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.


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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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.


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 boy.  But he caught a fever and died a few days later in that same hospital.

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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Two weeks

Two weeks from today I’ll be doing my final packing before one final night in my bed and getting on a plane (well, three planes and a bus) to head for Musana.

I alternate between feeling incredibly excited, and rather ho-hum.  I mean, on the one hand, I’m going halfway around the world!  I’m going to be away from the ever-present distractions of technology and my work!  I’m going to eat the most delicious pineapple on the planet! I’m going to spend a week teaching Bible stories to children who are just plain thrilled that I am there!  And even though I thought there was no way that another Musana team could come close to being as awesome as last year’s team, somehow God brought another incredible group of people together this year.

And yet I’m ho-hum because I’ve done it before.  I’ve gone to Uganda, been free of the internet (except for spotty WiFi every day or so), I’ve eaten the pineapple, I’ve spent a week playing with kids, and I did it with a group of people so amazing we refer to each other as our “Musana family”.

I know what the long hours of travel will be like.  I know what the adventurous driving will be like.  I know about chicken-on-a-stick.  I know how the children will greet us with giggles and hugs.  I know how incredible it will feel to sing worship songs in the chaos of the Musana chapel.  I know how the village women will dance and dance and dance.  I know how the rains can come suddenly and torrentially.

Or, rather, I think I do.

The truth is that I don’t know.  Because I’ve been there once before, there’s a tendency for my brain to switch to know-it-all mode.  I have points of reference from last year.  And many things will probably be the same.  But not all of them.  And if I go into this trip thinking that I know what it’s all about and everything that will happen, it will be even harder than last year.

Last year was hard because I didn’t know.  Everything was new, and it was scary.  I had never traveled so long or so far with a dozen people I didn’t know.  Never been to Africa or experienced its rains and its people.  I sat in the front of the bus on every ride, enraptured with everything I was seeing.  I sat among piles of children feeling amazing joy, too overwhelmed and dumbfounded to know what to say.  I pulled a notebook from my bag every five minutes jotting down things I didn’t want to forget.  I fell into bed each night mentally and physically exhausted.

This year is hard and scary because I do know.  And I might not readily feel wonder.  I might not so easily feel joy.  And thus I may not be as ready, willing, and able to experience God’s love and power in Uganda.

Like last year, I find myself turning over and over this year to the same verse in Galatians 3:  “Now all glory to God who is able through his mighty power at work within us to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”  (Emphasis mine.)

Infinitely more than I can imagine.  God can do more than last year.  God can do more through me.  God can do more through my team.  God can do more through Musana.  God can do more in Uganda.  God can do more in me.

God, be present with us on this trip.  Open our eyes to see your creation and your people as you see them.

And do more.

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Brokenness and pocket knives

I took a deep breath as I stepped off the stage and out of the lights, disentangling my microphone.  I had just finished telling the story of Peter walking on water to my Sunday school class — and it went surprisingly well considering I forgot to prepare the lesson until the day before.  As another leader took the stage to lead the kids in songs I stood at the back of the crowd and sighed, exhausted as I always am after trying to keep 100 kids engaged for 20 minutes.

“I can’t believe I have to stay for two services.  I hate this!”  I turned to find the source of the voice, a first grade boy a few feet away who was staring at me with narrowed eyes.

Kids stay for both services if they have a parent helping at one of them — at the info desk, handing out programs, directing parking.  Kids that stay for two services always have a bit of a tougher of a time because they have to hear the same story twice, sing the same songs twice, do the same small group twice.

I may be good at telling Bible stories on stage, but my weakness in kids ministry is definitely unruly kids and discipline challenges.  The attitude of this boy was clearly one of I’m testing you, what are you going to do about it?

I started with an attempt at redirection and re-engagement.  “When I’m frustrated, I like to sing” (which is true, and conveniently what the rest of the room was doing right then) “and dancing helps get my wiggles out.”

It was a stretch, and I could see in his glare and posture that he wasn’t going to fall for it.  Besides, there was something in his demeanor that said this wasn’t just a kid having a bad day.  Okay.  Distraction, then.  “I like your hat.”  It was ball cap, black and white plaid.

“My dad sent it to me.”

Sent.  Dad wasn’t at home.  “That’s nice.  Where did he send it from?”  Did he live in another state?  Was he deployed?

For the first time he broke my gaze and turned away, glaring into the noisy crowd of kids and leaders singing along to a video.  “I don’t want to tell you that.”

Jail, I thought.  It’s not the first kid I’ve had in class with a parent in prison.  I remember once sitting at a table full of kids coloring pictures who were talking about their moms, and one girl’s lip trembled as she said, “My mom’s… in jail.”

“That’s okay, you don’t have to.”  Privacy is allowed.  “It’s cool that he sent it to you.  Means he’s thinking about you.”

With fire in his eyes, he turned back and yelled, “My dad’s in jail!  He’s been in jail 15 times!”

Whether the number was truth or hyperbole didn’t matter.  The point was dad had been making bad decisions for a while, and consequences were falling on this kid.

I’m a problem-solver.  I’m not great at listening sometimes, jumping straight to wanting to find a solution.  If a friend tells me they’re sick I’ll immediately ask about duration and symptoms, mentally trying to come up with a diagnosis.  God’s been reminding me that I can’t solve everyone’s problems, and moreso that solving them isn’t the point.  Sometimes it’s just about being present with people in their struggles.  Here, certainly, was a problem I couldn’t solve.  There was nothing I could say or do that would come close to addressing the pain and anger this boy felt.

I looked at him in silence for a few seconds.  “That sucks.”  What you are feeling is completely valid.  I know I can’t fix it, and I’m not going to pretend I can.  “That really really sucks.”  I meant it from the bottom of my heart.

“I hate my dad so much.”

I sat down next to him.  “Do you think your dad hates you, or that he loves you?”

He looked away and exhaled forcefully through his nostrils.  “I think he loves me.”  Then he turned back and put out his arms in a pleading gesture, dropping his tough guy mask for the first time.  “But if he loves me then why does he keep doing things that get him sent to jail?”

Damn, this kid is smart.  And asking the real questions that matter.

This week in my Bible study we were talking about conditional grace.  We were talking about how God doesn’t offer conditional grace, but as humans we rarely offer anything else.  We draw arbitrary lines in the sand.  “I’ll forgive you / let you stay in my life if you mess up this much, but no further!”  Our lines are in different places, but we all have drawn them somewhere.

One woman in the group talked about a group of friends that judge her daughter for having tattoos.  It made her mad that these people gave conditional grace.  In the next sentence, she said she couldn’t stand it when parents didn’t take care of their kids.  (She’s an interventionist at a low-performing school, so she’s seen a lot of abuse and neglect.)  I’m not sure if she realized that she was complaining about conditional grace in one breath and justifying conditional grace with the next.

When she said it I thought about this boy I had met a few days before.  I don’t know what his dad is in jail for, but ultimately it stems from brokenness.  The kids my friend sees at school who are being abused or aren’t given enough to eat, it ultimately stems from their parents’ brokenness.  That’s not an excuse for the things the parents do.  It’s just true.  And until that brokenness is addressed, nothing will change.  And brokenness isn’t something that’s fixed overnight.

One of the things that’s awesome about kids is their honesty.  Especially about their own brokenness.  As I sat with this boy he told me more about himself.  “I have anger problems.”  He straight out said those words, and I wondered who had said them to him.  As he said them he stared at me with those narrowed eyes, like it was a challenge.  Like I’m warning you now, lady, if you want to continue this conversations this is what you’re getting into because this is who I am.  He continued, “I lie.  And sometimes I steal.  I like to beat up my sister.”  He told me about the five other people living at his house.  He said he’d get sent to his room when he acted out, but that he actually preferred that — being alone in his own space.  He kept a treasures chest in his room.  He softened a bit when I asked what he kept inside and he told me it was his pocket knives (the ones that hadn’t been taken away from him yet).

As I listened, I was reminded that Christ is the only one that can heal our brokenness.  Period.  He’s the only one with the power to take the messed up junk in our lives and use it.

But God has given us an opportunity to help in that process of healing and restoration.  It seems that everywhere I turn lately I run into verse after verse about loving each other:

“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:12)

It all comes back to love.  Expressions of love to each other over and over and over and over and over.  God showing his love to people through us.  Our words, our actions, our listening, our giving of our time and resources.  A crop doesn’t come to harvest from one rainstorm or one sunny day.  It comes from a good season and from being watered over and over and over and over again.  We rarely see results when we try to love people.  Each action is just one more cupful of water poured over a thirsty plant that’s still growing.

Part of it is working on erasing the conditional grace lines that we’ve drawn.  As long as we have boundaries, we’re going to encounter people who keep pushing them.  And the people that most need love usually ask for it in the most unloving ways.

Before I left the room for second service I fished something out of my purse.  My pocketknife.  I usually keep my purse in the car during church, but for some reason I brought it in today and stashed it in the closet.  I went to where this boy was smashing a wall of giant Legos.  Normally I might have told another kid to play nicely with the toys, but I decided to ignore it.  (Plus those blocks of plastic are nearly indestructible anyway.)

I called him over and showed him my knife.  I told him how much I loved my pocketknife, too, and that I take it with me wherever I go.  That my big boy cousins always got pocket knives for Christmas when we were growing up and I always wanted one, so I finally went out and got one for myself.  I flipped open the scissors and told him they were my favorite part.

“Are those tweezers?” he asked.

“Yup.  It has tweezers.  And a toothpick.  And a little knife over here.”  I pulled each part out in turn.

“That’s cool,” he grunted.

I put it in my pocket and turned to go.  “I’m glad I got to meet you today.  You’re a cool kid.”  And you taught me something.  He huffed and turned back around to kicking the Legos.

One cupful of water at a time, I thought.  I hope I have a chance to give you buckets and buckets.  

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