Monday, 12 February 2007

Impressions of Uganda

Churchill called Uganda ‘the Pearl of Africa’ for its beauty and soft fertility. I think ‘emerald’ might be a good description as the whole country is amazingly green. Everywhere I travelled were banana trees. This is a type of green banana that has to be cooked and provides 70% of Uganda’s staple diet (‘mutoke’). Greener than Surrey with soil redder than Devon. A rich countryside, though probably most of the people don’t appreciate it as they have to work so hard to survive. Only western tourists have time to gaze admiringly.

The friendliness and sense of welcome. It’s hard to avoid clichés, but every Ugandan I met, with the possible exception of the immigration officers, smiled and shook my hand. The African handshake – grasping the palm then the thumb then the palm again. Children everywhere call out “How are you?”, and when you ask them in return they reply, “Fine!” Even the smallest child in ragged clothes can call out this greeting. Children hanging onto my hands: I had four or five on each hand at one point in the Acholi Quarter of Kasese where there are many street children – families displaced by the fighting in the north, and previously by rebels from Congo. The welcome extended to ‘honourable guests’ is almost embarrassing, but perhaps we don’t give our own visitors and guests here enough respect sometimes.

Mobile phones! Since 2000 when I visited Kenya mobile phones have spread rapidly, leapfrogging our landline technology to establish almost universal mobile network coverage. Now every street has kiosks selling top-up time. It made keeping in touch with home much easier, especially with the sad news of Rob Howell’s death.

Joyful worship. Again almost a cliché, but you can only feel joy and gladness when you hear Africans singing their praises to God. Harmonising is spontaneous and natural, clapping and swaying can’t be avoided.

As a clergyman I was asked and expected to ‘give a word’ wherever I went. The Sunday I arrived in Kasese I spoke twice at Basecamp Church, and then in a government prison. I led a prayer asking for the Holy Spirit to come at the end of an Alpha session in another remand prison. It was moving to see many of these poor men being touched by God. With little comfort, hope or dignity it is only God that could touch them in their hearts. I preached about the prodigal son and the everlasting love and mercy of God who welcomes the prodigal whatever he might have done. In church I spoke briefly about Jesus calling us not servants but friends. Much African Christianity can be rather moralistic and work-based, and I felt that people also needed to hear that God calls them his friends, his children; that Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters.

Children everywhere, often ragged unwashed street children yet still managing to smile. I think that the visit of white people (‘muzungus’) just reminded them they are not forgotten. On the plane from Amsterdam to London I suddenly experienced a wave of emotion that made me weep for these dear children as I considered the material wealth I was coming back to and the material poverty that they live in. I was reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter: “Feed my lambs…take care of my sheep.” Also his words teaching us that the way we show we love Him is by loving others.

But there is hope and people’s lives are being helped through schemes such as Five Talents and other micro-finance projects. FT Uganda helps the ‘active poor’ with small loans (about £30). It may not sound much to us but it could help a baker buy better quality flour, so sell his bread at a better price and employ other men. It could help a lady hire labourers to plant out a field of onion seedlings now in order to sell them later at a profit of about £1200 and thus pay for her children to go to school. It could help a lady who owns a cow to buy medical treatments for it and make a living selling milk. Occasionally she hires a bull to breed with the cow and sells the resulting calf.

The importance of ex-patriot company for western missionaries – a party and karaoke evening for a group of Emmanuel International workers in Kampala.

The cold grey skies of England with their cold grey drizzle are such a contrast to Uganda, but it is the same God who is Father of us all; the same Lord Jesus who calls us his brothers and sisters; the same Holy Spirit who touches our hearts with God’s love and empowers us to serve him. Though we are 3000 miles away we are joined through the love of God, and when you have been to Africa once you feel joined for ever. I can begin to understand why David Livingstone had his heart buried in Africa when he died. It’s said that when you have been there you can take a person out of Africa, but you can’t take Africa out of the person.

I shall be meeting with Alan and Cheryl Parrett and others in early March to discuss the possibilities for a team going with EI from St John’s. I shall be first on the waiting list. Who will come and join me?

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Podcast prayer

For those of you into podcasting, or even just have a PC with broadband here is a great way to start the day - at home or on the way to work. I've discovered a website called developed by the British Jesuits. Each day, Monday to Friday, in about 13 minutes it combines music, scripture and some questions for reflection. I'm finding that the scripture passage stays with me during the day, and I can come back to it at different times and hear God speaking to me through his word.

Check it out!

Monday, 29 January 2007

A creative week

Now I've finished the first draft of the music for the communion service and am waiting to show it to someone for their comments. I found that the ideas flowed quickly after my retreat in North Wales, which shows that to create you need to listen first in the quietness.

I really appreciated the quiet chapels at St Beuno's in which I could simply enjoy the presence of God. I would really love to make our own church building available for people in the community as a place for quiet reflection and prayer - there is so little space for quietness in our lives today. I think this could be a great gift to the community and I'm sure the practical difficulties of balancing openness with security could be surmounted if there was the will to do it.

To blow away any 'cobwebs' I enjoyed several walks on Farthing Down, and the woods. We are so fortunate to live in such a beautiful place.

So now I've been preparing for a workshop on 'Music in Worship' for the Croydon area Clergy Conference in Lille, the day after I get back from Uganda. Would you believe it's cheaper and quicker to hold this conference in Lille than in the UK!

I fly out to Uganda on Friday morning early. A 6.30 am flight to Amsterdam, then on to Entebbe, arriving there about 9.30 pm. The aim is to visit the building project our three members worked in last summer, and get a bigger picture of what is happening in the area. I have been in contact with a church in Pyrford, near Wisley, which is just embarking on a large project in Kasese and the surrounding area. We may be able to link up with them, but i want to judge for myself before making any suggestions. I will be staying with Alan and Cheryl Parrett for the week and will bring back plenty of photos and video. Please pray for safety in travel and wisdom in discerning the needs of the people there and the most helpful way to show God's love in action.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Back from Wales

This last week has been a journey in more ways than one. Rhyl in January - not the most exciting place, but it has a railway station built to receive packed twelve-coach trains of eager holiday makers ready for the 'thrill of Rhyl' in summer. Mind you, I don't think my idea of a thrill is a caravan by the sea in North Wales (even though my ancestors came from Anglesey).

The real journey for me was at St Beuno's (pronounced 'buy-nose') Ignation Spirituality Centre near St Asaph. An Ignation retreat, following the practice of Ignatius of Loyola (who founded the Order of Jesus - Jesuits) helps the retreatant note his or her feelings of moving closer to or further away from God, and noting the things that cause that dynamic ebb or flow.

Each retreatant is assigned a spiritual director - in my case a Sister called Louise. The director suggests passages of scripture to meditate and pray through during the day. Ignation spirituality is totally scripture-based and Jesus-centred, and for that reason, as a Protestant Evangelical, I felt I could easily embrace it.

My journey began with Psalm 139 and an appreciation of God's unconditional love in creating me as I am and then accepting me for the person I am. 'When I awake you are still with me' became a key verse for the week, speaking to me of the Father's constant companionship. The journey led from the child-Father relationship to the brother-Brother or friend-Companion relationship that I realised I value so much with the Lord Jesus. Gospel passages such as Jesus inviting the first disciples to spend time with him (John 1), calling Peter to follow (Luke 5), calling Peter to walk on the water (Matthew 14), sharing his glory of transfiguration with the three disciples (Matthew 17), washing his disciples' feet (John 13) spoke to me of companionship with Jesus - being included in his love, but also being shown the way to love others, and the call to risk all - walk on the water - to pursue that way.

I came across a picture by Rembrandt of the Head of Christ. After some searching I tracked it down later in the internet. It seems to me to be such a believable picture. The opening of 1 John 1 was a refrain I kept coming back to during the week - 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim...' The painting seems to capture that thought - here is a Jesus that could have been looked at, heard and touched. More than once I wondered what Jesus felt like, and that became a crucial part of the story of Peter walking on the water and experiencing the grasp of Jesus' hand pulling him out when he began to sink. Ignatius encouraged people to enter into the gospel stories in their imagination - and for me this involved identifying with Peter. The one in whom Jesus recognised such potential - 'You are the rock' - even though he got it wrong so often; the one in whom Jesus did not give up even though he denied his Lord.

The journey led me to the place of realzing God's great love for me, and in the light of that love my calling to show his love to others. The last gospel passage I worked with was John 21 where Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" It seemed to me that up to that point Peter had not done a very good job of showing his love for Jesus, but in the thrice repeated command "Feed my sheep" Jesus was showing him the way to demonstrate his love. In other words, 'feeding my sheep' is about building them up, seeking their welfare - the practical outworking of love. That was where my journey was leading me.

I remembered that seven years ago, on my previous sabbatical, sitting on a hill in Kenya used as a prayer and retreat centre - literally just a hill and a hut accessable only on foot or a rugged Landrover - the Lord showed me those same words from John 21 and I took them to be a confirmation of what he was calling me to do. Now, seven years later, those same of words of Jesus were just as full of meaning, and I came away from St Beuno's with the desire to put them into practice more and more.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Off to North Wales

I've already put down my first music sketches for the communion service. I'm trying to balance interest and ease of learning and produce something that will bear frequent repetition. With a bit of practice I think our congregation will pick it up. We'll see.

For the next week it will just be me and God and a spiritual director. I've not done a week's guided retreat before and I am rather apprehensive about how it will go. It's a silent retreat - that is not talking to the other guests - which forces you to listen to God (or the other voices in your head).

The journey to Rhyl (the nearest station) will be part of the retreat - a sense of leaving things behind. I love travelling by train; I often think of it when I sing the words of the old hymn 'Transported by the view I'm lost in wonder, love and praise.'

Friday, 5 January 2007

Beginning my Sabbatical

It's 7 years since my last sabbatical, when I spent 6 weeks in Kenya. Now I have the opportunity to take 7 weeks study leave in which I will be making a retreat at the Ignation Spirituality Centre at St Beuno's near St Asaph in N Wales, attempting to write music that we can use at St John's for the communion service, do some reading on the subject of 'Lectio Divina' (Spiritual reading), and visit Kasese in western Uganda. A busy time - and not a holiday, though I hope it will be refreshing.