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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mercy in the Clouds

A few days ago we were hiking in Switzerland, in the clouds.  Our trek from Meiringen-Grindelwald-Wengen-Murren-Griesalp-Kanderweg involved some rainy days, and periods where we ascended into the mist.  There were also times when we came around a bend, the clouds parted, and we saw brilliant blue backgrounds to glacier-covered peaks; but much of those days involved a misty veil.  The most challenging day as we hiked over a high Alpen pass, in the snow, searching for signs of the trail (which is marked by painting rocks on the ground, so loses some value when there is an unexpected accumulation), I thought about the mercy of being in the clouds.  You can't see how far there is to go, how high you are, or what dangers await at the bottom of ravines.  You can only see the trail a few meters ahead or behind.  The cloud surrounds you and enforces a focus on the here and now, the next step.  On that day it was a blessing, because our destination would have seemed impossibly high and distant, and the narrow trail would have seemed impossibly dangerous.  The steep ascent and descent were a bit frightening, particularly the last hundred meters or so below the pass when we completely lost the trail and didn't know if we should turn back.



The next day, we heard from Scott's mother that his dad's long slow decline from dementia and bleeding strokes had taken a more accelerated turn downward.  He had stopped eating and drinking completely.  Scott's sister had graciously spent a week in town but had left, and we sensed it was time for us to go.  We began making arrangements to change our tickets and cancel the rest of our trek to Zermatt.  In less than 24 hours we were on our way to California, arriving Friday afternoon uncertain if he would have died during our long air flight.  We went straight to the nursing home (where he has been since Scott's last trip in the Spring, when he and his mom had decided she could no longer meet his needs even with the in-home help. . . we are thankful for the excellent care the home and the hospice nurses have provided for him). That was a sweet couple of hours.  Though Dave's disease is very advanced, that afternoon he responded meaningfully and emotionally to Scott's presence.  And now as we continue going back and forth over the weekend, reading Psalms, holding hands, expressing thanks, telling stories, he is slipping away from us.

Then this morning, as we went to church, the passage was from Exodus 16 about God's provision of mana for the grumbling, anxious, can't-see-how-this-is-good Israelites.  In that chapter the phrase occurs "they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud."  We want the cool clarity of the peaks of God's greatness, or the lush valley of the still waters and green pastures. But the presence of God in the Bible often comes as a cloud, as a rainbow of refracted and diffused light, a paradox of obscurity and vision, of leading and covering.

Today we can see some mercy in that cloudiness.  I think we are glad we had the first half of our anniversary trek without knowing we'd leave before the end.  That we focused day to day rather than knowing that loss was so imminent.  That when the time to leave came, it was clear, and we really couldn't know what we left behind either.  That now we are in California, we're also living hour to hour, on a time line we can't fully determine.

Faith comes when you're in the clouds, searching for the path.  Waiting for the mana that is just enough for one day, no more.

Thanks to many who have prayed and offered their love; please ask the One who holds us all to gently escort Dave into eternity.  And to give stamina and faith to his family as we watch and wait.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Further Up, and Further In

This phrase from CS Lewis' last Narnia book, The Last Battle, enjoins the characters who have reached the true Narnia to move deeper into the experience and place, as they climb the hills. And it keeps resonating for me as we hike into the Alps.

We are in Switzerland, hiking, as a complete sabbath from our normal life in honor of our 30th anniversary and in the wisdom of God's life-patterns and Serge's policies. Of course we wouldn't have to take time off in such wondrous beauty, but thanks to some generous gifts and savings, we're grateful to be here. It's not without a cost for sure, to our teams and families, particularly as Scott's dad continues to decline. But for today we're pressing on, further up and further in. Four days of hiking so far, average 15-18 km a day, thousands of feet up and down, strenuous paths that leave us with a healthy ache. Then evenings in Inns, tonight's is 136 years old and run by the 5th generation of the same family, with stunning views from the balcony and delicious food.

As we lift up our eyes to the hills, day after day, scrambling and climbing, striding and pausing, pray with us that God would reveal grace to us, refresh with Presence our weary souls. So often God called people to the mountains for encounters with his Glory. The solid awe-inspiring strength, the unknowable heights, the dangerous beauty, the abundant waters, the lonely pristine clarity, the otherworldliness of the landscape all make the mountains a place to experience God more concretely. You can look from afar and admire, but to really get into the high zones take time and breath and purpose.

Another phrase that's been in my head as we hike is the Mighty Fortress hymn, since we're in German-speaking country and the words for fortress (burg) and mountain (berg) echo each other. If you live around the Alps, particularly in the Middle Ages, in times of cantons and small kings and attacks, a good high rock and fortress makes for a place of safety. Also if you're going to survive in this environment, you can see how the Swiss characteristics might be the ones that would emerge: careful attention to detail, rules, surety, conformity, beauty. The paths are well marked. There is no trash. The homes all have flowers. The industry seems small scale. You can look at these mountains and feel that the people who managed to live in their shadows did so by drawing some hard lines and staying inside. Which perhaps explains a lot of our reformation inheritance of theology too. Dangerous mountains, keep to the path. Explain, set the parameters, make sense.

But the peaks still loom. We hear avalanches in the clouds. Snow blows in, then sun. There are tiny sparks of color in the wildflowers, massive swathes of blue across the sky. Unknown paths that wind and climb, inviting us further up and further in.













Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ireland

Five blustery days and cozy nights on the Emerald Isle, a tribute to my mom whom we have abandoned for most of the last quarter century. With four young-adult kids and three senior-adult parents each with their own needs and directions, not to mention way-more-than-full time jobs, and organizational responsibilities, and supporters . . Well, it isn't often that we can devote a solid chunk of attention to any one person. So somewhere back a few months ago, in a flash of inspiration, I asked my mom if she would be willing to fly to London to meet us when we went to our Serge meetings, and then we could travel together. It's pretty impressive when people over 80 have no qualms about independent international travel. And where she wanted to go, was Ireland.

We have very American family roots, drawing from multiple continents and cultures including indigenous and enslaved peoples. But my mom's ancestry has some root tentacles that clung to the shores of Ireland. The story goes like this: a couple worn down by poverty, famine, injustice, unable to pay the oppressive dues to the essentially feudal landlord. The agent coming to their home, possibly built of turf or stone on the northwest coast. The agent grabs the ancestor's wife, threatening her with violence. The ancestor takes his gun, and kills the agent. Then he and his wife flee, finding their way onto a boat to America, to start a new life far from the reaches of the law. If anyone read the Booker finalist about the Bloody Project, which was rough, you can imagine a less sanitized version.

And that little vignette is only one of millions of stories of blood and sorrow that this island has endured. We toured the castle in Limerick and tried to sort out who was attacking whom, and sieging whom, and allying with whom. Celts, Normans, Vikings. British and French and Spanish. Christians from before the many schisms, Catholics, Protestants. A hidden history of suspicion, of betrayals.

Which makes the current peaceful, wild wonder of this place all the more real. Ireland is not a land that conquered its way into 21rst century freedom and prosperity. It is a land that absorbed a million punches into its bogs, and transformed them into green grains. That wept tears and poured them into guiness beers. That knelt, literally, in the sand between high and low tide to celebrate religious freedom off their oppressor's property. That reached down into a core of sassy truth, lively music, and a strong stance bracing against the gales, without losing friendliness and hope.

And perhaps all of the above because this is a land of an ancient faith lineage. We toured the Book of Kells and other illuminated Gospel texts drawn by monks around the year 800. When much of the world was devastated by war and plague, Ireland was busy preserving the truth.

So we had some adventures there. We were almost blown off the cliffs of Moher, not realizing they had been closed due to severe weather. In spite of multiple back surgeries and replaced joints, we got my mom walking on the wild Burren. There were nameless castles and ornate churches. Hedgerows and cows. Sea spray and sunsets. Prehistoric gold, and leathery bog-preserved bodies in the museum. A stunning coastal cottage, and a warm tea and scones with our real Irish friends the Maras.

As we left our cottage, we stopped at a local artist's shop and tea room, and I picked up a book of poetry by Thomas Lynch, an American descended from a nearby village called Moveen. It's called "The Sin-eater", and I highly recommend it. Lynch and the Irish get grace. The ridiculous frailty of the body held together with the glorious beauty of eternity, the irreverent humor held on the sure rock of God. "But now it all seems like shades of grey, shadow and apparition, glimpses only, through the half-light of daybreak and gloaming, mirage and apocalypse, a kind of swithering." (You have to read the poems to find out what that means, but it's my new favorite word).

Hoping this isn't our last visit. Bye for now, Ireland.















Thursday, September 07, 2017

England in September, a week of work and tea



The first week of our September leave was not truly leave, but a semi-annual week of intense morning-to-night leadership meetings with our NGO.  We review policies, develop strategies, analyze metrics, create new training programs, and spend about a quarter of our time in prayer for each other and our teams.  There is always lively discussion with this group, helpful ideas, honest confession.  This time we met in Dunstable, which happened to be right across the road from a priory built in 1131.  Most of the buildings had been pillaged over the centuries but about half of the main church remains and continues in use to this day.  We started the week by joining a eucharist service there.  Thankful for these saints, who slog through the same struggle against evil that we do.  It's a privilege to walk together.
And even though most of the week was spent in this room . . 

We did have a few glimpses of the country.  We landed a day before the meetings started, enabling a delightful intersection with our dear Kenyan friends and co-workers the Barasa family who are mid-way through a 2-year fellowship in Liverpool.  They met us in Stratford-upon-Avon for strolls around the late summer festive town, admiring Shakespearean history and embracing the importance of the written word.  We caught up on each others' lives over coffee and tapas, visited a museum and playground and church, and walked and walked.
Jack and Ima with Jonathan and Tanya

Shakespeare's birth home (above) and place of baptism and burial (below)

Some aggressive but entertaining swans
Tanya, a picture of bright confidence

In Dunstable proper, Rachel and I found some hills to climb and cows to admire one day after lunch:



And then yesterday my mom arrived, spending a week in the British isles.  We look forward to driving with her around Ireland starting tomorrow.



This guest-house associated with the priory was built in the 1200's and now houses a tea room, complete with a tea museum.  


Our readings together this week came from Ephesians 1, the tumultuous and glorious words that tumble over one another to speak of God's love and power lifting us up and flowing, crashing out over the world.  Unlike the hurricanes we are seeing on the news, this love only destroys that which needs purifying.  The powerful waves of this force bring goodness.  Pray for us all.  For the vision and goals we worked on together to flow in blessing for many.  For faith as we continue on with a trip we truly think we need, for rest and refocusing at the end of a year that has often felt chaotic and overwhelming . . . all the while deeply concerned for Scott's dad's frail health and his mother's challenge to cope as life transitions loom.  Thanks.