“I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like
But I’ve heard the tender whispers of love in the dead of night.”
– “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin
Today this song was played in church, and as tears welled up in my eyes, I was transported back to one of the most anxious and terrifying times in my life.
It was two o’clock in the morning on June 28, 2011, and I laid awake listening to my heart pound and feeling my mind unsuccessfully grasp for any comfort whatsoever. Jillian was sleeping next to me as peaceful as if she had just left a spa treatment. That made my fear increase even more.
Less than 24 hours earlier we had touched down at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda. On the hour plus drive to Empower-A-Child’s compound in Ntinda (Northeastern Kampala), we were thrust into the bustling morning routine of a city in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was a sensory overload complete with a thousand aromas (sometimes pleasant like the roadside food stands…sometimes not so much), traffic jams, a cacophony of noises ranging from boda-boda engines revving to high-decibel Lugandan shouts, and a landscape foreign to my eyes.
At an intersection we were surrounded by Ugandan children begging for money. This was not a picture or video on some one minute commercial, this was a hollow-eyed teenage girl leaning on the windowsill and speaking six inches from my face. There were mothers bathing their children between their home and the street. There were people everywhere going in a hundred different directions at the same time, and they seemed to all be yelling, “Hey Mzungu, hey Mzungu!” when I made eye contact with them. The energy, randomness, and chaos of Kampala was palpable. Seriously, you could feel this city like I have never felt another, and this was slowly starting to overwhelm my jet lagged and perspiring body. I tried to play it cool.
We arrived at the compound, and the high fences and gate gave me a slight sense of security that was missing for the last hour and a half of my life. The Ugandan staff were very warm and welcoming, and the MSTs (American and British missionaries) were full of vigor and friendliness. I remember thinking to myself, “I will never leave this compound on my own.” We will only leave with staff members. What a noob!
It was not long before we were informed by one of the Ugandans, Jayan, that we would in fact not be sleeping in the compound tonight. Jillian and I had been promised a larger room since we were married, but that room was currently filled with bunk beds and missionaries who were due to leave in the next couple of days. Until then, we would be driven to a local motel a mile or so away, dropped off for the night, and picked back up again in the morning. Now, Bryan Hunt today would have no problem with that arrangement, but 25 year old, frightened, American white boy, inexperienced traveler Bryan Hunt who had just landed in a third world country was freaking out! Jillian and I discussed the issue and decided that it was okay, safe, and fine for a few nights. Again, I played it cool (on the outside at least).
After dinner, Jayan and Ssempala took us to our accommodations for the evening. We were directed through a gate into the parking lot by a Ugandan security guard in military fatigues carrying an AK-47. We were then led to our room where Jillian and I furiously unpacked all of our bags and repacked them in order to have the stuff we needed in the village. It had just been decided that the team we were assigned to would be going to the Zirobwe area for a week starting the next day. There, we would be sleeping in tents, bathing out of buckets, digging out water wells full of silt and overgrown with vegetation, and conducting children’s programs in the evening. We had signed up for all of this, but we thought there would be a full week of living in urban Africa before plunging into rural Africa. We thought wrong. Plus, I was still not convinced that lions living four hours away couldn’t migrate on down to our neck of the woods and make a quick meal of my lanky body after tearing into the thin canvas of our dome tent.
After experiencing our first squatty potty and showering, we climbed in bed under the mosquito net for our very first night in Africa. As usual, Jillian passed out before I could even lay my head down on the pillow. My luck was not so good. I could hear the raucous noises of an African city at night so I put in some ear plugs. This just diverted my attention to my heart beat which was racing like crazy. All of my playing it cool had led to a huge weight on my mind. What the heck had I done? What had I gotten myself and my wife into? I knew that Uganda was going to be different, but I felt in over my head. We had already purchased our return flight for six months later, so this was going to be life for quite some time. Did we really just quit our jobs, put all of our things in a storage building, and fly half way around the world? All of my idealism from a few months earlier had evaporated. I could now see my situation in pretty realistic and pessimistic terms. Did we make a mistake? I prayed and asked God to give me peace. I asked him to relieve me of my fears and worries. Did he not call us to Uganda on a Sunday morning several months earlier? If this was supposed to be what he wanted us to do, why was I so scared? Nothing changed. I pulled out my Bible and read every verse I could find about fear, worry, anxiety, peace, and strength. Nothing changed.
Sleep did not come at all to me that night. The next morning Jillian and I awoke, but I could not tell her that I was afraid. I had to be tough, right? To make matters worse, she seemed to be fairly lighthearted and excited for our first big adventure as missionaries. This was a mental battle I had to fight on my own. When the ministry bus arrived, we loaded our bags and joined up with the rest of our team. As we grew closer to the village North of Kampala, my fellow team members grew more and more excited as I grew more and more paralyzed. To this day, I still do not think I can accurately put my fear into words. I felt isolated, burdened, uncomfortable, and overwhelmed. It must have been a panic attack because I was sweating profusely, getting dizzy, my heart was racing, and I had a debilitating headache. I leaned my head forward on the seat in front of me and started praying.
“God, why can I not feel your peace that passes all understanding? I have been praying.”
I then experienced this overwhelming sensation of God’s presence. He told me to stop sending him microwave prayers. Microwave prayers? What the heck were microwave prayers? Then it dawned on me. I was not truly seeking God and surrendering to him. Instead, I was asking him for his things that I could then use to fix my own problem. Just like when I pop something in the microwave for a few minutes and then get a hot dish as a result, I was trying to ask God for his peace, joy, strength, and confidence by praying for a few minutes in order to get rid of my negative thoughts and feelings.
After arriving in Uganda, I realized that I was in over my head and out of control. I was seeking God’s things so I could use them to reestablish control. This was not God’s plan. He instead wanted me to admit my limitations, surrender control to him, and let him take care of me. That is really what his Gospel is all about. We are flawed and unable to save ourselves. When we admit our weaknesses, give up control over our destiny, and accept the grace and love of Christ, God gives our souls rest and our hearts joy. The problem is that like many humans, I am stubborn about keeping a tight grip on the things that I think I can control, but we are in control of so little in reality. We can’t make others love us or respect us. We can’t control the weather. We can’t prevent natural disasters or avoid freak accidents, and as I learned back in June of 2011, I cannot control what will happen to my wife or me in a third world country.
I gave up my subconscious microwave prayer model and truly sought after God. I surrendered my safety, my reputation, my ambitions, my will, and my control at his feet. I admitted my utter helplessness to drag myself out of a psychological and emotional panic. I prayed, quoted scripture, and laid my heart bare like David so often did when writing his Psalms. I had to keep saying the words over and over again until I actually started to mean them. I admitted that I didn’t want to give up control, but I trusted God more with that control anyway.
As we were turning off of a small, red dirt road onto an even smaller, red dirt road, it hit me. Like a massive wave breaking on the surf, I felt God’s presence crash over me. All of my anxiety, stress, fear, worry, and nervousness spontaneously disappeared. In their place was a deep peace and joy. God reassured me that he did send Jillian and me here for his purpose. He educated me quickly that we were not sent to Africa because we were able to change ourselves or our surroundings, but he was. This experience was for his glory, not ours, and he was able to grant peace and strength.
Part Of Our Welcoming Party
I looked up and glanced out the window as I saw a multitude of smiling Ugandan children running alongside our bus and smiling contagiously. From that moment on, I never experienced another instance of panic or fear like I did during my first 24 hours in Africa. With God’s help, I overcame the culture shock, and by the time we were stepping on the plane to leave six months later, I was more Ugandan than I was American. God taught me how to live outside of my comfort zone so that when I first heard “Oceans” by Hillsong United, I knew exactly what the first few lines meant.
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine”
It is in the most stressful of times, when we must lean on God the most, that we truly experience his purpose for our lives and his incredible power. When you experience his tender whispers of love in these moments, not even a thousand stories about what God is like can compare to what you have experienced. Sometimes God answers our prayers immediately. Sometimes we have to wait upon the Lord, and our prayers get answered much later than we would like. Sometimes God does not answer our prayers at all. While I do not claim to understand why this is, I do know at least one thing now. God appreciates microwave prayers about as much as Gordon Ramsay appreciates microwave mac-n-cheese.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Phlippians 4:6-7 (NIV)