The run up to Christmas was a bit different for me this year, as I spent the first two weeks of December in first Uganda and then Tanzania on a Links International trip to visit and work with our friends and partners at Wellspring, just outside of Kampala. I guess some of you will envy the shorter time I was exposed to endless shopping re-runs of Slade, Wizard, George Michael and all the rest.It was the first time I had been away at this time of year, so it was a bit strange suddenly being parachuted (not literally – BA flew me very safely!) into the craziness.
While away I was struck by the life stories of lots of the people I met. To be very honest, the impact was made greater by the fact that I was travelling with a new friend from the States, for whom it was their first experience of Africa. So, I kept hearing the stories through the filter of the impact made upon him. It made me realise how easy it is to get a bit jaded and numbed to the realities after a year spent flying over 94,000 miles to similar situations and life histories. Note to self: don’t ever stop being impacted.
The stories varied but there were common themes running through them all; death and personal tragedy. The pastor and his wife who had recently lost their two and a half year old daughter; severe burns leading to coma and dehydration. The pastor who entered the Ugandan military aged 19, not through any great desire to serve in this way, but because his parents had died and he had no real means of support. The seven years of his army career were entirely and relentlessly spent in war zones in the north of the country where sudden death was a constant danger. However, the alternative was probably dying of starvation or some other cause back in the city. The guy who had recently been travelling out to the East of the country late at night, the vehicle using a less used road, when suddenly there was shot, the window to his right shattered and the person sitting next to him slumped over, dead. The young lady who spoke about her terror as a young teenager when her mother died, leaving her alone. And so it went on.
Terrible stories – made all the more terrible somehow by being comparatively normal to the people we were with. Stories that if nothing else give me – middle class, comfortable, happy childhood, healthy family me – cause to pause and give thanks. (Though not, Sir Bob, thankful that it’s them instead of me…) But there was something else.
The other thing that all these people had in common was a very real experience of the love of God in Jesus, a love that had and continued to sustain, strengthen and empower them. These people were not ‘victims’ – they were all Jesus followers who were giving their lives to help and lead others. The Word became flesh and moved into our neighbourhood. For each of these people, that profound truth of Immanuel, God with us, meant that He was with them in each of their stories. In their neighbourhood, with all its need, God with them, not responsible for their hurt but meeting them in it and holding them through it.
So I missed a lot of Advent – but I discovered a lot of Incarnation.