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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.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Joseph, fathers, and the Christmas story (and yes it's still 2020, still #COVID19-Uganda day

 Our Father, who art in Heaven.

So begins the prayer that teaches us to pray. My actual father is in heaven too, which feels quite far and unreal at times. And yet the primary way Jesus talks about God is as Father.

My Dad 

Which leads one to consider Joseph, Jesus' model of fatherhood. Besides the story of Jesus' birth, he only gets passing reference as people try to figure out the upstart rural teacher and miracle-worker, saying . . . isn't this Joseph's son?  Joseph is a subtle part of the story, but bedrock enough to be the cultural identity of the surprising carpenter when he goes public with his preaching. 

Most of us will never be a father. Since half of us are biologically XX genomes, and the XY's don't all reproduce. But all of us have a father. And all of us are capable of relating to God on some level. And most of us end up in a parental role with someone younger. So looking at Jesus' father this Advent season seems an appropriate way to embrace the story.

Fr. Jim Hasse, S.J.

Matthew tells the story from Joseph's perspective, Luke from Mary's, and John from a more poetic metaphysical point of view. In Matthew we learn that while Mary and Joseph were slated for marriage, the communal formalisation or acknowledgement of their partnership had not yet occurred, and they did not yet live together. Their lack of prior sexual history means that when Joseph learns of Mary's growing belly, he has no doubt that he is not the father of the child. Today we looked at that passage in the first chapter in our hospital Bible study--so relatable in any culture really, the sense of confusion and betrayal finding out one's future partner has been apparently unfaithful. The pregnancy itself would not be a huge deal in the majority tribe here as proven fertility is a desirable commodity, but for a man to accept (without shaming her) his wife's pregnancy as not his own and to take responsibility for the child. . . well, that would be shocking. Ancestors and decedents are the name of the game. Proceeding with marriage to a young woman who in the entire history of the world would be clearly lying as she claims a holy-Spirit conception . . that is a real plot twist. Yet, his first-respsonse thought is about how to make things easier for HER.

So the first remarkable thing about Joseph: he subverts his rights to do what is helpful for Mary and her baby.

As soon as he starts to think about how to be gracious to her, God sends dreams and angels four times to make the path clear. Marry her. Go to Egypt. Return to Israel. Settle in Galilee. And he acts on every one. Presumably he had a business, a carpentry shop, tools, gardens, family, obligations, land. It can't have been convenient to move regions and countries. 

So the second characteristic of Joseph--he's tuned into the supernatural, he's willing to take risks, basically he's a man of faith. 

Much of the fragment of the story we get contains movement and discomfort. 160 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the powers-that-be decided on a census, requiring the entire country to re-sort itself into ancestral groupings. That's a long walk. The chaos of the time time means normal inns are full. There has to be some improvisation with a manger. The young child attracts the peculiar visit of magi (scholars with a touch of royalty) which sets off an international incident and security crisis. Once again Joseph has to uproot, at night, on short notice, danger at his heels, into the unknown. 

So the third thing we learn is that this father was characteristically protective and proactive. 

Federick Del Guidice

The last time we hear about Joseph are the Temple stories. When Jesus is 8 days old, his parents take him for circumcision, and when he's 40 days old they return with alternative sacrifices for poor people (turtledoves being cheaper than lambs). Then after the Egypt refugee time, they move back to Nazareth, but continue annual Jerusalem treks to the Temple for Passover. When he is 12, Jesus hangs back at the Temple listening, questioning, learning in the atmosphere of religious debate while his Nazareth group starts the return journey. His parents miss him when the first day's journey is over and anxiously back-track to find him exasperatingly oblivious to their concerns. Jesus seems to be dawning with awareness that he has a Father in addition to a father, and the two claims sometimes compete. an issue his family will continue to struggle with. But Joseph does not seem as upset at Mary from the few sentences we get. 

So the fourth thing about Joseph: he respects the traditions, but he doesn't cling to them to ensure his own power. He's on a journey too, one that involves circumcision and sacrifice as signs of the covenant. but one that is about to take shocking new directions with his son. And he ponders, and changes.

George de la Tour

Jesus' father-figure on earth: a man of self-emptying kindness, a man of risk-taking faith, a man of alert and reliable protection, and a man with a spirit that both participated in traditions but sought for new meaning, allowing his son to move out and on.

So when Jesus teaches us to pray Our Father . . these are some of the things he must have had in mind. Our Father in Heaven operates on the basis of love--what is best for the church his bride, what is best for the children his family, what is best for creation? That is a bedrock to prayer. We are asking the kind of God who doesn't punish a mystery-pregnancy with shame and isolation, who instead pays whatever cost is necessary to help the apparent transgressor (us) survive and thrive. Our Father in Heaven operates in the realm of the supernatural, the realm of faith, the realm where 5 loaves and 2 fish are enough to feed hundreds, the realm where generosity is the default, the realm where we can confidently take what seem to be risks with faith that all shall be well. Our Father in Heaven has our backs, protecting us, proactively anticipating harm and moving us into better paths. And Our Father in Heaven enjoys tradition but pours out the Spirit to blow away the dust, to shake the room, to make all things new.

my Dad with his mom and his daughters

It is no small miracle to have grown up with a father who had Joseph-character. My own "dear old dad" (as he signed a rare note) would gladly pay a cost for our good (reference coming to my dorm room at Hopkins once at night to kill an inner-city rat that was not compatible with good sleep and study). He was willing to take risks based on faith I think (like moving from West Virginia to the growing DC suburbs of rural Virginia to start a construction company that employed men whose job options were quite limited). He was certainly protective (reference everyone my sister and I dated, with the possible eventual exception of our husbands, even buying a car in high school for me to drive when he wasn't too happy with my usual ride). And he was loyally traditional while also letting go (reference driving almost every weekend over twisty narrow curves back to West Virginia to be with family but not guilt-tripping a daughter who moved across the globe).

I have now lived almost twice as long with Scott as with my father. So the observations of fatherhood for me are also heavily influenced by him. And like Joseph, like God the Father, like my Dad . . . he has those same qualities of absolute love, such as scouring the you tube to learn how to fix something for a kid; he's the king of dirty jobs, doing hard and messy things for his family that involve plumbing and dead animals and other grossness. He's not a risk-taker by personality, but he is one by faith, and is one of the few people I know who has actually been called upon to save his family's lives in a war and in epidemics, who has consistently walked into harm's way for others. He's protective and proactive, looking ahead for potential harm and creating buffers. And while he likes our traditions, he's always up for learning new things that his children are interested in, so he can participate with them, most notably changing from American football to become a soccer fan, learning the rules of Rugby, embracing bike riding or bread baking or gardening that they enjoy.

These are the men you want with you when you're giving birth in less than hygienic circumstances (believe me I know), running from massacres (know that one too), moving across international borders with kids (check), and keeping grounded in a religious organisational culture while remaining open to the Spirit (trying). Serge has entered a year of prayer based upon the Lord's Prayer. This Christmas, I'm wondering where I trust God, our Father in Heaven, and how that trust would make my prayers more bold. 2020 has been a long series of lowered expectations.  Asking for bread, I half-expect stones. And given the good men around me I have no excuse. Praying to lean on God like a pregnant Mary on Joseph, when you're hitting that wall of unable to go on, and you just need a strong shoulder and an encouraging voice.