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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Catching up with January: a little journal of isolation, election results in two countries, and hope for 2021

FRIDAY 15 January

The story of 2020 was one of constriction, isolation, a space socially created around each of us for survival. Enter January, 2021, and vaccines and hope and . . . . elections. America imploded with a mob taking the 2nd amendment right to bear arms to its logically unintended extreme: if we don’t like the government other people voted for, if we feel it is illegitimate, then we are revolutionary heroes for storming the Capitol. And just as we were watching new depths of self-serving justification and hearing speeches about accountability . . . . Uganda went full lock-down mode.

Because Thursday, 14 January, we had our own elections. In our case, a handful of opposition candidates are challenging the ruling National Resistance Movement. We have a 35-year incumbent whose vision for a thriving economy and self-determination now feels to a generation born long after Amin and the bush wars as if he is just holding onto power for power’s sake. Perhaps after watching even America fail at running a credible election, our president here in Uganda simply put up a total firewall. On Wednesday we noticed slowing of the internet, and all our friends said, just use a VPN. We do a lot of patient care communication by What’s App. By evening we were cut off completely. No internet-based anything: no loading pages, looking up references, sending emails. No imessage, what’s app, facetime, Facebook messenger. No news. 

Thursday, the election day, was orderly in our district. We did hear of someone accused of preparing to stuff ballots, but the military came to his house, he let them in, they searched and confirmed it was all a big rumour, and the election went on. Our community centre across the street is a polling station, and we saw people lining up dutifully all day. A friend told me she stood in the rain for 4 hours for her turn. There were temperature checks, hand washing stations, masks required, and devices loaded with all the voter data to check ID cards and photos against the database. There were clearly visible ballot boxes. It all seemed very organised. 

At first the lack of internet was just annoying and left us a bit incredulous. By the 24 hour mark I bought airtime to use straight cellular phone time to make voice calls to our moms and the couple of kids we could reach, saying we are fine but you won’t hear from us for a while. We aren’t receiving your messages or emails and don’t feel bad when we don’t respond. Now Friday at the 48 hour mark I am calling my mom in NC to hear what AP and Reuters are saying about the Uganda election: that the opposition is crying foul, that the police and military are patrolling the streets, that the incumbent president is well ahead in early results. We have twice called friends in America to ask them to email people whose previously-set meetings we are now missing. We are dreading the eventual return of service with the dam-burst of back-logged work. 

But in the meantime, at least we CAN for now still use voice calls, even if they are expensive and hard to hear. I just walked down to talk to a team mate . . . we do so much team communication by text chains. Someone wanted to bake and realised her recipe was online, I threw in my opinions of ingredient quantity. I was dosing morphine for a child with severe pain from sickle cell and second guessing myself on no-references-available medication writing. I wanted to communicate with our surgeon in Kampala and a neurologist in Mbarara. Not yet. We went to see a sick neighbour and Scott did an ultrasound, then told him he needed to look up something in a 20-year-old text book that we would usually just use our on-line references to consider. Meanwhile I see mingling in yards, kids riding bikes, and realise for most of Bundibugyo the presence or absence of connection to the wider world is not much of an impact.

No news is good news, is an army-family mantra. If you’ve not heard anything, it’s all OK. However that assumes that “no news” is because nothing is happening, not because you’re cut off from hearing it. As a person whose five dearest humans live very very far away, whose moms could have any number of medical crises, whose job involves mentoring and supervision by internet-based mechanisms for multiple teams across East and Central Africa, whose organisational role connects us nearly daily with many continents, whose last conversations with one team involved rebels invading a fairly nearby town and last conversation with another involved some looming potential crisis . . well, it’s hard to feel that no news is good.

As Scott reminded us, when we moved here in 1993, this was our life—no email, no internet, no mail, no phone. We had a radio to call a MAF plane in an emergency. When we were attacked by rebels it took days to reach safety and send a fax. When my first niece was born it took days for us to get a fax delivered to a post office hours away. Oh, how our expectations have changed! 

So, back to 2020 . . trying to embrace this little window of world-quiet. Of not-knowing. Of living on our small radius of what we can see and touch and hear. 


Day 5 of disconnection taken to a next-level. 

Positives: finding out how frequently we turn to a phone for an answer. A spelling or definition, a dose, an historical fact, a location, news, a disagreement settled, a curiosity satisfied. Listening to birds, quieting one’s mind, sending prayers.

Negatives: never knowing if our extended families are fine, or just incommunicado. Thinking about the work piling up. Missing deadlines. Missing faces.

Our incumbent president won, of course. We actually do not doubt that result. There was a dignified ceremony run by the electoral commission and televised on Ugandan TV on Saturday afternoon, giving all the vote tallies and percentages, publicly stamping the papers saying Museveni is not only the president he’s the president-elect. The countryside sings his praises. Today we visited one of our young doctors, and his mother gave a speech: Amin threw out the Indians and Europeans. Museveni brought them back. Because of this mission (us), my orphan son got scholarships, training, discipline, opportunity. Thank you God, thank you Museveni. He is seen as the source of electricity, roads, hospitals, development. So the idea that 58% of the voters (who were only half of those age-eligible to vote) came out to support him is not shocking. The fact that the main opposition candidate garnered 35% IS surprising. Museveni usually wins by much higher margins. So yes, there is a young contingent that is ready for change. Uganda’s next task is to figure out: how do we get that change without violence or implosion, how do we move beyond one man’s vision and rule after a generation? It will not be easy. And 5 days of no internet does not build confidence.

We miss communication; and we hope it is back tomorrow.

TUES 19 Jan

Yesterday late morning, working in NICU, suddenly my phone started buzzing. Nearly 300 emails pouring in, dozens and dozens of texts. HOORAY. Uganda still has social media shut down, but the internet is back up. And those who can manage a VPN can connect on what’s app too . . .but the choke on it is enough of a deterrent to make it unlikely to be used for mass mobilisation (having an internet-capable phone, paying for data, paying for a special tax the country imposes to use social media, getting a VPN, all mean a significant barrier as intended). Also, as noted in the newspaper today, culturally people here expect to be paid to show up for a candidate, so it would take a LOT to get them rallying at this point.

We were practically giddy getting home. Sure we didn’t get to have lunch til almost 4, but we watched some news and checked some web sites and had a family FaceTime and texted others, and by 7 we were were on a Leadership Foundations Round Table with 11 other Sergers. HOORAY. 

Truth be told, the tyranny of demands can make the accessibility feel over the top at times, but when it is gone, we realise just how far we are from many of the people who occupy our hearts. Being an Area Director located in a very small place on the Uganda/Congo border rather than in a hub city . . . is possible only because of internet. Being a human who supports her family from a distant village is also only possible because of the internet. So I for one am glad to be turning the corner back to “normal.” 


And here we are at the end of the week, a blur of meetings and calls once we were back in range, the week that was our turn to not only lead the book study and business for team meeting but also prepare a prayer time; the week that it was not only our responsibility to prepare the fire and oven and dishes and space but also make all the dough/sauce/toppings for our weekly pizza night. The week that another round of elections went by, this time for our “governor” (LC5 in the ascending hierarchy of local councils elected by the population), which ended in a surprise upset, nights of loud music, days of processions in the streets. The week that patients and workers started coming back to normal levels at the hospital (not that we ever noted a lack of patients, but the workers were thin on election days). The week we lost our tiniest preemie, but revived the second-smallest who presses on. The week we learned of more stresses and traumas for our teams, had more phone calls, more prayer. The week we woke up in the night to an hysterical sobbing call from a dear friend who thought her 2-year-old was dying, and rushed the child to the hospital for oxygen. The week a CSB teacher’s illness turned into a community panic about witchcraft. The week only half our CSB seniors returned to school to finish a delayed 3rd term preparing for national exams (but as of today, we are only missing a handful).

But also the week of America’s inauguration, the week that we hope our country turned a corner towards reaffirming democracy and the value of laws, balances, institutions instead of one dominant personality. 

Our team book study? Surprised by Hope. Seems like a good title for 2021. 

Two patients, just because of cuteness

Even when the internet was down we could get Uganda Broadcasting on the satellite TV

Polling station at the Community center, as seen from our driveway at 8 am pulling out to hospital

One more cuteness

CSB students returning

The road choked with revellers after the new LC5 was announced

discharge day celebration of survival

This land is your land, this land is my land

Friday, January 22, 2021

Amanda Gorman’s Poem at The Inauguration

A reposting for those who heard it and those who didn’t.  This is courage, beauty, hope.


When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We've braved the belly of the beast,
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn't always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn't broken,
but simply unfinished.
We the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.
And yes we are far from polished.
Far from pristine.
But that doesn't mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we'll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we're to live up to our own time,
then victory won't lie in the blade.
But in all the bridges we've made,
that is the promise to glade,
the hill we climb.
If only we dare.
It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it's the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We've seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption
we feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation,
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain,
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy,
and change our children's birthright.
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west.
We will rise from the windswept northeast,
where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states.
We will rise from the sunbaked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.



Saturday, January 09, 2021

Epiphany part 2: the dark side of revealing radiance

 The post below was written on Jan 6, Epiphany, in the daytime in East Africa, in between a full hospital day, some meetings with local teams, and an evening zoom with our Home Office. At 9 pm our time (1 pm EST), we sat down at the end of an exhausting day to watch the Joint Session of Congress certifying the electoral college vote, an interesting arcane exercise of our democracy that had never seemed very dramatic or important until now. CNN was covering live, and whenever possible it is helpful to listen to actual speeches rather than what someone tells us about what was said. We watched Vice President Pence presiding, and the beginning of the state roll call. Alabama, Alaska. Then Arizona, and the objection presented, the retiring to the debates, the alternating speeches. We were watching live as the reporters outside the Capitol building began to note the increasing aggression in the crowd. Then we watched the surge up the steps, the barricades turned to ladders, the mayhem, breaking windows, the people gawking in the rotunda with their red hats and their Trump and confederate flags, and then a voice behind an outdoor reporter saying "the FBI has shot a woman," the jostling confusion, the stretcher, the blood.  No need to describe the day; the documentary evidence of violence was splashed across our screens.

Literal light arising, this morning

It occurs to me though that those hours are also appropriately called an epiphany, it is appropriate that they happened on January 6. 2000+ years ago, Jesus was revealed to a few who had searched, found in a fairly obscure outpost, in weak and dangerous circumstances, a truth that was enfleshed in powerlessness. In 2021, there were more revelations of character, though weakness was derided in favour of aggression. This Epiphany day, the phrase from Luke spoken by Simeon over the infant rings true: "the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed."

Nothing about America changed on Jan 6, but many hearts were revealed. Glorifying the Confederacy, questioning democracy, using untrue and incendiary phrases to incite a physical, illegal, violent occupation of congress to stop the final step in certifying a lost election, repeating baseless allegations after 60 lawsuits and dozens of recounts proved them false, building an actual GALLOWS AND NOOSE, these are all just as evil as breaking the window or trashing an office. But the afternoon of insurrection made those attitudes visible in actions. 

The fact that the vast majority of domestic terrorism has arisen from the white majority not from immigrants or minorities is not new news, but we all watched it on Wednesday. The fact that a large proportion of our elected officials care more about pandering to the lowest common denominators of fear to maintain their power then they do about the rule of law or the truth is not new news, but we listened to it in speeches even AFTER the rioting and danger.  The fact that law enforcement treats protestors unequally based on race or demographics is not new news, but we watched in real time the complete lack of organised resistance to the take-over of our US Capitol.  The fact that our outgoing President actively encouraged this anarchy might have been suspected but we could all watch it on TV on Wednesday.

So, another epiphany, a revealing. We have sold our souls, and the Devil is taking payment. 

But the good news is that when light shines, the hearts that are revealed can change direction. 30 years after the wise men, Jesus started walking around saying Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Light is shining, and we're all a mess. Every single one of us carries the same broken heart that would choose to harm those in our way. Perhaps this will be our national reckoning. We have too often accommodated injustice to protect our own way of life, and too often worshiped power and money. Jesus offers us exactly what we need: forgiveness, and change. Because we are loved, we can love others. We are preaching this to ourselves and to others. None of us are innocent, all of us need the good news. Many of us get much more than we deserve, hallelujah. Praying the church steps into this moral vacuum with truth: nooses and confederate flags and broken windows do not represent the Gospel, and getting the world while losing your soul is never a good bargain. Let's ask for that Kingdom to come ON EARTH as in Heaven, in equitable vaccines and oxygen, in empathy for those losing loved ones, in transparency of accounts and discomfort for the greater good.

Deep breath, and forward into 2021. Lord we NEED your mercy, we NEED your grace to love others more than ourselves. Amen.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Epiphany in all its centripetal and centrifugal radiance

 Today much of the Christian church celebrates a feast called Epiphany. 12 days after Christmas, the traditional remembrance of the Magi who came from the East to find the new King. The word comes from a stem of shining, light, appearance, manifestation, with the intensifying prefix. As in that crucial star, that juxtaposition of planets that inspired the scholars to pack up their camels or elephants and trace the migration of Abraham. For everyone without Jewish ancestry, this is a day to be thankful that the Messiah's grace extends beyond all human constructions of boundaries, nations, classes, genders, roles. Because God ensured that even as a baby Jesus would be announced to the world beyond Palestine. In fact we see in the story a dual effort of God to make things clear, known, with dreams and light and stars and clues. And of humans to understand, with questions and study and history and observation. 

And we see not just enlightenment for the Magi, but rescue and provision for the family. Gold, and spices, probably came in pretty handy as currency when running for their lives across international borders. 

December was not an easy month around here, or anywhere. 2021 does not so far look a lot better. Besides the obvious: COVID hovering like a dark cloud, vaccines still a distant dream for most of the world, one new low after the other with our democracy in the USA as we brace for contentious elections in Uganda, family far away . . . there is the daily slog of life in Bundi. Before 8 am most days we are confronted with hard stories, today a woman with AIDS coming to ask for help, a friend telling about her very sick adult daughter being taken to church for prayers against spiritual oppression, some confidential issues on email. We hit the ground running to the hospital. The tiny tiny infant born at 26 weeks is back up to 700 grams, wearing her little striped crocheted hat splayed between her mother's breasts, a sliver of hope for a woman who has lost every previous child. But, so tenuous. On the Paeds ward I find that 13 of the 50-ish patients are malnourished.  The boy who had his spleen rupture in a beating needs a transfusion, he's breathing fast and looking distressed. Multiple kids await transfusions by the end of rounds, their lifeblood melted away by malaria or sickle cell or trauma or hunger. A child we nearly lost last week is still with us though, and miraculously we get a positive TB test giving us a life-saving path to recovery (it's a fatal disease that can be completely treated if we only find out). Five days this week we have evening zoom meetings--three of those days are 4-hour conference times, the kind of meeting that used to occur in the context of fellowship at a retreat center or hotel; and now occurs sitting on stools at our kitchen counter staring into a computer.  It's good work, grounded in routines and relationships. But it's not terribly glorious.

I suppose for Mary and Joseph, there was relief in surviving the birth, wonder during the visits of the shepherds and the recognition at the Temple . . . but mostly the post-delivery time in Bethlehem might not have felt so glorious either.  Perhaps they found better accommodations, ways to wash clothes and find food. Perhaps there were negotiations with relatives our landlords. Perhaps Joseph was looking for work to give Mary time to recover for the walk back to Nazareth. Then just when they may have been tempted to doubt whether the angels had been only imagined, the surprise visitors. Gifts. Wonder. And chaos. 

Because God's presence is not typically something that leaves the situation calm or straightforward. Epiphany is immediately followed by flight, by genocide. A baby shines; the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms react with a vengeance.  

Yesterday one of our Serge team leaders (hooray for PhD theology students) explained "hallowed be thy name" as the pulsing force of love at the heart of the universe. A kind of molten gravity, a weight, a truth that anchors us to this life. An epiphany I suppose: holiness-gold-starlight-power-purity-presence packaged in a baby that changes the entire arc of history. The one sure thing upon which we stand; love. And yet that love requires faith, as we run for our lives with Mary and Joseph and the baby to Egypt, as we evade the dark murderous slaughter. Epiphany as the lava core of revelatory grace shining and drawing us in; epiphany as the encounter with disruption, the gateway to expel us out into good trouble.

Would you pray with us into 2021? The verse I have taped on my wall this year is from 1 Corinthians 16: 13-14:

Watch. Stand fast in the faith. Be brave. Be strong.

Let all that you do be done with love.

Sounds epiphany-worthy, prepared for evacuation, cognisant of danger. Centering into God's presence, propelled out to the world. A lot of standing against difficulty, and a lot of tempering everything with love. We feel poised at a point like Joseph and Mary as we peek into 2021, in need of miracles, God moving rulers to make a way. Pray with us.

Bwampu and our Nutrition team

Church on New Year's Day . . . Scott got to preach Christmas AND New Year's this year

Holy Family in Bundi 2021 Style

Praying for TB drug miracles 

Happy New Year from the Myhres

Harmonia Rosales's Madonna, just because I LOVE IT

Bright spots of today: Nusula starting 2021 as charge nurse of Paeds by taking CHARGE, and Ammon coming to rescue me from despair by helping with rounds.

The Old Guard: Ann, Pat, and us on NYE

Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 was good for READING: A few recommendations

In the spirit of New Year's Eve, thinking back over the best of what we've read in 2020. With no travel and no visitors and the world imploding, we spent a good bit of time reading mostly news and medical media, and the Bible (I did a chronological read-through in 2020 and Scott used the daily Anglican lectionary). But we also delved into some books. Here is a list of the ones that were most memorable.

Category one: RELEVANT TO 2020, particularly as our home country grappled with a deep history of racism, and I learned more about my own ancestry.

 The Cross and the Lynching Tree (James H. Cone). Scholarly and gut-wrenching examination of the post-civil war injustice of lynching and the parallel to Jesus. (older book but I found it at a small independent book store we used as a gathering point at Luke and Abby's reception).

The Water Dancer (Ta-Nehisi Coates) I prefer all my history to be in story form, which the Bible seems to also support. This is a good novel, with a lot to say, and a touch of my favourite genre (magical realism). 

The Color of Compromise (Jemar Tisby). Just excellent history of America from the perspective of the church and racism. (2019 book but it took me a year to get to it).

Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African-American Spirituality (Diana L. Hayes). This book helped me connect what I live in Africa to the Black church in America, and the writer is poetically engaging. This is a 2002 book but I just found it when she was quoted in something else I read.

March (Gerladine Brooks). One more Civil War based novel. Based on characters from Little Women.

Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (Marva Dawn). Written long ago and not about American racism, but it seems that many of us needed a theological reminder of systemic evil. This book not only gives the Biblical underpinnings for understanding reality but explores the mystery of God's work in our weakness. 

Category 2: JUST PLAIN GOOD READS--novels are my jam, I admit. And they don't have to be PG, so reader beware. Besides the above (which includes 2 novels out of 5 books on race) this year I recommend . . . 

Future Home of the Living God (Louise Edrich). Post-apocalyptic dystopia, I admit, is one of the genres I look for. When you get the environmental and indigenous American angle too, even better.

The Shadow King (Maaza Mengiste). An Ethiopian novelist who writes a gripping historical novel, just beautiful writing and good story telling. And based on her actual family.

Disappearing Earth (Julia Phillips). I think I thought this was a book about climate change, not sure why I borrowed it from the library. But it hooked me with the interweaving stories in Russia. Warning: dark and somewhat redemptive but evidently not redemptive enough for some I recommended it to.

The Midnight Library (Matt Haig). Just for fun, entertaining and hopeful after all the other heavy ones.

The Overstory (Richard Powers). Because I love trees. Because my daughter loves trees. Because this man can write. Because I remember some of this historical reference from my childhood. Because at least one of the characters is based on a real botanist. Because like Disappearing Earth there are multiple intersecting story lines.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Suzanne Collins).
We all know District 12 is West Virginia. I am a Hunger Games fan. The prequel is worth reading if you like the series. 

A Long Petal of the Sea (Isabelle Allende) Historical novel of Chile, an area of the world and epoch of time I know nothing about. Basically I just read whatever I can by Allende.

Category 3: Spiritually beneficial books. The first two we studied as a team during the year, the second two we read as a team in the last month. The last couple were inspiring true stories.

Global Humility (Andy McCullough). Best overall book on cross-cultural missions we have found. Should be required for all workers who leave home.

Promises in the Dark: Walking with those in need without losing heart (Eric McLaughlin). The subtitle is the story of our life; Eric's writing is beautiful and he has good, solid things to say that we need to hear. Have read it a couple times and will keep doing so.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Barbara Robinson) . This is a book about grace, told as a tale for kids. Just the best for reading aloud in December.  Annual tradition.

Silence-And Other Surprising Invitations of Advent (Enuma Okoro). Nigerian-American writer, with a unique view of the Christmas characters, and excellent things to say that turned out to be very 2020-appropriate.

River of Fire (Helen Prejean). Heard her on a podcast and checked out her autobiography. In the tradition of contemplative activists, to which we aspire. A nun who fought for social justice because she was in touch with her humanity. She's the nun from Dead Man Walking who writes to death row inmates. True story.

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Companies that delivered the Opioid Epidemic. (Eric Eyre). Long and a bit tedious at times, but just wow, what journalism can accomplish. If you despair of the truth setting us free, read this. 

Please leave your favourite reads of 2020 in the comments!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020 Christmas Prayer Letter

 Christmas Prayer Letter for Download  CLICK HERE (some of you may be getting this as a paper letter in the snail mail--but it seems that the USPS is really burdened this year!)

Friday, December 25, 2020

Merry Christmas, from Bundibugyo, 280 days of longing for the wrong to fail the right prevail for Peace on Earth Good Will toward Men


(Bundibugyo team bubble on Christmas Eve 2020, at our house for an outdoor Bethlehem Mediterranean dinner)

The salt-cure

Salt of the earth


from stars

Sifting into obscure barn birth.

Grain of wheat, of sand, of taste


in wandering womb

Plod hidden, through Palestine waste.

Drip of sodium-rich blood


On stable straw

Then crossbeam, tomb, stone, mud.

Particle of quivering, vibrant power


in rot-prone flesh

Sparking reversal to sweet from sour.

Gritty infant, teacher, king


us now

Your life to bring.

Poem for Christmas 2020 by me, greetings from Uganda, and please keep praying for us sprinkled around the world and longing for redemption.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve in 3 Acts . . . . because it's still 2020, COVID day 279

 Christmas Eve has three layers that all exist in their own dimensions. First, there is the historical event of a census and a trek and a birth in Bethlehem. That story occurred in a particular culture and time. We only have a few details to build a mental image, but each year we do our best to ponder the Palestine dimension. There were shepherds in the night, and there was a real baby, in a real body, a real young woman and a real moment of swaddling the infant and resting him in a feeding trough while cleaning up. The characters had real limitations of poverty and danger. For our kids growing up, we usually read the story on Christmas Eve while gathered at our own cow's feed box, candles lit, trying to connect to this dimension. This year one of our team families suggested a "Bethlehem dinner" so we're cooking flat breads and hummus and cucumber salads and grilled chicken, things we imagine a mediterranean culture 2020 years ago enjoyed.

Then there is Christmas as a holiday, a cultural institution, a story, which has roots in the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere with ties to lights, to evergreens, to hope. This is the Christmas of beautiful trees and yule logs, of parties and carols and a Dickensian style. Scott's Scandinavian roots are deep and strong here, with lefsa and snowflakes and a monochromatically white dinner. This dimension has nostalgia related to one's childhood, to church musicals, to movies and gatherings. In Bundibugyo I got a Merry Christmas text this morning that included a photo of a cow's head on the grass, because this equatorial Christmas holiday culture includes striving for new clothes and a meal that includes meat . .  . which one can certainly argue are as valid as strings of LED lights or presents wrapped with bows as symbols of the Incarnation.  So the institution of Christmas varies around the world, with more or less to do with the historical reality, but still valuable as ways to bind us together through space and time with traditions we share that point to meaning.


Miguel Cabrera

Myrice West

And then there is the dimension we cannot see, but described for us in Revelations 12. This is the spiritual reality behind the earthly events. In this story, Mary is no longer an unmarried teenager one might pass without a thought: she is clothed in sunlight, standing on the moon, wearing a garland of stars as she cries out with labor pains. Evil is no longer a hidden, implied force, but a seven-headed dragon wreaking heavenly havoc as it waits to devour the baby. The incarnational event sparks off a war where Satan is overthrown but not impotent, still chasing the woman and child, enraged. Even as a loud voice proclaims salvation, the earth has to open and swallow a flood meant to sweep the woman away. There is an ultimate victory but not yet an end to war.

And while all three acts have poignancy and beauty it is that third one that we are clinging to in 2020. 

Yesterday, there were three critically ill children on our ward with abnormal vital signs and in need of care way more intensive and sophisticated than we could give. One died in front of our eyes as we tried our best, the relatives of a second came to knock on my gate this morning to tell me he died in the night, and a nurse just informed me the other one died now.  We had to leave after 6 intense hours (which included a great decision by Scott to emergently operate and deliver a premature who was nearly dead, but could make it now) because yesterday afternoon was our final judgement in the land-grab case that has been dragging us through courts for six years. The judge read out a convoluted reasoning that basically boiled down to this: if a citizen claims property, the court is not going to find in favour of a foreign entity, no matter how shaky the evidence. And we're now not only losing 7 acres of school farm, losing the thousands of dollars invested in our own legal fees, but going to be required to pay all the years of legal costs for the people that sued us for "trespassing" for 20 years. I know on a certain level it is good for us to experience the same injustice that the whole world suffers. But. Frankly, with some heartbreaks on personal fronts, and failures left and right here, it's been a season of sorrow. Not the powerful answers to prayer we hoped for.

So here we are in the third dimension,  the running-from-a-dragon-flood-in-the-wilderness story of 2020. 2019 was a long battle for the soul of CSB. And that looks simple compared to 2020. Months of living on edge about decisions to plod through a worldwide respiratory pandemic in a land of very minimal oxygen and no real ICU capacity. Devastating landslides. Months of goodbyes and setbacks. Grieving with people we care about. Losing the chance to see moms, knowing that the number of those chances is quite finite. Our first Christmas without any of our kids, and our longing for them to thrive and be OK. While there are some good things that happened this year (and many of them related to the disruptions of the lock-downs), the whole world has been facing down an unseen dragon. Evil as a virus, as racism, as hate, as division, as war, as poverty has not hidden this year. It is in all our faces.

Slipped right in the middle of Rev 12, verse 11 gives us the three ways we defeat this evil (v. 11). The same three things keep coming to us in 2020, because resistance and resilience rest on them. First, the blood of the Lamb, the word that became flesh, the presence of God with us in sacrificial love. Making it through this year, which seems like it will never end, we lean on the reality of who God is, for us. Second, the collective word of testimony, the community of believers that connects to the story, that speaks truth together. And third, not loving our lives to the death, having a purpose, something big enough to make this year worth its hardships.  And as I finish this thought, the three acts of Christmas could be these same three paths to overcoming evil: act one, God in the flesh with us; act two, the communal retelling of the story; act three, the spiritual battle that imbues all the above with meaning.

Thanks for following along and praying, for longing with us for the redemption of all things. Tonight we celebrate the beginning of the end of evil, even as we wait for the end of the end of evil. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Mary, the weight of a stone, and the limits of informed consent: #COVID19-UGANDA Day 275

 I picture Mary hanging the laundry when Gabriel arrived, some physical chore, with rolled sleeves and a wandering mind, no Botticelli blues or Fra Angelico halos. A girl with some muscle and grit, at work. Then, a strange man entering the gate with words nuanced in, ?mystery?, innuendo?, surely any girl worth her salt knows that when a stranger offers compliments there is a price to pay sooner or later. Fear. Do not fear, though, the stranger says, and even in those words perhaps fear dissipates into curiosity. There are glorious references to prophecy and royalty and God, but her question is straightforward. Biologically speaking, you must have me confused with someone else, I've never been with a man, so . . .  how can this be? Much is going to be required of this young woman, which may be why she gets more of an answer than her cousin's husband did to his similar objections. There is a power that will overshadow and transform, a seed that will begin to grow. There is a new force at work even in your barren cousin, because the impossible is becoming possible. 

from Jan Pienkowski 

Noting is impossible, but also nothing is by force. I think what strikes me this year in the Luke 1 portion of Mary's story is that moment of consent. Behold, let it be to me according to your word. That the entire story, the entire pivot point of history is there. A message that will require this person to participate, or opt out. The stakes are high: potential for joy, for glory, for honour, for love, for a place in filling the throne that explodes into a kingdom that grows without end. But how much can she see of the cost: shame, rejection, maybe even stoning, death. If she survives to birth, will she survive the birth itself? Rachel did not. And if she survives that process, she has perhaps enough life experience to see that the role of a woman who raises children is backbreaking labor and high potential for loss. It's not a glass slipper on a silk pillow being offered. It is a pregnancy. 

2020 has at times felt like that pregnancy: nausea, weariness, isolation, uncertainty, potential death always lurking in the corners of the room. A few days ago I noticed that my counting of #Covid19-Uganda days was going to hit 280 on Christmas. 280 days, a full gestational period, 40 weeks. Most of us don't probably feel like we had much choice in our lock-downs, or relocations. Or perhaps more accurately, we consented at some point to stay in this year of resistance (be it against a corona virus, or racism, or anti-democracy politics, or war, or malaria, or despair, or sin in all its oily staining hatefulness) and it is only now at the year's end, day 275/280 in the pregnancy, that we look back and realise the weight of what we carry.

There is no one in the entire Bible who experienced God in the same way Mary did, in her body. She was stretched, not just in her soul growing to magnify the LORD, but in her skin taunt, her ligaments loosening. Her heart was literally pumping for both of them. She was thinking big thoughts about the upheaval of the way-things-go where the rich rule the poor. And yet on day 275 she was also scrabbling together what she could in Bethlehem to prepare for the trial of her life, still poor. At this point, God-with-her was fairly disadvantageous. No perks.

I suppose the small encouragement is: if life feels uncomfortable, weighty, exhausting. . . that is hardly evidence of God's absence. It might be the proof in the pudding of God's presence.

Neither Mary, nor Joseph, nor Elizabeth, nor Zechariah, nor John the Baptist, nor the shepherds, nor even the wise men, seemed to emerge very comfortable from the presence of God on earth.

This week has been one with hard news on quite a few sides. What is driving a wave of tribal violence in DRC? Why has the judge once again delayed the final judgement on our court case? What can we do with draining wounds and hungry kids? Why were our prayers for an important thing at home not answered? I don't know. But I think in all of these risky, hard, sorrowful situations we can see that Christmas is a matter of life and death. Reconciliation, peace, hope are not achieved comfortably. The stakes are ultimate. It matters that this baby began a Kingdom that will know no end. It matters that Mary said, yet, let me try.

This week as we count down to Friday, think of Mary heavy with God. Walking more slowly, weighted down, perhaps a bit of heartburn (the indigestive kind when a baby pushes on your stomach) mixed with heartburn (the anxiety of facing labour kind). Would she have said, behold the maidservant of the Lord, if she had known what it would feel like 275 days later? Would any of us? Yet here we are, God growing a presence that will be for bread even if it feels like a stone.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Rachel weeping, round 2020 (#COVID-19 UGANDA day 270)

The story of Jesus' birth contains deep paradox--a chorus of angels in the night sky singing peace, then a company of soldiers slaughtering toddlers.

post-slaughter flight to Egypt on a Ugandan Christmas card

As does life, always in every place, only some days it is more evident than others.

Yesterday, we started our rounds as usual, and Scott was immediately told about a woman in labor who had had two previous C-sections. After one C-section, women can try to labor and deliver naturally, but after two the risks of those scars being too weak to hold in the intensely powerful contractions of labor becomes a real concern. She was early in the course, and an ultrasound confirmed the uterus was intact and baby was fine, but Dr. Isaiah agreed to delay his planned elective C-Section for this lady to move to the front of the line. In the theatre, as nurse Kacie set up to receive the baby, she noticed the woman's extreme pain and distress, which in retrospect was probably when the uterus burst. To get any sort or emergency done in a timely way, Scott keeps a locked drawer with the drugs for sedation, cleaning solution to sterilize skin, even the sutures. He laid that out as the staff got out the instrument set and drapes, then as he always does, said "Let us pray". Only for the first time ever, before he could start praying, it was the patient who jumped in and prayed out loud for herself! As she said Amen, the ketamine took effect and she was out. That was a timely prayer, because he found the uterus exploded, the placenta no longer giving oxygen, the baby with a low heart rate floating free and in need of serious resuscitation. Because Kacie is a Helping Babies Breath ninja, and Scott was there to get things moving and supplement the supplies, that baby's life was saved. He spent the next two hours doing a hysterectomy (the womb was not salvageable) with the wrong instruments, no suction, no big sponges, bowel and blood everywhere,  and about half the suture that would be used in resourced places, which the staff had to get out of his drawer as they went along. Then getting the mom transfused, and then seeing all the other patients on the ward, and rescuing a woman who had severe malaria and anemia and other significant infections. But all in all, though he was drained and dehydrated and hungry by late afternoon, it was an angel chorus rescue day, life winning. 

I peeked in to check on Scott 

One more life-filled angel-rejoice sight, a preem discharged after 33 days

I, on the other hand, plodded along through my usual mess of preemies and asphyxia and infection, malaria and burns and bone infections and sickle cell. There was a 4 year old with a skull fracture and brain bleeding from being hit by a motorcyle as she walked along the road ('tis the season for reckless drivers and too many pedestrians), who will likely recover. About an hour after I left, the nurse called to say a baby whom we discharged last week had returned and wanted review. Since I was miles away, I asked another doctor to see them, went on with my afternoon, but at 5 pm as I walked back home the family was sitting in the grass in front of our community center waiting for me. The baby looked pale, weak, and had vomited blood. I recognized him then, he had had severe brain-damaging jaundice from blood group incompatibility with his mom, and by the time he was admitted after a week of life there were irreversible consequences. Nevertheless, we had kept him for about ten days of treatment and he had left when they begged to go home Friday, improving a bit. I shouldn't have let them go, because by Monday he was NOT Ok. Sadly, they had not waited to be admitted that afternoon, instead deciding to come find me. I was exasperated with their choice, but wrote up all their admission orders, labs to check, dosing of medicine plan for the week, and gave them money to buy a less-available antibiotic and to get a taxi to the hospital. I called the doctor who was still around, and he talked to the NICU nurses to prepare. Sadly this morning I found out that they didn't go back, and the baby died during the night. The slaughter of an innocent side of the day, death too real.

In my early years, I think I found the Herod-killing-babies part of the story shockingly horrible, which it is. If I were writing the story of God coming to earth, I don't think I would have admitted to that part. Surely I don't want the life of my child to mean the death of untold numbers of others. It is a story that weighs, that disturbs the flow, that is glossed over. Rachel weeping for her children. Broken hearts. But the longer we are at this, the more I appreciate the paradox. Jesus' birth was the beginning of the end of evil. But not the end of the end of evil. Evil is still amongst us, still real, still lethal, still heart-breaking. And the fact that even Christmas has a dark side means that we shouldn't be surprised by a rough Monday in 2020 either.

The angels are bright with glory, but for 99.99999% of us, unseen. By faith we declare that God is with us. The rampaging agents of destruction, however, are all too easily seen . . . Uganda approaches elections and police fired live rounds into opposition crowds, tribal militias in DRC have attacked other tribes, medical workers are striking in Kenya, Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world. So I am sort of glad we have a story that is not unrealistically bright, that contains a dark edge, that relates to our reality.