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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Closing 2008

Yesterday would have been my Dad's birthday, a day the rest of my
family celebrated together, as I'm sure he would have wished. As the
year draws to a close, as we parent our own kids, as we talk to other
families, I am thankful for the legacy of loyalty and generosity and
love that still supports us.

Today we see patients as quickly as possible then head to our favorite
isolation spot, campsite 2 in the game reserve. We will take three of
Luke's friends from his CSB days to experience the wonder of their
homeland and its animals, and to close the year and the vacation in
community. Then it is on to Kenya to take Luke back to the start of
term 2 at RVA. Many miles and hours and your prayers for patience in
the car and protection on the rough roads are always appreciated

Monday, December 29, 2008

On Missionaries and Mindsets

This link was sent by a reading friend, to a Times article written by a self-professed atheist from the UK who grew up as a kid in Africa.  

Recommended reading.  His premise is that while hospitals and schools are good things, the most important contribution of missionaries to Africa is the liberation from the crushing weight of collective passivity.  I'm not sure I agree that individualistic thought leads to salvation . . . but I do sense underlying truth, that apprehension of one's place before God leads to valuing human life, to valuing creativity and health and beauty, and to risking sacrificial love.  This is the force I think he senses but can not define.  So let us plod on with our schools and hospitals, our nutrition and engineering projects. But let us hold them lightly in comparison to the kids we befriend, the staff we empower, the slow and subtle growth of the liberating sense of being loved.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Of Wise Men and Children

Today's sermon, in good post-Christmas form, moved to the Matthew 2 account of the visit of the magi, the political advisors and semi-royalty from the east who caused a stir in Jerusalem as they searched for a new King.  Uganda is a land of four traditional Kingdoms, so the preacher alluded to the very-obvious-to-all shock of politicians from an unrelated region coming to pay homage to a local tribe's king.  Once again the reality of Uganda in 2008 allows for a richer understanding of turn-of-the-millennium Palestine:  intrigue, succession, suspicion, tribalism, lineage, prophecy, supernatural signs, uneasy balances of power, all of these are undercurrents to our reality here and now just as they were in Jesus' time.  

The sermon was followed by the baptism of 8 children, half infants and half older.  In the context of the story of the magi, a concrete demonstration that God's interest in human beings begins much earlier than the world's interest.  Babies a few months or years old are worth attention and grace, are people to be ransomed and counted.  Just as the magi demonstrated the importance of the child with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the ceremony today called out small people and showed they are marked for the Kingdom even now (and sitting through a crowded service in full dry-season heat, I could see the practicality of two of the three gifts relating to fragrance, to a seasoning of the smelly reality.)

Meanwhile the national paper today carried a cover story on child disappearances, relating the year's toll to the recent high-profile case of a business man who was arrested for the murder of a 12 year old boy in a ritual purported to buy him business success by the diabolical means of encasing body parts in the foundation of his new Kampala high-rise building.  Witchcraft of the highest power requires child sacrifice.  Again, not far from Herod's methods, the slaughter of young children considered a price to be paid for personal advancement.

The contrast sharp and starling:  name the children and mark them by baptism, honor them with gifts and recognition, this is the way of the Kingdom, the way of the magi.  This in stark opposition to abduction and murder of children by adults who would use them as expendable means to advancement and success.  And while the undercurrent of human trafficking may be less tangible in the US, the sacrifice of children to the convenience of adults is probably worse, via abortion and abuse and neglect.  Lord have mercy on all of Rachel's young ones.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Back to Reality

After two days away (Christmas Day and Boxing Day) Heidi and I thoughtit prudent to made an appearance on the ward today, spending a coupleof hours to round and re-supply, to remember the babies in danger andthe battle for their lives . . . so just an update that little Peter
John and his sister Grace (sounds like a combination out of Pilgrim'sProgress) did NOT run away as feared. He is getting simple first-line treatment for HIV, and she is hanging in there with him, feeding him,and has even been seen smiling. Keep praying for them, there is a long and hard road ahead. 
 And baby Gloria, who in spite of her Christmas-y name I did not expect to live to see the holiday, has actually gained a few grams. Her twin sibling and mother died in the process of birth leaving her in the care of a diminutive grandmother and feisty sister Angela, 
 who suffers from sickle cell disease as well as being a marginally malnourished orphan. What a threesome . . .names that reflect the chorus of the heavens, with lives that scream the injustice and sadness of hell. 
 We also had a run on burn patients  this Christmas--the stress of the holidays, the confusion of extra people and extra meals, the carelessness of alcohol, for whatever reason we ended up with three toddlers all severely burned. 
 The smallest burn but the saddest story is Lydia, whose mother at the age of 15 and still in primary school decided to "marry" a student from our secondary school, a boy on the football team and with plans in life. Her father had died, her uncle is a destitute neighbor of ours, so she probably did not feel she had many options. Though they have had two children now, Lydia and a little sister, the boy's family refuses to acknowledge the union, and sent the boy off to A-levelstudies in Fort Portal to try and keep them apart. They do not wantthis girl to hold their son back, so they even refused to have him come home for the holidays. However they have taken Lydia away fromher mother and into their home, after all a descendent is a descendent, the proliferation of which is a key goal of life. Her burn pattern was suspicious for abuse and she showed signs of malnutrition when she came, perhaps reflecting the grandparents'stress that they do not want their investment in their son's education to be subverted by his early marriage to a village girl, perhaps just reflecting that people their age get tired out by 3 year olds. After being passed from grandfather to grandmother to one aunt to another aunt, today I found her caretaker to be her actual biological mother. So we are working with the local Child Welfare Officer to see what can be done.

Reality--the burns and abuse and hunger and incurable viruses? That is the reality we can touch and see. But by faith we hold to the deeper reality of Rev 12, as preached on Christmas, the behind-the- veil glimpse of victory. The dragon flung to earth, angry in his defeat, lashing out but ultimately doomed.

In Praise of Boxing Day

Being a proper former British protectorate . . . we celebrate Boxing
Day on the 26th. It is a wonderful tradition, both in theory and in
practice. In theory, it is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first
martyr. He is given the day closest to that of Jesus himself, in
honor of his foundational sacrifice: December 26th. And the
tradition was for a box to be put in the church on that day for
offerings to be distributed to the poor. In the 21rst century, since
we spend half the day in church on Christmas, there is no longer a
service on the 26th. But this year one of the enterprising and
energetic CSB grads, who has been befriended by many of the
missionaries here, A. N., spent weeks drumming up support for the
concept of a children's day on the 26th. He got 8 churches involved,
and since I was so glad someone ELSE was providing entertainment and
instruction, Bible stories, songs, and games, and of course lunch, for
several hundred kids, I ended up contributing heavily to the budget
before hand, then just dropped in to see kids in traditional grass
skirts dancing, and everyone smiling, and left. Thus fulfilling the
spirit of the day.

Which allowed us to enjoy Boxing Day in practice. After non-stop
cooking and celebrating, guests and events, it is a deep inhale day.
Quiet. We had only a few visitors, and none who wanted anything from
us, just greeting (!). We drank coffee on the patio, played ping pong
and a little friendly soccer. Jack and Julia entertained Naomi and
Quinn by transforming the front room into a lego world for hours.
Simple meals, family time, peace, rest. This kind of day is a RARITY
in Bundibugyo, and therefore all the more precious. It was great.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bundibugyo Christmas . . .

A few verbal snapshots: Christmas Eve caroling with the whole team, dusky pink clouds and fading light, Scott and Nathan with guitars, stopping a dozen times as we strolled up the road and back, some neighbors a bit bewildered but most happily entertained, old toothless women squatting outside over their cooking fires or young women washing clothes or braiding hair for the next day, men standing on the fringes, listening, smiles, greetings, soda crates rattling in bicycles as teenage boys brought in the last feast items, walking back home and straight to the cow pasture, reading Luke 2 by candlelight leaning against our real manger, dodging smelly droppings in the darkness, our two cows and goat looking suspiciously at the crowd in their space.

Christmas morning: awaking to rain (only three bursts of rain in this month, on Dr. Jonah's memorial service, on his cultural ceremony called final rites, and on Christmas), a downpour of blessing . . .stockings, music, John chapter 1 and an annual candle lighting, a pastry ring extravagance of butter and nuts, sitting around our tree, reading a chapter of a new children's book, unwrapping ping-pong paddles and then the kids' surprise run out to the roofed car-port area to discover that (besides the Rwenzori climb!) our gift was a spindly ping-pong table that Scott smuggled back from Kampala and set up during the night. We are a real teen-age house now.


Christmas church service: Hours that did not seem tedious this year at all, but joyful; the women's choir in their new robes radiant, swaying, singing new songs; the children's choir bringing down the house with their synchronized dance; a visitor from Congo borrowing Scott's guitar for a beautiful Swahili folk rendition; our mission team standing up to sing "Joy to the World" looking back on the packed church, hundreds of faces smiling with us (and for me the peculiar shock that we live in Africa, so obvious, but I always sit as part of the congregation deluded into believing we blend in); being pulled (literally) into a traditional dance with the elders and wives in the front of the church, at first reluctantly embarrassed but then amazed at the inclusion and sense of community; hearing Revelations 12 read in Lubwisi for the first time from newly-translated typed pages, then a powerful sermon by Musunguzi who reminded us that this world is at war and Jesus entered it to achieve victory.

Christmas afternoon and evening: the team gathering at our house, a long table set outside in the shade for our feast, a crunchy bag of Fritos from a package from someone we never even met that arrived on Christmas eve (the small joys of crispness and salt!), singing and performing comical carols for each other, exchanging gifts from our name draw and the fun of the surprise of both who drew whom and what creative thing they managed to procure, the Quinns vs. the Naomis all- team soccer match followed by a cool-down round of catch-phrase, family phone-calls to America and the Sudan, birthday-cake shaped like a Christmas tree and desserts and then a patio dance party all by candlelight under the stars, ending with watching "the Grinch" projected on a big-screen sheet.

One of our best Christmases ever, just the right mixture of community and worship and fun and food and reality and giving.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Feast and Sacrifice

The levitical blood-bath of slaughter and offering seems to barbaric
reading at times, whole joints of cow hefted and waved, bowls of sheep
blood collected and poured, the bleating wheeze of dying animals with
their excrement and fur filling the courtyard of worship. But there
is no feast without sacrifice. In Bundibugyo, the connection remains,
less sanitized. This morning I passed a crowd of people around a just-
felled cow, pangas at work to divide the flesh for the nourishment of
tomorrow. No butchery, no paper and plastic, no steel counters, no
wrapped portions in gleaming freezers. Just hide and hoof and
dripping meat, piled on banana leaves, the killing as proximate to the
consumption as possible.

We are temporary carnivores, we humans, between the exile from the
garden and the return to the New Jerusalem, we wander in this world of
killing. And we wander thoughtfully. The killing tells us
something: that life has a cost, that sustenance of one requires the
giving of another. That this is a serious business, living. I'm sure
there are vegetarians who disagree, but for most of the world over
most of history, animals have provided a small but essential portion
of our dietary fuel.

So the feast-day of Christmas is preceded by the killing-day of the
24th. Just as in the big picture, the bleeding, pushing, effort of
Mary; the uncounted lives of the innocent children slain by Herod;
and later the outpoured blood of Jesus precede our feast of salvation,
an expensive spread of grace.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Prayer Letter 2008

Now available for downloading... our Christmas 2008 Prayer Letter...
For those of you not on our WHM mailing list (or those who would like to see the pictures in color).
Yeats, Bonhoeffer, and original poetry from Jennifer...
Don't delay get your copy here...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Eve-Eve

Scott went to perhaps the only Christmas "office party" happening
within a hundred miles, the annual holiday feast for the Lubwisi Bible
Translation Project. A couple dozen literacy workers, committee
members, spouses, and the two men primarily involved in the Bible
Translation work came together to celebrate another year (the 13th) of
progress. There are 18 books of the Bible so far translated, though
only three are available in booklet form. Though SIL and the Tabbs
still offer invaluable support from a distance, this is one example of
a project that has passed successfully into indigenous hands with
solid results. And an example of God raising gifted people, who have
passed up other careers and opportunities to remain faithful here in
this outpost of the Kingdom. Scott spoke from Rev 12, the word being
a primary instrument of the defeat of the dragon. Amen.

Meanwhile we continue in the half-normal life of patients and
problems, this week a forged check and malfunctioning water lines,
medicine shortages and absent staff, the usual struggles, a full
pediatric ward (as many as I send home for the holidays, the spaces
seem to fill right away). One god-send, literally, along the same
lines as the translators above: a nursing student whom we have
sponsored the last two years showed up for his "holiday" from school
and is pretty much single-handedly managing all nursing care on the
ward. Then the half-holiday life of baking cookies and more cookies,
kids hanging out, a dozen for lunch and football yesterday, watching
Christmas movies (a scary British-accented version of Dickens'
Christmas Carol last night). Many have asked about Melen and the
family; I've seen them smiling lately, perhaps there was some lifting
of burden in passing the one year mark, perhaps just the slow healing
of hearts. After last year's stressful December, I think daily of how
good it is to be home with all the kids, to be greeting neighbors on
the road, to be having friends in to see our tree, to be living a
normal life this year with team and family and Ugandan friends, with
dust and cut-out snow flakes and the ipod shuffling music and the
extravagance of candles and lights.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On Holiday Feasting

For the average person, Christmas in Bundibugyo is synonymous with a large family meal, a day in which everyone puts on their best outfit (and in many cases the one set of new clothes for the year), parades to church, then retires to their home compound to eat meat. Yesterday in church a young Bible-school student railed against this "materialism", in a very discouraging and non-Gospel-giving sermon, no doubt a sincere effort to combat Christmas heresy but in the process completely missing the point. Sigh. But ironically, the service also included the Lord's Supper, a feast. And in reality, Christmas was first celebrated as a feast day by the early church, and the deepest meaning points to the final feast of the Kingdom, the Isaiah 25 banquet of good wines and juicy portions spread upon the mountain of God.

Last night we gathered as a team for our fourth Advent Sunday, on which we traditionally hold a Norwegian-inspired White Dinner. The kids cut out dozens of snow flakes and hung them from the ceiling, we rearranged the furniture to spread a long table in the front room by the tree, and everyone contributed monochromatic dishes (white fish, rice, potatoes, cabbage salad, rolls, fruit salad with cream, and this year Heidi's innovation cold cucumber-yogurt soup as a starter!). I make a traditional Scandanavian potato cake that is rolled in butter and sugar, called lefsa . . . in spite of the high stack they were all devoured. We began with an ancient prayer about Christ's feast-day, and after dinner moved outside to the candle-lit porch to light our advent wreath the final time. We traced Scripture passages from the Garden in Genesis, to exile, Egypt, the Promised Land, exile in Babylon again, the hope of the Messiah, Immanuel, the Word becoming Flesh, the Bread of Life, the promised Rest, to consider the fact that the longing for home is an integral part of the Christmas story. We are in exile, in the midst of the battle of Rev 12, the baby is born but the dragon remains at large, we are in the wilderness but with the Presence of God through his body and blood giving us strength to press on. And our fellowship and feasting pictures the end of the story, Rev 21 and 22, when we will finally eat of the healing fruit of the tree of life and finally rest in our real home, the city of God, where He is light and Presence. So nights of candlelight and friendship and family and food come as reminders of our Edenic roots and our Mountain of the Kingdom destination, waypoints in celebration of our history as well as sings of our hope.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On teenage girls, unexpected babies, and strength in weakness

There are two teenage girls who bring Mary to my mind this week.  Both are taking care of babies whose mothers have died.  The first is an 18 year old older sibling to a scrawny and scabby little boy who presented malnourished, and was found yesterday to have AIDS.  She wept upon hearing the news, in fact the staff strongly wanted to keep her in the dark for fear she would run away and abandon the child.  She's already lost her mother and one other sibling, and her father's whereabouts are unknown, so there she sits with little more than a cloth to spread on the hospital mattress and two grungy borrowed pans for cooking, cradling the sleeping little brother, crying.  The second seems a bit more stoic--she is the same age, but technically the aunt of the malnourished child, her older sister (his mother) died of Ebola last December and left him as a 5 month old baby.  I remember providing formula for a while, but they dropped out of sight for the rest of the year.  Now they have resurfaced, seemingly equally alone, the clinging baby holding onto her as his only hope.  It is the Christmas story in real time, again.  Since the Garden, mothers under attack, AIDS and Ebola and hunger and childbirth.  And babies paying the cost, left abandoned.  And young girls, girls who did not choose this path, finding the responsibility to grow up quickly, to seek to help and protect and feed and love the fragile lives in their hands.  

It is easy to romanticize Mary, or the shepherds, to make them into heroic noble figures, people of holiness and strength whom anyone would choose for greatness.  But I think these girls probably hit closer to the mark--willing, but ambivalent, resigned, but unsure.  The good news is, that the same God who gave Mary the courage to face scandal, to leave home, to give birth, to flee to Egypt . . can also strengthen these two girls.  

I just finished a book on the life of Wilma and Arthur Matthews, missionaries in China in the early 1950's, who narrowly escaped with their lives and their young daughter (Green Leaf in Drought-time, thanks to Barb Ryan).  At the very end,  Arthur writes in a letter these words, which express the same thought :
The Lord preserveth the simple.  God does not look for a ready-made Hudson Taylor when He has some special work to be done.  He looks for a man, preferably a weak man, and then makes him ready and fit for His work.  What God did for Hudson Taylor He will do for the least and simplest of His children, if they will obey His voice and follow where He leads.  This is my testimony.

On Shepherds

One of the privileges of life in Uganda:  real life, real time, Biblical imagery happening all around us.  Today, the shepherds are in my thoughts, perhaps because I had to bike through a fearsome herd of cattle on my way down to the hospital, their bony hips and sturdy horns threatening to knock me as I made my way through.  Cows are highly valued as the most desirable Christmas feast, but this is not a cow culture (Bundibugyo's economy has tended towards goats, smaller and more scrappy and independent than cows).  We live in the jungle, actually, steep ravines and bushy valleys, mazes of crops and homesteads, paths and compounds. This is not open range grassland, so any cows have to be kept on the move, grazing elephant grass on the roadsides, herded out of someone's sweet potato garden.  Each herd of anywhere from four to forty leathery beasts is accompanied by several teenage boys, cocky, wielding sticks, caps pulled down, half-attention to the cows and half to anything else of interest along the way.  These are the kids who did not thrive in school, who walk miles, who subsist on very little, who make rude comments from the safety of their gang of fellow-herders.  

And so as I note with annoyance that they are not making much effort to clear me a path, and are talking about me as I pass, I am caught by my own heart.  Would I entrust these boys with the most important news of all time?  If I had something of eternal impact to communicate, would I do it through them?  No.  But God would.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Rwenzori Trek Pictures

Note that Scott has now posted a set of pictures from the climb, accessible by clicking "Flickr Pics Sets" on the sidebar (or click here). I'm not sure how he managed to keep shooting pictures during the gasping and grasping for hand-holds, but he did. It is a glimpse into another world.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Tree!

Well, after being arrested while friendly unofficial forestry workers helped us to our Christmas tree two years ago . . . we decided to stick closer to home for our forray into forestry this year. All the Christmas-sort of trees I've planted over the years we have used, or have so far outgrown indoor sizes that we had turned our sites on the top of a lovely pine-ish sort of tree planted by the Learys many many years ago and nurtured in Scott Ickes/Scott Will's garden. Ebola descended before we had a chance to use it last year. So yesterday, thanks to superhuman kid effort to sort and put away a week of hiking equipment and a month of groceries and general return-to-Bundibugyo mixed-with-holiday clutter . . . and in spite of a continued influenza- level packed pediatric ward . . . we managed by mid afternoon to clear a space in the house and head out to the tree. It turned out to be much taller in reality than in theory. Luke tried to reach as high as he could on a ladder and begin sawing, but Scott ended up with a panga and a lot of effort to fell it. Cutting as high as he could reach we still ended up with about 20 feet of tree which he had to trim down to 10 ish. Jack and Julia rescued the very top and set it up on the porch decorated with flowers. And we put on the Christmas music in the heat and dust, and opened the trunk full of ornaments and lights, and hung our memories. Many are home-made ornaments; others have been purchased on trips; others come in matching sets of 4 from grandparents. All have a story, and I think that is the point. Christmas is a story, of a real life and time, not just a lovely symbol. God comes into reality. By team meeting this evening the lights glowed on the pine and the tree stood as a testimony to God's faithfulness, to the green branch growing from the severely pruned stump, to the power of even a tiny light in the darkness, to the sprinkling of stories which constitute life, the only place we have for encountering God-with-Us, Immanuel.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmastime in Kampala

We came down from the mountain to the bustle of Kampala, a rather
shocking change from the wilderness. For the last several days we've
bathed and eaten and slept, and shopped for food and run errands like
drivers' license and park pass renewal, and taken the truck for
mechanical work. All the little errands that build up over months in
Bundibugyo. . . And by God's grace our first day was a Sunday. One of
the largest churches in the city meets in a renovated movie theatre,
with vibrant worship and burning zeal, four or five services, each
packed with hundreds and hundreds of people. This week the children
did a Christmas drama, with great professionalism and rhythm, original
songs, dance, a choir of several hundred all in step and on key . . .
as Scott pointed out the director must have expended 8 thousand
calories with her vigorous coaching throughout the service. And that
the cultural gap between Kampala and Bundibugyo is more of a gaping
chasm, such a production would be unimaginable there. I always feel
encouraged that the country of Uganda has to be influenced by this
core of people worshiping God. Ritual child sacrifice and wife-abuse
and murder are the news headlines, the LRA rebels have walked out of
peace talks again, Congolese refugees clog the borders. But the
Spirit is moving in Kampala.

Since we are only here a few days, we went from the modern
choreographed super-charged pentecostal service to a traditional
service of lessons and carols at the historic Namirembe Cathedral
Sunday evening. The rough brick cathedral with its wooden pews and
echoing organ, the choir in white-collar-ruffled robes and four part
harmony, the stately reading of Scripture, was beautiful in its own
way, in direct lines of continuity with the culture of the same
British colonizers that shaped some of our American roots. Here some
of the readers were justices, ministers, and traditional elders. The
pianist could have been a professional. It was very well done. But
just to remind us that we're in Africa, and our cultural bounds need
stretching . . . near the end the choir came down from their knave,
and stood across the front, and broke into a swaying jiving version of
Feliz Navidad!!! Wow. Their joy was infectious. Then they returned
to their latin-solemnity and processed out.

Tomorrow we head back home, where we have only a week to put up our
tree, visit neighbors, carol, unpack, clean up, catch up with
patients, and focus on Christmas . . .

Sunday, December 14, 2008

White Christmas in Uganda: Snow-Capped Rwenzoris

We are back safe if not sound from a week in the wilderness.  On our last evening Scott collected one-word associations as we sat shivering in our wooden hut, candles burning, full moon rising:  gruelling, beautiful, treacherous, exhausting, freezing cold, majestic, snow, summits, snuggling, wild, unspoiled, mud, more mud, glaciers, gum boots.  It will be impossible in one post to capture the week's trek, so I will merely hit some highlights and let Scott's pictures fill out the story (to be posted later this week after we return to Bundibugyo).
The Facts:  Our entire family, along with Ashley and Nathan, completed the full seven-day circuit, climbing from base camp at 4680 feet to Elena Hut at 15,000 feet.  According to our guides, Jack and Julia are the youngest hikers to ever do this on their own (I guess some early intrepid explorers had their kids carried).  Six of us (everyone but Jack and Julia) reached the summit, Margherita Peak on Mt. Stanley, 16,763 feet, the third highest point on the continent, where Uganda and Congo meet.  According to our guides, Caleb at age 13 was the youngest climber to ever reach the peak.  We hiked (read:  scrambled, strained, pulled up, slipped down, jumped, stepped, sloshed) about 5 strenuous hours most days, but 12 hours on the day we summited.  The last day we combined two stages to shorten the trip from 8 days to 7.  It snowed on us, twice.  We were a real expedition:  we were assigned four guides, two of whom were mountain-tough men in their early 50's who had climbed these mountains untold times over 30 years, and took great care of us.  And each hiker gets two porters (dividing 25 kg per hiker plus their own stuff), so the 8 of us qualified for 16, to carry gear and food around the week's trail, as well as their own things.
The Beauty:  Seven days in an other-worldly setting, a land untouched by human imprint except for the half-dozen simple huts constructed to shelter porters and hikers.  We did not encounter any other people besides our group, and even animals were limited to a brief path-crossing with a blue monkey, the raucous calls of chimps in the valley near our first hut, a glimpse of a red duiker in the heather and moss of the alpine zone, and voles peeking out of their burrows (well there was the nasty moment when Nathan discovered that ice axes make great rat-killers in one hut, but that does not fit well in the beauty category). We marveled our way through forest, bamboo, bogs, giant ferns, tangled mimulopsis, improbable lobelia flower spikes, eerie hanging mosses, tree-sized heathers, groundsell, and beyond to the heights of bare rock and glacial snow.  Dozens of wild-flowers, from tiny violet-like ground cover to orchids to something called a snake's head that looked like an over-sized jack-in-the-pulpit.  And higher, the everlastings, white papery flowers on slivery green shrubs, like edelweiss.   Countless streams, many without names, cascaded off the rocks, waterfalls, rivers, crags, peaks.  The horizon would constantly change, suddenly we would see clearly the ridges and peaks above us, then they would disappear in cloud.  We passed by the Portal Peaks, Mt. Baker, Mt. Speke, and Mt. Luigi de Savoia, in order to ascend and descend Mt. Stanley.  We stood on Freshfield Pass in full sun, looking down into Congo and almost eye-level with glaciers on the surrounding peaks.  We bathed in painfully cold rivers and lakes, drank from pure springs, watched the rare Rwenzori Turaco explode into red as it spread its wings, and marveled at the twittering scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird found only a few places on earth.  Every stage, every zone, had its own flavor of pristine and wild beauty, lavishly expended for no human pleasure, seen only by God.
The Danger:  This was, by far, the most physically draining week of our lives.  In seven days of walking, there were not more than 30 minutes of level steady path where one could talk or look around.  If we were not balancing on slippery submerged logs laid through deep sucking-mud bogs, we were inching along cracks in rocks that dropped away below us, or finding secure footing on wet stones, or pulling ourselves up by branches and roots and hand-holds.  Every day the air thinned, the gasping for breath increased.  Every night the temperature dropped--it was 30 degrees INSIDE our highest hut.  No fires, no heat, just sleeping bags, close bodies, and hot tea.  The two times it snowed I really feared for a child slipping over an edge, irretrievable.  On the glacier we saw crevices, the danger-spots in the ice.  I fell once on a very steep incline of snow and my descent was only arrested by Scott's quick anchoring on our safety rope.  We took medicine (diamox) to prevent or at least mitigate altitude sickness, but were soberly aware of the risks, especially for the younger kids.  The huts were pretty bare-bunks and foam mattresses.  But most had tacked to a wall or window a dire warning that two hikers had died of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema in the last two years.  Both Jack and Scott struggled with a cough, a cold-stimulated wheeze that was difficult to feel confident was NOT life-threatening.  If I had known how hard it would be, I probably would not have allowed our kids to go.  So it was stressful, to constantly second-guess, wonder if we had made a BIG mistake, wonder if we would really make it.
The Glory:  In spite of doubts and dangers, we DID make it, and Jack's heels did not bother him at all, and we came down with a sense of confidence and accomplishment that will give us courage for many years to come I hope.  Each morning we read different scriptures together on the theme of mountains, studying how God often chooses to reveal Himself on the mountain top, and asking Him to do the same for us.  Personally this was very meaningful for me, tracing the theme through the Bible while living it ourselves.  Perhaps God drew Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jesus and his disciples, all to the loneliness and austerity of the alpine zone to get their attention, to free from distraction, to reveal His other-ness, His unfathomable ways.  But we also saw that He redeemed the harshness of the mountains, because the ultimate reason He drew these men to the mountaintop was LOVE.  On the day we hiked to the final peak, we arose at 4:30 am, and left Jack and Julia in the frigid hut with one of the guides.  It was dark and freezing, and we could hardly breathe as we climbed over rocks using head lamps.  When we reached the edge of the glacier, we put spiky crampons on our boots for gripping the ice, and roped together in two lines.  It was hard, slow going, and the final climb involved ropes over vertical rock face.  As frightening as it was, my overwhelming sense was that God brought us here because HE LOVES US.  
Thanks to our parents, whose Christmas gifts helped pay our fees for the trip.  Thanks to Ashley and Nathan, who put up with our family in VERY CLOSE QUARTERS and under very stressful conditions, who listened to nightly reading of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, who encouraged and joked and even brought Christmas Carols on an iPod with portable speakers to keep the cheer alive on our long cold nights.  Thanks to Luke and Nathan who bore extra weight, and kindly waited.  Thanks to those who prayed for our safety, I dreamed of our supporters at Grace Church the night before we made the ascent of the peak, and it encouraged me.  This was an unforgettable and unrepeatable week, reaching a pocket of Uganda which is about as inaccessible as any on earth.
Closing words from Jack and Julia, who have patiently waited for me to write all this:  It was awesome. It was hard.  It was cold.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Goats and Goodbye

As we leave, a reminder of the Christmas Goat project (several posts
below, scroll down). The email address for Ginny Barnette was
incorrectly typed, sorry, remove that third "t" if you want to contact
her! May your Advent Season be full of dreams of goats as you
meditate on the coming of Jesus.

To the Mountaintop

God calls His people away to the mountains regularly. There Moses
encountered the trailing brilliance of His glory, there he and Aaron
prayed for victory as the battle raged below. Jesus brought his
followers there at least once to encounter His shining face in a new
way, and went there often Himself just to withdraw and renew.

In a couple of hours we are heading for the mountains that have formed
the backdrop of our daily life for more than fifteen years. We will
spend the next seven to eight days hiking a high alpine circuit of
Rwenori wilderness, hopefully some of us will be reaching glacier-
covered Margarita Peak on Mt. Stanley, Africa's third highest, 16,700
feet. Jack, Julia, and probably I will opt to remain at base camp on
that day, but we're hoping to have the strength and endurance for the
rest of the trek. Scott and Luke did a similar trip three years ago,
thought they chose Mt. Speke instead. Ashley and Nathan are joining
our family, so preparing the food, gear, medicine, shoes, pots,
sleeping bags, etc. for 8 for over a week in a place where we can
access NOTHING but water . . . is a daunting task that Scott has
tackled. Right now it is all in duffle bags in our front room, to be
loaded and carried to our starting point today, so we can begin

We would appreciate prayer. First, that we get away from the grief and
pressure of life and find rest in the peace of nature and the
fellowship of our family. Second, that we experience God in His glory
as we climb. And third, for safety, health, no falls, no altitude

It is never easy to leave this place, and we are probably in the midst
of an influenza outbreak. But Luke has longed for this adventure all
year, and it has become very clear to me that our window of our kids'
teen years is small and closing. So we are off, to the mountains,

Remembering Dr. Jonah Kule 1966-2007

One year ago today, a doctor from the CDC called to tell us that our friend Jonah Kule had died at Mulago hospital. Though we were in the midst of trauma and tragedy here in Bundibugyo, I could not believe the news. I remember sobbing, then making phone calls to other people in Kampala, thinking there must have been some mistake. Since the CDC had more information than anyone else, his relatives remained convinced that Jonah was still alive, and we were not sure who to believe. It was night time, dark, our phones work best outside, so there we stood, talking. Scott Will and Bhiwa joined us, and I remember the overwhelming thought that this does not make sense, not Jonah. Finally we could not avoid any longer the reality, he was really dead, and I called to tell his wife, whom a few days earlier I had personally told of his hospital admission and helped along her way to Kampala to be near him, never thinking then that it would really turn out to be Ebola. We went to bed, not sleeping, wondering how many days until one of us would also succumb. Everything we had worked for seemed to be crumbling in those hours. Our friend had died, alone, in an isolation tent, surrounded by fear. We were not at his side as we would have wished, though Scott made many visits to the only other Bundibugyo doctor, Dr. Sessanga, who was self-quarantined in his home fighting ebola too. Those were among the worst days of our lives, living on a sharp edge of stress and uncertainty and sadness. Jonah's body was brought back to the district by a special transport, while we waited with his family. He was buried along with three other health care workers who died that same week, on the grounds of the hospital. The fear was so great that no one but us and his family and a few health workers attended, no choirs, no pastors, few neighbors and friends. Scott stood by the space-suited MSF burial team with their frightening boots and garb and detoxifying sprays, and read from John 12: unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it bears no fruit, but if it dies it brings forth fruit a hundred fold. Those were words of sheer faith at that moment.

Now, a year later, we had the kind of memorial service we could not have at the peak of the epidemic. I went down to the family home this morning, and one look at baby Jonah sent me into tears. I'm thankful that I was able to have a good cry with Melen at home before we faced the official ceremonies. We proceeded to Bundibugyo in five vehicles, each carrying and assortment of family, team, and friends. There we congregated at All Saints Church of Uganda, for a great service. The Archdeacon read from 2 Timothy 4 and talked about leadership, integrity, sacrifice. He called Jonah "a man among men." Scott also spoke about the Biblical theme of remembrance, remembering Jonah's sacrifice as well as his life. The Resident District Commissioner, the highest ranking government official in the district, came without retinue or pretense, carrying his Bible, saying he wanted to participate in honoring Dr. Jonah. There were a hundred or so others, including a nurse who survived Ebola and Dr. Sessanga who also survived. It was a solemn but worshipful time, and we were included in the bereaved who were specifically prayed for, kneeling on the hard cement of the church floor.

But the most poignant and beautiful aspect of the service: Baby Jonus was baptized, taking the official name Jonus Gift Muhindo. Jonus, for his father Jonah, a living picture and remembrance of a great man. Gift, because he was a beautiful and unexpected gift to us all, especially Melen who had longed for a son after 5 beautiful girls, and had to wait until her husband was dead to receive that gift. And Muhindo, which translates as change, because he is a boy in a family of girls, a smiling and honored family member passed lovingly from hand to hand. I leant them the very outfit that Luke wore for Christmas when he was the same age as Baby Jonus, our first few months in Uganda. The red velvet also appeared on Caleb when he was baptized (because it was the only fancy boy baby outfit we owned) with Jonah and Melen's daughter Biira; we had no family to attend that event but celebrated with Jonah's family afterwards. And Jack wore it too, at his baptism. It was special for me to see Jonah's son baptized, in the same outfit.

As the service drew towards its completion, the weeks of hot dry weather ended with a downpour, as if God Himself wept. In Africa rain symbolizes blessing, so it was a dramatic climatic evidence of God's favor upon this day. We had to sing extra songs as the entire congregation waited for the rain to end. Then we processed to the hospital for a final graveside service, the entire congregation singing as we slowly walked a kilometer through town, past the shops and restaurants, offices and taxis, everyone respectfully silent, watching, aware. At the grave Dr. Sessanga spoke, then more prayers and presentation of flowers, the four tombs lined up as concrete reminders of the way that this disease targeted the very people who most sought to alleve its suffering.

We are grateful for the milestone of remembering Dr. Jonah, his friendship, his service, his courage, his death. And of affirming the continuing life of his family, his daughters, his wife, his tiny smiling son, who will never meet his own father until Heaven, who smiled and played with his aunt's earrings and his own shoe, who slept snoring in my arms, blissfully unaware of the grief and loss of the day. A year brings the first measure of healing, and in spite of shaking sobs in each others' arms this morning, I caught Melen smiling at her baby this evening. Grief and life, tears and thankfulness, all mingle tonight.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Life, a Wednesday interlude

Two of our closest Ugandan friends died this past year, Dr. Jonah in December and our neighbor John Mukidi in May.  Both were men we met within days of our arrival in Uganda in 1993.  Both were the kind of people who would be genuinely concerned for our welfare, who would share meals and life, who would advise and listen, who would include us in their family celebrations, and we included them in ours.  This kind of friendship is rare, particularly cross-culturally, and we lost much as they died.  And though they died months apart, from very different causes, both are having major remembrances this week.  Yesterday was the second death rite for John Mukidi, his oluku, the official end to the period of mourning, as he takes his place as an ancestor.  And tomorrow we will head to Bundibugyo Town's main protestant church for a memorial service for Dr. Jonah.
So in between those two events, today, we had an interlude devoted to life rather than death.  Mukidi was from the generation preceding us, Jonah was our peer, and now we are left looking to the next generation.  We celebrated the 14th birthday of our friend Ivan, a boy who has found his way into our hearts and lives as our kids' friend (Jack's best friend).  His mother left him to re-marry after his father's life crashed around alcoholism, and when he's not at our house he lives with his young uncle in a small room behind a commercial clinic in Nyahuka.  By God's grace this boy has maintained humor and perseverance and hope in the face of a chaotic and disappointing life.  Tonight we cooked a great meal, and sat by candlelight under the bougainvillea, with a sparkling candle on the cake and a few simple gifts.  The moment of focus, of specialness and appreciation, does not come often in most kids' lives here.  Ivan has been a great gift to our family.  Tonight was no exception, sandwiched by mourning we exhaled for this evening of celebration, the affirmation of ongoing relationship and a new generation of hope.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Laying to Rest

Our neighbor John Mukidi died on the 19th of May, just before we made it back from our short sabbatical. He was 78, and held on much longer than we thought possible in the face of cancer, heart failure, a hip fracture, hypertension. For almost 15 years he had been a presence of wisdom and whole-hearted belief in us, the kind of fatherly pride that we needed as we learned our way into the culture. I will always remember him in the first days of the ADF, strolling into our yard wrapped in only his kitengi from sleeping, the sun filtering into a new day and all of us breathing a sigh of relief that we had made it through the night. In the later years we made middle-of-the night runs to his bedside, administering that last boost of lasix that would pull him along for another month, or two, or more. We ate many, many meals there, or just came to sit on the porch and greet. His son John is one of our kids' good friends, and a boy whom we have taken on responsibility to sponsor.

Today his spirit was honored by a meal in which those close to him came to eat at his home, a final closure on the period of mourning. His older son Simon, has now become the head of the family, somehow symbolized by this ceremony today. The chairman LC5 showed up at today's festivities, in honor if Mukikid's status as an elder and of his step-son Sangayo's status in local government. The clan choir of men alternating with the church-ish choir of girls alternated loudly ALL NIGHT, right up until dawn. Then they rested a few hours and at noon it all started up again, stomping, dust, gyrating, call and response song. We were ushered into a room to eat, and then to the newly-cemented grave to watch the dancers and take photos. The sight of slight, young John, becoming a man, with his mother and stepmother and sisters, standing by the grave, made me teary. But no one was really crying, the mood was upbeat.

The mourning is over, at least officially. This is a week steeped in memories, and their weight pulls me down, weary.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Christmas Carols to Olukus

Tonight our team gathered for pizza and down time after the long AIDS Day.  Nathan started playing the guitar, and we all drifted into singing Christmas Carols around the piano, a pretty amazing experience.  We are small in numbers, but both of our men can SING and Sarah breaks regularly into angelic descants.  God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was drawing to a close as we heard clapping and flutes out on the road, and then all sorts of wildness erupting next door.  So we flowed out of our house and gathered in my neighbors' yard.  Tomorrow they will celebrate the "Final Rites" for the late John Mukiddi.  Because he was an old man and respected elder when he died, they have waited months to make a big deal of the final ceremony which rests his spirit.  The process began after dark (days start at sunset) as his clan members paraded up the road and began to dance.  About two dozen men, some shirtless, danced around the open fire, their shadows wavering against the wall of the house. Each carried a single-tone flute which they blow in a very distinctive rhythm and four-tone pattern, swaying and jumping, while two men beat waist-high drums right by the fire. The individuals were blurred in the shadowy darkness and the drifting smoke, the line an organism in itself.   Our whole team watched for about an hour.  How many people in 2008, I thought, wander next door and witness authentic traditional dance and music in an under-the stars  not-for-tourists ceremony?  Well, I guess lots of Africans do, but not many outsiders.

The down side is, that to truly honor Mukiddi and protect the rest of the family, they will keep this up ALL NIGHT a few yards from our bedroom.  And remember that we live practically outdoors anyway, screens and no glass, no sound barriers.  It is now 10 pm and the flute-playing men have given way to a teenage choir singing at double pace and double volume every Lubwsis song we've ever heard in church complete with pounding drums and whooping women and shrill whistles.  Think pep rally.  The crowd increases hour by hour, and we are weary.  I think we may go down and sleep by the cows, which I suppose is in the Christmas spirit.

One Life, One Wife

Dec 1--World AIDS Day. Where else can one see pygmies dancing with flutes and feathers and bells? For the first time in two years, Bundibugyo managed to pull off the official celebration on the actual day. The ceremonies started FOUR HOURS late, but at least it was still Dec 1. It was a classic official function: UNICEF tents and plastic chairs, dusty heat, milling people, everyone waiting and wondering when it would really start, coming and going, bustling organizers, hot cokes, an intermittently working sound system, schools and dance troupes waiting on the sidelines, ridiculously late arrival by the "big men", the nagging sense that no one really WANTED to be there, the three circling mentally ill men who occasionally hassled presenters and whom no one dared to confront. There were a few innovations. Save the Children put together some educational games, people played with bottle caps and dice. Pat's Peer Educator Groups offered HIV counseling and testing on the spot. Once the ceremonies got under way, a half dozen HIV positive people stood up and gave testimonies of the normalcy and health of their life, of thriving on treatment. This was followed by a primary school where girls in grass skirts danced suggestively with miniature boys, bizarrely counter-message, while singing songs with lyrics along the lines of "AIDS has finished our lives, AIDS is a terrible disease, AIDS is taking our children, we are sick." I found the paradox of the messages interesting: do not fear and discriminate, we people living with AIDS are just like you, we are healthy, we have children, we are OK. And: AIDS is fatal, AIDS ends your life, be careful, don't get AIDS. Both messages are true, and necessary, the first to combat discrimination, and the second to soberly warn against promiscuity. Like many true things in life, they both need to be said, loudly, with music and dance and color and vigor.

Scott's speech was filled with data on HIV in Uganda and in Bundibugyo, acknowledging the good news on progress in treatment and stability of  prevalence in Africa over the past few years, but then challenging everyone to realize that a steady prevalence in an area with a doubling population means twice as many AIDS patients. He quoted  a professor from Uganda from the Lancet: "We can not treat ourselves out of AIDS."  Meaning that access to medication will not stop the epidemic without changes in behaviour. And he ended with the "One Life, One Wife" campaign, modeled on the national bird which pairs exclusively, the Crested Crane. Preaching monogamy in Bundibugyo is a bit like preaching the holiness of poverty in Northern Virginia, it is a counter-cultural message that seems to deny people the very thing of value towards which they work: progeny. But our prayer is that in a safe and exclusive relationship they will discover the truth, that love lasts longer than multiplicity. I find it interesting that though the Uganda campaign for ABC: Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms, could be seen as an attempt to change culture .. . the practical outworking of the public health party today was to preserve culture, giving a forum to traditional dance and song and language.

Someday a World AIDS Day will not be necessary. Meanwhile the dust will fly from the stomping of belled legs, the skirts will swish, the heads will nod, the drums will throb, as another celebration draws to a close, and we hope that a good percentage of the onlookers go home challenged if not yet changed.