Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sharing With You "A Distant Grief"

Picture: Ugandan children waiting their turn for an eye exam

Most of you no doubt know by now that I will be going to Uganda in June.
After learning of my upcoming trip to Uganda, a friend of ours lent me a book that he considers a special treasure. A Distant Grief, by F. Kefa Sempangi was written by a Ugandan professor and pastor in the 1970’s during Idi Amin’s regime. Eventually this pastor was forced to leave the country, and after being hounded by spies in Kenya and the Netherlands, he came to the United States to pursue a seminary degree.

The book has been inspiring and informative in many ways. For one thing, it is giving me some historical background on Uganda. I was in high school and college during the Idi Amin years, and although I recall hearing his name, I knew nothing of the horrors he inflicted on his people. Nor did I realize that his travesties were committed in the name of Allah with help from Muslim nations.

I am also gaining some cultural perspectives on the country from this book. Mr. Sempangi grew up in a rural village, was sent to the city to attend school, and eventually traveled abroad for his university education. He compares and contrasts the various challenges and mindsets of each distinct group.

Some of the best insights I am gaining, however, are spiritual ones. The clarity and wisdom God gave this man is nothing short of amazing. God gifted him with the faith and fortitude he needed for the times and conditions in which he lived. Some of his insights particularly grabbed me as a western Christian. I am praying that God uses this new spiritual knowledge in my own life, as well as in my ministry to the people I meet in Uganda.

Speaking of Ugandans, this is what Kefa Sempangi had to say:

We were, I knew, a needy people. We could not afford to be answered in abstractions. We could not afford to separate doctrine and life. Even our language reflects this need for the concrete. “Truth” for a non-westernized African does not refer to a statement’s correspondence with a fact. Truth is a quality of things. A mango tree is true if it bears sweet mangoes, a house is true if it is upright. A man is true if he knows how to run his home, control his temper, resist gossip.

A religion is true if it works, if it meets all the needs of the people. A religion that speaks only to man’s soul and not to his body is not true. Africans make no distinction between the spiritual and the physical. The spiritual is not a category among categories but the lens through which all of life is viewed. A tribesman from my village knows that cutting a tree, climbing a mountain, making a fire, planting a garden and bowing before the gods are all religious acts.

How thankful I am that God led our team to take glasses and dental supplies to Uganda as part of our ministry. No wonder He has provided more glasses than any of us could have even imagined! Just this week I was offered hundreds of glasses by our local Lion’s Club, along with the opportunity to address them at their next meeting and share our ministry with them. I couldn’t have been more amazed, but God knows exactly what we need, and is providing it despite our cluelessness! He is truth in every sense of the word!

Later in the book, Kefa made some observations about the changes he experienced after living in America for just a short time. This section had been underlined by the friend who lent me the book, so I know these observations impacted him as they did myself:

Our first semester passed quickly. Penina gave birth to our son, Dawaudi Babumba. In the fall I returned to my studies. It was then, in my second year, that I noticed the change that had come into my life. In Uganda, Penina and I read the Bible for hope and life. We read to hear God’s promises, to hear His commands and obey them. There had been no time for argument and no time for religious discrepancies or doubts.

Now, in the security of a new life and with the reality of death fading from mind, I found myself reading Scripture to analyze texts and speculate about meaning. I came to enjoy abstract theological discussions with my fellow students and, while these discussions were intellectually refreshing, it wasn’t long before our fellowship revolved around ideas rather than the work of God in our lives. It was not the blood of Jesus Christ that gave us unity, but our agreement on doctrinal issues. We came together not for confession and forgiveness but for debate.

The biggest change came to my prayer life. In Uganda I had prayed with a deep sense of urgency. I refused to leave my knees until I was certain I had been in the presence of the resurrected Christ. It was not just the gift I needed. I needed to see the Giver. I needed to know that the God of orphans and widows, the God of the helpless, heard my prayers. Now, after a year in Philadelphia, the urgency was gone. When I prayed publicly I was more concerned to be theologically correct than to be in God’s presence. Even in private my prayers were no longer the helpless cries of a child. They were spiritual tranquilizers, thoughts that made no contact with anything outside themselves. More and more I found myself coming to God with vague requests for gifts I did not expect.

How convicting! It is sobering to realize the extent of spiritual damage our cushy western existence has wreaked. Many of us have readily exchanged God’s presence and power in our daily lives for ideas –ideas, in fact, that often serve to divide rather than unify us as believers. It makes me realize all the more the meaning of the passage in James that begins like this, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” (James 1:2 NASV) Encountering trials has the potential to draw us into dependence on God more quickly and completely than any other life circumstance. Ironically, our spiritual lives are most endangered when life is easy and our immediate needs are few. No wonder Ugandans are ripe for the gospel. They have struggled through many trials as a country, and continue to face overwhelming challenges.

I am grateful for Chuck Lillis, the friend who listened to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and shared A Distant Grief with me. I am also thankful for the many things I learned from the book. I will ponder, treasure, and strive to apply them in my life and in my ministry, particularly as I travel to Uganda. I hope these words have spoken to your heart today as well.

Below are more pictures of the vision screening taking place in preparation for our arrival in June. Please pray that all the preparations go well and that God is glorified in every way.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Little Blessings

Noah and Claire have been with us for six days while their parents are chaperoning the senior trip to Florida. This is with the class of seventeen that lost one of its members, Tyler, in a tragic car accident in February. We have been praying for a time of spiritual growth, unity and healing among these students. (see the blog post A Legacy of Life and Love)

We have had great weather all week in Iowa, while the travelers have had nothing but rain in Florida. We have also had a wonderful time with our grandchildren. Claire turned one in April and Noah turned four last Friday. Life has been very different at our house, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything! They are both the littlest and the biggest blessings in my life right now. So the things I am thankful for this week are:

Peanut butter and jelly

Big, slobbery, open-mouthed baby kisses

Papa, who is adored by both and always willing to play or lend a helping hand

Giggles, love pats, and peek-a-boo

The heart of a child revealed through night-time prayers –such simplicity and faith!

Visit Sonya at Truth for the Journey for links to more lists of thankfulness.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Super Sleuths

I wrote the following story for the Faithwriters writing challenge in the mystery genre. It was my first attempt at mystery writing, and I was thrilled when it placed third in the advanced level. I had fun with the characters, so much so that I considered writing an entire book about them. I really wanted to get better acquainted with them! Besides, keeping a mystery to a 750 word limit is both confining and difficult.

Shelley at The Veil Thins is hosting Friday Fiction this week.

Super Sleuths

Three adolescent boys huddled inside Super Sleuth headquarters. The friends practically lived in the old shed during the summer, but on this brisk, spring day their breath hung in frosty swirls between them.

“Okay, this is why I called you. I found this in Speedbump’s driveway after school today.” Sly pulled a narrow strip of paper between his fingers as Slug and Speedbump leaned in to read it. “97 days in captivity. Praying for freedom.”

“What does it mean?” Slug’s plump cheeks jiggled as he spoke. “Has someone been kidnapped?”

Speedbump replied slowly and thoughtfully. “That’s an awfully long message for a person to write if they’re tied up.”

“You had any strange visitors lately, Speedbump?” Sly asked.

“Well, a man came to our door yesterday all dressed up in a black suit. Mom said he was selling something. Last I saw him he was...”

“Couldn’t have stayed there since yesterday,” Slug interrupted impatiently. “It’s too windy today. I say we forget it and go home. I’m getting hungry.”

“You’re always hungry, Slug! What’s more important? Eating dinner? Or saving someone’s life? You’re with me on this. Right, Speedbump?” Sly gave his bespectacled friend a little jab.

“I don’t know. I think I should talk to my dad about it first.”

“Fine! We’ll all go home and sleep in our cozy beds while our victim is held captive another day.” The meeting ended abruptly. Sly left in a huff, recalling why he had nicknamed his friend Speedbump –because he was always getting in the way of progress.

Speedbump did talk to his dad that night, reciting the handwritten message he had read.

“Son, I’m glad you told me about this, but we have so little to go on. It certainly could be a plea for help. But it could also be a game, or even a prank. I’m afraid there isn’t much we can do right now except pray about it.” Speedbump nodded. It was exactly what he expected his dad to say.

Mr. Johnson ruffled his son’s curly hair, took his hands in his own, and prayed. “Father, only you know how a mystery message landed in our driveway. If someone is in trouble, protect and comfort them. If you need our help, make it clear what you would have us do. And Lord, please help the Super Sleuths sleep well tonight in case their services are needed tomorrow.”

Mrs. Johnson awakened Speedbump the next morning. “I know it’s Saturday, but I’ve got something really cool to show you. Hurry!”

Speedbump followed his mom downstairs and peered through the storm door where she was pointing. “Shh! A Robin is building her nest in our spring wreath,” she whispered.

Standing on tiptoe Speedbump glimpsed the bowl-shaped construction. Something white woven among brown twigs caught his attention. Could it be? With uncharacteristic swiftness, Speedbump opened the door, and hastily pulled the long strip from the nest.

“Andrew Ryan Johnson! Haven’t I told you never to disturb a bird’s nest? Why I…”

“What’s going on here?” Mr. Johnson appeared, tucking in his shirt.

“I’m really sorry Mom, but look! This was woven into the nest.” Speedbump held the paper strip and read, “‘98 days. Praying for freedom.’ Oh Dad, Sly was right.”

“This could be an answer to prayer, son. You better call the other Super Sleuths.”

Sly arrived with more information. “My mom thinks this is paper peeled from surgical tape. She’s a nurse, remember?”

“The hospital is only two blocks away, but why…”

Slug devoured the Johnson’s remaining donuts as the others plotted and speculated.

Finally, they were each positioned, walkie-talkies in hand, along the straightest route to the hospital.

It took the entire morning, but finally their radios crackled as Sly shouted, “Robin’s landed on a second story window sill.”

Converging on the hospital, the Super Sleuths slipped quietly up a stairway, led by Mr. Johnson, who had promptly calculated the room’s location.

“I’m sorry. George isn’t here,” the approaching nurse reported. “He passed away last night. Such a saint that old man was!”


The nurse motioned them into the room. Startled, a robin flew from its perch outside the window beside the empty bed. The nurse pulled a long strip of paper from a well-worn Bible on the nightstand and handed it to Mr. Johnson. It read, “99th day. Almost Home.”

Speedbump picked up George’s pen and retrieved another strip of paper from the trash. Carefully, through tears he wrote, “Day 100. Free at last.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Awaken My Senses

May is flying by. With gardening season here, and the end of the school year approaching, I have a million things to do. That is my explanation for not posting anything new on my blog all week. It is also the reason I decided to look up a poem I wrote a few years back. After reading it, I decided to share it with all of you.

I was studying A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God at the time, when I came across this passage, “We apprehend the physical world by exercising the faculties given us for that purpose, and we possess spiritual faculties by means of which we can know God and the spiritual world if we will obey the Spirit’s urge and begin to use them.”

The entire chapter surrounding that passage deals with how our physical senses are constantly engaged, allowing little opportunity for us to recognize or cultivate our spiritual senses. Sadly, some Christians never do.

As I contemplated and cultivated my spiritual senses, I searched the Bible for scriptures. Finally, I decided to write the following prayer poem. When life gets crazy like it is right now in the middle of May, I like to pull out this poem and breathe in the fragrance of my Savior. As He becomes more tangible, the daily stuff of life somehow seems a lot less pressing.

You don't mind if I combine this poem with "Thankful Thursday," do you? Since I am to be thankful for five things, I can easily say that I am thankful for my five senses, both physical and spiritual. Wait. That would be more than five. Why can't I ever seem to stay within the limit? Maybe it's because God's blessings are limitless!!

Awaken My Senses

Your fragrance is the very air I breathe,
O my God,
Emanating from Your being
An aroma sweet and pure
Like baking bread,
And myrrh;
O my God,
Let Your sweet aroma fill me.

Your beauty is delightfully revealed,
O my God,
Radiating from Your presence
An awesome, glorious sight
Like rare gemstones,
Angel wings,
And light;
O my God,
Let Your lovely vision thrill me.

Your melody is soothing to my ears,
O my God,
Sung in quiet strains accompanied
By the music of the earth
Like gurgling brooks,
Ocean waves,
And mirth;
O my God,
Let Your comforting voice still me.

Your taste is sweeter to my mouth than wine,
O my God,
Springing from an endless fountain
So my hungry soul is fed
With honey, milk,
And bread;
O my God,
Let Your living food instill me.

Your touch incites a longing in my breast,
O my God,
Everlasting arms enfold me;
They’re my solace and my peace
Like warmth of sun,
Rose petals,
And fleece;
O my God,
Let Your loving touch fulfill me.

Shake my senses from their long-extended sleep,
O my God,
Train them how to recognize You;
Let me learn of You so much
By Your fragrance,
Speaking voice,
And touch;
O my God,
Send Your Spirit now to will me.

Here are the accompanying scriptures I had in mind for each stanza.

Stanza 1
Psalm 45:8 All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; from palaces adorned with ivory the music of the strings makes you glad. (NIV)

Stanza 2
Psalm 27:4 One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. (NIV)

Stanza 3
Psalm 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. (NIV)

Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and He with me. (NIV)

Stanza 4
Psalm 34:8 Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. (NIV)

Stanza 5
I Samuel 10:26 Samuel also went to his home in Gibeah, accompanied by valiant men whose hearts God had touched. (NIV)
Deuteronomy 33:27a The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.(NIV)

Stanza 6
Psalm 51:6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. (NIV)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

It Could Be a Stretch

Since Sunday is Mother's Day, I thought I would share a Grandma story written from a child's POV. Please admire my prized stepping stone presented to me last Mother's Day. Noah was about to turn three, and Claire was just three weeks old. Such a tiny footprint!

It Could Be a Stretch
by Sharlyn Guthrie

My Grandma’s hammock fits me just right. When Grandma climbs in and lets me push, the hammock fits her bigger, rounder body just right, too. Once, when Grandma was in the hammock, Grandpa crawled in beside her. They were so smushed together they couldn’t stop giggling. I thought the hammock would burst, but it stretched to fit around them both.

“Grandma” is a stretchy word. In fact, I think it’s a lot like a hammock. It doesn’t matter who climbs in, it stretches to fit. Some words aren’t very stretchy. If a bunch of people drew pictures of an apple or a baseball bat, their pictures would all look alike, but if they drew grandmas, their pictures would be very different.

Grandmas come in all shapes and sizes. They can be tall or short, thin or plump. Many grandmas play sports, ride bikes, or exercise, but some need a cane or walker just to cross the room. My great grandma shakes her cane at me when she means business. Some grandmas wear glasses, and some don’t. Their hair can be long or short and can come in any color, with or without some gray hair mixed in.

Most grandmas enjoy taking their grandchildren for walks. They are good at noticing things like ant hills, robin’s nests, and cats curled up in window sills. But grandmas might also drive you in their van, sports car, pick-up, or tractor. They sometimes ride motorcycles, horses, carousels, and roller coasters.

You never know where a grandma might pop up. She could be your teacher, your waitress, your doctor, your school bus driver, or your mail carrier. Some of your neighbors are probably grandmas, too. I’m pretty sure every grandma knows how to bake cookies, but I could be wrong about that.

Grandmas know all about little kids, because they had kids once. Just don’t expect them to know your favorite cartoon characters. They have lots of toys stashed away in boxes, but the cars look funny, and some are missing important parts like wheels. Their dolls’ pigtails have been chopped off, and they have lipstick stains on their faces. For some reason, Grandmas get teary eyed when they see you playing with those old toys. They don’t care too much if you make a mess.

If you want to hear a great story, just climb into your grandma’s lap and ask for one. My grandma’s lap is as cushiony as a pillow, but your grandma’s lap might not be so soft. Still, she probably knows “The Three Bears” and “The Three Little Pigs” by heart. She can tell you things that no one else knows about your daddy, and about all kinds of strange things she had as a little girl –like roller skates with keys, records bigger around than dinner plates, and black and white television sets without remotes. She will show you pictures of Grandpa with hair and a mustache, and your aunts and uncles in diapers.

Grandmas make pretty good teachers, too. Some grandmas can teach you how to plant flowers. Others give music lessons on the piano or violin. Some grandmas are good at using tools, and can help you learn to build or fix things. Lots of grandmas know how to sew, knit, or crochet. Maybe yours can teach you how to swim or do karate.

If you ever start thinking that your grandma doesn’t look or act much like a grandma, that’s just plain silly. God knew the kind of grandma you needed, and when she came along, He stretched the word “Grandma” to make it fit.

There’s one more thing; some grandmas don’t want to be called “grandma.” Their grandchildren call them “Nana,” “Granny,” “Babi,” or “Noni.” It doesn’t matter. Just like my grandma’s hammock, “Grandma” will fit them, too, if they ever change their mind –and grandmas often do.

For links to more great fiction hop on over to Julie's blog at The Surrendered Scribe.

Travel Preparation Mercies

I am participating today in “Thankful Thursday,” hosted by Sonya at Truth for the Journey.

Recently, I have begun collecting what I need for my trip to Uganda in June, and planning how I will pack it all. I won’t need so much in the way of clothing, but we will have a lot of exposure to the elements, so I need to take things like hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, and plastic bags. We also have to take a lot of our food. In many ways it is like packing for the trips we often make to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota/Canada.

Most of my cargo, however, will be things for the Ugandans we will be ministering to. Many wonderful friends have helped me collect toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, and eye glasses. I am also taking some teaching tools...a puppet, and some Bible story big books from a Sunday school curriculum, as well as a large bag of candy. As I prepare for this trip I am filled with gratefulness. Here are some things that come to my mind in the way of praise today:

• I am thankful for the generosity so many have shown in helping me fund my trip. In the beginning I was a bit uncomfortable asking for help, but God has provided so amazingly through the generosity of some great friends and family members. He also provided us with a surprise tax refund this year. What a blessing!

• I am thankful for a few ladies who took it upon themselves to ask dentists and eye clinics for donations. I am amazed and overwhelmed by the result! Of course I’m also thankful for the dentists and doctors that donated.

• I am thankful for all of those who have promised to pray for me and the rest of the team. I am specifically thankful for a couple of friends who are my designated prayer partners.

• I am thankful that I live in a country with a stable and relatively honest government. It is so easy to complain about how things are going here, but we have it good! I am reading a book about Idi Amin and the severe injustices that occurred under his reign in Uganda. Many of today’s problems in Uganda resulted from his abuse of power.

• I am thankful that I always have plenty of good food and fresh water, and that I don’t normally have to worry about contracting diseases through what I ingest.

• I am extremely thankful for this opportunity I have to minister to and encourage the people I meet in Uganda –to share God’s love and message of hope and salvation with them. Even though my suitcases will be overflowing with items to give them, I am pretty sure I will receive much more than I give. My life will be changed forever.

• I am thankful that God is stretching me, but also allowing me to use the specific gifts and abilities He has given me. He is so good! His faithfulness and grace are evident in both big ways and small.

Monday, May 4, 2009

All Things Are Thine

Then Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." And they were amazed at him. Mark 12:17 (NIV)

Very few verses in the Bible pertain to our government and what our response should be to governing authorities. Mark 12:17 is one of the few that does, so it is a verse I often hear in that context.

Christian, do you pay your taxes on time? Do you honestly weigh your income and pay the full amount owed; or, do you fudge a little, cheat here and there, and keep as much for yourself as possible?

Those are the applications I am accustomed to hearing. My response to these questions is predictable, as well. Cheat on my taxes? Despicable! I would never consider doing such a thing! Why, Mark 12:17 says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s...”

As I consider today what this verse is saying, however, another question comes to mind –a question based on the second part of this verse: What is God’s? It is fairly obvious to all of us what belongs to “Caesar,” but what, exactly, belongs to God? To borrow a phrase from Dr. Seuss, I puzzled on this until my puzzler was sore. The result was another question: What isn’t God’s?

Just two chapters earlier, in Mark 10:17-22 (The Message), we find this little encounter between Jesus and a rich young man.

As he went out into the street, a man came running up, greeted him with great reverence, and asked, "Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?"
Jesus said, "Why are you calling me good? No one is good, only God. You know the commandments: Don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't lie, don't cheat, honor your father and mother."
He said, "Teacher, I have—from my youth—kept them all!"
Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him! He said, "There's one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me."
The man's face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.

God isn’t interested in my piddling offerings, if I continue to hold tightly to the things I want to keep for myself. I owe Him everything. Anything less is not enough.

“All things are thine; no gift have we,
Lord of all gifts, to offer thee:
and hence with grateful hearts today
thine own before thy feet we lay.”
~John Greenleaf Whittier

Lord of all gifts, help me to see that nothing is mine to hold. Unclench my greedy fists; melt my heart of stone. Take all that I have, all that I am, and do with it as You please. Let me do the one thing that You want most of all –give back to You everything that is Yours.

For links to more discussions on this verse, please visit Joanne at An Open Book.