Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Small World After All

It was, and is, one of those stories in which God's careful orchestration still causes me to shake my head and smile.

But it arrived in the form of two and a half days of travel. Five planned flights. Six actual flights. Two nights "sleeping" upright on a full plane. Unnumbered queues in five airports in five countries.

A delayed flight from Dulles Airport to Brussels had somehow resulted in the longest travel of  John's and my lives as we limped from Little Rock, Arkansas to Entebbe, Uganda. (Neither easily located on a map by the average Joe, I'd wager.)

I call this one "bliss."
But God obviously has no wasted experiences in His economy. Bewildered and sleep-deprived with about eleven other travelers to Uganda, we traipsed around international airports. We slept in terminals. We swapped ideas to stretch our meal vouchers. And we mostly sat around and talked, sharing the stories that were carrying us to Africa. Some of us even herded Ugandan children like the one who fell asleep in my lap--to my utter delight.

Among a diplomat, a soldier, a Ugandan family, and a number of Christian aid workers, John and I met Lizzy and Cindy. They were heading to Uganda to meet who they hoped would be their future daughters in an orphanage for the first time. (How cool is that?!) Despite the hovering fatigue, it was beautiful to hear and see their anticipation to gather into their homes these beautiful girls they'd never met.
Lizzy, kid-magnet and adoptive mom-to-be

As we all prodded kids together in the Brussels and Frankfurt airports (which Lizzy and Cindy shouldered far more than I), took kids to run out their energy or use the bathroom, and laughed in exhaustion at our degree of jet lag or hygiene decline, I found comfort in watching God's plans unfold--despite whatever ours had been. I loved getting to know His Body as it was built up and sent out around the world. I loved contemplating whether I'd be holding a little brown baby of my own someday, or just how much I missed my little blonde and brunette ones.

The plot thickened when Cindy and Lizzy ended up staying at the same guest house in Kampala: "No way!" We complimented each other on how good we looked without airport grime after a good shower.  Stopping at each other's rooms in the evenings or parting the jet lag fog at breakfast, we compared notes of what we'd experienced, and what baffled or fascinated us. John and I borrowed their computer for a couple of Skype attempts. He and I got the 411 on their first boda-boda (death-defying motorcycle taxi) experience.

Continuing in the uncanny, the four of us hung out at the airport awaiting our shared flights out of Kampala. Lizzy and I brushed our teeth together in the restroom and tried to swallow our anxiety as we waited (again) through security lines that threatened our boarding time. Back in the old U.S. of A., we swapped information as we concluded a life-changing and unplanned journey together.

...Or so we thought. I was delighted this past week to receive a Facebook message from Lizzy: She, Cindy, and their husbands are scheduled to depart for Kampala on January 27 to pick up their girls for good! And yes--that's three days before we'll get there. Lord willing, I can't wait to see these forever families together for the first time.

Just to say it clearly: God still amazes me.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Memos from a wreck

I’d taken my mom out for her birthday: falafel and jasmine rice at this great new Mediterranean place with only a handful of tables. She had received a gift card for Barnes & Noble from a friend, and me being the bibliophile I am, I was more than happy to top off the night poking around the aisles. So we headed out, chatting and laughing. At a stoplight I glanced at the clock on the bank across the street, marveling at how fast time passed when we were together. When the light turned green, the minivan gathered its strength for the uphill left turn.

It’s then that I saw the headlights in my peripheral vision. I gasped. Braked. Then braced myself as a Corolla barreled into the front of our van. (Barreled it off, it turns out.) My head and shoulder hit the door. We spun about 90 degrees. 

Mom and I sat there, stunned, assessing each other and ourselves—unhurt, except for what would be a goose egg tomorrow. Quizzed each other: I had the green, right? Yep. Still green. Did you see him? She wanted to know. Because I didn’t see him. Looked into the car that was now adjacent to us, where thankfully driver and passenger were conscious, certainly shaken.

In all the ensuing chaos of lights, paperwork, and metal, many little gifts from God began revealing themselves. They piled themselves around us in so many heaps: My mom and I stepping out of the van, virtually unscathed. A sober, insured, and humble driver who admitted fault, along with a witness who heard him. My four kids sleeping at home with a trustworthy babysitter. Fast, insightful emergency personnel. Responsive insurance companies. Kind, intuitive friends to pick us up since my husband and father were out of town together. Even free drinks at the nearby Starbucks when at last we walked in to use the bathroom, dazed and scattered.

But my greatest revelation didn’t show itself until the next morning on the phone with my very relieved grandma. I was attempting to explain the damage to our van—how it had shook and lurched when the tow truck separated the two vehicles so crunched together, our grill and fender now gone, wheels cocked sideways. (The speed limit on the cross road is 45.) I was telling my grandmother how I braked, and then…

I braked.

What if I hadn’t braked?

That smashed front end that groaned when it was separated would have been—my door.

I had not just walked away unhurt. I had walked away alive.

In a split second, God had possibly saved not only my health, but my life. Mine. God seemed to make it very generously, kindly clear that He still has plans for me here on terra firma. When I put down the phone, I went over and kissed my daughter’s head, suddenly hugely, somberly thankful to be making her oatmeal as she waited there in her pink flannel nightgown, wrapped up in her quilt.

In this whole journey to Africa, I have increasingly felt like a spectator, in a good way. God’s plans seem to whirl around me in gracious and powerful ways that open my eyes to how I am part of His plans, and not the other way around. It was a feeling of Psalm 91: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty…under his wings you will find refuge.”

As I have watched God work powerfully around us—this little family way in over our heads, running like hamsters on a wheel trying to get ourselves out of the country—I have felt covered.

Side story: Retrieving some medicine from the pharmacy the other day, my kids were bouncing up and down like little pogo sticks. “We’re moving to Uganda!” one of them brightly announced to the pharmacist. She probably thought something like, What a nice story. Where did you hear about that place? Isn’t that in South America somewhere? So I offered a lopsided grin. “Actually, they’re telling the truth. We’re moving to Africa.” She looked at me, then glanced at the kids who were racing around me. Her eyebrows lifted.

“Are y’all nuts?”

Good grief. I didn’t even have all my kids with me.

The comforting theme of that story to me, which surfaces in little vignettes all over the place: Apart from God, yes, this is pretty close to bonkers. But with God, we are covered by Him. It’s as if our family keeps doing our little part, working and working away at all the strange and widely scattered details of immunizations and lists of items to bring and pricing garage sale items. Things are careening at breakneck speed and even crashing around us. But over all these things that are so far beyond what we’re capable of, my family hears, Just watch. I’ve got this one.

Be still.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

And--we're on our way

Arriving in Uganda last June
I'm guessing that most of you have gotten wind of our new direction. But just to get it all out there:

We're moving to Africa.

As in Kampala, Uganda. As in January. As in all six of us.

And baby, it is already one wild ride.

There are a thousand stories to tell you already about this crazy adventure God is writing--and a dream He's fulfilling. These stories find me swerving deeply into faith, and sometimes back into fear, too.

At the recommendation of a friend, I began a list last week of the definitive ways God's encouraged us and communicated so clearly to us, from our perspective, that this is where He's directing. There were already 25! Some of them are uncanny:
  • Finding eMi from a Google search, and upon clicking to contact for more information, it's an old family friend (close enough that my parents were his godparents). 
  • The eMi World Staff Conference that hasn't happended in five years but was held in August in Colorado--so my kids got to meet all of their new missionary kid friends from Uganda right here in the States. 
  • The woman who offered to pay for our plane tickets before we sent out our first letter.
  • This position with eMi that combines some vastly different areas of John's gifting into one occupation crafted for him--that fuels both of our passion for helping the oppressed.
  • John's recent connection with the deputy ambassador from Uganda regarding Peacemaking there.
Watching God work has been breathtaking. I keep verbalizing things like, "Seriously?!"

And still, I find myself mentally dashing back to Hebrews 11 as step after step closes doors and opens others toward January 30, 2012. With God's grace, I screw my courage to sticking places like this:

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (vv. 15-16)

Verses like these--and especially those that remind me of God's character--comfort me as we've said some quiet but significant goodbyes lately. Like to most of our stuff at a garage sale. Like hearing that my son's friend was crying about him leaving. Like my sister wondering again how she'll explain to my two-year-old niece that her cousins/best friends won't be coming around anymore. Or our closing chapter to another faith journey that was FamilyLife, one that was so far beyond what we could ever ask or imagine or think. We have been deeply blessed here. And we're not moving because we think we would be more blessed somewhere else, but because He's asking. So as I walked out of the building alone after a horde of friends prayed for us, the door thumped shut behind me on a place where I've felt respected and that my input and gifts were desired and used. As I think of that, each time I have to decide: Faith, or fear?

We have seen God blow our minds too many times to doubt this journey. He has been good, good, good even in times of great pain for us, and even now, the countless little (and big) generosities are humbling, even mind-boggling. They are, and He is, around every corner, encouraging us and calling us on. But would you pray that in every small moment, we would not just be pulled along, but be more than conquerors?

My other request is this. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of tasks, and simply the emotion of this road that is separating us from things and opportunities, but more importantly people, who are dear to us. I find myself crying at random times; praise songs take on these new shades of meaning; and circumstances often require I pray in lieu of freaking out. I'd ask you to pray for our strength, and that we'd know--and do--the good works God's prepared in advance for us.

The great thing about a time like this in which you're completely in over your head (!) is that success can only mean one thing: It wasn't you.
A sweet moment: Holding a (sleeping) fellow Ugandan traveler on our extended layover last June

Sunday, July 3, 2011

“So—how was Uganda?!”

I have been wondering how to best answer this question for so many of you. (Thank you, friends, for your prayers for us.) If a picture is worth a thousand words and I saw more than a thousand pictures in our week there in Africa, it will take more than one blog post to tell you. Especially if I want you to read it.

John and I traveled with Engineering Ministries International (eMi)—their East Africa branch, which serves eight countries in that area. We have a strong connection to their director, a family friend from my childhood. Essentially, they partner with Christian ministries in those countries to help design and construction-manage facilities for ministries like orphanages, churches, hospitals, schools for underprivileged kids, etc. using local workers. Simultaneously, they disciple and evangelize the local workforce on these projects…men who are doing all of the construction, from excavation to finish, by hand. You can check out eMi's website and/or this very moving video.

We were incredibly impressed with the organization's understanding and holistic, long-term view of how to truly help those in the vise-grip of poverty. EMI's views and methods were similar to a book, When Helping Hurts, that's been critical in forming John's passion for building up the powerless—though it also points out that we all have poverties of various forms. EMI is working hard to break cycles of poverty rather than perpetuate them. They're seeking to work themselves out of a job in developing these men as skilled workers (and husbands and fathers) who can build a strong, godly Africa—rather than make locals dependent upon mzungus (the Ugandan term that denotes a foreigner, usually a white person). This is a challenge, since Uganda's history as a British colony (ending in only 1962) seemed to communicate that white people were worthy of a higher degree of respect, and were a source of opportunity and wealth that could save them. We were definitely Caucasian head-turners in a crowd there.

Uganda is a place of such great contrasts to me. Its beauty is staggering: We stayed on the Nile for three nights in the most beautiful place I have ever been, topping even Switzerland in its ability to mesmerize me with its natural grandeur. We watched monkeys leaping from branch to branch, and oarsmen muscling their way against the current in dugout canoes. The colors alone dazzled this right-brained amateur of an artist/photographer. Even the birds were in jewel tones; the flowering trees were lush and full. Winston Churchill once called Uganda "The Pearl of Africa," and it's easy to see why. Plus, the Christians I met were undoubtedly kind, gracious, and hospitable.

But the poverty, too, was nearly seamless. Next to our retreat center on the Nile were thatched huts of children in torn clothes wandering among goats and chickens and pressing themselves against the wire fence to watch us. Once I was able to absorb the absolutely harrowing road traffic here, I noticed how many travelers on foot were without shoes —many with sizeable bundles on their heads. In fact, many construction workers were also barefoot, clad in flip-flops, or in ill-fitting shoes. You can see why tetanus is common, though a person who dies of lockjaw is still thought to be bewitched. For a country of 32 million, there are only 65,000 university spots. A majority of scholarships go to those from the president's region, leaving the eastern part of the country economically disadvantaged. Fifty percent of the population is below the age of 14; the life expectancy is 52. HIV/AIDS infects 6.5% of the population, which overall is considered "high risk" for infectious disease according to the CIA. (I can attest to this by having to "choose" with my doctor the most critical vaccines before my system would be overloaded, a problem we attempted to aid with an arsenal of prescription medications just in case.) For decades, world-renowned despots like Idi Amin (I understand he's the dictator portrayed in the movie The Last King of Scotland) took hundreds of thousands of lives; Amin even took all the money in the national bank. Joseph Kony, too, has made world headlines with his horrific, systematic brainwashing of children through forced brutality to their own families in order to create armies of violent child soldiers. Uganda's history is painful and at times crippling.

As I spoke to Richard, the foreman speaking in eMi's video above, I was captivated by a story from his childhood. He and his family had spent a night in the bush fleeing some tribal rivalries that had taken advantage of the overturn of power from one despot to another. One tribe was killing fathers in order to make their sons child soldiers. When he told me how old he was, I was surprised: Honestly, he looked older than his years. I mentioned, "You've seen a lot in your days, Richard."

He responded, "Most Ugandan men have."

I thought back to the photos of my sweet sons I'd just showed him from my camera. In grooming them into godly young men of courage who will lead their families, I am aware of how God wires boys to constantly seek out small competitions and battles that reinforce their ability to conquer and guide and protect. Maybe it's by determining the highest stairstep they can jump off without breaking their heads open, or maybe it's another battle between the Nerf sword and the Nerf battle axe. But these little feats gradually instill a sense of "I can." Yet Ugandan men, in this na├»ve, Caucasian American female's estimation, are constantly hearing, You can't. You can't provide for your family. You can't protect them. Richard explained to me—no, practically pleaded with me—that he thinks his country's greatest need are for its men to step up and lead their countries and their wives and their children, loving them well.

Poverty has, in my limited understanding from those who work in Uganda, left many of their people with a survivor's mentality—akin to an orphan's personality, especially since so many are in fact orphaned. Most are concerned with short-term problems of how to make it through the next day. They can lack some ability in long-term planning and foresight, whether that's with attention to quality on the job site or whether or not it would be most beneficial to steal a tool that might lose you your job but earn several days' wages if they sold the tool. As you might expect, poverty motivates many to manipulation and deceit, which are commonplace.
But I have a lot to learn from Ugandans. They tend to see wealth as something to be shared with a community. They place a high value on extended family. Their lack of convenience has brought them remarkable resourcefulness. Their pace of life is governed by their love for relationships. In short, they had—have—a lot to teach me about the image of God they reflect.

Not only that, but I find myself moved to the point of action. I fully trust that God is sovereign and good without me, so I need not be motivated by guilt or by fear for these beautiful people. Yet how can I go away from all that I've seen and do nothing? How should we then live? I found myself returning to that old analogy of the man walking along the beach strewn with starfish who would die unless they were thrown back into the ocean. He comes upon a boy who's picking them up and throwing them back in. The man says to the boy, "Why are you doing this? It doesn't matter; you can't save all of them!" And the boy answers as he pitches one into the surf, "It matters to that one." The question we must answer: Which are the "starfish", so to speak, that God's wanting us to throw back in?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

X-Ray Questions

Just when I think that I'm seeing less of some of the longtime idols in my heart...I realize that they've only evolved to a higher--or is that lower?--form of sorts: more crafty and cunning in their disguises. So I'm finding this list of "X-Ray Questions" from author David Powlison's book Seeing with New Eyes very helpful. Questions like these help keep my heart from sidestepping its deep-seated, twisted depravity to listen to the Holy Spirit instead. A sample:

1. What do you love? Hate?

2. What do you want, desire, crave, lust, and wish for?What desires do you serve and obey?

3. What do you seek, aim for, and pursue?

4. Where do you bank your hopes?

5. What do you fear? What do you not want? What do you tend to worry about?
What a list, huh?!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mere mortals

I was sitting at Arby's not too long ago and noticing all the kinds of different people one might see at an Arby's, munching on their Arby-Qs or curly fries or whatnot. That's when a quote came to mind, by God's grace:

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 1949)
(...No, that whole quote was not on the tip of my tongue in an Arby's.) C.S. Lewis also has a marvelous image portrayed in The Great Divorce, of a woman in Heaven who is a truly great heavenly being; her presence can't be missed, and is beautiful to behold. From what I remember, she was a no-name on earth. But here, her being is unmistakable, because on earth, she loved well.

So as I looked around the Arby's, at the woman who took my change and other people who I might mentally dismiss--and admittedly, in my sin, readily shelve into categories based on looks or mental ability or even sinfulness (on my bad days, I'm sure I've landed on someone else's "sinful" shelf)--I might be encountering a heavenly celebrity. Amazing, isn't it?

Today I was reading a story with the kids. It was based on that classic metaphor of a caterpillar morphing, at long last, into a butterfly. And now, I have an image to attach to my meandering thoughts. What if some of the "caterpillars" we encounter in this world are just dormant heavenly butterflies, who will astound us with their true beauty when at last it's revealed? It's not unlike that Jack Black movie, Shallow Hal, when women appear outwardly as beautiful (...or as ugly) as they are inwardly. Wouldn't our world be a little easier if we could judge books by their covers? I wonder if mine would really look as good as  I sometimesmake it out to be.

But alas...the Great Ruse of the Curse prevails: The price tags here will always be switched--the cheap things appear invaluable, and too often I find myself passing up the priceless.

Tonight, I'm sitting in Starbucks, looking around and wondering how God sees these people around me complete with their eternal destinies, sitting right here sipping their grande chais. These thoughts have already made me linger a little longer in conversation, or slip in an extra grin toward someone.

After all, who knows?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Quote: Spurgeon on pride

This quote seems to startle me every time I read it...and show me that I still have a long way to go.

O believer, learn to reject pride, seeing that you have no ground for it. Whatever you are, you have nothing to make you proud. The more you have, the more you are in debt to God; and you should not be proud of that which renders you a debtor. Consider your origin; look back to what you were. Consider what you will have been but for divine grace. Look upon yourself as you are now. Doesn’t your conscience reproach you? Don’t your thousand wanderings stand before you, and tell you that you are unworthy to be called His son or daughter? And if He has made you anything, aren’t you taught thereby that it is grace which has made you to differ? Great believer, you would have been a great sinner if God had not made you to differ. O you who are valiant for truth, you would have been as valiant for error if grace had not laid hold upon you. Therefore, don’t be proud, though you have a large estate - a wide domain of grace, once you did not have a single thing to call your own except your sin and misery. Oh!
Strange infatuation that you, who have borrowed everything, should think of exalting yourself...
(Charles Spurgeon)

If you're looking for a practical and truly wonderful message on this topic, check out this one by Francis Chan, which made it worth my youngest getting up at six one morning so I could listen to it...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Asking for directions

The other day found me gritting my teeth in anxiety, hauling a minivan of four kids six and under—one carsick—over the hills of the backwoods of Bryant. When I'd left in a hurry to get my oldest (aka Mr. Carsick) to soccer practice on time, I'd taken a shortcut with what I thought were clear directions. Ah, but here I was, careening around potholed roads with nary a clue as to where I should go next.

My husband was out of town and not accessible on the ol' cell phone. So thinking quickly, I dialed my dad. He's one of those guys born with a map in his head: Strap a blindfold on, spin him around eighty times, and he can still point west. Not only that, but he's quick on the draw with his iphone GPS.

To my relief, he picked up immediately. As soon as I explained my dilemma/ignorance, he was on the computer, and seconds later, he was telling me what buildings I'd expect next and exactly where to turn. In his voice, I could hear his actual enthusiasm to help me. This was right up his alley. Within minutes—and finally on some straight roads—I was headed back toward the known world. The difference between the anxiety of being lost and late was replaced by the peace of a map and landmarks I could trust, not to mention the voice that had been giving me directions for life since before I could talk. He didn't let go of the phone until I was secure and doubtless of my destination. His voice sounded satisfied, happy to help.

Lately I've found myself continually seeking God for His direction on some big issues that are important to me. Sometimes the waiting and uncertainty morph into stealthy, gripping fear. But as I was reminded by my sweet Dad and a well-timed sermon, God's immediate and eager, not reticent, to offer me direction. I may not have the clarity of a cell phone in my ear, but I do have His Spirit. The question's not whether He'll be faithful to lead me into His will—what He wants!—but rather whether I'll allow myself to be filled with faith, patience, and joy as His perfect timing evolves:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:5-6)

He's my shepherd who guides me with rod and staff, who leads me in paths of righteousness for His own Name's sake—in a sense, the ultimate GPS. Bonus: Even I don't even have to worry about being late.