2014: Off and running!

The New Year snuck in when we weren't looking, it seems.  Far from Times Square, fireworks, First Night, and toasting with Mom's homemade egg nog or Martinelli's sparkling cider, we slept long before the ball dropped on Dec. 31.  That's partly due to having a 5-month-old in the house, and a much larger part having to do with being in Mbale, Uganda, as the calendar page turned for the last time in 2013 and the first time in 2014. There were no fireworks or loud parties, but many prayer meetings.  All night prayer meetings.  And every conversation with a Ugandan since has begun with, "Happy New Year."  They weren't ignoring the new year.  They just have a different view of how to usher it in. Food for thought.

With more than half the days of the first month of this new year gone already, tonight we will spend the first night in our own home in 2014.  

And in the month since we were last home, more than we could possibly process has happened.

Christmas, my dad's death and burial, and almost 3 weeks in Uganda.  Time with friends, extended family, and all our children and grandchildren.  Traveling from Boston to Santa Clarita, California, to San Diego, to Uganda, and back to Boston.  Celebrating, grieving, contemplating.  Being where we felt we should be, but wishing we could be in at least two places at once.

The new year is off and running.

We arrived in Uganda on December 28, with colliding emotions of delight in being with Derek, Julie, and Nathan, and grief in having just buried my dad.  We were wiped out emotionally and physically when we landed in Entebbe and were so thankful for the first few unscheduled days during which we had the luxury of napping when needed, going to bed early, and having our hearts brightened by Nathan’s light-up-the-world smiles.  Walks, talks, and yummy meals filled those first days and it was just what we needed.  Derek and Julie's hospitality was therapeutic.

We marked New Year's Day by meeting with a group of muzungu (white) missionaries who live in Mbale to discuss marriage and family issues. These perennially challenging relationships have taken a huge toll on missionary families, and half of those attending that day have been on the field 6 months or less, so we were making a pre-emptive strike at their invitation. It was low-key but important, and feedback confirmed that the time was well spent.  

Friday, Jan. 3, began a two-day H.I.M.-sponsored marriage training retreat in the nearby town of Tororo.  Recommended by the very pastors who attended the pastor's conference we hosted last March, this group of men and women have been doing some modicum of marriage/family ministry in their churches and were eager for more training.  Twenty-six couples took copious notes, asked questions, and joined the discussion on these important topics.  It was a very beneficial time.

The group of pastors and lay people who attended
the marriage training retreat at the Prime Hotel in Tororo.

While they all stayed at the Prime Hotel in Tororo for Friday night, we returned to Mbale (about an hour away) so Paul could speak to a 6 a.m. men's breakfast on Saturday.  The sacrificed sleep seemed "worth it" based on the positive response of the men.  Back to Tororo we drove to begin around 9 a.m. and we ended by 4 in the afternoon.  

Sunday we worshiped at Pearl Haven and Paul had the honor of joining Pastor Wilberforce in dedicating Nathan during the first service. It was really moving to hear the all-African congregation respond to their charge to stand with Derek and Julie is raising him for Christ.  At the end of the dedication, Wilberforce spontaneously led the congregation in singing "How Great Thou Art", which was my father's favorite hymn and which had been sung at his memorial service just days before.  When we told him that afterwards, he said it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit to sing it and now he knew why.  It was a very tender moment.

Wilberforce and Sarah pray over Nathan at his dedication.

Monday evening, the 6th, we had a reunion of the pastors who had attended the marriage retreat in March.  Held at the Mt. Elgon Hotel, our speaking was followed by a yummy buffet featuring local cuisine. The evening provided a wonderful forum for reconnecting and sharing ideas.  All agreed that the retreat was having continuing positive effects on them. Thank you, H.I.M. family and donors, by helping to make that happen!

Next up was a three-day marriage seminar hosted by Pearl Haven Christian Center held from 2-5 pm on  Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons.  Admittedly, we were somewhat skeptical whether anyone would come to a mid-week afternoon conference, and by 2:30 pm on Wednesday afternoon our skepticism has increased, since only a few dozen people were there.  But, amazingly, by 3 pm the place was fairly full with over 200 attending.  All three days were very well attended, great questions were asked, and the conference culminated with Friday's topic on marital sexuality.  By all accounts, it was the first time such a presentation had been given in Mbale and the questions it generated were overwhelming.  Pastor Wilberforce wrapped it up at the end by beginning with a confession.  He asked for forgiveness on behalf of the evangelic pastors of the region for failing to teach them God's design for sexuality and for abdicating this critically important matter to culture, which had only served to feed distortions, exploitations, and shame.  It was a powerful moment.  

The 3-day marriage and family seminar at Pearl Haven Christian Center drew
a crowd of about 250 interested and interactive folks.

I think what struck us most was how hungry for truth these precious people were.  Most of the Biblical churches seem to do a good job of teaching the Word in most areas, except as applied to marriage and family matters, and most notably, sexuality.  We prayed to teach in a way that was truthful and yet sensitive to the nature of the subject, especially when teaching to an audience that had no rubric for Biblical understanding.  Their response was incredible, revealing their longing to know how to square what they knew and felt with the reality of God's design.  We literally could've gone on for days. Our prayer is that God will empower the pastors and teachers to move beyond their own "stuckness" to lead their flocks.  Please join us in praying for that.

Pastor Wilberforce was so grateful for the 3-day conference and felt it was very, very impactful.  We pray that it was and is.

We also had the privilege of speaking at chapel for the CURE hospital staff on Thursday and Friday mornings.  Parenting was the focus of both mornings, with us presenting material Thursday and then responding to questions posed on Friday. Once again, we just loved our time with this incredibly faithful and sacrificial group of people and were impressed with the diversity of questions they asked.  Some were similar to questions we get from any western audience, and some reflected the vast cultural differences.  

At CURE Children's Hospital, after chapel, we visited with Sister Florence (next to Julie), the director of nursing, and with Grace, one of the wonderful nurses.

Our "rest" day Saturday started with brunch at the Johnsons’ with friends and ended with dinner with another set of friends, who had us to their place.  We love getting to know the people in Derek and Julie's world!

Paul preached powerfully at Pearl Haven on Sunday at both services.  African churches are alive. They worship with everything they've got and they treat the sermon as a conversation. It's really quite refreshing!!  Preaching out of Acts 3, Paul painted a vision of hope for the way God wants to meet us, abundantly more than we could ever think or imagine. Many could relate to the low hopes of the lame beggar by the pool Beautiful—a few coins would've satisfied him for the moment. But God had so much more for him as He brought healing to his limbs so he could walk and leap and praise God. Paul told them that God wanted to heal their paralysis, in whatever form it took, so that they too would walk and leap and praise Him.  The presence of the Lord was palpable.

After the first service at Pearl Haven, we stand with Dr. Peter Sinonga, one of the pediatric neurosurgeons at CURE and an elder at Pearl Haven.
We left immediately from church and headed to Kampala with Pastor Wilberforce to speak at a couples' event that evening at the Hotel Africana.  A buffet dinner was followed by an hour-long presentation on marriage, and when we finished, we were reminded that we weren't in America.  The attendees expressed dismay that that was all we were giving them.  I don't ever remember feeling that way when we finish a talk in the U.S.!  They clearly wanted to hear more and insisted that we commit to returning to do a full marriage conference the next time we're in country.  :)

Some of those who attended the couples "date" night at the Hotel Africana in Kampala.
On the far left is Pastor Tom and his wife Betty, who organized the event.
Back to Mbale we drove on Monday.  I say that so casually, as though it's a “walk in the park” because, after all, it's only 137 miles and according to Google maps takes “3 hrs 3 mins.”  It's clear to me that whoever posted that information has never driven it.  Good paved roads exist for a good portion of it, but serious speed bumps slow you down to a crawl as you pass through each town center, and where the paving has gone the way of all unmaintained paving, the experience switches to off-roading on the road.  Add in to that the traffic, especially in the Kampala area, and the “3 hrs 3 mins” prediction switches to 5 hrs 5 mins.

Unless you break down, and this we did.  Just outside of Iganga, still 1 hr 40 mins from Mbale, the car broke down—and for the next 2 hours we watched in utter amazement as the car was repaired, Ugandan-village style.  Wilberforce talked to someone close to where we were stranded, expressing our need for a mechanic.  Off someone ran on foot to fetch him, and he came running to the car within 10 minutes, toting a well-worn tool box.  Within 30 minutes, he had diagnosed the problem (a frozen tension pulley) and replaced the ball bearings.  Looked like we'd be on the road shortly, until he tried to put the belt back on.  He had NO idea how to do that and since no manual could be found, a growing group of at least six men (including our two pastors, Wilberforce and Paul) were stymied.  As we were beginning to lose heart over our diminishing time with the Johnsons, who were awaiting our mid-afternoon return to their home, two muzungu missionary friends (driving home from Jinja) happen to spot us on the side of the road and stopped to help.  One of them called her husband with the make and model of the car, and he accessed the Internet which gave him a diagram of the "path of the belt" and within 20 minutes we were back in business.

When are 3 heads better than the Internet?  Maybe never...

Our rescuers, Christine Weber and Diana Tuninga, missionary friends from Mbale.
Thank the Lord for technology!!
Almost.  As they drove off, Wilberforce tried to start the car, but because the belt had slipped and therefore not driven the alternator, the battery was very dead. No worries. Someone ran off to get a car to jump ours, and we watched with fascination as the men "jumped" the car without jumper cables. Who needs 'em?  Not these guys: with two metal rods, they connected the posts, and holding on to them, successfully jumped the car.

"Necessity is the mother of invention" — although I suspect the steel rods pre-dated jumper cables.  :)

50,000 shillings later (translated: $20 U.S.) for the part, the repair, and the jump, we were on our way.

That stimulated Paul's thinking about some of the advantages of living in Uganda.  :)

Our last two full days came all too quickly and we squeezed everything we could out of them.  Walks. Talks. More great meals.  (If Derek ever decides to quit his day job, he could definitely be a personal chef.)  Packing.  Sorting.  Saying good-bye.  

Thursday morning we left Mbale around 8:30 am. And then Friday evening at 10 pm Mbale time, we arrived home (that would be 2 pm EST).  It's quite a journey, as we drove to Entebbe (arriving at 3 pm, at little more than the 3 hr 3 mins prediction); flew out to Addis Ababa at 5:25 arriving at 7:30; left Addis at 10 pm, stopped for fuel in Rome some time (no de-planing) and continued on to Dulles Airport in D.C., arriving at 8 am EST (4 pm in Mbale).  After going through customs and cooling our jets in the United lounge (love the perks of flying a lot), we caught a flight at noon to Boston and landed around 2 pm.  Home by 3.  Bed by 9.  

We will be processing all of this for a time to come, but for now, we feel very blessed and thankful. What a privilege to experience Christ in a developing country, with folks whose hearts for the Lord challenge ours.  It's so easy to be distracted as an American Christian and to become dependent on a life of convenience, independence, and indulgence.  

None of those things are a part of life for most Ugandans.  Nothing is convenient.  No one is independent.  And indulgences are few.  And yet their fervor for Christ is contagious.  Their hope and their joy is in Him and in Him alone.  

Each time we come back home, we're different.  We're certainly not cured of our love for convenience, our independence, or our indulgences, but we can sense their grip is loosening on us after each visit.

Maybe even our running will slow . . . at least a bit.

Our parting shot of Derek, Julie, and Nathan . . . So thankful for them!!