Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas...Shattering the Illusion

If you look below this bit of text, you will find a link to a sermon that I preached last night - in audio form. If you click on the link, it should open in your media player (it is an mp3 file for those who understand these things!) This is a bit of an experiment...so please tell me whether you like hearing sermons this way, or whether you prefer to read them.

This sermon lasts just under 15 minutes...so why not grab a cup of coffee before you settle down to listen. You will almost certainly need a broadband connection to listen to this... dial-up connections will not be fast enough.

Advance warning...if you are planning to come to next Sunday's Carol Service at Warblington Church, I will be preaching this same sermon again. So only listen to it now if you don't mind hearing it twice!

Carol Service Sermon 2007

Let me know what you think!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

John the Baptist

Here's the text of my sermon to be preached tomorrow morning at 8.00am Communion. Yes... apparently there are two 8 o'clocks in the day.

Matthew 3: 1-12: John the Baptist and the Kingdom of God

“In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

John the Baptist is one of the more strange characters of the New Testament. He wore clothing of camel hair – which I imagine was rather itchy – and seems to have lived exclusively on locusts and wild honey. I imagine that getting wild honey out of a wild honey-bee hive is rather a tricky thing to do. So poor old John was probably covered in bee-stings as well.

John is traditionally viewed as the last of the Old Testament prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, let’s picture the scene – picture a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings and with honey stuck to his shirt, munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Emsworth – or even here inside the church. I think we’d probably try to get him arrested under the vagrancy act!

But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message that, according to Matthew’s Gospel, had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5) And let’s remember, these weren’t Sunday drivers out for an laugh at the strange fellow in the desert. These were people who would have travelled many hours, and in some cases many days, in hot, dusty air – to hear for themselves the amazing – even scandalous - things that this man of the desert was saying.

John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)

But, despite his acid tongue, John still managed to draw people to him. One of those who were attracted to John was Andrew – the brother of Simon Peter. According to John’s Gospel, Andrew was a disciple of John’s – until, that is, John pointed out who Jesus was... at which point Andrew switched allegiances, and joined up with Jesus.

I find that an interesting little detail in the history of John the Baptist. It’s interesting that although he recognised who Jesus was, he did not himself, become one of Jesus’ followers. Rather, one of his own disciples (Andrew) left his side and went to be with Jesus (which would have been a very unusual thing for any disciple to do in those days).

There are, in fact, a number of strange inconsistencies about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah...despite having recognised him as such by the Jordon.

There may be a number of explanations for these strange aspects of John’s behaviour. One suggestion is that he had a different vision in his head of what the Messiah would do – he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in Matthew’s gospel:

“...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12) John’s mental picture of the Messiah was based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expected the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’. And when it didn’t happen quite as he expected, he perhaps proved more reticent to join up with Jesus. Maybe that’s why he sent word from his prison – saying to Jesus, “are you really the Messiah?”.

There are some historians who think that John remained ultimately unconvinced about Jesus – and that he actually went on preaching the coming of a another Messiah (having found Jesus to be, in his judgment, just a little bit wet). Historians point out that John continued to have disciples after he had met Jesus, and continued to baptise people in his own way. There are many references to the ‘baptism of John’ throughout the early years of the New Testament – suggesting that in some ways John was almost a rival to Jesus.

That may be... but it is clear from the Gospel accounts, that for at least the one glorious moment of Jesus baptism, John saw the light... he saw clearly who Jesus was, and heard the confirmation of that from heaven itself. But perhaps, just perhaps, John was never quite able to give up his own idea of what the Messiah would be like...should be like. From today’s reading we can see that John expected an imminent judgment to be enacted – he uses the metaphor of an axe which is being put to the root of the trees – a sense in which ‘any minute now’ the tree is about to be chopped down. John expects action – he expects the Lord to arrive with a winnowing fork – scattering the grain into the air and separating out the wheat from the chaff – and he expects it to happen soon.

But Jesus has a subtly different agenda. He himself speaks of the coming day of judgment, and the separation of sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact. But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future. First, he has work to do – to call as many people as possible to repentance, and to give the greatest possible opportunity for people to choose God’s way of living over their own. He is so committed to that path – and so reluctant to embark on the eventual task of judgment - that he is prepared to give up his own life so that we might find our way back to God.
And I wonder whether we ourselves can sometimes be a bit like John. Certainly, as a human race, we have often been guilty of making God in our image – instead of understanding that God makes us in his image. How many wars have been fought on the basis that we actually think God approves of them? How many acts of cruelty have been perpetrated in the belief that God is somehow being served through them? Are there ways in which we conduct our lives which are inconsistent with the reality of Jesus – and the way in which he calls us to live?

My daughter, like many Christian teenagers, wears a bracelet on which is inscribed the letters “WWJD”. They stand for “what would Jesus do” – of course – and it’s a phrase from the 1970s (at least!) which has perhaps become dulled by over-familiarity. But it’s still a good question. What would Jesus do in the face of the rampant poverty of the developing world? What would Jesus do in the face of corruption among leaders of so many nations? What would Jesus do when faced with the commercial pressure to ‘spend, spend, spend’ at this time of the year? What would Jesus do in the face of globalisation and climate change?

Emily also has a t-shirt with the question “Who would Jesus bomb?”... but that’s a subject for another discussion altogether!

During this time of advent, the story of John invites us to prepare for the coming of Jesus – the true Messiah. We are invited to prepare for the Lord who says “love one another”, and who seeks to draw us to himself so that we might discover God’s love. Matthew’s point in telling us the story of John is that our understanding of who Jesus was, and is, needs to be re-interpreted in the light of Jesus’ advent as the forgiving, accepting, non-retaliatory suffering-servant-king – whose strength is precisely in his meekness.

May you know the peace of Christ as you prepare to celebrate his coming once again this year. May you know the reality of Jesus – and through soaking up the stories about him in the Bible, begin to gain an ever-more-fuller understanding of who he was and what he stood for. And may that knowledge transform you. Day by day, so that you may truly know who you are...a loved child of God...and what you stand for.

Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ugandan Journal

What follows is a long journal of mine and my family's three week sojourn in Uganda. Be warned - it is long! But I hope it will be informative and entertaining...especially for those who have contributed in so many ways to the success of our trip.

Saturday 13th October 2007

Our plane arrived promptly at 7.15am, after a night flight in which not much sleep was had! We made our way down the plane’s steps to the temporary arrival hall at Entebbe Airport. The Airport is undergoing a major refit in time for a Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in November – so a lot of work is going on in the Kampala/Entebbe area to show off the country in a good light. This might seem a bit cynical on the part of the Ugandan Government (to only do things up when important people are due to arrive) but everybody benefits from improved facilities, and better roads around the airport.

We were met at the airport by Bob and Ros Arnold – who are to be our hosts during our stay in Mbale. Bob drove us through the streets of Entebbe, up to Kampala, where we stopped for coffee at the home of another CMS Mission Partner, Isobel Booth-Clibbons (and her adopted Uganda daughter Sesha).

Isobel lives and works on the Anglican Church’s hill (one of seven hills around Kampala) where, as she showed us, there is a variety of mission projects clustered around the Cathedral. In the Cathedral, we briefly watched a wedding take place – with wonderful costumes and finery. Apparently there are at least seven or eight weddings every Saturday at the Cathedral. In Isobel’s garden, Clare got her first sight of giant Cranes and Red Kites. The first of many birding discoveries, I suspect!

From Kampala, having stocked up with provisions at a new supermarket, we made our way along the road to Mbale. The 200 miles journey took place along a single lane road which, along its whole length, is under repair. Some lengths are very smooth – but much of the road is a dusty, bumpy, construction site.

Along the route we stopped at Jinja, to view the Bujagali Falls at the Source of the Nile. These magnificent falls, complete with white water rafting possibilities, are due to disappear in the next couple of years as a result of a new hydro-electric dam which is being built. A hard decision for politicians to make… should they keep these beautiful falls which bring in a small amount of tourist income, or construct the hydro-electric dam which will bring electricity to the whole of the country? They have chosen the latter course – and will sacrifice the beauty of the falls as a consequence. At the Falls, we enjoyed a cup of tea, Emily’s first experience of ‘hole in the ground’ toilets, and an amazing acrobatic display from a local guy with a shortened leg!

We arrived in Mbale just as dusk was falling (which here on the equator happens around 6.30pm each evening). We have a pleasant evening with Bob and Ros in their lovely home… and are looking forward to exploring the Bungokho Rural Development Centre tomorrow.

Initial impressions? Uganda is a chaotic mess as far as roads are concerned. There is obviously great poverty – all along the 200 miles from Kampala we saw village after village of poor, mud-hutted housing. But it is also a beautiful, verdant country – with great possibilities for future economic development.


Sunday 14th October 2007

Awoke at 6am, and after a leisurely breakfast, Bob, Ros and I made our way to the Anglican Cathedral in Mbale (leaving an exhausted Emily to sleep, and Clare to keep her company.)

The service at the Cathedral was quite an event. I reckon about 2000 people were present, packed into the Rotunda of the Cathedral. The heat that built-up inside the building during the service was rather sticky… but Bob had kindly given me a bottle of water, so I stayed relatively comfortable. It was a Service of the Word, in English (Communion having been celebrated at 7am, in the local language, Lugandan). We were treated to music from two choirs (one modern, one traditional, and also some solos from a local young woman who has celebrity status in the area).

The highlight and centre-piece of the service was a 45 minute sermon from the Rev Alice. I was struck by the great value of indigenous preachers (and gained a new understanding into the policy of many missionary societies to no longer send priests into foreign countries to preach the Gospel). Alice’s insights into Ugandan society were far more relevant and valuable to her congregation than any preaching I could have done. Her theme was “Spiritual Blindness”, and with great good humour she explored all sorts of ways in which people in Ugandan society abuse one another – all of which, she suggested, were the result of spiritual blindness.

Overall, what I experienced was a vibrant, happy, congregation with a youthful outlook. A real joy to be with them, and to worship with them. I don’t mind confessing that there were tears in my eyes at the excitement that so many people seemed to have about their faith.

We returned home via an amazing fruit and veg market, populated with obviously very poor traders. We purchased a few bits and bobs – and headed home. Before lunch, Bob and Ros gave us a tour of the agricultural aspects of Bungokho. We saw chickens, rabbits, geese, fish, pineapples, coffee and banana plantations – along with site of a new mini-residential centre which has been built. This is to provide a facility for people from local villages to come together, learn new skills and share resources.

We will see more of the centre tomorrow, when (being Monday) it will be busy and active. Today is a rest day (being Sunday) and so, after lunch, we settled back for a few hours of gentle conversation and dozing, while the warm African rain fell outside our open door.

This evening we went with the Arnolds to their regular bible study evening – led by an American pastor, called Shaun, who took us line by line, and word by word, through chapter 7 of Hebrews – for a good couple of hours! It was long, but fascinating. The Bible study is a regular gathering of ‘Mzungus’ – the local word for white people. It provides an opportunity for Westerners (most of whom spend all their working lives among Ugandans) to have some fellowship and pray for one another. We met some lovely people, including a couple who were on their 13th visit from the USA to dispense 2000 reading glasses to local people. Over their 13 visits they have dispensed some 40,000 pairs of glasses. Lord, please bless them – and all those who give their lives and skills in the service of others!

To bed at 10pm

Monday 15th October 2007

I was woken at 5am by the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. The cry of ‘Allah Akbar’ – amplified through mighty speakers – was so piercing and loud that it set all the neighbourhood dogs howling. I tried to get back to sleep, but with all the other strange sounds around – birds, cockerels, loud insects – I gave up the attempt and got up. It was not a problem – I watched a beautiful dawn creep across the sky, listened to the cacophony of wildlife, and counted the number of blooms on the Arnold’s ‘morning glory’ (42 this morning).

After a shower and breakfast, we made our way to 8am prayers – a routine which Bungokho follows every day of the week. 60-70 students of vocational training schemes gathered to sing and pray together, and to receive a ‘thought for the day’ from the Bible. This morning Bungokho’s Director, Davis Manana (see picture) read from Psalm 105 and encouraged the students to give thanks to God for all his many gifts to us. We were briefly introduced, and said good morning to all

Clare, Emily, Ros and I returned to the house afterwards where I found myself unusually nervous at the presence of a hornet flying around the living room. Ros was totally unfazed, and at first said that hornets flying around were just something one gets used to. I tried – but failed – and in the end the poor hornet was dispatched to hornet-heaven by Ros’ judicious use of a rolled up magazine and a spray-can of something toxic called “Doom”!

Bob and I then went to do a morning walk of the farm. Our tour started with the ‘serving’ of a local goat (i.e. impregnating). Bungokho has acquired some male South African goats who are at least twice the size of the local goats. For a few pence, local people are encouraged to bring their females to the centre for siring – resulting in much larger, stronger animals (which can ultimately produce more meat, and increase the overall size of the stock in the area).

We met Godfrey and his co-worker who are in charge of the team of oxen. They were ploughing a field in the hot sun – which frankly looked like exhausting work to me! I asked Bob whether the centre would prefer to use mechanised farming techniques (like a tractor) but Bob responded that even if he was given a tractor, he would refuse it. Oxen are relatively cheap to keep, and put back valuable nutrients into the soil via manure. A tractor would need spare parts and diesel – which would never be affordable – and which would in any case put at least one man out of a job. Godfrey and his oxen are used on the Farm, as well as being hired out to other farms and small holdings. Their labour supports both Godfrey and his co-worker’s families.

We also met four agricultural workers (two full time members of staff, and two casuals) who were engaged in weeding the various plots of banana, pineapple, coffee and various other crops.

After our tour, Bob took Clare, Emily and I into Mbale where we briefly met Bishop Samwari (left) and the Diocesan Secretary, Abednego. We returned via the bank (for Bob to pay-in our initial donation to Bungokho). We brought with us a young priest from the Diocesan offices (Philemon) together with his female goat who he wanted to have served by Bungokho’s larger males.

Before lunch, we had a brief meeting with Cyprian Walimbwa – to discuss our programme for next week. Over lunch (of delicious egg mayonnaise!) we received a number of visitors from the centre (which seems to be the normal pattern around here!).

There was a chance for some rest in the afternoon, while meeting and chatting to the seemingly endless stream of visitors who come in and out of the Arnold’s house. Around 5pm Abednego arrived to continue our earlier conversation about funding for some Diocesan projects. I won’t say too much about our discussion here (in this public diary) because some issues are still in need of discussion. But essentially we talked about how we can improve accountability for some of the projects in the area.

After a supper of savoury pancakes, we settled down for conversation – and some quick training in how to use Windows Movie Maker for Bob and Ros. Ros and I chatted on for some time after the others had gone to bed… exploring all sorts of fascinating subjects including Ugandan attitudes to homosexuality, and the question of God’s activity in the realm of human suffering. All of the evening’s activities took place by lamp-light, as we have been without power (a regular occurrence!).

Tuesday 16th October

We rose for prayers at 8am, and were put to shame by the sound of hymn singing coming from the students awaiting the formal start of prayers. Davis Manana, the Centre’s manager, has been very firm with his students about the need for punctuality. Those who arrive late for prayers, or subsequent classes, are given extra hard work for a day. Consequently, everyone seems to make a special effort to get to the Centre on time for prayers!

I spent some of the morning developing a ‘Concept Document’ at the request of Abednego, the Diocesan Secretary. It is intended to be a summary of our conversation last night, and explores ways of developing a partnership with some of the funding we have brought with us. The partnership is intended to strengthen the ties between the local ministries to retired clergy, the ministry to prisons and the Diocese. It will involve training in self-sustaining programmes, run by Bungokho, so that priests (retired and currently serving) can learn how to support themselves – and become beacons of good practice to their local communities.

While I was working on the document, Clare and Emily went to offer some help around the Farm. Clare got the chance to try ploughing with oxen – and told us later that she had managed about five yards before losing control of the team! Plough with a team of four oxen is a very skilled job. Both Clare and Emily then went to lend a hand in the tree nursery – where they tried to help Zita, the tree nursery worker, to splice some orange tree-shoots into lemon trees (which is how orange trees are propagated, apparently!). They told me that this was surprisingly difficult – Clare managed two, and Emily did one and a half before slicing her finger!

The rest of the morning was spent visiting well-digging projects, with Bob, Clare and Emily. We met Fred, who is contracted by Bungokho to oversee the digging of new wells. The wells are, in my opinion, a masterpiece of simple design – a low-tech solution to the problem of maintaining adequate water-supply in the villages around Mbale. The wells are dug using a simple system of culverts (one metre-wide concrete tubes). One culvert is placed on the ground, and then the earth removed from underneath it. As the first culvert drops into the ground, another is placed on top. This means that the walls of the well are entirely safe while digging (as opposed to unlined wells which have killed many people over the years).

Since June of this year, 10 wells have been started, with 6 being completed, and four currently underway. We were sad to see that in some villages we visited the wells were only half dug, but the men of the village seemed to be content to sit around not completing it. In such a naturally green and verdant country, it is relatively easy to scratch a basic living from the soil. Many Ugandan men are quite happy to let their wives walk miles for water (the men themselves never do so!) The challenge for the Bungokho team is to persuade some villages that a regular supply of fresh water will free up the time of their wives, provide regular irrigation for crops and animals, and improve the health of their children.

However, we did see one village which was clearly excited and motivated by the possibility of their own well. By the time we arrived they had dug seven metres down, through hard iron-stone. Three or four guys from the village were taking it in turns to go down the hole and dig – in the heat of the day – while their families encouraged them from above. At seven metres, this is the deepest well yet dug – and so some concern was in evidence about whether or not they would water. To inspire confidence, Bob got out his divining rods and demonstrated that there is indeed water below. He also let some of the villagers try divining for themselves – proving to themselves the presence of water.

Each well costs £600 in tools and culverts – which to my mind is very good value, considering that the finished well will usually serve around 3,000 people.

Wells of this nature are much preferred to the normal system of digging a bore-hole, and installing a pump. The trouble with pumps is that when they break (as they inevitably do) most villages can’t afford the cost of parts to get them going again.

After lunch of ‘eggy bread’, I settled down to write a sermon, and do some more work on our partnership proposal. In the meantime, Emily went to help Bob prepare some new goats to be introduced to the herd – by tagging their ears, worming them, spraying them for ticks, and trimming their hooves.

Around tea-time, the electricity supply was restored (having been off for 24 hours). This is a regular occurrence around here – and results in a mad scramble to recharge computers and phones!

We then had the pleasure of dinner with Bishop Samwari and his wife Agnes. After dinner, using deliciously formal Ugandan protocols, we discussed the proposed partnership agreement (about which the Bishop was very enthusiastic).

Having had a sneaky peak at this journal, Ros says I should tell you what we had for dinner – especially as she slaved away in a hot kitchen with Clare most of the afternoon to prepare it! Well – it was a delicious pot-pouri of minced beef, pasta, cabbage, carrots and mashed potato, followed up with some delicious home-made brandy snaps (made with ginger and honey…no brandy…because you’d never serve brandy to a Ugandan Bishop!)

Went to bed at 11.30pm, having had a pleasant chat with Bob and Ros, and finished this journal for the day!

Wednesday 17th October 2007

We arose for 8am morning prayers again – having had a breakfast of millet porridge, and some of Bob’s delicious home-made muesli. After prayers, I settled down to finalise the Concept Document for the proposed partnership agreement with the Diocese and Bungokho. Having finished that, I put together a montage of video clips we took yesterday about well-digging… which I hope will be of interest to folks in Emsworth, and a help to Bob and Ros in their fundraising efforts.

While I was slaving away over a hot computer, Emily went to work in the Bungokho nursery – and came back delighted at the reception she had received. She was mobbed by all the children who wanted to get to know her.

Lunch – of rice and beans – was taken with the staff of the Centre, after a short prayer meeting. I must say that I am enjoying having my day punctuated by not only my own prayers, but also those of the people with whom I am working. Mad diary commitments at home do not make such a routine as easy in Emsworth!

In the afternoon we decided to take things a little easy – having had rather a few busy days!

Clare, Emily and I went for a wander around the farm, and I took a few videos shots that I’m going to edit into a montage for showing at home. In the evening, we packed our bags ready for tomorrow’s expedition to Sipi Falls – a local beauty spot which Bob and Rosalind are kindly taking us to for the weekend.

Thursday 18th October to Saturday 20th October 2007

The last two days have been spent at Sipi Falls – about an hour’s drive from Mbale. There is no other way to describe Sipi, except with superlatives like ‘amazing’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘awesome’. We stayed in a small settlement of cabins, called ‘the Crow’s Nest’ perched on the side of an awesome gorge, half way up Mount Elgon. The view from our cabins has included Elgon’s peak, and flowing down from there, three spectacular waterfalls which cascade the mountain water down to a plain which stretches as far as the eye can see.

During our stay we went on a steep, rocky, but ultimately rewarding walk to the foot of the largest of the falls. A video of the walk will be available when I get home! We enjoyed fellowship with one another and with other visitors over good food. We were visited by thunder storms, and went to the loo over a pit-latrine. We walked into the local village, and bought some locally made hand-crafts both for ourselves and for people back home. We were also shown around the home of a local man, who was keen to show us his own spectacular view of the gorge and the plain. With a view like that, his property would have been worth millions in the UK… but here, I suspect he could not have obtained more than about £2,000! (I’ll have to remember that when I’m looking for somewhere to retire!!).

On our way to Sipi, we collected a young English woman who had been staying in a village en route. She is part of a succession of young people who have been sent to the same village by her local college in England – following a link established between a college lecturer and a local man. Her experience of the village was a mixed one – having made many friends, but also being a little bored. We suspect that the local man is making use of his English visitors (and the funds they have raised) to feather his own nest, rather than build the community facilities that he has promised to provide. This seems to be a common problem in developing countries. Generous people often freely give aid, but a lack of clear accountability can result in funds being diverted to meet the more personal (though often real and urgent) needs of local managers of such aid.

The young woman we collected came with us to Sipi, and has struck up a friendship with Emily. She has returned with us to Mbale, but will be heading off tomorrow for a new adventure near Kampala. A shame…we will miss her company.

In the evening we went for a cup of tea at the lovely home of Abednego, and his wife Sarah. Sadly we were unable to see much of their home, or of their faces, due to a shortage of power and candles! But we had a pleasant couple of hours talking about a wide range of issues – including the difficulties of the Ugandans Government’s policy of free education. This policy has apparently been introduced without sufficient planning for new classrooms and other resources.

In the late evening, Bob and Ros went with Davis (Bungokho’s Director) to watch the Rugby World Cup on a TV screen in town. Clare, Emily and I (whom Bob rather uncharitably denounced as Sassenachs for not liking Rugby!) stayed at home to catch up on some reading, journal-writing, and video editing.

Sunday 21st October 2007

Our new young friend left for Kampala at 8am – following strenuous pleas from Bob to her taxi driver about speed! We then departed, almost immediately thereafter for a village around 100km (60miles) north of Mbale – where I had been invited to preach. We were the guests of the Rev’d Canon Charles Mella, his new wife Naomi, and the congregation of his little local church. The church was one of 19 that are under the care of a single Vicar – Rev’d Eldad.

After a breakfast of chapattis, bananas and coffee at Charles’ house, we made our way, by Bob’s truck, to the church. This turned out to be a small mud-built building, which could seat around 50 people – and which was also significantly stacked with two large piles of bricks from which the congregation plans to build a new, larger church in the future.

I was intensely moved to be asked to baptise four children who were present at the service. My new friend and brother, Rev’d Eldad, conducted the baptism service (at breakneck speed through the rubric) and then invited parents to pass their children to godparents, who in turn passed them to me for the actual baptism. I have always derived much satisfaction from baptising children at my home church – but this was a new experience altogether. The simple trust and faith of the parents of these Ugandan children, in passing their children to a complete stranger, emphasised to universal nature of the Christian Church. I did not feel in any way equal to the task of administering this sacrament to the children of parents I did not know. But it was faith-building to be able to trust God that he would touch them with his grace, and draw them into the community of faith.

The service then proceeded to a series of greetings (as is the custom here, especially in rural communities). A number of individuals within the church stood and welcomed us to their building – many emphasising that we were the first ‘musungus’ (white people) to have visited them. I hoped that the parents of those newly baptised children would remember this day if only for the fact that they were baptised by a musungu! We were introduced to the Chairs of the building committee, and the Parish Council, as well as two local councillors who were present. Bob was invited to bring his greetings and introduce Rosalind. And then I was invited to preach.

I faced this task with some trepidation. What on earth did I have to say to a community that I had only just met, and whose culture I was only barely beginning to understand? Having thought and prayed about this throughout the previous week, I chose the text Genesis 2: 4-7 and 15 – and preached about the attributes of God the Worker. (That is the idea that God, in the act of creating the world, demonstrated the attributes of Designer, Labourer, Artist and Quality Controller). I did so partly because the one thing I have observed since coming here is that, frankly, some members of the community (especially men in the rural areas) do not seem to take the idea of work very seriously. In such a verdant country, it is relatively easy to scratch a living from the soil without much effort – and some men have decided to go for the easier option. (I wish to emphasise, dear reader, that I don’t mean to imply that all Ugandan men are lazy. Most of them work extremely hard to look after both their families and their land. But, just as in England with our welfare state, there are always some people in any community who are content to think that the rest of the community owes them a living).

My sermon was simultaneously translated into Ligisu, the local language, by Charles. That was a novel experience! Having someone translate each line of words that you speak is quite disconcerting at first. However, I soon found that it actually gave me a few seconds to think more carefully about each line – and it became quite a pleasurable experience in the end.

After the sermon, and a blessing from Rev’d Eldad, we were entertained by the church’s two choirs of women – one of young women, and one of the older women of the congregation. Their music was full of praise and joy and energy and was a joy to behold.

After a final set of greetings from a number of people (including Bob again, and me, and Charles, and the Church Council chairman) the service concluded with a small procession of the leaders up through the congregation.

Outside, one of the church council was deputed to walk me around the perimeter of their land – which I judge was about six times the size of the current mud-built church. I wish the whole congregation well with their building project – and look forward to coming back in a few years time to see their progress.

We then made our way, by Bob’s overloaded truck (overloaded with singing women who wanted a lift) back in the direction of Charles’ house. About half-way there, we stopped to view a community drug store which Charles has established in memory of his first wife, Grace. The ‘Grace Memorial Shop’ is run by a young female nurse, who has a limited selection of medicines that she can dispense to the local community, for a small fee. I asked her what conditions the shop specialises in, to which she replied, ‘Everything!’. I personally consider that a rather optimistic assumption given the range of medicines on display – but I commend her keenness!

From the shop, while Bob went back in his truck to collect more congregation members, Clare, Emily and I walked on through the village to Charles’ house, accompanied by Charles’ wife Naomi. Once everyone had arrived at the village, we sat under a spreading tree (don’t ask me the variety!) while the choir entertained us with more of their energetic and joyful singing. I decided to indulge in a bit of cross-cultural sharing – and set about teaching the choir a few simple children’s songs from England. We had a great time, singing each other’s songs under the African sun. And now, in a small corner of Uganda, there is a choir which can sing ‘Jesus Love is Very Wonderful’, as well as ‘Who’s the King of the Jungle’!

After our singing, a few of us sat under the shady tree (I still don’t know what kind of tree – so don’t ask!) and chatted. Bob, in the meantime, had been off using his divining rods to find a possible source of water for Charles and his family to tap as a well. Returning to the tree, Bob then shared some of his amazing knowledge of putting simple technology to work – much to the appreciation of the gathered locals. Bob focused on how to make use of empty plastic water bottles. Apparently, a bottle full of dirty water from a stream, if left in the hot, sterilising sun on a tin roof for a day, will become a bottle full of drinkable, usable water. He also suggested that a bottle full of water, buried in the dry season near a crop – with a couple of pin-holes top and bottom – will gently irrigate the crop.

Rev’d Eldad (left in this picture) was especially impressed by this new knowledge, and through the rest of the afternoon, set about collecting all the empty water bottles he could get his hands on! This was fantastic – because it takes just one leader of a community to embrace and idea, and demonstrate its effectiveness, to then get a whole community to improve their lives. This idea of clergymen as ‘beacons of good practice’ is an idea we have been playing with in discussions with the Diocese and Bungokho regarding the use of some of the money I have brought with me as a donation to this area.

Lunch was then served – which was a veritable smorgasbord of matoke (savoury banana) chapattis, roast potatoes, goat stew, rice, beans, chicken, gravy, and bamboo and ground nut stew – followed by a pudding of the ubiquitous banana. We ‘musungus’ helped ourselves to a modest portion and settled back to enjoy our meal. Charles seemed very concerned that we would be hungry, and kept begging us to take more. But none of us were all that hungry – having already had two breakfasts that morning! We were all rather amused to discover that, by local standards, we had been far too modest. The Ugandans who followed us to the smorgasbord came back with plates that were so loaded that they looked like mini-sculptures of Mount Elgon! We guessed that for many this was a rare feast, not to be missed. After the meal (which was eaten in silence, by local custom) Rev’d Eldad cheerfully boasted that he thought he had eaten two kilograms of food!

After the meal, another round of greetings and speeches began. They all included warm welcomes to us white people, but were also an interesting insight into some of the challenges of local people. Charles spoke with tears in his eyes about the plight of retired Ugandan clergy, who have no pension and must scratch a living from the soil – often in communities which are not their own (as their life-time of ministry has often severed them from their own lands). Rev’d Eldad spoke about the challenges he faces as a vicar to 19 congregations. He has a lay reader in each church who can conduct non-sacramental services. But he finds it very difficult to give appropriate support to the 6,000 people who belong to his 19 congregations. His dearest wish is for a motorbike (costing about £500) which would help him to get around his parishes. Naomi, Charles’ wife and herself a widower, spoke about the pain she felt in having her deceased husband’s land taken from her by the deceased’s brothers. She also spoke of the challenges of being a teacher in this community. Bob spoke about the possibility of trying to find a ‘friend’ (i.e. a ‘friend to the community’) who would sponsor the cost of materials to dig a well (about £700 given the costs of transporting materials from Mbale, and the elevation of the site). He could make no promises, but would try to find the money from somewhere – so that this community could have access to clean, local, water. I responded to Charles’ concerns about the plight of the retired clergy buy promising that this is an issue we would begin to address when we meet with the Bishop on Tuesday.

After a final round of photographs, and long farewells, we bundled into Bob’s truck for the 50 minute journey back to Bungokho. Ros, Clare and Emily (who all seemed to be full of beans) then went off to meet up with the Sunday night bible-study group, to watch ‘Amazing Grace’. Bob and I stayed at home for a short doze, followed by an evening of journal and letter writing.

Monday 22nd October 2007

After morning prayers at 8am, I spent sometime putting together a video montage of yesterday’s events. Emily went off to spend some time in the Bungokho nursery, and told me later she had had a fabulous time, playing with the children, and teaching them to sing Ba Ba Black Sheep. Clare, in the meantime went to spend some time in the tailoring workshop – getting to know the tailoring tutor, David, and his students.

I, on the other hand, had quite a different day planned for me by Charles Mella. He collected me at around 10am, courtesy of a car driven by Emmanuel (the Diocesan Development Officer). We spent the whole day travelling along dusty, bumpy roads on a circular tour of retired clergy and their widows. I met quite a contrast between the different people we visited. The first man we met was Josiah, who had been retired for about a year. He had a reasonably large holding of land, on which his sons had helped him to build a new house. His wife, who was at work in a local school, is also ordained – and acts as a chaplain there. He had a couple of guys who seemed to be working for him on the land. So, although he did not have a church pension (as indeed do none of the clergy), Josiah seemed to be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living (by Ugandan standards). Of course, as he pointed out, he is currently fit and healthy… and can work his land. But he does fear what will happen as he, and his wife, get older.

The next person we visited was a widow (who had been widowed for about 10 years). She lived in extremely humble circumstances – but managed to maintain a lively faith and trust in God. Her example was extremely humbling to me. Would I be able to maintain such faith in the face of such poverty?

I won’t tire you, dear reader, with an endless litany of the seven people we visited today. Suffice to say I saw examples of real poverty – and also, frankly, one or two places where people could, I think, have done a little more to help themselves. But the underlying issue was the same. These were people who had given their whole lives to serving God, and who at the age of 65 were effectively (though not maliciously) cast aside by a Diocese which simply can’t afford to regularly pay its own active staff, let alone fund a pension for its retired clergy and their widows. I heard that occasionally the Diocese is able to make a small payment – perhaps six months apart – of between 5,000 and 20,000 shillings (between £1.40 and £5.70).

I am told that South Mbale is one of the poorest Dioceses in the country. A generous donor recently provided its Bishop with a car – but he quite often can’t afford the fuel to run it (and ends up scrounging for lifts). The Bishop of the Northern Mbale Diocese is even worse off, having no car, and having to travel by what are known as ‘border-borders’. (A border-border is a motorbike or bicycle taxi – where the passenger sits on what is effectively a parcel-rack, without crash helmet or protection from tropical storms and road dust. The casualty rate on border-borders is horribly high). I am trying to imagine an English bishop having to travel in such a fashion – but I’m failing.

The upshot of this kind of institutional poverty is that retired clergy are left fending entirely for themselves – and often die prematurely as a result. However, I do not feel that hand-outs of cash are a good long term solution to their problems. I have therefore been working with the Diocese and Bungokho to hammer out some longer-term solutions. More on this tomorrow, after we have a meeting with the Bishop, Diocesan Secretary and various other parties to discuss the disbursement of the funds I am bringing from my own parishioners.

Postscript: I have not taken any photographs or videos today. I felt uncomfortable at the idea of flashing a video camera in front of people who were living in such hard conditions – especially when due to the problems of communication in this area, none of them knew I was coming.

Tuesday 23rd October 2007

After morning prayers Clare, Emily and I went to the Bungokho Nursery to give the gifts we had brought with us from children in England. The children of our summer J-Team had made friendship bracelets for the children of the Bungokho Nursery, which we gave to them. They seemed genuinely delighted to receive them, along with some gifts of pens, pencils, crayons and coloured pencils which we had brought with us.

I left promptly at 9.30am to visit Mbale Women’s Prison, as the guest of Canon Cyprian Walimbwa, who looks after a number of prisons in the area. I was warmly greeted by the Prison’s ‘officer in charge’, Margaret, who told me of the problems of running the prison. She told me that the Government provides adequately for basic food and staffing costs, but that there is a lot she would like to do to improve the prisoners’ chances of rehabilitation. She has been making brightly coloured prison uniforms so that the women can go out into the community under supervision, to do work in the fields, and learn knew agricultural skills. She is also encouraging the prisoners to make handicrafts, which are sold for the benefit of the prisoners – and again to teach them a marketable skill.

I was invited to preach at a service for the women. Around 30 women were singing lustily in a small room when I arrived. They, and their guards, seemed to be genuinely worshipful. Those with children (who are allowed to stay with them in prison) were able to leave the room when their children cried, and could sit outside with them at need.

I preached on Galatians 5:22 (the fruit of the spirit), inviting the women to let the spirit of God transform them into people who display the fruits of the spirit, rather than those of the flesh. I was inspired to preach on that topic because of the conversation with Margaret. I had asked Margaret what she thought was the major contributing factor to women being put in prison. She replied that it was ultimately a lack of self-control which led them to give into the temptation to steal, or retaliate against a brutal husband. Self-control is obviously one of the attributes of the fruit of the spirit.

After I had finished preaching, Cyprian asked whether any of the women had been particularly moved by the message. To my great surprise, 22 of them put up their hands and at Cyprian’s invitation, knelt at the front of the room to receive power from the Spirit. Such ‘altar calls’ are not a normal part of my own tradition – so I felt a little uncomfortable. But I felt humbled to have been used by God to effect such a sense of new commitment from the women.

After the service I was given a brief tour of the prison facilities. Then Cyprian, John (his driver), Margaret and I (with another of Margaret’s colleagues) made our way to the home of the Prison’s chaplain, Rebecca. We passed a pleasant hour chatting and sharing food and fellowship, before I had to leave for a meeting with the Diocese.

I did take a few photos and videos of the prison, and its inmates – but rightly had to promise the warden that I would not publish them on the internet. I have permission from her to show them at church though… so if you want to see life in a Ugandan prison, you’ll have to come to St James’, Emsworth!

Over a second lunch(!) at a café in town, Bob and I hammered out the details of our proposed agreement with the Diocese about how to spend some of the money which the people of Emsworth had sent with me. We finally agreed the following:

a) That Bungokho would provide 5, 5-day workshops on self-sustainability. These would be shared on the following basis: 2 workshops for retired clergy, 2 workshops for prison chaplains and 1 workshop for currently serving clergy. The intention behind these workshops is to help clergy to help themselves, by equipping them with knowledge and skills to be able to live off their own land. It is also hoped that they will become ‘beacons’ of good practice to their local communities. To this end the Diocese has agreed that each serving priest who attends a workshop will be enabled to stay in their parish for up to five years (so that their local parishioners can see the benefits of the agricultural training they will receive at the workshops).

b) After the 5 workshops are complete, Bungokho will continue to support the participants in their local communities, using a light touch.

c) In addition, the leaders of the ministries to retired clergy, and prison chaplains, have been given a small fund of around £500 each. These funds will be used for purposes to be agreed with the Diocese (who are holding the fund in trust).

d) Finally, to assist with the Diocese’s financial management and accountability generally (and specifically in relation to the two trust funds above), we have funded the purchase of an accounts package which will be used by the Diocese in the future.

All the above has been achieved for an investment of £2,500 – and I pray that each part of the package will have long lasting effects. The underlying principle of the way I have disbursed this funding is best summed up in the African proverb: “If you give me a fish, I will eat today. But is you give me a net, I will eat fish for life”. (For the benefit of Emsworth donors, I should mention that the remainder of the funding they gave has been given directly to Bungokho in general support of their programmes. I am convinced that their work among the community, and in providing high quality training in a wide range of manual skills will also have long lasting effects in this community).

After the meeting, we relaxed at Bungokho for a while, and then went for a pleasant (and very cheap!) Indian meal, at a local Mbale restaurant. I went to bed feeling very relaxed and happy that a good day’s work had been accomplished.

Wednesday 24th October 2007

After morning prayer, Bob and I went into town to deposit the donation which was agreed yesterday with the Diocese, and to run some other errands (like picking up a transport order for some goats that Bob needs to buy).

Back at the centre, Clare, Emily and I went with Bob to visit the skills workshops around Bungokho. We visited the tailoring, wood-work and mason’s classes. We then went to the new Community Training Facility to watch, and video, the erection of a roof on the new kitchen. This was a valuable hands-on opportunity for the students.

After staff prayers and a quick lunch, Clare, Emily and I went with Jimmy Mogombi to see firsthand some of his work in the local rural community. First of all he took us to meet a group of women who had been meeting together for about a year. As with all the other 30 groups that Jimmy and his team support, contact was first made with a few individuals, who became persuaded of the benefit of working closely with their neighbours. At the first meeting, nearly a year ago, the group we met today each agreed to put a small amount of money into a central fund – to benefit the whole community. They also began to plan what they would like to do together to improve their lives. Now, a year later, the women have implemented the digging of a well for their village, and begun collective farming on some rented land (providing an income for the whole group). They have also been able to individually borrow against their central fund for small items that will help their individual families – such as a few chickens (to provide eggs), or school fees for their children, or just simple utensils for their homes. These women are among the poorest of Uganda’s poor – and they are now beginning to lift themselves out of their grinding poverty by co-operating with each other.

Jimmy has also been training the group in good land-management techniques – including crop rotation and fertilisation of the soil. The new well, at the centre of their community means that the women, and their families, have a source of clean, fresh water – and don’t have to spend as much as half of their day fetching water from a polluted source a long way away.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the women we met are now a team – a family of individuals working together. We were told that previous to Bungokho’s arrival, many of them would hardly have acknowledged their neighbours. It was a joy to see this group dancing and singing and celebrating their achievement together.

Some people wonder where God is in a country of such grinding poverty. Having met this group, I am very clear that God is to be found in the rich, fertile soil of Uganda, with its plentiful rain. And he is also to be found in neighbourly actions which bring communities together – inspired by the men and women of God from Bungokho. It is not God who leads people to grinding poverty in such a fertile country – it is the selfishness of big business, corrupt officials, and the sin of avoiding one’s neighbour instead of loving them.

After dinner, Bob, Ros and I made our way to a bible study group that they attend. Clare (who, poor thing, has a cold in Africa!) and Emily (who is rather tired) elected to have an evening off with a girly movie! Unlike the Sunday evening group, this was a group of Ugandans, rather than ‘mzungus’ (white people). It was a joy to share with them, to sing their energetic songs of worship, to share a little from the Bible with them, and to pray together.

Thursday 25th October 2007

I spent most of today acting as a mini Steven Spielberg! Over the last couple of weeks I have been making some home movies of our adventures here in Mbale, Bob and Ros got very interested in the possibilities for future fundraising that having their own movies of life around Bungokho might have. So I set to, to create some movies of some of the distinct activities around the Centre. I took lots of video of the different areas of work, and then started work on creating movies from them. You will have to judge for yourself, dear Reader, whether I have spent my time effectively – when you get a chance to view the videos themselves.

Later in the day, we had a visit from Revd Charles Mella, who brought some ‘thank you’ gifts for us – gifts that we shall treasure when we get back home. In the evening, we went with Bob and Ros for a meal at a local restaurant – the “Mbale Resort Hotel”. It was a very pleasant evening, with good food and good company!

Friday 26th October 2007

This morning I was asked to speak at morning prayers – and decided to talk to the students and staff of Bungokho about the concept of God the Worker. (This is the idea that in creating the Universe, God acted as an Architect, Manual Labourer and Artist. Then he stood back as a sort of ‘Quality Controller’, and pronounced that ‘It is Good’. From that idea I encouraged the students to see themselves as made in the image of God, and to follow his example.)

After breakfast, I was collected by Cyprian Walimbwa’s driver, along with the Officer in Charge of Mbale Prison, Margaret. We were taken to visit Bubulo Prison, about 10 miles from Mbale (along the ubiquitous bumpy dirt road). Bubulo Prison is little more than a town jail – a small building, about the size of many houses in my native Emsworth, which holds up to 60 prisoners. The prisoners are held in extremely cramped conditions, with no sanitation, and no exercise facilities. The building was erected in the 1930s, and according to the Officer in Charge, has not had any money spent on it since. I had no trouble believing him. The prisoners sleep on rush mats, on a concrete floor, without blankets. They are fed on a diet of rice and beans, using about 15 plates and cups which they must share. They perform their bodily functions in a communal bucket, in the corner of the large ‘ward’ which they all share.

It is worth noting that of the 40 or so prisoners that were currently in residence, only about 15 were convicted felons. The rest were all on remand – awaiting a date for their trial. The staff of the prison seem to do their best to make life tolerable for the prisoners – but they have few resources. A small patch of land around the prison is used to grow some green vegetables, and the guards seemed to have a friendly manner toward the prisoners.

As with my visit to Mbale Prison, I was asked to preach to the prisoners – who were crammed into the tiny entrance hall of the building. They sang before I preached in a surprisingly joyous way. I thought I would use the same talk that I gave to the Mbale women – about the fruit of the spirit being available to all, to help us resist the ‘works of the flesh’. To my great surprise (again!) around 30 of the prisoners responded to Cyprian’s call to commit themselves to Jesus.

After a little refreshment that had been offered by the prison staff, we made our way to Cyprian’s house, up at the foothills of Mount Elgon. There Cyprian, Margaret and I had a very pleasant lunch, prepared by Cyprian’s wife, Abiath. Over lunch we discussed ways in which Cyprian could use the money that the people of Emsworth have given to support the prison ministry – during which I tried to pass on the principle of ‘speculate to accumulate’ – suggesting that they should try to use the funds for investment in projects that will give a long term return (rather than simply buying soap and blankets). I think Cyprian and Margaret began to get a hold of what I was saying – though with such immediate needs as soap and blankets to be met, I think they struggled to look beyond the immediate, and focus on the future. I am glad that the partnership agreement we have signed with the Diocese means that Cyprian will have the support of the Abednego, the Diocesan Secretary (a former manager for an international aid agency) in thinking through how to make the funds strategically effective. I cannot, obviously, micro-manage the use of these funds from England!

Before we left to return to Mbale, Cyprian and Abiath presented me with some lovely gifts – including some for certain individuals back home. On returning to Bungokho, I invited Margaret and Cyprian’s son (who had accompanied us) for a tour of the Centre. Bob joined us, and I believe that Margaret became quite excited about the possibilities of working with the Centre to improve the short and long term prospects for her prisoners in Mbale.

In the evening, the senior staff of Bungokho gathered in Bob and Ros’ house for a small celebration with their partners and us. They had heard, earlier in the day, that their auditor had finally finished examining the accounts for last year (during which there had been some frustrating enquiries). The auditor had finally signed the accounts off as a true and fair record – so the staff (who have spent much time answering detailed questions) were most relieved!

Saturday 27th October 2007

This morning Bob and Ros took us to the top of the local Mountain – Wanabe, where we enjoyed a fantastic view of the plain on which Mbale is built. In about an hour of travelling on mainly awful roads(!), we found ourselves about 3000 metres above Mbale, with a spectacular view. En route we passed the village after village, perches precariously on the side of the mountain. We also saw a number of beautiful waterfalls, and incredible scenery. Emily, unfortunately, got rather travel sick as we wound our way up the mountain – but I think she agreed that the trouble was worth it when we got to the top!

On coming down from the mountain, transfigured by our experience, we made our way into the normal humdrum of Mbale town centre. We went to do some basic food shopping, check our tyres for Monday’s trip to Kampala, and to have some lunch in a local café. During lunch a procession went by, full of noise and colour – celebrating the imminent arrival of the ‘Chogm’ meeting – (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting). I also had the strange experience of being ‘summoned’ to the table of the restaurant proprietor whom his waitress described as ‘the Musé’ – a Ugandan term of respect for an elder, or wise man. The Musé wished to know who we were, and to welcome us to his restaurant. My initial reaction on being so summoned, while my lunch was going cold was to think ‘if the old man wants to talk to me, he can come to my table’! But I decided to give in to local custom, and went to shake the man’s hand.

After lunch, we made our way back to Bungokho for an afternoon of movie-editing, conversation and dinner – punctuated by the greeting of various visitors to the house. The included the Bishop who I had invited to pop round to record his greetings to Emsworth on video. But when he arrived, after an all-day service, the poor man was too tired, and begged our leave to do his video interview tomorrow. (We are due at a Reception in his house tomorrow evening).

Sunday 28th October 2007

Sunday morning: our last day in Bungokho – and largely a day of packing, reflecting, and preparing to leave at 5.30am tomorrow morning! The time has simply flown by – but we’ve had a fabulous experience. Perhaps more importantly, we’ve made many new friends whom I feel confident will be friends for life. We’ve learned a great deal – especially about everyday life in Uganda. As guests, rather than tourists, we have been privileged to be welcomed into many homes, and to see Ugandan life first hand. As resident guests we’ve experienced the frustrations of everyday life – such as having only intermittent electricity, and having to seek out what we need to buy from a wide variety of very variable shops! (Tourists, in comparison, generally stay in hotels which have their own generators to give constant electricity, and have their food provided for them by hotel staff).

More importantly still, we’ve had the chance to witness at first hand the really valuable work of the Bungokho Rural Development Centre, and the Diocese of Mbale. We’ve met a few loveable rogues along the way – but mainly a group of people who are passionate about their faith, and deeply committed to serving their neighbour. Bob and Ros Arnold have been amazing hosts – letting us share their lives for two weeks, and letting us into all sorts of little observations about Ugandan life. They have welcomed us into their home as family – and helped us to feel very much at home. This has been an experience that I know Clare, Emily and I will treasure for the rest of our lives. It is also, I strongly suspect, just the first of many visits to Mbale!

I will write more, later, about our Reception at the Bishop’s house this evening, and our safari which starts on Tuesday. But as I suspect that this will be the last chance I get to access the internet for a while, you will probably have to wait, dear Reader, until we return to England before reading the final instalment of our adventure!

Part three:

Later… Just to report that we had a great evening at the Bishop’s house this evening. We were joined by his lovely wife, Agnes, and by various other folks including dear Bob and Rosalind Arnold. Also present were the Diocesan Secretary (Abednego), the Diocesan Treasurer (Charles), and Sarah, with wife of an Archdeacon whose name I did not catch. After a typical (and very pleasant) Ugandan meal of meat, matoke (savoury banana) rice and gravy we were treated to another of the precious Ugandan traditions – the after dinner speeches. I really like this tradition. Hosts will usually greet their guests very formally, and say nice things. (So, for example, the Bishop’s wife Agnes said how pleased she was that we had responded to their invitation, knowing that we could easily have given an excuse not to come. The Bishop then thanked us for being willing to enter into a partnership with Mbale Diocese, and prayed that the partnership would continue). By tradition, guests are then invited to respond if they so wish. I said that we were delighted to have made so many new, and good friends – and that we were certain we would be coming back again to Mbale. I told the group, quite truthfully, that I had lost something here – namely my heart – and that I would need to come back to retrieve it in the future.

Much to our embarrassment we were then presented with some presents to take with us back to England. Clare and Emily each received a beautiful woven bag/purse – and I was given a fantastic African shirt. It was made even more fantastic by the fact that it actually fits me!

We went home tired, but happy at having concluded our visit to Mbale in such a manner.

Monday 29th October 2007

We got up at 4.30am this morning – intending to get on the road to Kampala by 5.30. This was primarily because Bob had agreed to pick up some goats near Kampala, as well as a cheque from the British High Commission to pay for the cost of another 10 wells for local people (which had to be done by 11.00am). The early start meant that we made very good time, arriving in Kampala around 10.00am. The road from Mbale to Kampala is, in places, an absolute nightmare – rutted and pot-holded for miles. But there are also good stretches of firm, and sometimes new tarmac – and the road seems to be undergoing a major overhaul. Bob tells us that it is improving all the time, and soon the journey to Kampala from Mbale will be easily achieved in under 3 hours.

After a brief stop at the High Commission, and at a bank to change-up some sterling into Ugandan Shillings (at a rate of 3485 shilllings to the pound) we made our way to the ‘Red Chilli Hideaway’ on the outskirts of Kampala. There, after some lunch with them, we said a reluctant good-bye to Bob and Rosalind. All three of us feel that the Arnolds have become firm friends, and we shall miss their unique insight into Ugandan life during the next week – as well as their love and their companionship. They have been good friends to us during the last fortnight – letting us share their lives in almost every detail, and making us exceptionally welcome in their home. I only hope that we shall have the chance to reciprocate one day.

The Red Chilli Hideway is a back-packer’s campsite and dormitory on the edge of Kampala – but surprisingly peaceful. It is part of the Red Chilli Safari company – who will be taking us to Merchison Falls tomorrow. We have paid a little more than the normal backpacker’s rate, and have been given a cottage to stay in. It is basic, but spacious and comfortable. The shower doesn’t work, and there are no plugs for the bath – but we will manage! It seems strange to be among mainly white people again after a fortnight with native Ugandans!

This afternoon we took a Red Chilli taxi into Kampala to visit a craft market. We spent far too much money on a wide variety of lovely gifts for people at home (family members reading this…you’ll have to wait until Christmas!). Kampala gives the impression of being a city that is trying very hard to modernise itself. Much has been done to the road system to prepare the city for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which is due to take place in a couple of weeks time. So the city looks clean, and well maintained in general. The major downside of Kampala is its traffic, which is appallingly chaotic, with many vehicles jostling for a peace of the tarmac, sometimes quite aggressively. There are few traffic lights, and so, at busy times, the city can quickly become gridlocked, as people fail to give way to each other at junctions. It’s a jungle out there… every one for themselves!

We spent this evening relaxing in the Red Chilli café/bar – and having an early night before our safari begins in the morning.

Tuesday 30th October 2007

We left Red Chilli Kampala this morning at 8.30am, after a splendid full English breakfast! (Well, I always say, when in Rome, try and find something English to eat!). There is very little to report about our journey to Murchison Falls – except to comment that the entire journey took around seven hours, and about half the road had tarmac. Our driver, Juma, was very skilled, and kept us safe despite hurtling along at what felt like breakneck speed to someone who is not use to dirt roads!

After a stop-over at Masindi for a bite of lunch, we arrived at the outskirts of the Park about half an hour later. We were surprised to learn that we still had another hour and a half’s journey before we reached the Red Chilli Camp, just a few kilometres back from the Nile. On the way into the park we saw baboons on the road in front of us, as well as a deer of some kind, and a kite (a bird of prey) also sitting dead centre of the road. However, apart from some water buffalo we stumbled across having a splashing time in a lake, and the occasional flock of guinea-fowl, the rest of the journey to our Camp passed fairly uneventfully.

That is except for Emily who was excited beyond all reason to be in a real wildlife park, at last! She stood up for most of the journey to the Camp, with her head poking out of the extendable roof of our minibus. Her hair was blowing in the wind, and every time I looked round to check that she was still standing, her grin stretched from ear to ear!

We finally arrived, tired, dusty and insect-bitten at around 4.30pm. Our ‘banda’ accommodation is basic, but comfortable. Sadly there’s only cold water available for a shower… but then we are in the heart of Africa, so I can’t complain! Our camp has open fences, and wildlife is known to wander around. In particular, wart-hogs have made themselves at home all around the camp – and we are told that hippos come for a visit on many nights. I won’t be wandering around after dark!

The Camp has a lovely restaurant and bar area – a huge circular thatched building with open sides, looking out over the Nile. We have settled for the evening into some comfortable wicker chairs, and are looking forward to a good night’s sleep in a short while. Tomorrow we are off for a game drive, and a cruise up the Nile to Murchison Falls itself. So an early night seems in order…

Wednesday 31st October 2007

The night passed somewhat uncomfortably. My bed has only a thin mattress over some widely spaced slats, and as a result I spent the night feeling like the Princess and the Pea – very conscious of the slats under my ribs and hips. I was also woken in the very sultry night by the sound of hippos grazing just outside my window. It is difficult to describe the sound of a hippo feeding – there is a sort of loud ripping sound as grass is ripped from the earth, followed by a low rumbling as the grass is digested. The first time one hears this, one wonders what on earth is going on! I looked out of my window and in the moonlight saw the shape of two hippos – the size of pick-up trucks – making their way along the grass outside our ‘banda’.

At 6am we rose in the dark, lit some candles, and got ready for our first game-drive. By 6.30 the dawn was breaking – and by 6.45 it was completely light. It is amazing just how quickly the light comes and goes at each end of the day. (Being on the equator, Uganda has more or less equal amounts of darkness and light – preceded by these very rapid sunrises and sunsets. As a result, it is dark by 7pm each night – which feels strange in what feels like summer. But one soon adapts to the rhythm – waking up when it is light, to make the most of the day.)

By 7am we were on a little ferry, making our way across the Nile. The early sun was shining golden through the clouds, making the Nile look golden. On the north bank, we met our guide, whose name was Deo Gracias (which means “Thanks be to God” – his parents were obviously very pleased to have him!). Deo Gracias led us on our game drive – during which we saw all manner of animals and birds. I have recorded a movie of today’s adventures – so I won’t describe it all here. Suffice to say we saw giraffe, water buffalo, elephant, antelope – and all manner of bird life. The most thrilling moment of the day was when we discovered a lioness, with about three cubs, hiding in a bush with a fresh kill. As we arrived, one of the cubs was sitting outside the bush, but sadly disappeared soon afterwards (before we could get a photo!). After that we could just see the cub chewing on his breakfast through the branches of the bush. Emily however (as you might imagine) was ecstatic!

There was a mechanical problem with the ferry, so we could not get back to the Red Chilli camp for our lunch. Instead, we went to the Parah Lodge, on the North Bank. This was a very exclusive enterprise – stuffed full of wealthy tourists. We managed to wangle lunch at their rather splendid buffet – but found the whole experience rather incongruous after the simplicity of our lives here in Africa so far. It brought home to me the very real difference between rich and poor in this country (and, for that matter, every other around the world).

In the afternoon we joined a ‘cruise-boat’ for a journey up the Nile to the base of Murchison falls. The boat departed almost 45 minutes late due to a problem with one of its engines. Various engineers came to try to fix the problem, but to no avail – so we proceeded up the Nile on a single engine only. This meant slow progress – but more time to view the wildlife, including hippopotamus, crocodile, elephant and many many birds. From time to time the boat crew would have a go a starting the second engine – but it would only splutter into life for short periods. At one point a high-speed launch came alongside, and its pilot handed over some spanners to our boat’s crew – but the new spanners failed to do the trick. I was not particularly concerned, as the current of the Nile is very strong just below the falls – and we could have drifted home quite happily if the second engine had failed!

In the evening, we went to bed early – in order to be ready for another days’ safari early tomorrow.




Thursday 1st November 2007

Today had been scheduled as a rest day for all of us – but Emily was desperate to so another game drive, in the hope of finding more lions. I was really not that bothered about spending another day bouncing about in the back of the Toyota Hiace minibus that Red Chilli uses – and really fancied a day of simply reading and enjoying the view from the Red Chilli camp! But Clare was happy to go with Emily – so they went, in the morning, to do just that. Sadly, no lions were spotted.

In the afternoon we all rested and read books. It’s amazing how tired we have all felt after the last three weeks of excitement and new experiences – but I suppose we should not be surprised.

Friday 2nd November 2007

This morning we departed for a 5 hour boat-trip down the Nile, to the Nile Delta. We had expected that this would be accomplished on the same scruffy and mechanically challenged boat that took us to Murchison Falls on Wednesday – but we were wrong, in a very nice way! Apparently, because of the dates we had had available for this trip to Murchison Falls Park in general, we have, in fact, booked an ‘exclusive’ trip. Which explains why Clare, Emily and I have had the whole of a Toyota minibus to ourselves! So this morning, as part of our exclusive deal, we have been sitting on a river barge, with our own Park Ranger to point out the wildlife, and having, it seemed, the entire river to ourselves. It has been a wonderful trip – during which we managed to track down the elusive shoe-bill (see photo) - a very rare bird by all accounts. We had a bit of adventure too – at one point a hippopotamus decided that we were two close to his favourite patch of the river bank, and so came up under the boat to try to scare us off. Fortunately the boat’s captain and owner was extremely cool!

This afternoon we went on the last of the game drives – with the specific intent of looking for more lions for Emily. Sadly, despite nearly two hours of searching all the places where our guide had seen lions before, we were unlucky. Still, Emily has said that she is happy to have seen the cubs that she saw on Wednesday – and to have spent three days in lion country generally!

Saturday 3rd November 2007

Today began our long journey back to England. It is about 7 hours of travelling over bumpy roads to get back to Kampala – but, as a final fling before setting off, our Driver, Juma, took us to the top of the Murchison Falls – from where we enjoyed the most spectacular view of the falls and the river below.

The journey back to Kampala was long, but uneventful.

Arriving back at the ‘Red Chilli Hideway’, we were met a little later by the friend of a friend – Johnson Mutesigensi. (Johnson is a long time friend of some Ugandan friends we have in the UK – and whose youngest son if Clare and my godchild). It was really interesting to meet Johnson – who is a civil servant in the Ugandan government, and particularly tasked with improving accountability systems (a subject close to my heart, and to my own experience in the UK Government). Johnson kindly offered to meet us tomorrow morning, and to take us to church at one of the Anglican cathedrals.

Sunday 4th November 2007

As promised, Johnson kindly collected us from Red Chilli, and took us to one of the two Anglican cathedrals. (There are two in Kampala, for reasons that I don’t really understand – but which have to do with debates about the tribal allegiances of previous bishops and archbishops). The service was fantastically lively – full of energetic choruses, and with a somewhat Pentecostal flavour. During the notices, Clare, Emily and I were thanked – in front of the Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Luke Orombi no less, for the work we have been doing to help retired clergy in Mbale. It was most embarrassing!

After the service, and the chaos of the cathedral car-park, we met up with Johnson’s wife, Joanna and their sons Jonathan (10) and Jordon (2). After a brief visit to Johnson’s office, the Mutesigensi family took us out for a traditional Ugandan meal at St Antony’s Restaurant (yes, that is how they spell ‘Antony’!). After that we went on a tour of the Kampala University Campus (most impressive!), and then to visit the Tomb of the Kings of Buganda (in what was allegedly the largest – and certainly a very impressive - reed-house in the world).

After the Tomb of the Kings, Joanna and the boys had to leave us – but not without giving Emily and Clare some beautiful gifts of jewellery. We have really enjoyed meeting this lovely family – and hope that we shall meet them again before very long.

There was one last task to be accomplished before heading back to Red Chilli for final packing – specifically a last dash to a craft market for some more Christmas shopping (in the rain!)! Johnson very patiently helped us with haggling with local sellers at what, on a sunny day, would have been a very pleasant market, next to the National Theatre. Then, a final treat… a cup of really good coffee at the wonderfully named ‘Café Pap’! Johnson then drive us back to Red Chilli, where as a result of conversations we had been having in the car, he expressed interest in watching one of the Bungokho videos. This led to an interesting conversation about ways of using small amounts of money to achieve long-term benefits (as we had been attempting in Mbale – and as Bob and Rosalind are engaged in full-time!). Johnson has said that he would like to see some of Bungokho’s work for himself – and so will try to pop in to see them soon (the next time he is in Mbale, if possible). I hope that this will prove to be the start of a mutually beneficial relationship between Bungokho and a small part of the Ugandan Government.

Conclusions

Well, that’s just about it for our Ugandan adventure. I am now sitting on board our flight home to England – the last leg of the journey. My bottom is rather sore after a week of safaris on awful roads – but my heart is light as I think back over the last three weeks. So what do I conclude as I think back over the last three and a half weeks?

First – I note that we have made some great new friends! There is something quite awe-inspiringly wonderful about being members of a Christian family which has members in the UK and Uganda. As a result of this trip we can count so many new people as friends; most of whom we had never met before. At Bungokho there is Bob and Rosalind, Davis and Mary, Paul and Jennifer, lots of Godfreys(!), Florence, David, and so many more. In the Diocese of Mbale there is Bishop Samwiri and Agnes, Abednego and Sarah, Charles, Cyprian and Abiath, Charles and Naomi, James, Margaret and many more. In Kampala, we have new friends called the Mutesigensis. Clare, Emily and I are determined that these are all people with whom we will stay in touch… and people whom we plan to visit again before too long. We all hope for this to be the start of deeper relationships with all these new friends.

Secondly – We did not actually need to come to Uganda in order to bring the money we had raised. In fact, in some ways, we could have sent more money if we had not come ourselves. But I hope we have brought a little bit of creative thinking to the question of how to use relatively small amounts of money for the greatest good. And it has been invaluable to meet, and develop trust in, the people whom we hope to work with again in the future.

Thirdly – we have had the chance to begin to explore the nature of mission outside a purely British context. We have often wondered whether there would be an opportunity for service overseas – and like many people I guess, we’ve always had an interest in Africa. I think we have answered for ourselves the question of whether we could actually live in an African context: the answer is ‘yes – though it’s not a bed of roses!’ Whether there could be a contribution that Clare and I could make (one that is not already being made by others) remains to be seen. I do wonder whether my background in management and administration might prove to be useful (though, on the other hand, I ask myself whether I became a priest in order to be simply an administrator!). These are tricky questions, and we must take time to pray and think about them some more.

Fourthly – we have had change, and rest, and new inspiration for our ministries in England. We have been utterly inspired by the faith and commitment of so many people whom we have met. In many ways they have shown our western, materialistic, over-working life-style for the problematic one that it is. Ugandans, both by necessity and culture, have more time for one another – more time for the important things in life…for friendship and family. We have much learn from them yet.

These then are my initial thoughts as I sit on the plane. No doubt over the coming weeks and months my thinking will continue… so watch this space.
If you have read to the end of this very long journal… thanks for staying with me and my family in Uganda!!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Sacred and Secular in Cyberspace

Here's the text of a Lecture I gave on Friday evening - to the Waterside Ecumenical Community. Click here to read it.

Health warning: it was a 30 minute lecture...not the normal 10 minute talk!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

For the love of money...

Ok Ok I know I said that I wasn't going to blog anymore...but perhaps I was just feeling a bit overworked that day. It seems a shame to put in so much work on my sermons, and then only have them disappear into the ether once I've delivered them. So, even if I don't blog very often (in a diary format) I'll still try to post my sermons here. Enjoy!

1 Timothy 6: 6-19

For the love of money...

Once upon a time there was a ship which was going down in a storm. On board was a man who had been planning to emigrate to a new life, and who had brought all his money with him in cash - in a suitcase full of pound notes that he had stashed under his bed. As the announcement was made to man the lifeboats, the man took out his suitcase from under the bed, and realising that he would not be allowed to take any luggage with him, he stuffed all his pound notes inside his clothing. He put money up his sleeves, and down his trousers. He stuffed his pockets and his shoes. Every nook and crannie of his clothing was filled with money - and walking about like a Michelin man, he made his way to the lifeboat station.

The Petty Officer on duty at the station raised one eyebrow at the man as he got into the boat... he did look rather strange. But then the Officer had seen plenty of strange things in his life, so thought no more about it. He set about the task of letting down the lifeboat into the seething seas below. But horror of horrors - just as the lifeboat was about to safely touch the water, a massive wave swamped the boat. It twisted against its ropes, flipped over, and threw out all its passengers...including the Michelin-Money-Man...into the watery hell below.

Quickly, the Officer ordered the lifeboat to be drawn back up, righted, and then lowered back into the water. Once that had been accomplished, all the lifeboat's former passengers were able to scramble back on board. All, that is, except one. The Michelin-Money-Man was last seen disappearing below the waves, while desperately trying to remove his waterlogged money from all his nooks and crannies. But he was too late. His last thought, before dying, was a question... "I wonder, he thought. Did I own this money...or did it own me?"

How many people here have either read, or seen the film of "The Lord of the Rings"? Those of you who know the film - or preferably the book - will know exactly what I mean if I say "My Precious...we loves you my Precious!". I'm talking of course about the character Gollum - or Smeagal as he once was - before he became so obsessed with owning, and keeping, and touching, the precious Ring which forms part of the title of the whole story. Of course, being a story, the Ring itself was a magic object - filled with the evil power of the Dark Lord, Sauron. It was more than simply a piece of jewellery...it was a thing with a life of its own; and an ability to draw its owner into an intense relationship with it.

The Lord of the Rings is a Christian allegory. Its author, Tolkein, was a close friend and associate of C.S.Lewis - who of course wrote stories about another magical land, Narnia. I don't know exactly what Tolkein had in mind when he wrote about the Ring - but one very clear message is that it is possible for us to become possessed by our possessions - so that we no longer own them... they can start to own us.

And that is, of course, one of the underlying themes of Paul's first letter to Timothy. Paul commands his younger disciple that he must warn the rich people of his congregation that (in verse 9) "those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction". He goes on, "For the love of the money is the root of all kinds of evil".

And just as an aside - just in case no-one has ever pointed it out to you - that is one of the most often mis-quoted lines of the Bible. It is not money that is the root of all kinds of evil... but the love of money. Money itself is a thing...a useful thing for oiling the wheels of human society. But when we begin to love money, to desire riches and wealth... then we are on dangerous ground. We can so easily become (verse 9 again) "trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction"

There is of course no clearer example of the dangers of loving money than the terrible scenes we've seen this week on the streets of Burma. And it really shouldn't surprise us to see that Generals who have spent so many years stuffing their pockets with money would use deadly force to hold on to it. They are, in Paul's words, trapped by their senseless and harmful desires. They have failed to understand that they can't take any of their wealth with them - and that they have failed to grasp hold of life that is really life.

This teaching of Paul undercuts any kind of prosperity Gospel. Don't listen to those preachers on GodTV, or in numerous books, who try to tell you that God wants you to be fabulously wealthy. For Paul, the acquisition of wealth is anything but what God wants - rather it is a serious threat to Christian character and community. For Paul, the idea of Godliness is set up in complete opposition to riches. He wants us to find value in life not possessions. The idea that being a Christian ensured prosperity is seen by Paul as a false priority - with faith-threatening, and life-threatening consequences.

Paul tries, through this letter, to help us to develop a healthy perspective about our wealth. This is not least because, as he says in verse 8, "we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it". Instead, he invites us to find value in life rather than possessions. Or rather, "life that is really life" - as he calls it in verse 19. To help us, Paul develops some ideas about the concept of 'contentment'. Consider the opening verse of this passage: "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment".

Now, I am no Greek scholar - but with a good quality commentary, anyone can begin to get a grasp of some of the more important words in which Paul actually wrote. I'm told that the word that is translated here are 'contentment' is the Greek word 'autarkeia' - which, like many Greek words, has more layers of meaning than the English translation alone can communicate. 'Autarkeia' is a word that denotes contentment, yes, but also an attitude that cherishes simplicity, and which accepts the hand that we are dealt by nature or fortune.

And that's an important point. Jesus did command the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions before he could follow the Lord. But that is not what is required for all of Jesus' followers. Instead we are called to hold the things of this world lightly - to be content with whatever we have, and to be ready to let it go at any time. We are, in Paul's words from verse 18, "to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share". Being ready to share means being able to hold our possessions very lightly between our fingers... easily able to let them go when they are needed by anyone else.

There is a sense in which, as we read Scripture, it tends to read us, in return. I don't know about you, but I find this an uncomfortable scripture to read. As I read it, I find myself asking myself "Is this me? Have I fallen into this temptation?" I find myself squirming as I hear Paul's words echoing across the centuries. And I know that I will squirm even more uncomfortably in a couple of weeks when, I hope, I shall find myself in Uganda... experiencing, no doubt, the poverty of two-thirds of the world's population.

One of the ways that Christians have historically tried to come to terms with this portion of scripture is to use the phrase "all things in moderation". I don't know about you, but I go through all sorts of complicated justifications for the wealth that I possess which are along the lines of 'well, I don't have that much in comparison to some people. And compared to old Mrs Smith I really do live quite modestly. I'm only having one foreign holiday this year...the other holiday was spent in our old battered caravan...that's pretty moderate isn't it?'

But the trouble with that kind of internal argument is that that way lies madness! If we spend our whole lives agonising over every spending decision, and worryingly comparing ourselves to those who have more, or less, than us - then we stand a very good chance of making the concept of 'moderation' itself into a kind of god. No, the biblical basis for handling money is not 'moderation', but 'contentment' - autarkeia - contentment with whatever we have.

Consider what Paul also wrote to the Philippians (chapter 4, verses 11-13). "...I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me".

So let us be on our guard against letting the love of money lead us into destruction. But let us also guard against setting up any new gods... like the god of moderation. Let us, instead, hold lightly to what we have been given - and learn contentment in all the circumstances of life.

And if - because you are now holding lightly to what you have been given - you should want to give me some money to take with me to Uganda in two weeks... money that will be used to alleviate poverty, and bring hope to some of the world's poorest people... then let me encourage you to hold lightly on to your money in this direction!

Amen