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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Season of Thanks in a World of Hate: 3 ways to live at the fray

In about two hours, our Thanksgiving officially begins.  Dinner is in the oven, the table is set, the woodstove is cranking out heat, and Spotify is churning out our Tuesday discovery playlist as the full moon shines down on deer in the meadow.  So so so so much to be thankful for.  That I have 3 kids and 3 parents and numerous other friends and relatives all en route to this spot.  That I just had a notice from the American Board of Pediatrics that I passed my Board exam.  Good until 2025.  That we work with creative courageous young people who have held on this year in the wake of so many losses, and that God decided to gently (dramatically) end the year with some major support coming in for Christ School through friends of one of them.  That our friends in Mundri, South Sudan are returning home after a church-brokered local peace agreement stopped the cycle of violence between the army and the population.  That even though Caleb is far from us, he climbed the highest mountain in North Africa with a classmate last weekend, and I know how much that means to his soul, and his knee.  And an RVA classmate visited the week before, which is a rare and valuable connection to his past.  That we have this house courtesy of my dad's foresight and love, and that we have each other to make the house a home.  That a tenuous status quo holds in Burundi, and university students are taking exams.  That we have teachers applying to go teach our missionary kids in East and Central Africa.  That a young man, an orphan whom we partially sponsor in medical school turns 27 tomorrow, and he's the kind of humble joyful believer that the Kingdom needs.  This is all in the last day or so.  I could go on and on.

The Psalms call upon us to give thanks, to recognize and remember the goodness of God and the RULE of God.  This is the week the Church of England celebrates Christ as King, with passages from Isaiah and Revelation.  Heady words, where the rivers clap their hands, the hills sing, where angels blow trumpets over seas of glass. Yet when these words were written, the evidence of Christ's rule was slight.  The people who sang these Psalms were overthrown and persecuted.  The people who thirstily drank in the prophecies longed for deliverance.  Jesus came, but refused a tangible earthly throne.

How can we bring the threads of thankfulness and God's rule into focus when we live in the tattered fray of Paris and Mali and Tunisia, when just as Ebola seemed to have fizzled out a 15-year-old boy dies of the disease in Liberia today?

First, by looking for God in the details.  There are always kindnesses that bear God's signature, if we have eyes to see.  Ways that tragedy is laced with heroism and sacrifice.  Answers to specific prayers, like the many that came to mind in my first paragraph.

And second, by looking for God in the big sweeping picture of redemption.  Are droves of people leaving closed countries and running into the arms of nations where Christ can be openly proclaimed?  I've read a couple of pieces asking if this isn't more important than our safety and convenience.

And lastly, in between that near and far focus, by looking for God in the community around our holiday tables.  One of our Sergers working with immigrant populations in a large European city writes of their upcoming feast:  "  Men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation sit across the table from each other.  Some UNbelievers, some belongers, some believers: (People of many world religions) getting to know and enjoy one another.  What is the answer to fear?  A community of people who love Jesus, who are learning to love one another who know they belong to a kingdom that cannot be shaken. A community that reaches out and welcomes the poor and the needy from every tongue, tribe, and nation.  Join me in giving thanks." She shows us that even when the chaos of our world seems to be a far cry from the wholesome rule of Jesus, and fear grabs our hearts and tempts us to become territorial and self-protective and insular, something as simple as a shared meal with those in need can be a taste of the New Heavens and New Earth.    Let our Thanksgiving tables be a dim picture that whets our appetite for the real feast of Isaiah 25:

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a stronghold to the poor,
a stronghold to the needy in his distress,
a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat;
  . . you subdue the noise of the foreigners as the heat by the shade of a cloud, 
so the song of the ruthless is put down. 
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples 
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples,
The veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces . . 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Terror, Risk, Math, and Ideas

A good while ago, I went on my first rafting trip on the Nile.  This was before the current dam was built, so the trip began just above a pretty intense waterfall.  In spite of our guide's brief instructions, and in spite of my shoulder-wrenching attempt to hold onto the ropes, I went out into the foaming rapid and felt myself pushed under the water for an uncomfortably long time.  In fact it felt a bit like drowning.  And I felt foolish, as a missionary mom, for throwing my life away on an adventure sport.  Later, however, I looked up the stats.  Rafting the Nile is in fact quite safe.  Injuries are rare and fatalities almost unheard of.  A very interesting article in Outside magazine pointed out that adventure sports are all about having a high perceived risk with a low real risk.  Flying out of the boat felt life-threatening, and yet the chances of it really being fatal were extremely low.  Driving from Kampala to Jinja was actually, by far, the most dangerous part of the day.

America is in a season of high perceived risk, somewhat similar to the Ebola scares a year ago.  Our assumed safety has been shaken.  We feel afraid, which is after all the point of terrorism, to induce terror.  The terrorists jar our view of a concert or school or restaurant or plane or train station or whatever from a place of enjoyment to a place of potential deadly risk.  Terrorists only need to nudge real risk slightly to get an exponential jump in perceived risk.  Particularly the organizations with excellent social media skills.

When we feel terror, there are two things that can calm our hearts.  The first is to get a factual perspective on real risk, and the second is to re-align our hearts and priorities with God's.

For the first, we need math.  It's no secret that I love math, and most truth boils down to some math, which along with music is the language of the universe.  In reading the barrage of anxiety and guilt, I think the basic problem this week is that we're forgetting the importance of the sample selection.  In 2015, if you take the sample of all terrorists, you are likely to find muslims.  However, if you take the sample of all Muslims, you are very unlikely to find terrorists.  

The most deadly terrorist groups are ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Quaeda with its subsidiary Al-Shabbab, the Taliban, and many smaller groups even down to our local ADF from the Uganda/Congo border.  There are others, of course, involved in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, or in drugs in SE Asia or Colombia.  But when gunmen run into a hotel and take hostages, the chances of them being from a Muslim-ideology group are reasonably high.  The problem is, that few of us will ever be in that situation, but almost all of us will be next to a Muslim in the grocery store, or class, or on the bus.  So what is really relevant to us is, what are the chances that a Muslim we encounter, or that a Muslim we allow to immigrate to the USA, is a terrorist?  Using the larger end of the scale for estimates of these groups, the overall chance in the world that a random Muslim is from a sect of that faith that embraces terrorist tactics is less than 1 in 1000.  Given the difficulty of immigrating to the USA, if you meet them here, the risk is much, much lower.  And given the fact that the vast majority of people in those groups are not necessarily there by choice, and not necessarily the small subset of front-line active terrorists, well, it's hard to measure numbers that small.

In medicine we have a concept called "number needed to treat" to see a benefit.  In this case, we would have to turn away a thousand, or maybe ten thousand, or tens of thousands of refugees in true need of life-sustaining chances, to save ourselves the risk of allowing one terrorist into America.

And that, friends, is where I think many of us would still differ philosophically.  For some of us, that level of exclusion on the basis of religion is an unacceptable human cost which is extracted from the vulnerable, to protect ourselves.  For others, that is the legitimate function of the state.  But as we agree to disagree, let's at least do the math to know what we're disagreeing about.

We are still left with the problem of feeling terror, and being manipulated by the fear that the terrorists induce.  We're still left with the uncomfortable possibility that fifteen years of fighting the war on terror since 9-11 has actually made the world less stable, with more failed states and refugees. And we are still left with the problem of reacting to the inhumanity of these organizations towards the people who face the real risk, namely their fellow Muslims and the Christian and other religious minorities within their reach.

The only thing that casts out fear, is perfect love.  Only a complete, unshakable confidence in a God who is redeeming this world in hidden ways, a God who can take the worst evil humans plan and wring something good from it, a God who will make all things new and well, can give us the courage to love each other in times like this.  Only a constant seeping in the truth can keep the lies running off like raindrops on a waxed car.  I'm reading these days in Daniel, where God reveals himself to people who are shockingly NOT in the chosen remnant, who are world-conquering and cruel and originating from places we now call Syria and Iraq and Iran.  Do any of us have a theology strong and true enough to combat the half-baked misrepresentations of God's character that are driving ISIS?  Can our grasp that God's love is not something scarce, something limited, push us into places that are not as safe as we'd like, so that the radicalizing rants lose their appeal to the next generation of Muslim youth?  We may need bombs, but we certainly need ideas.

I've seen a few examples these past two days.  A young woman we know practiced incarnation, traveling with a Syrian refugee family and producing this photo essay.  Another Serge colleague wrote this about helping a Muslim woman in his city change a tire, then realizing her tire had been intentionally slashed.  This may be what is looks like to be faithful in November 2015.  Let's ask God for mercy, for protection, but also for courage to follow in the footsteps of perfect love.

Maintaining Standards as a lifelong learner

Every ten years, doctors have to re-take their exams for Board Certification in their specialty.  For Pediatrics, this is one step in a four-part process that includes maintaining state licensure (which requires a biyearly total of continuing medical education hours), working through x number of board-specific approved education modules, and doing a quality improvement project.  The exam is the most intimidating step--a day in a Prometric cubicle, with all the attendant security.

It's basically like working through a crowded waiting room, seeing 200 patients in rapid succession, with only a few minutes to discern the key issue and management for each one based on the limited data provided.  You have to pull out the important clues, make the key connections, figure out what is being asked.  This time, coming from five years at Kijabe, I think I had more breadth of actual experience to develop the gut instinct for more diseases.  Kijabe pretty much sees it all, well, except for much obesity or drug abuse, two things I did try to study up on before the test.

This time, I noticed a sort of PTSD component to the exam.  Most questions weren't theoretical.  Many times I could imagine just such a scenario, or think of an actual patient.  That's perhaps the transition from being a young doctor fresh from training with lots of facts in my head, to an old(er) doctor whose heart is full of emotion because the cases are real kids.  I found myself thinking of them with a heart that raced or ached, and had to focus back on the next question.

If I don't pass, I will humbly come back and beg for prayer as I repeat the exam.  But I'm hoping for the best.  My oldest says I have the spiritual gift of multiple choice.  Let's hope he's right.  I also have the Spirit giving me some boost of discernment in real life.  One thing the studying and the exam confirmed for me again:  I love pediatrics, and being a doctor.  Jumping through the hoops to keep the paperwork straight isn't my favorite, but the reality it represents continues to inspire me:  being a lifelong learner, and serving real people.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris and Beyond

Instead of studying for my Pediatric recertification exam, which was supposed to fill this weekend (the prep I planned to do has its web site down, and they don't work on weekends, and yes that did result in some panic and stress so pray for Scott who is absorbing all that) we are joining the rest of America glued to CNN.  Last night we listened to an articulate reporter who happened to be in the epicenter describing crouching in the theatre as attackers proceeded execution-style, then running out while they reloaded, picking up a severely injured and bleeding young girl on the way and carrying her a couple hundred meters from the theatre then flagging a cab to take her to the hospital.  We listened to the British woman describe the glass-breaking mob-style assault on the Cambodian restaurant, holding the arm of a woman who presumably died of her wounds.  We listened to numbers, to speculation.  We watched the clips of the bombs sounding in the football match, and then the sirens wailing around the concert hall.  We tried to make sense of the multiple sites, the coordinated attacks, the suicide bomb belts.

And today, the count settles: 129 killed and 352 injured, "soft targets".  Soft, as in normal people going to enjoy music and dinner in a city that is synonymous with love, with culture, with history, with art.

Within hours, social media was flooded with images of the Eiffel Tower, with "pray for Paris", with French flags shading profile pictures.  Then a few started to ask, why the sudden interest when Beirut was bombed and Bagdad, and few Americans noticed?  We pray for Paris; what about Syria?

A valid question, and a push to broaden our horizons of concern to all of humanity.

But I understand the power of identification and connection, and the fact that Paris strikes more fear in the American observer than bombs in Kabul or gunfire in Garissa did.  For me, the 147 Kenyan students who were killed by terrorists while we gathered our East Africa teams nearby, represented a much more palpable threat.  That's because I know many Kenyan students, and the territory and faces are familiar.  My kids went to school in Kenya too.  It's close to home, in the same way that French people attending concerts or having a meal with their lover are familiar to most readers in this hemisphere.

In fact, the one American student killed on her semester abroad stands out, particularly after discussing France as a semester-abroad option with one of my kids a couple weeks ago, and knowing my current semester-abroad child's return ticket goes through Paris.  In the same way, reading about the racial unrest at Yale, a commenter said with contempt about the vocal African-American women students who protested, "they probably are there on a full ride, and majoring in African studies; they won't be the elite once they leave Yale."  Hmm, that pretty much describes my Yale student.  When the hate hits closer home, we see things from the victim's perspective.

So, 24 hours later, let's let Paris grab our hearts and painfully push them to wrap around all the people ISIS has targeted, from theatre-goers to moderate-muslim goat-herders to encircled Christian minorities.

Let's also remember that ISIS is not synonymous with Islam.  Of the world's billion-and-a-half Muslims, the Islamic State only represents a small minority of them (tens of thousands, maybe a couple hundred thousand, but that is still less than a tenth of a percent (0.1%).  Most of ISIS's victims have been their fellow Muslims whom they regard as apostate.  When tweets began to blame Syrian refugees for the Paris attacks, I appreciated one that asked, don't your realize THIS IS WHAT THE SYRIAN REFUGEES ARE FLEEING?  There is a dark evil percolating, one that espouses beheadings and slavery, one that rejects borders and courts and elections.  We can stand against this madness without suspecting every person with a name that ends in "i" of being a terrorist.  I would imagine that there were faithful people who loved Jesus in the middle ages who did not want Christianity to be equated with the extermination of Jews or the bloodbath of crusades.

And let's think deep and hard about what would sap the power out of this state.  I'm not a political expert, but it seems that invading Iraq may have set us on this path.  A "we will show no mercy" response may play right into their hands.  Honestly I don't know, is this the time to reluctantly use greater force for the cause of justice, or to soberly tread slowly because our enemy is nebulous, and within?  I think we as Christians can pray for wisdom for ourselves and for our leaders, pray against vengeful pride, pray for sacrificial courage.  Pray for deliverance from the Evil One, for those in South Sudan and Burundi and Lebanon and Jordan and all over our world.  Because the only path that we know will bring true and lasting peace is one that changes hearts.

And lastly, as we have radios and TV's showing fear and lashing out in frustrated bravado, let's remember the kids in the room, and our own souls as well.  We can't promise anyone that what happened in Paris won't happen in Washington or Philadelphia or Durham or San Francisco.  There is only so much that any army can do to stop the first fifteen minutes of coordinated ready-to-die young men with guns.  But we can hold onto truth, that perfect love casts out fear, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, that in all things are in the process of redemption.  Our neighbors and our kids need to hear that.  That's the true safety, that no terrorist can take from us.  We are held by a Mercy that is stronger than death.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why everyone should marry a family doctor, or Happy Birthday to Scott

Family Doctors are the farmers of medicine.

 The people with can-do and make-do spirit who are not afraid to get dirty, to try something new, to work dawn to dusk and beyond.  The people who don't seek glory.  Who are content to do a consistently good life-sustaining job on the fringes, unnoticed.  The people who have your back, who listen, who care, who build for the future.

So on this day let's pay DOUBLE tribute when the Family Doctor becomes a Farmer too.  Happy Birthday to a man who can perform a C section and drive a tractor; run a public health program and build a pizza oven; manage a ventilator in the ICU and split wood for the stove.

So glad I'm married to a Family Doc/Farmer extraordinaire.  Let's keep getting old together.

And speaking of getting old, here's a red oak that fell in our forest.  I counted the rings and this tree was actually 8 years older than Scott.  There is something to be said for just being the last ones standing, as all the maples and birch and hickory turned color and dropped leaves, the oaks stood out in their beauty.  That's our plan for the next couple decades.
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.  I trust in the steadfast love of God forever.  Psalm 52:8

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.  They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.  Psalm 92:12-15 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veteran's Day Paradox

Today we honor veterans.  I think first of my seven uncles in WWII.  Five of my dad's brothers fought in Europe, including several in the Normandy invasion, and they all survived.  Two are still alive.  My mom's two older brothers fought in the Pacific.  Then I think of my dad, pictured above, whose service was in an all-too-rare interlude of peace, so he put his math skills to work at Fort Knox.  Then there are numerous cousins, and second cousins, who have enlisted and served in places from Viet Nam to Iraq.  And lastly I think of my son, who is still in the early stages of serving this country.  

So when a holiday of honor rolls around, it is personal.  And this year I'm here in America where these lovely advertisements on TV are telling us to buy a green light and leave it shining.  These are quite moving and well done, and the idea reminds me of the yellow ribbons that were around trees when I was a kid and we were waiting for people to come home from Viet Nam.  It sounds supportive, until you notice that the adds are sponsored by Walmart.  Which is selling the light.  Hmm.  
And that sort of sums up the Veteran's Day paradox.  How do we acknowledge and honor the people who put their lives on the line for us, while still keeping in mind that we're talking about things as abhorrent as war which should not become a sentimental marketing gimmick?

First, I think by refusing to let the moral complexity of the use of force be diluted into an unquestioning celebration of patriotism.  Using military force, anywhere, is a messy mixture of rescue and greed, and we don't always get it right.  I am proud that our entire country sacrificed to stop the forces of world domination and genocide that Hitler unleashed in Germany.  But we can't ignore the massive civilian casualties (particularly Nagasaki and Hiroshima), the starvation in Holland, the aching families who did not have all their sons return like ours did.  Huge costs are always paid, and we must remain skeptical of the contractors who profit from conflict, we must always examine motives, and consider alternatives.

Second, by refusing to generalize specific crimes and injustice into an illusion that the world would be a better place without any military.  That is an opinion one can only have from the comfort of a country that has had minimal risk of invasion and relative security from personal violence.  One of the best books I've read in the last couple of years was The Locust Effect, and if that doesn't give you a chilling wake-up call to the reality of living in majority-world poverty at the mercy of traffickers, extortion, rapists, and all forms of violence in a propagating cycle, well, then you need to get out and look around.  Our family lived on a border that knew war, and many of our friends continue to live in displacement and risk.  Evil abounds.  Evil needs to be restrained.  Force is often required to do that.  Yes, as a last resort, but as a necessary one.

So, I didn't buy a green light (yet), but I completely respect my son and his choices to put his life on the line to make the world a better place.  I pray that people who can make money from another country's resources, or from selling weapons or all kids of junk to our own military, don't drive us towards war after war.  But I also pray that people like my uncles, and my dad, and my cousins, and my son will continue to be willing to sacrifice for values greater than themselves.  And for that we thank them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

On free speech, persecution, holidays and beatitudes

As a missionary-on-sabbatical and mother-of-a-Yale grad, I've got a peculiar cross-section in the social media world.  Uproar over the red cups at Starbucks and the details of whatever Ben Carson says . . . mixed with photos of campus protests and polarized, frustrated pieces about racism.  It's a minefield, and the missteps are punished with explosions of sarcasm.  Meanwhile my Bible reading covered the Beatitudes, which are found in Matthew 5.  So when you pull all that together, a few thoughts, offered with trepidation and bumbling humility because I am a peripheral person just trying to pay attention.

Persecution happens.  Many of the Europeans who came to this country were fleeing religious persecution themselves as they arrived on American shores, but they still wiped out the indigenous population and imported human slaves from Africa.  There is a legacy of brokenness and sorrow that touches all of us.  Many, like me, have ancestors on all sides of that story.  Real people were beaten, tortured, ridiculed, raped, suppressed, driven off their land, herded into camps, separated from their families, and on and on.  EVERY discussion on race and power must begin with the foundational context of centuries of injustice.  Today's policeman profiling a motorist and turning on his siren, or college student wearing a sombrero and mustache for Halloween, are not isolated, face-value events.  They are trivial (or not so trivial) tips to massive icebergs of accumulated angst and anger.  And persecution continues.  In many parts of the world a woman can be beaten or killed if her male relatives judge her wardrobe or romance choices inappropriate, or a person who decides to follow Jesus can be beheaded, or a person who is gay can be publicly stripped or burned.  Here in America, women of color are taunted or refused entrance to a party, and young men of color have few places of safety.  This world seethes with evil that we are called upon to notice, and to restrain.

But the Enemy is elusive.  Just before and within my early life, laws of segregation were overturned.  Protests had specific goals and targets which were quantifiable.  Now racism continues, because the human heart is not purified by the passage of a law.  But it is a bit more difficult to call a mass protest about an attitude.  Changing cultural assumptions, viewpoints, requires dialogue.  Living side by side.  Real relationship.  Confrontation.  Creation of safe zones for expression.  Listening.  Which should make college campuses an excellent environment for this kind of progress, and overall I think they have been.  But subtle messages of doubt and shame accumulate, and there is no clear face of the enemy, and tension builds, until something of marginal worth sparks all that rumbling resentment into furor.  At Yale it was an email suggesting that the University shouldn't police costumes, that students should grow in an "iron sharpens iron" environment of mistakes and consequences.  At the University of Missouri, it was a racial slur uttered by a drunk student that did not spark the kind of institutional response those who were offended expected.  Older people shake their heads and wonder how we got to a point where students demand the right to never feel uncomfortable or to receive formal apologies from anyone they identify as offensive, while young people shake their heads and wonder why the place they expected to fill them with wonder and opportunity still reeks of inequality.  They look for enemies to fight, when most of the real battle is against deeply ingrained assumptions, and sins like prejudice and self-righteousness.

Is the victim card overplayed?  See my first point, please, that the accumulated effects of racism and elitism and economic inequality are real and inestimable.  But somehow, this culture has devolved into the sacredness of victimhood, and a touchiness that bristles like a porcupine at the slightest touch, as people take to the internet and the streets to scream their way.  Case-in-point, turning a private company's cup-art design into a perceived attack on God.  God does not need snowflakes on cups; God does not feel offended if someone uses a "Happy Holiday" greeting rather than "Merry Christmas" to acknowledge a time of year that has become a pagan and commercial event anyway.  God, in fact, may prefer to keep distance from the worship of consumption and capitalism, and may prefer that people encounter spiritual reality in serving the poor or reading the Word rather than in having it legislated down their throats by a supposed moral majority within our democracy . . but I digress.  Cups aside, some people are victims, though none of us are fully innocent ones.  We all live in a broken world where we both sin, and suffer from the sins of others.  So how should one live as both a consequence and cause of this mess?

Enter the Beatitudes.  Embrace poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, a hunger for what is right, mercy, purity, and a love of peace.  Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who refused to devolve into hate, who insisted that "darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."  Think of the Charleston church shooting survivors, who stood up in court and forgave the perpetrator.  Think of Jesus, who certainly spoke up against injustice but refused violence.  Think the way of the cross, which does not pretend evil does not exist but sacrifices in love.  I see some of that going on this week.  I wasn't there, but it seems like the husband of the email-writer at Yale absorbed some hate with grace.  Can we form homes and communities and institutions where diversity is celebrated because all 7 billion of us only reflect one tiny facet of God's infinite creative reality, and we need each other?  While I really don't understand all the issues, the fact that the football team's refusal to play hit where it hurt as the big money-makers for the University of Missouri seems like an amazing way to effect change.  If we are acting in mercy and with hearts for peace-making, and THEN we are persecuted, that is something that creates real revolution.

So here's to hope for more mercy.  More sincere attempt to understand the complexity of racism, the pervasiveness of our own wrongs.  More time spent listening than accusing.  More acknowledgement that empathy is actually possible, that while each person has a unique history and perspective we can live together.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Rich Conversations, Many Miles

As I type this, we drive east on Route 50, the sun having just disappeared below a leafless fringe of wooded ridge behind us.  We’ve been on the road 13 of the last 15 nights, in two big loops for two big conference events.  We’re spent.  In a good way, but spent.

The first was the Serge Vision Summit in Florida, an event where our organization invests heavily in extending the same relational and creative energy to our supporters that we expend upon our teams and fields.  Rich conversations, stories, music, food.  Bridging the gap between the frontline teams and the concerned homefront, people who pray and give.  We connected with old friends and made new ones, enjoyed the warm gentle surf of the gulf coast, and soaked in great teaching ourselves.  I had never heard Dan Allender before, and resonated with his humble, articulate stories of shame and redemption.  Our ED Bob had called Steve Brown the voice of God, and we were mesmerized by that bass-toned wisdom.  Scotty Smith was the closer, candid and deliberate.  And when you throw in PhilKeaggy as a one-man-wonder on the guitar, seeing for the first time the flying fingers and intricate loops that we first heard in the 70’s when we were teens discovering the first trickles of modern Christian music, well, it was memorable.  I (Jennifer) gave a speech for the “Restore” pillar of Serge’s Renew-Reach-Restore mission. 

The second loop was west, to Louisville KY and Cincinnati OH.  A mega-church in Louisville started an annual Global Mission Health Conference sometime after we left for the field, and it has steadily grown to become THE event of the year for American medical missionaries. We had no idea of the scale until we arrived.  It was our first real mega-church experience, the 21rst century cathedral, the medieval fortress translated.  Offices, education, a restaurant, chapels, art, music, auditorium.  Worship with lights and mist and screens and TV-like cameras.  A complex as sprawling as a city block.  And completely capable of holding five or six thousand people for this conference.  Banners and themes, displays and nametags.  A well-oiled machine able to absorb the flocks of students from across the country, the returning missionaries, the organizational recruiters, the residents and program directors.  And our favorite student group, the UVA CMDA chapter, included our favorite medical student.  Processing the experience with him was an unexpected bonus.

We were given one of the seminar blocks to speak in, and since there were dozens and dozens I had thought we would have sparse attendance.  But that’s because I had no idea of the sheer volume of attendees.  Our room seated at least 250, maybe 300 and it was packed.  We presented for an hour on “The Sparrow and the Kingdom:  Integrating curative and preventive health care in missions.”  It was a fun topic, one we are passionate about, pulling together examples and stories and evidence to make a case for the synergy of caring for the individual as well as the population. 

But the main point of the 3-day conference was for our Serge team, which included Mobilization workers Matt and Joanna as well as fellow medical missionaries Eric, Rachel, Rhett, Derek, Carlan, and even SWill, to interact with young students and trainees, to answer questions, to give our testimonies of God’s grace and encourage them along the way.  We’re recruiting for doctors and other professionals to teach Family Medicine residents in Kenya, to do surgery in Burundi, to provide antenatal care and deliveries for refugees in Nairobi, to provide basic public health in South Sudan. 
Though we both score on the introverted-side of the scale, I have a strong mix of extroversion, so this kind of thousands-of-people incessant-conversation craziness is exhilarating up to a point.  We are also both on the old-side of the scale too, but we still felt inspired by those few whose faithfulness further down the path shines a light back our way.  Our favorite speaker was an 85-year-old Australian nurse who had established a TB Sanatorium in Jordan 60 years ago, and still works there.  Spunk, humor, and straight talk about sacrifice and joy.
And as great as it is to breathe in the sparks of vision that crackle like static electricity in the sea of globally aware attendees, I go back to the phrase “up to a point”.  I suppose I came away with some concern that the conference itself can be the lightening rod that discharges the accumulated tension of wrestling with the needs of the world and the compelling love of Jesus.  A tide of interest in global health that most certainly did not exist a few decades ago when we were in school is building.  Let us be prayerful and careful that this surge of interest crests and breaks over into majority-world places with scant resources.  Let’s not let the two-week annual visit become the norm for medical missions.  Short term surgical teams, short term regular relief pitchers for long-term docs, provide essential services.  But we still need people who are willing to let go of safety and wealth and prestige, and walk obscure paths among the nearly invisible poor, for years and decades.  Please pray this week that those God is stirring to consider lives that go against the grain of the mainstream do not convince themselves that they imagined that call.  Pray they would sense the thrill of it, the potential, the significance.  

Pray for our mobilizers who now begin pursuing the dozens of contacts we made, helping them discern the trajectory of their story in the big picture of redemption.  We can use some help.

 Saturday night we drove from Louisville up to Cincinnati, into the waiting graciousness of a couple whose home and hospitality felt like walking into our own parents’ houses 15 years ago.  And this morning Scott preached from Psalm 13 at three services, and wedged into that we also led an Adult Education hour sharing our video and answering some pretty tough and insightful questions about how our faith has matured in our years overseas and why the world is as broken as it is.  We were embraced by this congregation where Scott grew up.  It is not a common story anymore, this village-within-the-city, with its historic homes and excellent public education, where neighbors were schoolmates and went to church together and many never left.  We took a nostalgic drive around before heading back east.

So this sabbatical stretches past the quarter-done mark, with 4 of our 7 churches visited, with many reconnections and a variety of speeches for many contexts.  And as rich and worthwhile as it has been, we’re looking forward to a couple of weeks to hunker down.  I have my recertification exam in 9 days.  Yikes. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

All Hallows' Eve

Another little surprise of America 2015:  Halloween is HUGE.  Now our personal experience as small children involved low-tech home-grown costumes, paper bags (Jennifer) or pillow cases (Scott) for candy collection from neighbors, with the most terrifying story being the titillating possibility of a razor blade in an apple.  It was a one-evening neighborhood-based activity for kids.  Mid-childhood we switched to a reformed church with some healthy skepticism about the pagan origins of the old neighborhood trick-or-treat traditions, so we then had Reformation Day Harvest Parties at the church, which still involved dressing up but this time historical church figures were preferred.  Fast-forward 30 years, and we find a commercial holiday involving elaborate lawn decorations, weeks of hype, expensive costumes for all ages, pumpkin-everything, and night-after-night of zombie movies.  Halloween dominates October almost as thoroughly as Christmas stretches back through December.  People of all ages are expected to invest in costumes, and colleges pepper the students' emails with instructions on what is appropriate.  You can dress up, but not as another culture, race, gender.  You should stick with  non-human super-heroes or cartoon characters, provided they are not a Disney rendering of a non-white person if you're white.  I'm not exactly sure of the rules, but if there is one thing the social media of 2015 polices well, it is every possible grey zone of offense.  Which one must applaud for the sensitivity to others that we have historically lacked, but one must also admit that the anxious search for ulterior motives takes some fun out of a dress-up holiday.

So how did we get to the point of a global permission for carousing in costumes on a church holy day?

I am not an expert on this, but it seems to make sense that the early church co-opted some pagan traditions and synthesized new ones, building on culture while imbuing it with new meaning.  A celtic observance of the harvest, of the end of the year, of remembering the dead, becomes a Christian holiday to pray for those who have died and honor their memory.  And when the Christian version became so exploitative and corrupt that Martin Luther could no longer stand silently by, he chose this day to nail his 95 objections onto the door of the Wittenburg chapel, sparking the Protestant Reformation.  A half-millennia later, we're all pretty confused, and the holi-day has been all but divorced from any holiness.

So in the spirit of embracing the culture as it evolves, here are a few thoughts about the day:
Let's agree that the world is more than meets the eye.  This is one holiday that acknowledges the existence of spirits, of events that can't be explained by Newtonian physics, of true evil.  Let's agree on that.
Let's remember and honor the saints who have gone before us, and the party that we're going to have together.  We stand on the shoulders of the church in glory, the throngs around the throne.  My Bible reading this morning came from Revelation 19:
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the osound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder-peals, crying out 
For the Lord our God the almighty reigns
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure'---
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, "Write this:  Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb."
So this is a holiday, a party, a blast.  And our costume is pure and shining and as beautiful as a bride's wedding gown.
While we wait for a defeated Evil to be completely routed out, let's not be lulled into complacency.  I think what bothers me about Halloween is not that it is too evil, it's that it's not evil enough.  If we mock devils by creating costumes, if we imply that skull-faced ghouls are make-believe, we pacify our fear by hiding from reality.  If you want scary, watch the movie discussed below, because the real life true horrors that go down in this world are nothing to laugh at.

Meanwhile, Scott and I are dressing up as what we call our James-Bond like America-personas, where we look clean and together and spiff, and not very much like the grungy doctors with spattered coats we have been most of the last 22 years, as we testify to God's work at the Serge Vision Summit.  Whatever you're dressing up as tonight, don't forget to turn back your clocks.  An extra hour of sleep is surely a fitting commemoration of the saints!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Beasts, latte, and tear gas

A few nights ago, we were staying in a friend's house with Netflix, and had the opportunity to watch this film.  I had actually heard about it and watched the promo and was deeply ambivalent about it.  95% of me wanted to refuse to watch a movie in which African children are titled as beasts.  5% of me wanted to be informed as we bump up against the 3 million people who have already watched it.  Then I read that the title came from the book on which the movie is based, written by a privileged Nigerian student at Harvard, as his thesis.  So the Nigerian kid himself chose the title.  I decided we should go for it.

The film is dark, and not particularly redemptive.  It is set in a fictional unnamed country, but the cadence of the speech is very West African, so the plot would fit with Boko Haram in Nigeria or the last decades of war in Sierra Leone.  The initial scenes establish a believable family trying to make a decent life in a buffer zone protected by international peacekeepers.  When the rebels and the government threaten to clash in their town, there is an agonizing scene done very believably where the protagonist boy can not board the taxi with his mother and younger sibling, but has to stay behind with the men.  I won't give the story away from there, but you can probably guess that disaster ensues, he ends up running into the bush for his life, and is sucked into joining the rebels and coerced into committing unspeakable crimes.  

This is, in short, a nightmare, and I can feel my stomach knot up just remembering the scenes.  A nightmare made all the worse by the fact that it is so archetypically true.  

Why watch it?  Because we must not be lulled into thinking of evil as an imaginary devil, or a puritanically created boogeyman.  Halloween is not too scary, on the contrary it is not scary enough.  Because, if this story happens to even one child, our world should weep.  The fact that it is a current reality for several hundred thousand makes a blithe unawareness unacceptable.   Because the developmental needs of a child to belong and to trust adults, and to prove themselves, and their inability to truly imagine their own mortality, make them perfect fodder for unscrupulous schemes.  Because crumbling societies leave children vulnerable.  Because we know kids in Uganda and South Sudan who have been forced and lured into this life.  Because the entire community where we work in Mundri has been caught between the injustice of the military and the ruthlessness of the militias rebelling against them. Because one of my best friends works to help kids recover from trauma.

A student from Yale also won the Individual World Poetry Slam this week, and one line from her poem sticks with me.  She speaks of people "Who'll take their politics with a latte while I take mine with tear gas".  Being uncomfortable may be, at times, an important requisite of being human.  

And the movie and the poem express in art a reflection of the broken world that our young man R experienced this week in our old home.  He was beaten by soldiers it seems, had the back of his head cracked so hard that he was unconscious and bleeding and feared dead.  None of us are ever completely innocent, and even if he was out at night during an election-imposed curfew, the reaction of the military was dangerous and unjust.  We poured out our lives in Bundibugyo and a handful of kids escaped some of the bleaker options in their lives, some of which were not dissimilar to the movie.  But even now they are both vulnerable and culpable, and that makes me sad.  He has been discharged home, and we believe he will recover, but he almost didn't, and that is real.

I did not love this movie.  Blood Diamond has, for me, more hope.  But if you can stand the raw aching sorrow of a child who slowly loses his inner compass in the face of a power-hungry man caught in the grip of capital-E Evil, then watch it, soberly.  I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that in spite of everything the boy manages to connect to his own humanity by remembering his relationship to his family, and by the friendship he establishes with another child soldier.  Though the movie does very little to point this out, even in this darkness the flicker of love is not completely snuffed out, and that gives all of us hope.  

There is a remarkable resilience that love creates, defying the sub-human non-belonging appellation in the title.  Waiting with baited breath for the healing of beasts to boys, of exile to Kingdom.