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The Gospel and Architecture

Our EMI design team arrived back into Kampala on last week, but it was not rest time quite yet.  More on the design trip in separate post, but last Tuesday, our team’s lead architect, Tony McBurney was able to speak into the lives of Ugandan engineers and architects in a powerful way.  Tony is the head of an architecture firm in Australia called IDG and comes with a wealth of experience and knowledge.  In Australia, Tony had a chance to give a talk in various places about the connection between architecture and the Christian faith.  This was a powerful topic there in the lives of several people including some of EMI’s former Australian interns.  The chance to give such a talk to Ugandan design professionals was a opportunity that Tony and EMI did not want to pass up.

Because our office has members of the Ugandan Society of Architects and the Ugandan Institute of Professional Engineers, we used our connections to reach out to all of the local design professionals in the area.  We reserved the sanctuary of a local church located downtown and prayed that God would bring people eager to hear his message.

Design + spirituality presentation

Using the language of “Architecture 101”, Tony shared how the story began at a point in space – the Garden, with the Centerpoint being the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil and how their consequences led to a line where Adam and Eve were cast out, in part for their own protection.  As he continued (talking about space, volume, and the God of geometry), it was fascinating for me (as a non-architect) so see the faces of the Ugandan architects seeing the Gospel in the form of their professional language.

The numbers were not huge – we had 15-20 come apart from EMI people, but the response during Q&A was incredibly edifying.  These professionals were ecstatic to consider how they can use their professional skills in a way that lives out God’s calling on their lives.  They were challenged to think about how to integrate their faith and vocation (something very lacking both in Uganda and in the West).  As I spoke with one of the attendees before the conference, he was excited to hear about EMI and asked, “I just really want to spend time with you guys and learn from you.  Is there a way that I can volunteer and participate in some of the work that you are doing so that I can use my skills to serve others?”  YES!  YES! YES!

We praise God for orchestrating this event and ask for your prayers for the architects and engineers of Uganda – that they would see God in the details and in the overall nature of their work – and that they would live their lives as professionals in a way that brings glory and honor to their Maker.



This August, we got a couple of weeks of leave time for family vacation.  Knowing it would be hard to make a trip to the US work in that window, we decided to “meet Jeff’s parents halfway” and have an amazing adventure touring Italy.  Unlike the first leg of our trip, the rest of our family vacation was to quite a tourist hotspot, but one that each of us felt drawn to for different reasons: (we’ll try to avoid pics you can see on Google).

Pompeii walkingFor Jeff, the chance to see 2000 year old concrete and brickwork (e.g. walking the streets of Pompeii) put joy in his engineer heart.  And to see the massive spanning cathedrals kept Jeff looking skyward.  Indeed, Jen has always known she married a nerd, but said that she hasn’t seen this kind of structural excitement on display in many years.

Colosseum martyrsFor Jen, her “era of history” has always been the early church and so to walk around Ancient Rome, where so many early Christ followers died was a special time. And after spending so much time teaching the children about so many Renaissance artists, she was thrilled to see Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Rafael’s work in person.

Inside duomoFor Mercy, the Duomo of Florence was a special place that she was eager to see.  As beautiful as it is on the outside, it was on the inside that Mercy kept insisting how “lit-er-a-lly cool” it was inside.  She kept staring upwards and was struck by how “small” she felt.  The architecture made an important theological point loud and clear.  She was also really excited for all the artwork that she had studied in school.

St. PetersFor Haven, Michelangelo’s Pieta (located in St. Peters basilica) was a special treasure.  Not only did she get to see this beautiful sculpture, but after climbing the dome of St. Peter’s for an amazing view of Rome (the girls trained in Ug. for dome climbing), Haven picked out a model of the sculpture that she carries around the house with sweet care and delicacy.

Isaac grapesIsaac could care less about 90% of the things we saw.  His draw to Italy – grapes.  We have grapes in Uganda but they are small, bad quality, and expensive (because they are imported from Kenya).  Our neighbors buy them and feed him 2-3 grapes several days a week.  When we told him we were going to eat “grapes in Italy”, that was his big draw and he repeated it to everyone.  I think we purchased at least 5 kilos of grapes during our trip…yum!


Family time

For all of the Ugandan Austins, getting to spend time with “Nana and Pop” was wonderful.  While Jeff’s parents were excited to see the sights, in all honesty – they were there for the kids.  We all had some great family time all around from swimming in the pool and eating Lots of gelato.  Jeff and his Dad also had a special father-son trip to Pisa together.

Isaac Ride

Girls DolphinAfter Jeff’s parents left, Jeff and Jen had 2 big surprises for the kiddos. One was a trip to an Italian theme park that Jen found online – Zoomarine.  Picture Sea World meets Six Flags meets a water park.  While there are opportunities for roller coasters all over the place in the US, this was a HUGE treat for everyone, was some great family time together.  For Mercy, who is 100% dolphin obsessed (see her book), this was a dream come true.

Blue GrottoOur second surprise was a trip to a small island called Capri.  Jen and the kids fell in love with this place before they even knew it was real because of a (Strongly recommended) kids book called Red Sails to Capri.  We were able to visit and even swim inside its famous Blue Grotto which can only be described as magical.

Jeffjen TreviWe are so grateful for the time that we had and the amazing memories that we experienced on this trip together.

FullFam Tuscany


Not your typical vacation spot right now!  When we began planning some vacation time for our family, we decided to visit Italy (the subject of another post).  When we saw that flights there went through Cairo, we decided to add a couple of days to visit some good friends, Josh and Sarah and their children, and see the sights.  Media reports on Egypt weren’t exactly flattering several months ago, but protests were localized and life continued as normal.


When July hit and President Morsi (of the Muslim Brotherhood) was removed, we were admittedly anxious, but understood a very different picture on the ground than what we were reading on the news. More on that below but in short, with friends on the ground who knew where we were safe to go, we decided to keep our plans.  So what we got was a whirlwind picture of Egypt from the inside and some great catch-up time.


When I thought of Egypt, I thought mostly of pyramids and sand.  Cairo?  A staunchly Muslim city with the River Nile running through it.  What we saw was a shock to our system on many levels.  Cairo is a city of about 20 million people – making Chicago (not to compare with Kampala) look like a podunk town.  Rather than cows and goats on the roadside, we looked out from Josh and Sarah’s mid-rise apartment to see miles of tall buildings in every direction.  Though free to walk around without a headscarf, it felt repressive – women seemed very undervalued and disrespected.  At the same time, it’s far more westernized than we would have expected: we visited a mall with a Fuddruckers, Coldstone Creamery, and an American Eagle.  Dairy Queen is not only there – but they deliver!  (A Blizzard was a beautiful indulgence for us).  Our children were able to reengage with the long lost Golden Arches and feasted on McNuggets.  And if you’ve ever wondered what the Great Sphinx is thinking about – he’s actually staring across the street at a Pizza Hut (we’re not kidding).


We toured the Egyptian Museum – an amazing place where we saw statues of the Pharaohs that interacted with Abraham and Moses and the entire collection of King Tut’s tomb.  4000 year old statues that would be the centerpiece of a museum in most of the world were effectively thrown in a corner of the museum.   Though the museum is located directly adjacent to Tahrir square, it was (as expected and verified by our guide) completely calm absent a few tents.


We toured the pyramids and saw the Sphinx. Getting to climb on and even go into these 5000 year old monuments was pretty incredible.  Unlike the museum, the pyramids were quite crowded – not so much with tourists, but with youth who were on break because of the Eid celebration (end of Ramadan).  The drop in tourism meant that the normally aggressive souvenir sellers were even more pushy, but we took our guides advice and pretended not to speak English.  We used Luganda to communicate with each other which the girls loved. We were able to check off a pretty good bucket list item by riding a couple of camels as a family.  Some enjoyed more than others (they are really tall!) but memorable certainly.

camel kiss

We saw the Coptic zone of Cairo – where Jesus would have come with Mary and Joseph when they fled from Herod, and visited a 7th century church (makes the Renaissance church of Italy seem young!).  We saw cave churches – where Christians built communities blasting into rock and where the Coptic faith is alive and a beautiful shining light in the area.

Cave Church

And we heard beautiful stories of the Lord working in the lives of Egyptians individually and corporately.  Indeed, the vast majority of Egyptians (with Muslims, Christians, and secularists working side by side) came together with dreams of a free Egypt to unseat a President that was not even close to living out his calling.  We worshipped in a church with our friends seeing that He is working in this place, in spite of the darkness.

Walk Like an Egyptian

We were saddened (and sobered) to read the news reports (after we left – thankfully) of the Muslim Brotherhood protests dispersed and the subsequent lootings and burnings of Churches.  Indeed, Egypt still has a long way to go in its quest for peace.  There is tension and a lot of uncertainty (especially since we left).  Yet, there is a spirit of hope there and we pray that the Lord Jesus would shine brightly.  And we pray that the picture of grace that comes in the Gospel – so desperately needed – would find a home in the hearts of Egyptians.

here come the brides…

On Thursday Haven got married.  The groom is 8 (an older man, I know).  How did I find out?  Well, I walked into our closed-up playroom to find 4 girls doting over Haven and fixing her hair, getting her dressed, etc.  The groom is a neighbor, and while this poor kid had to be coaxed into the job in the first place, he really rose to the occasion!  After finding Haven in the playroom, I walked out on our front porch to find him in a button-up shirt and dress pants, wringing his hands in nervousness!  Here’s a pic…

the nervousness of a groom

And here’s a pic of him moving the battle axes out of the way of the aisle…

gotta remove the battle axes before the wedding

However, there was really a problem with this entire arrangement: he had not asked permission to marry our daughter.  So (again, after much protests and coaxing) he had a meeting with the father of the bride, my wonderful husband.  During this interview, Jeff asked all sorts of questions about whether he was going to treat Haven well and cherish her (“um, yes, for the course of this game”), and if he was employed (“yes!”) and what he did (“I sell cell phone airtime”).  Then we discussed the bride price, and it was decided he would give us six cows – um, which we have yet to see.  After a pretty grueling interview for an 8-year-old, Jeff decided he was worthy to marry our daughter as a game.

So Haven was walked down the aisle and her older sister officiated the wedding.  Then she pushed them off into their recessional like this:P1020676

But they did stop to get a good wedding shot: P1020678

Later on the kids had the reception, where Haven was literally “swept off her feet” by daddy on the daddy-daughter dance.  The wedding was ended by Jeff and I demonstrating swing dancing for this entire group of kids – quite humorous, but cute, I assure you.

Our house has actually had a huge focus on weddings recently, as Jeff and I had the huge privilege of celebrating our ten year anniversary on Friday.  I have been incredibly amazed at this gift of my husband recently.  Here’s how I put it in a facebook post yesterday:  “Ten years ago today I walked down the aisle to a man I was madly in love with. We made crazy promises to one another — ones that are impossible to keep. Yet, I am so amazed at the Lord’s mercies — mercies full of more blessings than I can ask for or imagine. In the midst of our mistakes Jeff has loved me so consistently — through way more “sickness” than we ever imagined might happen, through the joys and challenges of the last ten years, through my sins and ways I’ve acted foolishly…and in it He’s shown me what “unconditional” means.”  My husband is incredible, and I am so grateful for his friendship and consistent love to me.

So conversations about marriage have been abounding this past week.  And, in response to their questions, we showed our girls our wedding video last night.  It was absolutely precious to watch their reaction to Mommy & Daddy getting married.  They hung onto pretty much every word of the ceremony.  “There are SO many traditions.” “Oh, is that your first kiss?”  “Mommy has a lot of best friends.”  “This is SO special.”  “I like the ceremony better than the reception because it’s quieter.”  But my favorite, above all, was their reaction when I told them that Grandpa walked me down the aisle and someday Daddy would walk down the aisle.  They both squealed with excitement – “I get to be with Daddy for that!?!”   The joy on their faces as they hugged their Daddy was priceless and will be treasured for a very long time.  Jeff has loved them well as well.  J

So in the midst of the humor of our children getting married, and the seriousness (yet joyfulness) of watching our girls crave knowing about weddings and loving each other in marriage, it has been a week full of fun times of laughter and gratefulness at this gift of marriage, and this gift of my spouse.

***Oh, and a personal note for our friends (you know who you are) whose son was betrothed to marry Haven before they were both born… don’t worry, that is definitely still in our (and Haven’s, by the way) long term plan. 😉

Day of Prayer: God’s Heart for the Poor

Today was a special day at eMi.  3 times a year, eMi takes a full day to set aside our work and spend time as a community talking and praying together.  Previous topics have included things like, “how our view of God affects our prayer life”.  Today, my first chance to participate in eMi’s day of prayer, we spent the day discussing God’s heart for the poor.

We began our day by watching a film called 58:  Live58: is a global Christian initiative to end extreme poverty by living out Isaiah 58. You can preview their film here and/or get a free copy of the film to screen.  The premise of the film (to end extreme poverty) sounded far fetched to me initially, but they make strong points (including Biblical ones) and are partnered with some very legitimate organizations.

After watching this video, we broke into small groups and began studying God’s heart for the poor.  We studied and discussed passages like Isaiah 61, Deuteronomy 10:17-19, I Samuel 2:8, Psalm 72, Jeremiah 22:16, and James 1:27 (among many more).  Doing a systematic/topical study like this…poverty is a topic that comes up over and over.  We talked about how our tendency (read “my tendency”) when we read passages like Isaiah 61 (or it’s New Testament parallel in Luke 4:16-21), is to say that these are primarily about “spiritual problems” – which in some ways gets us “off the hook” when we see the poverty around us (whether you’re in the US or here).  While it would be an abuse to the Scripture to say that the poverty discussed in these is only material/physical, it would also be an abuse to say that these passages are not speaking about the physically poor.

After walking through this study, we spent some devoted time to prayer for the poor as well as specific prayer for an illness wreaking havoc in Uganda’s northern territories: nodding disease.

After lunch, we left eMi’s office and took the afternoon to spend some time on our own, meditating upon God’s expectations of us individually as they pertain to the poor.  We were asked to study 2 passages in depth, Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25:31-46.  In both of these passages, the Lord isn’t pulling any punches.  And you really can’t “spiritualize” these passages away.  Can I say in good faith that I really “spend myself” for the poor (Is. 58:10) or that I “break every yoke” of the oppressed (58:6)?  Perhaps, I can pat myself on the back for coming to Uganda and call myself a sheep for it, but how often can I really say that I have looked into the eyes of the people that I walk past on my way to work and believe deep down that they carry the presence of Christ in such a way that I act on it (Matt. 25)?  I’m not bringing a new theology here and I rest in the comfort that I am saved by His grace and mercy.  At the same time, I am challenged by these words of the Lord and hope that this meditation will challenge some of you as well.  I would love to hear your thoughts on some of this.

Over dinner and afterwards, we had an amazing talk with our girls.  Their hearts are so soft and so real.  They break for the people around them who do not know Jesus and/or who don’t have what they need in life.  They challenge me greatly.  As we pray through what it means to do life here in Uganda and more importantly how we do life here as God’s people, would you pray that we would all live out Isaiah 58 – living our lives as a true fast to the Lord?

Gotcha Day

A year ago today completed – and began – an adventure in our lives that will forever be a highlight for our family… we met and adopted our son Isaac Muhoza Austin.

The adventure to get Isaac was full of ups and downs, but at the center of it was God clearly working from start to finish.  While I can’t tell the full story right now, I think this illustration sums it up beautifully: a few weeks ago Jeff was talking with Mercy about how many people feel like God isn’t real because they don’t see Him doing miracles anymore.  Mercy looked at Jeff in shock and said: “Well, of course He does!  Look at how He gave us Isaac!”

As I said before, on April 14, 2011 we completed an adventure, but we also began an adventure.   We received a beautiful baby boy and over this past year we have had the incredible privilege of watching this little boy transform.  And before I say more I think it’s worthwhile to give a disclaimer: he did not transform because Jeff and I are such great, wonderful people.   We hear that but we’ve made more than our fair share of mistakes, bad attitudes, and bad choices.  He was transformed because God is good and because God has created children to be in families who pour love on their children.  When children are put into an environment of love from a family, they blossom.

April 14, 2011: “Gotcha Day.”  In the adoption world, this is the name given to the day you meet your child, because it’s the day we “got cha.”  For many adoptive families, this almost takes the place of birthdays since they often don’t know the date of the child’s birth.

This picture is the first picture that Jeff and I took with Isaac.  My mom told me recently that she calls this his cocoon picture.  It was like he was wrapped in a cocoon, trapped in his own world.  He was beautiful from the start, so sweet from the start.  Yet he was so overwhelmed by all that was going on around him that he acted pretty lost.

Isaac was nine months old when we got him.  He was 15.9 pounds.  We were shocked by his small size, yet amazed when we found that he was born at 3 pounds and so had grown significantly by 9 months under the care of a hospital and his orphanage!

Here is the first picture of us at the airport in the US, when Isaac got to meet his sweet, excited older sisters for the first time:

Over the first weeks we had him, we were already able to see some pretty amazing transformations.  He was growing – a lot!  He went from only rolling to sitting independently.  He smiled more and more, made eye contact more and more.


and he absolutely stole our hearts:

and he stole the hearts of his sisters, too.  Here’s Mercy doing “show-and-tell” with him at school:

and some pics of him as he turned one in July:

At 12 months he finally started getting teeth (I think because of the nutritional deficiencies these just took a bit longer than most) and eating more solid foods.  Then at 15 months (actually, on our 6-month anniversary of getting him) he started walking.  And once he did this, he absolutely took off.  Here are some pics of him at 13 – 14 months:

Having Christmas with our son was a blessing we were so grateful for.  We had expected him home the previous Christmas, and so it made this Christmas with him all the more sweet.  Here are a couple pics of him in his Christmas jammies:

And here are a couple more recent pics, where he is showing how he loves to get messy but also LOVES (I can’t emphasize this part enough) playing with water!  He is constantly pouring water or sitting in little washtubs with his play food and cups.

We now have a little boy who is so different from last year.  This morning he woke up and started repeatedly going, “mom.  mommy?  mom” (which is how I oftentimes wake up in the morning).  We sat down and had some cuddle-time and then he said “cheese” for the camera…

Can’t you just see him saying “cheese” in that picture?  I thought that was fantastic.  Next, he went around the room saying “haven’s shoes,” “book” “morning…daddy!” and “hug.”  He then did a little dance when his extremely sweet, loving sisters came running down the stairs singing “Happy Gotcha Day to You.”

Isaac is physically doing fantastic.  When we got him at 9 months his growth was not even on the charts.  Now he is average on the US growth charts (and above average on the world growth charts…which, um, is what happens when you put a kid in the Austin family!).  He was also behind motor-wise.  He could roll, which is about the level of a 4 month old.  Now he is climbing up and down stairs (yes, this does terrify me – especially because the stairs are tiled!).  He is even climbing more shallow stairs without holding onto anything.  And he is sprinting everywhere after his sisters and the little boys who live down the road from us.  He is learning how to climb up bars (again, not necessarily a good thing) and he just climbed into a baby doll crib that we have!

Verbally, our little boy is actually ahead!  Which, er… now that I think of it is probably another result of being placed in our family in particular.  In our family he would either have had to be really quiet or force his way in by talking as much as he possibly can!  At 12 months he was saying what a 15 month-old should.  And now, at 21 months, he is starting to have little conversations with us and is pointing out things he sees constantly.  One of my favorites is that he’ll give us a five and then put his hand behind his back and go, “oo low!” (too slow!) He will repeat almost anything we say — which can be really funny.  If I ask him to put something in the trash, or the hamper, he will (although I have to be careful because this will sometimes be switched).

Another area adoptive parents looks at a lot is attachment.  Over this last week Isaac has started having a new woman look after him while I do homeschool with the girls, and his extreme anxiety and crying this week has shown us that we are still working through some abandonment and attachment issues for our son.  Although, on the flip side, it also shows that our son is specfically attached to us.  Isaac knows that I am mom, without a doubt.  He’s a pretty clingy boy who largely wants Mom at all times.  And, although I oftentimes feel overwhelmed by this, it is a beautiful blessing.  This IS the area — although not as visual as the others — where we have seen the most beautiful transformation.  A year ago Isaac was overwhelmed by two adults giving him attention.  He could give us some eye contact, although he got overwhelmed with too much and would shut down and go to sleep.  As time went on, though, he came out of that cocoon, as my mom put it, and changed into a beautiful little boy who loves getting tons of attention — particularly from his parents — and loves to get cuddles, high fives, and tons of eye contact.  God made children to have a trusting relationship with their parents, and Isaac trusts us to care for him.  He knows we are his, we know he is ours — and that is exactly how God made families to be.

So that is our little boy.  Obviously, a huge part of these changes I’ve stated is that he’s gone from being a baby to a very active toddler boy.  Yet, we know that if he were still in an orphanage he wouldn’t be nearly so healthy or happy.  I remember back when we were still visiting him at the orphanage (we visited for almost a week before we took him out for good).  He did not need one diaper change the entire time we visited, ever.  Although he was very cared for, he just was not getting all the food and nutrition that he needed.  His bone scans showed extreme malnutrition at one point.  And when I reflect on that, and all of the above, it makes me so grateful that God chose to give us this little boy.

We are so grateful for our son.  We are so grateful God has chosen to bless us so richly by adding him to our family.  And we are grateful to see this transformation in our little boys’ life.  Oftentimes people say “God bless you” when they see that we have adopted.  Yet, we always feel compelled to respond, “He already has by giving us this little boy.”

our toothless wonder

Since Mercy got to have her “writing debut” on the blog the other day, we thought we’d give Haven a chance to share a bit about what’s going on in her life.  On Monday morning, she experienced a rite of passage, so to speak, as she lost her first tooth.  The look of pride on our 5-year-olds’ face was absolutely beautiful, as it was clear that she really believed she had aged about three years in that one instant it took the tooth to come out of her mouth! 

She wrote about this experience during homeschool that day.  She told me what she wanted to write and then traced what I wrote.  Very cute, and a fun experience for her…