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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consIDered: What is the purpose of the Church?

chapelThese consIDered questions come from an open forum conducted at Main Street. These questions were not addressed at that forum due to the constraints of time. I pray that these answers are helpful as we seek to walk rightly in this world.

First, allow me to define ‘Church’ as the gathering of those who are God’s family by adoption through Jesus’ work on the cross and His resurrection. It is the family of the redeemed. The Church is not a building, or a particular time, or a set of programs. Most people confuse what the so-called Church does with who the Church is. The two should be closely aligned, but they are not the same. It is my belief that if the Church is who it is supposed to be then what the Church does will reflect the mission or purpose given to it by Jesus.

There is a lot of Scripture to draw from, but I will limit myself to Romans 12 as a sufficient summary of Jesus’ teaching and the Apostle’s obedient response. These are the traits of being that should describe the purpose of the ‘Church’ applied to everyday life. Although every word is vitally important, key terms are in bold.

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the LORD. Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.(Romans 12, NLT)

The purpose of the Church is to be the people who both reflect and teach what is contained in this passage toward the end of acting out that character both within the gathering AND outside the gathering. If the Church made these things priority in the content of its teaching and the expectation of its programming the transformation of the communities outside the space of its gatherings (by this I mean buildings) would have difficulty ignoring Jesus the way they do at the present time. If Jesus is not ignored, then He is drawing people to himself and adding them to his ever growing ‘Church’ family.

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consIDered: How far can we go in defending ourselves?

defenseThese consIDered questions come from an open forum conducted at Main Street. These questions were not addressed at that forum due to the constraints of time. I pray that these answers are helpful as we seek to walk rightly in this world.

Question: I have children, what should I be teaching them about protection, defending themselves in a broken society?

A few short months ago I received an email from my son in Uganda. He was on his way home from University and a gang attacked him and began to beat him severely in order to rob him. My son had his computer and a few other items taken from him. He was bloodied, his eyeglasses broken. The situation most likely would have been worse had he not come across a rock on the ground and used it to beat the aggressors back.  Was my son ‘right or wrong’ to strike out and stop the beating? This is not a ‘theoretical question’ for me. As his dad, I was first concerned for his welfare, then I wanted to hop a plane to Kampala and ‘put a whoopin’ on the cowards who hurt him.

Here is a link to an article regarding what is going on in Nigeria and the response of the Catholic church.

Here is an affirmation from John Piper regarding the latest threat from ISIS, ISIL or ‘the Islamic State.’ 

“You will not have safety even in your dreams, until you accept Islam.” Perhaps. I choose Christ now, safety later.

The issue of the ‘if, when, how, and where’ of even self-defense has been hotly debated from the inception of the Church. I cannot even adequately summarize the different convictions faithful brothers and sisters in Christ fiercely hold. I will, however, offer some Biblical principles for consideration so that the wise follower of Jesus can form an informed conviction.

Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:2–3, NASB95)

I never have to ‘protect my life,’ I am dead to this world’s power and in Christ, God holds my life in His hand. This empowers the Christian to act with authority from reason and not to respond in fear. It is this truth we see Jesus illustrate when threatened his own murder.

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Romans 12:17–18, NASB95)

As far as I able, I am to create and maintain an environment of peace and to refrain from retaliation.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.“Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?“If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38–48, NASB95)

When it is in the power of a Christian to receive insult (turn the other cheek); to offer extravagant servitude (go with him two); to exercise extraordinary generosity (let him have your coat…do not turn away from him who wants to borrow); to extend grace (love your enemy); we must do so for the sake of reflecting God’s character. Much of the daily ‘self-defense’ we are tempted to engage would be answered by one of those categories.  

‘You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the Lord. ‘You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16–18, NASB95)

If I truly love my neighbor as myself and I value the life of my neighbor as my own, I will not act against my neighbor, but I would willingly and quickly defend my neighbor. The power of true community is strength in mutual devotion. The non-violent, civil disobedience movement succeeds when there are those who are willing to suffer harm for the sake of ‘their neighbor.’ Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12). 

If a thief is caught in the act of breaking into a house and is struck and killed in the process, the person who killed the thief is not guilty of murder. But if it happens in daylight, the one who killed the thief is guilty of murder…” (Exodus 22:2–3, NLT)

The difference between ‘night and day’ apparently the difference between innocence or guilt when violently defending oneself (and by extension one’s family). The ‘daylight’ is presumed to offer some less lethal means of defense and the follower of the LORD is required to prefer that means.

The LORD is my light and my salvation— so why should I be afraid? The LORD is my fortress, protecting me from danger, so why should I tremble? When evil people come to devour me, when my enemies and foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though a mighty army surrounds me, my heart will not be afraid. Even if I am attacked, I will remain confident.” (Psalm 27:1–3, NLT)

David had both the means and ability to respond to threats against himself, but he confesses dependence on the LORD rather than the weapons of this world. David shed much blood in his days, but he still confessed the above as applied to his own life. I believe we would do well to remember the LORD is our fortress. 

Personally, I believe God put that rock where right it was located and I thank Him for providing it and thus preserving my son from further harm.





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Day 21 of 140, Personal Devotion Tweets

walterscottHas such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it…

I watched a man die this week. I have seen men and women die before in my presence. This time was different. This time the ‘witness’ was via video and this time it didn’t seem real.

Why did a passer-by begin to video what would become the final moments of a human’s life? Why did the videographer not even flinch as a handgun discharged over and over again? Why did an officer ‘of the law’ calmly and repeatedly fire into the back of a fleeing suspect? Where were the obvious signs of the man being struck by bullets until just before he fell? Why was the man subsequently handcuffed as he lay unresponsive and on his face? Why did the officer walk away from the man to the point of the first recorded confrontation? Why did a second officer search the man but give no effort to examine the man’s injuries or render aid?

There will be a lot of effort to determine the answers to these questions and many more not mentioned here. It appears to me, however, that in seeking answers to the questions we may miss the depths of the problem we all face.

Our problem is not ‘racism,’ racism is a symptom of the problem. Our problem is not ‘poverty,’ poverty is a result of the problem. Our problem is not ‘lack of education,’ education may effect change to our exterior, but it does not revolutionize the intent of the interior.

I am reading Joel with a friend of mine. Since it is a short work, we will read it repeatedly before we discuss it together next week. The first chapter is a call to lament over what is lost. The cry of the prophet is to ‘wake up!’ Joel describes a culture so blinded that even the ‘drunks’ are unaware that the alcohol is ‘no more.’ Even though the text is most likely 25 centuries old, it is not difficult to envision a man overcome with passion and grief for his country.

Joel’s sorrow does not dampen his shout, however. The problem, Joel contends, is that the Nation cries not for the Lord.

This is our problem. We exchanged submission to God for enforcement by ‘law.’ We abandoned the fear of God and exchanged it for the power of legislation. Where there is ‘Rule of Law’ there will also follow the abuse of power. When we have only ourselves as Authority, we consistently produce all manner of evil. We blow up spectators at sporting events and then buy milk. We cheat our employer and steal from the tax payer simultaneously and then we ‘entertain’ our neighbor’s spouses.

There is only one remedy, but I fear the remedy grows more distant by the moment. If we refuse to return to the One who commands us to love each other the same way He loves us, we will continue to run away from the only means for our escape from the ‘worse yet to come.’

I am passionately grieving for my country.

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