Archive for November, 2009

Lessons from The Big Guy

It’s that time of year again.  That time to go see The Big Guy himself: the jolly old man with the twinkle in his eye and the furry red suit.  It’s time to go see Santa!

We have visited the same Santa every year since Trey’s first Christmas.  As far as our family is concerned, he’s the real deal.  And sometimes, he gives me a little glimpse into the character of God.  This year was no exception.

Unfortunately, the comparison was a little different.  We had actually visited a different Santa first, at the Dickens of a Christmas festival in downtown McKinney.  This Santa took the time to interact with both our children, asking them what they wanted and responding to their requests.  He took a genuine interest in them and made them feel special.  He listened to what they said, and seemed to enjoy getting to know them.  Even when a line formed behind us, he didn’t hurry the children off.  He made sure the conversation came to a natural conclusion before he wished us well and told us he’d be by on Christmas Eve.

By contrast, our “regular” Santa was quite different this year.  Perhaps it was the fact that we showed up just a few minutes before closing time.  Perhaps it was the fact that there was a cute little baby in front of us.  Perhaps it was the fact that Santa was tired…or busy…or cold…or hungry.  The fact was, we were hurried through the process with very little interaction or interest.  Though Santa remembered us, he was not as welcoming or inviting to the children.  I almost felt as though we were imposing.  So we quickly gathered our coats and gloves and left, having spent less than 5 minutes with the one my children had waited 11 months to see.

I was deeply saddened by that encounter.  Disappointed.  Even a little hurt and angry.  As I thought about it that night and contrasted our two experiences, I was reminded of myself…and how I approach God.  Now, I realize God is more than a cosmic Santa Claus.  But like that first Santa, he welcomes us as we come to Him.  He has eternity available to Him, so time doesn’t matter.  He wants to know us, to hear our requests, to have us share with Him and talk to Him and take time just to be with Him.  He’s never too busy, or too tired, or too cold, or too hungry to spend time with us.  He loves us.  We are precious to Him.

But too often, I am like our regular Santa.  Preoccupied.  Distracted.  Put off with other things.  I may take a few moments here and there to spend time with God…but then it’s rush-rush-rush off to somewhere else.  And even in those few moments I spend, my mind wanders, thinking about things I need to do, people I would rather be with, or tasks I want to accomplish.  My Heavenly Father waits patiently for me…yet I treat Him more as an obligation than a precious Friend.  I perform my required duty without taking the time to develop and cultivate a relationship.  And because of that, I miss out on His blessing.  The joy of His presence.  The beauty of His fellowship.  And the richness of a life devoted to listening, hearing, and following Him.

This season, may I take the time amidst the busy-ness to listen.  To hear.  To rest.  To enjoy.  But most of all, to be filled with all that He is, and all that He can be through me.

Into Africa: Day 4

Dateline: 7:17 P.M. Gulu time.  That’s 9:17 A.M.  CST for those of you keeping score at home.

MEETING THE CHILDREN!

Today we finally got to meet the children!  It was a day of celebration for us all!

The children are trucked in from one of 5 different IDP camps around Gulu.  They range in age from infants to older teenagers.  All of them have been identified as orphans and are served by Village of Hope.  We met at the Gulu Baptist Primary School, which has a large open field where the children performed for us.

They had pulled out their desks from the classrooms in order to have places for us to sit.  They placed our benches underneath the trees while they crowded onto the benches in the sun or sat on the ground.

There were probably 200-300 children at the school today.  Unfortunately, due to recent rains one of the groups was not able to get there.  The rains made the road unpassable for their truck, and so they had to stay behind.  It took two trips in our van to get us all there, so while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, Jennifer and I “worked the crowd”, greeting the children and shaking their hands.  The children were very polite, if quiet, bowing to us as we said hello, and smiling shyly as we complimented them.  It was obvious they had worn their very best clothes for this special occasion, but most of them were still barefoot and their clothes often were stained or had holes and tears in them.  I thought of the vast amounts of clothes my children have hanging in their closets, stuffed into their drawers and was humbled and deeply grateful for God’s provision and grace in our lives.

As we waited, one boy in particular began doing cartwheels.  As soon as he realized I was watching, he began “performing”, and soon two other boys joined in.  They ended up dizzy and lying flat on the ground, but we were all laughing.  And seeing all that joy on their faces made me realize why I am here.

The groups came up one by one to perform for us: songs, memory verses, dances.  The traditional dances were my favorites, with the older boys beating out the rhythm on the drums and all the children from about 6 years old on up dancing to the beat and singing in their native Acholi language.  You could see the pure joy of escaping their harsh reality on their faces as they danced and sang.  For a few short moments, they had a community.  They had a place to be accepted, a place to belong.  They were the stars, admired by us.

We enjoyed lunch in one of the classrooms at around 3 P.M.  Slowly, I’m learning what being on “African time” means.  We were served first, and then each camp lined up to receive their food from the kitchen.  We were served meat in addition to the rice, beans, posho, bananas, and cabbage, but the children did not receive any meat.  While we were waiting for all the groups to be served, one group went into the classroom next door to us and had an impromptu jam session.  Of course, I had to go check it out.

By this time, after two 750 mL bottles of water and a bottle of Coca-Cola, it was time.  Time for the visit I was so not looking forward to.  Time to make the trek out to the pit latrines.  Now, I’ve done enough camping to be fine with using pit latrines.  However, in Uganda, most latrines are not made with Western-style seats.  No, my friends, they are squatty-potties.  Honestly, I would be more comfortable digging my own trench in the brush than having to use one of those. But that was not a choice, so off I went.  As I entered the dark stall, I was greeted with the raw smell and the “eww factor” of bodily fluids spilled onto the floor.  My first thought was I’m so glad my children aren’t here to have to deal with this.

And instantly, I was ashamed.

Ashamed of myself and my pride.  Ashamed for believing that in some way I deserve better than these people.  That my children deserve better.  Ashamed for wanting to shelter my children from the harsh reality that these children live out every day.  These beautiful orphans are someone’s children…someone who probably wanted to protect them as fiercely as I desire to protect mine.  And now they have no one to do that.  It’s up to us to make a difference in these children’s lives.

The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting and interacting with the children.  At the close of the day, we were each given an opportunity to speak to the children through an interpreter.  I spoke of the joy I saw in them as they sang and danced, and how it brought joy to my heart.  I thanked them for their hospitality and friendship and reminded them of the fact that they always have a friend in God…and now a new friend in America.

The trucks came shortly thereafter to pick up the children by groups.  Even though they had nothing to go back to, the children ran eagerly to their trucks and climbed aboard.  As they drove off, you could hear them calling and see them waving to us:  “Bye!!  Bye!!”  Our vans arrived and we loaded ourselves in to head back to town to the hotel.  I realized just how different my life is than the ones we had met today, and I was challenged that it is only by the grace of God that I enjoy these blessings.

Into Africa: Day 3 (part 2)

Dateline: 8:48 P.M. Gulu time.  That’s 11:48 A.M. CST for those of you keeping score at home.

REFLECTIONS ON GULU

I had the opportunity today to walk around this “vibrant” city and see it firsthand.  To witness the activity of daily life here with my own eyes.  To experience its movement, its rhythm, its pace.  To see the faces and look into the eyes of the people I have waited many months to be connected to.  These are the things I noticed:

  • First and foremost, I saw a boy (probably about 8 or 9 years old) wearing a Texas Aggies windbreaker!  It was dirty and hardly could be called “maroon” any more, but there it was, plain as day, emblazoned on the back: “Texas Aggies.”  I so wanted to take his picture.  And for the record, not a single stitch of Longhorns attire to be seen anywhere.  The Spirit of Aggieland lives in Africa.
  • Gulu is – on the surface, at least – “busy.”  there is activity going on all the time with people milling about and walking from place to place.  There are no sidewalks, so the streets are crowded with pedestrians, bicyclists, boda-bodas, and vehicles (mostly large trucks and passenger vans…most people don’t have means to own cars.  And why would you want to with the condition of these “roads?”) .  But as I looked around me, I noticed a hollowness, an emptiness to their lives.  It almost seems as if they’re trying to look busy or act busy for the sake of something to do.
  • Survival here is a full-time job.  From the moment people wake up to the time they go to bed late at night, their daily routine revolves around surviving.  Meals take hours to cook over charcoal fires that line the streets.  Shopping involves hopscotching from one shop to another, always negotiating for the best deal, never accepting anything at face value.  Nothing is simple, yet their lives are far less complicated than ours in the States.  Nothing is easy, yet the hardships are accepted without complaint.  There seems to be a predicable routine to life here.  The pace is comfortable to them.  It’s an ebb and flow that makes sense to them and their way of life.  Survival may be much more difficult here, but they find a way to make it work.
  • There were lots of children out and about all day long.  We saw some girls and boys – mostly teenagers or young tweens – in uniforms as if going to school.  But there was a much larger presence of children who were NOT in school – many appearing to be of school age – who were either left to loiter at the family business or were working themselves.  All day long we passed unattended children out walking the streets, whether on the roads to the villages or around the bustling center of town.  Some of these children were obviously preschoolers, with no older siblings or parents around to watch over them.
  • The people are friendly and warm, as I was told they would be.  They are very curious about Americans and our technology, especially our cameras!  Many Africans have cell phones, but our digital cameras seem to fascinate them.  Whenever we drive along the streets, people wave and greet us and children run alongside the van yelling “Hi!! Hi!!”  We stand out – for obvious reasons – despite our efforts to “blend in.”
  • Gulu is dirty – trash piles of rotting food and waste line the streets.  You can look down an alley and see it filled 3 feet deep with garbage of all kinds.  There are no trash cans visible anywhere and recycling is non-existent.  People throw their trash down wherever they happen to be standing, regardless of the environmental impact.  The roads are semi-paved throughout the center of town, but are nothing more than hard-packed dirt once you reach the outskirts or turn off a main road.  They are filled with potholes and deep ruts that make driving a slow, tedious process.  However, it’s neater than I expected, with evidences of western influence in clothing and economy.  The hotel is comfortable, if sparsely decorated, with warm and friendly service that would put most Americans to shame.

And now, since a picture is worth a thousand words, I give you the “vibrant” city of Gulu. Read the rest of this entry »

Into Africa: Day 3

Dateline:  2:37 P.M. Gulu time.  That’s 7:37 A.M. CST for those of you keeping score at home.

WE HAVE ARRIVED!

It’s been 38 hours since our flight left DFW, and I am now settled into my new home-away-from-home, the Hotel Roma in Gulu.

11-12-09 Hotel Roma sign (r)

Read the rest of this entry »

Into Africa: Day 2 (part 2)

Dateline: 12:30 P.M. somewhere-over-the-Mediterranean-Sea time.  According to my watch, it’s about 4:30 A.M. CST for those of you keeping score at home.

I am sitting on a 767 bound for Entebbe, next to a Senior Principal Auditor for the Ugandan government, flying over the Mediterranean Sea.  At some point I will have to stop pinching myself because the bruises are beginning to pile up.  That will probably have to wait until after we fly over the Sahara Desert and the sun goes down.

I must admit, I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of sitting next to a complete stranger for 8 hours.  Especially a man.  No offense, but really all I wanted to do was turn on my shuffle, listen to my music, and sleep.  I wasn’t feeling the desire to be especially friendly or talkative.  But God had other plans for me than sleep.  He had some talking and teaching to do, through a Ugandan government official.

We began with introductions and general pleasantries about our families and what we do for a living.  In the natural course of conversation, he asked why I was going to Uganda and what I would be doing there.  I responded that we were going to visit some friends who run an orphanage there and help them out with some of their responsibilities.  When I mentioned we would be going to Gulu, his response was, “Gulu is a vibrant city.  You will find the people as warm as the climate.  But it is a vibrant city.  I think you will like it there.”

I found this response curious.  I have no idea if he is out of touch with reality or was just trying to give me a good impression.  But to describe a city where refugees live in squalor and orphans were living on the street as “vibrant” struck me as odd.  And a bit arrogant.  As he talked about the privileges his children enjoy, I had to suppress my anger at the disparity of the children we were going to minister to.

And then, out of the blue, he looked me straight in the eye and asked:

“Tell me, what motivates you?”

Really, Lord?  Right here?  Right now?  THIS moment?

I took a moment to gather my thoughts…to try to assemble some sort of coherency to the jumble that was floating around in my brain.  To try to figure out a way to get those thoughts out of my mouth using words and sentences that would make sense.

I told him I have a strong faith.  That I’m a Christian and as a result believe firmly in God and desire to obey and follow Him.  That because He loves me so much, I try to do the things that would honor Him and please Him.  That I try to obey what the Bible says and live a life that reflects that.

He smiled and nodded his head.  And I felt the Spirit nudge me.  Ask him.

“But, Lord, my heart is still pounding.  My hands are still trembling.  And I don’t know if I’ve really done a good job of answering his question.”

Ask him.

“But what if he starts to ask questions?  What do I do then?”

Trust Me.  But just ask him.

And so I did.

“Now you tell me…what motivates you?”  I asked with a smile.

He responded, with a hem and a haw and an uncomfortable shift in his seat, “Pretty much the same thing.  I am a Christian, too.”

He handed me his business card with his address, telephone number and email on it and expressed his hope that we would be able to keep in touch.  Our conversation turned to a discussion of the symbols on the Ugandan flag pictured on his card and his visits to New York and Washington, D.C.

I have no idea how God will use that conversation, but it is my hope that in some small way I may have planted a seed in the heart of a government auditor in Kampala, Uganda…and that someday that seed may bloom and bear fruit.

UPDATE:  Just before the plane landed, he informed me that he was heading home because his mother had recently passed away.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to pray with him but expressed my sympathy and told him I would be praying for him and his family.  He smiled and thanked me and again expressed his hope to be hearing from me.  By then it was time for us to get off the plane and so our conversation ended.  I knew I would be going to Africa to minister to orphans.  I never expected I might also have the opportunity to minister to a government official, too.

Into Africa: Day 2

Dateline:  7:30 A.M. London time.  That’s 1:30 A.M. CST for those of you keeping score at home.

Well…we made it!  Halfway, at least.

All thanks to the power of prayer.

Oh, let’s see…where should I start?

Perhaps I should start at check-in, where we arrived with all our baggage and tickets in hand, ready to embark on this adventure.  Our coordinator, Cindy, had called ahead and been assured we would each be able to bring on two checked bags with no additional fees – providing our bags were within the 50-lb. limit.  Because we were bringing Christmas presents to the children at the safe house, and supplies and materials to the Doud’s (missionaries on the land) and Rose and Charles (house parents at the safe house), we all had two carry on bags and two checked bags.  When we approached the desk to begin check-in, we were informed that we would have to pay for our second bag…to the tune of $75 apiece.  Those of us who had started check-in stopped.  Our momentum came to a screeching halt as a few key members of our group began negotiations with the check-in desk, and others of our group began negotiations with the Almighty.  Once again, the Almighty prevailed, and after several tense minutes we were able to finish check in with no problems.

And then there was the flight itself.  Though there were no major delays in leaving DFW, and we had been assured by our captain that it would be a smooth flight all the way to London, I soon discovered that my definition of “smooth” didn’t exactly match up with the captain’s.  You see, to me “smooth” means “no bumps, dips, or jarring motions.”  To the pilot, smooth means, “anything that give you less of a beating than riding the Texas Giant at 6 Flags.”  The cabin crew had just started serving dinner when the turbulence began.  And it wasn’t long before the captain ordered the crew to stow their carts and take their seats.  Seriously?!  I think it was about that moment that I started praying…for more than a blessing over the food.  But thanks to a Good Pilot and good piloting, we managed to sail right over the worst at 37,000 feet.

Or perhaps I could share about the Adventures with Dudley at the airport.  How they whisked him off in a wheelchair to our connecting flight without his passport…or ticket.  How one of us was stuck with 3 carry on bags to try to get through security.  How the airport staff was less than helpful in assisting us in locating our missing team member.  How he went to two different terminals because he didn’t have his ticket and couldn’t remember the flight number.  And how, after a few quick prayers and some resourceful thinking, our team was reunited with time to spare.

I know mission trips are a time to grow, to see God’s hand at work and to learn more about Him and ourselves.  I know mission trips are an opportunity for intense spiritual disciplines.  I know mission trips are all about stepping out of our comfort zones and deepening our faith and dependence on God.  I guess I just didn’t realize how quickly those lessons would begin.

Into Africa: Day 1

The following posts are taken from my journal and mixed with personal recollections.  I have backdated them to reflect real-time thoughts and events as I experienced them.

Whew.  As I sit – somewhat comfortably – in my assigned seat near the window of an American Airlines 777 bound for London, I am finally able to catch my breath.  The past 10 hours have been a whirlwind of hyperventilating proportions.  The spiritual battle to keep me off this plane has been relentless, with Satan pulling out his big guns and using every strategy at his disposal to discourage me, to frighten me, to prevent me from following.  But thankfully, I take orders from the Commander-in-Chief Himself, and somehow He always manages to emerge victorious.  Every time.

First, it was my fig.  This temptation has threatened to consume my mind and distract me from spending time with my husband and children.  From mentally preparing for my trip.  From spending time with God, praying and reading His Word.  From emotionally connecting to what God will do in and through me on this journey He has called me to.  Though I know victory is ultimately mine, the battle is far from over.  Despite my inner struggle, I am determined not to fall…and to follow in obedience to where God has called me.

With that strategy failing, Satan tried another.  This time, it was an attack on my children.  My daughter, in particular.  Around dinnertime, she suddenly became violently ill.  Her timing couldn’t have been worse, as we were on a tight schedule to get to Trey’s Cub Scout Patrol meeting.  I tried desperately – and in vain, as T-Mobile’s network was strangely “out of service” – to get in touch with Matt to come home so I could go to the meeting.  God provided two angels, in the form of my fellow patrol leaders, to come to my rescue, leading the meeting in my absence and providing transportation for Trey so he could attend.  And around 8:30 P.M…Crisana’s symptoms suddenly vanished.  The screams of pain quieted.  The violent and incessant retching ceased.  The Great Physician had intervened, bringing physical healing to His little one…and emotional healing to this mother’s heart.  Knowing that my daughter was going to be fine, I was able to finish packing with a sense of calmness and peace.

Now, it was time for the big guns.  If Satan couldn’t distract me with temptations, or dishearten me with a sick child, maybe he could prevent me from going by making it impossible for me to get there.  My morning had been incredibly busy, with piano lessons and last-minute errands filling every possible moment.  I had time enough to *almost* finish my to-do list, but had one final errand to run on the way to meet the group at the church.  We loaded up my bags in the car and headed to the church, only to realize that we had left something at home.  Matt dropped me off at my errand destination and headed home to get what we had forgotten.  I finished my errand and waited outside the store.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  I watched the minutes on my watch tick away, as time grew shorter and shorter…and finally became late.  Without my cell phone, I was at a loss to know what had happened…or have any way to contact anyone at the church to let them know where I was.  Sure enough, Matt had been stopped and ticketed on the way home for an expired registration sticker.  The sticker may have expired a year ago…but it was TODAY, of all days, that he received the ticket.  TODAY.  But God held the vans at the church until I arrived.  The victory was mine.

So here I am, sitting on a plane bound for Africa.  Okay, so this plane is bound for London…but the next plane is bound for Africa.  And I’m reminded that somehow, some way, through all of this drama and stress, through all my failings and inadequacies, God will be honored and glorified. His purpose in me will be accomplished.  The journey may be hard but the reward will be well worth it all.

Into Africa

Well, today’s the big day.  The day I’ve been alternately dreading and eagerly anticipating for 7 months.  The day I take one giant step out of my comfort zone and place myself squarely in the palm of God’s hand…and make myself at home.

Today, I leave for Africa.

Sometimes, it’s: today I leave for Africa???

Other times it’s: today I leave for Africa!!!

And there have been moments of: today I leave for AFRICA!?!?!?!?!

My bags are packed.  I’ve checked my “suggested packing list” – all 3 of ‘em – at least twice.  Each.  I have a few final details circled on my to-do list this morning.  I have my passport, my yellow fever card, and all my required documents ready for inspection.  I’ve got my snacks – including raisins, no figs (thanks to my good friend Lori) – and medicines and toiletries all appropriately labeled, packed, and organized.  I’ve measured and weighed my carry-on and suitcase to be sure I’m within the required limits.   As my children used to say, I’m as ready as a liver bean.

At least, I think I am.  Who knows if I’m truly prepared for what I will see, what I will experience?  Who knows what divine encounters God has planned for me and the team?  Who knows all the challenges and joys I will face daily as I “follow”?  I certainly don’t.  But thankfully, I know the One who does.  And the best part about it is He’s my Friend.  I can trust Him.

And so I will.

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