Saturday, July 29, 2017

God's Refugee

Sometimes when reading a book one gets the extraordinary sense of God’s presence.  Such has been the case for Kristi and I as we have just finished God’s Refugee, The Story of a Lost Boy Pastor, by Rev. John Chol Daau and Lilly Sanders Ubbens.    

Many accounts have been given on the lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  It is estimated that 30,000 young boys fled from their homes due to the Second Civil War of Sudan with only 10,000 surviving the journey.  Stories usually include young boys having to walk incredibly long distances, being hunted by the military from the North, travelling for days with little water and food, being attacked by wild animals, crossing crocodile infested rivers, and being forced to live in refugee camps for years on end.

The boy John Chol Daau’s story is no different.  What perhaps sets his story apart from other accounts is how his life is clearly marked by God from infancy.  He is named after John the Baptist by one of his uncles, an unusual name to be given.  Moreover, as an infant, he would not stop crying, driving his mother and family to exasperation.  Finally his Uncle Johnson comes and gently holds a Bible over young John’s head.  John quiets and reaches for the Bible.  His Uncle Johnson then prophesies that one day John will preach God’s Word. 

John becomes known as the drummer boy in his village, carrying his Uncle Elijah’s Bible and following him everywhere.  The two would lead church services under a tree, where John would play his drum with rapturous joy.  Their efforts, however, were not appreciated by most villagers until John’s Uncle Paul is miraculously healed.  A second intervention of God during a difficult pregnancy solidifies the power of Jesus over the Jak (local spirits or gods) in the hearts and minds of villagers.  People begin to flock to the church and begin burning their shrines to the local deities, local deities who had been exacting huge sacrifices on the people for generations. 

When John’s village is attacked, he and others ran…and ran…and ran.  Much of his account focuses upon life in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, where life is harsh for everyone.  Yet, in these places of suffering and humiliation and pain, God makes Himself known to thousands upon thousands of Southern Sudanese refugees.  What some missiologists refer to as a “People Movement” becomes the norm in these camps.  Thousands begin flocking to different refugee camp churches to worship.  The Holy Spirit begins inspiring these new Christians to create new songs, songs which are written and composed daily.  Believers are given new names which represented new life and freedom.  John writes, “We began to see that we were not displaced unknowns, but God’s people.  We were refugees in God.  We sensed that what had been lost to us, our dignity, had been returned.  We received a new status – one as real persons.”   The refugees were given new life in Christ.  They were given a new community and a new family.  They realized that even if they didn’t have parents, God was their parent. 

After years of living in the camps, serving God but being separated from his family, John is miraculously given the opportunity to study at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.  His world opens up as he learns more about the Bible, about servant leadership, and about community development.  He returns to the camps where he teaches others and helps equip those serving as church leaders in the camps.  Finally, after seventeen years, he is able to return to his home village of Baping where he is reunited with his Uncle Johnson and learns more about the fate of other family members.  Of course there is more to tell, but we won’t give more details away! 

If you are interested in South Sudan or just simply want to be inspired by the manifestation of God’s miraculous power to redeem brokenness in our world, we encourage you to read this exceptional story.  You can find God’s Refugee, The Story of a Lost Boy Pastor on Amazon at this link, or go to a local bookstore and see if they have it in stock or ask if they can order it for you.  Happy reading! 


Friday, July 21, 2017

Seizing opportunities

We laughed as we greeted the staff of the small grocery store down the street, and they quizzed us on their names. They were excited to see Bob, especially, since he doesn’t get out to the store as often since being sick. Anwar, the butcher, came over from the adjoining shop when he heard our voices. They would rattle off a question in Arabic, then repeat it or simplify it for us until we could understand. They were excited that our Arabic is improving, and seem eager to help us practice and also impatient for us to be able to converse fluently.

Anwar grabbed Bob’s hand and led him over to his side of the store. Anwar is a large man with a commanding presence, who likes to laugh and joke. We had actualy intended to buy some meat and had just learned how to say a few types of meat used here (goat, sheep, chicken, beef). Anwar pointed to the different cuts of meat, explaining the names of everything. He also introduced Bob to the other staff, wanting to make sure that we knew everyone’s name. We were the only people in the store, fortunately, and all of us laughed as they asked us questions and tested our limited Arabic.

We finally settled on beef, and Bob successfully said the phrase we had learned “I want half a kilo of beef meat.” Anwar looked pleased that Bob was able to repeat the precise phrase he had taught him for ‘boneless meat of the cow’. Most shop keepers know enough English to use English with their prices, but we had just learned our numbers in Arabic, and were able to practice with the prices. Anwar offered to cut up the meat for us and put it in a bag. We took it over to the cashier (right next to the meat counter), and the cashier asked us “What do you have?” We realized he was asking just to test our Arabic, but we took the opportunity to say again “this is half a kilo of beef.”, and confirm the price “tul tul miya wa hamseen” (350 pounds).

We left the store, feeling grateful for the warm reception and the opportunity for some good Arabic practice. While Bob is still recovering and his activity is limited, we are trying to seize every oportunity to interact and practice what we learn in our lessons. This gives you a picture of one of those opportunities – please pray for good daily interactions, especially as we seek to build relationships using our new language.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jesus is our Peace

In Congo and in the US I have preached a message called “Jesus is Our Peace,” from Ephesians 2: 11 -22.  On our second Sunday here in Juba, South Sudan, I also preached this message, a message crafted for communities who have found themselves divided and in need of peace and reconciliation.

Looking across the breath of scripture, we find division within homes and communities.  Cain feels envious of his brother Abel’s offering and murders him.  Crafty Jacob steals the birthright of his brother.  Jesus and Paul suffer at the hands of their own people and are sent to the Gentile leaders to be executed.  In scripture, we find issues of jealousy, fear, suspicion, prejudice, self-seeking, and power grabbing.  Of course, we find these realities in our own worlds as well – tragic realities which drive us away from each other into our own cubby holes of smug self-satisfaction and security.  Into this sad reality, who can bring us peace?  Who can reconcile us to each other? 

In his epistle to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul recognizes that he is writing to Christian believers who are divided because of their socio-religious-cultural background.  On the one hand he is writing to the Jewish believers, those who have accepted Christ but are still stuck in their identity as Jews, following their age-old customs and traditions.  Significantly, these Jewish believers continue to disallow eating with Gentiles.  When they catch wind that Peter has eaten in the home of a prominent Gentile, they criticize him, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" (Acts 11: 2 - 3)

On the other hand Paul is also writing to the Gentile believers who have also put their faith in Jesus Christ, those who had formerly been alien to the promises of God made to Israel.  The Jewish believers addressed by Paul remain blind to the new reality of Christ bringing all peoples into one family of faith.  The fulcrum of Paul’s argument comes when he emphatically states –

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2: 14 – 16).    

Jesus, Paul contends, has inaugurated a new humanity where two alienating groups can now become one.  Jesus, asserts Paul, has come to break down the dividing walls between us.  Paul addresses the Jewish and Gentile believers, but in today’s world we now find multitudinous examples of division and separation.  In Africa, divisions are often found due to ethnic, tribal and clan allegiances.  In the US, our struggles are often centered on differing political ideologies, theological differences, socio-economic status, and even the color of our skin. 

In our divided and fractured world, we are like a sick person who needs a doctor.  In Jesus, God the Father is reconciling a lost world to Himself.  Through Jesus’ life and example, God has given us, the Church, the ministry of reconciliation, first to be reconciled to God, then to be reconciled to one another.  Jesus is the doctor who reconciles and heals a broken world; we as God’s people are to participate in and promote that healing.  In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he drives home this point with great clarity, calling us ambassadors for Christ, that God is now making his appeal through us to be reconciled both to God and to one another (2 Corinthians 5).

After recently preaching this message at the Atlabara parish in Juba, the leader of the service came up to me after the service and quietly confided, “We need this message. We are sick here in South Sudan.”  Friend, whether in war torn South Sudan or in our divided national landscape in the US, Jesus is the doctor who has come to heal our fractured lives and communities.  Jesus is our peace.  May we fully enter into our troubled landscapes as Christ’s ambassadors for healing and peace.     

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Walk slowly and carry a grateful heart

This morning we were sitting under a tarp sipping tea at a road-side stand in Juba. We watched people passing on the road, women frying bean-chapati wraps, and the three young women who were busy washing cups and serving tea in their makeshift stall. Business slowed, and they circled their chairs around a bowl of beans. One of them beckoned us over. “Come, eat,” she said invitingly, first in Arabic and then in English. They added chairs in their circle, and we joined them, dipping pieces of bread in the common bowl of beans. We only know a few words in Arabic, but we were able to introduce ourselves and ask their names, and it felt like a meaningful connection. “We’re eating local food.” Bob whispered between mouthfuls, “This is what we’ve been praying for!” Truly – just because of the way things worked out, we had no yet eaten truly ‘local’ food with South Sudanese people…until today.

We returned to Juba from Nairobi on Monday. Bob is still recovering from the Epstein-Barr virus, but we are slowly re-engaging with life here in Juba as his energy allows. Before going to Nairobi, we had been in Juba for two weeks, and had just begun to find our way around the city and get settled in our apartment. But those two weeks were enough to make it feel like we were coming ‘home’ this week, even though we had been gone in Nairobi for five weeks. We were so grateful to finally unpack our suitcases after our long absence and reconnect with new friends and colleagues.

On Tuesday, as we were eating dinner and reflecting on our first day back in Juba, Bob said, “Even though I don’t feel 100% physically, I feel much more ready now emotionally and mentally to engage in life here.” And it does feel like even with our current limited activity, we’ve explored new places in the neighborhood, practiced new phrased in Arabic, taken the bus to the end of the line near us, gone to the immigration office and gotten three-month visas, and as of today had tea at a road-side stall and shared a meal. So many little steps that go towards making us feel much more ‘at home’ here than before.

When we were preparing to return to Juba, my Dad suggested the phrase “Walk slowly, and carry a grateful heart” to use as a repetitive prayer, or ‘breath prayer’. As Bob is stil recovering, we need to remember not to push too hard or too fast. And we have much to be grateful for, and being concsious of those things helps us to have the right attitude that can weather the challenges. Yesterday when the sun finally cooled down around 6pm, we were strolling down a dirt road in our neighborhood, watching kids playing and men drinking tea. We recited to ourselves, “Walk slowly, and carry a grateful heart” and then we started naming some of the many things we were grateful for in that day. So many things! After our weeks in Nairobi dealing with sickness and being forced to take a slower pace, we are more aware of our own weakness, reminded of our dependence on our Good Shepherd, and grateful for the simple pleasures and victories of life.
Sunset from our balcony
Watching the sunset from our apartment – one of the many things we are grateful for!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Stirring the Waters

This last Sunday and the Sunday previous Kristi and I worshiped at Christ Church in Westlands, Nairobi, a wonderful community of faith which is walking distance from the guesthouse where we are staying.  The theme for this last month has been "Celebrating our Differences," a theme bent particularly on lifting up persons with physical and emotional challenges.  Two Sundays ago the church invited an African Albino man to preach.  Albino persons in Africa are often marginalized due to pigmentation of their skin.  This last Sunday a blind woman read the scripture passage using Braille.  It took a long time to get through the passage, but she persevered and the congregation was patient.  Also on this last Sunday the guest preacher was wheelchair bound doe to a work related accident sustained twenty years ago.  Before his preaching, a member of the congregation gave testimony concerning the challenges she faces raising her son who is afflicted with both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Dyslexia.

In all of these cases I am impressed by the Christ Church's willingness to highlight those we too often push to the margins.  The "differences" expressed by these children of God remind us all of our need to find meaning and help beyond ourselves.  The wheelchair bound preacher from last Sunday cited Paul's testimony regarding the thorn in his flesh.  Three times Paul petitions to Lord to remove the thorn, yet the Lord's gentle response to Paul is, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12: 9a).  The preacher gave testimony that had he not had the accident he probably would be arrogant.  He shared how God often likes to "stir the waters of our lives," shaking things up so that we recognize our dependence on Him.  The preacher also described how meat is only flavorful and juicy when it is cooked.  The fire or flame of the stove brings forth these juices.  The unspoken implication is that the fires of sorrow and suffering in our lives add new dimensions of growth and provide space for God's creative work to happen.

Two nights ago Kristi and I watched the movie "Joni" which chronicles the true life story of Joni Eareckson Tada who was paralyzed at the age of seventeen from a diving accident.  The film masterfully shows the horrific struggles she faced during the early years after the accident, but how faith in Jesus Christ took hold of her and she then blossomed in ways unimaginable.  In one poignant scene, she shares with a disabled Vietnam veteran how she would rather be in a wheelchair with Jesus in her life than be able bodied without Him.  I was moved by her words which affirm how our weaknesses and suffering humble us and force us to recognize our need for love and help outside of ourselves.  Our setbacks, our sorrows and our sufferings drive us to the One who can heal all of our inner wounds and pain and give our lives true meaning and purpose.

Joni Eareckson Tada has lived a life of faithfulness!
(Image borrowed from this website)

These last five weeks have been weeks of struggle for Kristi and I as I was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr Virus.  It feels like God is stirring the waters in our lives.  The Lord has permitted me to fall victim to this Virus which has greatly weakened my body and caused severe achiness.  Kristi and I have been forced to radically adjust and change our plans.  The Lord has given us a forced season of rest.  We have been obliged to stop and take a good look at our lives and to surrender all to the Lord - our health, our hopes and desires, our plans, our sense of call, our reputation and even our mortal lives.  Our Heavenly Father, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, has upset our well contrived and manufactured plans.  The Lord Jesus has reminded us of our need, our utter dependency upon Him alone.  We can do nothing without the leadership and enabling of God's Presence and Spirit.

And so I pray,

Father, thank you for stirring the waters in our lives.  It has not been fun and it certainly was not expected, but I have now come to recognize this season of being set aside as necessary for the larger and greater work you seek to do in both Kristi and I, and for that I am profoundly grateful.  I bless your Holy Name.  Thank you for sending me this unexpected visitor called Epstein-Barr.  I love you Lord - keep me humble and needy!  Hidden in You, Bobby.  

I am grateful that my body now seems to be on the upswing.  With my doctor's blessing, we plan to return to Juba, South Sudan, on Monday.  For that we are profoundly thankful.  Yet, we are also grateful for being set aside and more fully prepared for all that lies ahead in our new call.  May God be glorified in our lives - particularly in those places of challenge and pain.

** This blog post is an amended entry from Bob's personal journal which he has been writing in quite frequently lately!  :)