November 9

Uncomfortable truth: The America I woke up to on November 9 is the exact same America that existed before November 8.

This election has been long, grueling, painful, and… a mirror. It has put a VERY bright spotlight things that I like to conveniently forget exist or pretend aren’t a big deal. Things like corruption, lies, pride, selfishness, racism, sexism, and willingness to say or do anything in pursuit of power. The last 18 months have stripped us of dignity and exposed the truth of who we really are while we tried in panic to grab anything available to cover our shame.

No wonder I was anxious for November 8 to come and go. I wanted to go back to living in denial that my country isn’t actually “like that”.  That I myself am not “like that”. That I do not in direct or indirect ways marginalize people different from me, or pursue my own good at the expense of truth or the well-being of others. If I could just get through the election… (Confession: I made every effort to hide under a rock on election night. I holed up at home with no internet or social media, went to bed early. I didn’t want to process what was happening.)

Except it didn’t end on November 8. One of these two unsavory people WOULD be the face of my country for the next four years. Try as I might, I couldn’t escape that.

I didn’t vote for him, and I didn’t vote for her. I didn’t want throw my lot in with either and thus either condone things I find abhorrent or – worse – have to admit that some of those abhorrent sins can be found in my own life. I voted for neither, yet I am an American citizen and one of them would be representing my country as my president.

American did not become MORE undignified after November 8; we just now have a president elect who reminds us of the kind of problems that STILL EXIST in our country and in our world. And that if we are putting our faith in leaders of this world, we will ALWAYS be disappointed. 

Which means that though the election season is finally over, I still had to wake up on November 9 and confront that this IS the world I live in – full of traits that display we are broken, fallen, selfish, fearful, angry – and that I continue to fight my own personal battle in which I’m reluctant to trust that God’s way is better than my own.

So I’m turning once again to Jesus, the only place to turn and the place I should have been turning all along. Mourning the sins of my country. Confessing my own sins, and confessing that I’ve gotten too comfortable with them. I’ve forgotten that this is a war, and my enemy is not flesh and blood – not Trump, not Hillary, not Democrats or Republicans – but the evil powers of darkness that want to remove hope and love and knowledge of God’s incredible grace and replace them with shame.

It’s time to once again take up my armor, to fight, and to pray, asking the Creator of the universe to intervene in this world, in my country, and in my life. And use me to further his kingdom and show his glory. Regardless of who my president is.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm…

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. 

Galatians 6:10-13,18

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Musana v3.0

Two incredible Musana VBS teams -- 2014 on top, 2015 on bottom.

Two incredible Musana VBS teams — 2014 on top, 2015 on bottom (both with bonus friends).

Two years ago today I walked into a room of strangers with little in common beyond a willingness to serve God in Uganda.

One year later I met another group of people who once again planned and trained and prayed and boarded planes to Uganda.

And last week a new group of 17 gathered to eat Chipotle among kids ministry murals and prepare for another trip to Uganda.  Yup, for the third time I’m delighted to be a part of the Musana VBS team!  

I’m confident that this fifth Musana VBS program will be the best one yet. There’s actually basically no way that it can’t be – not because previous trips or teams were lacking. Quite the opposite: because they’ve been stellar, building on each other, creating a strong foundation of friendship and teamwork with Musana. Each team has set the next one up for even greater successes. (Even more fun: this year’s team includes nine Musana veterans with six VBS veterans! And for some reason we always have a Ben…)

When I came back last year I wrote about the hospital that Musana is building. I have no regrets about that; the hospital is coming along beautifully and the outpatient wing is open and seeing patients! I’m still passionate about getting that hospital complete.

But… I didn’t write anything about VBS – specifically how much change I saw in just one year.  A huge oversight on my part!  Let me bring you into the inner circle on some of the amazing things I experienced.

In 2014 I went to Musana so nervous. I was told that the Bible Story station may not have a Musana staff member for me to work with, and I had no idea how cross-cultural story telling would turn out. Luckily that prediction was completely wrong because I met Lameka, a 21-year-old first-year Musana school teacher who LOVED to be goofy. We worked together side by side at the Bible Story station all week. I had brought some ideas for creative ways we could teach each of the stories; most days I would teach the first two groups while he watched and he would teach the last three, imitating some of the things I did. We also teamed up – one day he acted as a narrator and I as a character, and by the end of the week I was a narrator while he was a character.

Lameka and I telling the story of the woman at the well in 2014.

Lameka and I telling the story of the woman at the well in 2014.

I’ll admit I don’t even do well team teaching at kids ministry at my home church, so team teaching with someone from a completely different culture was definitely out of my comfort zone. But I was sooo proud of him, too, as some of the teaching and acting we did was way out of his comfort zone as well. And while the kids did pay attention to me while I taught (often with perplexed looks on their face at this odd American girl telling stories in an unfamiliar way), I couldn’t make them laugh the way that Lameka did when he got on stage.

When I returned in 2015, Lameka was there again once again. We donned more green t-shirts, excited to pick up where we had left off. But I wasn’t just working with Lameka that year; they had assembled a whole team of folks to work together on the Bible Story. I was hugely cheered to see four staff getting involved this year in the Bible Story station. We had a planning meeting on Monday where I told them the themes for each day of the week and we talked about how and who could teach each story. Of the 25 teachings that week (five groups for five days), I think I taught maybe four times. Instead they took the teachings and made them their own, getting creative with props and costumes. Most times the only thing for me to do was fill in the extra time before dismissing he kids to the next station – easily accomplished with songs and Bible verse memory.

Watching Lameka teach about the Armor of God in 2015. Literally all I did that day was make cardboard armor and he just took it from there.

Watching Lameka teach about the Armor of God in 2015. Literally all I did that day was make some cardboard armor and watch him go with it.

Where the first year Lameka and I had almost a mentee-mentor relationship, the second year we felt more like teammates and peers. I can’t imagine what my team leader, Jodi, must think having watched all four years of VBS right from the start when, as she says, “We did VBS to them.” Now we get to do it with them. If that’s what I got to see in just one year, what might things be like after another year? I can’t wait to see what will happen.

Lameka and I reunited and excited on day one back at Musana in 2015.

Lameka and I reunited on day one back at Musana in 2015.

I’d been on a several short-term mission trips before Musana, but all of them were one shot; I didn’t get a chance to see how God was working over time in a community. I think that’s why I came home last year so passionate about Musana and the hospital in specific – because I could see what God had done in Iganga through Musana in just one year.

Like everything at Musana, the VBS program is focused on sustainability. We still partner together (because that’s fun, too!), but bit by bit over the years the responsibility and coordination for VBS has been passed from the Americans to the Ugandans. Hopefully one day they’ll be able to take a program like this out to the communities of Iganga, running it all on their own.  It’s one thing to read the numbers about Musana’s sustainability; it’s another thing to see parts of it taking shape right before your eyes. Also, who knows, maybe this year for the FIRST TIME I’ll get to see what’s happening at the other VBS stations?🙂

So once again I come to you and ask for your help to make this trip a reality. And I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t scare me to raise $2900 for the third year in a row! But I threw my application in the ring once more this year and if God wants me to go I believe he’ll make it happen.  I hope you’ll consider supporting me this year; every dollar helps!  Only 95 more days until we take off on June 15.  To sunshine!

* * * * *

Cash or check donations can be mailed to Flatirons Community Church, 355 West South Boulder Road, Lafayette CO 80026. Make checks out to Flatirons Community Church, and be sure to include “Musana VBS – Alissa” in the memo line – or in an attached note if sending cash. (Or hand it to me to save a stamp! I will gladly come pick it up in person – as long as you’re within 50 miles of Boulder, Colorado…)

Credit card donations can be made online at Service Reef. Please note that there is a 5% fee associated with Service Reef, so I will get 95 cents from each dollar if you choose to donate this way.

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In all circumstances

It’s Thanksgiving week, so naturally lately people have been thinking about and talking about things they’re thankful for.  Really, there’s so much, where to start?  The amazing people in my life, my awesome church, living in such an incredible place, having a great job, the fact that sunsets and strawberries exist, the list could go on and on and on.

It’s easy to be thankful for the good stuff.  It’s easy to be thankful when we’re happy.  It’s easy to be thankful when we have enough.  It’s easy to be thankful when life is easy.

But as Christians we are called to more than that.  The Bible instructs us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  How can we go from praising God for a table full of food or for a raise at work or for healing from an illness to praising God like Job who, when losing all of his wealth and all of his children had perished, fell on the ground in worship saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21)?

Paul learned the secret to this as illustrated in 2 Corinthians 12 when he wrote:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (emphases mine)

When we face challenge or hardship, it’s an opportunity for God’s greatness to shine through.  So instead of being thankful for the standard things this week, I challenged myself to find reasons to be thankful for the things that are hard to be thankful for.  The things I wish would change or go away.  Here’s a few I came up with; maybe you can find some surprising ways to discover gratitude this season as well.

God, I thank you for my seasons of depression, for when I feel weak and lost it is then that I run fastest and most eagerly to you.

God, I thank you for the people that aggravate me, for they are an opportunity for me to learn to love better, more like you, and they remind me how you love and delight in me even when I disobey.

God, I thank you for giving me my daily bread and not too much more, for it reminds me to value the things that I have and remember that things can never satisfy the way you can.  (Side note: one of my favorite verses.)

God, I thank you for the unfulfillment I feel at work from time to time, for it reminds me that my purpose comes from my identity in you and not from what I do.

God, I thank you for the challenges I face in ministry, as they remind me that this is YOUR ministry, not mine, that YOU are the one who changes hearts and minds and draws all people to you, not me.  Thank you for the privilege to work with you in spreading your good news.

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Fall, funk, failure, and faithfulness

I wish I liked fall more.  After all, there are plenty of reasons to love it!  The weather is cool and crisp – neither too hot nor too cold, the trees turn my favorite colors, and it’s the perfect time of year for hot tea and homemade soup.

image

My tea collection might be a little huge. But it wakes me up when the sun isn't there.

But while the much of my hemisphere is celebrating fireplaces and cozy scarves and pumpkin spice everything, fall is rough for me.  I’m solar-powered.  If the sun’s not up, I’m not up.  As days shorten it’s a daily struggle to embrace consciousness and drag myself out of bed.  It usually takes at least one large cup of tea for my brain to kick in.  After work there’s hardly any light left, prompting me to often abandon ambitions to tackle chores and instead crawl back under the covers early with a book.

Thankfully, by mid-November or December when temperatures plummet and snow falls I’ve usually settled into a comfortable routine and it’s less difficult.  But this transition is always a challenge.

As the first rays of sunlight hit my windows later and later each morning, I observe myself becoming lethargic, unmotivated, withdrawn, grouchy, and easily annoyed.  Optimism and enthusiasm usually come pretty naturally to me and I often still have a few decent hours every day, but they’re less frequent and I sure don’t feel like “positive, encouraging, silly” Alissa.  Even when I somehow manage to do a good job hiding my fall funk, I certainly feel the change in my heart from serving to selfish, from encouraging to aggravating.

I once wrote a short blog post about how much I love the winter solstice.  While it’s the shortest day of the year, it means I’ve made it to the darkest point and things are only going to get brighter from here on out.  How appropriate it is that we celebrate the birth of Christ during the darkest week of the year (at least in this hemisphere), that we rejoice God came down to us to save us from the darkness of our life without Him.

Right now, winter solstice is still a way off.  (Eight weeks, but who’s counting?  Me, apparently…)  The days ahead will continue to get shorter.  I can either go as Oscar the Grouch for Halloween every year and claim the month of October is just me getting in character, or I can fix my eyes on Jesus – my own solstice and promise of light.

For while my depression has gone up as the leaves fall down and my body and mind struggle to stay joyful and energized and thankful, the flip side is that my spirit is more vibrant than it has been in a long time.  When I manage to finally get up in the mornings I curl up with my Bible and devotions.  There, as my exhausted body waits for the sky to turn from grey to pink, God reveals himself to my tender spirit. It’s absolutely the best part of my day. For real.

It shouldn’t surprise me that I’m more vulnerable and receptive to the gifts of grace in this season.  After all, Christ told Paul that His “grace is sufficient, and [His] power made perfect in weakness”.  Donald Miller recognized this and wrote “grace only sticks to our imperfections”.  Each fall my weakness and imperfect inadequacy are definitely more apparent.

In a time where it’s a challenge to be productive and instead I struggle with guilt, feeling like a failure over the countless ways I’m not reflecting and serving God very well, I’m reminded that’s okay because He doesn’t want my offerings of deeds or good works anyway!  (Psalm 50:9-12)  He wants to shower me with grace and teach me to trust in Him.  My fall funk is, in fact, the perfect opportunity to rediscover the depths of His faithfulness.  Sarah Young writes in “Jesus Calling”:

I have chosen you less for your strengths than for your weaknesses, which amplify your need for me.

John Piper writes:

What is God looking for in the world?  Assistants?  No.  The gospel is not a “help wanted” ad.  Neither is the call to Christian service…  Isn’t there something we can give to God that won’t belittle him to the status of beneficiary?  Yes.  Our anxieties…  Christianity is fundamentally convalescence.  Patients do not serve their physicians.  They trust them for good prescriptions.  The Sermon on the Mount is our Doctor’s medical advice, not our Employer’s job description…  God is the workman in this affair.  And what he gets is the glory of being the benefactor of grace, not the beneficiary of service.

My favorite season will still be spring as days grow longer and warmer and I witness the ground awaken with new, green life.  It’s easy to praise God in the “good” times like spring.  But the good times aren’t when God is glorified the most in my life.  It’s the difficult times when I seek Him earnestly and learn to trust Him more and experience the greatest growth.  God is not inconvenienced by me bringing my burdens to Him, my repeated prayers for forgiveness when I fail.  Rather, He delights in the opportunity to love me and I give Him glory when I fling myself daily and hourly upon His immeasurable grace:

Then call on me when you are in trouble, and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory. –Psalm 50:15 

Tomorrow my alarm will once again go off before the sun is up.  Once again I will stumble around in a half conscious stupor, barely making it out the door in time for work.  I will gratefully wrap cold fingers around a hot mug of tea as I sift blearily through emails at work.  Tomorrow night I will again be exhausted but probably manage to get some cleaning done before calling it a night.  I hope I can be gracious throughout, not accidentally bruising the spirits of the people I care about.

And through it all I will praise God for being bigger than my inadequacy and failures.  Bigger than my exhaustion and short temper.  I will praise Him for teaching me dependence.  I will boast with gladness of my weakness as another opportunity to witness the power of Christ working in me.

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Provision

After the first day of Musana VBS, I asked some of the children hanging around me what the best part was.  (They don’t really use the word favorite, instead asking questions like “What is your best color?”)  Some of them thought for a moment, some of them had an immediate answer, but all of them had the same answer.  “Bible story.”

“Even more than snack?!” I teased.  After all, in snack station they got candy – a rare treat.  Some thought for a moment, some didn’t, all still agreed Bible story was their favorite.

They said this to me last year too, and I thought they were just being polite since I was the one helping lead the Bible story station.  But then other leaders came up to me afterwards to tell me that the kids were saying how much they loved Bible story.  Even the snack station leader said the kids liked Bible story more.  Last year I was just bemused and didn’t think much of it.

This year when they said it to me again, I thought about it more.  The Bible story on the first day was about God taking care of Elijah in the desert, feeding him with ravens.  The theme for the day was “God has the power to provide”.

And I realized how much more true that is in their lives than in mine.

To be honest, I don’t rely on God much to provide.  I rely on myself.  The job I have, the money I make, who I know.  I plan that if things go wrong in my life, I will have to take care of myself.  I have never one day in my life gone to bed hungry, or without shelter, and I somehow believe that is a result of my own work.  But in reality, it’s an illusion.  It is only by the provision of God that I have not been a victim of poverty, violence, war, illness, earthquake, flood, and countless other tragedies.

Compare that to my friends in Uganda.  Whose families struggle to put food on the table each day.  Who do not have a savings account.  Who do not have adequate medical care.  Who have been rescued from abuse or abandonment.  Who quite literally know the meaning of Jesus’ prayer for God to “give us this day our daily bread”.

I would imagine that when this is your world, it’s hard to be lukewarm about Jesus.  You either have hope in God, or you have despair.  What other alternatives are there?

So if you were in their shoes, think of going to hear a Bible story that reminds you God has the power to provide.  Of course he does!  You’ve seen it in your own life because you’re still here.  You’re receiving education, three meals a day, and sleep each night in a bed of your very own.

Wouldn’t this reminder be the highlight of your day?  More than a game or an experiment or a craft or even a snack, the encouragement that God is powerful and he loves you and will take care of you?

I want to be better at recognizing God’s provision in my own life.

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. – Phil 4:19

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Disappointed or delighted?

At the beginning of the year I wrote a post about pressure to be perfect. I concluded it pondering if this year I needed to do fewer things and experience more grace. Months later I’m sure the burning question in your minds is, “So how’s that going?” Because summer’s winding down and you have nothing else to occupy your time and thoughts…

Short answer: I still have a looooong way to go.

A friend told me years ago, “If, when you think about God thinking about you, you think he is anything less than completely delighted with you, you are still thinking of conditional grace.”

Well, let’s be honest, I’m totally still thinking of conditional grace. Far from delighted, when I think of God thinking of me the first word that often comes to mind is disappointed.

The light bulb moment came to me a few weeks ago: it’s like God is a kickball coach. (Why kickball? Because it’s the only team sport I didn’t completely suck at in gym class. And it’s the first one that came to mind. Also you should know that I’ve never actually played on a sports team, so this analogy may fall apart…)

So anyway, kickball. God’s a coach, and he picked me for his team! Which is amazing because, you know, GOD. If anyone’s going to be good at kickball and have a stellar team it’s gonna be him.

Just one problem: I’m not the best kickball player. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. (Nothing involving a ball does, if you were wondering.) I try and I give it my best. Well, most of the time. But sometimes I miss practices. Sometimes I goof off and don’t give it my best effort. Occasionally I kick the ball far and straight, but most of the time I’m not much help in the games.

And God is super duper nice so he won’t ever kick me off the team. But… he kind of grimaces whenever it’s my turn at the plate, and sighs in exasperation when I don’t take things seriously, and is just generally, well, disappointed in me.

Even writing this feels like heresy because deep down I know it’s not true.

And yet, that’s absolutely the best analogy I have for how I feel so often. That my salvation is secure (i.e., God’s not going to kick me off the team), but that God is disappointed that I don’t do better and don’t do more. That I don’t read my Bible and pray every day. That I no longer help in student ministry. That I don’t spend more time preparing for teaching Sunday school lessons. That I don’t volunteer in my community. That Alissa has so much potential she’s not living up to and so God just hangs his head in disappointment.

When I first started my job I got so much personal fulfillment from it. Learning an important role and doing it well and contributing and being needed… it was all amazing! Then after a few years it got boring and I got depressed and restless.

Then I started running, and I got a lot of personal fulfillment from that. Discovering that, whoa, I’m not quite as unathletic as I always thought! (Still nothing with a ball, though.) Watching myself get better and learning to persevere through something that was really hard for me was an incredible time of growth. Now a few years later I have almost no motivation to run and I’m restless and struggling again.

So I wrote that post, wrote those words of wisdom to myself, and then forgot them. Over the past several months instead I’ve prayed countless times for God to show me what he wants me to do. There are several things I’ve looked into but I’ve done none of them, each time pausing because I always come to the same conclusion: right now if I did any of these things they would certainly become an idol. Another thing I am doing to seek fulfillment and keep God from being disappointed rather than simply experiencing fulfillment in the knowledge that God delights in me.

This is really hard for me, guys. Really hard. The biggest temptation in my life is to do. I’ve conditioned myself to think that my value comes from what I do and how well I do it. Always wanting to get the best grade on a test, draw the best picture in class, be the nicest person that everyone likes, the best employee, the greatest Sunday school teacher… But if I was ill and stuck in a bed for the rest of my life unable to do anything for him, God would still delight completely in me. If I was alone on a desert island with no one to minister to, God would still delight completely in me.

The internet has several different opinions (translations?) for what Buddha’s last words were, but they’re just variations on the same theme: “Strive on untiringly.” “It is through vigilance that you succeed.” “Work hard to gain your own salvation.”

Compare those with Jesus’ last words: “It is finished.” No more sacrifices. No more working to get to God. No more fear that you haven’t done enough. Everything was accomplished through Jesus.

Reading my Bible is important. Praying is important. Tithing is important. Teaching in kids ministry is important. Serving others in need is important. But the why behind all of them is even more important. And the why behind so many of my actions isn’t what it needs to be. I don’t often do these because I want to know God better, but out of a sense of guilt that I should be doing more and doing better. God’s not disappointed in me. That’s a flat out bold faced lie.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.  Gal 5:7-8

The amount that I can do for God is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I can never ever ever ever do enough for God. Far from this making me feel guilty and worried that I need to do more, it should be freeing! I don’t need to strive for anything!!!

My motivation needs to be much deeper than a shallow checklist of “should” activities. By spending time with my Creator, I learn more about him and about how and why I was created. God has so much more to teach me, and I have so much more to learn.

Less fearing disappointment, more resting in his delight. Less striving for fulfillment, more experiencing grace. Less worrying about filling all my free time with activities, more pausing to marvel in who he is.

sunset

Acknowledgement: Some of these wise words came from AJ. Thanks for speaking truth into my life and the lives of others. You’re the best. 

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I want to build a hospital

I’ve been working on this post for a month.  Seriously.  The scariest part of both of my trips to Uganda was the fundraising because I hate asking people for money.  But the thing is, I really believed in those trips to Musana — and both times ended up funded with time to spare! — and I really really really believe in what Musana is doing and I want to see their hospital get built.

So enough beating around the bush.  Here’s the deal: I want to build a hospital.  Or, rather, I want to get a hospital built.  And I want to ask for YOUR help to do that. 

The outpatient wing of the Musana Health Center (photo courtesy Musana CDO).

The outpatient wing of the Musana Health Center (photo courtesy Musana CDO).

It was one month ago today that I got home from Uganda.  That’s hard to believe — in some ways it feels like yesterday and in other ways a lifetime ago.  Afterwards people asked me how the trip was and my response was almost always, “Completely amazing.  And also really hard.”

Soon after I returned, a friend posted on Facebook, “If Disney is the happiest place on Earth, what’s the second happiest?”  Without hesitating I replied, “Musana.”  Maybe I’m biased, but it’s the happiest place I’ve ever been.  Including Disney.  In the local language, Musana means sunshine — and indeed Musana is bringing light into darkness.  Musana is reaching out in love to some of the poorest, most vulnerable people on the planet and providing them with dignity, hope, and joy.  I am honored to have been able to witness what God is doing through them in Uganda.  So from that aspect it was — once again — completely amazing.

But when I was there this year the Musana staff did something for us that they have not done with any other visiting team.  They took us out of the Musana bubble.  Because Musana is a bubble.  They’re doing amazing things, but there are still so many in need in Uganda.

Sure we’d seen people as we walked through town or from the windows of our bus.  But we didn’t know them or their stories or how they lived their lives; we really only saw the Musana school children and Musana staff and Musana projects.  So one morning we were split into four groups.  Two groups went to visit people at their homes and hear their stories — some homes being families of kids who are at Musana school.  One group went to visit some other schools — that didn’t have near the resources of Musana.  When we came back afterwards to share our experiences, it was hard.  Really hard.  

The need is great.  The need is so so so great.  For rescuing children.  For providing education.  For helping widows.  And also, as I learned, for healthcare.

My group went to the hospital.  There is one hospital in town (along with a few small clinics) serving a population of about a million people.  Compare that to Colorado which according to Wikipedia has just over five million people and over 100 hospitals.  From the moment the hospital was put forward as an option I knew I had to go.  Mentally, I tried to prepare myself.  I knew the conditions would be nothing like those I’ve seen in the eleven years at my job.  I knew it would be crowded.  I knew it wouldn’t be clean.

It didn’t matter; I still wasn’t prepared.  I had tried to prepare myself for the conditions, but I wasn’t prepared for the patients.  I wasn’t prepared for the reality of so many suffering people.

It was silent when we walked into the first room — the pediatric ward for those age five and under.  It was crammed with a hundred cribs bearing dirty mattresses.  On the floor by most of them was a straw mat with one, two, even three family members sitting or sleeping on the concrete floor to be near their children.  Every head turned as five white girls walked into the room.  We initially stood by the door, but the nurse told us to walk through.  I could barely meet the eyes of anyone.  Most stared at us in silence the whole time we were in the ward.  All I saw in glances of faces was pain and exhaustion and fear — what you would probably expect from anyone watching their child die in a hospital.

At the debrief later that morning, one of my teammates said that at the home of a severely disabled mother she asked the Musana social worker, “What are you doing for her?  What can we do for them?”  The reply was, “We stand with them.”  In that first moment in the pediatric ward, that is what I wanted more than anything.  To go to each family in turn and pray with them, hug them, cry with them, stand with them, love them.

It was the same scenario as we walked through the other wards, all eyes on us.  In the men’s ward, I couldn’t help reaching out my hand to squeeze the shoulder of a patient who lay skeletal and motionless on a bed except for eyes that followed me.

We were taken to the labor and delivery room where three women in active labor moved about a space the size of my living room.  Other very very pregnant women sat outside the door on the floor.  We were told ten to twenty babies entered the world each day in that room, most by C-section.  From there, to a ward where dozens of women lay recovering from birth.  We noted most did not have a baby with them; I think none of us wanted to ask if the children had been taken home or hadn’t survived.  A few years ago one of Musana’s staff members gave birth in that hospital to a beautiful, healthy baby who caught a fever and died shortly in that same hospital because there was no doctor or fever-reducing medicine.

The good news is that the hospital wasn’t entirely dire.  There was an HIV clinic — unlabeled due to stigma, the nurse wouldn’t even say it but wrote it on her hand — that was pretty nice and clean and well-staffed.  In another room, hundreds of women held infants waiting for vaccines.  I asked which vaccines they were getting and the nurse rattled off an impressive list.  Throughout the hospital the walls were plastered with posters hoping to spread as much health education as possible.  All of the services at the hospital were offered free of charge.

Our visit had started in the superintendent’s office.  On his desk were displayed two plaques presented to the hospital for being the top performing hospital in the country.  Yes, this was the top performing hospital in the whole country.  And even he told us with frustration in his voice how they didn’t have near the resources to treat all the patients that come to them.  In this burgeoning country, the need is just too great and the resources just too few.

So Musana is building a hospital.  Last year when I visited the newly-purchased site it was spoken of as a clinic; I guess they decided that the town needed more.  This year we saw a nearly-finished two-story building that will be the outpatient center; they hope to open in November.  The inpatient hospital will be built next door for a price tag of $300,000.  Yeah, that’s it!  About the cost of a house here in Colorado.  A hospital for the price of a house.

A short side story: while on the trip (I think even the same day we went to the hospital) one of my teammates and another volunteer at Musana each got an insect bite.  The bites swelled up to the size of marbles, were painful and full of puss.  As we crowded around trying to figure out what to do, I realized how much I take my health care system for granted.  We had minimal options to try to treat these bites — whatever OTC meds we had in our suitcases.  I for one never even considered going to that hospital; besides not being completely clean, they had hardly any resources and there were people dealing with much worse conditions than a bug bite.  But the seriousness of the bites did make me wonder what the outcome would be if we hadn’t had even those meds.  And sterile gauze pads.  And clean water to wash the wounds.  And enough nutritious food for their bodies to heal.  Could a simple insect bite like this become a crippling or fatal infection if received by a Ugandan without those resources?  Possibly.  (By the way, they both got better — with the intervention of some fancy antibiotics.)

My first day back at work, I found myself a bit stunned walking through the beautiful halls of my workplace.  A clean health center full of quality equipment and hundreds of caring people.  The American healthcare system is far from perfect, but it’s light years beyond what my friends in Uganda have to experience.

But the need is so great.  Have I said that enough times in this post?  Because it’s true.  Uganda is currently the lowest in the world on the median population age at 15.  Survival is hard in Uganda.  I read a book recently that described trying to help in Uganda as emptying the ocean with an eyedropper.  I admit I felt a sense of paralysis.  While I’m excited about the Musana hospital, it still won’t be enough to meet the need.

Then I thought of one of my favorite stories that sums up not just Musana but ministry and even how God asks us to work: the starfish story.

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean. “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks. “Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.” “But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.” The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

Without a doubt, Musana is making a difference in Uganda.

Children were huddled abused and malnourished in a [supposedly Christian] orphanage praying, “God, save us!”  And he spoke to the hearts of some random young adults who started Musana Children’s Home and got them out.

Parents were praying, “God, our children need to go to school so they can have a better life!”  And he moved and created Musana Nursery and Primary School, exploding with brilliant children and caring teachers.

Widows were praying, “God, I don’t know how I’m going to feed my family!”  And he sent Musana to start women’s projects giving women skills and small business loans to provide for their families while also giving them dignity and standing with them in love.

When the five of us returned to the guest house after the hospital visit, we put our arms around each other and cried and prayed for the people we saw in the hospital.  We prayed God would be powerful and present in their lives.  We thanked God that he had led the staff of Musana to start building a hospital and asked him to bless it.  And I wondered how many people in Iganga had been praying for health care long before we got there.

God is answering prayers through the work of Musana.  Musana staff are faithfully following God’s leading, and inch by inch God is using Musana to change lives.  Making a difference one at a time.  Saving starfish, one might say.

And God is faithful, too.  Watching, protecting, blessing, growing Musana.  Even just the stats from my trip last year to this year: 500 students to 670 students.  Seriously guys, they’re making a difference!  This is an organization to watch.  More than that, this is an organization to get involved with.

I’ve been thinking of a quote I heard that basically says that God doesn’t ask us to save the whole world, but to act where we are with what we have and be obedient in what he asks us to do.  Did the women who founded Musana realize when they went to Africa one summer that they’d start an orphanage?  No.  They didn’t know how to start an orphanage.  But they heard God’s call and followed it and he provided.  And they kept listening.  They didn’t know how to start a school.  They didn’t know how to start a farm.  They didn’t know how to build a hospital.  But they were faithful each time God led them, following even though they were probably uncertain where he was going to lead and how exactly he was going to do this.  God doesn’t call the equipped, but he equips the called.

On the way home to Colorado I was convicted.  Not to move to Uganda and start an orphanage / school / farm / hospital.  I don’t believe God is calling me to do that at this time.  But I was convicted to be faithful with what God has given me.

I told a friend about the hospital and its $300,000 price tag, and she scoffed, “There are rich people that spend that much to have private jets and second homes; they should give their money to do things like this instead!”  I initially agreed, but then thought for a moment, “Why does it have to be the rich people that do it?  I don’t have $300,00 but I can still give something.”

So I made a donation to Musana toward getting that hospital built.  Of course it’s not near enough to finish the hospital, but it was big enough to be a sacrifice and make me panic and almost not go through with it.  Yet I’ve rarely been so convinced that a course of action was necessary.  And I could think of no better investment than putting that money in the hands of Musana.  That money will go SO much farther and make MUCH more of an impact there in Uganda in those lives than it ever could here in America spending it on myself.  It will quite literally change lives and save lives.

* * * * *

I suck at wrapping up blog post, but here goes.  I’ve read countless stories from people about organizations doing charity work around the world and asking people to give money.  Why is this any different?  Why do I want you to support Musana?  It’s not just because there’s a need.  There are needs everywhere!  It’s not just because I believe they are good stewards of the money they are entrusted with.  Even though they are!

It’s the mindset behind what they are doing and why.  It would take far too long to explain here (though I’d be happy to talk with you over ice cream about it), but they do everything thoughtfully.  They approach each project incrementally.  They are not afraid to say something isn’t working and redirect the resources elsewhere.  They are always focused on sustainability, desiring to eventually eliminate all outside funding for their day-to-day operations.  They have great respect for the local culture, and work within it rather than westernizing everything.  And they do everything with incredible love and compassion.

There are other organizations out there that do this too, no doubt.  I admit I don’t know them and there’s too many to go out looking try to find them.  But I’ve found Musana.  Actually, rather than “I’ve found” I’ll say that God led me to Musana.  He’s put this community on my heart and made me passionate about it.

In one of our team meetings after we got back we talked about if just giving money to an organization instead of physically doing something like a missions trips or volunteering is a cop out.  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  It’s a way to release your brothers and sisters onto the world to do ministry.  Your ministry — and mine — can include empowering others to do ministry.  There’s this awesome verse in 2 Corinthians:

So two good things will results from the ministry of giving — the needs of the believers in Jerusalem will be met, and they will joyfully express their thanks to God.

When I give to ministry, it doesn’t just impact my relationship with God by showing faith and acting selflessly.  It also impacts others relationships with God: they thank God for his provision and trust him more!  Growth happens on both ends of the giving stream.  It’s not just that financial needs are met, but spiritual needs are met too.

Okay folks, I think I’ve said enough.  If you want to help get that hospital built faster, here’s the link about the project.  If health care isn’t your passion, you can also help Musana out with their other big capital project: building a secondary school and technical school (The land is purchased and graded! Time to build…).  To learn more about Musana and donate visit their website; you can follow along with what they’re doing by checking them out on Facebook; and you can see beautiful faces with amazing joy by following them on Instagram.

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