Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Heart Torn in Two

This Christmas break, I've had a great chance to sit and reflect on the last several months. In many ways I'm so thankful to be here, away from all of the hustle and bustle of Christmas, just having a simple day. But on the other hand, I would give just about anything to be with my family, because right now in a house 8,000 miles away there is an empty bed, an empty seat at the breakfast table, and fewer gifts under the tree.

But God has a purpose for it all.

As I sit out here on the veranda, bare feet propped up on a stool, fishing boats coasting out in the distance on the Nile River, the sun shining, I can't help but think of my heart right now. I am so at peace here doing what God has called me to do, and yet I long to be back home.

I have a heart that is torn in two.

God has split my heart between Uganda and home. For so long I've felt that it's a curse. That maybe I'm unable to be content because when I'm here I want to be home and when I'm home, I want to be here. Even before coming to Uganda in September, my heart felt so split. But I'm beginning to realize that as difficult as it is, there's a blessing behind it.

My heart desires to be here. I love walking out my door every morning, walking the dirt path down to the school or to the dorms and having little brown arms wrap around me and say, "Hello Aunt Alyson!" I love welcoming a team and helping to make their time here enjoyable and filled with plenty of opportunities to minister to the people. I love meeting new people and getting to know them, their past, and trying to build new friendships with them.

But my heart is also at home where my family and friends are. Where I can walk down the halls of the school I work at and white arms shoot up in the air waving as a child shouts out, "Hi, Miss Houser!" I love spending time encouraging and investing in the lives of the people I work with or the family and friends I've spent years building relationships with.

So the question I've had on my mind lately is how can God use a heart torn in two?

There must be a purpose, a reason that my heart feels so split. Other missionaries seem to fall in love with the place and work they do and some even never go home. They become so immersed in life in their country of service that their heart feels at home there, and God uses them for a certain purpose. But I don't seem to feel that same way.

So what is the reason for my split heart?

The more I think and pray about it, I feel that it is God-given. I've been thinking a lot about my work here and how so much of it is behind the scenes. Kaitlyn and I have been talking about working towards reducing the number of kids in the sponsorship program who don't have sponsors because we know we have the unique ability to connect the kids from here to sponsors in the US in ways that Ugandans can't. We understand the minds of Americans, but we also see the kids' lives here firsthand, and we believe that because of that we can make a difference.

God is using this split heart, connecting the two places for His glory, and I pray that others will come to know Him because of this heart torn in two.

- Aly

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Christmas Rush

Not being home for Christmas has really made me think about the true reason we celebrate. We say it at home, but there really seems to be no way to separate ourselves from the commercialism of the holiday season. Santas are positioned at every mall, Christmas music is playing after Halloween, and there's always some kind of "deal" for that "perfect gift" for someone special.
 
I always thought the Christmas rush was purely an American thing. But I find it's even here as well. In the supermarkets, the Christmas trees were put out at the beginning of November. I've heard the same 4 Ugandan Christmas songs since that same time. Over the last 3 days, the city has been abuzz with people. On our way to Jinja today, we were caught in the Christmas traffic jam.
 
Millions of people on their way to celebrate with family and friends in the village. They'll eat some special food, maybe get a few gifts and come back in a few days to go back to their daily lives.


 
It's strange that being away from what I feel is the normal hustle and bustle of it all has made it not feel like Christmas time. I put up a tree. I listened to Christmas music. I made cookies. But in so many ways it's felt forced. To me, Christmas is watching giant snowflakes floating through the air while Christmas music filters though the house as I sit and sip hot cocoa. It's decorating the tree, wrapping gifts, and waiting impatiently for everyone to open them. It's decorating cookies with my mom or my grandfather. It's my little town's "Christmas in the park" complete with Santa Claus, reindeer, sleigh rides, hot cooca, and cookies. It's sitting in the living room watching Christmas movies with no other lights on apart from the tree. It's eating a special breakfast with my family and going to my grandparent's in the afternoon, only to come home and spend the rest of the evening with my little cousins who are usually hyped up on sugar cookies.
 
So as we sat in traffic today, I couldn't help but think of all the billions of people in this world who are celebrating the day, but have no clue as to the true reason for the season.
 
We make Christmas about the trees, the music, the cookies, the meals, and the gifts so we rush around to make sure they all get done. But Christmas is so much more than all of the things we try to cram into the first 25 days of December. It's the simplicity of a tiny baby born to a teenage mother in the middle of a stable. A baby that would grow to heal the sick, raise the dead, and bring forgiveness of sin. The wonder of Christmas is not all the stuff we make it. There were no twinkling lights hung outside the stable, no plates of cookies passed out to the Shepherds. The songs we sing now did not exist at the time of Christ's birth. The wonder of Christmas is that God sent his son to live in and experience our world and to suffer the penalty for our sins so that we'd no longer be separated from Him.
 
So whether or not it feels like Christmas doesn't matter. What matters is celebrating that no more is there a division between us and God. We have easy access to Him, to His hope, His salvation, and His peace all because of a baby boy they called Emmanuel. God is with us.
 
- Aly

Christmas Cookies in Uganda

 It is a tradition at my house that every year my mom and I frost Christmas cookies together. We've done it since I can remember, and for the first time this year I'm not around to do it. It was hard at first, knowing my mom would still make the cookies and decorate them and that the tradition would go on without me. But I also thought it would be nice to make some of my own Christmas memories in Uganda. So of course I was so excited when I was helping Kaitlyn unpack and I saw a Betty Crocker Sugar Cookie mix in her bag.

On Saturday we mixed them up. We stood at my little preparation station, added in a few ingredients and off we went.
 
We rolled it out


We didn't have any cookie cutters so we used a cup.


It was the smallest cup I could find and it still made giant cookies.


I only had one cookie tray so we could only bake them 6 at a time.


 
After a few of those, we decided to get creative.


 
We took a knife and etched Christmas trees, stockings, snowmen, candy canes, and ginger bread men out of the dough.

 
Once we baked them, we invited 3 of the girls up to help us decorate. One of them was my little neighbor, Michal. The other 2 are girls that are not able to go home for Christmas due to one reason or another and have been pretty bored around here without other kids around. So we try our hardest to keep them occupied with some fun activities.


 
Today it was the American tradition of frosting sugar cookies just before Christmas.
 
Michal needed some help with the frosting part...
 
But she had no problem enjoying the sprinkles.
 
 
 
 
It was a fun and special afternoon to share with the girls.
 

 
Afterward we let the girls enjoy the sweet treats.

 
We saved a few cookies for ourselves to frost. We didn't have power at all that day and by the time we sat down to frost ours, it was starting to get dark. So we had to frost them by lantern light.

 
(Photobombed by my own roommate...)


 
So while it wasn't quite the same as being home, sitting at my mom's kitchen table, bundled up in a sweater and scarf, and laughing with her, it was still a day filled with smiles, laughter, and love.
 
- Aly

Turning a Corner

It's no secret that the last few months have been a struggle for me. I came into this whole missions thing with very high expectations and when my experience didn't meet my expectations things got a bit rocky. I've struggled with homesickness, loneliness, burnout, and discouragement. I've openly shared all of those things here with you. But I also don't want you to think that I've spent the last 3 months sitting around my house miserable, because that is not the case. In fact, if anything I've thrown myself into the ministry work around me.

God has used these last 3 months to teach me about contentment, about slowing down, and about what really matters in life. He's given me perspective on how He is using this time to prepare me for what He has planned in the future, and has caused me to depend on Him in ways I never did before.

I was really struggling in November. Two days before the team came to Uganda, I sat in my house sobbing. I picked up my phone fully intending to call Reuben (the AMG director here) and beg him to let me go home. Instead, I prayed and called his wife, Florence. She's been mentoring me over the lasts several weeks. I told her I needed something, I just didn't know what. She sent someone to come and bring me to church the next day and have Sunday dinner with their family. Just having family time and hearing the Word (instead of being the one preaching it) helped.

Then the team showed up. I was immersed in my work, and I loved every minute of it. God has been changing my perception of ministry. I never imagined my ministry would be so behind the scenes or that I would love it so much. But in all honesty, I love when things are so well planned and I've run around behind the scenes that people don't even realize that there was anything to do. To me, that means the time was successful.

But something happened in the midst of having the team here and having them leave. I went from constantly being homesick and thinking about home to feeling immersed in the ministry here and like there is something here that I'm meant to do. I still miss home. I still miss my family and friends. Those things will never go away fully. I think in time I will learn to live with that part of my heart missing. But for now, God is giving me peace to know I'm right where I belong.

So after hosting my first team, and now hosting my first intern, I have turned a corner. There are still struggles now and I'm sure still many ahead, but something inside me  has changed. I now find myself looking forward to certain moments here. For instance, my next team coming in January, followed by youth camp, the kids coming back to school, starting up Dorcas again, doing some teaching, whereas before I could find myself counting the days, weeks, or months until I could go back home.

God hasn't changed my circumstances. My power still goes out all the time. The food I eat is still all the same. I work with the same people in the same place doing the same work. There are no outward changes in the things I face from day to day. But God has changed my heart, and it's made all the difference.

- Aly

A Helper

On December 16, my intern and good friend, Kaitlyn arrived in Uganda. I've been counting down the days until she arrived since the day I arrived in September. For 80 days I waited and waited, doing my best to make the most of my time alone. God certainly used that time to teach me and change my heart in so many ways, and as difficult as it was at times I have to say looking back I'm thankful for that time.



But now I have a coworker, and I'm so thankful for her. There's another set of hands to make load lighter - to do the dishes or sweep the floors. Cooking time is cut in half and food doesn't go to waste as easily. When the power is out after dark (which it has been doing for the last 5 evenings in a row) there's someone to sit and talk to at the supper table. There's someone by my side when I drive into Kampala dodging potholes and boda bodas, and there's someone to talk to and pray with every day. Someone who speaks English as quickly as I do and understands sarcasm and references to tv shows (which you think wouldn't be a big deal, but it adds a lot more laughter to my day).

Since the kids are now on Christmas break, I've spent the last week and a half just trying to get her acquainted with life in Uganda. She's been here twice before, but only for 2 weeks and always with a team. Life is much different when you live here, and she's beginning to see there's so much more to missions work than hugging children and teaching Bible stories.

We are taking time to prepare for when the kids come back to school in February, and for the team that is coming in January for 2 different youth camps. We are excited for what's to come and have a strong feeling in our hearts that God is going to use us for something huge. Please pray as we continue to get to know each other more and build our teamwork.

- Aly

If you would like to hear more from Kaitlyn about her time here, visit her blog at www.kaimking.blogspot.com

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Driving Adventures


Driving Adventures

On Friday, Uncle Reuben handed me the keys to my Land Cruiser.

 

I still haven’t decided if I’m excited or terrified. I’ve driven a few times, both of which have involved near heart attacks as taxis and boda bodas have pulled out in front of me for no good reason. Up until Friday, I hadn’t driven in over 10 weeks. The last time I drove was on the back roads of Chautauqua county where the biggest traffic disturbance was a deer unable to decide if it wanted to cross the road. So going from driving in a town of 600 to a city of 1.5 million where there are no enforced traffic laws has been quite a challenge.

Success so far has involved a lot of prayer, and some well-timed honking of the horn.

Uganda drives on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle. That means that everything is backwards in the car. To look out the rearview mirror you have to look up and to the left, not up and to the right. The turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel, while the windshield wipers are on the left. I’ve turned the wipers on my fair share of times already when I’ve wanted to turn one way or another.

I must be getting used to driving/riding on the opposite side because while watching an American movie the other day, there was a driving scene and I gasped thinking, “THEY’RE ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD!!” Only until I realized they were fine could I breathe again. (Note to self: Don’t drive at home for a while after getting back!)

Driving has truly been an adventure so far. But I think it will also be a huge blessing. If I run out of food, I can head to Kampala to the supermarket. If I’m feeling homesick I can find somewhere with good internet and skype my family. During school vacations when I’m feeling bored and confined here at school I can go and explore the fun things to do.

Driving opens up all new doors here. Sometimes I can hardly believe I’m actually doing it, let alone able to find actually find my way around! Your prayers are greatly appreciated while I get adjusted to the driving here. (And prayers for my family too!)


Where They Come From


They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand words can’t even begin to tell the story.

Take a look at this picture.


 
The smile, the joy, the sweet innocence of that face. She looks clean. She looks healthy. She looks happy. She plays with the others at the childcare center. She laughs and shrieks with joy as the team breaks out the parachute to play with. She laughs and squeals as they play.

Now take a look at this picture.

 
While the Bundles of Love team was here, we did some home visitations in the slums of Kampala. Imagine a group of 15 wide-eyed white people with 3 Ugandans walking along narrow paths, water bottles in hand because of the intense afternoon heat, stepping over trash and other filth, walking past the wondering faces of the people who live there.

 
After half walking, half sliding down a steep incline, stepping over a stream of what I’m sure was not just water, and over some very shaky boards, we entered the belly of Naguru slum. We were greeted, not by the smiling faces of its people but by the stench of the locally brewed alcohol. The smell was so strong it could almost make you wonder if just smelling it would make a person drunk. None of us could imagine what could happen if a person actually drank the stuff.

But here we were, walking past these women, backs bent over black burning barrels. This is their livelihood. They brew it. They cool it. They sell it. All to make a few thousand shillings, enough for a meal and to replenish their stock.

I’ve seen it before, but it never gets easier, because one thought always goes through my mind:

This is where our kids come from.

The smiling faces from the center, the voices singing songs of praise, the feet that run around playing, they come from here or places just like this one. Naked babies, run down shacks, fetching water from rivers of trash and excrement. This is their reality.

A picture may be worth a thousand words. But a picture never tells the whole story.

- Aly

Bundles of Love


I welcomed my first team here on November 25. 10 teenagers and 4 adults from Georgia came to hand out Bundles of Love to the children in the sponsorship program here in Uganda.

Bundles of Love is a program put on by AMG International in many countries around the world at Christmas time. Children in the sponsorship program receive gifts, usually a needed item, that are all purchased in country. This year, the children received either a blanket and soap, a towel and a Bible, or a school uniform.

The team visited 5 out of the 6 childcare centers in less than 10 days. They brought games, crafts, face painting, and lots of fun, including a skit and a message about the difference between the temporary gift the kids would receive that day and the eternal gift of Jesus Christ.

The programs were usually made up of some praise and worship time, prayer, a message from the center staff, presentations of songs and skits by the sponsored children, and the skit and message from the team. After eating a nice lunch together and enjoying some Christmas cake (it’s almost like Christmas cookies, except not at all like that), the team had time to have fun and play games with the children.

They broke out the parachute which was a complete riot for the kids. I went inside to get a few pictures and was almost trampled a few times. If there’s 2 things the kids here love it’s fun games and a camera.  So when those two things come together, WATCH OUT!

The girls on the team did some face painting and nail polish. I’d like to say it was only the girls who enjoyed the nail polish, but some of the boys got in on that action too. Wouldn’t want to be left out on something awesome like painted nails!

We left each and every center completely exhausted and ready for some rest. But each morning the team was up and ready to do it all over again.

 
Having the team around wasn’t only a blessing to the children and staff here. It was a huge blessing to me as well. It was great to spend some time with other Americans, talking, laughing, and praying together. (And to be honest, it was great to be able to use sarcasm again for a few days with people who understand and appreciate it.)

The Lord sent a blessing when He sent this team, and I look forward to many more to come!

 - Aly