Sunday, October 22, 2006

I was in prison...

I’ve been in a few prisons and jails, but never longer than a couple of hours. Just Visiting, not Go to Jail Do Not Pass Go kind of stuff. I didn’t think I really needed to say that, but just to be clear, I’ve never done time.

When I was a teenager, our church youth choir made a couple of visits into units around Huntsville, presenting the popular youth musicals of the 1960s and 70s. I remember thinking it ironic that we were on-stage in front of several hundred inmates singing Otis Skillings’ song, “You can have life if you want it...” I figured most of the guys would prefer to stick with the lesser sentences they had received. I particularly recall being inside the Goree Unit, which at that time was a women’s facility. I had a difficult time thinking about what so many women had done that had resulted in their sitting in front of us in prison uniforms and looking so sad.

As a pastor I have sat on the opposite side of the thick glass windows in a couple of county jails and talked to a friend on the other side who would not just get up and walk outside when our visit was over. I have visited with a convicted murderer who will one day probably have her life taken from her by the State of Texas. I’ve been inside juvenile facilities and visited with other people’s children, whom I also cared for. I’ve help bail someone out of jail a couple of times.

What I had not done until last weekend was to go back inside the jail and see where the inmates live out their lives. The Weekend of Champions event in the Houston area in early October gave me the opportunity to do that. The way the WOC is supposed to work is that celebrities of one sort or another make brief presentations to a group of prisoners and then the volunteers (like me) talk with those who are interested about faith in Jesus Christ. I was prepared for that.

But the experience turned out a bit different. In the county facility there is a place called “lock down.” That is a kind of solitary confinement, where high profile defendants, or those who have been especially dangerous, or who have gotten into some kind of trouble in the jail, are isolated from the rest of the population. They are locked in small cells with no windows to the outside world. They live out their days inside those rooms waiting for a trial or a transfer, I guess. A slot in the door serves as place to receive their food trays and to return their used ones.

I was invited to go into lock-down and talk to any interested men. They would not be allowed to see any of the presentations. Ten cells on the first floor and ten above them contained one inmate each. I walked along the bottom row, looking through the small windows in the doors, seeing if anyone would make eye contact.

Most were sleeping. They had no real way to distinguish day from night in there. And time asleep would probably be one way of claiming the time as really your own. Eventually finally I found a customer, a young black man who grew up in Houston not too far from my home. He had come to faith in Christ and was spending time daily praying and studying Scripture. His open Bible lay on the small metal table near his metal cot, next to his metal toilet. We talked about his family, how he spent his time, and I prayed for him. He was 19.

As others noticed that there was someone in the pod willing to talk, they came to their windows. Seeing me pray with one of the inmates, they assumed was a chaplain. When I finished one conversation, they would slam their hands on the glass and yell, “Chaplain! Chaplain!”

I was able to have eight pastoral conversations in the hour and a half I was in there. I met only one “innocent” prisoner. He may truly have been innocent. We are supposed to presume so until the state fulfills its obligation to prove otherwise. But the other seven were remarkably sober in accepting the consequences of their wrong choices and in regretting the impact they have had on the lives of their own family and of their victims. No one ever told me exactly what crime had brought them to this place, but one 29 year old candidly informed me that he expected to spend the rest of his life as a prisoner.

I met only one person who did not have a clear testimony of having committed his life to Christ. Nearly all had done so since their incarceration. Some had heard the gospel from a fellow prisoner before coming to lock-down. A couple had been through a Weekend of Champions a year or so before. One 19 year old Hispanic man simply turned back to the teaching he had received earlier in his life and received Christ. He was working through a correspondence Bible course and proudly showed me his workbook and his progress.

I was prepared to hear some of the “jailhouse jive” about how these inmates had turned from “crime to Christ.” I remain a bit skeptical of foxhole religion. But I was surprised by the way each of these men was able to articulate their faith, their thinking about the difference it was making in their daily life, sustaining them through the boredom, agony, and fear of life in the county jail.

Among the most memorable conversations was the one with the 17 year old Katrina evacuee named Adrian. His dread locks protruded in every direction. A small picture of Jesus was stuck on the inside of his window, looking out at anyone who passed by. Although I have never seen Jesus, I’m pretty sure that’s who the picture was supposed to be. I thought it appropriate that Jesus was inside the cell looking out.

Adrian spoke of his poor decisions and of his fate. He also spoke convincingly of his faith. I asked him about what was most difficult for him. He screwed up his face and told me that it was being treated like an animal. He was in a cage. He was fed on a tray through a slot. He had a number. He had no human contact. He felt like an animal.

I told Adrian that I had something to say that no one else in the system was going to tell him and that I wanted him to remember it and to say it to himself as often as he needed. I said, “Adrian, you are NOT an animal. You are a human being, created in the Image of God, a person loved by God, one for whom Christ died.”

After an hour and a half I left lock-down and returned to our break room. Later I sat with others in a less secure pod, in their living quarters, and spoke with them about family, God, faith, and their future. And then, a couple of hours later, I walked out of the doors without hindrance, into an elevator, through a series of sliding walls that clanked into place behind me, past security and out into a world where I can go where I please, touch my wife and children, eat out, and surf the Internet.

Every time I’ve visited one of our “correctional facilities” I have had the experience of being acutely aware of freedom as I left the building. I have also usually entertained the thought that every one of those young men is someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s husband, someone’s friend. How easily it could have been my son, my father, my friend.

This time I walked out with a new perspective. Although we refer to our prisons and jails euphemistically as “correctional facilities,” I could see that there was not much “correction” going on from the side of the institution. I’m sure that officers have their hands full managing the huge numbers of inmates in our jails and prisons. I understand that they put their lives in some jeopardy regularly. I take nothing away from that. I would not want their jobs.

What I walked away with, however, was a different perspective on the system itself. While there certainly must be exceptions, what I saw was incredibly dehumanizing. We remove almost everything from the accused or convicted that makes them human and expect then for them someday to return to society and behave like human beings. Numbers replace names. The food looks like nothing you have eaten at the worst church camp you’ve ever attended. Locked away in cages and fed through slots, denied human contact, prisoners are scarcely being “corrected.” They are clearly being punished.

I would not expect the jails and prisons to be versions of the Hilton. But the dehumanization is so, well, dehumanizing. I’m fairly certain that the Harris County Jail is not the worst facility in the world. To read about the ministry of Charles Colson is to be introduced to horrible, unimaginable conditions in jails and prisons in the U.S. and around the world.

This week I read John Grisham’s new book, The Innocent Man. I’m a Grisham fan. I’ve read all his legal novels. When I saw this at Border’s the other day I picked it up. On Thursday I was home alone and I read through most of it. I thought it was somehow different from his other novels and then discovered, to my chagrin, about half way through, that it is a work of non-fiction! This story of how the legal system failed in several cases in Ada, Oklahoma was chilling. I read the descriptions of life inside the jails and prisons of Oklahoma with the fresh background of my recent visit to our county facility.

I was also struck with the truth that God is at work inside prison walls. People come to faith in Christ there and their lives are affected by that decision. Inmates share Christ with each other. Chaplains minister compassionately. Bill Glass, Charles Colson, and others have initiated ministries that penetrate the system with something that can truly be “correctional.”

When you visit a prisoner, you have little to offer him or her concretely. You may give food to the hungry or water to the thirsty. You can give a blanket to a homeless man or medicine to the sick. But when you stand on the outside of a four inch door and speak with a man in lock-down though tiny holes below the window, you have little to offer. You have your presence and care and Christ’s presence and care, which are in fact the same thing. Adrian leaned his dark dread locks against the window and invited me to pray for him. I placed my white hand on the window and asked Christ to make his presence known to him, to defend him and to keep him mindful of God’s love. I could offer nothing more tangible than that.

I was impressed by the fact that we have many brothers and sisters in Christ incarcerated around the world. We have some kind of responsibility for them, to pray for them, to care for them, to go to them. The words of Hebrews 13:3 came to me ain a fresh way: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” I saw how true it is that visiting those in prison is a compassionate act toward Christ himself (Matt. 25:39-40).

Recently I came across this prayer in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which strangely, is full of all kinds of powerfully worded prayers like this. This is a good one to pray from the heart. It is simply a Prayer for Prisons and Correctional Institutions.

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy's sake. Amen

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Turmoil in Oaxaca

A year and a half ago Melinda, Jenna, and I spent two weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. We took some intensive Spanish lessons in the morning, and accompanied Rod, Connie, and Courtney Johnson to Indian villages to see the people and to observe the places where they were serving. (See my blog posts from May 9-22, 2005.) UBC had already sent one medical team to Oaxaca in 2004, and another would follow in the fall of 2005.

Meanwhile, UBC and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship entered into a relationship with the Johnsons. They are AsYouGo Affiliates and we are their "Encourager Church." You can read an article about them in the September/October 2006 edition of The Fellowship.

As an Encourager Church, our responsibilities are outlined in a covenant we entered into with CBF and the Johnsons --

  • Provide a system for prayer support.
  • Provide a means for promotion of volunteer needs among congregants and others.
  • Act as the primary point for encouragement and member care.
  • Give administrative support (e.g., newsletter, board members where needed, assistance in ‘off field assignment,’ etc.)

I want to emphasize what is NOT in the agreement. Rod and Connie are NOT in UBC's annual budget. If they were, I'm afraid they would receive relatively little in relationship to their needs. They receive NO FINANCIAL SUPPORT from CBF. They are volunteers. ALL OF THEIR FINANCIAL SUPPORT comes from the gifts of God's people. I encourage your support of their ministry.

If you have been following the news out of Mexico these days, you know of the turmoil in Oaxaca. Our medical mission trip this September had to be cancelled due to U.S. government travel advisories to the area. Rod and Connie continue to pursue ministry to the least and the lost in this area.

I received the following email from Rod and Connie today:

We are currently in Saltillo, Coahuila. We were in a village yesterday with a fellow missionary family. I preached, and it was a good service. We were able to provide food packets for 15 families at this place. Also left some school supplies.

Today we will be heading into the mountains and will make contact with a new village or two. We have no idea what the names of the villages are. Just saw them on a mountain. We will take food packets and school supplies as offerings. Pray that we will follow the leading of the Lord.

The situation in Oaxaca is still very tense, but no acts of violence for a few days. The roads are open during the day to let food and supplies into the city, and are then locked down at night. There are guerillas in town, and the army is outside the city. At this time we plan on heading toward Oaxaca in a few days. We have peace about going. We will talk to some local pastors before we actually go into the city.

We appreciate your prayers and support. We need them. God bless you all,

Rod and Connie

Please offer your generous prayer and financial support to these servants of God during troubled times in Mexico. You can donate to their ministry by designating your gifts to Oaxaca Missions through UBC.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Groundhog Day in Cocoa Beach

I arrived in Cocoa Beach, FL too late Tuesday night to get to take the bus out near Launchpad 39B and see STS-115 stacked on the pad awaiting lift-off on Wednesday afternoon. But I consoled myself with a confidence that the next morning I would witness my first shuttle launch. After eating a hamburger at a little grill, I stopped by Starbucks for a cup of coffee, purchased a pack for the next morning, and took a stroll on the beach. I checked into room 412 at the Wakulla Suites, sharing quarters with Randy Targhetta, Jeff Waldo (who were out at the pad), and (eventually) David Mitchell. Around seven I joined Joe Tanner's family and friends gathered at the Sunset Grill (see "The Capitalist Pig"). We visited a while over dinner and then headed for our rooms, anticipating the events of the next day.

I awoke at 6, and searched the kitchen in our suite for coffee filters. I had a pack of Starbucks and a Mr. Coffee was provided. But I could find no filters. I asked at the front desk, and the fellow there told me the launch had been scrubbed for the day. Something about a fuel cell. He promised to have housekeeping bring some filters by my room. I guess the look on my face at his news of a delayed launch and a delayed morning coffee moved him to compassion. He said, "Just a minute" and disappeared into the Wakulla's not-yet-open coffee shop, emerging with a half dozen industrial sized filters and a look of pity. I managed to get the oversized filter working with Mr. Coffee, kind of like putting a Depends on a newborn.

When the rest of our group emerged from their beds, we had high level decisions to make. Waffle House or MacDonalds? Stay for another launch attempt or reschedule flights and head home? Stuff like that.

David Mitchell had to return to Houston. Randy, Jeff, and I decided to wait, along with David and Mary June Biford, who moved from the next door Hampton Inn to the Wakulla as well. We'd wait for a word from the Mission Management Team who would be convening to decide what to do about the launch. We had a mole in the meeting and were able to get news before the general public. But they would not be meeting until 1:00 and we had to check out of our room by 12:00. So we checked out and found a place for lunch, then hung out in Starbucks, waiting for the mole to call.

We learned that we might have a chance at a Thursday launch. So we rescheduled flights and checked back into the Wakulla, and were sent back to room 412. That evening we shared some awesome seafood gumbo with the Tanner clan that one of the group concocted in their room. And then we went to bed, hopeful for a launch on Thursday.

The alarm went off at 6 on Thursday. I got up and made another pot of Starbucks. We learned that a Thursday launch was off. Possibly Friday. The Mission Management Team would be meeting at 1:00. We had to check out at 12:00. So we ate breakfast at the Sun Rise Diner, went back to the Wakulla, packed our bags, and sat in the lobby for a while. I walked down to Starbucks and worked on the sermon for the next weekend. The MMT started late and ran late. Finally we reached our threshold where we had to decide to stay or go, and opted to stay. I extended my car rental, rescheduled my flight, and checked back in to room 412 in the Hotel California, AKA Wakulla Suites. We headed to a restaurant for dinner, then returned to share a piece of peach pie with the Tanner clan, and put ourselves to bed.

The alarm went off at 6 on Friday. I got up and made another pot of Starbucks. The launch was proceeding. I got us some sausage biscuits from McD's and we ate them while watching the mission preparation on NASA tv. Then we checked out of the Wakulla for the third time, and headed for the Cape. As we were leaving, our mole called to inform us of problems that had developed with the ECO sensors and let us know that the launch was in jeopardy again.

Nevertheless, we drove to the Cape, passed through security, boarded a bus for the Saturn V Building, and enjoyed a couple of hours in the space museum while the countdown continued. The scheduled hold at T-20:00 came and went. Then at the scheduled T-9:00 hold, the announcement came over the loud speaker--the launch was scrubbed until 11:15 on Saturday.

I got within three miles and 23 hours of a shuttle launch. But that was as close as I could get. Jeff and I had to return for the weekend. Randy decided to stay one more day. David Mitchell called and said he was coming back out for the Saturday attempt. David and Mary June determined to head back for Houston. So I called Southwest Airlines and rescheduled my flight for the fifth time.

The trip home was uneventful, but when I heard my phone alarm go off this morning, I was afraid I would open my eyes and find myself in room 412 at the Wakulla Suites. Then at 10:15 AM, Houston time, I sat at my television and joined a few million others, doing what I have done often since May 5, 1961, when as an eight year old I watched Alan Shepherd ride Freedom 7 116 miles into space and plunge into the Atlantic a mere 302 miles away. I watched dedicated men and women in the U.S. space program pull off a picture perfect launch, sending Atlantis on her way to the International Space Station and back -- a journey that will take eleven days and cover about four and a half million miles. And, like so many of the launches I've watched on television over the past twenty years, this one carried a friend of mine aloft.

I look forward in a couple of weeks to seeing Joe Tanner back in his designated pew on Sunday mornings. And I look forward to another opportunity to watch a launch. I'm shooting for STS-117.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Out to Launch

I’ve been a fan of the U.S. space program since I was a kid. My cousin took a job as a secretary at the Johnson Space Center soon after it opened. She used to bring me all kinds of photos of the early Mercury astronauts and their vehicles. Then followed the Gemini and Apollo programs. One entire wall of my bedroom was covered with the reminders of the guys with the “right stuff.”

When NASA launched those early missions, my mother allowed me to stay home from school and witness the event on TV. With those earliest flights, I got to stay home and witness the entire mission, since they were so brief. She would write me an excuse and send me to school late.

I visit the rocket park at JSC now and see those Redstone rockets and they look like toys compared to the huge Saturn V’s or the shuttle stack. I wonder how anyone could allow themselves to be strapped to the top of such contraptions.

When human beings took their first steps onto the lunar surface, I was a high school student, traveling home from a church mission trip to Great Falls, Montana, on a Greyhound. I remember hearing the news that we had actually set foot on the moon.

I never really dreamed that I’d find myself living in the community in which men and women spent their time making those amazing flights happen, or that some of those souls would be dear friends of mine. But here I am.

I have never gotten to witness a space shuttle launch, but I’ve tried and tomorrow I will try again. This will be my third attempt. The first time was back in 1990 when Guy Gardner was the pilot for STS-35. I flew to the Cape in a private plane with some friends only to have the mission scrubbed for several months. A couple of weeks ago I drove out for the launch of STS-115: two full days with my wife and daughter in our 1996 Town & Country, lightening strikes the shuttle, Ernesto decides to attend the launch, mission scrubbed, and two full days of driving back to Houston.

Today I’m going to try again. I’ll fly Southwest Airlines to Orlando this afternoon and hope to see the Atlantis off on her voyage a little after noon tomorrow. I think that if at the last moment NASA decided that they needed one more rider on board, I’d raise my hand and volunteer immediately. I guess I’d be a pastornaut. I’d have a lot of explaining to Melinda to do later.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Synchronicity. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist is credited with coining the term. For Jung it described the "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." In plain language, it is “the experience of having two (or more) things happen coincidentally in a manner that is meaningful to the person or persons experiencing them, where that meaning suggests an underlying pattern. It differs from coincidence in that synchronicity implies not just a happenstance, but an underlying pattern or dynamic that is being expressed through meaningful relationships or events.” (Wikipedia)

Believers sometimes have a different word for this. We call it “providence,” or “God’s guidance.” We experience God’s bringing together a series of events that seem to be more than coincidental. I experienced that recently. I’ll try to unravel the story so that it makes some sense.

Back in February I was invited to spend an afternoon at the Truett Theological Seminary thinking with a Doctor of Ministry seminar about the phenomenon that has come to be known as “The Emerging Church Movement” (ECM). [I’ll be doing that again in a couple of weeks.] I did a trial run of my presentation one Sunday evening at University Baptist Church.

Preparing for that presentation led me to read about the movement (those inside it sometimes refer to it as a conversation rather than a movement), its leaders and its expressions. I’d been exposed to some of its expressions over the past few years and have been watching with interest. I read some of the movement’s critics and the responses to the critics and the critics’ responses to their critiques. I listened to lectures and sermons on the internet to those who were attempting to describe or understand the ECM. (Don’t leave me yet. The synchronicity is coming.)

Along the way I developed a motivation to write. I have had an idea for a book rattling around in the back of my skull for the past two or three years. I wanted to write about the book of Acts as “narrative ecclesiology” or “narrative missiology.” I wanted to explore the ways the stories in Acts make clear to the church through the ages what she is supposed to be and to do.

The ECM is all about narrative theology and mission. The movement itself focuses on taking the gospel into the emerging culture of postmodernity. I noticed parallels between the earliest church emerging from the cocoon of Judaism and the synagogue and the 21st century church emerging from the forms and traditions of Western evangelical Christianity. I thought that writing about that might actually be helpful to both those involved in the ECM and to those who remain heavily invested in the traditional church. (We’re getting close to the synchronicity thing.)

So one Sunday evening I accompanied my family to a worship service at Ecclesia, one of the expressions of the emergents in Houston. Following the service I stopped by to visit with Chris Seay. Chris is the pastor of Ecclesia, a writer, and a friend. I went to college with his dad, so yes, I’m old enough to be his father. I admire Chris and his work and what he has done in taking the gospel to a generation that churches like ours have struggle to reach.

I wanted to talk to him about my book idea and to get his thinking. I said, “Chris, I’ve got something I’d like to talk to you about.” He said, “I have something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.” So we arranged to get together at the church’s coffee shop on the following Tuesday. (Almost there.)

On Tuesday I explained to him what I was thinking about and he chuckled. He popped the top on his Mac and opened a file. He explained to me that he was engaged in a project with Thomas Nelson publishers, called “The Voice.” It is a kind of “re-telling” of the biblical story using poetry, art, scholarship, and narrative (go to The first installment was about to be released at the time, a re-telling of John 13-21 called The Last Eyewitness: The Final Week. Chris Seay did the paraphrasing of the story, David Capes from Houston Baptist University did the scholarly commentary, and Rob Pepper (whose art we displayed at UBC during Holy Week) provided the illustrations. (That’s a bit of synchronicity in itself. Rob is from London and we got to visit with him on our way back from Africa this summer.)

The second installment of The Voice is to be called Dust Off Their Feet: Transitioning the Church to Conform to His Will Then/Now. It is a re-telling of Acts. A series of essays will be published to accompany this portion. (Click link to pre-order the book. It is due to be published in October). Chris had wanted to talk to me about writing an introductory and a concluding essay to this book. (Click links to read an unedited draft of the essays. )

I asked, “What did you have in mind?” He said, “What you just described.” That was the synchronicity. Lots of things coming together—lives, interests, an artist from London, and few dozen other things.

I mention all that because, first, I am excited and encouraged to have the opportunity to contribute a few words to this process. But more than that, I tell this story to reiterate the confidence we must learn to live with that God is at work and that our task is to join him. It is not about us.

Sometimes we are blessed to see things come together. Sometimes we must simply trust that Romans 8:28 is true and that things do in fact work together somehow.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Decompression is a common experience following a plunge into another culture, particularly a society whose needs are as deep as those we meet in Uganda. You see and smell and touch and hear and taste those needs for many hours a day. Then you return to the comforts, luxuries, excesses, and trivial pursuits of our everyday life. For a short time everything back home looks different – too shiny, too loud, too sterile, too superficial. You feel judgmental about everything. We have too much. We complain too much. We want too much. We are too picky, too stingy, too uninformed or misinformed about the realities outside our suburban bubble.

But that doesn’t last long. It takes only a short time breathing the air of material prosperity before your soul adjusts to its previous state, discontent in all its comfort. I had not set foot on American soil before I was already returning to that state of soul deficiency.

For nearly two weeks I breathed the air of African poverty. The pastors with whom I studied had nothing compared to the pastors I know at home. Food, clothes, pens, paper, Bibles, education were nearly all luxuries to many of them. For a week we supplied those things before they boarded overcrowded busses to return to their villages and trading centers.

We “prayer-walked” in Kashanyarzi, where poverty and disease were palpable and stench-filled like Pasadena air. AIDS widows worked hard to scrub clothes in cold, dirty water, to prepare sparse meals over open fires, and to care for children who ran loose and naked about the assembly of one-room homes, dark like caves. A sign was scrawled over a tiny wooden structure with a padlocked door: “Birthing room. Do not urinate inside. 500 shilling fine.”

Small black children with runny noses and filthy hands followed us about the village of Omukafunda while their parents looked with empty eyes at the bazungu (white people) walking through their dusty streets, carefully stepping around the cow and goat dung on the roads. A group of women asked us to pray for them. Their men sit at a bar, unemployed and without prospect of work. What do you pray? How do you pray? What do you stand there in their presence and ask God to do for them, you who have never prayed earnestly for God to give you this day your daily bread because you already knew where it was coming from? You who have access to the best medical care in the world and who complain over rising insurance premiums – how do you ask for God to bring healing to the ravages of HIV and malaria to these who have access to practically nothing?

Then the British Air 777 lands at Heathrow and an air-conditioned bus takes me to the Holiday Inn. I begin to breathe the air to which my soul has become accustomed, and before long I have begun reentry. My room is too hot or too cold. The internet doesn’t work. My slacks are wrinkled from their two weeks in the suitcase. The buffet at the restaurant is too expensive. British food tastes bland to my Tex Mex palate. The next morning the process continues. The video screen at my seat on my flight home is “conked out” (to use the flight attendant’s technical explanation), so I am unable to watch in-flight movies. The headrest on my seat does not remain extended and is uncomfortable. By the time I land in Houston, the reversion to my culture and its ways will be nearly complete. In a few weeks of shopping at Kroger and eating out several times a week I will have forgotten the village of Omukafunda and its children. My whines will have drowned out their cries and I will be normal again.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Walking and Praying

Stephen Hawthorne describes "prayer-walking" as "praying on-site with insight." The idea is that rather than praying for ministries in particular areas at a distance, you walk through the area, keeping your eyes and ears open and your heart attentive to God. You pray for those you see as you pass through, observing the needs that become evident. You listen to the Spirit of God as you walk, and you converse with God and your prayer-walking partners as you go.

As we prepared to come to Africa, we knew that prayer-walking would be one of our activities here. We read Stephen Hawthorne’s book on the subject and talked about it. Andrea Stephens prepared a study guide for us on the subject. And we put our learning into practice. Some of the team met at Emerald Pointe on a Monday evening and "prayer-walked" the apartment complex. Some of us met on a Wednesday morning and prayer-walked the neighborhood around Whitcomb Elementary School.

So far we have had three opportunities to do prayer-walking in Mbarara. The first was done last Wednesday. A group walked from the edge of the city to the Bishop Stuart University, an Anglican school where Spencer Essenpries (an IMB Journeyman) is developing a ministry to students. This is the path walked by these students daily.

On Friday a team did prayer-walking on the campus of the hospital where Dr. Larry Pepper works. They prayed in the new AIDS clinic that will open in a couple of months. This clinic has been build largely by funds coming from your tax dollars (more on this later).

This morning I was free to participate in one of the walks. Three groups of us walked down the hill from University Baptist Church and into the village of Kashanyarazi. Jenna and I walked with Aloysius, who preaches in the Runyankore service at UBC.

The village is made up of brick buildings covered in plaster or cement with tin roofs, each about 15’ x 60’. Some were slightly shorter. Each building was divided into apartments about 8’ x 8’. Some had wooden doors that could be locked. Some had only a sheet hung in the doorway. In the "courtyards" separating the buildings from each other there hung colorful garments drying in the warm morning sun. Outside the doorways sat women peeling matoke or washing clothes in red plastic basins. Small charcoal stoves boiled water for cooking red beans. Children ran and played, in various stages of dress, pointing at the bazungu (plural of mzungu, white person).

Aloyisius knows many of the people in the village and does not meet a stranger. We approached people and simply asked if we could pray for them. One woman went into her room and came out with a bench for us to sit on while we listened to her story and prayed. At another home, the woman brought out a red, white, and blue mat for us. We were invited into four other homes, where our hostess offered us the best seat in the room. We stopped where a group of men were gathered. One lay on his back in the sun on a straw mat. Another worked hard repairing old shoes to resell. Another fellow was removing dried red beans from their hulls.

We heard the same heartbreaking accounts from one after another. No job. A job that doesn’t pay enough to make the rent payments on the 8’ square room. Abusive husbands. Husbands with more than one wife. No money for the school fees for the children. HIV infections. Pregnancy and HIV. Had we visited every single dwelling, I sensed we would have heard the same stories repeated often. The sad eyes and downcast faces told the story of life in this Ugandan village.

The tragedy of poverty is not just a financial matter. No money means not enough food. It means no money for education for children. It means no money for healthcare. It means parents who do not have time to give to their children. It means dealing with survival issues day after day. It means being stuck generation after generation in the same hole.

At the top of the hill stands University Baptist Church. A few hundred yards below is life being lived at its rawest. I prayed as we ascended the hill to return to the church, asking that God would make that church a source of life, like Ezekiel’s vision in which the life-giving river flowed from the Jerusalem Temple into the desert, changing everything in its path.

I thought about University Baptist Church back home. I thought about the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people who live only a short distance from the place where we gather to worship – the families at Emerald Pointe, or the Pakistani and Afghan families living in apartments in the Whitcomb district. I prayed that we, too, like UBC Mbarara, would be a source of life from Jesus Christ, flowing from us to the valley below. I remembered what Jesus said: "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Saturday Evening. Mbarara, Uganda

The first week of our work here was finished yesterday at noon. Sixty pastors completed a study of the Gospel of Mark and produced eight teaching and preaching outlines. Thirty men and women dealing with HIV/AIDS produced 175 greeting cards that will be sold in the states to provide support for their ministry called "Go, Make Disciples." More than a dozen AIDS patients received visits in their homes, and often a handmade blanket made by people in Houston. Some have received Christ as Savior. Several areas of Mbarara received the focused praying during prayerwalks by teams of people, including Bishop Stuart University, the Mbarara University Hospital, and the Kampala International University's new extension campus in Busheyni. Thirty women gathered for a working women's Bible study and worship each evening. Students at Bishop Stuart University and pastors at the conference heard the testimony of one of our American astronauts.

At the end of a full week we traveled a few hours to the Queen Elizabeth National Park and witnessed the beauty of God's creation -- mountains, valleys, natural lakes and channels, herds of elephants, schools of hippos, herds of cape buffalo, groups of warthogs, flocks of Egyptian geese and Crested Cranes, and scores of other species of birds. We enjoyed the fellowship of a dozen friends and fellow believers around an abundant table. And now we have returned home, popped corn and broken out the dominos (the game, not the pizza).

Tomorrow morning we will gather for worship with the University Baptist Church in Mbarara. I will be preaching from Hosea 6:6. In the evening, Pamm will teach regarding personal integrity in a believer's life and the rest of us will be leading small group discussions. We'll do that each evening through Wednesday. The mornings will be spent visiting in the homes of AIDS patients and more experiences in prayerwalking.

We've not had much time this week to be reflective about what we are doing, but that time will come soon enough. For now, God has been present, the work has been fruitful, and the workers feel both fulfilled and a little tired.


Friday, June 09, 2006

The rest of my brain arrived this morning (Wednesday) and I managed to make it through an entire day without fading into that state where your eyelids turn to lead and you receive unwanted visions in the middle of the afternoon.

Today (Wednesday) was a full one for the entire team. Kelli, Jenna, Courtney, Diana, and Andrea accompanied Spencer on a prayerwalk between the edge of the city and Bishop Stuart University and around the university campus where Spencer is seeking to disciple students. They climbed a high hill that overlooks the city and prayed for the kingdom of God to come fully in Mbarara.

Pamm went with Naboth and others on Words of Hope visits in the morning and is now teaching the women’s Bible study meeting in a large pavilion with a thatched roof on the campus of the University Inn.

Melinda worked with her Go and Make Disciples group, helping them learn to make greeting cards. Twenty-two of them produced eighty beautiful cards to be sold in the states. The people in this group are Christian believers who are living with HIV-AIDS. They work to help prevent the spread of the disease in the country. The sale of the cards will provide their group with some income to do their work and to minister.

Patrick and I continued to teach at the Pastors’ Conference, leading four sessions through the day. The pastors have been incredibly responsive to the experience. Aloyisius, a young pastor who leads a Runyankore-speaking congregation at UBC, translated one of the sessions for me. As we were talking through the material, preparing to teach, he asked: "Do you want to know what the men are saying about these sessions?" That’s a loaded question. "Sure," I said, "tell me."

"They are saying that these are very good and that they are very happy to be here and that they will take the things you and Patrick and Skip are teaching them back to their churches. They like this very much." That was good to hear.

Patrick and I went to lunch with Barry Wilks and two of his children, Jared (12?) and Sarah (10?). Sarah interviewed Patrick about space travel the entire time, asking really good questions. I learned a lot listening to his answers. She has a great future as a journalist.
At this moment Patrick is at Bishop Stuart University speaking to students. I wanted to be able to go hear him, but my last session at the pastors’ conference did not finish in time. Tonight he’ll be making that same presentation to the pastors, and all of us will go with him.

Tonight we expect the power to go off at 7:00 PM, for 24 hours. We have not yet had to deal with the planned power outage because a major trade show has been going on here in the city, and the power has been left on for several days in a row. Power will return at 7:00 PM tomorrow night.

That Wednesday’s report from Mbarara. More later, when power is back.

Addendum: Posting has been more challenging this year. I'll do the best I can. We have now (Friday morning) completed our first week with great success. We're on our way to visit a game park today and tomorrow. Sunday we'll be leading worship and beginning our university student conference in the evening. I'll probably not be posting again until Sunday or Monday. All are well, healthy, and still getting along.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Plan B

Col. John "Hannibal" Smith of the A-Team used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together." That is not very often.

An old German proverb observes that "Man proposes; God disposes." I used to know how to say that in German and it rhymes there also. The biblical form of that idea is found in Proverbs 16:9: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps." The secular version is more like "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray" (or something like that). I think the Scottish poet, Robert Burns said it better and with an accent, but I can’t Google it right now.

However it is said, the experience is clear. We make plans and then we adjust. Sometimes, by the end of the story, the plan can hardly be recognized. Such was our journey to Uganda. For "the plan" read the previous entry. For the reality, read on.

We did take off from Bush Intercontinental on time, and landed at London Gatwick a bit earlier than expected, around 10:00 AM. But the guy with the sign waiting to take us to the bus didn’t show up. Actually, it turns out he did show up – twenty-four hours earlier. So we waited a while, phoned the bus company, discovered the mistake, and arranged for a bus to be sent out.

When we finally made the transfer to Heathrow, expecting to go through "fast check-in" to leave our bags, we caught another snag. Patrick Forrester went through three customer service agents trying to find one who would actually consider taking our bags in the morning for our evening flight. At 2:45 PM they finally took our bags, but by then it was too late to make it into Central London for lunch and get back again for our flight. So we found an Italian restaurant in Heathrow, ate, passed through security, located the Starbucks, and sat reading, napping, or playing 42.

The flight from London to Entebbe was delayed two hours by mechanical problems and so we arrived in Uganda at 7:00 AM Monday morning rather than the scheduled 5:40. Kelli Hancock was waiting for us, having arrived the day before. The two hours delay, however, made our timing perfect to be caught in the worst thunderstorm I can remember just as we were loading our eighteen bags and nine carry-ons into the three vehicles that would take us to Mbarara. The rain was coming down in buckets and was being blown horizontally at about 40 mph. All of us were soaked to the bone. Six hours later we were in Mbarara, and by 3:00 PM I was teaching the first session of the pastors’ conference. All our luggage arrived intact. I wish I could say the same about my brain. It was a struggle to get through the first session and workshop, but I guess I did.

After dinner at the Pepper’s home, and a little orientation to the week, our team went to the Rikhea Guest House where we are staying. In no time, I was in a cycle of sleeping deeply and waking unexpectedly. That continued until 7:30 this morning when I woke out of a dream in which I was having lunch with Don Bateman. He was asking why I was not in Africa and I was explaining that I had been there, but had to return to preach on Sunday, but I was going back on Monday. He wanted to know why I had scheduled the trip that way, and I could not explain.

After breakfast at the guest house, Patrick and I left with Barry Wilks to return to the church for a day with the pastors. I taught two sessions today and led two workshops on preparing sermons. Patrick led two workshops on preparing teaching outlines. Melinda began her work with the Go Make Disciples, making greeting cards. Pamm stayed home to finish preparing for her women’s Bible Study, which is going on as I write (6:15 PM). Diana, Jenna, Courtney, Kelli, and Andrea made Words of Hope visits to AIDS patients. I have not yet heard the details of how everyone’s day went, but we will debrief in a while. All are in good health, keeping positive attitudes, and are gradually adjusting to the time difference.

Today I met Pastor Mahekenya Joseph (photo above). He is Congolese, and a refugee from the latest war. He and his wife and five children have been living in a refugee camp not far from Mbarara for three and a half months. He has started a church in the camp that is thriving. He told me his story and showed me photos of his family. The photos from his home in the Congo show him proudly standing with his family in front of their vegetable garden, holding some of the produce – beets, carrots, cauliflower, and corn large enough to make a Texas farmer envious. The smiles on their faces contrast with the somber photos of the same family taken in front of the white canvas tent that has become their home in Uganda. Joseph is a carpenter. He also had photos of the beautiful furniture he had made back home.

Thank you for your prayers. We have only begun the work here. More tomorrow.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

In four and a half hours we begin our voyage to Mbarara, Uganda. We'll be taking off about the time the Saturday night congregation begins to worship together. Nine and a half hours to London. We'll be landing at Gatwick about two hours before the earliest risers back here are stirring. A bus will be waiting for us, taking the nine of us and our eighteen suitcases (half of them weighing in near the 70 pound limit), nine carry-ons will make the trip to London Heathrow where we'll check in, leave our carry-ons at Left Baggage, and catch the Heathrow Express into Paddington Station. Shannon Hopkins, a missionary working with the emerging church, will meet us there. We'll spend the afternoon getting lunch and visiting parts of the city before boarding the Express and heading back to Heathrow. Our flight to Entebbe leaves at 7:30 PM, about the time folks at home are paying their bill at Lupe Tortilla's and heading home for a Sunday afternoon. We land in Entebbe at 5:30 AM on Monday, as the night owls here at home are heading for bed on Sunday night. Five hours later we'll be in Mbarara courtesy of Larry Pepper and Barry Wilks who'll be there to pick us up. About two hours after we arrive, Patrick and I will get started with the pastors' conference.

You'll be sound asleep. So will we, likely. But before you hit the sack on Sunday night, remember to pray for us. We'll let you know how things are going. Thanks UBC for the privilige of being free to engage the work of God in Uganda. We will take your greetings to UBC Mbarara, the Peppers, the Wilks, and those who serve on their team.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Meeting Miroslav Volf

I'm embarrassed at times by what I don't know that I think I should. I'm not a theologian. By that I mean, not that I don't think about my faith and life in light of God and Scripture, but that I'm not trained in theology. My training has been in biblical studies. Mostly I learned one-liners about classical and contemporary theologians, associating them with their main contributions or ideas.

I have read a volume of Karl Barth's Dogmatics, and I've read a couple of volumes of Jurgen Moltmann, whom I like very much. But for the most part, contemporary philosophers and theologians have not been my main diet.

So regularly I discover a thinker that everyone else seems to know already. This week it was Miroslav Volf. I was visiting on the Emergent website, and noticed they have a podcast now. I've gotten into podcasts and audio books as a way of using some of my driving time. My iPod has become more than a nifty way of carrying music around with me. I'm a regular subscriber to a podcast of the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. The reader reads Scripture and some beautifully crafted prayers to me for about 20 minutes. But I digress.

The Emergent podcast started a few weeks ago and the first six episodes were taken from a conference held at Yale University in February. The conference was a conversation with Miroslav Volf, who teaches there in the divinity school. He is an evangelical theologian, and quite conservative, really. He was born in Croatia in 1956 and his life story is tangled up in the struggles of the former Yugoslavia.

Although he has written several books, he is best known for Exclusion and Embrace, which deals with the theology of reconciliation. He recently published Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, which the Archbishop of Canterbury named the 2006 Lenten study book. He writes a regular column for Christian Century. He used to teach at Fuller Seminary. And I have never paid attention to him.

This week I spent several hours listening, not to him lecturing, but to him engaging in conversation with pastors and practicioners of ministry at Yale, all of whom would consider themselves part of the emerging church. They were discussing ideas in his books and in his life. What impressed me most about him was his transparency about his life and thinking. I was impressed about his practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. I was impressed with his generosity in giving himself to these pastors for three days.

So, I've ordered the books and I will get on with exploring his thinking further. I wish I'd paid attention to him earlier. When gets my books here, I'll post some of my thoughts about his thoughts.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Visiting Africa

So what does it take to get to Uganda? A passport. You have to have one of those. I think just about everyone ought to have one. It is a way of saying to God that you're available.

Then you have to have some medicine. Yellow fever is the only immunization required. But Hepatitis A&B, typhoid, tetanus, and polio boosters are good ideas. Rabies, if your going to be dangerously close to wildlife . No immunizations known will prevent mango fly infestation. And you'll need some pills to guard against malaria. Something for a mildly upset stomach is also advised.

Now you're going to need a visa--permission from the Ugandan government to visit their country. It isn't too expensive. You can obtain one at the airport in Uganda or through their embassy in Washington, D.C. before you leave. It's just a red stamp inside your passport.

You're going to need a ride since it is way too far to walk. So, passage on one of several major airlines that fly in and out of Entebbe will be necessary. We are flying on British Air again this year. Flying from Houston to Entebbe through London is $1545. But it includes meals.

Those are the externals. But you also need some things internally. You need to be somewhat adventurous. It is a long flight. You land in a place that feels more foreign than most places you have travelled. You stand out like a white thumb. Fortunately, the signs in Uganda are all in English. But it takes a while even to understand English spoken with a thick British/African accent. And the further you get from cities, the more likely English won't work for you any more.

You need to be ready to walk into a different world. The world in Uganda looks very different from Clear Lake City. It is not sterile and manicured. Life abounds on the streets--people in vibrant attire, women with babies strapped to their backs and packages balanced magically on their heads, busses, trucks (lorries), motorcyles (piki-pikis), vans, cars, bicycles, cows, dogs, chickens. The aroma of Africa is distinct and pleasant. Roadside markets display colorful stacks of tomatoes, mangos, pineapples, potatoes, and other fruits and veggies. The people of Uganda are beautiful, physically and spiritually. So many of them exude a joy even in difficult circumstances.

You need an openess to compassion. The visit will bring you into contact with poverty and disease like you may never have seen. The resources to deal with hunger, unemployment, filthy water supplies, lack of shelter, AIDS, orphaned children, and education are simply not at hand.

You will need a willingness to experiment with language, with food, and with culture. Some flexibility will be required to manage the way that Ugandans deal with time, planning, and schedules. It is a bit freer than the way that we do it.

You will need to give up your tourist mentality that needs a five star hotel to be comfortable. You'll stay in clean facilities, but not in elegant ones. You'll need to be ok if some of the meals are not home-cooked American but are matoke (a relatively flavorless steamed banana), posho (grits on steroids), bean sauce (or chicken or goat sauce) all eaten with the right hand. Sometimes you may be eating a piece of fried bread, like a pita, or a small meat pie called a samoa. It will all digest.

You will need a love for people, because Ugandan children, university students, and adults will soon be making their way into your life and heart. You'll want a love of worship because the singing and celebration in a Ugandan worship service are stirring. You'll want a love for your fellow missionaries because you spend a lot of time up close and personal.

Then there's all the stuff you need to pack. But travel light.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Our tickets arrived today – nine of them. One month from today we will be boarding a British Air flight to Entebbe, Uganda. A tenth member of our team will have left the day before and will be waiting on us. She’ll be returning later than us as well, so she was ticketed differently.

Seven of the ten of us traveled to Uganda about this same time last year. That may tell you something about the experience. Everyone wanted to return. And we picked up a couple of others. I wish you all could go.

So what are we going to do? We arrive on Monday, June 5 at 5:30 AM and make the four hour drive to Mbarara. After lunch Patrick Forrester and I will launch (that’s what you do with an astronaut) right into the pastors’ conference. We’ll be teaching the Gospel of Mark and helping about five dozen Ugandan pastors learn how to develop teaching and preaching outlines from the texts. That will be going on all day from Monday afternoon until Friday at noon.

Patrick will have some opportunities to speak at some local schools. Other team members will be involved in a variety of ministries and projects –

§ Teaching members of “Go Make Disciples,” an HIV+ group of believers, how to make some creative greeting cards that will be sold back in the states. This will develop as a cottage industry for them. Melinda will be leading this project and others will be helping.

§ Filming short dramatic skits on AIDS prevention done by members of the “Go Make Disciples” group, editing them, and reproducing them on VHS and DVD so that they can be shown in clinic waiting rooms and other places. Jenna will be leading the team who will work on this.

§ Daily visits to homes of AIDS patients through the Words of Hope ministry. We did this last year as well. Diana Forrester is leading this ministry. All of us will get to participate.

§ Prayer-walking the university campus and other places where ministry is underway or about to be developed. Andrea Stephens is coordinating this work that all of us will be involved with.

§ Leading a “Hot Topics” conference on purity and integrity issues for university students and young professionals. Pamm Muzslay is developing the curriculum for this and getting us organized.

§ Building high efficiency brick and mud cook stoves that will help women use 70% less wood or charcoal and that will also be vented so that they do not have to breath the smoke as they work. Most of us will get our hands dirty in this project.

Besides those I’ve mentioned, Andrew Forrester, a student at UT, will be returning with us. Last year he helped in so many ways, including leading a guitar seminar for university students and building benches for a village church. Kelli Hancock, a student at A&M, will be going along for the first time and will stay an extra couple of weeks to work with Larry. Courtney Johnson, a high school student and veteran missionary in Mexico, is making her first journey to Africa with us as well.

I’ll post a bit more about our preparation and plans in the next few days.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Wedding Words

Pastors see marriages in so many stages of growth and struggle, including their own. We are sometimes called on to listen or intervene when things have become unworkable. We don't see much more success with those inside the church than we do with those outside, regretably. I've been asked whether I prefer "doing weddings or doing funerals." (Pastors get asked a lot of unusual things, but then I guess people are just curious.) I sometimes reply that I am much better with funerals than weddings. All the people I've ever buried are still dead. (One day that statistic will be ruined, too, however).

I have officiated a hundred wedding ceremonies, more or less. A couple of years ago I presided over two that were unusual. My sons were getting married. I couldn't simply use the words I'd used in others. Instead, I thought long and hard about what I would say as spokesman not only for Christ and the church, but also for myself, my wife and the brides' parents. Preparing a service for a young couple this morning, I re-read what I wrote for one of our boy's ceremonies, and I thought about how much I really believe these words. I also thought about how much I need to be living them.

"The metaphor of life as a journey is buried deep in the human heart. Like a journey, life has a beginning and a destination. When you first start out, you travel with your family. Most of the decisions about the journey belong to your parents. But eventually, both you and they know, you will strike out on your own.

As the journey continues, you meet people, and when you find that they are headed for the same destination, you might travel together for a time. Some become friends and companions. A few never leave. You are blessed to have people like that in your life.

And, you are greatly blessed if you eventually meet someone whom you want more anything to accompany you on the remainder of the journey, every day, whatever the road may hold, however long the journey may last, all the way to its completion.

So your paths crossed more than seven years ago. You have traveled a while together. And now you have discerned that it is God’s will for you to complete the journey together. This is as it should be. Genesis 2:24 says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife…”

As you prepare to leave together on this journey, what can we, who have traveled this far with you, say to you? We want to give you maps to guide you, but for the most part, they are simply maps of our journeys, and would do you little good. Like ancient mariners, your maps have boundaries and beyond the boundaries is marked the warning, “Here be dragons!” You are preparing to embark on a journey off the maps that we hold. It will be your own journey together, one that has never before been taken.

So, although it is impossible to offer specific advice for your journey, two things you must know, if you are to remain partners on the journey of life as partners in the covenant of marriage: You need to know that marriage is difficult, and you need to know that marriage is easy.

You need to accept that marriage is difficult. The challenge of bringing the lives of two sinners together cuts against every grain of selfishness in our souls. The Scripture says,

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
That sounds simple enough. But following Genesis 2:24 is the story of Genesis 3 – the entrance of sin into human affairs. Two becoming one does not happen now without crucifixion, without many experiences of death to our selfishness.

One person can dominate the other in a marriage and simply refuse to die, while the other surrenders to their power. But two do not thus become one. One perishes and the other survives. It happens all the time.

Or both can refuse to die and insist on saving their lives. But two do not thus become one. They may live together for many years, but they never become married.

What Jesus said of the life of discipleship is true of life in a marriage:

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

Two become one when each takes seriously living life a third way, Jesus’ way,

  • where you have many chances to die,
  • where you take up your cross and follow,
  • where having your own way and will are no longer necessary in order to be happy,
  • where you choose Christ-following over self,
  • where a husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church,
  • where a wife loves her husband as the church – Christ’s bride – loves him.

In the pursuit of the life that Jesus taught us to live lies the real possibility of two becoming one. Given our sinfulness, this is a difficult path. So you need to know, first of all, that marriage, two becoming one, is difficult.

The second thing you must know as you set out is that marriage is easy. You need to know that God was right when he said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Nor is it good for the woman to be alone. You need to know that two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9).

It is much to your advantage to travel the journey of life and discipleship in the covenant of marriage. You find in that partnership the help and security, the warmth and companionship that comes with not traveling alone. With a partner, you find the burdens only half as heavy and the joys twice as delightful. So you need to know that two really are better than one and that marriage is easy.

You need to know that marriage is difficult because life is difficult. The challenges on your journey that cannot now be foreseen are strong enough to destroy your marriage. It happens all the time. Challenges with health and hope, family and finances, children and career, dreams and disappointments, temptations and trials all lie in your future. They are not on your map, so they cannot be avoided. You cannot plan for them. But there are two things you can do in advance.

1. You can determine to become a certain kind of people. You can intend to follow Christ with the daily decisions of your lives. You can engage in those practices that make you strong – prayer, worship, service, solitude, and study. You can gather strength for the rigors of the journey, so that when the resources are needed, they will be there. You determine to be Christ-followers with each other.

2. And you can bind yourselves to each other with vows and promises as you begin the journey. You promise before God and family and friends that when it becomes the most difficult, you will turn toward each other rather than away, that you will offer each other grace and forgiveness, kindness and compassion, gentleness and patience. You promise to be Christ-followers to each other.

Marriage is difficult because life is difficult. You will need to be Christians to each other.

You need to know that marriage is easy because life is sweet. You have decided to make this one journey through life together. Even if you carry out all the promises you make today, and even if God blesses you with long life, your journey together will nevertheless be brief. Perhaps at the outside, you’ll journey around the sun together 60 more times, see the wildflowers of only 60 more springs, enjoy the warmth of only 60 more summers, celebrate only 60 more Christmases.

And in the course of those five dozen orbits, you’ll pass through all the seasons of life, and they are all good. You will enjoy years of settling into your life’s work and find the satisfaction that comes from that. You will find ways to invest your lives together in the service of Christ in the world, and the joy that will come from that will be deep. There will be children to love, to know, and to nurture. Friends will come alongside to walk with you. You will take pleasure in God’s world, God’s goodness, and God’s gifts. These pleasures lie on your path. You need to know that marriage is easy, because life is good.

You need to know that the journey is difficult. Be strong. Don’t be ruled by your feelings. Keep a longer view.

You need to know that the journey is easy. Take it as a gift. Don’t be hardened by the struggles. Be present and savor the moment.

You need to know that the journey is difficult. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Don’t turn back. Let your vows and promises bind you when your feelings will not.

You need to know that the journey is easy. Laugh. Don’t take it so seriously. Celebrate and play.

You need to know that the journey is difficult. Husbands and wives take time. Families require sacrifice. You will sometimes struggle to give any more. But give anyway and let it shape you toward Christlikeness.

You need to know that the journey is easy. Husbands and wives are a joy. Families make life full and rich. You will sometimes struggle to find room to contain it all. Let that shape you toward the likeness of Christ as well.

So you prepare to embark on the next stage of your journey. From this point on you will travel in the covenant of marriage. The journey will be your own. And those who have walked this far with you, and who love you, and who have an investment in your future together want you know that our prayers and commitments to you continue. We bless you as you head out on the difficult and easy journey of becoming married."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ezra & Me

Ezra lives in Bushenyi, a Ugandan town about 30 km from Mbarara. Twice he has played Aaron to my Moses, interpreting my English into Runyankore so that pastors could understand my attempts at teaching.

The first time we worked together was in 2002. A pastors’ training conference was held in his church building—a cinderblock structure with a few straight back benches for pews. I taught and he translated.

Ezra is a bright young man and a good pastor. I suspect his knowledge of English vocabulary is probably a sixth or seventh grade level. That made teaching with him a challenge. Besides having to weed out the many metaphors that flow naturally from my life experience and that would have spoken clearly on my home field and finding instead comparisons that would make sense to rural African pastors, I had to choose my words carefully.

I had to find simple words. Not because Ezra is simple. It was just a language thing. Like someone would have to speak in the simplest Spanish if they expected me to tell someone else what they were saying. Even then I’d probably get most of it wrong. That’s a challenge for a teacher, but a good one. Be simple. Be direct. Be clear.

Last summer Ezra and I teamed up again. This time the meeting was at the University Baptist Church in Mbarara. More pastors were present this time, perhaps fifty. On Wednesday of the week Ezra confided in me that he had spoken with his wife and learned that their young son had contracted malaria. He could not leave to be with his family until Friday when the bus would take him back. He asked me to pray for him.

I placed one pale white hand in his dark black one and laid the other on his shoulder. I asked our Father to heal my brother’s little boy and to give his wife the peace of Christ. On Friday we parted ways again.

A couple of weeks later Ezra found his way to an Internet connection and sent me a brief note through his Yahoo! account:

“Greetings from Bushenyi more especially from my family. How are you and how is your family? In Bushenyi we are okay and thanks be to God for He has healed my son and my wife. Robert, thank you so much for your prayers towards my family when they were down sick and by the time I come from the Seminary I found they were okay and that showed me that really your prayers worked.”
I was grateful to learn that his boy would be ok. I sent him an English Bible through (isn’t this an incredible century to live in?) He emailed me a note of thanks:

“Once again I thank you for the present you sent to me through Postal Office. I really appreciated so much. My the Almighty God bless you and may His Loce, Joy and Peace be with you always.”

Ezra sent me another message by email last week. He said:
"Praise the living God! and greetings from Bushenyi Baptist Church members. Let me hope that everythig is okay. Here in Bushenyi we are okay ecept that we had just lost our brother and he has left us with 6 children, 3girls and boys. So we trying to see how they are going to be looked after. In fact we need your prayers because he had died of AIDS and some of his children already infected by the disease."

Send my greetings to your family and keep prayiny for us that God should give us a vision of how we are going to take care of those children.

From Ezra, Bushenyi Baptist Church.

AIDS and poverty in Africa are not academic topics for me. It is about my friend, a pastor whom I have worked alongside in the Kingdom. It is about children being left without parents. It is about a man of God and his wife who hardly have enough for themselves being asked to take in six more children, some of whom are HIV+.

How many times do you suppose that this situation is multiplied in Subsaharan Africa? I called Senator John Cornyn’s office today, at the suggestion of the ONE Campaign. President Bush has submitted a 2007 federal budget that has important increases in the international affairs line item. (You can call 1-800-786-2663 and be connected to your Senator’s office. The website has information on what you might say.)

Will calling a Senator help? I honestly don’t know. I do know that the ONE Campaign has made a difference. 400,000 people in Africa are on life-saving treatment today because of America’s historic commitment to the fight against AIDS, and billions of decades-old debts are being cancelled, redirected and monitored so these nations can educate, immunize and feed their children.

Prayer will help. It is not just something I CAN do it is something I MUST do. Yes, I must pray for Ezra and his family and the millions like him. And I can pray for Dr. Larry Pepper and his ministry and those all over Africa who are battling this plague. But I must pray for the leaders in government in wealthy Western nations to see that they have a role to play in Africa's future. I must pray to be able to see that I have a role to play as well. I must pray for the plague of complacency and the hypnotic power of our affluence to be overcome in my life. I must pray for God's Kingdom to come, for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I’m going back to Uganda in June. I’m eager to visit with Ezra.