It’s December 30th 2016 and we are boarding a plane from Amsterdam to NY. After three months in Africa we just spent four hours in an airport with wall to wall fine food, perfume and jewelry stores. There are coffee and candy and Tulip stores. There are liquor stores and clothing stores and cheese stores galore filled with Gouda blocks and Cheddar blocks the size of your head. There’s a place to take shower and a place to take a nap. There are toilets that flush with actual seats in private stalls with toilet paper mounted on painted walls. There are sinks that work, soap dispensers with soap and paper towel dispensers with paper towels. There is even a ventilated, glass room where smokers can smoke and one wall is made out of Heineken beer.
We walked for a while just seeing the sites before stopping for breakfast. We found a Dutch stand and ordered gourmet coffee and muffins, the cost of which would feed a Mozambiquen family of four for week but who’s judging; right? I contemplated the mass of people in the Rhino refugee camp without water or food all the while sipping my espresso and swallowing the succulent cake. I wondered and prayed as I chewed, if the South Sudanese children we met in the camp and two babies in particular, were still alive and if it was wrong to be at peace with my own powerlessness apart from prayer. After all wasn’t it Jesus who said the poor would always be with us?
Boarding is nearly complete now and the stewardess is passing out earphones while passengers scroll through inflight entertainment options in search of something to take their minds off the indomitable task of sitting for hours in a cushioned seat that reclines. I just heard the “F-Word” for the very first time in three months. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I jumped in my seat even though the teenager behind me had employed it as a simple conjunction in an otherwise normal sentence. What am I feeling right now? I think ambivalent might be the word. I do believe our reentry process is officially under way.
We have experienced a lot in the last three months and there’s lots to unpack. In case you didn’t know I’m starting to unpack right now and right here. So please excuse the seemingly disjointed thoughts as I write. Unpacking is rarely as sequential and organized as packing. Not to mention that some or all of the laundry might be, shall we say, less than clean. But as Papa Rolland Baker says, things are not always as they first appear, sometimes the answer is not “yes or no” but “yes and no” and the Kingdom of Heaven is upside down.
We have experienced a lot in the last three months. Our team saw blind eyes open, the deaf hear, the lame walk and children doomed to die live. We have lived in a refugee camp and deep in the bush, preached the gospel to leaders and those in prison. We saw the miraculous multiplication of food. We have seen people come to Jesus in droves.
We hugged little Muslim children who threw rocks at us. We have helped to start businesses, plant a church, rescue orphans, pay for job training, taught videography to children, fixed a wheel chair, bought a wheel chair and put a new roof on a wheel chair ridden guy’s house. We saw machine-gun fire interrupted and countless lives saved when the machine gun miraculously broke in half. We helped save a baby, named a baby, furnished a nursery and handed out more soccer balls, bread rolls, cookies and flip-flops than we can possibly count. I have laughed and cried more and harder than ever before and sometimes simultaneously. In fact I sobbed so hard one day when Heidi taught that I literally thought I might die. There were other days when I was angrier and more frustrated than I have been in years. Still we have seen more of the world and built more relationships within more cultures in the last three months than we have in all of our previous fifty plus years. Yei God!! Yet missions is deeper than simply giving, building and doing things. I know it but can I explain it as I unpack?
God really started a work in me, in us during Harvest School. We knew he would. That’s why we went. It was during our final outreach to South Sudanese refugees when an important part of that work finally came to a head.
Nothing about the final leg of our African adventure had worked out as expected. I had planned to be a part of a proverbial Holy Spirit Calvary dodging bullets and ministering to child soldiers in a South Sudanese war zone. Instead I ended up wrapping Christmas gifts for 117 South Sudanese orphans in Uganda.
But I spent the rest of my time sitting with, hugging, singing and dancing with traumatized children to a point where I was starting to feel more like Mary Poppins than the Machine Gun preacher. But enough about me.
The truth is these South Sudanese refugee children are by far the most patient, humble, gentle, forgiving, loving and spirit filled human beings I have encountered any where this side of heaven. It would have been entirely worth the trip if all we ever did was hear them worship and pray. They have given up everything; parents, homes, friends and families to narrowly escape from a civil war with their lives and the shirts on their backs. And yet they have purposed in their hearts to forgive those who harmed them. Their one desire is for peace; peace in their country and peace in their hearts. They are incredibly resilient and independent. The older children care for the younger ones. They take turns doing laundry by hand as well as the other chores such as cooking and cleaning. They never need to be asked or supervised. They lead worship on their own. They compose skits and dances and teachings from the Bible on their own. Many times there was literally nothing for us to do on such a short term basis. So we sang songs with them and we danced with them. We laughed and played soccer with them. We ate food they cooked for us and celebrated Christmas with them. Yes we bought them a crazy amount of crazy gifts
as we westerners are prone to do.
Even so we were not the proverbial calvary we had imagined ourselves to be. We were still students being taught and ministered to by those whom Jesus said we must become like.
We were and are undone.
Luckily we were able to do at least one thing that had a concrete impact. Sort of… I guess… Several of the kids at the orphanage are in their late teens and early twenties which means raging hormones create a need for discipleship specifically in the area of dating and marriage.
One strength in this situation was that South Sudanese culture is quite prohibitive when it comes to public displays of affection even between a husband and wife. Therefore in a effort to honor the culture and avoid becoming a stumbling block Cathy and I intentionally maintained a respectable distance from one another when we were in public. Then the team scheduled some times whereby some of the married couples could speak into the lives of the teens regarding the topic of relationships and the opposite sex. However Cathy and I did not participate in these. We assumed (perhaps wrongly) that we were either too old and or our sorted pasts that included divorce might further complicate an already potentially confusing cross cultural topic.
Ironically by the end of the outreach the kids reported being more impacted by our marriage than by anything else we said or did. They said they saw that Cathy and I “loved each other so much, always cared for one another, worked together and always had one another’s backs.” They said they want what we have one day. The Lord used our presence and who we are in Him to teach the very thing we purposed not to teach. After all marriage is supposed to be the model of Christ’s relationship with His Church. We got out of His way and He shined through us in spite of us. Yei God.
So what is the lesson in all of this? Well it will probably change a bit as I continue to unpack but maybe the point for today is the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God. Things are often not as they first appear and the deeper things of God are often only found within the smaller things of the world.
We came to Africa to grow up, to have God do a work in our hearts, to mature in Christ so we could do more in Christ. Ironically we became less and in that less we became more. What we did accomplished we accomplished through our being and not our doing.
It seems to me that Mighty Oaks of righteousness and any other tree for that matter all have one thing in common. They grow in two directions or they don’t grow at all. They also grow down first in order to form the root system needed to sustain them as they reach toward heaven. It’s worth thinking about as some of you endeavor to make America great again.
God willing we aren’t done. In fact we are just getting started. We still plan to do a lot of things and help a lot more people. We came to Africa and the Harvest School to learn. We came to stop for the one. We came to know Him better, to commit ourselves to becoming love, to operate out of intimacy with God and our identity in Him instead of the the normal life sucking striving of the secular world. We came to learn how to give what the world needs. We came to learn what love looks like.
People are not starving because others prosper and being rich does not make someone bad any more than being poor makes someone good. The state of the world is as it is because people don’t know Jesus. People don’t know their creator. As a result they don’t know themselves. It is simple but it’s deep. It’s deeper than we knew. It’s deeper than we know now. I realize some of you will not accept this. That’s ok. I won’t argue the point. I promise.
Ultimately we came to Africa to offer our hands in compassion and were imparted the simplicity and love of a child. We came to grow and we did. We grew down in Uganda.