David A. Okken
“Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD, or declare all his praise?” (Ps. 106:1–2). I have set myself up for an impossible task. As my family and I anticipate concluding our missionary labors in Uganda and returning to the United States this coming summer, I want to respond to the call of the psalmist. I want to offer thanks and praise to the Lord while recounting the great things that he has done during our time overseas. Yet the psalmist asks, “Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD, or declare all his praise?” The implication is that no one ever could.
This ought to be the testimony of every Christian in any and every circumstance, and it is certainly true for us as we close one chapter in our lives and begin a new one. We look back and see that God’s blessings have abounded in such great number that it would be vain to try to recount them all. Yet we are called to do the impossible, to “tell of all his wondrous works!” (Ps. 105:2). So, with the psalmist, “I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told” (Ps. 40:5).
I do so by setting forth some lessons that, perhaps, we all know to be true but that I have surely experienced while serving as a missionary in Karamoja, Uganda.
We have had many occasions to feel like the prophet Isaiah surely felt when he wrote, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isa. 49:4). Yet, through the same prophet, the Lord promised,
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:10–11)
God’s Word always accomplishes its purpose. Even when it further hardens hearts as in Isaiah’s day, it accomplishes our sovereign Lord’s purpose.
And often, it is accomplishing God’s gracious saving purposes, although we may not see it at the time.
Years ago, I was leading a Bible study in the village of Naturukan. As we were about to begin, up walked a young boy named Angella. He had just returned from hunting. He was wearing no shirt, just his Karimojong sandals on his feet and a blanket wrapped around his waist. In his hands were his bow and arrow and the reward of his morning’s work, a rock hyrax, later to be roasted and enjoyed for dinner. We invited him to hear the Word of God. He took a copy of the Bible story and sat down. I remember being impressed by his effort to read along and listen as we taught. I invited him to church but did not see him again…until years later.
Recently, Angella Paul came back into our lives when David Robbins gave him some work and befriended him. He is now a member of our church and is one of the “Timothy boys” doing his studies in the Timothy Discipleship Training program. Angella believes God is calling him to be a pastor. He is growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ and laboring with us in the gospel ministry. I praise the Lord for the marvelous purpose for which, unbeknownst to me, he sent forth his Word to Naturukan that afternoon years ago.
Angella will be only one among the innumerable multitude from all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages who will at last be gathered around the heavenly throne to proclaim, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10). We can be certain that it will be so because every last soul has been paid for with the blood of Christ, who died to ransom them for God (Rev. 5:9).
This is what encourages us as we continue to pray and labor in hope as we are instructed: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
For years we led Bible studies in the village of Nakasien without ever seeing significant fruit. Then, just months ago, we saw a sudden and significant increase in worship attendance in Nakaale, mostly because folks were coming from Nakasien. We decided to organize a separate worship service in that village. Angella Paul and others are helping us lead it.
We are reminded that all the glory goes to God. What are we but unworthy servants of the worthy Lamb! Truthfully, it is quite humbling for me to reflect on my life and labors in Africa. I see my many failures. I see my sin. Yet, I take comfort when I remember how our Lord told us to view ourselves: “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Not only at the end of a missionary tenure, but at the end of our lives, such will be the testimony of every servant of Christ. It makes me all the more thankful for the truth of the gospel. Our persons and our service are pleasing to God because of Christ!
Recently, seeking a future call, I was communicating with folks from one OP congregation’s search committee. I was greatly humbled and encouraged by the words of a brother whom I had never met. He wrote, “It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to interact with someone for whom we’ve prayed for many years!”
It reminded me of how privileged we are to have served as missionaries of the OPC. I am thankful that we have never been made to feel like this has been our work alone. The prayers and support of the broader church, even of brothers and sisters whom we have never met, have been marvelous. This has been the work of a church that has responded to the words of the apostle, “And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15).
As I go on, Lord willing, to serve in a new pastoral call in the OPC, the work in Karamoja will still be my work in that it is our work. I need not worry about how things will carry on in Karamoja in the future. So long as the Lord has called the OPC to be here, he will raise up his servants to lead us as we all carry on our work as Christ’s church.
I am so thankful for the labors of my current teammates and the amazing ways in which God is using them. Even as I write, we anticipate the arrival of new teammates. The Lord may already be answering our prayers for another minister to replace me and labor alongside David Robbins. As I was privileged to build upon the labors of others who came before me, so these servants will build upon mine. As Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6–7). And, surely, as is the harvest, so also are the laborers. They are the fruit of the meritorious labors of our ascended Lord, and they come to us as gifts of his grace (Eph. 4:8, 11).
Paul wrote to the Philippians that he held them in his heart and yearned for them with “the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). After his sorrow-filled farewell address to the Ephesian elders, followed by his prayer, they embraced him, kissed him, and wept over him, especially because he said they would not see his face again (Acts 20:36–38). It saddens me deeply, the thought of bidding farewell to brothers and sisters whom I may never see again this side of glory. But it makes me appreciate the fellowship I have enjoyed among so many saints during my years as a missionary.
That has been true among the African brothers and sisters. It has also been true among my many teammates. The mission we leave behind is a completely different team than the one we joined in 2001. We have seen many missionaries come and go. Each one has brought unique gifts and blessings, enriching our lives. We have been so blessed to labor under the oversight of our denomination’s Committee on Foreign Missions and to enjoy the encouragement and fellowship of the general secretaries and others who have visited over the years.
We are also thankful for the many other short-term visitors who have been with us through the years, far too many to count. Add to that another benefit foreign missionaries enjoy: when we come home on furlough, we get to visit churches all through the denomination. It has been such a blessing to meet, worship with, and stay in the homes of God’s people. I will greatly miss that. In Uganda and stateside, I am thankful for all the wonderful fellowship and hospitality I have enjoyed with so many of you!
In many churches in Uganda, it is common for a worship leader to say, “God is good,” to which the congregation replies in unison, “All the time.” The leader then says, “All the time,” to which the congregation offers a concluding, “God is good.” As I wonder how many times I have heard this over the years, it brings tears to my eyes. It is a basic Christian affirmation, a simple truth. Yet it is one that must never go without saying. It was true seventeen years ago when we arrived in Uganda, it continues to be true today, and it will be true when, as a family, we board the plane to depart from Entebbe later this year. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
I do hope to return to Uganda to visit and minister again on short-term trips, should the Lord so will. More than that, I rejoice in knowing that one day I shall be reunited with my African brothers and sisters and with all God’s people for that great reunion in heavenly glory when together we will be caught up “in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17). Then, as we behold the face of Jesus, we shall have all eternity to do the impossible: give thanks and praise to the Lord, utter his mighty deeds, and declare all his praise.
The author is concluding his service as OP missionary in Nakaale, Karamoja, Uganda in summer 2018. New Horizons, May 2018.