Since we’ve moved back to Soroti, it has felt like coming back home. A big part of this has been reuniting with our friends who we really had been missing. People have been so welcoming. When we went back to our church, our friend - the lady who sells termites and is called "termite" affectionately in Ateso - gave us some to take home. When she got saved, she gave up brewing alcohol and took up finding and selling termites, and has built her own house with the money and put a child through school. An amazing story. We actually really like the termites and added them to our supper.
It seems like every day we run into more old friends. We even found out that one of our friends in Soroti just had a new baby, and the new baby's name is Sytsma! This is Baker and Jessica and their new baby, named after us and after another of their good friends from Canada who visits Uganda regularly, also with the last name of Sytsma. We felt so honored. Baker was one of the people that helped me to facilitate Timothy Leadership Training a few years ago.
But the other part of feeling like we are back home has been how seamless it has been to jump right back into ministry. It is as if we'd never left. We already find ourselves with more ministry opportunities than we can handle as we plan this coming year. We wish we would have gotten more of a chance to rest during the holidays after working so hard for the last year and a half in Kenya, but we spent a lot of time settling our house, having work meetings, writing curriculum, and planning work for the next year. But we did get at least some amount of good rest, enough to feel revitalized and excited to do the work God has called us to do.
I've already been able to preach a couple times. A group of local churches has a big event of prayer and fasting for a couple weeks every January. People go to pray and worship and hear sermons, from 9am - 5 pm and then 7pm - 9pm every day. Some Christians go to everything. Some of them fast seriously for days. Others just come when they are able. I spent two days at this event, and preached for a total of three hours. I appreciated being able to preach to the church members and their pastors all together.
The first time I preached for two hours in two sessions about integrity in general, and then went into detail about integrity in four areas. 1. Obeying the laws and rules of the nation, churches, and schools. 2. Corruption, cheating, stealing, including favoritism in the Church and inconsistent church discipline. 3. Lying and gossiping. 4. Sexual sins and addiction. I also talked about the need for church discipline, and accountability partners.
I emphasized that integrity is not about perfection, but more about honesty, as God called King David a man of integrity even though he had seriously sinned, but he confessed and repented of his sins. I tried to lead by example by being honest about some of the sins that I struggle with. I also made clear that integrity is not what saves us, but only faith in Christ. Yet integrity should be one of the results of being born again and having a new heart.
I received so much affirmation and appreciation after this sermon. The next day they had a time of prayer and repentance since most people felt convicted by something in my message. I hit a lot of what I would call cultural blind spots, and controversial issues that would be more difficult for a Ugandan pastor to speak about. I could list a whole page of sins that we struggle with in the US, so please don't get the feeling that I think Africans are more sinful than Americans. That is not true. But here in East Africa, these are some of the sins that people struggle with commonly that came up in my message: many laws are not obeyed at all or not enforced well, from my surveys it seems like almost everyone cheats in school, there is rampant corruption in churches, development organizations and governments, and many churches favor the rich in matters of church discipline. I say these things from experience and from the stories and confessions that Ugandans and Kenyans tell me.
The next time I preached about Jesus coming to give us rest, from the book of Matthew. I talked about rest from trying to earn salvation by works, and instead resting in his grace. But mainly, I talked about daily rest and how Jesus did not come to make us exhausted and too busy. This is something I had to learn myself, and have been doing well, enjoying my day of rest each week. It's a huge problem everywhere I've been in East Africa that people in ministry don't rest. It seems to me that some people are idle and don't work much at all, but those that work, work too hard. Those that have good jobs end up being involved in everything, on boards of organizations, getting more degrees, involved in every church committee, etc.
And pastors are especially hard hit, notably the pastors in the village. They have to do other kinds of work in addition to being full time pastors because they are not supported well financially from their churches. So when I ask them if they rest, they say that they rest from church work by doing business or agriculture. They always tell me it's impossible for them to get real rest. The expectations church members put on pastors are also incredibly burdensome, as pastors are expected to go to every wedding and funeral not only of church members, but sometimes of their relatives. But I emphasized that we need rest, it's sinful when we don't rest, we neglect our families when we don't rest, and if we are not filled up with energy and love by God, then we will be ineffective at the things we are doing.
The pastors especially appreciated my message since I told the church members that pastors need a day off every week, which I found out later that they do not have at all. I will be eager to see if this change gets implemented in some of the churches in the coming months.
Even when I'm not signed up to preach, going to church can be a time for God to use me. The other day we visited another church near our house where we know some people. The pastor read a verse that is in the King James Version but not in the NIV. At the end of the service they asked me to explain to the congregation about why the versions are different. It's a big issue of debate in Uganda because people don't know where the Bible really comes from and some pastors in other areas of the country have actually burned some Bible translations thinking they are of the devil. Even more sad to me is that there are American missionaries in Uganda who also think that the NIV was made by people trying to destroy God's Word.
It is important to understand that the NIV and other modern versions of the Bible are in fact more accurate than older translations, since today we have access to far more copies of the oldest manuscripts. Here is a helpful link on this topic. Have verses been removed from the NIV?
Being a foreigner and a reverend in a small town is interesting. People notice me. I heard that some people talked about the tough sermons of the "bald mzungu preacher" at church. I get people randomly coming up to me in town and saying "Reverend, thank you for that message in church." The other day I was almost home biking back from church when a lady rode past on a motorcycle taxi and thanked me for the message. Speaking of integrity, it keeps me on my toes knowing that people see me wherever I go, and they are seeing me as bearing Christ's name and as a leader. It's a bit awkward and uncomfortable knowing that so many people know who I am but I don't know them.
To add to our notoriety, Sara and I both travel around town on bicycles a lot. People love to shout greetings at us, or say "mzungu, mzungu" or say to Sara "hey my size" (not appropriate!), or say "hey boda, give me a ride" pretending I'm a bicycle taxi, or groups of children doing incomprehensible screaming. The most awkward is perhaps children who actually chant, similarly to a cheerleading chant at a sports game - "mzungu hey hey hey, mzungu hey hey hey." Can you imagine in the USA if an African was walking down the road, and children started shouting, "African, African hey hey hey" in a chant? The best chant was a few years ago when children saw us walking our dog and they chanted about 20-30 times - "mzungu and a dog, mzungu and a dog." Life is interesting here and these things can get annoying. You just have to roll with it, other times ignore obnoxious people, and try to be friendly, and laugh about it when you can.