“Aber, I have good news, and bad news… .” I’m walking down the abandoned railway with Opiyo, the most active member of the new community action group I have started at our little local church. Aber is my local name – almost no one here knows me as Tessa since it’s too hard for Acoli people to pronounce. We are on our way to a meeting with the local Primary School Teachers Association to discuss local issues that they are concerned about and whether they would consider joining an alliance of other community groups coordinated by our church to work together to bring good changes in the community. We walk the railway tracks to avoid the clouds of orange dust on the main road, sent billowing by big trading trucks on their way to South Sudan. It’s hot, and I’m feeling anxious. The last few weeks have felt like we’ve got nowhere. If we keep moving so slowly, our fledgling new group will lose interest and numbers.
“Tell me, tell me” I reply in Acoli.
“Well, I got a job! After three years of searching… But… it’s in Lira.”
Lira is in another District. I try and disguise this quickly. I want to be purely happy that after so long, and so much struggle, he finally has work. It’s a gift, a big breakthrough. But little voices start whispering, “You are losing your best member. Others may leave too… What are you achieving here? Will this group succeed, bring real change in Lacor, and bring new people to Jesus as they join in the work with us? Or will you fail?”
Eventually, we arrive at the meeting location, hot and dusty (despite our rail-route). No one’s there. We wait. Turns out the leader got the meeting time wrong. We’ll have to wait yet another week for the meeting.
Of course, in the greater scheme of things, these kinds of set backs are pretty minor. But in my experience, the very feeling of ineffectiveness, or doubt that results will flow, can be quite overwhelming. All Christians are sent out into the world with a mission, whether in New Zealand or elsewhere. We are sent out to be disciples of Jesus, and we are sent to make disciples. We are sent to reach out to those on the bottom, to act justly – to live the radical way he did – and we are sent to help others to know and follow him. But what about when it’s just not working? Or when you feel ineffective? We arrived here seven months ago, and even though things are going well, these devious worries keep creeping in. On the one hand, its right to long for the things God wants, and it’s natural to want to be an effective worker. On the other, it’s easy to mix in your ego, your worth, and your hope.
I struggled with this in New Zealand, not just over here in Uganda. There are a couple of basic things I keep needing to remind myself.
1. Self Worth. Yesterday I read a little book by Tim Keller called The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. He points out the world tells us that our performance leads to how we are judged, who we are, what we are worth. If you meet the standard, if you are good enough, or productive enough, successful enough, then you’ve earned your self worth. The gospel turns this upside down. Performance doesn’t give us self worth. The source of our self worth leads to performance. We are forgiven, loved, called children of God. We are even called his co-workers! We are freed from tying our worth to what we achieve. Knowing we are loved, we are freed to act out of love, not out of the need to prove or validate ourselves. Boom. Don’t you forget it.
2. Control. Simply put, I need to remember I can’t control other people’s actions or responses. When Jesus sent out his disciples he told them “when you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23). The book of Acts is full of tales of the disciples doing just that. They had some epic fails – people mistook them for gods, their message was rejected, they were stoned and imprisoned. They couldn’t control people or their response to the news they carried. But they kept going, and despite the odds, despite the failures, God did his thing through them.
3. Hope. Things might seem hopeless, and our efforts might seem to be going nowhere. Don’t get me wrong. In the above scenario I’m all for reassessing the strategy, changing tack, and seeking wise ways to be effective. But I also need to remember the bigger picture. We know how the story ends. The kingdom comes, the King rules with justice and righteousness, we will be his people, he will be our God, and the old order of things will pass away. So there’s always hope.
I need to remember these things every single day. Forget them, and I am all too easily trapped by fear and futility. Embrace them, and I’m set free. I can say wholeheartedly to Opiyo: “That’s awesome news. What a break through. We’ll miss you here, but God is going to do great things with you in Lira. Go well.”
Tessa and Nick Laing are NZCMS Mission Partners in Lacor, Gulu Town, Diocese of Northern Uganda. Nick serves as a volunteer doctor while Tessa has been finding ways of equipping and encouraging locals to engage in the area of social justice.
For more from the Laings visit ugandapanda.com