Advent 2020: Living in the shadow of Death

The Christmas season started early at my home. My husband and sons decided that November 1st the Christmas tree should come up, and up it went. It’s been a long year. We have been locked down at home since March experiencing the ‘new normal’, why shouldn’t the Christmas traditions change?

The new normal brought with it, a lot more quiet. A restrictive quiet. A solitary confinement quiet. A naughty corner quiet. The infamous SOPs- wear a mask, sanitize frequently, temperature checks and curfew have made a quick dash to the market or grocery store so inconvenient. The social distance that needs to be maintained at public gatherings means I cannot share jokes with my neighbors, there are no more hugs and handshakes, it’s not fun anymore. I have spent more time online and in quiet nooks looking for the best network signal than anywhere else. Very introverted but it became the perfect setting for the reflection of Advent and revisiting the Christmas story.

When I first heard of the coronavirus, it was a bug like flu somewhere in China and everyone was wearing masks. China seemed so far away, so distant, totally unrelated to my equatorial corner of sub-Saharan Africa (we are not even in the same hemisphere) and so much less to my own environment. Then the devastation began, with lockdowns and massive death counts. As I was reviewing material for a Sociology lesson, a CNN interview of nurses from one of the worst hit nursing homes in Washington state, I began to observe the devastating toil the disease had on emotions of the nurses and families. To observe through a glass darkly, the effects of quarantine and the immediate need for ventilators. My niece, Keitangaza who passed away on 28th December 2017, needed a ventilator to breathe and there was none available. This took my breath away for a moment. When it hit the Octogenarians in Italy and wiped them out like a plague, the number counter became a siren wail. Uganda still has a very young population but my parents’ generation, most of them are Octogenarians. It was too close for comfort, anxiety set in and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Then it came for us, Uganda managed to contain the deaths and spread. With the gradual reopening, it has come close to home. I know people who have had it and survived and I know people who have had it and died. Such terror and distress.

While reading the Matthew and Luke’s elaborate details of the Birth of Jesus, it soon became apparent that our ‘Christmas spirit’ as portrayed in most of the Christmas movies is slightly off the mark. Actually, if the Christmas movies had been set in 2020, they would have been so on point.

And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

Luke 2:16-18 NKJV

The shepherds, were going about an ordinary day’s work, in a season where Augustus Caesar had ordered a census throughout the Roman Empire. Every man had to go back to his home town. Israel was an occupied territory, and so Bethlehem as one of the towns of Judah must have been packed with so many long lost relatives, Romans, transit travellers, yet the shepherds did not have time for chit chat. They were tending their sheep in the field. God, in His wisdom, found it very important to send a host of angels to these busy men. Not the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away, and not to the Romans who were conducting the census. Rather to shepherds, forgotten like David.

The shepherds, left their sheep and rushed to the place the angels told them and found Jesus lying in a manger. This was exactly what the angels had said they would find. They rejoiced to find the Messiah and shared the news widely. How exciting it must have been to see the Word incarnate.

Christmas is the Season to rejoice for those who like the shepherds have received Jesus as their Savior and Lord- we have received peace and goodwill. Tis the Season to make widely known the good news, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want even in the valley of the shadow of death because ‘our the Christ (the anointed one who saves) was born on Christmas day.’

Later, as a child, Jesus is visited by the Wise Men. These Wise Men make a long journey following a star to worship Jesus. In Jerusalem, where they stop, no one had paid attention to the very same star and no one had heard the news from Bethlehem. The Wise men were warned by an angel not to go back to Herod. And Joseph was instructed to take his family to Egypt by an angel. After the visit, the young family had to flee to Egypt by night. And Bethlehem experienced grief like none other, was it not the Messiah they rejoiced to receive? All their young males under the age of two, were massacred by Herod. The heart gripping pain of losing a young child senselessly, who would console them?

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.

Matthew 2:16 NKJV

Within the Christmas carols is one about Good King Wenceslas, who looked out on the Feast of Stephen. Traditionally, that would be today, Boxing Day. Stephen was one of the seven men ‘of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom’ appointed to handle the Church business so the Apostles could continue with the Ministry of the Word and prayer. (Acts 6).

And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.

Acts 6:8 NKJV

For all this glowing tribute from Dr. Luke, Stephen is the first Christian martyr. He was falsely accused for blasphemy and even when the Council saw his countenance as one of an angel, and were cut to the heart by his words, they did not receive Jesus as the Christ and stoned him death in Jerusalem. His death was witnessed by a young Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, who later became Paul, a bondservant of Christ.

How does one move from gorging themselves on so much turkey and rich Christmas cake to a celebration of martyrdom? One does not. Christianity carries within all its celebration, the death and resurrection of Christ. Christianity also carries within all its death, the life of Christ, eternal and glorious. It is impossible to separate Christmas from Good Friday and from Easter. It is impossible to separate the pain and suffering of calvary from the joy of Christmas and the glory of the resurrection.

It is in beholding the lamb of God, swaddled in remains of priestly garb lying in an ordinary manger that we are able to see Him carry our sins at Calvary and then at last like Stephen, see the Lion of Judah seated at the Right Hand of the Father.

Lord, thank You that while troubles and pain will come, your tender mercies sustain me through them giving me life and peace. In uncertainty and instability, I choose today to re-anchor my life in Your goodness, Your faithfulness and Your mercy towards me. Amen From Lectio365

Vanilla Essence

Or maybe I should call it The myth of retirement. Part 1. All through school, we always heard about and planned for retirement at some ripe old age. It was the utopian idea that at this age, one would have time to take all those holidays they missed, take a cruise around the world, run a farm and maybe play golf all day. Getting into the fast and furious rat race, I quickly realized this was too good to be true. There was just no one around me who lived like this. The only pensioners I knew were in their homes, in Kabale, where my parents grew up. And they were still very active in the political and economic life of Kigezi. Plus, the only reason I knew they were pensioners was because they were always coming to Kampala to fill out some forms to enable them to get their pension. This journey is about 500kms and because the roads were worse for wear, it took almost 24 hrs. All of my life. 😏

So what was retirement then? Did it simply mean that I was too old for formal employment? Not everyone is was formally employed, some were self employed. There, lived around the periphery of Makerere University, a group of elderly Batooro men who peddled anything and everything. One of the peddled recycled bottles, he collected glass bottles from our households, at that time everything was bottled in glass. He cleaned them up and sold them off. Would he retire? When would he retire? My nanny, was so old, Maria, bless her heart. She plucked out all my milk teeth, never needed a dentist. Would she retire as well? When would she retire?

Then came the Structural Adjustment Programs that saw the massive layoffs of public servants. They were given severance pay and overnight, they were no longer civil servants. Were they retired? Apparently, they were. But they were too young for cruises and yet too old for their former jobs. They reinvented the wheel. Early retirement became an option.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost is a description of the buzz around me when I decided to retire. Nevertheless, when I opted to retire, time took on an elastic quality. I would have all the time to do everything, I had wanted to do. So I bought vanilla essence. I was going to be baking fresh muffins for breakfast and desserts for my family, so they could also live the life. I have a very sweet tooth.  It did not help matters that one of my retirement gifts was a desserts recipe book.  I would like to take a moment here and laugh 😂🤣 at this plan. Four years down the road, the essence is a running joke among my sons. I never baked a cake or dessert or any such thing.

…Life it goes on

Robert Frost

School schedules remained the same. Traffic jam remained the same. The earth still orbited the sun for 24 hrs. The dry and rainy seasons still remained. The visa application process for those long boat cruises remained just as rigorous if not more. Morning routines remained. Meal times remained.

And so it was that I found myself grappling with the word retirement and its meaning. Would it vanish like Santa and the tooth fairy? Only to reappear when my own children were learning about milk teeth and Christmas gifts. Would it be deleted from my word bank? Would it take on a new meaning? The Jews had been waiting for the Messiah, there were prophecies by great famous prophets like Elijah and Isaiah and little known ones like Micah and Joel. This Jesus who had just fed over five thousand of them with two fish and five loaves, might be the one. They followed Jesus in small boats across the Sea of Tiberius to Capernaum. After all, Moses had fed their forefathers with manna, surely Jesus could do better. Maybe He could even show them how He did it.

Jesus answered, “This is the work of God: that you believe [adhere to, trust in, rely on, and have faith] in the One whom He has sent.”
John 6:29 AMP

Surely, it could not be that simple. There should be a miracle he could perform. But, just like it was for me, the realisation that life is the journey of believing and trusting in Jesus is the ultimate mythbuster. Many of them walked away that day. Ultimately, the goal of life is not retirement but to believe in Jesus. Totally blew my sails out! This was not what I was expecting but it was how I had always lived. So if I had lived this way, was living this way, surely I should continue to live like so?

The essence of life is to believe in Jesus, the One sent by God. The Bread of life that satisfies my hungry soul.

Unreservedly

And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

John 20:22-23 NKJV

Jesus walks into the room where the disciples are locked in for fear of the Jews. ‘Shalom’, He greets them as if He had just returned from one of his evening strolls.

Photo credit: Pintrest

One of the things He does is to breathe on the disciples so they receive the Holy Spirit. Why?
The room was filled with failure and its attendant emotions. The disciples were filled with fear, uncertainty and confusion. The air is filled with silent accusations and dashed hopes.They had run away from Jesus, fallen asleep instead of praying, they felt lost and sad. They missed Jesus and His leadership. They were angry- with the Romans, with Judas, with the teachers of the Law- mostly with themselves. They could not wholly blame Judas, they too run away.  They had given up everything to follow Him and He was gone. It is a dejected lot He finds in that room.

How does Jesus respond? He breathes on them like He did in the beginning. In the beginning, when the earth was formless and empty. When the earth was dark, no birds tweeting, no lions roaring, no flowers, no mighty ocean waves, nothing. In the beginning when Adam had a form but no breath in his nostrils. Life.

The Breath of the Holy Spirit proclaims liberty and releases them from darkness. In that instant, they are empowered to forgive. Rescued from the darkness, they can rescue others. They are able to forgive. Able to forgive themselves first, because they recognize how sinful they are. Able to forgive each other because they recognize how they hurt each other. Able to forgive other sinful men who crucified their Rabbi.

saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’

Luke 24:7 NKJV

In a season, where we have experienced immense loss and failure,  we swirl in similar emotions. Some days are better than others. Most of us remain physically locked in, uncertain, fearful, angry, disappointed. For those of us, easing out, the shadow of loss hangs in the air, it is in the distance, in the hand washing, in the facial masks. Jesus still comes and stands among us to Rescue us like He did with the disciples..

For He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.

Colossians 1:13-14 NKJV


Jesus has unreservedly freed and rescued us from all this brokeness. Receive the Holy Spirit and forgive the sins of those who have offended you. Those whom you have been offended by. Forgive yourself for offending others. Jesus breaks the fetters, chink by chink, of offence off of you today. Walk free.

What happens when men encounter the grace of God?

I find myself pondering on the relationship between diligence in study and the grace of God; wondering whether the grace of God removes the discipline of study or empowers it.
As a History teacher, I went back in time.

Photo credit: PINtrest

Martin Luther was a Professor at the time he encountered the grace of God, not merely a lowly monk. He had a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Theology. He was one of the first professors to lecture in German instead of Latin, a great feat, in a time with no German Bible for reference. All this in the Roman Catholic Church with it’s rigor for study. When he encountered the grace of God, he wrote ninety five (95) theses!
John Calvin, an accomplished French lawyer. When he encountered the grace of God at age 26, he wrote a simple catechism in Latin and French, Institutes of the Christian religion, to date one of the foundational expositions of the Protestant Church.
Ham Mukasa, a regent in the Buganda kingdom, the Sekibobo of Kyaggwe wrote a commentary of the Gospel according toMatthew in Luganda. Matthew is deemed to be one of the most detailed and complex gospels because it is written through a Jewish lens. Apollo Kivebulaya, with only a passion for Jesus, studies day and night and translates the gospel of Matthew from Luganda to Rutooro.

What shall we say about Moses the stuttering prince who recorded the laws in great detail and built a replica of heaven in the tabernacle. Peter, a despised fisherman, who went on to write very eloquent letters to the Jews in the diaspora. Paul, a prisoner in chains, formerly a zealous persecutor the church, whose letters are still read to this day- his passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is the read at nearly every wedding in the church. Even John Mark whom Paul cast aside wrote a very brief version of the gospel.

The grace of God empowers the study. Paul writes this,

the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:11).

It is not possible that having encountered the grace of God that one would fail to be diligent in study.

“I am prepared to die in the army of Jesus.” Janani Luwum

Photo Credit: The Monitor Publications

Today is Janani Luwum day. We set aside days so we never forget what is important. Janani Luwum was the Archbishop of Anglican Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga (Zaire) from 1971-1977.

In 1971, Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada became President of the Republic of Ugands through a coup de tat. The deposed President, Dr. Apollo Milton Obote was being hosted as an exile in Tanzania. There was trouble everywhere in Uganda including the borders with Tanzania. The army purges to cleanse the army of troops deemed hostile to the President were ongoing. The purges later spread to all Luo speakers and later to all professionals. Israelis were expelled. Indians were expelled.

Janani, together with Festo Kivengere, and other bishops stood up to Idi Amin. I thought this post would be about Janani alone but it is not possible for me to separate the two. Like Paul and Luke, their voices blended into one voice that challenged illegal detentions and extra judicial killings because they believed in a God who is just and good. They believed that their leaders should be good and just. They did this in sermons, in meetings with the President, in books, in their living rooms, in their prayers.

Janani is quoted as saying, we need to be Jesus to these people. Which people? The ones looking for their loved ones. The ones on the run. The ones facing injustice. The ones being hunted down. The ones no one cared about. They needed to be a voice of the distressed nation to a leader whose ears had dulled to his people.

Janani was ‘implicated in a coup’ arrested and murdered. Even in death, his memory was slandered- The government of the day said he was an escaped convict, killed in the act of escape. Festo left his cherished Uganda and became a refugee in exile. He later wrote a book, ‘I love Idi Amin.’

Church, I would like us to take a moment to consider the cost of our faith. On this day, what are you willing to stand for?

Who will be Christ to the hungry? Orphaned by corruption and greed. Who will be Christ to the thirsty? Watching the filth from our industries roll past their homes.

Who will be Christ to the naked? The victims of violence clothed in shame and ridicule.

Who will be Christ to the homeless? Carrying their boxes from street to street searching for a spot on the street to call home.

Who will be Christ to the sick? Searching for a doctor, a teacher,who is working three jobs to make ends meet? The leaders with more questions than answers. With solutions that come up short of the mark, every single time.

The despairing, crushed and lifeless youth stuck in the wheel of life rolling on. Filling up the mental wards. Trudging aimlessly from town to town.

Who will be Christ to the prisoner? Chained by impossible dreams. Crushed by unfulfilled hopes.

What is the price of your faith?

By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward.
Hebrews 11:24‭-‬26 NKJV

Moses is a witnesses of our faith, he left the passing comforts of Pharaoh’s household to suffer with God’s people. Have Pharaoh’s comforts veiled your eyes, Bride of Christ?

Will you accept the status quo or will you rise as the Son of God creation is anticipating?