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.