Eating crunchy eyeballs

Life in another culture can be full of unexpected adventures. five-loaves-and-two-fishFor instance, I recently had a meal of posho with beans, ‘little fish’ and hot chili peppers. I had deliberately avoided this meal at the mess hall where I am staying, but somehow the calendar was adjusted and I showed up on a day I thought was ‘fish-safe.’ I did attempt to eat the fish with the rest of the meal but chewing the crunchy eyeball/head was something I just couldn’t get beyond. Plus the oily fish taste just put the dish over the top for me. I did finish what I was served minus the little fish which are now cozily fertilizing a local patch of ground, eyeballs and all.

While on the topic of food (not really) I have been noticing a very small black object in the kitchenette sink. I have dutifully cleaned the item every day and every day it is back in the sink. At first I thought I had not done my job properly and the item had somehow reemerged from the drain. So I made sure it was gone and reappear it did the next day. I had gone through all the obvious options (bug, dirt, metal particle, etc., etc.) until in frustration I picked up the 3 mm item and gave it is sniff. Now I know!

I share my flat with three lizards. There is the ‘mama’ lizard about 7 to 8 inches in length, the junior lizard about  4 to 5 inches in length and the baby lizard about 3 inches in length. We do well to share the space amicably, except for the mama lizard is daily leaving a ‘calling card’ in the sink. Any ideas how I can help reform this unruly roommate?

I shared a synopsis of Isaac’s story  two weeks ago today. I read him the text before I posted it for the e-world to see, so that I could obtain his permission. He offered a few minor suggestions for changes, then seemed to be troubled. I asked what he was thinking. This was his reply:

You know, dad, you have missed the most important part of the story.

Oh, really? I replied.

Yes, dad. If I had not emailed you, would you have ever come to Uganda?

I didn’t know where this was going, but I gave an honest, ‘no’ in reply. I had never even thought about Uganda before Isaac’s email.

How many churches have you started or helped to start since you have been coming to Uganda?

This question caught me completely unprepared. I had never really thought about it, but then I began counting in my head. ‘Six, at least, I bet, most likely more,’ I replied. 

So, dad, I think that lifting us up from the dirt was ok, but starting those churches is much more important. You need to add that in there (the story).

I discovered over the years that my children teach me more about God than any of my formalized theological training. Isaac is right. It was and is a good thing to be family together, but Isaac, Penny and Lionel were all already part of God’s forever family. There are many, many, more I will never meet who will spend eternity with God because of one answered email. People who now follow Jesus because God made those email conversations into much more than I could imagine. That is what is really important.

I humbly thanked my son for wisely pointing out my oversight and promised to give his encouragement space of its own.

Around the world people are ‘giving to God’ in expectation of getting some sort of return: wealth, health, financial affluence. They are missing the real power, however. When Christians give from what God provides, He miraculously multiplies the gift to meet the needs He knows are there.

In a few week’s time I will travel around central and north Uganda visiting with people we have met over the past years and supported and perhaps even shared the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. I will visit a building for church gatherings being constructed via a gift from the US from someone who has never been to Africa. I will worship with a ‘bush’ congregation led by a joyous man rescued from sickness and abject poverty to go back to his war -ravaged homeland to share there is forgiveness of sin for those who will repent.( Spend 4 minutes watching a summary of his amazing story. )

There will be so much more to share and not because of me or those who have generously shared through me but because of the One who takes even the smallest steps and creates epic journeys for the sake of Love, the increase of His Kingdom.


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Earth Splitting Joy

And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise. (1 Kings 1:40, RSV)

earth splitThe “splitting of the earth” is an obvious hyperbole, so much so that most modern translations choose to render the Hebrew word,  baqa, as “quake” or “shook.” The original is the appropriate word for the story and the translator’s choice of an alternative is not helpful in this instance.

The reading of this verse drops us into the middle of political intrigue here.   God, through David, chose Solomon, firstborn son of an adulteress, to be King of Israel.  David’s other son, Adonijah, believed himself to be the rightful heir to the throne of Israel.  Adonijah had gathered military and religious leaders to himself and was in the process of hosting his own “victory party” when the rumble of joy came rolling through.  True to the nature of political sycophants, as soon as Adonijah’s guests heard the explanation for the jubilation of the city, they disappeared as quickly as possible.  No one likes to be caught with the loser, especially if the alliance may threaten life or personal fortune.

Adonijah means, ‘the I AM is Lord.’  The Lord did not tell Adonijah to take possession of Israel.  The Lord did not instruct Adonijah’s allies to attempt to install Adonijah as king.  Adonijah forgot the meaning of his own name and so his cup of joy turned sour while still in his hand.

And the earth split.

Those who waited for the blessing and direction of God were able, at the right time, to express joy with such fury that the earth responded to the tumult.  On the other side of the rift, those who presumed to be their own gods did their best to silently “fade into the woodwork.”

The question for us is this:  Which side of joy are we on?

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The Brutality of the Bench

old-wood-bench-5I hungrily took my plate of posho, rice, and ground nut sauce and found a place on the only remaining bench in the mess hall. I was having a pleasant conversation with a man about his village and the intrigues and dramas of rural life in Uganda when another man sat down and began talking.

‘M’ is a student from South Sudan. His clothes were poor and he was obviously in distress. I asked him to share what was troubling him. He replied by speaking about a couple of mutual friends who work in the refugee camps and I assumed he was going to give me an update on how life was in the camps.

I was wrong. M began a rambling telling of his story. I am recounting it as closely as I can as it was related to me.

M began sharing the troubles he had coming to Jinja from his country. He had to be careful to avoid certain roads in order to keep from being picked up or killed by either rebel or government military. Then he spoke of his mother and sister and his concern as to their whereabouts. Right after he left to attend his classes in Uganda, his mother and sister had to run from their village into the mountains. M knows where they are hiding at present, but is fearful they will have to move again and then he won’t know where to look. The rebels came to his hometown and conscripted men for their militias. M’s brother joined out of a combination of fear and desperation. M’s younger brother had previously encountered the rebels when they were seeking new soldiers. Something went wrong and M’s brother was killed.

M said everything is changed in the city where he used to live and work as a youth minister. He said the population was once near one million, but now most have run away. There is no work, no services, food is scarce and the church he served no longer meets together. His pastor left to join the rebel forces. M said over and again that he did not understand why his pastor would do such a thing. He said other church members asked why and he could not answer. He tried to suggest to me some possible explanations of why, but in the end just put his face in his hands and repeated I just don’t know. He said that he did know that even though the rebels are trying to address some gross injustices done by his government, that the way of war was not the way of Christ, nor the way to a lasting peace in his (still very new) country.

I asked M if he could phone his mother to check on her well-being. The question may seem a bit ridiculous, but the cell service in this part of Africa is excellent. M said, ‘No they have shut all the cell services down and I don’t know when they will be functioning again.’

M then started talking about his childhood and young adulthood. He spoke about how his father left the family after he lost work in the city and had to move to the village. His father was not the farming type, so he abandoned his family. His mother remarried after about three years and his step father was cruel and beat him and his siblings. M’s mother became pregnant but the pregnancy did not go well and she ended up abandoned and ill.

M became a follower of Jesus in his early twenties. His life continued to be complicated. After M’s conversion, he was able to patch together an education and even enter the university to study economics with the sponsorship of his uncle. Again something went wrong. I didn’t quite catch the detail, but either the university or his uncle had M put in prison, under a sentence of two years. It had something to do with his university fees, that I do know. I am sure my fuzziness about the details comes in part from the great rift in experience. How many university students go to prison over tuition arrears in the US?

M was able to get out of prison after some time by negotiating some agreement with his uncle, but still had the debt hanging over his head. He was encouraged to disappear, but his faith wouldn’t allow such dishonesty so he remained and put things as right as possible. It was at this time he thought to pursue finding his father, perhaps the man would have compassion on his son and help him even though he had not seen or contacted him in 18 years. This also did not go well.

I asked many questions about his plans to retrieve his family, whether or not he would try to enter the refugee camps I plan on visiting in October. M had more questions than answers.

One of the difficulties of being in Uganda is people are regularly asking me either to sponsor them or to find people in the US to sponsor them. Unless you have had the experience of visiting, it is a hard to imagine these ‘ask’ conversations. Often people are desperate for less than $200. There was no ‘ask’ in M’s conversation. Perhaps he trusted me with his story because I knew some people he knew. Throughout the recounting of his life, he repeatedly stressed his trust in God and in God’s authority over even the life he is living. As I watched the language of his body; I could tell he was also clearly communicating that a living, sovereign and loving God was his only hope.

M came to sit on my bench. I knew there was really nothing I could say in reply to such a story, so I offered to pray with him, which he allowed. Before we prayed together he shared two more things. He wanted me to pray for him as he is ill and suffers from Hepatitis B. He said he does not yet know if God will allow this disease to end his life. He also wanted me to pray for his new wife, who is with his mother and sister in hiding. I don’t know if I missed this earlier in his story, lost to me as I tried to keep up with him or if he just waited until the end to divulge. He shared a bit of his marriage story. In sub-Saharan Africa, marriage often is subject to the interference of relatives (particularly uncles, but not just uncles) who wish to profit in some way from the union. M’s marriage suffered from this kind of interference, so M had to fight for his wife, who is now separated from him and in peril.

And so we prayed, asking for God’s intervention, protection, and healing. M cried. Not the sobs commensurate with such a burden, but three or four tears quietly and slowly drifting down his cheeks.

I am sharing this story for reasons I hope are evident.

M’s life situation is repeated in this area by the hundred thousand. There are multiple other areas of the world where M’s story could be repeated with his name exchanged for another. Refugees are not news stories, they are people.

M trusts God in ways I find astounding and in which I wish to follow. M desires a deeper knowledge of God so much that he literally risked his life to come to learn. This is a hunger every Christian should posses.

M needs continued prayers for not only him and his family, but for his people who want the same things most of the rest of us want: the simplicity of food, water, shelter, love and peace.


It is highly unlikely my recounting of M’s story will be read by anyone who would use it to do him harm, but since I related several identifying details happening in a war zone, I chose to change his name to a random consonant. M’s refusal to join either the government or the rebel military forces is enough for his end to be the same as his younger brother’s.


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How Uganda Helped Me Get Family Right

My mother and father took their vows to an altar they were convinced was unassailable. I soon arrived followed by a brother, another brother, and finally a sister. If a family were nuclear then we were explosive.

Both sets of grandparents remained married until death parted them. I attained more than twenty years before the first of them left this world.

Aunts and uncles aplenty and enough cousins to make a rabbit hutch envious rounded out what could be considered ‘family extended.’

We were connected but not close, obligated but not obliging, affected but not affectionate.

And then Jesus showed up and elevated the complicated conflicts of our family relations to unimaginable heights.

“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

(Luke 12:51–53, NASB95)

The ‘intact’ family was officially shattered when my mom and dad responded to the call to become followers of Jesus Christ. Truth be told, our extended family shared blood, but most often the relational dynamic was more about shedding blood (metaphorically anyway) . While the family God wove together was and is never abandoned, new threads appeared in the tapestry of kin. Rejected as ‘freaks’ by most of our family we were received by total strangers through obedient and willful adoption.

The divergent grafted us into their corporate and familial life. Fellow worshipers of Jesus now stood up as aunts and uncles and cousins. No shared blood among us, but rather a shared Spirit of pure, holy, love. While this family was never a perfect communion, they encouraged us, served us, blessed us, gifted us without expectation of return.

This is what a knew all my life. I honestly thought I had ‘family’ pretty well figured out.

When Paul wrote,

He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will…(Ephesians 1:5, HCSB)

I got it. I knew being part of God’s family was His choice and not mine; His grace and not my work. Family was about being included in God’s work of redeeming humans from their irreparably broken state. Yet my understanding proved exquisitely immature.

When the choice was made to receive Isaac, Penny, and Lionel into ‘my family,’ it seemed both natural and true even though our color, nationality, and life-experience was as disparate as north and south, east and west. To be ‘dad’ to these three was a reflection of Love flowing through me not from me. My wife would have three more children, my children three new siblings, my parents three more grandchildren. It would all be good, but it was not.

Trouble arrived on a tangent I would not have predicted. I quietly wrestled with my own heart, sharing my pain with no one. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t achieve a better perspective no matter how many times I manipulated my own position in relation to the problem vexing me.

Two years ago I stood up with Peninnah at her wedding, taking up the role of her deceased father. I burst with joy and I felt deeply humbled to be included in the ceremony. I took advantage of the proximity to both Isaac and Lionel (on separate occasions) to breach the topic causing me so much concealed consternation: Why were they calling so many other people ‘dad’ and ‘mum’? Didn’t they understand parentage was a mutually exclusive relationship? Was the effort and sacrifice my wife, Michelle, and I were making somehow not enough?

IMG_20160902_064127397 (2)

Sitting in Penny’s hair salon with the lovely (and magnificently healthy) Mayers.

For Ugandans titles of parentage are not exclusive to biological paternity and maternity. Children do not bear a family surname. Isaac, Penny and Lionel have different ‘second names’ but are still biologically related. I knew this, and that fact alone should have provided me a hint for understanding, but it did not. Biological parentage is revered and bears responsibility and privileges familiar to most of the rest of the world, but in Uganda an aunt or uncle or respected elder friend can, and often is, called ‘dad’ or ‘mom’. For Ugandans, what someone is ‘called’ is based upon relationship rather than just ‘relations’.

I embarrassingly confess this took far too long for me to process. It hasn’t been that long since I finally settled on what was tripping me up. It was two prideful letters, ‘m’ and ‘y’. Even though I have benefited from decades of being part of what is exclusively ‘His’ family, the temptation of the ‘my’ still crept into my heart and took residence. I was deeply grateful for the many ‘moms’ and ‘dads’ who poured into the ‘Uganda Three,’ but I didn’t want my position to be diminished.

Ryan, Alyssa, Emily, Isaac, Penny, and Lionel are my children no doubt about it, but they do not belong to me. I have no exclusive right to any of them. For instance, Ryan is Maggie’s, Alyssa is John’s, Emily is Mark’s, Penny is David’s, given to each other by covenant of marriage. Each of them now has new relatives to whom they are not related. I was an integral part in each of the ceremonies.


And so I move along, prayerfully wiser (and more humble) because of the journey. Family does not belong to me and is not defined by me. I am a man blessed with an amazing father, rescued by the adoptive Father, enriched by fathers who poured life into me, drawing deeply from the wells of their lives. God, by His design, made us capable of connecting to each other beyond the confines of the boxes we often unconsciously build to keep people out. He gave us blood-family and He gave us grafted-family in order to make us wealthy with love.

I will happily give up the ‘my’ so that it may be so!







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Millions in the Mattress: A Short Narrative of the Left-Handed Orphan

IMG_20160901_095329944The email arrived in 2006, we both agree. I remember wondering if this were yet another ridiculous scam birthed in some dark room in Africa. He wondered if my terse reply was a sign of good intent or ill.

Born August 22, 1982 to a woman in her early teens and her school-mate lover, Waidha Isaac lacked all the proper introductions normally afforded a first-born son. It would be a few years before the ‘family’ was made official, but the sovereignty of Providence remained unaffected by the complications of such a beginning.

Isaac’s father completed his secondary (high school) education and took the woman to be his wife. Even though he was a quiet man, it was well known that he was devoted to this woman; to her happiness and well-being. Although his work as a transportation officer caused him to be away for long periods of time, he remained closely connected to his family. The man was a firm and sometimes too enthusiastic disciplinarian, but he was also generous and kind to his family. His kindness extended beyond his family to include members of his village and his friends. The man often returned from his travels with large quantities of oranges, potatoes, or fish–sharing the abundance with as many as he could.

The young woman was so happy with her home she left a promising job and its extra income in order to devote herself to the making of her home and raising of her children. Their home was spacious and after some years she received the blessing of a second child, Peninnah.

Waidha Isaac was sent to primary school and expected to excel, taking up the legacy of a grandfather who was a learned man, an educator, and a respected churchman. Isaac’s dominate hand is his left hand, which caused great upset to his father. Isaac learned quickly to hide his left hand at home and to use only his right hand whenever his father was present. Although temporarily hidden, the God-given creativity often associated with left-dominate people would serve him well in the years to come.

When Isaac was mid-way through primary school, his father returned home from his working travels. He was very ill. His family did their best to serve him and to heal him, but the disease working in his body was too powerful. Near Christmas Day, Isaac had a vivid dream. Isaac dreamed that his father came home from his travels and that Isaac ran to him and was welcomed into his arms. Isaac woke the next morning, certain his father was well. It was the very same night of the dream, however, that Isaac’s father died in a tuberculosis ward.

His father’s death came just a few days after Lionel, Isaac’s brother, was born. While many were celebrating the new year’s coming, Isaac’s mother tried to comprehend being widowed and without income, left with the responsibility of a new infant and two older children.

Efficiencies were quickly made. Isaac’s family left the only house he knew and they let out a single room to serve as shelter. Neighbors and friends were asked for help to assuage the need. The largess distributed by Isaac’s father was either forgotten, or neighbors and relatives were too overwhelmed by their own responsibilities to share what they had. Only Edward, a close friend of Isaac’s father, came to their aid.

Edward died soon afterward and the family was left to make ends meet through the selling of tomatoes and through whatever other work could be found. This sparse existence was further challenged by Isaac’s mother falling ill. The severe sickness took Isaac’s mother and he was left orphaned about the same age as his mother was when Isaac was born.

Then came the first adoption. A Reverend in Jinja town took Isaac in and included him as one of his own. Peninnah and Lionel were received by their aunt, a woman called Faith who lived by faith in Christ Jesus. Isaac excelled at reading and fell in with the Reverend’s other sons so well that many in Jinja know Isaac only as the Reverend’s son. Although the Reverend was not able to pay for school fees, he used his influence on a local private school board to keep Isaac enrolled and progressing through secondary school. Isaac leveraged his aptitude for his studies to win financial assistance in the form of bursary awards year to year. Using the income she received as a hotel worker, Isaac’s Aunt Faith provided him with the balance of the school fees not covered by the bursary awards.

Isaac’s last two years at school were full of challenges beyond his ability to handle, even with the assistance of Faith and the Reverend. The demands of the maths and sciences caused Isaac to fall out of the top performers in his class and he lost his bursary award. It was only through the graces of a sympathetic instructor, the continued influence of the Reverend, and the grace of God that he was able to take and pass his exit exams.

His pre-university education complete, Isaac sought work and found little to none. He was able to get by working as kitchen help to a caterer and by laboring for an organization serving the then ubiquitous HIV positive community in Uganda. The war in Iraq raged and Isaac tried to join the military. He was rebuffed as an enlisted man because of his completed secondary education. The entrance into the officer corps was likewise stymied.

Faith fell ill and Isaac took responsibility for the care of Peninnah and Lionel. They sought out any opportunity they could find to support themselves. Isaac once observed a muzungu (white) purchasing beads from a local supplier and thought there may be a market for such things in the USA. He quickly learned how to manufacture the beads using recycled paper advertisements and a bit of shellac. Isaac, Peninnah, and Lionel devoted themselves to making beads by the thousand and constructing necklaces and bracelets for sale.

Isaac needed buyers and the competition in Uganda was fierce. The secondary school Isaac previously attended received second hand computers from a school in the United Kingdom and Isaac had learned how to use the computer there. Isaac leveraged this knowledge and what shillings he could put together to begin to email as many people in the USA as he could find. He rarely received responses. The ones he did receive were most often referrals back to institutions and organizations in Uganda, all of which were overwhelmed with similar requests and needs as Isaac’s.

He persisted and received back my one sentence reply, “How can I help?”.

“I have crafts to sell and no market, will you sell them for me?”

“Yes, send them to me and I will sell them for you.”

Isaac borrowed money from everyone he could and sent the crafts to me based solely on my email response. After several weeks following that last email communication with Isaac, I was astonished to see the box of bead necklaces arrive at my office. I sold as many as I could to members at Main Street church, friends, family, neighbors, and complete strangers and quickly accumulated $350 (at the time equal to about 650,000 Uganda shillings).

As promised, I sent the funds to Isaac.

Isaac had never in his life seen so many shillings. Just a few years earlier, a 400,000 UGS school bill seemed to be an insurmountable sum and now he held in his hand far more than that. Scott and his wife, Debbie, were intrigued by Isaac’s desire to attend university and provided me with another $350 to send to Isaac to assist in applying to Makerere University in Uganda. My friends Tami and Denise took the necklaces from me and sold them at craft shows and any other places they could find. A new friend, Nancy, provided many things for Isaac, Penny, and Lionel along the way, blessing them with an abundance.

Isaac soon had over two million Uganda shillings. Since access to banking is difficult for Ugandans, Isaac kept the accumulated funds in his mattress, a favorite hiding place for riches in the USA in centuries past. He applied for and won a placement at Makerere University, and sent his brother back to secondary school.

Isaac’s emails to me became far too personal for my liking. He constantly referred to me as ‘dad,’ a position I don’t take lightly and would not be ‘forced’ into under any circumstances. In a fit of curious frustration, I asked Mark, a dear friend of mine, to accompany me to Uganda to meet this man Isaac. I leveraged the trip as a mission and connected with our Uganda missionary in Kampala. Even if the whole relationship with Isaac was fraud, I would at least be able salvage meaning from the trip by serving the Church.

Joining God in his work will always take our wildest dreams and make them seem like empty fantasy. The trip to Uganda introduced me to a work of God beyond my comprehension. I worshipped with people nearly naked in their poverty but joyous in their affirmation of God’s provision and goodness. I discovered a missionary family who have become treasured friends and people I aspire to emulate in many ways.

And I fell in love with Isaac, Peninnah, and Lionel. The sweetness of Jesus flowed through them and I could not help but to adopt them as my own which I did in a simple ceremony attended only by Mark, our hired driver, and the three of them. The straightforward act of taking responsibility for them as a father would has redefined my understanding of family in many ways (more on that later).

The left-handed orphan is an orphan no more. He is living witness to the immensity of God’s family made real, a man with many fathers and mothers. His shillings are now hosted properly in the bank. Emails back and forth are now conversational and the pages of the story still being written.

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The Faith of my Daughter

It is not that hard, but it is something no Christian parent can stop doing.

Hang in there friends!

Source: The Faith of my Daughter

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