The other day I was walking across the campus at the Children’s Home on an absolutely gorgeous day. The cloudless sky was a bright, deep blue. It was warm with a gentle breeze, causing the pine trees to dance lightly with the sky. The air was sweet with the scent of pine needles. I thought, “this must be what heaven is like.” I was reminded of a joke told by one of my clergy friends. He would say, “If you don’t like the smell of incense, you won’t like heaven!” As I walked along I thought, I bet the incense in heaven is not clouds of smoke billowing out of a censer like at church. Instead, I imagine it is like the pine straw, occasionally wafting up its sweet aroma as a surprise grace note to passersby.
Today, during my devotional, I read, “From the rising of the sun to its setting my Name shall be great among the nations, and in every place incense shall be offered to my Name, and a pure offering; for my Name shall be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” Malachi 1:11 I doubt heaven is covered with pine straw and we don’t sacrifice animals on the altar anymore so what is this incense that we should be offering up to the Lord of hosts?
Several weeks ago, for Epiphany Sunday, we planned on giving food baskets to 3 local families in thanksgiving for the gifts of the 3 kings. I was in PriceSmart buying the food when I was suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit. I knew He was saying, “Yes, this is how I want the children to celebrate Epiphany.” After blessing the food during the church service, we all set off down the hill to deliver the first basket to the family at the gate. The basket started out very heavy but within a few steps, it was almost empty because many children wanted to help carry the food. We were met at the house by the gate by Kimberly, a young pregnant woman. Her face was wreathed in smiles as she accepted the basket, full of nutritious food, milk, and some cookies, for the family. We went to the second house just up the dirt road from the Children’s Home. The bigger boys took the food into the kitchen. There was no food in the house. Dona Reyna, the mom, joined us in prayer and then prayed herself, thanking God for this miracle. Although we had planned this, to her it was like manna from heaven. One minute her family has no food, suddenly they have a basketful! I think at that moment, a sweet aroma wafted up to heaven. Our offering of incense to the Lord in the form of food for His children.
In January a medical brigade came and we held a clinic in a rural church. A mother brought her severely disabled 5-year-old son. His muscles are so week and flaccid, he can’t even hold his head up. The mom carries him everywhere. The team left money to buy a stroller for him. Edson and I delivered the stroller to their home, a long walk down a treacherous dirt road. The mom was thrilled with the stroller and immediately rolled him up and down the length of the porch. Then she smiled and thanked God for the stroller. The incense of her gratitude rises to heaven and God smiles.
Most of our children at the Children’s Home have sponsors, or “madrinas and padrinos” (Godparents.) Many of them have established relationships with the children and communicate with them regularly. It is a wonderful thing to see a child’s eyes light up when they hear from their madrina or padrino. It is also true that some of our children either don’t have a sponsor or don’t have any contact with their sponsor. They are all very gracious and are happy when another child receives a gift, card, or visit from their Godparents. Not long ago I asked one girl what she would like from her madrina who was coming soon. After the long wish list from her friend, Genesis (the older one,) who does not have an active madrina, looked at me and said forlornly, “I would like some skates.” Her little face pierced my heart and I determined that she would get skates. I reached out to the other girl’s madrina and asked her if she would add some skates to the list. The look of pure joy on Genesis’ face when we presented her the skates was priceless! Sweet, sweet aroma! Later on that afternoon, we saw many other children helping her learn to skate and learning to skate themselves as she happily shared her new skates (and the only skates at the Children’s Home!) with anyone who wanted to try. The generosity that comes so naturally to the children must lift up billows of incense! (Oh, and now Genesis has her own madrina! Love sends more incense heavenward…)
Our latest team, another medical brigade, went to Col. Emanuel, an impoverished village behind the city dump. We saw a young man and his little brother. We learned that 22 year old, Raul, is head of household for his 4 siblings. His 4 yr. old brother, Sem, had a serious case of asthma. Dr. Ann brought them into the pharmacy to nebulize Sem. Raul was so sweet, so loving, so dear. Sem was adorable. Sem sat on Raul’s lap and they sang little praise songs during his treatment. I learned that Raul lost his job several months ago. “How do you buy food?” I asked. Raul shrugged and said, “We trust in God.” We gave him all of our leftover food and some money. At first he refused the money but we insisted. He was so very thankful. Raul embodies grace as he cares for his siblings and puts all his trust in God. Daily incense offered up to his faithful Savior.
There is a Spanish praise song that I love dearly. It is titled, Perfume a Tus Pies. (Perfume at Your Feet.) The lyrics lead up to “I want my life to be like perfume at your feet.” I believe the incense we lift up, becoming perfume at the feet of the Lord, is the way we live our lives. It is our actions of love and gratitude, trust and hope, that is the pure offering that makes His name great among all nations.
To listen to Perfume at Your Feet, follow this link.https://youtu.be/JXrGBjKyMvY
At the end of February, SAMS hosted a regional retreat for the missionaries serving in Africa at a conference center in Cape Town. Not only was the setting gorgeous, it was a wonderful time of rest, relaxation, and fellowship with members of my tribe, and it was deeply restorative.
My soul breathes easier just looking at these pictures and remembering the tranquility that we found. Such a gift!
It was a joy to meet missionaries I’d only heard about, and to spend time worshipping, praying, sharing, and just having fun.
Our sessions were the perfect balance of teaching and contemplation, and the Lord showed me several things that continue to ponder and process with Him.
Some of the book recommendations for you to add to your To Be Read pile are Sealed Orders, Healing the Purpose of Your Life, One Minute Wisdom, and The Cloud of Unknowing (Amazon affiliate links for SAMS).
Since I was in South Africa, I decided to pop over to Pietermaritzburg to meet my online Bible study leader, Kelly, and her mum, Karren. When I first joined that study, I feared that I would be the outlier member in Africa, and lo and behold, the Lord gave me an African for a study leader! Over the years that I’ve participated in the studies, Kelly has become a dear and precious friend and sister in the Lord, so there was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to meet her in person.
Kelly and Karren were fabulous hosts, and in my too-short visit, we found time to enjoy a great deal of fabulous coffee and time with Kelly’s very cuddly horses.
Kelly and Karren live near Indlovu, which is were Nelson Manela was captured and arrested. There is a small museum and a sculpture at the site, as well as a Long Walk to Freedom, which notes the highlights of Mandela’s life as you walk towards the sculpture.
The sculpture is best seen from one certain vantage point; otherwise, it is difficult to see what it is portraying. It was unveiled in 2012, exactly 50 years after Mandela’s arrest.
I am so grateful for this time to retreat and relax. It came halfway through the semester, and became the perfect spring break. In college, I never took a spring break, as I always had work to do, so this trip helped to right that imbalance. This semester is rather hectic, so this retreat gave me much needed breathing space so that I can try to finish the semester well. Thanks be to God.
I’m Jessica Hughes, an Anglican priest serving at Uganda Christian University through the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (SAMS). “Here I am” is both an answer to the geographical question “WHERE are you?” and a nod to my favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 6:8.
read more about me
This morning I went to supervise Geoffrey, a student who saw that a large school in Mukono lacked a formal chaplain, and asked the school if he could come on Sunday mornings. There are two services: one for the Catholics, and one for the Protestants. I haven’t been to this school in a while, and as I climbed the hill, I wondered which building it was in. I asked one of the elementary students where the Anglican service was, and she wrinkled her nose at me and reframed, “Do you mean the Protestant service? I’m a Protestant.” I estimated that there were around 600 students in the Protestant service; there were at least as many in the Catholic mass in the next building.
We do not tell students that we are coming to check on them, so Geoffrey was pleasantly surprised to see me. I was pleasantly surprised to see Rev. James, his parish supervisor, with him; as it turned out, this was a Holy Communion service.
Geoffrey asked me to read the Gospel, which was Matthew 5:43-48, about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. With at least 600 students from the entire education spectrum with very few adults, you can imagine that the service was a bit hectic. I was certain that no one was paying attention.
However, I was very wrong. As we were preparing for the Eucharist, the warden [usher] handed me a note from a student. She asked me how to love and forgive someone who had hurt her. She included her phone number, but the students are not allowed to have phones, so I wouldn’t be able to call her until she gets home in early May.
I asked the warden if it was possible that the student could meet me after the service, and she said she would try. Happily, she succeeded, and the student was waiting for me after many of the students dispersed.
This precious and delightful child of God shared her story with me, and it broke my heart. I wanted to bring her home and protect her. I wanted to pray so many healing prayers with her. I wanted to right all the wrongs that have been perpetrated against her. But I only had a few minutes after church to talk with her.
So I did pray with her, and talk with her. She now has my contact, and has said she will check in with me when she gets her phone back. She’s also going to send me the first 25 (!) chapters of a book she’s written. I’m hoping this is a productive way of her to process all that’s happened to her.
Please pray for this precious gem: that the Lord continue to heal her heart. I’m so grateful that she chose to seek help, and humbled that she chose me.