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Thursday, February 04, 2016

On evil, and telling stories to children

I was asked to write an article for an on-line magazine dealing with how we protect our children from evil, and the use of story.  If you're interested, just use this link and page through to pages 6-10 (it makes cool page-turning sounds too).

Even though the book has not sold as many copies as we hoped, it has done much better than the average first-time-author attempt (or so they tell me to cheer me up).  And New Growth Press has begun preparing the second book in the series for publication.  Any promoting of A Chameleon, A Boy, and A Quest to your school, library, bookstore, home-school group, whatever is much appreciated!  It's hard to break out beyond our own small network.  Thanks.

Here's a sneak preview of the next cover:



Zika, Math, Preparedness and Panic

If your news-feed doesn't have enough to scare you from Donald Trump, then the Zika virus is probably filling the gap.  Once again, Uganda gets the bad rap of being the site of discovery and the source of the name of this virus, which avid colonial-era scientists found in rhesus monkeys inhabiting the Zika forest in 1947.  The virus rarely infected human, but the mosquito which transmits Zika is the same one that transmits other more prevalent diseases like dengue and yellow fever.  The virus also jumped continents via world travel, finding non-immune populations and causing rapid spikes in transmission resulting in epidemics in Micronesia (2007), French Polynesia (2013), and then (courtesy of World Cup football) Brazil and the Americas (2015).  And unless you were a medical student preparing for exams, or a viral research scientist, you had probably never heard of Zika virus until a month ago.

In November 2015, Brazil began to publish reports of an unexpected increase in cases of babies born with extremely small heads.  They collected 4000 reports that year, represented a 20-fold increase in some areas over historical trends.  In a handful of cases, an autopsy or blood tests showed evidence of exposure to the Zika virus.  Temporally the two trends have been associated, so a hypothesis was suggested.  So far so good.

Then in lightening-fast fashion, we went from an observational report to a massive world-wide crisis and panic.

Why?

A foreign-sounding name, the vulnerability of pregnant women and young babies, the terrible headlines with words like "shrunken heads".  The culture of blame, so that if officials don't sound the alarm fast they are later liable.  The sense of guilt over the ebola non-response.  The moderate level of anxiety that is whipped up constantly by our access to skewed information.  

First, the math, because truth usually begins and end with some calculations. Brazil has a population of 200 million people (about 2/3 of the US population).  They have a birth rate of about 15/1000 so we'd expect about 3 million babies/year (about 3/4 of the 4 million US births per year).  Now the tricky thing is how do we define normal and abnormal for head size.  Generally we do this by creating a database over time of massive numbers of babies at various ages, documenting their weight, length, and head circumference, and when the number of babies per size and per age are graphed, you get a "normal" curve.  There is an average size, that tails off to the high and the low.  95% of babies fall within 2 standard deviations above and below the mean.  Statisically speaking, about 2.5% of babies would have a head circumference below 2 standard deviations (33 cm), which in Brazil would be 75,000 babies and in the USA would be 100,000 babies.  Most of those would be normal, just the kids on the smaller side.  So for truly talking about microcephaly, we usually take 3 standard deviations below (32 cm) as a cut-off for severe, where only 0.15% of people should be.  That's 4,500 Brazilian or 6,000 American babies.

In America, the teaching is that we have about 25,000 microcephalic babies /year based on a cut-off of 2 standard deviations (link here), which would mean that we are missing 75,000 of those we statistically expected to find.  I'm guessing that's because those are normal kids who are small and don't get reported as microcephalic.  If you look up incidence of microcephaly, they don't always define the problem well, and the numbers range from 1:6000 births to 1:250,000 births (giving expectations in the USA from 16 to 667 babies/year), 10 times below the numbers we would expect statistically.  That also makes sense to me, because while size is normally distributed, at the low low end of head size we don't just have small cute babies who are normal.  That's where we have babies whose heads are small because their brains didn't grow properly in utero.  Babies with chromosomal rearrangements and deletions, babies whose mothers were exposed to teratogenic substances, babies who were infected with diseases known to affect brain growth.  Also in the USA abortion is legal, so it is hard to know how many abnormal babies never make it to birth.

OK if you're lost now, that's just the point.  Do 4000 microcephalic Brazilian babies represent a shocking increase in incidence, or an admirable increase in detection?  Are more microcephalic babies suddenly being born in Brazil, or did the suggested association lead to raised awareness and reporting?  We don't know.  Some states are using head sizes below 33 cm, and some below 32, to report.  Some are reporting all babies, some only those with a suspected Zika association.  This epidemic is still spreading, and 80% of cases are asymptomatic, with the rest being mostly mild.  If there an effect on unborn children, perhaps we never found it before because the numbers were too low (in semi-immune populations) to be noticeable, or the infections were occurring in places with less medical access.  

For now, the panic is escalating way out of proportion to the known risk.  For a factual scientific read on all the details, look here.  Having a baby with microcephaly in most cases means a lifetime of struggle for the family, physical and occupational therapy, feeding challenges, special education.  It is not something to be taken lightly, and if this media frenzy does anyone good, I hope that it leads to increased empathy for families who already have children whose brains have not developed normally.  I hope the surge of attention attracts funding for resources for microcephalic kids of all stripes.  There is a long, long list of potential causes.  Zika virus may be one more cause on the list one day, but a temporal association is not strong enough evidence for causation.  

In the meantime, kudos for global thinking, and it's pretty much never good to get mosquito bites.


Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Epiphany

Today, the twelfth day of Christmas, much of the Christian world celebrates revelation, light, seeing.  The arrival of the Magi to the house where the young child was, a celestial marvel attracting foreign scholar-priests to the obscure village of Bethlehem.  The homage of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, acknowledging this baby’s royal and divine lineage with an overtone of inevitable mortality.  Camels, horses, foreigners, unsettling signs, wonders.  The trigger which unleashes local paranoia, an attempted genocide, flight. 

As it happens, my Old Testament reading today ends the book of Ruth, also largely set in Bethlehem.  And coming on the heels of Urbana’s emphasis on multiculturalism, and on reading one of the speaker’s books (Disunity in Christ, by Christine Cleveland), I’m struck by the intentional orchestration of God to mix things up.  Sending Naomi and family to Moab, drawing in Ruth, bringing her back to Bethlehem, and through the desperation and scheming and hope of two widows, a story of redemption where Ruth enters the family tree that produces King David, and then Jesus.   Fast forward a thousand years, and another very intentional stir in world events brings these mystical scholars to meet the infant Jesus and return to their diverse lands enlightened.  The birth of God, to the Jews but also to the world.  So the exotic caravan of foreign dignitaries enters the small village, and then the cosmic disturbance explodes in dreams of warning, angels, escape to Egypt.  Another foreign connection.

Today then is a Christmas completion, good news for all peoples, which includes us in all our obscurity and injustice.  God intentionally draws the world to Jesus and sends Jesus to the world.

And appropriately, we are celebrating this day on the road.  Our twelve days of Christmas have been largely in motion, and much of that motion is motivated by homage to the hidden King of creation.  That same birth compels us to go, and provides connection and respite along the way.  In the Jesus-to-the-world category, we have stops along the way to share what God is doing through Serge and thank those who make it possible.  Formal seminars, cups of coffee, telling the story, we go as pilgrims compelled by the Love that mixes cultures intentionally and plucks a couple of Americans to uproot themselves and cross the ocean to serve other nations’ children.

But in the world-to-Jesus category, the last week has also been an experience of the awe of receiving. Sometimes I think of the mark of Cain, which protected his life, and imagine we are marked with a subconscious sign that propels people to be kind to us.  I imagine Mary opening the door to a retinue of gift-bearing strangers, and I think I know how she felt. 


We have stayed with people we had never previously met, who opened their homes to us because of the Kingdom.  We have had friends gather, and relatives gather, bending over backwards to match their schedule to our lone hour of passing through.  We saw Scott’s aunt, uncle, and cousins for the first time in 15 years.  In Colorado we were treated to three days in a restored ranch-house just outside Breckenridge with overflowing hospitality including the use of snowmobiles and cross-country skis and a hot tub, connecting with a kindred-spirit family over meals and conversation, a true Sabbath inhale after the pouring-out of Urbana. Grandparent Christmas gifts gave us an extravagant day of skiing one of the world’s most spectacular sets of slopes.  Jack learned to snowboard from Caleb, and our family (minus Luke, sadly) spent the day riding the lifts and crisscrossing the mountainside together, lifting our eyes up to peaks over 14,000 feet tall all around us (Scott and Caleb took the highest lift in North America to the double-black-diamond bowl at the top).  One day we hiked within a snow-ball throw of six moose, majestic animals crunching through the snow-cover to graze.  As we dropped Caleb back at the academy, we spent the night with a doctor-doctor former Air Force couple whom we met at a mission conference.  After dinner the wife showed me the house and then said, we would like you to bring your family here for graduation, you can stay and we will leave the house to you that week.  I cried.  USAFA graduation accommodations cost thousands and thousands of dollars and have been booked for years, yet in our helpless inefficiency we were given just what we needed by virtual strangers.

So this Epiphany we celebrate from the viewpoint of the holy family, being given gifts by kings.

And that is part of our testimony, serving the God who sees.  Who prompts people with resources to generously share them with us.  Who orchestrates friendships and meetings and car mileage and paths for our good, and, we hope, the world’s.





Thursday, December 31, 2015

URBANA 15: pick me up to write your story

We are closing the year here in St. Louis, MO, along with 16,000 college students and a few hundred mission organizations and leaders, with the theme "What story will you tell?"  Once upon a time, we were students ourselves, attending Urbana in 1981 and 1984.  I remember the colored pencil manuscript Bible studies, the heart-breaking stories from Helen Roseveare, the Scottish accent of Eric Alexander, the midnight communion then trekking through the snow for our all-night bus rides home. Our "Africa Team" committed ourselves during the 1984 Urbana.

Fast forward the story by 30 years (!) and here we are again, only now the event has moved from the bleak utilitarian university and dorm setting to the skyscrapers of downtown St. Louis with it's convention center and football stadium.  The artistry, in music, drama, videos, lighting, integration of themes, sheer movement of thousands of people have all taken leaps ahead.  The worship team has gone to great lengths to be multicultural in content and appearance, celebrating diversity, and to be professional in quality.  The art and drama enhance the truths taught through the Gospel of Matthew.  Our main speaker is the head of OMF, a doctor from Hong Kong with detailed and deep scriptural analysis sprinkled with inspiring stories of OMF missionaries.  Besides the Matthew study, there are a dozen or more other speakers sharing their stories, plus about 200 seminars on a vast array of topics in the afternoons, plus hundreds of exhibitors.  It is dizzying.

A few months ago we volunteered to lead a couple seminars, and were thankful to make the cut.  On Monday we spoke to a couple hundred students on "Child Health in the Majority World:  A Billion Reasons to Hope", which was part public-health stats on the improvements in child mortality in the last 25 years (we've gone from over 12 million under-five deaths/year to just under 6 million), part evidenced-based medicine examining which interventions actually work, and part missionary-testimony talking about what we believe are best practices.  Yesterday we tackled a more emotional topic:  "Risk, Safety, and Faith:  Missions in an Age of Ebola and Terrorism."  As per the conference theme, we told some stories of our own struggles with risk and loss, and examined Jesus' story as an example to us of incarnation (taking on the reality of the people we are reaching), the cross (the path of suffering is the path of love), and resurrection (risk becomes worth it when the redemption of the world is at stake).

When we're not attending the morning and evening massive gatherings in the dome, or speaking in afternoon seminars, we're on the Serge teams at our booth.  We make ourselves available to talk to students, to ask questions, to listen to their concerns, to pray for them sometimes, or to just encourage and offer options for their journey onward.  It is sometimes loud, chaotic, tiring, exciting, fun, draining.  Our Serge team does an amazing job of really ministering to students who are at times confused by the uncertainty of their future, and looking for God's leading.  We also represent our teams as we look for connections with people who can boost them.  Last night we were one of nearly 50 pairs of leaders serving communion to the crowd of students, which was a joy, blessing them over and over, one by one, a moment of individuality in this crowd experience.  Just getting in and out of the halls in flows of massive crowds, or managing to get food, or find our family, can be a challenge.

Yes, find our family.  Jack, Julia, and Caleb are attending as college students themselves.  Experiencing this worship together, discussing the topics speakers bring up, working together at the Serge booth, have all been a priceless gift.  We miss Luke but he is studying diligently for his board exams coming up in a month.

And perhaps that has been the highlight for us, processing the experience in a way that helps us understand our own kids' reality as people raised in Africa and immersed in the American University Culture.  This Urbana has not yet really felt like the call-to-leave-all sort of classic mission-promoting conference of old.  Maybe that comes today, in the final sessions, I hope we focus on what story GOD is telling. But Urbana has tackled some important issues head-on, namely racial tension in the USA, the persecuted church around the world, and our approach to Muslims.

The first day and a half were largely focused on issues of race.  Which felt authentic, since the conference is on the doorstep of Ferguson, in a year marked by tragic injustice and loss.  It also felt uncomfortable at times, as speakers grappled to both acknowledge that weighty iceberg of history that we would rather not see below the surface, and to sound a clarion call towards reconciliation, which was mostly excellent, but at times simply sounded angry and divisive.  My favorites were Christina Cleveland's appeal to move from a dichotomized view of the world separating us from them, to a trinitarian-based view of us-only, unity without loss of uniqueness.  And this quote from an activist named Michelle in one of the videos:  "The goal of activism is not to defeat a person who is your enemy but to defeat the force that is making you hate each other."  Amen.  If only we could truly keep that in mind.

While the call to bring the church to the nations has not sounded so loudly, the truth that the church exists in suffering and danger in many nations has been beautifully and soberly shown.  One night we were invited to bring candles (battery ones, of course) onto the floor of the arena and pray for believers who suffer persecution in about 8 different countries around the world, including Kenya and S-lia.

And lastly, in a climate of American politics where Muslims are presented with fear and blaming, it has been refreshing and courageous to see Urbana speak with calm, loving, joyful rationality.  Several speakers have told their own stories of coming to faith, and pleaded with American/Canadian college students to listen, to build bridges, to pray, to be respectful, to present truth with love.

Tonight we will end 2015 with most of our family, enfolded in the Serge family, and surrounded by the family of God.  The spiritual battle is real, as we tackle racism and persecution and as we move towards others in love.  This spiritual battle feels palpable as we meet a few blocks from the Mississippi river which is flooded to its highest stage, ever.  The conference ends at midnight, at which point we move into the next year and the rest of life.  Pray today that many many students grasp a bigger view of their own story within the context of God's story, and take courageous steps to join wherever that leads.  I'll end with a chorus we sang last night:

O God, here am I, send me, use me for your glory.
O God, here am I, send me, pick me up to write your story.





Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas and Motion


The Christmas highlight of 2015 will be, for me, celebrating with four kids in a real home, a place we are working to make our "basecamp" for decades to come.  We are still a family of pilgrims, but having a specific spot tied to family history, a spot that is ours, where any of us can land when we need to, means a lot.  And even as I consider that, I know that it was not true of Christmas two thousand-plus years ago, when Mary and Joseph had no place to call home.  And it has not been true of many Christmases for us, when we've been displaced by war or on the move.  So while I truly am thankful for our wood-burning stove-warmed kitchen, our hand-me-down table and plates, our new comfortable beds, I know that Christmas was more than a glow of lights in a West Virginia mountain hollow.  The gathering of people whose hearts are bound to each other makes the home, and that can be mobile until we are all rooted together in a New Heavens and New Earth.







So with that in mind, we celebrate the moments and the memories.  Taking Granddad to play putt putt golf with the hunch that once he held the club and was oriented to the hole, muscle memory would take over.  It is no small thing to find an activity that engages late-teens and mid-80's, so let me recommend miniature golf.  He was far better at it than the rest of us.  Except Nana, who with her 5 foot frame and laid-back personality was never the family athlete, but came out of nowhere to hit 4 holes-in-one.  The shock on Scott's face and the delighted surprise on hers were priceless.



Then there were the little photo albums of baby pictures my mom put together from the stacks of old pictures as she moved.  The cousins all remembering the old days and poking fun of each other as we celebrated with my family, the fun secret-santa gifts, the creative putting together of Christmas in a hotel room where we all met the weekend before.  Memorable.



Music flowed during the rainy days back at home.  Caleb's siblings decided that the main family Christmas gift would be an amplifier and loop pedal for him, so we had some jam sessions with our 80 year old minipiano and multiple guitars.  The special Scandinavian treats, with Nana teaching Julia to use her own grandmother's rosette iron, and me making lefsa that even impressed Granddad.  The traditional annual puzzle project.  Abundant meals, lingering conversation, games, movies.




And because we are still cross-cultural in some ways, we made cookies and went caroling to some neighbors, and found a local Christmas Eve service as well.  West Virginia has plenty of Angel Tree kids.  Small ways to give to others.

On Christmas day itself, the first firing of the new pizza oven, with leisurely production of gourmet pies.  And if you can't beat it join it . . . days of rain and milder temps inspired a family dip in the frigid river that runs by us, with some adventurous kayaking.  Probably the first time ever for pizza or a kayak on Christmas, but hey.

But the cozy days (all four of them) of home-for-Christmas came to an abrupt end on the 26th.  Luke went back to Charlottesville to study intensively for his board exams, coming up in a month, and weighing him down with oppressive hours and determinative outcomes.  (Prayers appreciated, particularly as he strained his back and is in a lot of pain).  He went by way of Dulles to get Scott's parents to a flight back to California, while the rest of us dismantled the tree and packed our bags.  By early afternoon we were on the road to St. Louis, with an overnight in Louisville.  And we'll be on the road for all but 2 nights in the next 5 weeks.

Which brings us to Urbana, the biggest student mission conference in North America, held every three years to worship God with thousands and thousands of college students, focusing on God's merciful heart for all nations.  Tornadoes and floods pounding the midwest give this event an apocalyptic feel.  We were awakened at 4 am by harshly alarming cell phones warning of flash floods for our area, but since we're on the 16th floor of a hotel we went back to sleep.  In a few hours Scott and I will give a seminar called "Child Health in the Majority World:  A Billion Reasons for Hope."  There are exhibits, booths, books, speakers, chatter, music, lights, and a lot of damp cold young people asking God for purpose and direction.

Christmas in motion once again, our brief respite and taste of home now a memory in the more realistic life of pilgrimage.  Pray for us to move in faith, and to see the hand of God as we go.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Letter

Merry Christmas!!

CLICK HERE to download our annual Christmas Letter - full of pictures and a re-cap of 2015 in the life of the Myhre family.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On the Paradox of Home: Holy and Hard

Christmas movies are my jam.  Favorites include It’s a Wonderful Life, Family Man, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, Prancer . . . all of which capture something which is essential to the Christmas story. Namely the numinous supernatural reality that shimmers just out of our sight, just beyond our consciousness, until that moment when a glimpse is given.  Perhaps the main character is in desperation, or perhaps the character’s longing is recognized and fulfilled.  Or perhaps the main character just needs a shocking infusion of terror and grace to shake life onto a better track. 


This past weekend I was watching the beautifully animated and true-to-literature recent version of A Christmas Carol (Jim Carrey, Colin Firth).  There is a scene on Christmas Eve when Scrooge leans out the window and sees the air filled with spirits.  The holiday seems to bring the visible and invisible worlds to a common threshold where communication becomes possible, and epiphanies occur.


Which, if you think of it, fits into the story.  Zecharias and Mary receive visits from the angel Gabriel, Joseph receives instructions in dreams, the Magi interpret signs in the sky, the shepherds see a sudden infusion of light and glory.  After a long silence, God is speaking.

And for most of those characters, the revelations come in the mundane routine of daily life, unexpected, unsought. 


More often than not, home becomes the site where spiritual otherliness pierces concrete ordinariness.   I imagine Mary with her hands floured to the elbows, or sunk into a washtub.  I imagine Joseph on a pallet covered with a woven blanket after a hard day’s work.  I imagine the shepherds around the embers of a campfire, at one of their regular field shelters.  Moments which are as familiar to them as a thousand days of life before, only on this thousand-and-first there is a ripple in the molecules of air, a tremor in the energy waves of heat and light, and for the first time in their lives they are aware of a Heavenly realm which coexists.

And after the revelations, the briefest of glimpses, there are hours and years of laundry and sheep.  There are doors and drains and hearths, mending and sweeping and cooking to be done.  There are journeys and dramas, but even for Jesus the majority of life still happens at home.   Which is why the good news has to matter here, or nowhere.  The transformations in the best movies lead to refreshed love for the core people in our hearts.  The Kingdom images, again and again, involve feasts and children and vines and safety.  Miracle on 34th street ends in a new home, a new family.  Home is the context of the holiness and wonder that God’s presence brings, the Garden restored, the city rebuilt, the temple of His light.

I believe we get that right much of the time with our Christmas traditions of meals and family.  But there is a danger here too.  Because if home is the place we meet God, it will also be the place we face our greatest challenges. The Enemy knows the potential of home to reflect glory.  So from Cain and Abel on, we see home corrupted and frayed.  We see people of faith in exile, longing, excluded, unsettled.  We see friction between sisters, jealousy between brothers, alienation between parents and children.  We see unfaithfulness.  We see murder.  And that’s just in the Bible, let alone the world.

So we hold the paradox of home:  the potential to re-create a taste of the divine wholeness of shalom, with the battle against our own selfishness and despair. 


And here is the hope:  Emmanuel, God with us.  Our homes may be shining rather dimly at the moment.  We may carry heavy hearts as we care for a family member crumbling from illness or dementia, as we watch a kid struggle, as we worry about the future.  But as we think about what our homes may hold in the next 48 holiday ours, or the next 48 years of life, let us remember that God will be there.  In the beauty of a perfectly wrapped gift or the messiness of a broken heart, God has chosen to dwell with humankind.  The unseen world meets our experience in space and time.  We are not alone.  This is the hope of Advent, the truth of Christmas, the barely-glimpsed reality with power to heal our fragmented interactions into . . . home, a holy rest.