Thursday, January 6, 2011

God of This City

This week I got to be a part of experiencing God’s biggest movements across the world. It is a student conference called Passion. Once a year Passion comes to Atlanta and brings the biggest names in the Christian media. John Piper, Francis Chan, David Crowder, Hillsong United, Beth Moore, Chris Tomlin, are some of the few incredible servants of God that inspire this generation to live for the One true reason to live. The amazing thing about the week is it isn’t about the names, speakers, or artists. It is all about Jesus. It is a movement that is only experienced and explained by the power of God. 25,000 college students from across the country come together for this four-day event to worship our Limitless Creator and ended up giving over one million dollars to ministries across the world. Awesomely powerful is a drastic understatement. During this conference last year is when I truly began to feel God pull me towards international missions. I finally realized that God never wanted me to have all of this life and his “will” figured out, he just wanted my “Yes.” I realized that if I truly believed what I said I believed I had to obey God’s call and go. I spoke the “yes” of my heart towards heaven, and since then, what an incredible journey he has taken me on. He has blessed me with an incredible testimony of His love, grace, protection, and peace that all points back to Him. It has been a year full of excitement, sorrow, joy, stress, trials larger than I have ever faced, and peace that surpasses all understanding. A testimony we feel responsible to share that illustrates miracle after miracle. All glory from every word to God.

The entire time during my last trip to Uganda I fought the strange combination of desire and fear to return to the restaurant we were at the night of July 11th. I may talk about this too much, but I feel like it is a story we must share. The experience so strongly impacted my life so the story alone I pray ripples impact to those that hear it. It was the night that forever changed our lives. It was a night where many people lost their lives. It was the night bomb blasts rang through Kampala. The final day of my trip back to Uganda I overcame the fear and fulfilled the desire to return to the Ethiopian Village restaurant. My expectations of just walking in and taking pictures were far exceeded during the chilling experience of being in the same spot we treaded through the most horrific scene only months ago.

Let me retrace those steps…

The day was normal. We went to church, had chicken and sodas for lunch just like every other Sunday. In hindsight the only thing slightly abnormal about the morning was that I vividly remember the pastor asking, “What would you do different if Jesus was coming back tonight?” If I can be completely honest, most times a good question like that is brought up, I consider it, appreciate it, put some thought into it, but when church ends it leaves my memory. This one didn’t. The afternoon of July 11th I sat on the balcony of the orphanage and wrote down everything I would do differently that day if I knew I would meet Jesus that night. I still don’t do it to the fullest, but one example is I know that I would live for Him without reservations filled with boldness and courage and tell everyone about the Grace filled life I have found and the life Jesus has to offer them.

As I was scribbling my heart out on paper, I was getting excited about the game. We had been waiting on this final match of the World Cup for a long time even though the U.S. got knocked out just a few weeks prior. We watched the U.S. games at Ethiopian Village before and had a great time. Jay and I thought and talked about that we should go back there.

These next steps and decisions that seemed so small and insignificant are what saved our lives. It has opened my eyes to realize how involved God is in our every thought and step. I am amazed how the Lord dances all around us while we never hear a sound. I wonder how many other disasters God has steered our lives away from without us even realizing it has happened? This one, God allowed us to be in the middle of the disaster, watching the evil take place, but without harm falling upon our bodies. I know I still ask God and myself why I was not number 77?  I don’t think I will every fully know the answer until I stand before Him. If I don’t have immediate understanding the day I walk through the gates, I will ask.

As we sat on the steel framed beds and foam pad mattresses in the orphanage, Catherine and I went back and forth in a conversation. We didn’t realize the full ramifications of our words.
“We have to get there early,” I suggested, “at least an hour and a half”
Catherine responded with a well respected, “I agree, I really want good seats.”
The light bulb above my head illuminated as I thought and said, “Lets just eat there! They have decent food and that way we can guarantee spots and save the table until gametime.” In my mind it would work just as we do at home for big football games.
Catherine toyed with the idea even though she didn’t like the food.
“That might work, but I don’t think the whole group likes the Ethiopian.”
As I was secretly wanting the rest of the group to tough it out and just eat it, Carrie walked in overhearing our conversation.
“No!” she protested, “I don’t want that food and we promised Jill and Katrina we would meet them at Café Roma tonight for dinner.”
After Carrie’s opinion was clearly stated I knew I lost Catherine’s support as well.
“Fine. You win. I lose. Café Roma it is.”

We loaded up in the van with our driver Kenneth, who we often call Kenny G (I don’t think he has any idea who that is). Destination: Café Roma, then Ethiopian Village for the game. On the way we had to pick up Jonathan Lenning, at the time one of Catherine’s close friends. We got stopped in traffic because of a campaign march. We ran late for many reasons and finally made it to Café Roma. I ate my pizza as if it were trying to escape off my plate, and called Kenny G as quick as possible. Game time is only 45 minutes away. If we want to get to watch the huge screen we better hurry.

Kenny G is late again! Getting our checks is taking forever. I knew it. We should have gone with my plan. My impatience built.

We piled in the van again and made the short drive to Ethiopian Village. There was nowhere to park so we just jumped out in the road. What I was hoping wouldn’t happen, happened. People everywhere. The view from the parking lot told us there were no seats in site.

 The hostess led us up through the crowd to the room on the right you see in this above picture. It is obvious judging by the size of this TV screen the inner male in each of us flocked to the best view in town. Tables with beer ad tablecloths surrounded by plastic lawn chairs were everywhere. Each one of them filled. It was dark and Ugandans packed the place out. I could see an average number of American foreigners standing out in the night amongst the crowd. Average is usually only few in a large crowd. They must have thought ahead and got here early. Game time is in 15 minutes. I hoped I could get a cold dew before the whistle.

As we realized where the hostess was taking us, disappointment filled our group (mainly the guys). I thought to myself, “This side room!? There must be another place. We have to watch that TV!? It is so small compared to the monstrous screen right here. I know I have been spoiled to huge HD flat screens but anything but this one.” The room still opened up the main crowd all having the giant projection screen to watch the action. Even this room was crowded. To the left, tables were open. The only tables in the entire place were waiting for us. People that looked like they got there just before us and took the last remaining seats still in view of the screen already occupied the right side of this room.

I sat down on the far left of this room just inside the door with my left shoulder on the window with the curtain. Our group formed a crescent shape watching the small TV in the top left corner. The backs of Jay, Catherine, Tori, and Mason now faced the outdoor area. The big screen and projector were only feet on the other side of this wall to the left in this picture. I could hear the crowd and would occasionally peak through the curtain to watch and be envious of the people who actually got to watch the screen we came for.

“Told you Catherine.” I sarcastically stabbed not knowing how much I would eat those words.

The picture below shows the distance of our surroundings well. These chairs we occupied were just inside this L-shaped wall that kept us from seeing the screen, which we realized later that also kept us from seeing death. We think the blast came from just to the right of this yellow table.

The game was quickly losing my interest. It was hot. The TV was disappointing. The air felt humid and stuffy as if we were crammed in an attic on a hot summer day. As halftime approached, I decided to beat the bathroom line and go ahead and go. I went and as I returned, brushed shoulders with many people with absolutely no idea that one could have had explosives lining their pockets. As we sat and watched soccer and enjoyed each others company, none of us realized the evil that was taking place as a terrorist thought his final thoughts as he buttoned his shirt over a vest of death.

As I sat down, Jay was standing up to make the same trip. I wasn’t seated for more than a few seconds when the world instantly turned black. I have failed many attempts at trying to describe the noise. It was an eruption of sound carrying a booming bass that instantly blew our hearing. It was more than just a sound, but a tidal wave of energy that rushed over our bodies and hurled us to the floor. This seemingly normal day instantly turned into a bloody nightmare. At once, our time of fellowship turned to a crime scene you only see in movies or the news. What just happened? What was happening? My ears consumed muffled screams and chaos. Amidst the turmoil, we grabbed the girls and all took cover the furthest place and cried out to Jesus.

Victims lay lifeless all around this area as others struggled to get to their feet or find their family. Blood was everywhere… literally everwhere.  Shards of glass swam through the red pool that now covered the floor of our room. Losing a shoe during the blast, I was walking barefoot across it. This picture above is the perspective from the direction the bomb blew. The L-shaped green wall shielded us while the ones sitting just across the room on the right side were lying limp in their chairs. Fear overcame us as we realized the severity of this tragedy. Are we hurt? Would there be more?

Jay led the way as we stepped through blood covered debris and people. Mason and Jay attempted to return to the chaos to offer help, but quickly realized there was nothing that could be done. No help could be offered. We tried to console a man on the street that lost his brother. We prayed. It was the most heartfelt, honest, genuinely terrified prayer pleading God for direction and thanking him for the breath we realized we were still breathing.

We walked out untouched. I did not have a single scratch on my foot that tread across bloody glass. The wall shielded us from the blast as the curtain shielded us from the imploding glass. We found refuge under the wings of our God and we were shielded by His faithfulness. (Psalm 91)

Many questions will continue to circulate in my mind for as long as I live. This side of heaven, we will never know the answers in full. I will rely on trusting God and leaning on His understanding and not my own. I don’t know why I was spared. Jonathan often says a wise comment that takes deep thought to understand, “God is not faithful because he protected us, He protected us because He is faithful.” The hardest thing to come to grips with is this; what if my group was not here to tell the story? What if my hands couldn’t type the steps we took? What if the only testimony was a police report describing our last steps or memories from the last phone calls we made to friends and family? A lot would be different. That was obviously not God’s plan and not our time. I know he has plans for every person in my group just by the fact that he spared our lives while allowing us to witness pure evil stealing the existence of innocent lives. I have thought through the scenarios that if one step was different, timing was off, or I received what I desired in the simple act of watching a soccer game and being there early, we most likely wouldn’t be here today. It has taken me time, but I can type this now in truth. If my life was taken that night, then ALL glory be to God for He is ALWAYS faithful and he is ALWAYS good.

Obviously our vapor on earth has yet to diffuse, but if it did… then praise God. That may not make sense to all, but we have seen that if we are here on earth, then our purpose is to love and share Christ and love others, and if God decides to bring us home, then we go home. We walk the streets of heaven with the Creator that designed the miracle of life. We begin true life in eternity. We break our brokenness by walking through the gates. What is the downfall in that!? Either way or either outcome all glory, honor, and praise to God and God alone. Philippians 1:21. When he is ready to take me home I will be ready. I haven’t always been, but now I am ready. I know my purpose here. I know why I exist. It is to make much of God and to tell the world how we can have a relationship with Him and make Him the center of our lives and the foundation of our desires. It is to show the world the full life he has to offer now and later and the redemption that took place on the cross to forgive us and bring us back in union with a holy God. When God is ready to call me home, I will go rejoicing, but until then I want to use everyday to change the world through the power of Jesus.

Don’t miss it. Don’t miss your purpose on this earth. Don’t miss what God has to offer. We can so easily miss it. Don’t trade the ultimate for the immediate. I almost missed it and nearly traded it for some quick satisfaction in the past thinking that something in this world could gratify my deepest desires. Even then, God sits at the table of life and lays out an offering of Grace, His Son on the cross, and says to us, “I love you. I am faithful. I want you to know me. I want to redeem you to me. It is finished. The price has been paid. Return to me.”

That night, still functioning off adrenaline and fear, we made it back to the orphanage. In the middle of the night our seventeen beautiful Ugandan children slept peacefully as Jay, Carrie, Jonathan, Tori, Catherine, Mason, and I sat in a circle, prayed and worshiped Jesus. Jonathan picked up my guitar and began to pick the strings as our voices slowly raised to an anthem….

You're the God of this City 

You're the King of these people 

You're the Lord of this nation 

You are

You're the Light in this darkness 

You're the Hope to the hopeless 

You're the Peace to the restless 

You are

There is no one like our God 

There is no one like our God

For greater things have yet to come 

And greater things are still to be done in this City 

Greater thing have yet to come 

And greater things are still to be done in this City

Picture taken day after the bombing (from news station)

Monument constructed to remember those lives lost.

We will never forget. Psalm 91 and Scripture has come alive in a new way. The seven of us that walked out together unharmed that night all have a unexplainable bond and common understanding of God's physical hand of protection

I depart on my next God led journey on January 9th to Costa Rica. Thank you for all your support and prayers.  

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