Turning Back

My time as a marching band member

I was never in the marching band in high school. My brother was. My sister was. But not me. I don’t have a lick of artistic ability. If they had marching math lovers then I might have done that. But I was never in the marching band…until a Sunday in 2015.

To Join a Marching Band

Rashid invited me to a church he was helping to plant in Mukono, Uganda. The young church also has a school for nearby students. They had received the results of the P7 exams for their students. P7 exams are a big deal. It is like having to pass a test in order to go from 6th grade to 7th grade in America. If you don’t pass then you are done with school. In some cases repeating the grade is acceptable but most don’t want to pay more school fees.

Rashid and I at the church after marching

Rashid and I at the church. Oh my, that facial hair.

So this school affiliated with the church plant had a student who passed with a first grade and everyone else passed with a second grade. They told me a first grade is very special but rare, especially for new schools. So they had to celebrate. They wanted to praise God for what He had done. What better way to do this than to march around the village behind a marching band, while announcing the good news?

So we marched. Ok, technically I wasn’t in the marching band but I was marching behind them. It is as close as I have gotten yet.

I knew we would do some marching but I wasn’t aware it would be 8km of marching. I have never run a 5k, but now I have marched an 8k. Dust was everywhere, on the road, in the air, and all over me. I could taste the dust. I had worn pants.  So it surprised me when I got home and realized that even my legs were covered in dust. I had so much dust that I thought my next child should be called Dusty.  You can see just how dusty it was in the videos below.

Finishing marching

It was dusty that day. Just a bit.

But something curious happened. We had just begun marching and hadn’t even made our first turn. We were walking along the big main road. It was then that a young girl, about 15 years old, came up and started talking to me. It was the usual ‘what is your name’ and ‘what do you do’. Then I suppose she became concerned for me because she asked me if I wanted to turn back. She said that if I was getting tired then I should turn back because we had a ways to go yet. Then she suggested I could ride in the cars following us if I needed rest.  You can see the cars in a video below.

I didn’t know if I should be appreciative or insulted. We were only about 1km into our 8km trip. She offered for me to quickly turn back and not endure the trip. I don’t think that says a lot about her view of mzungus (white people).

The Gospel Marching Band

But this got me thinking about the book of Galatians which I was preaching through at the time. In 1:6 Paul is astonished that the Galatians were “so quickly deserting” the God who called them into the grace of Christ. Just like the young girl to me, some other people had come to Galatia and tried to get the Galatian Christians to turn back from following Christ and not endure in the journey after Him.

This begins Paul’s letter into what the gospel is and why we should not add to it and thus abandon it. In Galatia, the issue was circumcision and other Jewish religious activities. They taught faith + works = salvation. In Uganda, these works have different aspects but have the same effect. They are not the gospel at all. Yet many are preaching a different gospel.

In my time at Westminster Christian Institute Uganda, I have learned of how many students have repented of believing a false gospel. I have also heard of the various things many preach in Uganda. Despite a large number of churches and counted Christians in Uganda, the need for true gospel preaching is enormous.

The gospel formula is faith + nothing = salvation + works. Many put works on the wrong side of the equation. We are saved by Christ and then empowered to do good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Yet Paul, in Galatians, is clear that nothing can be added to Jesus’ work in His death and resurrection. It is all by grace. It is easy to trust in what we do but we must lean on Jesus only. We must march forward in grace. This is a message Uganda needs and a message I need. Every single day.

This is the end of our trip.  Notice the dust and the cars behind.  And that crowd was something.

Here we are beginning our journey.

Marching in the village

Here we march off the main road and in the village.

Humble Obedience

Jesus wants us to obey to glorify Him - not ourselves

I sat in the pew, the Ugandan heat swelling inside as I listened to the sermon at New City on Sunday.  The sermon was on Matthew 23:1-12.  As I listened and read the text, some thoughts came to me about the passage.

In the text, Jesus shares His thoughts on some common practices by the religious leaders – the scribes and Pharisees.  He points out the poor actions of those many considered to be the holiest.  What does Jesus criticize and what does He want instead?

Jesus is against hypocrisy

He says the scribes and Pharisees taught good practices but “they preach, but do not practice” (v3).   Even if they teach good things, they are not doing them.  They are not obeying God.  They are disobeying.

Jesus wants obedience

Interestingly, Jesus does not dismiss the things they were teaching.  Rather, He wants everyone, including the religious leaders, to “do and observe whatever they tell you” (v3).  Just because the scribes and Pharisees don’t do what they preach does not mean they don’t preach the right things.

Jesus is against self-exaltation

He criticizes the religious leaders for doing things only in public.  The scribes and Pharisees want the recognition of being very religious.  However, they do it to exalt themselves and not to glorify God.  The religious leaders put on a show when in public so they might receive titles, honors, and recognition.  They seek value in man’s opinion and not from God.

Jesus wants humble obedience.

Jesus wants humble obedience.

We too seek to put on a show, seek the praise of others, and find value in how others view us.  We find value in how people view our job, money, car, house, family, church, or whatever.  It is hard work to show our best self.  This is true for many on Facebook, Instagram, and the like.  Facebook has its purpose, but don’t let the number of likes define you. If God says we are His, we are loved, and we are forgiven, then the opinion or likes of others do not matter.  Let us seek His opinion and not others’.

Jesus wants humble obedience

He instructs his hearers to obey for the right reasons.  They should reject the titles and honors the religious leaders seek.  Jesus wants authenticity.  If we are humble, and we value God’s opinion, then we can be free to admit when we fail, when we struggle, or when we doubt.  We run to Him because we are already weak.  Our strength comes when we trust Him (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).  We boast in Christ, not in our accomplishments or ourselves.  That is why Jesus says that the humble will be exalted by God and the one who exalts himself will be humbled.   God wants us to know our need of Him at all times.  He will give us the strength and grace to carry on in obedience.

Jesus calls us to humble, authentic living and obedience.  He calls us to recognize we need Him at all times.  It is tempting exalt ourselves and rely on the opinions of others.  But Jesus wants us to obey, not for the praise of others but because our Father in heaven already loves us where we are.

The Spirits

A biblical look at a common belief in Uganda

How does the world work? What forces guide the everyday events we see? How you answer depends on your worldview. A worldview is a set of assumptions about the fundamental workings and realities of the world. Everyone has one whether they know it or not. A worldview answers questions like: what is the purpose of life? what is good? what governs the world? and what is real?.

Different regions of the world have different worldviews. Africa is no different. While not uniform, there is a shared basic worldview in much sub-Sahara Africa, if not all of Africa.

What happens when an owl hoots in a tree at night? Is it just a hoot or is something more happening? In much of Uganda, it is believed that this is a signal of bad things including death. So, they chase owls away. Owls are viewed as evil and harbingers of death. They are not a symbol of wisdom as in the West. They are not painted on walls nor are backpacks made to look like owls.

I was with a group touring an orphanage in Uganda. We got the part of the new building where the babies are housed. There were several cribs lined up along the walls in a fairly big room with high ceilings. The walls had a nice paint job with a mural. The mural was a bunch of those cute owls with pointy ears. I speculate that it was painted by someone from somewhere other than Africa.

Basics of Spirits in Uganda

Many of the Ugandans hearing about an owl hooting in a tree assume the work of spirits. Westerners hearing the story assume it is just a bird with no spiritual significance. Africans assume the spirits are active. Westerners assume atoms, molecules, and instinct are doing their thing. Your worldview will determine your thoughts on this matter.

The outside of a small typical shrine.
Credit: not me

In Uganda like much of Africa, it is the spirits who guide and direct everything. They are behind many of the objects and events in everyday life. Hence the term animism, as the spirits animate things. African Traditional Religion (ATR) is how people relate to these spirits. The spirits are everywhere. Belief in them is ubiquitous. There is a spirit of the lake. Trees, animals, and earthquakes have different spirit influences and/or causes. The owl has a spirit that announces bad tidings.

I had a student tell me that many in his village leave some matooke behind in the field when harvesting. This is to appease the spirit that governs such things. Another student told me, in order to have a successful gathering, you must put food for the spirits out the back door with your right hand with your back to the door.

On a side note, this African animism informs my working theory about African/Ugandan art. Most if not all of the art I have seen in Uganda is not what would be called realism. It is not postmodern make of it what you will. You can tell it is a giraffe, elephant, or a person but there is something stretched or just out of place for it to be a more realistic image. This is neither good nor bad, but just the way art is done by most in Uganda.

African art is not quite realism

Most in Uganda believe in spirits. Spirits are ubiquitous. The question is not about whether there are spirits. The question is how to deal with them. A Ugandan Christian asked, in a cultural training class I was a part of when first arriving in Uganda, how to handle the spirits and new cars. He said that he knew it was wrong to take a new car to the witchdoctor so he could bless the car so it would be protected from attack by spirits on the road. This blessing usually involves sprinkling the car with blood from a chicken. His proposal was that the elders of the church should lay hands on the car and pray for protection from the spirits. Some people even have bumper stickers that read: “This car is covered by the blood of Jesus.”

Notice how he assumes the spirits are an issue. He assumes the spirits have control over cars and roads. There are many spots on various roads that many think there are spirits that can bring an accident.

But how can you get these spirits to help you instead of hurt you? Enter the witchdoctors. They have a special ability to communicate with the spirits. They can tell you what the spirit(s) want in order to be appeased. In return, they give you some request. They ply their trade at shrines. This is a large part of ATR.
When people go to the shrine, the witchdoctor asks for some sacrifice. They ask for money, chickens, or many other things . . . including humans (and while it may be uncommon, humans are still sacrificed today). The bigger the request from the spirits, the bigger the sacrifice. The witchdoctor knows the proper sacrifice because he alone can communicate with the spirits. Some come to the witchdoctor to ask the spirits to curse another person. This is done for jealousy, revenge, or a host of other reasons.

A shrine in Uganda.
Credit: matookerepublic.com

The spirits are seen as capricious. They do as they please and sometimes bless and sometimes curse. This is why you need the witchdoctor to help secure the blessing. All events are interpreted through this lens of the spirits acting. Did someone die unexpectedly? Then was it spirits? Hooting owls, earthquakes, and many other events have a spirit acting giving some message. The spirits have the power and authority to act as they please upon the earth. Many realize this and try to get the spirits to work on their behalf.

Because of the prevalence of the belief in spirits, it should not come as a surprise that many consult witchdoctors. Yet it does surprise me. Many attend church on Sunday and visit a shrine during the week. Articles discussing this can be found here, here, and here. Apparently, voting season is the time for politicians to pray to God and visit shrines in hopes of getting a favorable outcome.

Biblical Analysis of Spirits

What should we make of spirits? How does the Bible treat them? Is it ok to visit the shrine? It is important to understand the culture and evaluate it in light of Scripture.

If the spirits are as Ugandans/Africans believe, then they are made by God. They would have some authority to bring blessing and curse. They would need to be appeased to bring the desired result. It would mean that prosperous living is simply a matter of the spirits acting in your favor. We will deal with these claims below.

If we assume the Ugandan/African view of spirits then spirits are different from demons. Demons are evil forces of Satan (Matthew 12:24-29). They are only acting for evil against God and his people. Demons are always portrayed negatively and are dealt with by casting them out. Spirits, on the other hand, are capricious and, as far as I know, answer to no higher authority (though some believe in a distant creator god). They may be appeased to bring a blessing for the supplicant or a curse on someone else. They act for random reasons. I will argue that where spirits are acting, they are in fact demons. But more on that below.

I have taught the book of Genesis to theology students in Uganda several times. It is foundational for a worldview. It is the book of beginnings. In Genesis 1 we see many of the things God created. He created light, stars, land, sky, plants, animals, and humans. The spirits are not named as something God created and thus have no authority. I like to ask the students where are the spirits mentioned as being created. To be fair, angels are not mentioned as being created in Genesis 1. But they are mentioned elsewhere and mentioned as created beings. Spirits are nowhere mentioned in the Bible, at least in the form of African spirits.

As a matter of fact, it is humans that are given dominion on earth (Genesis 1:26-30). All things God created, save for the sun, moon, and stars, were put under the dominion of man. Therefore, it is not the spirits who have dominion/authority on earth. It is mankind.

The Bible must define our worldview

In Genesis 1, God gave His blessing to humanity. Mankind was to take the blessing of Eden and extend it to the whole world. After blessing mankind, God commanded them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). We see here that the dominion and blessing of God given to mankind has a global application.

Also in Genesis, Abraham is given the blessing of God (Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 22:18). There God says that all will find blessing in him and his seed. Ultimately we know this seed is Jesus Christ and blessing comes through Him (Galatians 3:14-16). So blessing is found nowhere else save in and through Christ. It cannot be found in spirits or any other entity.

So the spirits, as offered in Ugandan/African animism, are not in the Bible. Though unclean spirits are mentioned, these are the same thing as demons as Matthew 8:16, Luke 4:33, and Luke 8:29 show. What is interesting to note is the similarities between spirits and the other idols/gods in the Bible. The idols/gods are capricious, there are many of them, and you need to bring a sacrifice to the priest who is the mediator between the god and the supplicant. The other gods were an alluring draw to Israel. One of the most often repeated sins of Israel in the Old Testament is chasing after these gods.

We know these other gods are no gods at all (1 Corinthians 8:4). Yet they held sway over many. Certainly, they held some sort of power. It is my contention that their power was from demons. A couple of verses show that sacrifices to these so-called gods were sacrifices to demons:

Deuteronomy 32:17 – “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.”

1 Corinthians 10:20 – “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

A statue of Baal.
Credit: Wikipedia

So as many flock to witchdoctors to entreat the spirits to act on their behalf, they are actually flocking to demons. They are flocking to sworn enemies of God. Spirits are not neutral nor benign. In fact, they are evil and we should fight against them.

So what shall we do about this? “But what if someone curses me?” This is a real question from a real student. We need to know some biblical truth in order to deal with this issue and bring comfort to our souls.

1. We have to know God is sovereign over everything, including spirits. They cannot act independently of God. God is not powerless to stop them. God governs any power they may have. Satan himself must ask God’s permission to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31). So there is nothing spirits/demons can do that
is outside of God’s control.

2. We must know no believer can be possessed by spirits/demons. Also, the demons in the Bible come out with a word from Christ and even His apostles. There is spiritual warfare but God gives us the armor to deal with it (Ephesians 6:10-20).

3. We need to know God is working for the believer’s good (Romans 8:28). Can bad circumstances befall a believer? Most certainly, yes. Is that the work of a spirit? You just cannot know. But God is bringing good out of it.

4. You should pray for protection. You should, like Jesus did for Peter, pray that your faith not fail.

Many seek witchdoctors and the spirits in order to gain something. Mostly they seek financial or health-related gains. Christians pray for these very things from God, and they should. But the Bible makes clear that God’s ordinary working is through ‘normal’ events. That is why Paul instructs people to work so they can provide for their families and others (Ephesians 4:28). It is also why Paul tells Timothy to take wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). He recognizes that God uses ordinary means. If we think the only way we can get rich or well is through the spirits then we have missed plain biblical teaching.

What about the Ugandan Christian mentioned previously? He was wondering if he should take a new car to the elders for them to lay hands and pray for it in order to gain protection from spirits. Is that something that should be done? Since the spirits in the Ugandan sense are not real, then I would say no. But they should pray for it that the passengers be kept safe and that it would be used for God’s glory.

Conclusion

I say all this not because I don’t believe in spiritual realities we don’t see. I do, in fact, believe in them. Analyzing a big part of African society from a biblical worldview is my goal. Is there room for the spirits? Are they as ATR says they are? What is really going on?

Spirits, in the Ugandan sense, are not real entities from a biblical worldview. There are demons, however. These spiritual entities use the belief in the spirits to gain a powerful stronghold. We must seek God’s Word for guidance in dealing with demons/unclean spirits.

We need not be beholden to an ATR worldview. Instead, we need to seek a biblical worldview. We see the Bible does not discuss or acknowledge the spirits as presented in ATR. Instead, the Bible presents an ordered world with one God who is sovereign and has given mankind, not spirits, dominion and blessing. We must seek this God and live in light of His truth.

A Review of The Kingdom of Heaven is Like This – an Album of Rain for Roots

My wife, Brooke, loves Sandra McCracken and she loves her kids. So when Sandra McCracken comes out with a kid’s album she has it downloaded in 12 minutes. I am glad we did.

It turns out it wasn’t just Sandra. She is in a band with 3 other ladies called Rain for Roots. The other ladies are Ellie Holcomb, Katy Bowser, and Flo Paris. So far they have 3 albums. We have their sophomore album released in 2014. I have never reviewed an album so this is a first for me.

We have a few albums for kids that have Christian songs on them. Most of them, including a Fisher Price album, are very kitschy. The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like This has much more quality and depth. The music is well done but in a simple way appealing to children. It certainly appeals to our kids.

There are upbeat songs, like ‘Good Fruit’ and slower, more touching songs like ‘Come to Me’ and ‘Do Not Worry’. Many of the songs have an even pace with a bit of seriousness. The upbeat songs are catchy and simple but not that awful repeated mess that makes you rather listen to nails on a chalkboard. The slower songs are considered and poignant. Some of the music pokes a hole in your heart and lets the emotion come running out. I might make you tear up, not that it has happened to me. Ok, it has.

The music is great but the lyrics are what I most appreciate. The each song’s music serves the message. Biblical truth is belted out, with my kids singing along. The words are rich and deep. Best of all they come right out of the Bible with some application. The 3rd track, ‘Do Not Worry’ is a great example. Using Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-30, it speaks of trusting God because He takes care of birds and flowers. The chorus instructs, “And don’t you worry ‘cause you’re in the hands of the God who made everything.” Ellie Holcomb said she wrote the song because she was pregnant and kept worrying about the baby. She and I both now know God’s care for us better. Each song offers a similar biblical take and drives home into your heart some profound truths.

Finding Ellie Holcomb and her voice is worth the price alone. Her voice is a touch raspy and sweet. He vocals add to the significance. When she talks at the end of ‘Do Not Worry’ I get goosebumps. As Randy Jackson said of another singer, I could listen to her sing the phone book. Her music serves the words well.

There are children who sing on the album. This is done in a subtle but rich way. On ‘Come to Me’ the child is barely heard in the beginning and gets louder as the song progresses. This seems to be a way of showing the child is learning to come to Jesus for rest as the song instructs.

I love listening to the album with my kids. What’s better is that they love listening to it. Titus, my 3-year-old, loves ‘Come to Me’. He often asks to sing it at family worship time. He once had us repeat the song 5 times before I said we needed to play other songs.

This has been a wonderful album that has had many plays. It has enriched the faith of my family and helped my kids sing God’s truth into their hearts. It is an enjoyable listen. We only have the one album. That will change soon.

The Witch Doctor’s Wife

The Power of God

One of the goals of church planting is taking the gospel to places it is less known, taking it to places where people don’t know the good news of Jesus Christ. The church, most keenly through church planting, storms the gates of hell to pronounce the gospel.

In an effort to grow in my own understanding of church planting here in Uganda I spoke with some church planters. Once such person, Ben Tomugabe, told how his church is storming the gates of hell and proclaiming the gospel.

Pastor Ben is from a region outside Kampala, and planting New Jerusalem Church in an area near Kampala, Uganda. He is planting with the Presbyterian Church in Uganda denomination. He is using his home’s yard as the meeting place for the church. The plant began in early 2014 with a bible study and grew within a year (at the time I spoke to him about these events) to meeting regularly with 80 people.

After buying his home, but before the church plant, pastor Ben found out a witch doctor happens to live just across the small dirt road from his house. The witch doctor practices his craft seeking the spirits on the behalf of others. His shrine is just a stone’s throw from Ben’s house. He is married to three wives and has children.

The witch doctor is famous in the community. Many go to consult with him about various life issues. But Pastor Ben wanted a church who proclaimed Christ to be known in the community. So he started planting a church just meters away from a witch doctor.

When the services began at New Jerusalem, a few of the witch doctor’s children, including his heir, were attending the bible club for children. The mother of these children, one of the witch doctor’s three wives, was coming to know about NJ.

Meanwhile, the witch doctor told his wife that within one month something bad would happen to the church and it would no longer be there. The spirits would make sure of that. This got his wife’s attention and she watched patiently for something treacherous to befall the young church.

Nothing happened. When she realized nothing had happened or would happen she questioned the witchcraft ways in her heart. She said that God is beyond the power of the evil spirits. Seeing the impotence of the spirits in the face of the power of God, she knew that in actuality the spirits were powerless.

So she began to meet with Pastor Ben every Monday after dark. She didn’t want to meet on Sunday or during the day for fear that some of the witch doctor’s customers would see her and report to her husband. This reminds me of Nicodemus meeting with Jesus in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus came out at night presumably to meet in secret with Jesus. Why else is that detail included?

So, even though steps were taken to be secret about her meeting with the pastor, the witch doctor found out. He kicked her out and she is no longer his wife. She was forced to leave her home and her children as he has kept them.

Pastor Ben has helped her and prayed for her. He helped her find her sister, who is a Christian, and helped her get there. She is currently living with her sister. She has experienced tragedy and Christ is loving her through Pastor Ben and her sister.

This event demonstrates the seriousness of witchcraft in Uganda. But it also demonstrates the power of God over the spirits. The witch doctor’s wife saw this plainly. More churches are needed to help people see God as the true power. He alone can save and provide the true comfort people seek in Uganda and around the world.

When asked what could help church planting efforts in Uganda, Pastor Ben said that having some outsiders, specifically Americans stand with him would be helpful. I don’t know what this entails but it at least includes praying for Ben and others gospel proclaiming planting churches in Uganda. Let us do that today.

A Review of The Search for God and Guinness by Steven Mansfield

The Search for God and Guinness is about God and beer. Some might find combining these two things offensive. But the way author Steven Mansfield brings these two topics together is refreshing, much like a cold beverage on a warm day.

Tracing the roots of the founding and ongoing life of the Guinness beer brand and company, the book looks at how Arthur Guinness’ faith enabled him to be a great brewer and a great humanitarian. At its core, this book is about joining faith and work together into a biblical bond.

The first chapter on the history of beer is fascinating in itself. While some historical guesswork goes on, this does not take away from some of the more certain aspects of the history of beer. It has been around for ages and the author postulates that beer is responsible for bringing about the first cities. Brew plays a big role in ancient civilizations, modern ones, and even biblical ones.

Mansfield’s introduction to his personal story of beer is helpful. He dispels the myth that drinking is bad and that one must drink to get drunk. Rather he shares how he didn’t like the taste of beer but looked in on the beer culture like a kid looks into a candy store. He saw his father share beers with friends, at weddings, funerals, and various other life functions. He says beer is the marker of life and denotes a sharing of friendship and joy with others.

The story of Arthur Guinness and his successors should be read by businesses, especially Christians in business. They were men who understood how to take care of employees and utilize a righteous use of wealth. One of Arthur’s descendants was given 5 million pounds as a wedding gift in the early 20th century. He promptly moved himself and his wife into the slums of Dublin, Ireland where they lived for 7 years. This was a shock to the nobility of Dublin and a welcome gesture by the poor. Mansfield is keen to point out this can be traced to the faith and life of Arthur.

The manner in which Arthur Guinness and those who followed him took care of their employees and sought to make a quality product is something to be emulated. They provided doctors, further education, wartime pay, above average pay, and many more benefits that only grew with time.

This book is a quick and enjoyable read and yet is sturdy enough to challenge all. Business people should read this book to glean the moral side of business and the righteous use of wealth. Beer lovers should read this book for the history of beer and the story of how one man made quite possibly the most famous beer in the world. Christians should read this book to understand how work is holy and how faith and work ought to be integrated. Basically, everyone should read this book – and I might recommend doing it with a pint of Guinness in hand.

The Civil War Pastor

Patrick is an example of faithfulness in hard circumstances

Last week I blogged about remaining faithful in hard circumstances like Joseph did. This week I met a man who illustrated this so well.

South Sudan, as you know, is undergoing a civil war. Many areas are not safe and there is no end in sight. There are over 1 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many have fled to Uganda. Many others have fled to UNMISS camps within South Sudan. These camps provide safety from bullets but do not provide food or medicine.

Peter and I in Kampala. Thumbs Up!!!!

I got to meet with Patrick, a South Sudanese pastor. We met for dinner as he was in Kampala at a conference discussing peace in South Sudan. We dined at KFC. Why KFC? It was the only thing I knew was close by his conference.

Patrick pastors two churches in Juba and is the General Secretary of the Synod of the Sudanese Reformed Church. He has a wife and 4 children. His wife and 2 children are safe in Kenya, another child is studying in Egypt, and the last is studying in the Ukraine. He alone remains in Juba serving his church and his people.

He told me he was almost killed three times. He praises God that he was able to escape from each incident. He also told me that one church was burned down and that 27 people of that church were killed. Some of these on purpose and some in the crossfire.

The Sudanese Reformed Church denomination is small by some measures in having 16 congregations. But they are big in faithfulness.

How do they respond to the crisis? With so many in the UNMISS camps, they have started 18 small groups to minister to the people in the camps. Because of the great number of IDPs they have begun a school, with grades K-3 currently, to serve the needs of the children.

What was fascinating is his ask. He asked for someone to watch their growth and give advice. He asked for a more mature body to be a mentor to their small group. He asked for assistance in the area of leadership development. He asked for prayer. He asked for help in progressing gospel work in South Sudan. He wants to see Christ’s kingdom expand in the face of war, famine, and many other hardships. He is being faithful.

I was both encouraged and challenged. Certainly we can pray for him and his church. May God bless their efforts and extend His kingdom in South Sudan. May South Sudan know the peace of Christ.

Sudanese Reformed Church by the numbers

16Congregations
18Small Groups in UNMISS camps
12Ordained Pastors
18Evangelists
16Ruling Elders
8Deacons
6,000Members

Life in the Pit

****Spoiler alert****

Joseph organizes a nation and saves the world from famine through a clever food program.

****Spoiler alert over*****

Joseph saves the world from famine and reunites with his brothers.

How many of you would want to join Joseph in that operation?  I know it sounds very worthwhile. If you only knew the ending you might just sign up for the assignment.

Save the world?  Sign me up.  I am totally in . . . the pit that is.

But if you knew how Joseph got to that place would you sign up to join him?  He was hated by his brothers, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery after they decided not to kill him, taken to a foreign land to serve as a slave, falsely accused of rape, thrown into prison, and betrayed and left there 2 years longer than necessary.

Count me out.  No wait, I am supposed to say, “Whatever your will, Lord.”  Honestly, it doesn’t sound fun.  Thankfully, I have not been called to this (“Lord, please don’t call me to this.”).  But there are a few things (or it could read – But there are at least 3 things…) we can learn from Joseph’s story that will help us whatever God has called us to do.

  1. God’s purposes are accomplished through difficulty

To say Joseph had it hard is an understatement.  Any one of the things that happened to him would be enough by itself.  Take them all together and whoa…that is a lot.

God had a purpose in all of it.  Genesis makes clear that God had a purpose for Joseph.  Genesis 45:4-8 says God sent Joseph into Egypt.  Genesis 50:20 says that God meant for all of this to happen to Joseph.  Why?  Because he wanted to save many people.  He means to bring blessing to the nations as He promised Abraham.

That God intends to save through turmoil is a picture of Genesis 3:15.  This verse states that one would come to rescue mankind from the work of the serpent at great cost to himself.   Now we can see the parallels to Christ.  He came and was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).  God had a plan to save many through the suffering of Christ.  The blessing of the nations promised to Abraham has come to fulfillment.  However, the salvation won by Christ does not come without the suffering.

God can use an unwanted foreign slave to bring about His purposes.

Wonderful.  Jesus suffered so I don’t have to.  Right?  Well yes and no.  Certainly the ultimate suffering we avoid because of Christ.  But today, before He returns, we still experience suffering.  Does God have a plan?  Most certainly.

Romans 8:28 tells us “that for those who love God all things work together for good.”  God is in the business of taking everything that happens to us, including our own suffering, and working it for good.  We must define this good because many, especially in Africa, twist what this good means.  They teach that God is out to make us healthy and wealthy this very day.

The good God has for us is defined by the next verse.  It is that we might be “conformed to the image of his Son.”  God wants to make us more like Christ every day and works all things to that end.  He wants to build our character (1 Peter 2:21), our hope (2 Thessalonians 2:16), our joy (Hebrews 12:2), our peace (John 14:27), and our love (John 13:34), among many other things.

We should pray that our suffering ends.  But that is not our only prayer.  We should pray for God to work his purposes in our lives through any suffering we endure.

Going through great difficulty to accomplish saving the world shows us that. . .

  1. God is sovereign in salvation

If you want to win a championship, you pick the best players.  Much money is spent analyzing NFL prospects for the draft so they can pick the best players.  The school playground is example enough to know the best players are picked first.

God doesn’t operate by normal playground rules.

You don’t pick the worst players to win championships.  That is why I am not in the NFL.  Who would pick an unwanted brother serving as a slave in a foreign land?  Not me.  But God picks such an unlikely person to bring about His salvation.

But why does God pick the unlikely Joseph?  It is to show He is sovereign in salvation.  God is in control and will bring it about.  It depends not on any person (Romans 9:16).  It does not depend on good works.  It is 100% from God.

God chose to use Joseph to show His power.  He wants to show that He alone can bring about salvation.  The salvation of many people through the food program of Joseph points us to how Christ brought salvation.  People thought Jesus wasn’t the man for the job (John 1:46).  People thought dying wasn’t the way forward (Mark 8:31-33).  But God brought salvation and demonstrated His power through the resurrection (Romans 1:4-5).

This brings us great hope because our salvation does not depend on us.  It depends on God.  We are to believe in Christ.  We are not to earn salvation in any way.  We simply trust in God who brought about salvation.

What God wants from us is. . .

  1. We should be faithful even in hard circumstances

The one thing Joseph did was to be faithful.  He had the opportunity to have an affair.  Potiphar’s wife pursued him to do just this.  Yet he refused.  He fled when she tried to force the issue.

The next part blows my mind.  Joseph is rewarded for his faithfulness by being thrown in prison.  Then he uses his God-given gift to interpret dreams.  His reward?  To be left in prison for two more years.

Yet the whole time he was faithful.  He was faithful to Potiphar’s dealings.  He brought great increase to Potiphar.  He was faithful to the prison guard as he was given responsibilities in the prison.

We know that God was faithful to Joseph.  He was keeping the covenant He made with Joseph’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father.  God promised to be with Abraham (Genesis 21:22), Isaac (Genesis 26:3), and Jacob (Genesis 28:15).  Genesis 39:2 makes this plain by saying God was with Joseph.

Can God be with Joseph (or us) in hard circumstances?  Is God there?  He is and He is accomplishing His purposes. We tend to think God is absent in the hard circumstances.  But He is there keeping His promises.  Hard circumstances are not a sign that God is not with us.

Being in the pit, like Joseph, is not a sign that God doesn’t care for you.  It is a sign that God has something better for you.  As seen above, that something is Christ-likeness.

Christ has promised to be with us.  The Great Commission ends with a great promise.  That promise is that Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the age.  Ah, what comfort to us and the apostles who first heard it.  They certainly would face many hard circumstances.  Their part was to remain faithful to Christ, which they did.

There are many times life seems hard, unfair, or difficult.  Our job is to believe God and remain faithful.  We may be tempted to think it doesn’t matter, that this situation is too hard.  But our faithfulness does matter.  Our faithfulness is better than much gold (Psalm 119:72).

There are no little circumstances, only little faithfulness.  We must realize, that we are responsible for responding to God with faithfulness, even in hard circumstances.  We know it is worth remaining faithful for we have a heavenly reward (Romans 8:18).

Conclusion

A pastor I know likes to say that you are either going into a hard circumstance, in one, or coming out of one.  Life is hard.  But God is good and has good things for us, our growth in Christ.  He often uses hard circumstances to bring them about.  He is sovereign and faithful through it all asking us to trust Him.  Let us respond with faithfulness even though it may seem hard.

Vehicular Theology

It happened once near my house in Uganda.  I was driving and saw a car with a bible verse on its vanity license plate.  It was a very nice car, a recent model Land Rover Discovery in a forest green color.  Beyond a nice and functional ride, this car also serves as a status symbol.  The license plate displayed “Eph 3 20” for all Uganda to see.

A typical Ugandan license plate is yellow with black letters stamped into it.  But it is not uncommon to see vanity plates in Uganda.  They are typically on nicer cars.  You can spot them because they have green letters instead of black ones.

The cost of these plates has been a mystery I have yet to fully untangle.  I have been told they cost $2,000 USD.  I have been told that they cost some considerable amount each month.  The only commonality is the fact that they are much more expensive than a typical license plate.

Poor theology cruises the streets

Poor theology cruises the streets

This particular plate had me upset.  It was common prosperity gospel (all too common in Uganda as with much of the world) stamped onto the owner’s car declaring God has blessed him with such a nice car.  To be clear, I take no issue with the niceness of the car or of putting bible verses on vanity plates.  I take issue with the false message this particular car displayed.

I saw this car and its plate the one time.  Then I saw it again and then a third time.  I had to get a picture.  But driving and being able to get a picture of a passing vehicle is not easy or recommended.  Then one day my dreams came true, it was parked in the same parking lot I was.  I whipped out my phone and snapped a picture.

Why do I take issue with this car?  Its message isn’t biblical.  Sure it has a bible verse on it but what it communicates distorts the teaching of that passage.

What does Ephesians 3:20 say?  “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.”  This vehicle communicates that this car is the owner’s because God can do far more abundantly than all he could ask or imagine.  But is this the point of the text?  Is his material wellbeing (i.e. prosperity) what the passage is discussing?

This passage is ascribing praise to God for the wonders of the salvation He provides in Christ.  The context tells us this.  In Ephesians 3:8, what is preached are the unsearchable riches of Christ.  It is Paul’s prayer in verses 16-19 of chapter 3 that his readers would understand just how amazing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.  Notice the ‘unsearchable’ and ‘surpassing knowledge’ aspect.  God’s work is so wonderful and far above human understanding and even expectation that prayer should be made to understand it.

Then in our verse Paul moves into praising God for doing things that are so amazing we dare not call them true save for the fact God has revealed them as true.  This salvation in Christ, forgiveness and freedom from sin, is amazing.  It is so wonderful.  Too often we take it for granted.  We pass by it.  But Paul here is pausing to praise God for providing redemption in Christ.  We need to stop and ponder the salvation God has brought.

To then apply this to something comparatively worthless as a nice car is too much.  As C.S. Lewis and John Piper have said, the car owner’s desires are not too big but too small – he is too easily satisfied.  It tremendously devalues what God has done.

So yes, I take issue with this car and its message.

Should we thank God for everything He gives us?  Yes.  From the wonder of salvation to the wonder bread, from being called a child of God to phones to call others.  But this is not the verse to do it.  The owner has taken something unsearchable and reduced it to something far less.

This vehicle highlights thinking that is far too common in Uganda and throughout the world.  That is the expectation of temporal and material blessings.  It is not God’s will that every believer should be rich.  God has promised to take care of material needs, not to make every Christian financially wealthy.  The testimony of Christ and His apostles is enough to show that.  What He has promised is eternal life to all who believe in Christ.  What He has promised is forgiveness, adoption, and the Holy Spirit to power our love of others.  Those are the things we should seek and expect from God.

We need to expect great things from God, greater and more beyond knowledge than a Land Rover Discovery.

 

Here is a video of something fun on the roads in Kampala:

Is Genesis 3:15 the Best Verse in the Bible?

Some time ago I was speaking with another pastor and he said he was preaching on the best verse in the Bible.  Having just finished teaching a class on Genesis in Uganda I asked if it was Genesis 3:15.  That’s not what he had in mind but said that it was a good one.  Ranking Bible verses would prove a daunting and tricky task.  It really cannot be done.  However, if one did rank them I would submit Genesis 3:15 for consideration as the best.

Why do I think so highly of this verse?  On the first reading, it is cryptic and usually glossed over.  That’s how I treated it until I learned better.  Gen 3:15 is a great verse because 1) the context brings great hope, 2) it is programmatic of the rest of the Bible, & 3) God makes a promise that we know has been fulfilled.

The ContextGenesis 315 [mobile-1262x1262]

In Genesis 1 & 2 God has created the world very good.  He has made Adam and Eve, male and female in His image.  God has given them food to eat and a garden to live in and the noble task of spreading the blessings of Eden to the rest of the world.  He dwells among them.  Life is good.

Yet Adam and Eve quickly throw it all away in order to be like God.  It only takes until chapter 3 where we read about their sin.  They were aware of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.  They were aware of the consequences should they disobey God and eat of the fruit.  Yet they were deceived by the serpent and ate anyways.

When God visits them in the garden He confronts their rebellion against Him.  He begins with the serpent and gives him a curse.  Then God moves on and tells Adam and Eve what curses come because of their sin.  It is important to note that God doesn’t curse them directly.  Rather the pain of giving birth is increased and the ground is cursed.

See we have already skipped over Gen 3:15.  It is here, in the midst of the curses, while cursing the serpent that we read: “I (God) will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Here God promises that he will start a war between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent.  God is promising to deal with the sin Adam and Eve have just brought into the world.  It will be the battle, at the injury of the offspring, which will eliminate the serpent and his work.  It is hope in the midst of great trouble.  Here, in the middle of the curse, is the promise to make right what has gone wrong.  This is what we call grace.

It was hope for Adam and Eve and it is hope for us.  Though we sin and take for granted all God has given us, we know that there stands one who has dealt with our sin on the cross.  It is a message of grace for us.  Just like Adam and Eve, we need faith on the promised one, Jesus Christ.

The Program

If you have ever wondered what the Bible is all about, let Genesis 3:15 be the guide.  Humanity has sinned and God will deal with that sin through a chosen offspring.  The Old Testament (OT) looks forward to the work of the promised offspring.  The New Testament (NT) looks backward to the work of the promised offspring.

The search for the promised offspring begins in Genesis 4:1 when Eve has Cain and says, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”  The text is making it plain that she is looking for this promised one.  The search continues in Genesis 5:29 when Noah is born and his father, Lamech, says of him, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”

Neither one was the promised offspring.  But the search has begun.  Listen to Lamech’s words and how they point to the fact that the promised one will end the curse brought on by sin.  Jesus is that promised offspring.  But the whole OT looks forward to His coming.  Jesus says as much in Luke 24:27.

The NT looks backward to this promise and speaks of Jesus’ work in these terms.  Romans 16:20 and Hebrews 2:14-15 provide discussion of Jesus defeating the serpent.  Revelation 20:1-3, 10 also discusses the final fate of the serpent – that is Satan.  He is defeated by Jesus.

Simeon is one who got this through the power of the Holy Spirit.  In Luke 2 he sees Jesus as a baby and “took him up in his arms” and says he can depart in peace because “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  God’s salvation is in the form of the person Jesus Christ who which He first promised in Genesis 3:15.  The Gospel of Luke also points to this fact by giving the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam – and thus also Eve.

Theologians call Genesis 3:15 the protoeuangelion which simply means the first gospel.  This text is the gospel in seed form.  But it is the promise of good news for humanity through the suffering of the seed of the woman.  Redemption is promised through the act of the seed.  Far from the OT being ignorant of grace and Christ’s redemption, these topics appear here first and are clarified in the NT.

The program of the whole Bible is that one will come to deal with sin and the curse.  The OT looks forward to it and the NT looks back to it.  Today we look back to Jesus’ work and trust it alone as the hope for our sin and to deal with the problems brought on by the first sin as well as our own.  The cure for the curse is Christ’s work.  Period.  The cure is not man’s obedience (as is commonly thought & taught).

The Promise

We see by God’s promise, and its subsequent fulfillment in Christ, that nothing can stop God from bringing this about.  In the OT there are bad people, kings, and deeds.  There are world powers who oppress Isreal, unfaithful Israel who is exiled, and the destruction of the temple.  Even the good guys do some terrible things – like David and Bathsheba as just one example.  In the NT the religious leaders work against Jesus.  Even the disciples try to stop Jesus from accomplishing His mission.  However, nothing stops God from delivering on His promise.  Nothing.

Christ crushed the head of the serpent on the cross

Christ crushed the head of the serpent on the cross

At the end of the 3rd chapter of Genesis, we have a beautiful scene of God showing grace and mercy to Adam and Eve.  These are first fruits of the work to come.  They were naked and had no shame but because of their sin they realized their nakedness and were ashamed.  We might expect God to say they should deal with the mess they have made.  Yet he doesn’t do that.  Instead, he fashions a loincloth of animal skin to cover the nakedness and shame brought on by their own sin.

God is beginning to point to the work of Christ from the very beginning.  He is showing a tender love that meets people where they are.  He is dealing with sin and its effects in a real way but not in a permanent way.  God knows that loin cloths don’t save people.  They do cover nakedness and shame and point to Jesus who will remove shame permanently.

The specifics of the promise also point to the way in which the offspring will bring about redemption.  God says that the serpent will bruise the offspring’s (as we know now that is Christ) heel and that the offspring will bruise the serpent’s head.  So at great cost to himself – bruising of his heel, the offspring will achieve total victory over the serpent – bruising his head.  Christ fulfills this by dying on the cross to completely and totally save people from their sins.

In Matthew 1:21 we learn why Jesus’ name is Jesus.  It is because He will save His people from their sins.  He came to deal with sin and its effects.  When Adam and Eve sin, the first promise God makes is to deal with that sin through an offspring.  Sin is the fundamental problem in our world today.  Thus Jesus is the fundamental solution to that problem.  We won’t know the full and final effects of that until Jesus returns.  Now we have a wonderful foretaste.

That is why we endure in this life.  We know that the serpent is still around deceiving people.  The Bible tells his ultimate fate is defeat – Rev 20:1-3, 10.  But even now Jesus provides the forgiveness for sin and the power to overcome sin.  We look to him as the saints of old did and rest in Him for deliverance in this life and the next– Hebrews 12:1-3.  If we want hope, the only place to turn is God’s promise.

Conclusion

Genesis 3:15 is a theologically packed verse.  Its context, sin, provides the backdrop to the redemption Christ brings.  Its message helps read the Bible in the right light.  It teaches us that the redemption comes through Christ’s work and not though humanity’s obedience. Its promise is fulfilled and gives hope to endure.  Is it the best verse in the Bible?  I don’t know.  But it sure is a great one.