This semester has gone by incredibly quickly. It is so hard to believe that four months of my life has now passed and not only passed, but passed while simply living life in Uganda. It is hard to believe that in 6 days I have to take myself and my bags and walk away from my home here and from people that I love, only return to those that love me on the other side of the world. It has been amazing to take time to read back through my blogs, my journal and all of my thoughtful assignments written for Faith and Action class and reflect on where I started four months ago and where God has now brought me along with everything that has occurred all along the way that has affected the growth, joy, and pain that I have experienced here. And while reading and thinking, I think the common theme that I found was how I really am not in control, but rather God is and He has prearranged everything happening in my life to provoke growth in me in different ways. And that’s not all. I realized how far beyond me my God is. Even my intense experience of living cross-culturally for four months is so tiny in His eyes as He looks upon the whole world and sees every heart and life. Nevertheless, my presence and experience here still matters to Him. It continues to blow my mind. At one point I felt my lack of control was a bad thing, bound to have a sore effect on me. As Kevin DeYoung says in his book Just Do Something,
“They refuse to make a decision without all the facts and an almost complete assurance that everything will turn out fine” (DeYoung 28-29).
I’d like to call that a lack of faith and peace at heart. The mere decision of coming to Uganda counteracted that statement, but once I was here, I felt the need for control and knowledge again. Now, I am feeling at peace with it as I have seen God’s hand take every occurrence, both the good and the bad, and mold me through it.
One of the first things this semester that left me feeling as if I wasn’t handling life properly and was completely losing control was the issue of stereotypes. Even that first day walking down the streets of Mukono, being called out at: “Mzungu! Mzungu!” and having all eyes on us, left me knowing that I wasn’t going to get to completely blend in. While I was sitting here complaining about stereotypes that I felt Ugandans had formed for mzungus and even forming my own stereotypes about Ugandan men, I was also verbally disciplining family, friends, and community back home that had implied some of their African stereotypes when talking to me on the phone or email. In realizing this, I wrote in my journal on September 9th, “Stereotypes has become a bitter word on my tongue, a bitter, bitter word.” Then, I had to come clean in confession of my hypocritical attitude, and publicly through my blog. This was a relinquishment of control to be sure. In regards to my developing stereotype of Ugandan males, I wrote on October 9th,
“I have to let God work on me, not make Him work on them. And I just cannot let new stereotypes build while living in the midst of Ugandans while I am preaching against African stereotypes occurring back home…This week I am choosing to take every morning and lay my developing stereotypes about Ugandan males at the feet of Jesus, asking Him to give me strength to set it aside and treat everyone like He would have treated them”.
Ever since letting go of my own thoughts and assumptions and giving that to God, many of those strong opinions went away and opened the door to less stress and more joy in both personal and casual relationships.
It’s not that I can only think of God as a Western god, adhering to American culture in every which way. It’s not that I couldn’t imagine God being sovereign over the lives of Ugandan Christians as well as American Christians. It’s just that it took some effort on my part to be able to honor and respect the way that the Lord is worshipped, prayed to, spoken of here in Uganda. There are some things I found harder to conform to. In fact, I chose not to conform with many things. I remember at one point writing a letter to the Lord in my journal, expressing my need to worship Him, but feeling lacking because of the irregular attendance of church and even spiritual family setting. I wrote,
“Lord, I really need to have my heart opened to different ways of worshipping you rather than just the ways that appeal to my personality and senses.”
My Mom made a good point in one of her emails to me, saying how many followers of the Lord had to worship Him from prison cells with nothing but the spirit to “use” as a resource. They didn’t get their way in what kind of music or sanctuary setting they felt most comfortable in. I knew after reading her words, that this was going to be a challenge for me as I was, once again, not in control. And I’ll admit, I haven’t faithfully pursued this challenge. I’ve actually avoided it somewhat, by not going to church. My Ugandan Mama doesn’t push the issue, so I just let it slip under the table for the most part.
But for some time, this issue left me feeling rather discontented. Not only did I feel bad about simply not going to church, but I felt as if my lack of designated worship time was creating some sort of barrier between the Lord and myself. It was as if I had complete control over what the Lord did in my life and how He spoke to me and if I didn’t give Him my time in the preconceived ways I felt were right, He was going to let me drift away and leave me be. It was at this point in time that I wrote down in my journal these two verses: Psalm 139: 7, saying “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” and Philippians 2:13- “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” While I was losing control of life situations, certain relationships that weren’t going exactly the way I had imagined them, and even how the Lord and I were “supposed” to connect, the God had His master plan in pending and there was truly nothing going wrong. A certain book that a friend gave me before I left is called Calm My Anxious Heart, by Linda Dillow. Contentment is a key issue that Dillow writes about and one simple phrase of hers left me thinking:
“And when you do learn the secret of contentment, you will see God in a new way”. (Dillow).
A large part of being content was being willing to let go of the need to understand and control every situation and let the Lord work “according to His good purpose”. Often times, that good purpose of His is not in line with what we see as a good purpose to our life situations. But inevitably, the Lord’s purpose is better. And whether or not we are pursuing His will or purpose, we cannot flee from Him and He will be having His way. There is no reason not to be content in that. In fact, being content in that idea allowed my mind to see the Lord as that much more sovereign and in control than I am…very beyond me, my capabilities, my plans.
By October 28th, a certain contentment in letting the Lord have His way in me and not being in control had set in. We were on our way back from rural homestays, spending those last two days of the trip at Sipi Falls. In reflection, I wrote:
“Lord, to this day here in Uganda, I do not know exactly why you brought me here. But here is what I do know…you have a purpose in all and there are specific reasons as to why I am here experiencing every relationship and cultural encounter that I am. Even when I don’t understand why I am where I am at right now, it’s truly amazing that you know all of these things in advance.”
Much of this realization and sense of comfort was centered around having those certain days when I honestly did not know what I was doing here. Academically, I often felt what I was doing was pointless. Socially, some days were better than others. Spiritually, who knew what effects I was or was not having on those around me. Some days I realized I had tried to take back control and had to re-give it to the Lord. I wanted to feel valued here, as if my presence was worth something very special to someone. Donald Miller in his book Searching For God Knows What, compares this need for value with oneself and many others being in a lifeboat and if one doesn’t get thrown over, the boat is going to sink and everyone is going to die. Thus, the crowd on the boat has to decide whose life is least valuable:
“I feel like I am in a lifeboat trying to get other people to say I am important and valued, and even when they do, it feels as though their opinion isn’t strong enough to give me the feeling I need…” (Miller 109).
What was I worth to culture, to USP, to UCU, to my Ugandan family? Was I worth anything? Should I even need to feel like I am worth anything or is that me just needing control once again?
Something else hit me. There is very little by which I get to be identified by in the eyes of everyone around me. What they know about me and my life is very limited. On November 4th, I wrote in my journal: “I don’t get to be defined based on what music I listen to, how I sing or play piano, how I cook, and all other things that make me who I am at home in America. I realized that I greatly long to reveal those things to those I have been investing in and be that much more valued in return.” The fact of the matter is that I am, once again, not grasping very much control in the situations where people decide in their minds who I am. They get to judge by my actions and whatever else they can directly see in me, but not by anything that I get to deliberately display to them. Integrated in with the issue of identity and worrying about how I am being seen by others is the issue of displacement. By being okay with being displaced, I can come to terms with the fact that I am not entitled to the same means of identifying myself as I would be in my own comfort zone…and that’s actually okay. In his book Compassion, Henry Nouwen says, “Once we begin to experience our actual physical, mental, and emotional displacements as forms of discipleship and start to accept them in obedience, we become less defensive and no longer need to hide our pains and frustrations.” (Nouwen 71) Pain and frustration come with the territory, but contentment with the situation does not; that is why we have to work toward being content with that which comes with displacement and lack of identifying ourselves just as we might wish. It’s no longer in our control, why try to fight it?
So, the ends justify the means, right? During this time of reflection, I have pondered to myself what exactly I am going to do with all this. How am I going to benefit from all this learning once I return back home to America? The repetitive realization that we lack control over all situations that involve us is good enough advice to give to anyone in passing. However, how this will most significantly affect me will begin with my relationship with Muzungu…the ultimate situation here in Uganda in which I experienced everything not landing within my agenda, plans or control. Not only was I not planning on being in a relationship for a long while back in the states, but I had no desire whatsoever to begin a relationship here in Uganda. But push came to shove, and I found myself in a relationship with a wonderful young man…one that, after I leave, I may not see again for years. How much control does it actually look like I have over this situation? But the Lord obviously had it in His agenda as He brought us both together with a small amount of effort on each of our parts. What in the world am I supposed to do with this relationship once returning back home to the states where I will be interrogated and my good judgment will be questioned? I have an answer to that: I will live within the contentment and releasing of control that I had to adopt for combatting stereotypes, for dealing with identity and displacement, for wondering how well I was worshipping my Lord, and for trying so hard to understand why everything was happening to me the way that it was. The Lord worked according to His good purpose in all these issues throughout the semester and He will continue to do so as I depart back to the states, turning a see-each-other-daily relationship into a cross-continental one.
Doesn’t it come down to faith? Faith is believing what you cannot see…this includes the future. Much of this semester came down to having a certain issue hit me smack in the face and having no idea how to deal with it or how it would play out in the near and far future. Those were the moments when I had to release control and trust the Lord to work it out His way, having faith that what He was going to do with me was better than anything I could plan out. I feel like this is a lesson that will occur and reoccur throughout the remainder of my life. As self-focused human beings, don’t we constantly need reminders that we aren’t the ones ultimately in control? There are so many things up in the air in my life as I return back home. These things include where I will live next semester, if I will get a job, if I will make it onto the ministry team, if I’ll get the summer job that I’ve applied for for three years straight, how my family will take my cross-continental relationship, and the like. But these are not all things that I can simply sit down at my desk, give myself time to think about them and then figure them out. They are perfect practice grounds, in fact, for releasing my need for control and realizing (once again) that God is far beyond my own agenda and plans and that He will put in my path what He so desires for me. While integrating that belief, I want to be careful to still be intentional in my decisions and relationships and constantly move forward in life rather than leaning back and letting the Lord do it all for me. That would be missing the point. I once said in a critical insight,
“ I am curious how much I will be able to bring this newly-grasped attitude back with me to America. I only pray that all I have learned will stay in my heart so that I may glorify the Lord through it.”
That is truly my prayer…that I may benefit from all that I have learned this semester and always be able to reflect back on these times as an example to myself on how to let go of my need for control and understand that no matter what I do or don’t do, the Lord has His hands holding me and molding me all along the way.