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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Love has the last word: a glimpse of glory in central Africa

"Heaven and earth, it seems, are different, radically different, but they are made for each other ... and when they finally come together that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God's project is going forward, that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God's will for creation." (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope)

There is a little kingdom on earth, in central Africa, bordering a fathomless lake and wrinkled with uncountable hills and shrouded in misty clouds, where heaven has at times felt impossibly distant. This country has known colonisation, injustice, slave raids, and genocide; has buried too many children and mothers giving birth, has raised too many men who felt powerless to protect their families. And yet, when many ran for their lives over the last waves of violence in the 70's, 80's, 90's . . they did not lose site of what could be.  Men who had watched their fathers murdered, or walked for days, or struggled to find their mothers and sisters; women who had carried mattresses and cooking pans and babies, regrouped in safer places. Some found themselves in Kenya in the year 2000 and audaciously founded their own Hope Africa University, which they transplanted a few years later back home to Bujumbura. They added a medical school and built a campus and found partners, including us. 

the team that could break away to say bye as we took our final journey to the airport
*NOTE* you will see masks with patients but not with team because they bubble in a low-prevalence country and we had 7 days of isolation and three negative tests to get to this point!

In 2010 a group of young doctors working in Kenya with Samaritan's Purse met visionary Burundians from the Free Methodist Church, and in 2011 we traveled there with three of them to lay the foundations for a partnership. Bishop Eli had prayed for God to send a team of 20 doctors (to a country with one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios on earth) to train up a new generation. That reminds us that the whole presence of Serge in Burundi began with the prayers of a Burundian, and not with our programs and plans. The team joined Serge, went to French language school, and landed in Burundi in 2013. Now 7 1/2 years later, what was a tiny provincial hospital in a rural village has 13 specialists, and 20 other doctors, 350 beds including two massive new multi-story wards, a solar powered electricity plant, oxygen generation, a feeding program that serves about 400 kids weekly, plus a 50% increase in patient visits, hospitalisations, surgeries. They have trained 255 new doctors who have spread out into every part of Burundi, started a rotating 12 month internship, sponsored numerous graduates in residencies (masters), and laid the preparations for a new surgery and family medicine residency programs. I don't even know how many blind have received sight, or how many lame now walk, but the visible evidence that Jesus pointed to of God's Kingdom can be seen. The stories sound glorious, because many of them are, and seeing this over less than a decade has been miraculous.








view of the hospital from a climb up the hill, the medical director says the buildings in Kibuye sprout like mushrooms

But just ask Jesus, miracles of resurrection often pass through crucifying loss. All that is described above sounds like a shining glory in the clouds. But most of the clouds in Burundi are damp and obscure. 

We went to Burundi for the last two weeks to bear witness to their progress but also their pain, to listen, pray, ask questions, repent, acknowledge shortcomings, point to truth. This is the part of our job, the Area Director piece, that has suffered the most in COVID. Our partners planned a two-day summit to review and discuss our partnership. It's not like we thought to ourselves, mid-February just after re-closure of land borders and re-institution of a strict mandatory seven day quarantine (in a pleasant guest house but under armed guard keeping us in our room) would be a great time to travel. But 3 COVID tests later (pre-departure, arrival, and end-quarantine) we were released to begin the second week of visits and meetings.





The most important event was the partner summit. Six Burundian leaders and six of us from Serge. Though multi-language cross-cultural communication is ALWAYS exhausting, we emerged from those meetings with a greater empathy for the many ways this country has suffered and a rare opportunity to humbly repent for our part in the global injustice. We affirmed our common vision for medical training, patient care for the poor in Burundi, DRC, and Tanzania, all in the name of Jesus. We rejoiced in the projects completed and stated again the priorities still to be realised. We tried to clarify our own Serge structures and funding for transparency, and to remind all that we are guests serving a local group and vision. We were very blessed to have the meetings close with the chair of the Hope Africa University board stating his approval and commitment in clear terms.

Maybe the most important event . . . but maybe not. Also crucial was just the opportunity to pray and talk with many of our team. We know that 2020 was rough. A year ago, as we were live-streaming Dr. Travis's funeral, thieves violently attacked the Watts family in Kibuye. Though all of the victims survived, the physical and emotional scars remain, and it was also a privilege to take part in a prayer memorial service and just spend time with this family. And for others, the loss of needed arriving help due to COVID, loss of travel for conferences and vacations, loss of hoped for progress, have taken a heavy toll. We feel it too. The leaders are amazingly resilient, hard-working, insightful people whom we love, so getting to be face to face as we supervise instead of calls and zoom was also a treat. So we are glad we could visit and try to encourage.

perks of exit COVID test, see Bujumbura in background, evening with Watts

Our Team Leaders the McLaughlins, good friends and inspiring colleagues. 

Highlight: reading books to the Harling kids

The Jack Shack. He built the pizza oven and recreation space when he was an intern.

Kibuye Hope Academy classroom

Strategizing on presentations with Eric and Alyssa

Yes, the Kingdom comes. There is a feast where we will dance with the survivors of genocide, and those who didn't survive, in a New Heavens and New Earth. Most days that promise feels quite dim. The glimpses are blurry and fleeting. And yet, two weeks in Burundi gives us hope that the final fulfilment of all the resurrection set in motion will indeed be glorious.

This malnourished girl with Down Syndrome is seeing into the cloud more clearly than we are.

A few more bonus shots . . . . 



We quarantined in a suite/efficiency with a patio, and this was our favourite view: the Crested Crane pair that came to visit daily.

empty airport at departure, only four people flew into Uganda (us +2)


COVID test 3 out of 4. Maybe this is why the flights are sparse.

Looking as spiffy as possible for our meeting


Thankful the billboard behind us was true: Safe Travel. Back in Uganda yesterday.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Resurrection, witness, democracy, and hope

No doubt you have wondered, why didn't Jesus appear post-resurrection in more indisputable flash-bang forms that would have left less room for doubt? Our team is reading Surprised by Hope, and in discussing the historicity of the resurrection testimonies, the author points out that the disciples did NOT expect to see Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead, it was not even in their universe of imagination. The accounts are so similar, with such odd details (like the women as witnesses, or the combination of both eating fish and appearing through locked doors) that they carry a ring of truth. He also, however, mentions the human capacity to ignore evidence counter to what we want to believe, becoming ever more strident in our claims. This week we can surely see that even if all the first century Palestine events had been recorded on video and  presented in the highest court of the land, even if more than half the people agreed that what they saw and experienced was real, a vocal minority would still refuse to engage with the evidence if it threatened their core world view. 

Because knowing is a very complex process. 

If the secret ballot (AGAINST censuring Rep. Cheney by a massive margin) and the public ballot (only a small handful going against the party line) differ this much, then there is more than rational weighing of evidence on the line. There is fear, there is calculation, there is anticipation of consequences and self-preservation or promotion. 

In 1947, Winston Churchill pithily said: ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

And there we have it. 

Democracy is only as great as the integrity of the people exercising it. What is happening now in America is the very reason that Africa has been skeptical of democracy. As long as tribalism seethes below our surfaces, fear of others, a scarcity mentality, the suspicion that we are under threat from those who are different and there isn't enough for all, these fears work against the basic function of democracy which assumes that the best options will eventual win the most votes.  We watched the election, we read the news, we paid attention to the results, the speakers, the newspapers, the court cases, the attorney generals, the challenges. Whomever you wanted to win or lose, the system worked and there was a winner by both electoral college and popular majority. We were watching CNN on Jan 6 in real time as the riot spectacle unfolded, listening to the real time "a woman has been shot" distress. When a mob gathers to impose their will, democracy is threatened. And when our senators try to play both sides, pandering to the mob and yet trying to appear sensible, hoping to keep their voters even at the cost of their consciences, it is depressing to watch.

Democracy requires changing hearts and minds of individuals in order to bring about a more just society, a more enabling and hopeful atmosphere. Trying to short-cut that with violence will never bring a lasting good result. 

Which brings us back to belief in the resurrection. A hammer of force is not God's style. Jesus appeared to handfuls, dozens, hundreds, who were scattered like salt and light into the world. Very grass-roots. For the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in Heaven, we pray, we work. We argue in court or work night shifts in the hospital or till the earth; we write books and preach sermons. It is slow work, but lasting work. 

If your January 6th sorrow has not been improved by the February 13 vote, here is a quote to end with:

And this is the point where believing in the resurrection of Jesus suddenly ceases to be a matter of inquiring about an odd event in the first century and becomes a matter of rediscovering hope in the twenty-first century. Hope is what you get when you suddenly realise that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.  (Surprised by Hope, NT Wright)


Friday, February 12, 2021

In which we find ourselves only meters from Lake Tanganyika, in the capital of Burundi, in strict quarantine

 The Christmas letter sent Dec 1 by a mailing service in the USA seems to be arriving this week, as we have heard from a few readers. Hooray. Meanwhile for the first time in over a year we entered an AIRPORT and FLEW to another country. Which was surreal. 

But in this case, about as safe as it gets, given the fact that we are in the vaccine-less continent.


departing Bundi, looking north at the corners towards Lake Albert

To rewind a bit, we have had no intention of pushing the COVID safety boundaries (MOSSY is our favourite accronym, as it sounds like a very much not-rolling stone, we quietly stay where we fell and gather moss. Masked, Outdoors, Sanitised, Socially Spaced, and You-centered.  . . . we go about our days wearing our facial coverings, staying at two-arms length in sunshine and breeze, thinking about protecting others from our exposures in the hospital, slathering on the hand sanitiser.) Unlike most years, we pretty much stayed in Bundibugyo, with a couple of long-weekends after the strictest lock-down lifted, to camp or get groceries. I think we were present for every Thursday team meeting all year, but may have forgotten a miss. But over the past few weeks it became apparent that our partners in Burundi were not going to cancel a summit they were planning with us, and our team there actually wanted us to come, and we pondered the risks and believed it was the right thing to do.


looking perky at 2 am . . . welcome to Uganda!

Ann with Grayson and Laura, as we join for orientation meetings

So last Saturday, we drove to Kampala in time to meet our two new colleagues arriving in Entebbe. Laura is a teacher headed to Litein, Kenya for two years, but spending her first 5 months in Bundibugyo to fill a gap we will have and to gain some variety of experience while her eventual team leaders wrap up a home assignment. Grayson wanted to come for an 18 month apprenticeship but  . . COVID . . and we are happy to welcome him for three months instead. Ann is the Apprentice and Internship leader, so we joined her orientation for the first couple of days as they began a 7-day period of caution in Entebbe and Kampala before traveling to Bundibugyo tomorrow (they both tested negative again, so good to go!). As we enjoyed MOSSY meetings and meals talking about culture and team life . . . we also popped up to Kampala to sort out our own travel.

Long story short, the Burundian embassy staff were amazing in processing all our visa work virtually the week prior, but never mentioned the little detail that they had moved their physical embassy in Kampala recently. So that final day of getting actual approval stamped in our passports turned out to be a treasure-hunt of a challenge. In spite of wrong advice, Google-map fail, wrong addresses on the web, no one answering phones . . .  good old footwork and asking enough gate guards and boda drivers finally led us to the new site.  Then we chalked up another life lesson: the good deal they offered on visa costs was indeed too good to be true, somehow they seemed to have categorised us as Ugandan not American, so another trip to the bank to pay the balance and at last we were legal. Then it was just a matter of getting negative COVID tests processed by the Uganda Viral Research Institute, which came back at 10 pm Monday, allowing us to head to the airport by 6 am Tuesday.

the treasure hunt hiking the hills of Kampala

perks of Uganda: mobile testing

The airport was a ghost town. We were two of the four total passengers on our flight. Good service and quite safe, we landed in Bujumbura. We could really use a few months in France at some point to booster-dose my now 40-year-expired French class, but we made it through a 10-step immigration and COVID-testing process once again in the airport, and were bused with our two Burundian co-fliers to a quarantine hotel we had booked ahead of time. New rules as of a few weeks ago due to the spread of mutant viral variants: Burundi closed land and water borders and requires all arriving air passengers to sit 7 days in a hotel room and be re-tested negative before release. 

exit loung, Entebbe Airport

final step: arrival COVID tests in tents outside the airport in Bujumbura

As jails go, this one is very pleasant. We are not supposed to step outside, but we do have a little patio area with a yard of palm trees in front, a glimpse of the lake across a highway, and two very acclimated spectacularly beautiful Crested Cranes that preen and peck and are fond of toast fragments. Our room is simple but spacious, more of a suite, with a couch area, hot pot, dorm fridge, electricity and a solidly functional bathroom, and small AIR CONDITIONED bedroom. Three days have gone by quickly, and here we are smack at the midpoint in day 4. 

current view from my computer

when the mosquitoes get too intense, moving inside to work

And as it turns out, subtracting hospital work and leading our team-on-the-ground does open up some space, but it does NOT leave us bored or restless. In fact we've had non-stop work the last couple days with meetings, phone calls, email, discussion, planning. I guess we let some work accumulate knowing we'd have this stretch of Area Director office time. Frankly I'm glad for the space of this week. So far have read two novels and inching my way through Four Hundred Souls. We do jumping jacks and pushups on the patio, and order delicious grilled fish and crispy Belgian fries for dinner. Sleeping probably 1-2 hours longer than normal every night. No complaints. 

If all goes well, we will get a third negative COVID test on Sunday (day 6) and be released Monday (day 7) . . . but of course that could all get pushed back a day, or more, or our test could be positive (hard to see how unless Crested Cranes are transmitters). That gives us a few days with our Kibuye team, then two days of meetings about our partnership here with the leaders of Hope Africa University.

Prayers we would be filled with the Spirit as we get this opportunity to see a team face-to-face, and build relationship with our partners. After a lock-down year of COVID, we know this is a huge privilege. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Consolation arriving in small packages

 Today is 40 days from Christmas Eve, so some historical Church traditions celebrate this as the day the infant Jesus entered the Temple. So many layers to that, as the Temple was the absolute centre of God's presence on earth, the geography of what was lost in the Garden, the glory and pride of the nation. Entering the Temple compound may have appeared to be a duty to sacrifice pigeons, poor people hedging their bets in a cruel world (that was about to turn genocidal). Or like pious pilgrims grateful for the not-to-be-taken-for-granted healthy delivery, like here in Uganda where new mothers are greeted with webale kwejuna, thanks for surviving, for helping yourself through that danger. Or maybe Mary was glad to finally get out of isolation (can we all hear the amens to that), having served the post-delivery 40 day purification time, ready to get back into the crowd and see friends. As always, the story can have multiple strata of colour and texture. But . . . 

Father Georges Saget


Only two elderly people recognised the full picture in all its irony: God's presence in the baby outshone God's presence in the Temple. Simeon lifted that small swaddled body, fragile, earthy, maybe damp with his mother's sweat from the climb up to the plaza, or damp with dribbled milk. As the multitudes gaped at the gold fixtures, the high walls, the ornate altars .. . . he recognised in the very ordinary body of this baby that a light had come that would explode out to the world. Perhaps the only other person who noticed was a woman my mom's age, Anna, who saw the baby, the parents, Simeon, and redemption. An old man, an old woman, a baby, and a couple displaced from the countryside trying to do the right thing. All around them the swirling crowd, unaware.

google image, from El Salvador, no artist credited


A far cry from Malachi 3: who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when he appears? A refiner's fire and a launderer's soap, a force, a terror, holiness and change and judgment melting away evil.  The prophecies prepared them for war. For a conquering hero to clash to the Temple with fury and determination. The reality arrived with a whimper, carried, wordless, powerless for now.


The NKJV bible uses the world "consolation" for what Simeon waited for. The actual word is paraklesis, a close companion comforting and encouraging alongside, an exhortation, urging, based on legal evidence that all shall be well. It sounds like the word for the Holy Spirit in John 14, an advocate, a lawyer, a helper. They were looking for a King who ruled by force; God sent a human who quietly appeared alongside us, taking our perspective, our case. For us. This is not without cost, for sure. Even then Simeon mentions the soul piercing grief Mary will experience, the no-neutral-ground tumult that will ensue. 


Thinking a lot about the kind of salvation we all wish for. So much of our politics has been about power. Who can stand when he appears . . . sounds good if we think we'll be the ones standing, and we assume those who disagree will be the ones scrubbed to righteousness. February is not just the Temple story, it is the beginning of Black History Month.  Jesus came back to that Temple as an adult and threw some tables. We need justice, and there are occasions when those enslaved need an army to bring it. Justice brings the space for real change to occur, and that is where we realise that the quiet along-side comfort of a friend who sees truth and goodness in us, who encourages the right choices, who persuades the better angels of our nature to rise, brings actual change. As satisfying as that other Temple-thrashing was, it did not conquer evil and death. Only the cross, the baby lifted in an old man's arms becoming the naked beaten body lifted on the cross, did that. The soul pierced, the body pierced, did that. 


Our world needs deep consolation in 2021, and we are certainly looking for it. Let us be like Simeon and Anna, let us recognise the power of powerlessness, the presence of the Spirit in hidden breaths. 






Sunday, January 31, 2021

Layers of story, layers of sorrow, layers of grace

 Layers on Layers.

Makoto Fujimura, Images of Grace


This. has. been. a. week.


What would you think of a high school girl who comes back to boarding school pregnant? It's sad and complicated for her life, for sure. What if she was an orphan who had received generous aid? Feels frustrating or irresponsible. What if this is a culture where girls have almost zero access to resources without using their bodies to get money, what if even marriage was basically that arrangement? What if the money was to help a sister? What if the girl had some mental health issues from a prior assault? What if her mother had the same life pattern? Does that change the picture? What if you advocate to keep her in school, but the staff and culture point out serious ways this could be seen as tribal favouritism or as condoning behaviour? What if you find out that though some girls who drop out of school have their baby and return, most get abortions and change to another school? What if it took hours of discussion, and then more hours of accompanying her to her home, so that you can't just make a clinical yes/no decision, but have to see the reality of a disabled sibling and a dysfunctional environment?


What would you do to help missionaries who are hitting the proverbial wall? 2020 was a bear, we all know. We've been living on the edge, bracing for plague, staring down the unknown. We've had all our visitors canceled, all our trips out to retreats or fellowship eliminated. Colleagues left in a little wave as the lockdowns began, on limited evacuation flights, without any compensatory return. The company-wide-conference for 2020 got pushed to 2021 then this month to 2022. Somehow as a collective group left behind, we've all held on through Christmas, through the inauguration and riots, through local politics and elections, and in January the toll is being felt. What would you say if in the same week two key families decided to either leave or significantly step down their work, another was looking for a new field, another was retiring, and two colleagues from other organisations were in mental health crises? Of course you would hope to have compassion. Absolutely you would empathise with the broken systems that have worn them down and out, with their frustrations with our own inadequacies as leaders, with the many complex background effects of their own background challenges behind the veil, losses and sicknesses and struggles. But the cumulative weight of people's dissatisfaction does wear on all.


What would you say as you are leaving the ward, and stop to greet a patient in whom you diagnosed TB as the underlying cause of the baby's severe malnutrition, only to find out that three days later the child still has not received her medicine? Maybe you initially blame the nurses, but they tell you they have sent her to TB clinic two days in a row. Then you think maybe the patient's mother is dodging, but she shows you the very bench where she sat waiting for treatment, the very office she entered, and says she was rejected for care. What if the clinic staff tells you that this is a chronic disease that requires 6 months of compliance, so they find it essential to only start people with a basic grasp of the treatment plan? Should the life of the child be forfeit to the low capacity of the mother or the sense of both the ward and the clinic feeling overwhelmed? What if you found a mother with impending ecclampsia and the treatments that you initiated never were given, the people you talked to never managed to help, you try again, then four days into the course the baby is finally delivered, dead? What if all but one of the oxygen concentrators in the hospital are broken? 


All of this is real, all of this is us, all of this is this week. These are nuanced, layered, complex stories. There is no clear villain, no clear hero, no clear path towards redemption.  Teacher Desmond preached this morning on the parable of the seeds, and passionately warned the students of the roots they need, the dangers they will face, the essential ground of truth that must be their foundation. The world, the flesh, and the devil, that old Puritan formulation, fits well into that parable. There are extremely broken societal systems that choke out good. There are personal choices to choose short-cuts of sin, that wither in adversity. There are supernatural forces of evil at work that snatch the word truth right out of our lives.  In all these stories, for all these students, the reality is strata upon strata of family or culture, of laziness or greed, of curses and fears. Let the one who is innocent throw the first stone. We are all stuck in systems, we are all sinners, we are all suffering attacks. 

Sower at sunset, Van Gogh


Several Serge friends mentioned attending a webinar with Makoto Fujimura.  I had read his book Silence and Beauty a few years ago, and found it to be a profound text about suffering. So the chatter about the webinar and his new book Art and Faith led me to his web site. There I watched a short video about his technique called "Nihonga: Slow Art."  He paints in layers, dozens, hundreds. Each is created by hand-pestled pigments of minerals, earth, stone, pulverised. With out destruction there is no creation, he says. He takes years to build up the layers to show the patterns, colours, light. 


This idea deeply encouraged me. One layer at a time, and sometimes our stories are hard. A story of corruption. Of incompetence. Of pain. Another of a choice, a decision to sacrifice, to love. Another of a birth, a connection. Another of a death. Layer after layer. Only with time and distance do we get to step back and see the pattern, see the beauty, see the creative intent. 


Praying to view each person's life this way. Some layers are messy. Some are sparkling. Praying to have the patience to see God's bigger story emerging from the pigments ground out of our earth, our engagement here. 

A little sparkle this week: Annabel recovered from pneumonia

And Desmond preaching the truth that sets us free

The march towards the magic 1.8 kg for discharge

From the Uganda news: this gets our friends and partners discouraged too. But honestly it is not the fact that politicians take bribes that riles people, it is the lack of fairness. As long as the money is seen to be benefitting your people, you're OK. It's when the money doesn't distribute "fairly" that people get annoyed.

The little beads of sweat after days of malaria treatment clued us to look for TB. On day three of trying, she did finally get her meds and went home. 4 kg is less than ten pounds, she's over a year old. 

Scott is part doctor, part construction supervisor. Here we inspect the new cement mixer. Next step: floors and plastered walls for the new Chapel.

Sometimes the layers align. This mom had an emergency preterm C-section when Scott noticed a high fetal heart rate on ultrasound, and by the time we got her to the theatre the baby was born limp and nearly lifeless. But after resuscitation and a month in the NICU she went home with a healthy infant . . . encouraging since she had lost the two previous babies. 



Another hidden layer for us this week: our little dog Nyota, age 4 1/2, nearly died. For days she was listless, not moving, infested with parasites in the skin, not eating. Thankful for this vet, injections of ivermectin and antibiotics, Scott's wound cleaning, prayer. She's rebounding now.

Our new address.

Staff celebrating a thank-you cake for support with a young doctor's wedding.