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Wednesday, July 03, 2019

57, in Almost Heaven

My parents and Scott's parents married in 1957.

And this year, I turned 57.

Which, I believe, is a pretty great year to reach. One kid married, one new daughter, last kid finishing college, hopefully a bit of wisdom from all the mistakes we've lived through, and hopefully enough health and energy to keep putting all that experience to good use a bit longer.

This birthday I was in my favorite place in the USA, Sago, WV at our farm, in between two reunions (see post below), and appropriately with my mom who made the birth-day possible. We were also in a bit of chaos with phone calls and meetings, sorting and packing and cleaning and cooking and preparing. But I decided I wanted to do my own iron-woman ezer-thon. Iron, as in iron-sharpens-iron as a metaphor for true friendship and a good marriage. We should be becoming sharper, becoming more holy and focused as we bump up against each other. And ezer, as in Helper, one of the names of God and one of the descriptions of a woman. Strong and hard enough to be a reliable and integral part of the Kingdom.

One can be iron-willed and ezer-capable in a thousand, a million, actually a few billion unique ways. As a non-athletic person in a family of athletes, though, for my birthday I decided to design my own little 57-kilometer (miles are a bit too long) challenge that would push me but not kill me.  I was going to knock a few out with kayaking but the river was dangerously high that day.  So I put together a few of my favorite running routes to challenge myself by going on a 20k run (jog) (pretty much a half marathon) at my own steady pace, then in the afternoon Scott went with me on a 37k bike ride. We threw in a hike in the woods and a dip in the muddy fast river (not straying too far from the shore) for a bonus. Plus quiet time to read and reflect and pray, and some good food, and since it was discount Tuesday at the local theater we ended up with Toy Story 4.

Since 7 rhymes with WV's slogan "Almost Heaven" . . . I guess I'd say I'm hoping for a few more earthly years to enjoy with my family and work and community. But for empty-nest moms and middle-aged people, the rare chance to take off and plan a birthday challenge was pretty fun and highly recommended.


Union is the state for which humanity was created.

And yet most of us live in a series of goodbyes and griefs. I am sitting in an airport as I write this, which is wonderful because it enables us to come back and connect, and yet also sad because it represents the transience of those connections.

The life of an international worker involves a constant state of being on the way from and the way to, of anticipating resuming face-to-face relationships and remembering the ones that have been suspended due to the disjointing of time and the dislocation of place.  But so does the life of most people in 2019. Hence, the REUNION. The re-raveling of the family network. My parents both grew up in West Virginia, the kind of state from which people with a bit of education and ambition have tended to move in the last century. The Appalachian tradition of the family reunion is strong. My mom gave me a West Virginia cookbook for my birthday, and a surprising number of recipes included the word reunion in the title or the appropriateness of the dish for taking to a reunion in the description. When my dad's brothers returned alive from WWII in 1946 (he was 11 going-on-12) his parents instituted the annual June tradition.  This past Saturday marked 73 years of doing so.

My mom, me, Julia, and Scott at The Reunion

The top of the Split Rock, our family's central physical location.  My grandfather and great grandfather lived in a cabin next to this massive rock which is split down the middle. Julia is making sure young cousins don't drop into the 30-foot crevasse.

My grandfather and grandmother's names carved in the rock

Pre-reunion pizza night at our farm for the cousins who arrive the night before

Hiking up the railroad tracks

Me (in red of course) and my cousin Doug in 1962 above, 2019 below 

Gathering to pray before the pot-luck massive spread of food on Saturday

With my cousin Bruce at Split Rock

Three generations

Since we were in the USA for May/June for Jack's graduation (and Acacia's and Krister's) and Luke's wedding, we extended the extra week to be able to re-une with the Aylestock family, and I'm so glad we did. Badminton and cornhole, cakes and homemade ice cream, old pictures and new spouses, swimming in the river and walking in the woods . . . it was a solidly memorable weekend.

The week before, we had a different sort of American reunion tradition--Scott's 40th year from graduating from Wyoming High School in the suburbs of Cincinnati, OH.  Considering that many had not seen each other since then, or perhaps only once or twice, it was a strong turn out of nearly 100 former classmates and a couple dozen of their spouses.

While I can't fully defend all aspects of social media, I have to say that this reunion gave me a different view of facebook. Many of these human beings were teenage friends, and have used fb to interact in a way that makes them truly care about each others lives. Care enough to drive and fly long distances to see each other once again. Care enough to know about important things. I found myself hearing about family deaths and losses, moves, dreams, jobs, memories in ways that seemed real and deep.

While in Cincinnati we were given time to speak briefly at one of our supporting churches. Again, the sense of long connections over many many years, of sacrificial giving and the stability of continued partnership, boosted our souls.

The intersection of Scott's High School and Church friends . . 

And time for dear friends from Medical School that work short terms still in Africa, teach global health, and send us the best packages over many many years!

Reunions are a picture of redemption.  Here's to many more!

Saturday, June 22, 2019

A Wedding, An Ocean, Two families of Eight, Ten Friends, And Feasting Galore: Luke and Abby Myhre, 15 June 2019

Luke and Abby shone this week. They created community as they brought their families together, pulled a handful of their friends into the event, added generous piles of good food and music, and reveled in the natural beauty of a New England beach. The context was wind, sun, waves, lights, stories, grills, toasts, songs. The event was a traditional recital of vows in the eyes of God and humanity, pledging to forsake all others and cling until death pried them apart. The joy spilled liberally to all of us.

Each couple's wedding is unique, and this one reflected Abby and Luke's desire for a longer deeper intimate time with a handful of people. Abby's parents will also gift us with a larger reception in November, after Abby's grueling fellowship in trauma care is completed, which will be more like a normal wedding reception. But for the marriage itself, Luke and Abby wanted a meaningful setting and a small group of people. They are both embroiled in probably the most demanding year of their work-lives (let us pray it gets better!) and only managed a long weekend to spend on the event (honeymoon will have to wait). Given those limits, they asked their parents and siblings and a small representative number of high school, college, and med school friends to come. And the only two surviving grandparents!  Since Abby's family has a vacation home in Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusettes, and she's spent some of her summer there every year of her life, they decided to make the party there.  Nantucket has been a whaling and fishing base since before recorded history, and became a refuge for indigenous Americans when European settlers dislodged them from the rest of the coast. Soon English whaling ships were coming there too, and dumping their ballast of rocks to make cobblestone streets, building their weather-worthy homes of cedar shingles that turn grey over the years of wind and rain and sun. There were small farms, and a good harbor, a few roads, gulls and seals and sharks, dunes and moors and pines. In the last century the island as become a resort destination but maintained its natural spaces, uniform cottages, and coastal flavor.

I can't possibly give a full and adequate account, the time was so rich. Abby's mom put us in contact with her neighbor, and we were able to rent the house next door for the week. The sheer logistics of managing two families, 26 people (two of whom were over 80), arrivals and departures by ferry and airplane, two extra locations (an air bnb for the friends and a beach-side house with a deck for the parties), rentals of tables and plates and cutlery, decorations, music, grills, food . . . all with one pick-up rented by Luke plus the Harries' vehicles, was daunting.  The audacity to make it all fairly DIY and outdoors given the blustery winds and frequent cool foggy clouds in June did give everyone some pause. But it all came together in a memorable and beautiful way.

Highlights include:

  • Radiance. The bride, in our humble opinion, simply sparkled, and confirmed minute by minute how good God has been to our family to cross her path with Luke's. She is cheerful, competent, brave, firm in her foundations, sticks to her beliefs, looks out for others, and turned an event in which the bride is traditionally a bit passive into one where she went out of her way to engage and serve. She baked her own wedding cake! A six-layer carrot-cake marvel.  She sang a solo! She danced her heart out, laughed, and walked determined to enjoy the weekend in spite of gloomy weather forecasts. Oh, she also looked stunning. I think seeing her there by the ocean gave us a fuller picture of her beauty, in her natural habitat.
  • Conviviality. The groom set the tone, and the entire group followed. Luke, as we who have loved him his whole life know, is a force of nature. He has a wonderful ability to pull a group together, to get a dozen people into a cold ocean to ride waves, to have the idea of his church being chairs in the sand on the beach and make it happen, to envision seared tuna and perfectly grilled steaks and citrusy drinks and jovial music, and it wa-la, there it is. He was up early and late, picking up the rentals, meeting people at the airport, shuttling food and drinks, telling stories, listening to friends. Did I mention the colored disco strobe lights that transformed the kitchen into a dance party? He's a person who thinks outside the box and pulls us all to a better level, whose zest and faith and kindness and sharpness make things fun.
  • Feasting.  Can I mention the food again? We had two dinners at our rented house, the Harries had us over too, then there was the rehearsal dinner, the wedding day brunch, and the wedding dinner. One night Caleb and Jack rolled out probably 50 or more fresh flour tortillas. Another Julia and Jack did dozens of date-goat's cheese-bacon appetizers. Friends and dads were often at the grill, friends and moms were making salads and sides. There were bottles of wine and a champagne toast. Some items were brought in catered and others made from scratch, but each event included savory flavors in a setting of cheer and conversation. Luke requested Caleb to read in the ceremony one of our favorite passages from one of our favorite books, the Supper of the Lamb, a culinary and spiritual reflection on the Kingdom of God. This was appropriate to the wedding and also to the entire long weekend of fellowship.
  • Wind and Waves and Sun and Stars.  June 15 fell on the full moon, and nearly the summer solstice. And in spite of a rain-cloud prediction, the rehearsal-dinner day and the wedding-day turned out to be sunny.  There were bike rides and runs, dips in the ocean, surfing, paddle ball, even a little soccer. This wedding weekend reflected Luke and Abby's love for the outdoors, for activity, for natural beauty, for the environment. And as a special gift: just as we set up the chairs and the beautiful wooden arch that Dr. Harries, Abby's dad, had made for the ceremony down on the beach, a seal pup came up in the waves and waited for his mom.  We were a bit nervous about him being distressed or abandoned right in the middle of the wedding ceremony, but by the end there was a burst of squeals and his mom came back and swam off with him. Pretty cool. How many weddings have you been to attended by a junior seal??
  • Siblings. I can't say enough about how awesome the siblings were.  Abby's two brothers did a lot of set up and take down. And they made such moving speeches about her.  They were ages 11 and 16 when she was born, so they have always been part-brother part-parent in their protective relationship with her. Luke's siblings (and I may be a bit biased here) threw themselves 100% into this week. Long difficult travel, late nights and early mornings, cooking, cleaning, errands, hammering nails, building structures, setting up chairs, washing dishes and more dishes, whatever needed to be done. Caleb wrote and performed a spoken-word poem-rap that did not leave a dry eye. Jack and Julia gave deeply personal and genuine tributes. A wedding is a focus on the bride and groom for sure, in this case the only-girl by-a-long-gap youngest and the super-confident-by-a-short-gap take-charge-oldest. It would be easy for siblings to roll their eyes and withdraw, but these five entered in with all their hearts. And Abby's two sisters-in-law too! 
  • Friends. As mentioned above, Luke and Abby know how to choose them. The handful that represented at this event (the original plan was immediate family only, and the hardest part for Luke and Abby was probably limiting themselves to 3-4 friend invites each when they have so many others they would have loved to celebrate with . . .) were not just fun and articulate and interesting, they were talented cooks and eager workers. This was an all-pitch-in event, and they did. They made our parental enjoyment even greater with their enthusiasm and help. And when we were talking after, several mentioned that the invitation to participate was actually a highlight and not a burden. 
  • The over-80 crowd. My mom and Scott's mom were champs. They hung in with the literal and figurative whirlwinds of activity. They walked on the beach and even climbed a ladder, and my mom briefly joined the dancing. They were determined to participate, and they did.  Ruth had been gone from her home since before Jack's graduation, so it was quite a long stretch for her of travel and time with us. My mom had her to Charlotte for a few days so they could fly together. They both did so well, and everyone loved having their generation participate.
  • The details.  In the end, a lot of a wedding boils down to details. And Abby's parents excelled in the details.  Her dad Tom made a fun sign with the origins and mileage of each traveler, put up strings of lights, built the wedding arch. Her mom Rhonda created beautiful tables, lights, fabrics, photo displays. Even matching t-shirts for everyone! She ordered  L and A m&m's, had sweet personalized details at every turn. I scoured our boxes of stored stuff to find childhood photos and Scott made fun slideshows, one for Luke and one for Abby to kick off the memories at the rehearsal dinner. He also worked very hard with Luke and Abby to write a traditional ceremony and a short but glorious sermon. We created a liturgy for the rehearsal gathering too. The flowers contained herbs as a nod to Abby's love of gardening. 

In short, we had a blast. 

Our first time to have a child married. Scott's first time to perform a wedding ceremony (he got a one-day license for the state). And not the first but the most extensive time for Scott and Jack to do wedding photos together. The official pictures are yet-to-be seen from the hired photographer, but we've been enjoying the spontaneous shots that Jack and Scott took, some of which are highlighted in this post.

I wish I could post Caleb's poem, which was far better, but I don't have a copy or permission. So I'll end with the sonnet I wrote for the occasion:

A Wedding Sonnet
For Feasting with Disquietude
Honoring Luke and Abby
15 June 2019

Let this nights marriage feast defy death.
For where two cross wills, then choose one
The serpents stings another step undone-
Fierce faith exhales a resurrecting breath.

A breath, a taste, a glimpse, but not yet cure
Though fangs pulled, the bite inflicts a bruise
On heel and hearth. Every cup a drop must lose.
Almost heaven, almost home, almost happy, almost sure.

So close reveals so far. Feasting, we feel disquietude.
YET FEAST WE CHOOSE. A table laid now shines
Shadows into retreat, invites all to dine
A cheery, glorious, inclusive, messy multitude.

This is the redemption of the damned.
This is the supper of our LAM(b).

Monday, June 03, 2019

Martyr's Day, Uganda: making Christianity African

Today Uganda commemorates the boys and men burned to death in Namugongo for their faith, on June 3, 1886. The year before, the Kabaka Mwanga had already killed a missionary James Hannington and a Ugandan Catholic leader Joseph Mkasa Balikuddembe, and up to 45 were killed between 1885 and 1887. But the sheer scale and public spectacle of the 32 martyrs burned on June 3, combined with their courage and conviction as they died, shook perceptions of the new faith. Prior to this event, Christianity could have appeared to be a Western religion associated with the colonial interests of Europe. A perception which no doubt held some truth. What angered the Kabaka to the point of such mass cruelty? The loss of his power over his people. The same thing that angered the rulers of Jerusalem, and Rome, and a thousand places before and since: faith in Jesus took priority in the believers' lives, even over loyalty to the king. They would now weigh their actions, right and wrong, priorities, obedience, on a standard that was outside of and higher than the opinion of the Kabaka. This included the tradition that young male court pages were also the sexual partners of the Kabaka, a practice they realized they could now resist. Jesus always sounded political to those who took his words seriously. Kabaka Mwanga understood that. He felt threatened, and he struck back. The resistance to his sexual exploitation no doubt left him feeling disempowered, but there were also likely good reasons he was worried that if his citizens sided with the new religion they would also side with the British.  It was complicated. But the result was not a whole-scale embrace of European rule; it was an eye-opening grass-roots ripple that turned into a wave that said, this is something real. Something African. These 32 went to their deaths singing and praying to God to forgive their oppressors. And their death caused all around them to confront their faith, and to say, this is not a way to gain the world, this is a way to gain your soul.
The Uganda Martyrs: Their Countercultural Witness Still Speaks Today by Bob French
Uganda's recognition of this event includes two major memorials (one Catholic and one Anglican/Church of Uganda), parades, a University, the national public holiday. Martyr's Day forms a central place in Uganda's story, self-perception, strength. Which is interesting in the 21rst century's obsession with the so-called prosperity gospel, with the constant world-wide fallacy of equating faith and power, Jesus and wealth, right and might. Martry's day preaches the cross. The 32 chose a freedom of conscience that was more valuable than life, an integrity that cost them a horrific painful death. In stark contrast to preachers with personal jets or promises that belief produces health and wealth, the martyrs arrest the attention of the world with a stark holiness: theway of the Kingdom of God is the way of the cross. 

This is not a naturally appealing story in any culture. But the improbability provided key evidence that the followers of Jesus transcend any national identity.

Within my lifetime, this story had another Ugandan chapter.  Another ruler, Idi Amin, felt threatened by the clergy who questioned his excesses of power. He also sent Christians to their death, notably Archbishop Janani Luwum in 1977.

Uganda's witness to the world powerfully questions blind obedience to the powers that be. Followers of Jesus in many times and cultures have had the conviction and courage to stand up to injustice in the political sphere, and in doing so have met the suffering.  Just as Jesus did.