she had that seat fully reclined for the … entire … trip. The flight attendants literally had to tell her to un-recline it for both take off and landing. So, all my pandas were sad … and the result was that I was pretty much eating my knees for a 9 hour flight. No laptop … that won’t fit. No way for my legs to be straight … they don’t fit. Hard to eat … cause that doesn’t fit. So, I sat legs-crossed in the seat for the entire flight overnight. Translation, zero sleep, and most of me was sore. International + economy + large (tall or wide, and I’m both) = miserable. It’s an equation I’ve been sadly aware of for many years now. But God is good, and we eventually made it to Brussels — two reasonably interesting movies, two reasonably tasty meals later and several hours of audiobook later.

Jeff StarbucksWhen I could barely stand up to disembark the plane in Brussels, I decided it was time to move to the adult table. First priority, that Starbucks over there. Oh yeah! Second priority, get through the passport check line the second it opens (which the team didn’t want to do for whatever reason, so I got through in 5 minutes, while they stood in line for a half hour). And third, while the team makes its way through the line, pay United whatever it takes to get into Economy Plus … while sipping Starbucks. Pandas’ moods = restored!

And that was the best money I’ve spent in a while. So, after a quick-but-tasty European breakfast in the concourse and yet another lesson in currency exchange for my young travel companions, I gleefully boarded the next flight, and we were off to Chicago. Another 8 hours, but this time I was in an aisle seat in Economy plus with nobody sitting next to me. Hey, Mr. Guy-in-front-of-me, go ahead and lean back until your heart’s content! Both my knees AND my laptop are good to go!

Another movie, some TV shows I ripped onto my laptop, some journaling, and a bunch of reading later… touch down in Chicago! Honestly, I almost kissed the ground.

Home, Sweet Home … but not for the fruit

Going through customs was easy. I was introduced to the new automated passport scanner ATM-like machines that weren’t there last time I came through (2009?). They literally scan your passport, and give you a “receipt” that you’re approved. I talked to a customs agent, but the conversation seemed VERY perfunctory. He was most interested in the nifty “receipt” from the ATM. Weird. And nobody even so much as glanced at my “port entry” sheet. The most interesting thing in the customs line was this adorable little beagle (wish I could have taken a picture!) who was sniffing out… not bombs, not drugs, but fruit. LOL. beagleI watched this little guy sniff out two bananas in two peoples’ backpacks. Then he came over while we were waiting for our checked luggage at the carousel, he found a bag there that security pulled off the belt and hauled away. We take bananas VERY seriously in this country!

Once out on the curb, we waited for at least 3 minutes for the TIU vans to arrive. We threw in the luggage, and headed back to school.

Once there, we said tearful goodbyes, and headed for home — dropping off one of my teammates and swinging through Chick-Fil-A drive-thru on the way, of course.

Then, home at last!

Then, family hugs and kisses.

Then, shower.

Then, bed.

Pictures, stories and unpacking in the morning. But for now, there’s no place like home!


Image credit:
1) Entebbe-Kampala Expressway – Pearlvibe
2) Beagle – Dogtime
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Uganda Travel Log: Day 12 – Church, Debrief and Dancing

Location: Kampala and Ndere, Uganda
Sunday, May 28, 2017

Watoto Church Service

Unbelievably, we leave tomorrow to fly back to the States. Although there were moments on this trip when I felt like we’d been in Uganda for months, not days, now suddenly it seems impossible that the trip is almost over. But the truth is that I’m very anxious to return home to my family, church, and the rest of life.

But before I do… It’s Sunday. Time for church.

Church

watoto church logoWe had breakfast as usual at the hotel, and then headed into town (Kampala) to attend the 10am service at Watoto Church. Watoto the largest church in Uganda, frequently referred to as the Willow Creek of East Africa. It’s a large (even by US standards) multi-site church, which means in 12 locations, mostly clustered around Kampala (the capital of and largest city in Uganda). It was a pretty modern place, set in a large theater-like auditorium in the middle of the city. There wasn’t much to distinguish it from the outside, but inside, it looked much like a megachurch in the US to look… lights, big stage, auditorium seating, fancy computer equipment, giant screens, etc.

I liked the people on stage. I enjoyed the music. It was in English, but I didn’t recognize a single song. The worship leader and pastor were both winsome and engaging. I liked the sermon — it was about covenant relationship in the context of the family. Josh Mugabi (the speaker) talked about the covenants that should exist between husbands and wives (Malachi 2:13-14), parents and children (Ephesians 6:1-4) and brothers and sisters (Proverbs 17:17; c.f. Genesis 4). I appreciated his message, although there were definitely times when he was using the word “blessing” that I wondered how the congregation was defining the word. I had flashes of concern that, although Pastor Josh never explicitly said this, if someone in the audience was predisposed to a prosperity gospel view of the universe, they could have read that into his message. That said, for those who already have a healthy theology of blessing, it was a great sermon. All up, I think God attends Watoto — the first and most significant criteria for the health of a church —, plus I really enjoy and profited from being there.

Uganda Hotel Coffee HutAfter church, we had a beautiful lunch back at the hotel. That was followed by some free time, which many used to play cards, but I used to journal and write, and then spend a couple hours hauled up in the hotel’s coffee bar to debrief as a team.

And a Show

After that, we snagged a light snack, and headed back into town for a show at the Ndere Cultural Center (also on Facebook). It was a great show, and very interesting. Musical styles from around East Africa. Lots of drums and dancing and crazy feats of balancing things on the dancers’ heads. My favorite / the most astounding thing I saw was a group of men playing these large drums that were balanced on their heads while they danced around the stage. Also women with 4 or 5 jars stacked in a tower, balanced on their heads while they violently danced around the stage. It was amazing. And the drum circles were amazing to. It was a great time, and gave us some interesting cultural insights. I’m really glad we went.

 

At the end — and this was my favorite part — the entire audience was invited up onto the stage to dance with together with the performers. This was a) for fun, and b) to demonstrate racial, ethnic, and national unity. See, we can all dance together!

My second favorite part of the show was the MC. The guy was really fun, and impressive too. The dancers could dance, but when this guy asked where you were from, it seemed like no matter where it was, he was able to speak a few words of the language there or talk intelligently about a current event or make fun of a cultural norm, or whatever. He was really great. All in all a good show. I promise I’ll post the name as soon as I get it. It’s worth checking out.

The show was over 3.5 hours long, and took us pretty late into the evening. We stopped back by Java House, but I don’t think we got there until after 10, and they closed at 11. I stumbled into bed at about 11:30 looking forward to flying out the next day.

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Uganda Travel Log: Day 11 – Tyranny and Tourism

Location: Kampala (Mengo and Bugolobi districts), Uganda
Saturday, May 27, 2017

Uganda Team at Mengo Palace

Today was a day of tourism and relaxation. We ate breakfast at the hotel — which, by the way, is as standardized here (the Namirembe Guest House) as it was at the JENGA guest house in Mbale. Breakfast here consists of hard-boiled eggs, bread to toast, mango juice (not like the stuff in more rural areas, I’m sad to say; I think it’s watered down to make it stretch), coffee (soooo strong), African tea (yum!), fruit, and these muffins that remind me of a semi-sweet cornbread. Might actually be semi-sweet cornbread, since they grow a lot of maze and sugar cane, and while I’m no gourmet chef, it seems like that gets you a long way toward “semi-sweet cornbread.” But I digress. The secret to breakfast at Namirembe is the “spanish omelet.” I heard another guest request one, so I tried it too. It’s simple: a couple of eggs, scrambled, with a few pieces of bell pepper stirred in, then … “omleted” (told you I wasn’t a chef). But it was really good!

After breakfast, we piled in the bus and headed into town. One of our number was sick, so our group leader (Amanda) took her to the doctor. Kira, another student who has been on this trip 3-4 times before, led the expedition into town. Thought you might appreciate a view of traffic in Kampala. Note the absolute lack of signs, lines, lights, signals, etc.

Traffic in Kampala

We started by visiting Mengo Palace (also called Lubiri Palace) on the outskirts of Kampala. The palace is technically located in Mengo, adjacent to Kampala proper. The palace was built by Mwanga II, the 31st king (or “Kabaka”) of Buganda, in 1885. He conducts some official business, but will not live there, because so much killing has occurred on that site (keep reading, I’ll get to that), and the Baganda are suspicious about such things.

Mengo PalaceBTW, “the Buganda” is how locals refer to the people of Uganda. There is a pattern of prefixes used in the local language to construct words related to nationality. Uganda = nation; Baganda = people; Luganda = language, etc. The Buganda is the largest, most powerful tribe in Uganda, and the reason for the country’s name, but there are also the Batooro, Banyoro, Bakiga, Bafumbira, and many others. Note the “Ba-” prefix. Each of those too are subject to the same construction. The Batooro people form the sub-nation of Utooro and likely speak the language Latooro. Etc. I’m a Muzungu (“white person”). So, “my people” are collectively referred to as Bazungu as well. You get the idea.

Okay, back to our tour…

King Mwanga II of Buganda

King Mwanga II of Buganda

There is a bunch of history at Mengo Palace – kings who overthrown and their successors tortured and killed tens of thousands of people out of paranoia and fear as they labored desperately to hold on to power. Mwanga II, who built and lived initially in the palace, is the same king who tried to wipe out Christianity and the original Catholic and Anglican missionaries. We visited the Okuzimba museum honoring them a few days ago.

So, Mwango builds this palace, gets all uppity, has a bunch of Christians killed, and creates huge problems for himself. He has a long, sorted history with the British, who were in colonization mode concerning all of East Africa, as well as the East India Trading Company. He was deposed twice, brokered power with the British multiple times (bleeding power from the Buganda to hand it to Britain to keep himself “in power”), was imprisoned and escaped multiple times, led rebellions, declared war on Britain once, etc. Colorful guy.

Milton Obote

Milton Obote, Prime Minister

Eventually, the Brits kicked him out for good and placed his 5th son by his 4th (of 16) wives, Daudi Chwa II, on the throne. His reign was comparably unremarkable, but he was succeeded by Mutesa II, whose reign was anything but. During Mutesa’s reign as king, the British floated the idea of federating the East India Company. Mutesa, and the Buganda, hated that idea, fearing it would bring them under white control, as had occurred elsewhere (e.g. Kenya). So, they rebelled, demanding independence for the Buganda kingdom from the Ugandan nation. Instead, in 1962, Uganda became an independent nation from Britain under the leadership of Milton Obote, as executive Prime Minister. Under the country’s new constitution, the Kingdom of Buganda became a semi-autonomous tribal region in a new Ugandan federation. And the post of colonial “Governor General” was abolished and replaced by a non-executive President, a post first held by the King.

These two men — Mutesa as king and president, and Obote as Prime Minister, who is the true head of the government — quickly came to be at odds on a great many issues. The conflict came to a head in 1966 when Obote was implicated in a gold smuggling plot, together with Idi Amin, then deputy commander of the Ugandan armed forces. When Parliament demanded Obote be investigated and Amin be fired, Obote suspended the constitution and declared himself President, disregarding the King and allocating to himself almost unlimited power under a series of emergency rulings. When I was listening to the guide describe this, scene after scene from Star Wars came to mind. I kept looking around for Anakin Skywalker.

Mengo Torture ChamberUltimately, Obote’s and Amin’s forces attacked the palace, captured it and sent Mutesa into exile. Over the next couple of decades, 25,000 people were then tortured and killed on the grounds of the palace. Here is a picture of the torture chamber (started out as a weapons armory). People were herded into this main long hallway area. There are five 20x20ft (or so) rooms to the left, each of which used to be closed off by a steel door. Imagine this room with about a foot of standing water in the main hallway. In order to torture or kill those in the chamber, the water could be electrified at various levels of intensity. Our tour guide said that they would torture people by turning the juice on low for 30 min at a time, shocking them in a way they couldn’t escape, letting them rest for an unpredictable (but short) length of time, then cranking the juice back on. Then, when they were done for the day, they’d herd them into the rooms on the left, lock the doors, and let the crowd thin by suffocation, before the let them back in the water for more torture. Highly disturbing.

In the end, the nation established a new constitution in 1997. They started out with a more balanced system, but the President now has nearly unlimited power (the current guy —Yoweri Museveni — is effectively a dictator, who has been in power for over 30 years and ignores much of the constitution). The King is a very influential figurehead, who appoints a very weak parliament. And the people are frustrated, because they (of course) want more ability to directly affect their own lives.

Idi Amin

Idi Amin

As fascinating as it was at the palace, I think I was the only one on our team who was really into it. Everyone else is (much!) younger, and they don’t remember who Idi Amin (or his buddy Muammar Gaddafi) was. To them, it’s theoretical. To me, it’s actual history. The other thing they seemed to struggle to grasp is that this kind of bloody transition of power is normal. Heartbreaking, but normal. It’s us in the US … who peacefully transition between leaders every few years and whose leaders actually respect the constitution to some degree … we’re the weird ones. It’s the US who is radically unusual in all of history, not Uganda. In most of the world and in most of history, the guy with the biggest stick is in charge. Period. And he typically, frequently, and with impunity kills lots and lots of people with smaller sticks. Sad, but nonetheless true. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

So, anyway, moving on…

After we left the palace, we ran around town a bit. We exchanged more money for a few team members, then came back to the hotel for lunch (an amazing Mongolian BBQ; SO good!), and then went shopping in a local (rather touristy) marketplace in the afternoon.

At the market, the shop owners were a bit pushy and aggressive, but they were nothing like those I encountered in Israel. There were no prices on anything, so you always have to ask what the store owners want for whatever you’re looking at. Then, you haggle your guts out, until you land on a final price. Our guide recommended that we start the wrangling by cutting the stated price in half right out of the gate. I’m not the best at this game, but I did end up getting got 3 dresses, 3 shirts, and a bunch of other smaller souvenirs for less than $100, so I don’t think I did too badly. It helps that the exchange rate is ~3,500 UGX (Uganda Shillings) to 1 USD. To give you a frame of reference, the average Ugandan salary this year is about 45M UGX (~$13k), a gallon of gas costs about 14,000 UGX (~$4) (1), and a loaf of bread costs about 3,000 UGX ($0.85) (2).

Having done our souvenir shopping for the trip, we spent the rest of the afternoon at a resort in Bugolobi (a district in Kampala). We swam, some folks played cards, and generally relaxed on a beautiful afternoon. Check this out…

 

And after that, it was dinner at everybody’s favorite place to eat in Uganda (*wink*): Café Java. Then we retired back to the guest house for cards and then sleep. All in all, it was a very interesting, educational, and fun day.


Image Credit:
1) Mwanga – Alchetron
2) Obote – Black Post
3) Amin – Watchdog Uganda

(1) – Average Salary Survey
(2) – Numbeo
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Uganda Travel Log: Day 10 – Traveling Cross Country

Location: Mbale to Mukono to Kampala, Uganda
Friday, May 26, 2017

Scenic Uganda

Today, we leave MBale. We got up early, enjoyed breakfast at the guest house, packed everything onto the bus, then walked next door to the JENGA main office to participate in the first few hours of their all-day staff meeting. The local JENGA team meets every Friday morning to fast and pray and worship together, and once a month, they expand this time together into an all-day training and planning session. In addition to prayer and praise, they use this time to learn and grow personally and to advance the ministry.

This month, the topic is leadership. After some prayer and worship time, Vincent (one of the leaders of the ministry) presented concrete steps to becoming a better leader. It was a very interesting a valuable session. He focused on two aspects of leadership which I agree are essential: vision-casting and influence. Then Amanda (our team leader) presented on the characteristics of a successful leader. When it was time for our team to leave (around lunch time), we gathered to pray for one another as a formal means for the JENGA team to send the US team back out from Mbale to return home after a week of ministry together. It was such a wonderful time of prayer. The JENGA team encircled us, laid hands on us, and prayed. Then we switched places. Then we hugged, some wept and everyone thanked God for one another. It was touching … and extremely encouraging. One of my favorite parts of the trip.

Before we left, we had the opportunity to do some shopping – buying items which support the various ministries and peoples around the Mbale area. I bought a tote bag for Faith (can’t have enough of those) and was especially excited about buying coffee, so picked up a couple of bags of that. Yum. Can’t wait to crack those puppies open!

Aiden, one of the JENGA volunteers (and who seemed to be the “unofficial official” photographer of the group) also took this fantastic group picture of us as we were gathering up preparing to leave…

Group Picture at JENGA

After we left JENGA, we stopped in town for some traditional Ugandan lunch (I think I’m gonna be okay leaving matoke and chipati behind), and then basically spent the rest of the day in the car traveling west. We drove back to Mukoto to drop off our Ugandan friends from UCU, which was another tearful goodbye, then we forged ahead to Kampala, where we’ll be staying the remainder of the trip to rest, share, shop, be tourists, and otherwise begin the transition back to our lives in the US. On the bus, driving out from Mbale, the Ugandan students gave a farewell address of sorts. They went around the circle describing something they appreciate about each of the American team members. It was very well done and very moving, and contributed strongly to the tearful nature of our mutual goodbyes.

Here’s a map of our route today, for the interested. Look for the gray dashed line in the SE quadrant of the country. Now that I see the image embedded, it’s not as bold and obvious as I would have liked, but it’ll do. Sorry about that.

uganda map 1

I find stuff like this fascinating. Note, for example, how big Lake Victoria is and that it is the head of the Nile River (at Jinja). From there, the Nile flows north (very unusual) up to Egypt and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Also note that where we were in Mbale is just on the other side of the mountains from Kenya (the border runs right through the mountains in which we were routinely adventuring). In fact, at one point on the trip, we passed a crowd of pilgrims from Kenya on their way to visit the Okuzimba shrine (where the Christian missionaries were martyred, and which we toured last Friday).

Also on the bus, Mandy, one of the Ugandans from UCU, taught us a new card game that I really like. This actually took place on the bus ride to Mbale, but I thought I’d share it today, since this entry is fairly short.

matatuThe game is called “Matatu.” It’s very similar to Uno, but it’s played with a deck of poker cards. It’s a little spicier than Uno, tho, and I really liked it. You deal each player 5 cards, then flip a card from the deck to determine the end-game card. Whatever suite comes up for that card, the 7 of that suite ends the game. Just like Uno, you must play the same suite or number. Aces are wild, twos are draw two, threes are draw three, eights are skips, and jacks are reverses. If I play a two card, you must draw two, unless you have a two as well. If you play your two on top of mine, then it “chains.” This can be done up to all four 2’s or 3’s. When you get down to 2 cards, you must say “warning” and when you get down to 1 card, you must say “card.” If someone says either of these before you do, you have to draw 5 cards. If a person runs out of cards, the other players keep playing until the end-game card is played. When it is, everyone counts their cards, and lowest score wins. Cards count as follows: A = 50, 2 = 20, J = 11, Q = 12, K = 15, and other cards are face value.

In case you’re interested, a version of Matatu exists for Apple and Android devices.

On the way across country, we stopped at a gas station for snacks. The good news is: snacks and shared. The bad news is: everyone got sugar snacks, including me — except one of the Ugandans who invested in Pringles, but didn’t share. It was horrible. I’ve eaten so badly on this trip, and this was like asking for a diabetic coma! I seriously doubt there was a single cheeseburger’s worth of actual nutrients shared among the 17 of us. Sad panda.

Cafe JavaBut a few hours later, we stopped at Café Java again for dinner, which was fantastic. Again, I had vegetables and grilled chicken. YES! I love this place. So many options, all good food. Good coffee. Clean restrooms. Etc.

We finally got back to the hotel we stayed at the first night after we arrived – the Namirembe Guest House – about 10pm. Of course, everyone wanted to play cards, so we did for a while. But they slept on the bus ride far more than I did (thank God for audiobooks), so I was pretty wiped. And I thank God I fell asleep easily again, even though we had transitioned to a new place.


Image credit:
1) Group picture – Aiden Patrick
2) Matatu – Google Play store
3) Others are mine
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