It has been a busy week as I have attempted to enter back into reality with a modified schedule at work, yet continuing with the ongoing appointments and procedures that accompany the life of a cancer patient. But even though I am weary, it feels good to be doing what I love. Working with teens and with a staff and leadership team at a dynamic, Christ centered church brings me such joy. One of the most precious parts of what I have done there is our mission work in Uganda. Our dear friend Pastor Stephen was able to visit us again this year so the team could plan for our work together with the villagers in July, 2014. Stephen is an articulate, educated man with a heart for God and the people that he leads. He wants them to have education, business opportunities, and attitudes of giving and sharing. He gives his all to this tiny village in Northern Uganda called Guru Guru. Stephen lives in town with his wife and three children in a small rented home. It has no power, stove, or refrigerator. His food staples are corn, beans, and rice. The villagers are even more remote--they are an hour drive out into the bush from town. They live in thatch huts with a small brick foundation. Full families of 6-8 live in these huts, with a fire pit for cooking and warmth inside the hut. They sleep on the hard ground and each day is a matter of basic needs--getting water and cooking food. The villagers do not have cars, computers, cell phones, televisions, or video games. When Pastor Stephen is here in America he gets an overload of everything. He says everything here is "BIG"--big houses, big beds, big helpings of food, big movie theater screens. He was commenting to me about all the houses with Christmas lights and decorations everywhere. He told me that if they have one candle to celebrate Christmas it is good. He told me that the villagers are expectant of Christmas because it is one of the few times per year that they slaughter livestock to have meat. They call that a feast!
Our family had the joy of hosting Stephen during his last days here in America. I asked him what he wanted for his "last supper" and he said, "SUSHI!". My friend Patricia and I had introduced him to sushi last year when he was here, and he was such a great sport for trying it. He loved it, and he also loved the coconut battered shrimp. We are his "sushi soul sistas". He loves spicy foods and is willing to try anything. Last night he had his first ever raw cookie dough. He and the boys kept coming back to the batter bowl for more. And today his last lunch was a fish burrito (he loves guacamole). He has gained 12 pounds since he has been here and he tells us that when he gets back to Uganda he is hungry for a week, waking up often in the middle of the night with a hunger hole in his belly. But what he lacks in his stomach he makes up for in his heart. He is filled with true joy. His laughter is hearty and infectious. His smile and white teeth light up a room. His humor keeps us rolling with laughter. His dreams and visions for building up his community astound us.
Today I had to say goodbye to my dear friend, knowing that I will not see him again for a long time. Because, once again, I will not be able to return to Uganda. This visit from Stephen has been bittersweet for me--planning and meeting, yet knowing that even though I want to go back this summer-- my body and physical health will not be ready. With another surgery coming up in January and more "clean up chemo" after that--it looks like my cancer journey will carry on for many more months. I know this is important, and it is all for my safety. My doctor calls it "risk management" chemotherapy. My heart breaks because my WILL wants me to do the things that I have on MY agenda. Yet, this is a season of rest and recovery....and I need to be reminded of that many times.
I have been to Uganda twice and my son Noah has gone for the last three summers. Greg and Micah want to go as well and I know that Greg is itching to go this summer so he can help with the construction of the school in the village. Let me tell you, my friends, why Uganda is so precious to us.....
First, when going on a trip like this, the travel is brutal--just getting there takes over two days. Yet, when you are with a team, and you are all going through it together and you are discovering new things, like the absolute beauty of Africa and the gorgeous smiles and faces of the Ugandans, it takes a bit of the edge off.
Second, when you are in the bush of Africa surrounded by lush green trees and high grass and you are doing manual labor like passing bricks or chopping rock into concrete, or constructing a playground that no child there has ever seen, you don't think of it as work--you are sweating and chatting and trying to communicate through the universal language of laughter. When you are in the village and holding the babies and running around playing with the children or playing soccer on land that was once a bloodbath in the 25 year war there, you think only of the unity of the human race. That we are all tied together by the common thread of love.
It is in Uganda that I was able to work alongside, to eat, pray, worship, and share with my "adopted Ugandan sons" Mark and Godwin. These two men give their whole lives to serving children and creating more opportunity for their fellow Ugandans. They worship and preach the gospel with power, love and gentleness. When you spend one week just once a year with these men, as well as the villagers, you have the bond of a lifetime. And it is the same with the team we go with--spending every day, night, meal, drive with each other--yes, it can get taxing, but the memories are immeasurable in their worth. The experiences you share cannot be explained or replicated--they just are.
And lastly, the joy of our time in Uganda is that we are completely out of our comfort zone. Things are not easy. Even though we are in a hotel (used roughly), we have power outages, and minimal water and the same beans, gravy and rice for every meal (granola bars for lunch). The roads are bumpy and the drive is long. We are dirty and sweaty and smelly (but at least we get to come back to a shower). Our clothes, socks and shoes have red dirt on them that will never come out. We aren't busy texting or watching tv or going shopping, we are simply being together and working side by side. This is so simple isn't it? But that is the beauty of these trips and this place. We are NOT comfortable, we don't have much control, and we have to wait a LOT. (Uganda time). So all of you who know me know these things: I like being comfortable, I like having control and I don't like waiting. I like my cup of coffee in the morning and taking my morning run and then my hot shower. I like wearing clothes that match and aren't dirty and then putting on all my accessories. I like hot meals and warm beds. I like knowing what my schedule will be and carry my day planner everywhere.
But being in Uganda takes me outside myself and my needs. My focus is not what on what I want or what I need, but on others. And when that is the focus there is an incredible transformation. That is why my heart is in Uganda, because it is there that I am not selfish, I don't complain and I don't whine. I am grateful for each day and for a little bit each year I remember truly all that I take for granted. I want that all the time....I want to savor that and live like that, but I don't. I come back to America and get caught up in all the traps of materialism and waste and want. So, when Stephen visits or I hear from Mark or Godwin on Facebook, and I read their words of peace, faith, love and joy, I am refreshed and reminded of the true purpose of life. It is not in things, but in people.
So I challenge you again during this Christmas season, to find the beauty in the simple and your joy in people. You don't need to go on a mission trip to do this. But you do need to do something that takes the focus off your needs and stretches you a little or a lot. I urge you to think outside yourself and live beyond your comfort zone. And when you do, I know you will experience a heart transformation.
(Romans 12: 1-2)