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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Robin Maury Hutchison Iida: A tribute of grief and memories from across many miles and years

Robin Iida was my best friend growing up. Basically until I met Scott. We both got married in our early 20's (my dad walked her down the aisle; she was my only non-sister bridesmaid) and our paths diverged, but from about 1rst grade until college we were kindred spirits (our preferred Anne of Green Gables term for friendship). We met because Robin's aunt lived across the road from my family in Herndon, Virginia, and our moms became friends at a pivotal time. Pivotal, because Robin's dad died that year, and my family absorbed hers into a circle of four families that created a little community of shared faith, geographic proximity, carpools to the same small Christian school and church and Pioneer Girls' group. Robin was two years ahead of me but we were the oldest girls; the other two families started with boys. So, friends. That friendship deepened into kindred-spirit-quality though untold numbers of slumber parties, books passed back and forth as we both loved to read, forts built in the woods, paths explored, dress-up and imagination and drama, sewing and crafts (who remembers decoupage and counted cross stitch?), camps, vacations, homework.

Robin died on Friday. She was 59. She had a sudden hemorrhage in her brain from a burst aneurysm, one of those 1 in ten thousand kind of rare events that upends a life. The initial bleed occurred the prior Saturday; we got messages during the party Abby's parents threw for her and Luke. We were able to go see Robin and family in the ICU in Washington DC the next day and in spite of all she had been through she opened her eyes in surprise at my voice. We prayed for her. By Monday she was off the ventilator and whisper-talking, and through the week as we flew back to Uganda we all had great hope. But on Friday a second and larger bleed occurred, and in spite of high levels of care, she died. Her community now will remember her for her four wonderful young adult children, her three and one-on-the-way darling grandchildren, her marriage, the musical gifts she shared with her church and other groups, the international students to whom she gave a home, her active role in making this world a better place. But I have been thinking of the earlier part of her life, and the unique gift of her friendship.

And if I had to sum up that gift in two words, I think it would be smiling grit.

For some reason, we were both quite concerned about our knobby knees. I'm not sure I've even heard that term in the last few decades but as pre-adolescents we looked at our bony legs in despair, feeling awkwardly gangly, and talked about those knees a lot. We both loved to play soccer, but were never the first-picked athletic types, not particularly muscular or speedy or coordinated (though in our small-school world that didn't put us off the teams, just off being stars). We both liked boys, but never felt like we were the most beautiful or interesting (in our world, that did not mean zero dates but did prevent the status of cheerleaders or the homecoming court). And neither of us hit puberty with sudden graceful curves. Our hair difficulties were opposite: Robin's sandy blonde straighter hair was thin but cooperated with the 70's allowing her bangs and feathered layers. Mine was kinky curly thick and unruly and very much NOT blonde and I thought at the time, along with those knobby knees and flat figure, socially irredeemable. Trivial as it sounds, navigating growing up as a girl is a thousand times more survivable with a companion. So the first thing I have to remember about Robin was the life-saving effect of having a knobby-kneed partner who could commiserate, normalize, and LAUGH. Yes, Robin taught me to not take my self and my hair and figure woes so seriously. She exuded a kind of strength and spunk and humor that let us be ourselves. We didn't mourn about it, we made it funny. We had clubs and codes and secret languages, phrases that could send us into doubled-over giggles. I think all girls look around and assume everyone else has it more together than they do. So having a true soul friend walking through all those adolescent years with laughter, was priceless. (And I should have done more of this for my sister, but am grateful for Kristin who was the parallel in her life).

Secondly, and probably related to that ability to take life with humor, Robin swam against the current. We attended a very conservative Christian school in primary and middle and early high that met for years in a massive Victorian house in Leesburg. Then by a tragedy of county lines dividing us, we went to separate public high schools. Looking back, I think Robin shored up my own determination to find the path less traveled. She was an artist at heart, a talented musician with an eye for beauty. She married a first-generation Japanese American, and embraced his cultural heritage (one of my high school friends actually, so it seemed quite normal to me then, but in 2019 eyes I can now admire the courage of that decision). Perhaps losing her dad so early, perhaps just her personality, but she had a core determination that did not bow to changing tides. She decided to have all of her children as home births, even when she was a bit high-risk. She decided to home-school them creatively. She supported her first son's desire to train as an officer in the marines, and her daughter's passion to become a professional ballerina/dancer. She and Ken were never financially rich, but they made their town-home into a place of nurture for their own family and many others. Robin had opinions, and she did not mind those being different from the majority. Her goal in life was never wealth or success or fame; her goal was to be faithful, to serve others, and to sparkle. She was loyal, protective, assured. And again the humor let her stand against the flow without being obnoxious. While her adult life remained within a few miles of our childhood homes, and her adult focus within the walls of her own home, and mine went out towards medical school and Africa with all those miles and all that immersion in a more public arena, I think our kindredness of spirit is that we both made choices based on faith, hope, and love. We both risked the less expected paths. And I suspect that those choices were possible partly because of the strong foundation we gave each other.

Today is Scott's birthday. From the late 60's to the 80's Robin gave me her grit and her smile; from the 80's to now it has been Scott. Losing Robin makes every birthday a wonder. Objectively, Scott has nearly died multiple times but here we are. This year has been one of the hardest ever, wresting Christ School from the brink of demise, moving away from the slightly more do-able comforts of near-Nairobi to the decidedly more tiring life of the Uganda-Congo border. I know Robin's family needs her just as much as our family and community need Scott. It's not fair. God's mercy is an inscrutable tangle that I cannot justify and explain. I can merely be grateful today for Scott, and ask Jesus to walk closely with Ken, with Robin's mom Kay, and my mom, and all our siblings and friends. I can ask Jesus to be a presence of peace in a time of anguish. I can give testimony to the assurance that Robin's death and Scott's birthday are both redeemable mercies, even if one feels severe, in the end all shall be well.

I wish I could be with everyone who loved Robin on Saturday at her service. I wish I could find photos in the chaos of this move. But these words are all I have to give today. Rest in peace Robin.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Celebration: where the paradox of connection and creativity cross

"This touches on a real paradox: as humans, we crave belonging, we need the connectedness to others that brings security, but this connected ness can prevent the natural movement and evolution that we need in our lives.  It can also get in the way of creativity and stifle the natural loneliness that pushes us to discover something new, that pushes us closer to God . . . we are caught between competing drives, the drive to belong and be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and the drive to let our deepest selves rise up, to refuse the accepted and the comfortable. . . it is in the group that we discover what we have in common.  It is as individuals that we discover a personal relationship with God. We must find a way to balance our two opposing impulses. " Becoming Human, Jean Vanier.

(All quotes from chapter one of this book, highly recommended.  Raising children, getting married, this is about becoming human.  Human in the glorious sense of that word, soaking in love, being refined into the imago dei.)

"There are, for me, seven aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart. . . The first is to reveal someone's beauty, to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. . . To love also means to understand, and this is the second aspect of love."

(Abby's parents said their goal in this party was for Luke and Abby to feel loved. I think they succeeded grandly, because this night was just the flowering flame on a bush of days and years of loving, giving, noticing, protecting, honoring.)

"The third aspect of love is then communication. Communication is the heart of love.. . understanding, as well as truth, comes not only from the intellect but also from the body."

(Vanier writes from the perspective of a life with persons who have intellectual different-abilities. When we reflected on this wedding, we all felt one of the highlights was the giftedness of our nephew Micah, his unabashed joy in dancing at his cousin's wedding. He carries an open-hearted curiosity towards others, a passion for music and rhythm, a delight in being in the middle of the crowd, that lifted all of us to a better place. Both Luke's and Abby's family have members with a spectrum of different genetics and life-long challenges, and we are the richer for it. And Luke is one of the few doctors I can imagine who would have connected with a Congolese refugee janitor so meaningfully that he would also brave the journey and crowd to join in.)

"The fourth aspect of love is celebration. Every child, every person, needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated."

(Those are celebrated faces right there. It takes a village as pictured below, to help convince someone they are a source of joy. And the effort and sacrifice these people made to come and be with us . . we are so grateful.)

"The fifth aspect of love is empowerment.  It is not just a question of doing things for others but of helping them to do things for themselves, helping them to discover the meaning of their lives.  To love means to empower."

(I'm not sure we helped Luke discover he could do things for himself, so much as gave up trying to prevent him. Still, a wedding is a milestone of launching, a time of leaving that must precede cleaving to a new loyalty.)

"Communion is the to-and-fro movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives.  Communion is not a fixed state, it is an ever growing and deepening reality  . . [of] mutual vulnerability and openness."

(Abby and her sisterhood, perhaps most significantly Ruth (second from left) and her new sister Julia (far left). Vulnerability needs practice, and that is difficult in a culture of shame, of canceling, of taking the easy road of scorn rather than the harder road of empathy. We should all be on our knees over the fear of vulnerability in our world right now. We're a mess, and God loves us anyway, and in that very fragility we find beauty. Truth.)
 (My two generations, daughters and mother, a bridge between)
My mom brought out the same dress she wore to my wedding 32 years ago.

(the Myhres)

"There is a seventh and final aspect of love, and that is forgiveness. All of us carry within ourselves brokenness, as well as shadow areas, dark corners of the spirit. Human beings cannot be constantly attentive, loving, and nonviolent. [we must] learn that is is acceptable to be less than perfect."

(These seven taught our four kids at various stages in Uganda, forging life-long ties as mentors and friends. Surely that's what living a forgiving life looks like, being able to encourage and empower children and having the joy of watching them grow into adults).

"There was a place where much of this spiritual struggle and growth occurred: in prayer.  For most people, prayer necessitates stepping back from the pains and joys of daily life. That vision we are seeking together . . is to create a place of love and belonging.  Prayer is a time to let the light flow into our lives, to literally 'enlighten' each day."

(Light was flowing this weekend. A celebration is a form of prayer, a time apart, a sparkling glimpse of eternity. Keep praying for Luke and Abby who have been plunged today back into trauma and impossible situations and sleepless nights. Pray they would seek the primary connection of their own new community of a family, and they would take their aches and loneliness to God. Pray they would be strengthened by love to risk, and that sacrifice would bless this world.)

Friday, November 01, 2019

When the "ordinary" feels extraordinary

The last six days have been what I imagine to be ordinary in a life-path not taken.

Day one, driving down to see our son Caleb who is in the army.  He greets us with dinner salads and gives us his bed, we wake up to walk a few blocks into town and stop for coffee and browsing the farmer's market. We drive his usual commute to base, past buildings where he normally attends classes or signs in and out, to a museum dedicated to Airborne and Special Operations. There we can browse history and ponder that someone first thought of deploying troops by parachuting out of planes less than a hundred years ago; we can hear stories of the current training.  We end the day with an hour-and-a-half drive to our daughter Julia's apartment, making dinner together.

Day two, church with our two middle children, worship and meditation.  Then my sister stops by with her husband and son on their way back to their home, and we hop in cars to drive to downtown Greensboro for the one-year party celebrating a social enterprise sort of French restaurant.  Julia's room mate works here, and the bold dream of affordable excellent food created and served by people with different-abilities, providing not just a job but a sense of accomplishment and purpose, inspires us all. Julia's church has an afternoon Swahili service (!) which feels like home. And afterwards the diverse congregation carries tables into a long line for the annual harvest dinner, celebrating the garden project Julia works on that has reclaimed land for nourishment and beauty. 20% of their produce is donated to combat hunger.

Days 3-6 find us in West Virginia, at our farm, with Luke and Abby and their new puppy Botu. This is their week of vacation, and they have taken part of it with Abby's family and for the upcoming wedding reception. But in the midst of that we get three full days of normal life. Making pizza, making gourmet tacos and pastries, hiking in the woods and dipping in the chilly autumnal river. Brilliant blue sun gives way to leaf must and misting skies. We talk, they work on studies and projects, there are bike rides and coffee. Mostly there is the delight that only a puppy can bring with his whole-body quiver of joy, his antics, his exploration, his snuggles. Caleb re-joins us for the last day, which as Abby points out brings out the best in both brothers.

Six ordinary days, the kind of life I imagine other families experience on weekends or evenings. Pruning trees or washing dishes, rolling dough and hanging up laundry.

Only in our life, these days are fractured by thousands of miles and months of absence. We took the ordinary from our parents by moving to a far country. And now we take it from our young adult children by staying there.

So when those days can be wrested from the flooding speed of time, they are beautifully extraordinary. And perhaps all I can say is that the ache of the absence of days like these, and the depth of their goodness when they come, causes a deep chord to resonate. So that we know we are created for something like this, for connection, for living in proximity to those we love, for sharing sunshine and red leaves and good food with them. And while we love the independence and courage of our kids, and we love the deeply meaningful work God keeps in front of us, those realities come with a cost and the cost is real.

It was an extraordinary event that called us across the ocean this time, so the final four days of our ten-day visit will be rich as well--a weekend of celebrating Luke and Abby's wedding with a reception in Annapolis, a visit to Grace church and a day's Ebola vaccine follow-up at the NIH. All very good things. But the six days of ordinary are what I think I will treasure most as we go back, and those are the memories I think will sustain us with the taste of the presence of God.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Go, tell----at home and all over the world

Airports, internet, and layover gaps = a few minutes to pay attention to the culture wars that rage in places that don't have to expend energy on surviving floods or malaria or political oppression. So this morning I had coffee with two very disparate experiences: reading my daily Bible reading which happened to be Mark 16, and listening to the audio (that has raised a little firestorm) of a prominent evangelical conservative male Bible teacher making fun of a very widely respected evangelical woman Bible teacher named Beth Moore. Most women I know have been part of a Beth Moore Bible study at some time or another. She is a prolific author and speaker, but three men who appeared to be on stage at a convention discounted her ministry on the basis of their interpretation of the Bible as forbidding women from preaching.  I am sure most people heard about this days ago . . . and everything worth saying has been said. But the juxtaposition of these two passages, from the Gospel and from the news, was so startling, allow me (Jennifer) an observation.

Image result for google image painting women tomb jesus

In Mark 16, the pivotal moment of history has just occurred.  Jesus has overcome death. Crucified, dead, and buried on Friday, it is now Sunday morning just after dawn, and three women named Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome have come to the tomb. They had delayed applying embalming spices around his corpse due to strict observance of the Sabbath, so now their mind is on how they will remove the massive stone sealing the burial cave's entrance. Instead they find the door open, the cave empty except for a young man in a long white robe who gives them an angelic order from God: "Jesus of Nazareth is not here, he is risen! Go, tell his disciples--and Peter . . ". If the Gospel is: Jesus died and overcame sin and death and now you can follow Him and receive the resurrection life . . . then the first humans instructed to speak this Gospel were three women. The angel did not say, you pesky busy-body women thinking you can usurp the chosen disciples with your feminist ideas, go home. The angel said, go tell. Go to your colleagues, your friends, bear witness. Live your lives as a testimony. You were here to serve in a humble way with the very physical, tangible, messiness of grief and decay. Continue in that humility but speak the truth of what you have seen. 

Perhaps this hits me, because it is my life. I am up to my elbows in scabies and pus on a daily basis, and believe the call of Jesus to touch, to heal, to grieve, to pray, and to speak words of truth. For my particular church background, missionary doctor is an acceptable female vocation.  I'm thankful for that. It's not seen as a power position, and it isn't one.

We all have cultures. No one interprets the Bible from a universal out-of-the-earth perspective. For some that is a small slice of history that looks a certain way in terms of power structures between men and women, white and color, global north and south, wealthy 1% and everyone else. And depending on where and when you were born, certain verses we assign to "limited to that culture and time" and others we broaden to "applicable always".  I don't know, but I doubt the men on that stage had tassels on their clothes, or had stoned a rebellious son, or had given their coat away if asked, or sold all they had and gave to the poor, or had plucked out an eye if they glanced at pornography.  Yet all those things are literally in the Hebrew and Greek. As 21rst century speakers of English, we have to study, interpret, pray, and apply.  The Bible is true, and all of it has something to say to us. Read the Bible as poetry, as story, as theological treatise, as prophecy, as history. Grapple with the implications. All of us need to do that. All of us need the uncomfortable truths.  I am blind to the beauty and invitation of holiness on a thousand levels, self-righteous and self-protective. All of us need to wrestle with God as Jacob did, and all of us come away limping

Jesus did not mince words, but most of his anger was directed at those who thought they knew best, who wanted to fit everyone else into their boxes, who acted without charity to ensure their own power. For those rescued from lives of thievery, demon-possession, fruitless toil, social isolation, prostitution, disability . . . his words were tender.  But in both cases, his words were love. Tough love to shake us out of our self-satisfied pride; tender love to heal our bruised souls. Because Jesus cares about the men on the stage and the woman being scorned. Jesus loves them all, and us too, and to some degree we all are part-pharisee and part-prostitute, we all think better of ourselves than we ought and worse of our selves than God does. 

Thank you, Beth Moore, for your gracious response. Let's focus on the big picture. Another friend sent this link this week, a commentary on how the Spirit is moving through diverse cultures all around us.  Let's not try to tear each other down, but rather acknowledge that we're ALL going to be pretty surprised in Heaven. What would the world look like if we all took seriously doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

On Stories

Sometimes I get to explain why I wrote four young-adult magical realism novels instead of books of theology or culture. Besides the fact that I don't know enough about God to write theology, or enough about anyone to write about culture, I actually think stories offer unique ways into our thinking. They allow us to enter another's reality, to build empathy, to ponder cause and effect and morality and truth and mystery more subtly than a factual treatise would.  They get past our defenses and cause us to see the world and ourselves in new ways. Story subverts our assumptions, molds our baseline narrative, our world-view. Story engages us at the level of our imagination, not just our rational thought.

Three times this week, these ideas have jumped out for me.  First, I watched a few minutes of Ta-Nehisi Coates being interviewed about his new novel (which I have yet to read).  Everyone wants to know why someone quite successful in writing non-fiction took up this new form of communication.  He explains: "You could state verifiable facts to people, and they would just bounce right off . . . what I realized, was that what they were actually resisting was not the facts, but the implications of the facts . . . and so I realized the way you get to that is through story telling."

Secondly, I reached chapters in Global Humility on narrative and parable, in which McCullough says:
"Media and the arts have a creative, parabolic power to hold a mirror to society, to speak of judgement and hope, but in non-direct ways which engage the imagination in a society which does not accept the authority of the Bible prima facie."

And thirdly and most importantly, we hosted our Serge Kenya colleagues for a week.  George Mixon pointed out that 70% of the Bible is in story form. He came with Jack and Andrea Roylston to teach a large, interdenominational, multigenerational group about Chronological Bible Storying. This is a technique developed for primarily aural learners in oral cultures. Typically, participants work for months or years to memorize 30-40 key stories that tell the Big Story of God's work in the world from Genesis to Revelation, learning how to tell them with factual accuracy and engaging drama, how to ask questions that dig for meaning, how to open doors to encounter with capital-T Truth. We only got the introduction to this work this week, but how rich it was! George, Jack and Andrea did a 3-day seminar for 75 women and men representing over 30 churches and schools, taught at CSB chapel and two church services, worked with Sunday School teachers, and also led a 1-day seminar for CSB staff.

Most sessions went like this.  One of the team would ask a question, a big question, the kind of heart-question that we all struggle with about life. Then they would tell a story, say the story of Eve, Adam, the Serpent and God in Genesis 3, or the story of Jesus healing a bleeding woman and the dying girl in Luke 8. After telling the story straight through twice (repetition, the key to learning!), they would then engage the audience with good adult-learner techniques. Asking questions, playing games.  Everyone stand up, and you can't sit down until you provide the next sentence of the story.  Break into groups and tell each other the story. And so on. Once they were sure we had the story facts in place, they would start delving deeper. Why do you think Eve said that? What if Jairus had not asked Jesus to come? These would eventually lead to the real heart of the story: what does this tell us about God? About us? About God's relationship to us?

It was delightful to watch our friends engage. For me, to see how the stories can make SO MUCH MORE SENSE to majority-world listeners than to the world's wealthiest elites, or how they resonate with real life in 21rst century Uganda. To see how my neighbors picked up on certain details (shock and dismay when Jesus delayed going to see his sick friend Lazarus, unforgivable!) that would not have been as important to me. To witness their skill in story-telling, something that is very much a part of this culture. To see teachers at CSB make the leap to how this kind of technique (interactive, socratic) would be applicable in their classrooms in general, not just in a church-like setting.
Thankful for this week of stories!