Monday, October 10, 2016

Learning to Forgive...

     I am going to be real honest here, folks…I stink at forgiveness.

     I know what you are probably thinking.  ‘But you are a Christian.  Christ forgave you, so you are called to forgive others.’

     Yes, I know what the scripture says.  “Even while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you.”  I realize that God has sacrificed far more than I can ever imagine in order that I can experience His forgiveness. There are scriptures—many, many scriptures—that illustrate the remarkable character of God as He extends His forgiveness to His people.  There is no doubt in my mind that God poured out His grace and mercy upon me when I (undeservingly) received this gift. 

     Still, this whole forgiveness thing isn’t easy.  Just yesterday I was talking with my local pastor about this very topic and the maturity required to accomplish genuine forgiveness.  He explained to me that the church where we serve is home to many young people, most of whom struggle to forgive the people in their lives for the pain they have (intentionally and unintentionally) caused.  For years, they have been disappointed and hurt by the very people that are supposed to love them…and letting those people ‘off the hook’ just doesn’t seem possible.

     But it isn’t only the young people who struggle with this concept.  It is a challenge for the older people too; for both men and women; spiritually mature and those who are still growing.
Through recent conversations with fellow missionaries—grown adults with mature faiths—the struggle to forgive is real.  It may sound ironic that someone doing the Lord’s work struggles with stuff like this, but here’s the thing…They pour their heart out each and every day to serve and meet the needs around them. They give and give and give of their time and energy, trusting that the work they are doing is making a lasting impact on the souls around them.  And despite their best intentions and well-meaning hearts, they face harsh persecution and experience immense pain for their work.

    But such pain doesn’t happen only here in Africa.  Christians around the world suffer pain at the hands of others.  It is likely that you, too, have experienced some level of suffering from a fellow ‘Christian’ who, knowingly or unknowingly, did you wrong. 
So, what are we to do? 
     Well, God has been teaching me a thing or two about this issue over the past couple of months…

     First, we need to realize that we aren’t facing these trials alone.  Throughout scripture, we see several stories of people following the will of God and being ‘punished’ for it:
Everyone knows the story of Job—a righteous man who faced unimaginable physical and emotional torment.  His wife left him and his ‘friends’ ridiculed him for his faith. 
Moses followed God’s commands and led the people out of Egypt. How did they repay him?  By blaming him for their starvation and accusing him of impure motives.
Jeremiah warned people that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed and as a result, he was slandered, arrested, and called a traitor.
Then, of course, there is Jesus—the holy Son of God, blameless and without sin…nailed to a cross.
     In each of these stories, men were doing the will of God.  Unfortunately, the world was not able to appreciate their obedience.  And if it can happen to Jesus, surely it can happen to us.  So when the world fails to recognize your heart to serve and follow God, remember that you are suffering in good company.
     (I realize that was not much of a consolation…)
     Next, we should examine and consider changing our perspectives. Try to imagine what life is like from the accuser’s point-of-view. Is it possible that they are battling with something that no one else knows?  Was their behavior a consequence of their ignorance?  
Perhaps they misunderstood your intentions and reacted on instinct— you know, fight or flight? To you, their actions were grossly unacceptable, but for them, it may be all they know to do. Maybe their words/actions were a result of temptation or a selfish desire to obtain something they lacked…and you just happened to get in the way. 

     Perhaps it had NOTHING to with them at all…

     Wait—how can their inappropriate behavior have nothing to do with them?...
Because, as much as we hate to admit it, we are in the middle of a spiritual battle.  We have an enemy whose only goal is to steal, kill, and destroy. And as a child of God, we have a large target on our backs.  One of the greatest tools God gave us is the Body of Christ—unity among members to accomplish the Great Commission. If Satan can wedge his way into the minds of people and create disharmony among the church, it hinders the spread of the Gospel.  Hence, our pain and sufferings may be the result of naïve people believing Satan’s lies and deception, and choosing to commit his moral evil. You see, nothing to do with them…they may just be victims of this whole battle too.

     Third, we must remember who we are serving.  In our ministries and in our lives, are we seeking the approval of the people around us?  Or are we seeking the approval of God?  Scripture says that we cannot serve two masters.  We must choose whom we will serve.

     After being called to this work, I genuinely believed that serving God was an honorable thing…but as it turns out, not everyone shares my views…and why would they?  God has created us all so uniquely and gifted us with free will.  Truly, the actions of others can be excruciating and painful, as I am sure you are well aware.  But over these past few months, God has been reminding me that despite their recklessness behavior, they are still made in His image.  His love toward me is relentless (despite my own rebellious ways) and His love for them is just as passionate.  It is not my job to judge their decisions, or seek retaliation and revenge in the wake of my pain. God simply wants me to love them.  

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Story in Photos...

This isn't going to be a typical blog post...but the past month hasn't been typical either! Lots of people have inquired and are eager to hear about how life has been on this side of the world. Long story short, it has been fabulous!

Growing up, Mom used to always tell me that a picture is worth a thousand words, so here is a story in pictures (and just a few added words).

Mom came to visit the first week of July!

She was able to finally meet Eric and get a glimpse into our life in Uganda.

We introduced her to my Ugandan church family...

and later that week, the girls threw a surprise bridal shower for me.

Eric and I took Mom to Ndere Cultural Center to give her a different look at the many cultures that inhabit Uganda and East Africa.

Then, it was off to Kenya--final preparations for the wedding!

 Finally, on July 15, it was the wedding of the year...

and we spent a few extra days in Mombasa for our honeymoon.

We returned to Uganda and were warmly welcomed by the ICD family.

It has been a beautiful season here but we know it is just the beginning of an even more beautiful journey together.  Thank you for your support and prayers--it is a comfort knowing that we aren't facing this life alone and that there is a team of supporters that are daily lifting us up to God as we now begin this adventure of serving and glorifying Him together.

Much love to you all, from Eric and Melissa

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

An Inconvenient Kind of Love...

Timothy Keller once said, "All life-changing love is inconvenient."

At the time, I didn't comprehend the depth of that statement.  Not until God uprooted my life and transplanted me here in Uganda.  Now when I read that quote, I realize that I couldn't agree more!  Loving people with a Christ-like love is tough; and it's messy, and painful, and scary, and...*sigh*...

I read a blog recently that detailed some of the heartaches associated with loving someone well. More specifically, the writer talked about foster care and how it sucked (Sorry, missionaries aren't supposed to use that word, are we?!) to bring a child into your Home only to have them torn from your Heart a few months later because the biological mother suddenly decided she wanted to be a mom. She referenced some of her personal experiences and confessed some of her not-so-friendly opinions towards the biological parents and her belief that she could do a better job of raising this innocent child if given the chance.  But then she shared what God had been teaching her over the years throughout her fostering experience:
1.  Children, whether biological or not, are not ours; they belong to God.
2.  Returning a child to their home may be a loss to us, but it is not a loss to God.  He remains sovereign regardless of the circumstances.
3.  Despite the child's location, God is big enough and He can care for that child with or without us.

As I continued to read the article, the truths in each line clenched my heart. No, I am not a foster mother nor was I ever raised by the foster care system. But this woman's words resonated with me.
I knew this woman...
I was this woman...
The ministry where I serve is a host to many painful stories.  Children are carrying years of pain, neglect, and rejection.  Just yesterday, I stood quietly and watched 'my' kids as they sat in class and prepared for their midterm exams.  Some of their stories stirred in my mind:  A young boy, about eight years old, infected with HIV and suffering from inadequate nutrition at home. A sweet adolescent girl, unwelcome in her family's home, struggling for a place to call 'home.'  A young girl, about 10 years old, unaware of what real love is, seeking acceptance from whomever will show her the slightest bit of attention.  A teenage boy, abandoned by his mother and rejected by his father, desiring that someone--anyone--show him the path to real life.  A shy girl suffering from experiences of inappropriate touch, afraid to let anyone close to her.
I look at these precious babies and naturally think, "Of course they would be better off with me."  "I can be a better mother and role model for them."  "I can do a better job of meeting their physical and emotional needs."  "I can do a better job of loving them!!"
Then, somewhere in the midst of my internal temper tantrum, God gently said to me, "Perhaps so, but don't forget about me.  I am all they need.  I am their Father and you can trust me with their hearts.  Trust me to love and care for them when you and the world come up short.  I promise you, I have good plans for each of them."
It was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.  A soft reminder that no matter how much I love these kids, there will always be Someone who loves them a million times more.

Even so, it isn't easy.  God has called me to love these children as my own and to show them a love that they have never known before.  I have no doubt that once they experience His unconditional love, their lives will inevitably be changed for eternity! :) I am doing my best to be obedient to that call, but there is still this fleshy, human part of me that wants to shout, "God! This isn't fair!"
It's not that I don't want to love these kids, loving them is the easy part. Nearly everything about them is lovable.  The hard part is the emotional toll it takes on my own heart.  Acquiring just a glimpse of the injustice that these kids are forced to face each and every day. Witnessing the effects that this broken and busted world has had on these young lives.  Seeing the tears in my children's eyes.
Every ounce of me wants to be the superhero mom that rescues them from their hurt and pain; to jump in and wipe away all of their tears.  I want to hold them close and reassure them that everything will me okay.

But I can't.

Admitting that is like thrusting a dagger through my heart.  It is a battle that I face every day.  An emotional tug-of-war.  On one side, my head is telling me to just trust God (and that seems like the right thing to do...), but I can't ignore my flesh on the other side screaming, "Do something!!!"  My emotions are constantly being violently jerked in different directions.

Fortunately, God has given me this scripture to cling to:
"And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them."  Romans 8:28

God has not called me to save these children--that is His job.  They belong to Him anyway.  Truly, He can use me as a vessel to share His love for them, but even in my absence, His love will prevail.  And even in the pain, He remains to be God.

So, I am learning to trust Him on another level these days,  And I am thankful that He is being patient with me because as Mr. Keller said, Love IS inconvenient.  But while it may be inconvenient for me, it is no excuse to jump ship and give up.  I must continue the race that God has put before me. Loving my babies through their pain is hard.  Seeing their tears is agonizing. Knowing their stories is heartbreaking...and I am sure that if it breaks my heart, it is breaking God's heart all the more.  Thankfully, His promises are stronger than the pains of this world and His love has already overcome!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Taxi Ride with Purpose...

My heart did a little happy dance last week on the way home from Bible Study.  I, with five of my kiddos, was crammed into an overloaded taxi.  (And by ‘overloaded’ I mean a 14-passenger van stuffed with 20 people, a toddler, two babies, and six chickens.)  Once we had boarded, my youthful little ones wasted no time with their typical, playful banter—joking, teasing and laughing with each other.  Immediately, I saw heads turning.  There were glances…and then double-takes from the other passengers as they observed this peculiar hand-gesturing communication that was happening. 
(Side note: It is a common misconception that Deaf people and their conversations are quiet.  Though sign language in and of itself is an unspoken language, it is still very animated and expressive.  Hence, sign language is not as silent as one might imagine.  Additionally, people who are profoundly deaf are often unaware of the sounds around them as well as the sounds they are making during a conversation.  To a person unfamiliar with deafness, these noises may sound strange and sometimes alarming.)
Needless to say, my kids were having a blast and as a result, they were making a little bit of noise...okay, maybe more than a little…
After all of the glances and stares, the comments soon began to follow; they hailed from all sides of the taxi.  And I’ll admit, most of what the other passengers were saying, I either didn’t hear clearly or I just didn’t understand.  (I am doing my best to learn Luganda, but I am far from fluent.  And my own hearing loss is an additional barrier sometimes.)

Still, I was able to clearly see that people were fascinated and quite intrigued by my kids and their unique language.  The curious onlookers were very quick to admit to each other that they had no idea what was being said (signed) and that they wished they knew.  (Welcome to MY world, folks.  And welcome to the world of my Deaf children.)

But remember when I said that my heart was doing a happy dance?...

Here’s why:  There was a woman sitting in the back of the taxi with us, smack dab in the middle of our (somewhat noisy) chatter.  She had been looking this way and that for several minutes, perplexed by the little hands that moved busily around her.  I watched as she paused for a moment, then a humble smile came to her face as she boldly announced to the other passengers, “These kids may be deaf, but you see, they sure are happy!”

And there it was—God’s light shining ever so brightly in that dimly-lit taxi.

Here in Uganda, and in communities around the world, people see a deaf child and automatically discount their value and potential.  It is often believed that because a child is unable to hear, they are also unable to read, write, learn, work, etc.   But Friday night was different.    
In the back of that crowded taxi, I trust that God spoke to hearts and affirmed in them what I have known in my own heart for a while:  We are all created for a purpose.  He knows each of us better than we know ourselves.  Scripture says that, “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.  Before you were born, I set you apart...” Jeremiah 1:5.  We are His workmanship, created to do good things (Eph 2:10) and a child’s deafness cannot stop Him from being glorified.  Our God is much bigger than that.  In fact, only He has the ability to turn their pain into praises and their rejection into rejoicing.  And for sure, He and the angels rejoice each time He is able to shine His light through those precious vessels. 

I realize that most people don’t want to admit that God intentionally made a child deaf…(I find it more common that people want to ‘pray away’ their deafness.) But could it be that my children’s deafness is just part of His elaborate plan? An opportunity for Him to receive praise and glory in unsuspecting places?  Is it possible that my children can be other examples of ‘nobodies’ that God has carefully chosen to follow Him and be a reflection of Himself.  We see numerous other examples of such transformations throughout scripture: Moses, Job, Joseph, Esther… People who came from nowhere, without a resume, and without the necessary skills.  But despite that, God uses each of them in profoundly powerful ways. Perhaps my babies are among them?

I believe that thousands of years ago, God saw all of us in that taxi and knew that a group of [cute] Deaf children would be the perfect way to show His love and mercy. Nothing about that taxi ride was an accident—not even my children’s deafness.  Everything was orchestrated by God, for God.

And the part about this story that I think I love most…my kids didn’t even realize the looks, the stares, the comments…they were too busy being full of joy to even recognize what had happened that night.  I truly believe that God has filled their hearts with an undeniable joy which has primed them and prepared them to be used by Him no matter what the circumstance.
Leading praise and worship at Bible study:

I am always amazed at how much I learn from my kiddos.  Friday night was no exception. 

Which leads me to this question: Are we finding joy and contentment in the circumstances of our lives?  Or are our impure hearts getting in the way of what God wants to do through us? 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Follow Jesus?...What Does That Even Mean?!...

I had another Luganda lesson this morning.  As I was walking to class, I could feel a little hesitation in my step, but that feeling quickly faded, which opened doors to a pretty productive day…

After class, I took a little jog across the street—haha, who am I kidding?…
I didn’t jog; I walked. . .  
Nonetheless, I headed to a little café to meet a friend from church.   Not long into our conversation, my friend boldly admitted that this whole ‘Jesus thing” is just too tough to grasp.  

“Of course I go to church every Sunday, but I can’t wait until it is over…”  
I quietly watched as she recalled moments that were particularly confusing to her and I couldn’t help but feel immense empathy for her. 

Why?  Because just a few years ago, I was her!  Trapped in that very same situation—I had ‘accepted Jesus’ and was surrounded by fellow believers…but I felt more lost and alone than I ever had before!  I would see people raising their hands at church, shouting and praising Jesus.  During conversations, they would rattle on about how ‘God has changed my life’, and ‘My joy is in Christ’, and ‘I live for Jesus.’  Their words did not resonate with me at all…I just didn’t get it. They had surely gotten something that I was still missing. 
I was angry.  And jealous.  And confused.  If Jesus really is the same ‘yesterday, today, and forever,’  then why were they suddenly overflowing with happiness and confidence…yet I didn’t feel a thing?

Across the table, my friend continued to explain, “I’ve tried reading the Bible, but those stories don’t make sense to me.  I need help to understand what all of those words mean.”

I nodded in agreement.  As a new and young believer, I too didn’t understand the hidden meaning rooted in the scriptures. 

“And when I ask questions, nobody wants to sit down and explain things to me.  So, I have just accepted that the ‘following Jesus’ thing may not be for me.  Other people can do it, but for me, I don’t know what it means.”

And there it was again, that little nudge from God reassuring me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Just as He had done a few years back, His gentleness was speaking to my heart.  It was as if I could hear Him say, “But she is made in My image! My love for her is unending and I won’t give up on her.  It is time to fight for her heart.

God hasn’t called me here because of my intellect or my insight or anything else for that matter.  And that’s okay because this isn’t about me anyway.  This is all about God and His incredible love for His children.  More and more I am coming to realize that I am not qualified to be here.  I don’t have what it takes to do this work…except, I do.  I have Jesus and that is all it takes to win over hearts.
My friend—along with countless other Deaf kids throughout Uganda—are desiring to find their true identity.  They long to feel loved and to feel whole.  They may not know it yet, but they need Jesus.  They just don’t know how to find Him.
(Insert: God's awesome plan...with me in the middle of it all!...)

It is quite daunting to think about this road God has laid before me, but then I remember His promise to always go before me.   Without fail, He leaves me humbled, excited, and extremely thankful that He has afforded me such an opportunity to walk alongside these precious young people as they begin to discover the power of Christ. 

(P.S.  Please pray with me: I am praying that my life will be a constant light and a tangible expression of His love for them and that I remain in a steadfast surrender as He uses me to offer salvation to His beloved Deaf children.)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Flashback...

20th of November, 2015

So, I have been a little silent recently when it comes to my media accounts.  It has been nearly two months since my last blog post and I haven’t posted many updates on facebook either.  Nevertheless, the work here still continues.  And I apologize for slacking a bit on updating you, as my ministry partners and prayer team, but in the words of my childhood friend, “If you can’t say something nice then don’t say nothin’ at all.”  My friend, Thumper, was right. And I hate to admit it, but it has been a tough season these past couple of months. And on more than one occasion, the words running through my head (and my heart) are surely not what God wants me posting across your computer screens.
There have been several days when I have wanted to post something…anything!!, just to vent some of this overflow of emotions welling up inside of me.  Some days I would just get so frustrated. Then I would realize my frustration and become all the more frustrated about allowing myself to become frustrated in the first place. 
Still, I did not want anything leaving my lips—or my fingertips—that was not from God. So, I have been sitting quiet for a little while.  Years ago such ‘punishment’ would have been right close to torture for me.  Back then, I always had an opinion about everything and I was always willing to share it.  Fortunately, Jesus has been helping me to build a filter and I have calmed down since those days…but even these past few weeks have been challenging for me.  Luckily, I have resisted the temptation to fall back into my old ways and I have remained silent.
And I am glad that I have done just that because when I stopped talking, God started talking. 
Well, it is probably more accurate to say that He was there talking to me all along; I was just too busy fumbling with my own words (and opinions, and thoughts, and ideas, and plans) that I couldn’t hear His.
But in the quiet of the day…(which doesn’t happen too often..) I have been hearing this scripture scroll through my mind:

"Look how far you have fallen from your first love!
Turn back to me again and work as you did at first."
Rev. 2:5

I don’t know what is going to happen in the next days, weeks, or month to come, but I have a feeling that God is at work.  In just a few days I will be returning to the US to celebrate the holiday season with family and friends.  Often, missionaries refer to this time as ‘vacation.’  While I will be on vacation from my daily routine…I get the sense that it is going to be anything but a vacation for my spiritual journey. 

And that is perfectly okay with me. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Finding The Strength...

I have to be honest—When my alarm went off at 5:00am Friday morning, my first thought was, “Lord, I am gonna need you to get me through the day.”  It had already been a long week.  I was exhausted and I barely had the energy or willpower to roll out of bed.  I had no idea how I was going to last for another 16 hours.  But I knew that lying there any longer wouldn’t help either, so I talked myself out of bed. 
No surprise, I didn’t have the energy to good breakfast either.  And quarrelling with the little charcoal stove was not on my to-do list for the day.  I slathered a piece of dry bread with some pb & j and walked my three miles to school.
On Fridays, I am responsible for teaching the student chapel before lunch. Then, at the end of the school day I take a handful of my kiddos to Deaf church for Bible study.  As I pondered the day ahead, I realized that it was 7:12am and already I was looking for a pace to sit…how on earth was I going to make it?
Apparently, I had forgotten that my strength is not dependent on the quality of sleep I got (or didn’t get) the night before.  My strength is in Him—and unlike me, He does not grow weary.  Little did I know, He was about to give me a little lesson on that verse…
After finishing the science lesson with my 4th graders, I began preparing for the chapel service.  For most of the morning I had been dreading it, but at some point, late in the morning, I began feeling a sense of excitement.  A subtle assurance that it was going to be okay.
Turns out, it was not okay—it was fabulous!
The memory verse of the week had been Ephesians 6:11 and I began teaching the students about the importance of wearing the armor of God.  I had prepared a couple of demonstrations and was very happy to see how attentive my young students were.  As always, I concluded the lesson and asked if there were any questions.  Initially, my babies sat silent. No one ever wants to be the first to raise their hand.  But scripture says that where 2 or more are gathered, God is in their midst.  And I know for sure that He was there in that classroom.

Soon, hands began to rise and questions started floating my way…and before long I had questions and comments coming from all corners of the room:
“The helmet protects our head…what about our eyes?”
“Why does the Bible tell us to wear armor? I thought God doesn’t like fighting…”
“Is Moses in heaven?”

I could see that God was really speaking to their hearts and I smiled as I gazed around the room.  Nearly every student had ‘concentration’ stamped across their foreheads. Gears were turning and the questions continued:
“If Satan asks for forgiveness, will God let him into heaven?”
“How many times will God forgive me when I sin?”
“Is it okay for Christians to eat pork?”
“What is the book of life?”
“God made the world…but who made God?”
For nearly two hours we sat in that classroom and discussed and pondered the Word of God.  I am confident that in a perfect world, we could have continued our conversation until the sun went down.  But, unfortunately, this place isn’t perfect; time is limited…and my kids had to eat lunch.  Nonetheless, I promised them that we could resume the conversation later.
As I prepared for bed later that night, my heart was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for God.  My mind was wandering in a dozen different directions, replaying the events of the day and thanking God for the work He is doing deep within each of my babies.
Then it suddenly dawned on me—it was almost midnight and I was wide awake!  Nearly 17 hours before, my body could barely muster enough energy to keep me standing upright.  And there I was, lying in bed, bouncing with energy!
“…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  Isaiah 40:31
I had read that verse so many times before.  I had heard it quoted and I had even done so myself…but on Friday night that verse finally became real to me.
This life in Uganda is not easy—nearly every day I find myself standing at the foot of a mountain and God is asking me to climb.  I look around, see only my utter weakness and physical fatigue and I quickly become busy looking for alternative routes and shortcuts.  For years I had read and believed the scriptures that said my strength is in Him…and it wasn’t until Friday that I truly understood what God had been saying to me.  He really IS my strength—literally, figuratively, spiritually.  He hasn’t called me to this place so that I can do this and that…He has called me here so that HE can do it.

What a peaceful realization.