Cross-shaped prayer

iron cross at Westminster

A picture taken in London just before heading to Scotland in January 2016–looking into the inner courtyard of Westminster Abbey

In January of 2016 Dave and I led a group of Wheaton Academy students on a trip to Scotland. It was a double-duty trip for us. We were praying for guidance; about which of two very different directions we should pursue. One of those directions was Scotland. We met with the UK field director of GEM (Greater European Missions) during that trip, and it was in many ways an exploratory time for us.

But we were also praying about moving into the city of Chicago, to live in a depressed neighborhood, for Dave to teach/work with underprivileged kids. It was strange how God used the wonderful, spiritually rich trip to Scotland to confirm that it was not the decision for this time, and Chicago is. One of the confirming moments came when we put on the program for an assembly at a Scottish public high school. We began with a video one of our students had made to introduce the team members and their home. After shots of Wheaton Academy and its grounds, the video moved to the downtown area of Chicago. One shot showed hundreds of people milling around the Bean. Watching it for the first time in that assembly, I suddenly got choked up. There were all those people, of all ethnicities and races and religions, gathered together to look at a reflective structure, but going home to segregated neighborhoods, going home to places sorely in need of gospel hope. Behind me in that auditorium sat rows and rows of students who needed to hear about Christ, and I was fervently praying for them, but my heart was pounding for the people of Chicago. When Dave told me—without my saying anything about my own experience—that he’d had much the same reaction when he saw the video, we knew God was stirring in our hearts.

Another affirming moment on that trip came in a coffee shop, where Dave and I had retreated while the students shopped in the area. Here’s what I wrote in my journal about that time:

We were talking about a topic we’ve often discussed: why are some prayers—especially those for “small” things—answered, while others, particularly those for very necessary, very important things, seem to be ignored. This topic had re-surfaced because I told Dave how glad I was that a member of our mission team who’d felt sick the day before was fully recovered. I remarked, “Several of us were praying for her.”

He got a funny look on his face and pulled out the book he’s currently reading: There Are No Children Here, published in 1991, written by Alex Kotlowitz, a Chicago journalist. It follows the lives of brothers Lafayette and Pharaoh, two young boys who lived in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex just blocks from Chicago’s Loop that was a veritable war zone. Dave turned to a passage and gave me a preface before reading it aloud. Nine-year-old Pharaoh, seeking respite from the violence and drama of Henry Horner, has found a condominium complex nearby with green lawns and trees. He goes there to sit under the trees and simply be.

Pharaoh had long sought such a refuge. For a few months last spring, he’d attended Bible classes at the First Congregational Baptist Church. Washington Boulevard was lined with churches, but most of them now served people who had since moved from the neighborhood. Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner. Pharaoh grew bored with the classes and began to question whether there was indeed a God. He often prayed to him, asking that he let them move from the projects. But, Pharaoh would say, “I be praying but he don’t do nothing. Maybe there ain’t no God.” It was as much a question as it was a statement. (page 143)

Dave read the last line and then looked up at me. “I’m struggling with this right now. How can we pray for such relatively small things as someone’s upset stomach when people all over the world are living lives like this?” He tapped the page in the book. “And how does God see these vastly different prayers? Why are our prayers for someone’s stomach answered when a young kid praying not to be molested or sold for sex doesn’t get the answer they so desperately need? When a mom who has prayed for food to feed her family watches her baby starve to death? I don’t understand!”

I don’t understand either. Part of his question does have to do with God, to be sure, but Scripture tells me God is not indifferent to suffering, and Christ proved to me God is not indifferent to suffering. But we, the people of God, the Church, are the body of Christ here, so why is it that Pharaoh was left so abandoned? Where was the church? Why weren’t the churches of Chicagoland agonized by Henry Horner and the other housing projects? And the violence and hopelessness of areas like Englewood and Lawndale and Garfield Park? Why aren’t we agonized now?

I asked Dave to hand me the book. I wanted to look at one line in particular. I read it aloud to him. “Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner.”

“What if the churches were supposed to be the answer to Pharaoh’s prayer?” I asked. “What if they were supposed to pray about Henry Horner—along with all the personal requests they had—praying BOTH, until God so changed their hearts they were ready to act and intervene and enter in, even if in small ways at first? Until they served the people who lived right nearby rather than those who’d had the resources to move out?

“I know it’s not really an answer to your question, but I don’t think the answer is an either-or proposition. I think we should pray about all hurts, even the ones we see as small.”

I looked back at this journal entry a few times during the months that followed, as we prayed for both “big” and “small” and received guidance for all and then detours and then more guidance. For us the conversation was about the inner city and inequality in education and racial reconciliation in the church. But even more so, it was a conversation about prayer and change–heart change. And that’s a conversation for everyone. Not everyone is being led to the inner city, but all of us are being led somewhere, even if it’s right out our front door, even if it’s simply onto our knees.

Prayer opens our blinded eyes and guarded hearts to the needs we are meant to see, meant to enter into.

So I’d like to end this post with some words I read recently in The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright.

The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God. … Learn new ways of praying with and from the pain, the brokenness, of that crucial part of the world where God has placed you. And out of that prayer discover the ways of being peacemakers, of taking the risk of hearing both sides, of running the risk of being shot at from both sides. Are you or are you not a follower of the crucified Messiah? (The Challenge of Jesus, chapter 8, “The Light of the World”) 

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Small things–and my dream job

Rez's New Name team members standing behind the gifts donated by WA girls' soccer team

Rez’s New Name team members standing behind the gifts donated by WA girls’ soccer team

I’ve decided what job I want in heaven.

It came to me as I sat with a few other women around a table covered in toiletries, jewelry, lotions, and other small gifts. These items had been donated by the girls on the Wheaton Academy soccer team my husband, Dave, coaches. An annual tournament they play in encourages every team to create a service project, and for the past two years the WA girls have supported New Name, a local ministry that partners with area churches to reach out to and walk alongside women in sex trafficking and adult entertainment industries. Last year they made cards to go into the gift bags that New Name teams deliver. This year they went a step further and purchased items to go into the gift bags. Dave gave up a practice for the girls to shop and then gather back at school to make cards and listen as I told them about New Name’s ministry.

gift driveA few days later the members of my church’s New Name chapter unloaded all the purchases at Church of the Resurrection, and we organized them and packed gift bags for outreach.

We oohed and aahed over the pretty soaps and the jewelry, and I told the group, “You know, one of these gifts may be used specifically by God to open a woman’s heart to Him. In a few weeks the girls who purchased these may not even remember what they bought; they might see what they did today as a small thing, but they may discover when they get to heaven that this very lotion”—I held up the bottle in my hand—“may make an eternal difference. Won’t it be awesome to trace it all back! To see how all our stories connect into the Big Story!” It hit me then, and I said, “That’s the job I want in heaven—to follow the stories of people’s salvation and growth in Christ back to all the ‘small’ things that played parts in it. What an awesome job it would be to write down the creativity of God in weaving it all together!”

In chapter 4 of Zechariah, the angel of the Lord visits Zechariah and gives him a vision that encourages the Israelites to keep on with the slow, laborious work of rebuilding the temple. This new temple is a very small accomplishment when compared to the temple that was destroyed, but the angel says, “Who dares despise the day of small things…?” and he goes on to tell Zechariah that the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth and see each act of obedience.

In Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage, he wrote, ”In God’s work the day of small things is not to be despised. Though the instruments be weak and unlikely, God often chooses such, by them to bring about great things. …Though the beginnings be small, God can make the latter end greatly to increase; a grain of mustard-seed may become a great tree.”

Don’t despise the small things you’re doing. Don’t get discouraged. Keep doing them! Encourage others to persevere as well. Listen as the Spirit leads into seemingly “small things.”

And maybe in heaven I’ll get to write down one paragraph of God’s great story, and we’ll see that each of our “small things” has great significance.

New Name checkBy the way, the tournament directors awarded the top three service projects with a cash prize, and the WA team won first place! They’re donating their $1,000 prize to New Name.

The gift of Soli Deo Gloria

soli deo gloria

I got my necklace from Etsy and I love all the work this artist, Mandy England, creates. She’s closed for the holidays, but here’s the link to her business: http://shop.mandyengland.com/

The phrase Soli Deo Gloria, meaning Glory to God alone, is used often at Wheaton Academy, where I have worked for over nine years. In the last year, it has taken on new meaning to me, so much so that I requested a necklace with the phrase on it for my birthday.

A few weeks ago, in a meeting with my boss at WA, we were talking through upcoming articles for the Wheaton Academy website. In a pause in our conversation, we both jumped in and said, “I have a story idea!”

“You go first,” she told me. As I read to her what I’d jotted down in my journal about Soli Deo Gloria, she got excited and finally broke in. “This fits in perfectly with my idea. I want a piece up for Christmas, a gift piece.”

A gift piece. Oh, the two ideas did fit together! Christ’s birth, followed by his life, death, and resurrection, gives us the incredible, unimaginable gift of living for the glory of God!

I expanded my ideas for a piece for the Academy, but what follows are those original thoughts in my journal. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Soli Deo Gloria

This phrase, meaning “Glory to God Alone,” is generally seen as a charge, a challenge, but what we sometimes forget is that, most of all, it is a gift.

A gift from God to us.

You see, we all live for the glory of something: comfort, success, popularity, power, love. At the root of all of them is the desire to glorify self.

What we don’t understand is the pursuit of self will always end in misery.

But when we pursue the glory of God, we experience magnificent joy and immeasurable fulfillment.

Soli Deo Gloria is a gift of God extended through the sacrifice of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, with the Spirit, we can let go of the self-glory that destroys us. We can be captivated by God’s glory, which is great and wonderful and encompasses all. When we give ourselves over to it, we find our lives take on a larger purpose. Every part of our lives and beings, even our failings, weaknesses, and sorrows, is transformed by the glory of God. All will be used for ultimate good. We gain a true perspective of all talents. We learn that in the kingdom of God, kindness, mercy, faithfulness, and thoughtfulness are highly prized.

When we grasp this, we are able to look beyond ourselves to others. We can see the interconnectedness of all our lives. We gain a vision of working with fellow Christians. We value their talents, for we see how they complement our own.

In the light of God’s glory, those old pursuits—comfort, success, popularity, power—are revealed as pale substitutes, and what the world views as “small”—loving relationships, kindness to neighbors, concern for the least, consistently ethical decisions, a choice to live on and with “enough”—these shine with the bright light of eternity.

When we live for the glory of God, we ourselves receive a glory that is out-of-this-world—literally. This is the gift we proclaim. This is the paradoxical truth that sets us free to live each moment with joy and purpose.

In the words of the late Henri Nouwen, “Our little lives become great—part of the mysterious work of God’s salvation. Once that happens, nothing is accidental, casual, or futile any more. Even the most insignificant event speaks the language of faith, hope, and above all, love.”

I simply had to share this with you! I saw this in our neighborhood last week and fortunately had a couple minutes free to pull over and take a shot! Can't you imagine some little one asking for this!

I simply had to share this with you! I saw this in our neighborhood last week and fortunately had a couple minutes free to pull over and take a shot! Can’t you imagine some little one asking for this!

 

odds and ends

In this post you will find 1. an addition to the 2014 “Gift that Gives Back” post; 2. a Guatemalan church using clothes to draw children and families to Christ and His Body; 3. a few pictures; 4. a couple funny Underwood kid stories, and 5. a link to a story I wrote for Wheaton Academy that is such an inspiring and beautiful story I wanted to share it here, too.

1. As an addition to the 2014 “Gifts that Gives Back” post, one reader suggested Trades of Hope, a business that empowers women out of poverty. They work with women from ten different countries, including the U.S., and produce jewelry, scarves, home decor, handbags, and stationery.

2. My sister-in-law also sent me a wonderful ministry I want to pass on. Both her older daughters have lived for extended periods in Guatemala, working with a fantastic church and ministry there. They have started a Christmas initiative called Una Noche Buena, which provides a full set of new clothes to underserved children in the community, and they do it in a way that fosters relationship not only with the child but with the child’s family. It’s a wonderful ministry, and I’d love for you to check it out. Visit the link above and then click on “English” in the top right corner (unless, of course, you’re fluent in Spanish). Great stories–and you can pray for the ministry–and contact the pastor if you would like more information.

3. It’s hard to believe on a day like today, when the temperature climbed out-0f-season to

first snowman 2014

nearly 50 degrees, but a few weeks ago we had two snowfalls. The first was really light, but enough snow fell for the kids to make their first snowman. I put a glove next to it so you can see how small it actually was–but it was cute!

Soon after, we had a little more snow–but still not that much, so I was quite impressed when I saw the snowman the kids made from it on the back deck.

Then, just a few days later, the snow all melted. I looked out the back window and
second snowman 2014noticed a pile of twigs and leaves. “Jake, Maddie, Patrick,” I called out, “who dumped that mess on the back deck?” Maddie came to the window and looked out. She seemed puzzled, but then said, “Oh, that was the center of our snowman!”

melted snowman

rosatis conga lineI took this last picture on a Friday night a few weeks ago. Exhausted from the week, when the inevitable “What’s for dinner?” question was posed, I wailed, “I don’t know!”

“We should get Rosati’s,” someone suggested, referring to our local pizza joint. Within a minute, they’d formed a line and wound their way through the main floor, chanting, “Rosati’s! Rosati’s!” It was effective. Forty minutes later we enjoyed pizza that I didn’t make. Yay!

4a. Jake was reading the nutritional information on the Corn Chex (or whatever the off-brand version we get is called). “Mom, does too much fiber make you poop?”

Me: “Not too much, just fiber.”

J: “Then how is it bad?”

M: “Fiber isn’t bad. You need it to poop. It’s good.”

Jake looked at the box again. “Awesome! This cereal has fiber and it’s glutton-free!” (He meant “gluten.”)

4b. PJ had to dress up as a book character for school. Jake was coming up with suggestions for him. Jake’s final one: “Too bad Mom’s not finished writing your adoption story. You could just go as yourself.”

4c. It was pajama day at school for Maddie and she was concerned with her clothes matching. “Mads,” I said, “it’s pajama day. Who cares if they match? Look at me.” I was wearing my very old threadbare blue sweats, one of Dave’s running shirts, and my late Pappaw’s rust-colored button-up fleece shirt–with the running shirt hanging out the bottom.

Maddie looked at me for a long moment. Then she looked at Dave. “Dad, when I grow up, do I have to be awkward like Mom?”

5. WA Boys Soccer Team Inspired by Eight-Year-Old Superfan–follow the link to read a story about an eight-year-old with an undiagnosed illness who befriends and is befriended by a high school boys soccer team. The relationship that develops is beautiful.

Henri Nouwen on Thanksgiving

The following quote by Henri Nouwen was included in the latest Wheaton Academy faculty/staff bulletin, and I just had to pass along the blessing. For a beautiful article on Henri Nouwen, read “The Holy Inefficiency of Henri Nouwen,” written by Philip Yancey shortly after Nouwen’s death in 1996.

dried flowers“Thanksgiving comes from above. It is the gift that we cannot fabricate for ourselves. It is to be received. It is freely offered and asks to be freely received. That is where the choice is! We can choose to let the stranger continue his journey and so remain a stranger. But we can also invite him into our inner lives, let him touch every part of our being and then transform our resentments into gratitude. We don’t have to do this. In fact, most people don’t. But as often as we make that choice, everything, even the most trivial things, become(s) new. Our little lives become great—part of the mysterious work of God’s salvation. Once that happens, nothing is accidental, casual, or futile any more. Even the most insignificant event speaks the language of faith, hope, and above all, love. That’s the Eucharistic life, the life in which everything becomes a way of saying “Thank you” to him who joined us on the road.”

May our “little lives” become great with God’s overwhelming love–and may it begin in us this very day.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Jen

the inner eye

Thought I would share some pictures we've actually taken of our recent moments. This is a picture Em took of PJ.

Thought I would share some pictures we’ve actually taken of our recent moments. This is a picture Em took of PJ.

During her freshman year of high school, Judy took a media arts class. (Judy and her younger sister, Kelly, are international students at Wheaton Academy and have lived with us during the past two school years. They are currently at home with their beloved mom and dad but will return to the Underwood household in a little under a month. We are quite excited about that–at the same time we know it is very hard for their parents.) One of the emphases of the media arts class was photography, and Judy made good use of my Nikon. It was fun to download pictures and see the various styles of the three different users

Another picture taken by Em

Another picture taken by Em

(Judy, Emily, and I).

One day, while Judy and I were out walking, I saw something beautiful and bemoaned the fact I didn’t have a camera with me. “You have to take a picture with your inner eye,” she told me. It was something her media arts teacher, the very talented and bighearted Matt Hockett, taught her. “He said when we take special note of something beautiful, we carry it with us, and it is a gift forever.”

And another by Em--of her favorite subject matter: PJ

And another by Em–of her favorite subject matter: PJ

I’ve remembered that, and I was reminded of it when we recently watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) has gone to great effort to take a picture of the reclusive snow leopard, but when it finally appears, he moves his head away from the camera.

Walter Mitty asks him, “When are you going to take it?”

Sean says, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

“Stay in it?” Mitty asks.

“Yeah. Right there. Right here.”

This scene in turn reminded me of a conversation I had a while back with a friend. We talked about not living in the past or the future but accepting the present moment as exactly where (or when) God wants us to be. We rob ourselves of His intent in our lives when we fail or refuse to stay in the present. We discussed the “waiting patiently” so often mentioned in the Psalms–that perhaps it is not waiting in the sense of wanting the moment or time period to pass so we can experience something different, but it is waiting in that place/time with the expectation that there is purpose in the moment/time period itself, no matter how difficult it is. We brainstormed other things that seem to relate, such as the “abiding” that Christ emphasizes in John 15. We brought in the creation of time, and how God has made and is making a day specifically for her and another specifically for me–with some points of overlap (the Amplified version speaks of it as God “bringing about” a day). That wowed us! We used the words “stay,” “sojourn,” and “continue” to help us grasp the idea of living in the present moment in a God-honoring way.

I’ve been practicing taking “photos” with my inner eye: the snail-like trail I leave behind me when I walk through the wet grass at the dog park, and how the sun’s early rays turn it silver; the house sparrow swaying on a thin limb above a gathering of other small birds–the white band around his neck reminds me of a clerical collar, and I imagine him delivering a well-crafted sermon to his audience; the exquisite spider web that glistens with dew.

Perhaps we can also practice the active treasuring of each moment, and as we practice we can learn to rejoice and be glad in each day, in each moment (Psalm 118:24). We can see our days with an inner eye that is informed by eternity and Truth, and we can carry them within as gifts that remind us of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty.

 

 

Guest writer: Anna Lindus

Anna and Shawme

Anna and Shawme

Anna Lindus is a junior at Wheaton Academy. She was part of the team that went to Kenya and Uganda with us this past July. When we were in the Katanga slum in Kampala, Uganda, a little girl came up to Anna. Anna picked her up and carried her as we trekked all over the slum, visiting homes and praying with people. At one point, Anna whispered to me, “Is this okay? Won’t someone be worried about her?”

“News travels fast,” I told her. “Whoever cares for her knows she is with us, and they know we can be trusted because we have come with Pastor Wilfred. You are showing love to this little girl–and by doing that, you are showing love to others here.”

Not long ago, Anna gave me a poem she wrote about Shawme, that little girl. I think it is beautiful, just like Anna and Shawme are, and I wanted to share it here.

“Shawme” by Anna Lindus

Little hands wrap around my neck

and sweet eyes peer into mine.

Just three years old, her life is a wreck.

So young and small, she’s all alone,

having to face the world on her own.

She says no words, but speaks with actions and her gentle touch.

Abandoned, helpless, and oh so young,

In order to survive,

Anna and Shawme

Anna and Shawme

she must push her innocence to the side,

tattered and torn, it’s not just her clothes that are worn.

Her eyes say it all to me: she is as tired as could be.

But there is no nap time for her

Because time is precious, can’t I see?

Food is scarce and she is hungry.

Fighting hard to survive and belly expanding each day,

Little Shawme’s life is astray.

Little hands wrap around my neck

and sweet eyes peer into mine

as she tells me her story.

Beauty from the awful, Day 3 in Uganda

Julius (who is getting married to beautiful, smart Hope very soon) working with the kids at the school in Kitange.

Julius (who is getting married to beautiful, smart Hope very soon) working with the kids at the school in Kitange.

Sometimes God works great beauty out of what seems to us most awful.

We saw that on Monday. (I was unable to get onto Internet to post this blog yesterday, so I’m a day behind.)

Rachel with three little friends

Rachel with three little friends

We first went to the Kitanga slum in Kampala. It’s far smaller than the Kibera slum in Nairobi, but we also got a far more personal look into it. A little over five years ago I visited this slum and met a pastor who had begun a church in it. When he started sharing Christ with the community, children and teenagers began coming to him. They either weren’t safe in the homes they had or they had no homes to go to. The pastor began letting them sleep in the church, and then moved in himself with his wife so they could keep the children, especially the teen girls, safe at night.

So Kitange had a good church. It was a start.

The new school in Kitange

The new school in Kitange

Well, just a few months ago Kitanga also got a school. Preschool classes all the way up through 5th grade meet in a building on the edge of the slum, and administrators plan to add another grade each year. When we pulled up near the school in our vehicles, Kitanga children, most dressed in their uniforms, flooded to greet us. They showed us the inside of their school, and presented a small program. I asked their principal if they have to pay school fees, and he told me they use a sliding scale, and that many do not pay anything at all.

There’s some beauty!

Anna and this little sweetheart spent the entire morning together.

Anna and this little sweetheart spent the entire morning together.

We went back outside, threw a couple soccer balls into the field, and the older boys were off, leaving the girls and babies free to show great interest in us. I listened to a couple of folk tales from the ringleader of a group of 11-year-old school friends while the soccer girls swung babies onto their hips and played with toddlers.

Light the World has an active ministry in the slums. DSC_0048Several of the children at Mercy come from there, and Mercy works with their families to try to rehabilitate them until they are able to take the child back. L the W also offers microfinance loans to women who need them.

So after a little while, we split into groups and went with LtW staff members to visit some of the families in the neighborhood they are working with. We all have different stories, but I will share mine with you. My team (Dave, me, our Em, Emily Mascari, and Anna Lindus) had Wilfred as our leader. We went first to Florence’s home. Florence is leading a women’s prayer and Bible study group in Kitanga. She and her husband Moses accepted Christ a few years ago. She runs a small duuka (shop) next to her house and hopes to expand it to provide

Moses, Florence, and their little girl, Asfa

Moses, Florence, and their little girl, Asfa

more income for their family. We entered her home, taking our shoes off at the door so we did not make a mess on the tarps spread across the dirt floor. They sat us on the couches that nearly filled the room, honoring us while they sat on the floor. Florence took their baby from Moses and we learned a little of their story. Their baby, Asfa, is five years old but looks about two. She had a fever when she was very young and it resulted in brain damage that has left her mentally at the age of a baby and physically with very stiff limbs.

DSC_0056I have to be very American here and say this: any middle-class American would enter the slums and say, “This is no place for a child to grow up.” That is what our first impression would be.

That impression would be wrong.

The best place for Asfa is exactly where she is. Her parents adore her, and it was clear not only by the ways they looked at her but by her physical condition. Her skin was clean and perfect, with no pressure sores. The entire time her parents were talking with Wilfred, Florence was unconsciously doing physical therapy with Asfa, stretching her feet and hands, moving her elbows and knees, making her stand up for a few seconds and catching her when she tottered. Florence showed me the notebook she keeps for Asfa’s medical records, carefully filled out with every time they could afford medication and the illnesses and treatments she has had.

Beautiful.

Moses sang us a song he wrote about his faith in Christ, about how we should all bear fruit because we are connected to the Vine. That, too, was beautiful.

Asmin and I

Asmin and I

Dave prayed over that little family, and as he did, I was so glad to once again see Wilfred and Light the World in action. Wilfred knows that the best thing for both children and their parents is for the child to be in the home God placed him in. When you take a child permanently away from parents, they lose hope and motivation. Of all the children at Mercy, only a few are adoptable because all of the others have some form of family who can—and who deep down want to—care for them. Wilfred wants to share Christ with the families and work with them so they can become fit families for children. Then fathers work hard to pay school fees and put sufficient food on the table, and mothers can really care for their children.

We next visited Asmin, a Muslim lady, at her home that she has made clean and even pretty with a lovely curtain separating the sleeping and living areas. We asked if we could pray for her, even though she follows Allah. She said yes and prayed first before I prayed over her, asking that she would know the Christ who will draw her close to God. Asmin has a sweet presence about her, and she hugged me, drawing my head close to her own, when we finally left her.

This little girl was put in Dave's arms in the slums.

This little girl was put in Dave’s arms in the slums.

Then came the surprises. Someone came up to Wilfred and told him of a baby that was in trouble, so we trekked through some narrow paths, avoiding line-drying laundry around our heads and water runoff at our feet. When we arrived, neighbors handed Dave a tiny little girl (at least we think it is a girl). Nine months, they said, and she couldn’t have weighed more than 10 or 11 pounds. They told Wilfred the father had abandoned the family, and the mother goes off working but does not care for her baby. They were angry about the state of the baby, and the women’s raised voices drew several drunk men to the area. “Take her,” they told Wilfred. “She needs care.”

But Wilfred, without talking to the mother, was not ready to just take the child, so he had Dave hand her back (Dave was all set to take her, but we know we are also, to put it plainly, CLUELESS about the bigger picture!) because he wanted to get out of there before the crowd got too agitated. He will send Julius (his assistant who does a lot of work in the Kitenga slum) to the house quietly to make more inquiries—and then he will probably take the child.

We discovered this house in the Kitenge slum was where our son Patrick was found

We discovered this house in the Kitenge slum was where our son Patrick was found

We visited one more house, another Moses who has a child being cared for at Mercy. He showed Wilfred the progress he is making so that his girl Prossy can return home.

That was, honestly, enough to process and pray about for an entire day, but we were also scheduled to visit the hospital, with its rows and rows of metal beds with children in various stages of sickness, their parents camped out on straw mats by their sides because they have to administer the majority of the care. I first prayed with a woman whose two year old came down with a fever four days ago. His body still radiated heat, and she patiently urged juice down his throat, sip by tiny sip. She was so calm, and I couldn’t help but think how frantic I would be in her shoes, watching my child grow more listless by the day, knowing that hope was slipping away.

I checked on the soccer girls who were holding babies and chatting with mothers. As I walked down the hall to find another group, I passed an open doorway and saw a room that, though full of beds, held only one boy, skeletal, sitting up on a crib at the far side of the room.

Skin stretched across cheekbones, neck reduced to the size of the spinal column, eyes that were far too big for a shrunken face. I’d seen faces like his in pictures of concentration camp victims, but never, never in real life.

I pretended I didn’t notice the open door and continued down to check on the other group.

But on my way back I was with my friend Angel (I lived with her during the five weeks I was in Africa several years ago), and she said, “Mama, do you want to visit here?”

Holy Spirit took over, and I said yes without thinking much about it. We met Agnes and Eugene, and they introduced us to Earnest, who is 7 (same age as my PJ) and who began having diarrhea 4 months ago, and is now vomiting and coughing besides. I put my hand on his foot, and felt his cool, thin, dry skin. We looked at the x-ray and prescriptions given by the doctor (not that we could do a thing, but it just felt like a way to express sympathy). We listened to their calm recitation, and I fought to keep my face as smooth as theirs.

I asked if I could pray. Both said yes, and Agnes told me that she was a believer in Jesus. “God is my only hope now,” she told me.

“He is our only hope all the time, really, isn’t he?” I said.

Her smile stretched wide and she nodded.

Suddenly, just before I began to pray, soccer girls filed in. They laid hands on me, and I let what was in my heart spill forth in words, and I knew the Holy Spirit was groaning in far better utterances than my limited language in the very presence of God.

In the middle of my prayer, I felt something cool and dry touch my hand, and when I opened eyes, I saw that Earnest had put his small hand on top of my own, his fingers curled over mine. That did it. I had to turn away and sob quietly.

The girls filed out, and I stayed behind to talk more with the parents. Eugene showed me the medications the doctors prescribed and admitted that they could not afford it all. I told him I would be back.

I gathered Angel and Rachel (our two wonderful Ugandan guides for this day) and Dave, and Rachel came up with a plan. We went back and told Eugene that we would take him with us to the pharmacy and buy him the medication. Then Rachel began telling him he needed to accept Christ. “Dave,” Rachel suddenly said, “Do you have anything to say to Eugene?”

Dave, taken off guard at first, said no, but then he asked Eugene why he had not yet made the decision his wife so clearly had. “I’m not ready,” Eugene answered.

So Dave simply and wonderfully reminded him that it is a gift, unachievable by ANY of us, EVER. We have to simply accept it. “Do you want to?” Dave asked him.

“Yes.”

“Then there is nothing standing in your way. Your sin does not keep you from the grace of God.”

Dave wanted to be sure that Eugene was not making this decision simply because a muzungu was asking him questions. “No, no,” Eugene answered, and then he prayed with Dave while Agnes beamed, and she and I clasped hands and lifted them to the heavens in thanks.

We drove with Eugene to the pharmacy down the hill and filled the prescription for his son. Dave gave him his email address, Rachel gave him her phone number, I waved at him from the van window, and he was gone.

The ride home provided time to pray and think because we got trapped in a traffic jam caused by an 18-wheeler that was trying to fit into an incredibly narrow driveway. (I’m always amazed at how patient people are here with this. School children gather to watch; men walking by stop to give advice; and cars and bodas wait patiently until the truck moves out of their way.)

By the time we arrived home, it was time to grab a quick bite and go to Light the World Church’s cell groups. Most of the team stayed here for the group Wilfred and Vena host, but Dave and I, along with our Em, Julia, and Britta (and Ugandans Isaac and Rachel) headed up the hill in the dusk to a cell group that meets nearby. They welcomed us in and translated all they said into English. Babies nursed, one little girl came and sat on Dave’s lap, and a small boy sitting in a chair in the corner fell asleep and didn’t even wake up when his chair toppled over.

And through all the life that was happening, the members shared testimonies and requests and we sang and prayed and even cried a little. And then, in the dark, we trekked down the rutted dirt road by the light of Julia’s iPod.

The water was off when we arrived, so Wilfred heated water on the electric stovetop, and we had jerry-can showers.

It was a beautiful day

*Please pray for Earnest, Eugene, and Agnes. Pray for Earnest’s healing. I’ve been thinking about him much today.

*I will write about today later (we visited Jinja, where an American friend of mine works with a women’s jewelry-making business—beautiful stuff and a very cool model).

*Tomorrow we are painting at the babies and toddlers’ home and playing with the children there. Julius already rescued the undernourished baby from the slums, and tomorrow I will be going with Isaac to take the baby to the hospital for a checkup and some testing. Please pray for this, too.

*I do have pictures. I’ll try to post some tomorrow. Sleep beckons.

Thanks for reading,

Jen

Seeing Ugandans Light the World, Day 1 in Uganda

Lots of us got our hair "done" while sitting on the "sideline" of the soccer game.

Lots of us got our hair “done” while sitting on the “sideline” of the soccer game.

Four and a half years ago I stood in front of Light the World Church’s several thousand members while Wilfred prayed over me and Patrick and the adoption process. At one point while he prayed, I looked up. Thousands of arms reached toward me and toward heaven, and tears spilled onto my face.

I have never forgotten that moment.

All of us with all of the older Mercy kids.

All of us with all of the older Mercy kids.

This morning I stood before Light the World Church again and told them how much their prayers meant to me during that time. Dave and I both thanked them for loving children so much that they are willing to care for so many of them—in particular for the one who became our son.

Tears threatened to spill again.

Anna Lindus with one of the toddlers at the Children's Village.

Anna Lindus with one of the toddlers at the Children’s Village.

I have learned so much from getting to know fellow believers from other cultures. Our God is BIG, and though we must all worship Him in spirit and truth, the different styles preferred by various cultures merely points to yet another facet of our diamond-brilliant God.

Dave offered 10,000 Ugandan shillings (equiv. $4) to anyone who would catch one of the chickens at the Village. Sela took him up on it.

Dave offered 10,000 Ugandan shillings (equiv. $4) to anyone who would catch one of the chickens at the Village. Sela took him up on it.

So today we joined together with brothers and sisters in Uganda, at the 5,000-member-strong Light the World Church with its crooning preacher (he’s also a very well-known Gospel singer in Uganda) and dancing choir and its insistence that all we have and are belong to God, so we might as well surrender it and enjoy the ride.

The girls loved it. Anna Sezonov (sorry, Anna, if I’m butchering your name—everyone’s asleep, so I can’t ask anyone how to spell it) shared her testimony in the first service. She did a great, great job—emphasizing the truth that she’s had to trust in God through difficult times.

Wilfred showed Dave all the projects they want to do at the Village (including an extensive garden--already happening) and they came back w/ 2 giant sweet potatoes, which we'll eat at some point this week!

Wilfred showed Dave all the projects they want to do at the Village (including an extensive garden–already happening) and they came back w/ 2 giant sweet potatoes, which we’ll eat at some point this week!

Wilfred took us on a tour of the church (which was new to me—they had to move from their old location b/c the surrounding ground was too swampy) and told the girls how it was started. Here’s a quick recap: four boys who went through secondary school together accepted Christ. As they began growing in their faith, they began meeting for prayer under a mango tree, and they felt led to start a church. At the same time, homeless children began moving into their 8 by 10 meter shack—simply because the guys were welcoming to them. The church began with a small group and kept growing. The guys rented a larger place, and more children came. Now, ten years later, the “guys” are in their late twenties, Light the World Church is a 5,000 member church with all kinds of ministries in the community, and Mercy Childcare (LtW’s childcare branch) cares for about 100 children. Mercy has a home for its older children (five through 20) and has bought an acre and a half of land and is building a children’s village on it. One home has been completed already, and the babies and toddlers are housed there. We visited both the older kids and the babies yesterday, playing a match with the older ones (and a few village children as well) and rocking babies to sleep.

Eaden with a child from Mercy

Eaden with a child from Mercy

In the fast falling darkness (dusk is a short-lived event here) we drove home and ate a wonderful dinner that Mama Cici (full name Fluyencia) prepared for us. Wilfred and Vena run their guesthouse with simple hospitality, and the girls are getting a bit of a look at what home life is like—a home that welcomes everybody.

All for now.

Playing with the boys. This is Sez (Anna S) squaring off with Isaac, one of the older boys helps a lot at both Mercy and at Wilfred and Vena's house.

Playing with the boys. This is Sez (Anna S) squaring off with Isaac, one of the older boys helps a lot at both Mercy and at Wilfred and Vena’s house.

Sorry for posting this late (well, early for us). I couldn’t get internet access last night (amazing that we have it all!), so I’m posting this in the morning. We’re heading to the Kutenga slum to play soccer with the kids and visit some homes there, and then we will visit a cancer hospital.

Thanks for reading,

Jen

Africa, Day 3: Relationships

Emily and her cousins and aunt.

Emily and her cousins and aunt.

We came on this mission trip with several purposes in mind, all of them good.

Rachel making a great save

Rachel making a great save

But today, on our last full day in Kenya, a new purpose emerged, and I am even more convinced that God LOVES to see His believers grow in their relationships with each other. When we came on this trip, we knew that Assistant Coach Lauren Lindner Anderson had an aunt in Kenya. In fact, Aunt Sandy had already helped Dave with some trip details. We planned on spending some time with Lauren’s aunt and uncle.

I have so many amazing animal pics from today!

I have so many amazing animal pics from today!

Then we discovered that Emily Mascari, one of the players, has an aunt, uncle, and cousins at Rift Valley Academy, an MK school about an hour and a half from Nairobi. Dave and I have many ties to RVA, through my sister and her husband’s family and through numerous friends who have taught there. What we didn’t realize until about two weeks ago was that my nephew Seth would be there for his 2-year alumni reunion. But, free spirit that Seth is, we didn’t know if he would actually be on campus or if he would be out on some kind of adventure with his friends.

This was a mama giraffe very concerned for her new baby. the park rangers were moving it to flat ground so it could stand.

This was a mama giraffe very concerned for her new baby. the park rangers were moving it to flat ground so it could stand.

We drove up to RVA (and made it despite some brake trouble), and had the privilege of seeing Emily and her cousins and aunt reunite. Beautiful!

We asked around about Seth and learned he was still in Mombasa, so we gave up hope of seeing him. We played RVA’s soccer team in a friendly match and went to eat in the cafeteria. Just as I finished my meal, Sharon, my sister’s husband’s brother’s wife (confusing, I know) found me, and we had a wonderful time catching up and sharing. It was a complete surprise! Sharon and her husband are missionaries without a country (too much unrest) who are serving at RVA as dorm parents until their country’s politics stabilize.

And here's the baby!

And here’s the baby!

Then Seth showed up. He’d taken the all-night train back from Mombasa, and when he got on campus several people told him his aunt and uncle were looking for him. He assumed, of course, they meant his Aunt Sharon and Uncle Steve, and was surprised when it turned out to be us. We hugged and chatted for a few minutes, and then I sent him off to find Emily.

The girls climbed on top of the bus after we toured the "island."

The girls climbed on top of the bus after we toured the “island.”

(One funny note. Three years ago, when Seth was still a student at RVA, we did the same thing to him–just showed up at his dorm parent’s house. Both that time and this–I can’t believe it–we failed to get a picture of him or with him!)

Soccer player Emily’s aunt suggested we spend the afternoon at nearby Crescent Island, where Out of Africa (remember the old Robert Redford/Meryl Streep film) was filmed. They took a couple hundred animals to this crescent-shaped peninsula that thrusts out into the Naivasha Lake. Without predators and with plenty of grazing land, the animal population is now at a few thousand, and you simply walk right with them on the island. Crazy beautiful and fun!

DSC_2629We ended the day back at Emily’s aunt and uncle’s house, where they fed us. Seth joined us, and we had even more chances to catch up.

When I think back at how perfectly this day was orchestrated–without our having any hand in it at all (we only knew we could go to RVA two days ago)–I am simply amazed. God loves His children to have good, deep relationship with each other.

p.s. He also protected us so much today. Getting that bus up and down those rutted mountain roads was very difficult.

Thanks for reading,

Jen