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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Visit of the Magi

Early Sunday, our family and Scott Will crammed into the truck on a very wise-men like post-Christmas journey. He was heading to the baptism of the baby of a former agricultural extension agent whom he had befriended on a previous trip to Uganda, and we were heading to the baptism of our friend and sponsored medical student Monday Julius' new baby, Kambere Byamungu Christian Rock. We had a long trek, about 6 hours to circle the Rwenzoris from NW to SE, to reach the village surrounding Kagondo Hospital.  The church was packed with about three hundred or more worshipers led by the Bishop of the South Rwenzori Diocese of the Church of Uganda, and we entered as they were giving a special prayer of thanksgiving for Julius' protection from Ebola. He took care of more patients than anyone, and most of them before we knew the nature of the disease, yet he did not contract the infection.  And so two years later, married and a father and back in school, he saw fit to very publicly give thanks.

After the service about two hundred of us walked on a small path to the neighboring compound of Julius' father, a neat cement house perched on the hillside.  There three huge tents draped with festive blue and white chiffon were waiting, an enormous Bible-shaped cake, a sound system, and various choirs.  We feasted on hot sweet ripe matoke and flavorful beans, peculiar tidbits of chicken, crunchy cabbage, cow parts unknown (Julia recognized braided intestines in her take).  Baby Rock made an appearance for cake-cutting and gifts.  Scott gave a short speech, and Julius read Psalm 116:

What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits toward me?
I will take up the cup of salvation,
And call upon the name of the LORD
Now in the presence of all His people.

We stood in silence to remember the health workers who died in ebola.  And it struck me that without that epidemic, we would not have been there. Julius' character would not have shone.  We would not have come to know him.  Dr. Jonah would not have died, and dozens of generous supporters would not have given the funds which now pay for Julius' medical school.  Perhaps he would not have married the spunky and competent nurse Alice, and had baby Rock. We sat with another of our three med students, Ammon, who also would not have gone back to school.  There is no adding up in God's economy, no visible balance to prove it was all worth it.  We still grieve Jonah.  We still remember those days with a pit of sorrow and regret. 

But Psalm 116 goes on to say:

Precious in the sight of the LORD
Is the death of His saints.

When the magi brought their gifts and homage, innocent children died, in droves.  The Kingdom comes, in blood.  Two years out from ebola, we do not yet see clearly all that God was doing.  But we acknowledge that the losses are being slowly, surely redeemed.  After the party we took a long evening walk, touring the village and the COU hospital with Julius, Ammon, and delightfully a nursing student named Julian who used to be in my Christ School cell group.  Kagondo is the kind of place I feel at home:  crowded wards, TB and leprosy and AIDS, swarms of relatives, white-capped nurses, a monument of making-do with little to serve many.  And decades ahead of our situation in Bundi:  xray, oxygen, power, large lab, chapel, a dairy to make their own nutritious feeds, 8 doctors, full surgical services, space.  So to walk around the grounds with three young people, to watch them catching vision, to dream of what could be . . . this gives us great hope.

Like the Magi, we brought gifts to a baby, but left with the deeply satisfying glimpse of God coming concretely into real lives, and making new that which is broken.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pat Abbott summarizes 2009

We are off, tomorrow morning very early, beginning the long trip taking the boys back to Kenya.  First stop will be an Ebola-survival-thanksgiving and baptism party for medical student Monday Julius. . . and other adventures along the way to Karamoja where we will bring in the New Year with our former pastor from Virginia Al Tricarico and family, missionaries in Karamoja . . then a weekend at Sunrise Acres in Kenya . . Kijabe and RVA . . Kampala, and a side trip to Mundri South Sudan to see the Massos.  Not sure how often we will post over the next two weeks.  This Christmas season has been meaningful, memorable, and all a Christmas should be, so thankful to have spent it here with our kids, all together at our home once again, and many of our team.  Two highlights of the day:  the kids' choir at church singing 'Jesu abiyawe', 'jesus was born', with such Spirit . . . and later many of us playing round-robin ping pong on a table set up in the shady grass after a fantastic al fresco grill-out Christmas dinner.  Fifteen of our last seventeen Christmases have been in Africa (as were Jesus' first several . . ), so it feels very right to have completed Luke's last pre-college Christmas just where he spent his first one.  

This summary of 2009 comes from an email from Pat, so beautifully put, I am posting it in case we are not on line to say Happy New Years' ourselves: 

A small group of Bajungu (foreigners) brought together by faith in the resurrected son of God: Shared fears, mistakes, misunderstood, separated from family, united to 
see the Kingdom of God come in Bundibugyo. The vision, now my vision through World Harvest Mission, a community of weak people united for God's glory and the world's good. Learning how to pray and believe, "...not my will Father, but your will be done." Learning to wait on God, not passively but actively trusting him not circumstances or relationships, especially when I don't understand. Living in the wilderness and what it has to teach me about myself and God. Desire to seek and know God in the transitions of life rather than fleeing back to slavery. Entrusting two little girls in to the loving arms of my heavenly Father. Learning how to forgive over and over again. Learning a little about boundaries and how to make them. There is only one Savior and I am not him. Themes of grief, sorrow and loss balanced by community, trust, wisdom and joy. 

 Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from the Myhres in Bundibugyo

"Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men,
and He will dwell with them,
and they shall be His people,
and God Himself will be with them and be their God.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
there shall be no more death,
nor sorrow,
nor crying.
There shall be no more pain,
for the former things have passed away."
Then He who sat on the throne said,
"Behold, I make all things new."
Rev 21:4,5
Watching with you for the coming of Immanuel, God with us, in new ways this Christmas. . . .
Thanking you for the part you play in wiping away tears and death here in Bundibugyo.. . .
Wishing you a merry celebration of the One who came and is coming.
Much love,
Scott, Jennifer, Luke, Caleb, Julia and Jack

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Slaughter

Christmas Eve has dawned in Bundibugyo, clouded and thick. As the daylight suffused the veil of mist on the mountains, I saw groups of young men walking briskly down the road, machetes in hand, talking loudly.  Since I'm reading Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains, about a young Burundian genocide survivor, I felt the chill of reality, of the potential for murder and destruction.  But these men were accompanied by cows.  And they were heading to slaughter them all around the town.  Because Christmas in Bundibugyo is a day for eating meat, Christmas Eve is a day of butchery.  When a few hundred thousand people all try to consume beef on one day, in a place without refrigeration or grocery stores, the blood-spill and dismemberment of beasts is not pretty.

But Christmas is not all pretty, either.  The passages in Isaiah 25 and 65, and Rev 21, put the future glory into the messy context of judgment.  

But you are those who forsake the LORD . . 
Therefore I will number you fort he sword,
And you shall all bow down to the slaughter,
Because when I called, you did not answer;'
When I spoke, you did not hear,
But did evil before My eyes,
And chose that in which I do not delight.
(Is 65:11, 12)

Once again, the culture of Bundibugyo provides a graphic picture.  Throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel (and other nations) slaughtered animals, to appease the wrath of Justice, acknowledging their wrongs.  Blood had to be shed, for survival, for covering, for measuring the gravity of sin.  Until Christmas, the blood of Mary and that of her infant seeping into the blood of Easter which dripped from the cross.  Because the making of All Things New required a judgement against all things evil, a purging, a sacrifice.  Not of cows, but of God Himself.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Webhale Abhili na Bhisatu!

Today's traditional greeting:  thank you for the 23rd!  The festive atmosphere builds.  Markets are bustling.  People are greeting.  Bundles of food are moving from gardens to homes, or from one branch of the family to another.  Clothes are being washed and ironed.  We wandered around to all our neighbors and also branched further afield to friends, sitting, greeting, smiling, just affirming our connections.  Christmas is nearly upon us.

So in the spirit of the special nature of this week, we've been giving gifts to our patients.  Forgive me Amy and others, for not remembering a camera these last two days, as the malnourished and HIV-affected children, and those admitted with malaria and pneumonia, all received the stuffed animals, blankets, and toys that we have been saving up from your boxes for this Christmas season.  Except for one 2-year-old who was terrified by his brown furry teddy bear (keeping in mind that most of these kids' only experience with something of that size and texture would be a large live rat, and they have no mental category for a stuffed toy) . . . the gifts were immensely popular.  I looked back to see a mother stroking a toy Elmo against her cheek, and the caretakers could not keep their hands off the goodies.  The ward is only about half full, and we have only one child left on nutritional rescue . . pretty amazing for the holiday.  But the few who are there are quite ill, and I think it strengthens their parents' hearts to know that far-off strangers have made the effort to bless them.  So in spite of snake bites, coma, appendicitis, and AIDS . . there was laughter today, and this is God's will.

For behold I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing
And her people a joy.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, 
And joy in My people;
The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her,
Nor the voice of crying.
(more from Isaiah 65)



And the Word became flesh . . .

Yesterday we were invited to the annual Lubwisi/Lwamba Bible Translation and Literacy Project end-of-year celebration. In many ways it is a typical Ugandan party: dressing up, siting on benches in a hot room, enduring speeches, waiting for the hugely desirable chicken stew on rice ultimate meal. But in other ways, this party is unique. In the room were a couple of dozen people, from 10 different church denominations, male and female, younger and older. As we all stood and introduced ourselves, one of the wives of a committee member was a real fireplug going on and on about how thankful she was that they were acting like bajungu and inviting WIVES to join in! And anyone who did not bring their spouse had to explain why not! Some worked to translate, others to check and approve, others to teach people to read in their own language. This is a very independent project now, and our inputs are minimal. 21 of the 27 books of the New Testament have been translated now . . which means that in 2010, we should see a full New Testament!
Scott gave a very encouraging speech to these faithful men and women. Because of them, God's glory becomes more full, more complete, as He is known in another language, one which equally reflects who He is. Because of them, the people of Bundibugyo can read for themselves what He has said and sift out the impurities of western culture that have infiltrated "Christian" practice in Africa. Scott said it was appropriate that we celebrate their project during the Christmas season, because Jesus is the WORD of God, and they, like Mary, are giving birth to the word, this time in paper and ink.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Early Thanks

A few early Christmas presents this year:  first, hugely, that a major donor who had been contemplating covering two salary positions at CSB for 2010 decided to commit to that, a gift of about fifteen thousand dollars.  We are so thankful that this man and his family put their support behind the school, a sign to us that God continues to have plans there!  Second, also hugely, that a church in the US decided to fund the Mundri, Sudan's team housing needs, appealed to a donor and came up with fifty thousand dollars for them.  They are currently living in a rented house and tents, rather squeezed.  This will allow them to complete construction on several small locally appropriate houses for the team as well as for the Bishop (see WHM Sudan "Beyond My Faith" blog link for story).  Thirdly, we've heard from a few other donors who are willing to support either nutrition or CSB, and are waiting for year-end-accounting to figure out where the need is greatest next.  And lastly, about fifty of the goat ornaments have been claimed, raising almost ten thousand dollars.  It's not too late to get one if you haven't!  We're hoping the project will get close to twenty thousand dollars to continue through 2010 (see link on our sidebar, "Give-a-Goat", which takes you to the WHM site).

All of these are specific answers to prayer,  signs of God's blessing, being given to our team, in order to bless others, which is His pattern for work in the world.  To conclude with more of Isaiah (65 this time):

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit . . 
It shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; 
And while they are still speaking, I will hear.
They shall not hurt of destroy in all my holy mountain,
Says the LORD.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dreaming of a White Christmas

The news of the East Coast Snow Storm of the decade (?century) has been a bit hard to take here where dry season has begun to bake us in the oven of sunshine and dust. The only thing very white about our Christmas is us. But being a family of Scandinavian heritage (Scott's dad is of Norwegian origen, and mom Norwegian/Swedish) we have imported some of those traditions even to the equator. So yesterday the kids spent the morning cutting out the most intricate and amazing snowflakes, which we suspended from the ceiling with fishing line. Then we set up the front room for an authentic White Dinner Feast for our team. The idea in Norway I guess is to have a dinner where everything is white: fish, potatoes, bread, fruit salad covered in cream, even cauliflower as the veggie. Heidi has added in the first course cold cucumber-yoghurt soup, and everyone on the team brings some white food specialty, topped off with a coconut cake for dessert. And I give my all to the lefsa, a potato-tortilla that is rolled with butter and sugar. Scott said the table blessing that his grandfather always prayed in Norwegian. We ended the evening out on the patio with our final advent readings, focused on the theme of home, how we miss it as pilgrims and strangers on this earth, how the longing points us to our real home being prepared for us (John 14, Isaiah 25, 65, and Revelations 21).
And in this mountain
The LORD of hosts will make for all people
A feast of choice pieces
A feast of wines on the lees,
Of fat things full of marrow,
Of well-refined wines on the lees.
And He will destroy on this mountain
The surface covering cast over all people
And the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever,
And the LORD GOD will wipe away tears from all faces;
The rebuke of His people
He will take away from all the earth;
For the LORD has spoken.
Waiting, in Bundibugyo, for that day, and tasting the signs that it is coming.

They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain . . .

For Behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth;
And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.
No more shall an infant from there live but a few days . .
They shall not labor in vain,
Nor bring forth children for trouble;
For they shall be the descendants of the blessed of the LORD,
And their offspring with them.
Isaiah 65
This is Jokim, on his way home today. When he first came in weighing 3.7 kg (as a 9 month old, in the most severe category of <60% wt/length), I could not bear to photograph him, it was like exposing a dead body. He was skeletal and covered with sores. For three weeks he held onto life by a thread, and his mother held on to him. We gave milk, and started him on TB treatment. Then suddenly about ten days ago he turned a corner. He was hungry, he drank, he smiled, he grew. The transformation was astounding. Jokim is for me a first-fruit sign of the promises of the new earth, where tears are wiped away. And this Christmas season we still sorrow over the infants who die too young, who hunger, who struggle, but we take heart in this glimpse of God's healing power.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Marvelous Market

That was the pastor's description of yesterday's market: marvelous. I'm not a huge fan of shopping, but I did enjoy tagging along with Pat and Jack and entering into the excitement. Huge crowds, milling, pressing, searching. Brightly colored new clothes, made in China and India, Obama-brand jeans. Yards and yards of sequined sheer wraps, or printed cotton. Cabbages, tomatoes, flustered chickens, raw meat, sort-of-fresh fish. Piles of bargain shoes. Tin bowls. Plastic sunglasses. Everyone on the lookout for an outfit and food they can afford to make the day special. And then, shockingly, a marching band, brass and drums, striding through the chaos announcing an herbal medicine from Congo that promises health and wealth. Curiosity, laughter. Jack and then Scott took some snaps of the festive market. Enjoy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Seen and Not Seen

There are two accounts of the actual Christmas Night in the Bible: Luke 2, and Revelations 12. Yesterday for our staff CME/Bible study, we looked at both stories, printed out in parallel on a page. First we read Luke 2, and I asked every few verses for people to describe what they would have seen if they had been there. For the most part, it would have looked a lot like every-day Bundibugyo life: a pregnant woman, crowds, walking; chaos of disruption caused by arbitrary governmental decrees; the onset of labor at an inconvenient time and the search for a protected spot; sharing a shelter with animals; giving birth in unhygienic conditions without medical care; a not-quite-married pair of inexperienced parents; a baby wrapped up in scraps of cloth; the potential for death always quietly stalking in the background. Such a sequence of events could unfold today, here, unnoticed, because it is common. In fact it probably will, today and most days.
Then we turned to Revelations: here the pregnant woman is clothed with the sun and wreathed by the stars. Here the labor is on a cosmic scale. Here the baby is directly threatened by the waiting, gaping, hungry, evil jaws of a fiery dragon. Here the birth culminates in a barely-in-time rescue, sweeping the infant up to the very throne of Heaven. And here the sequence of events triggers a celestial war, with angels and demons and victory and defeat. I don't think most of the staff had read this before, and they were fascinated, laughing nervously. Because in Africa we don't doubt the pervading precence of the spiritual world, and the danger of the devouring dragon.
Both accounts are true pictures of reality: one a picture of that which was seen by human eyes, and one a picture of the unseen events that were occurring in the spiritual realm.
So we were encouraged to remember that what we see here, happening, tangibly before our eyes, is only a partial truth. The long line of patients with their needs represents dozens of lives in the balance, with eternal consequences. The tiny jaundiced newborn who responds to IV antibiotics so painstakingly given represents a victory that might be mirrored in a heavenly battle. The choice to come to work when most of the world around us is consumed in selling their cocoa and buying new clothes for Christmas day represents the kind of courage mentioned in Rev 12:11, the kind that overcomes evil, forever.
A few people in Luke 2 got to glimpse both realities, to see the material events in real time while recognizing their reflected spiritual impact. Mary, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna. For some, because God by grace overwhelmed them with inescapable visions. For others, because they had dedicated themselves to the search, and recognized God's hand in events. I'm praying to become that sort of person, grounded in the hands-on messiness of life and death on the streets and stables of our earth, but able to see the pattern of God's work, and be carried along by faith and hope, the unshakable evidence of things not seen.

A week 'til Christmas . . .

And the stockings are hung with care, though we don't have a chimney.  The cookies are being consumed as fast as they can be produced; the Christmas music, from baroque to Bing, carries through the house.  Most of the day our extended "family" of friends/students hangs out here.  Some have been with me at the hospital daily, and with the ward quieting down a bit (we actually have a few EMPTY BEDS instead of overflow on the floor!) I have enjoyed doing actual teaching rounds.  In fact, I'm hoping the alliance between them builds for their future in Bundibugyo:  we have a pre-doctor, a pre-nurse, and a pre-clinical officer, two of the three were school-mates at CSB, and it is a privilege to be living here on the cusp of transformation as these kids get the education and vision to serve.  The rest have done some projects around the house, including a tree-seedling-bed for Julia's tree project (she has visions of Wangari Maathai).  By 1 we are all back together for lunch, catered all week by my neighbor in the effort to keep a dozen teenagers fed.  We eat together and talk.  A couple of videos (their choice, State of Play, my choice, A Christmas Carol) in the afternoons, and a few soccer games, lots of card-playing, book-reading.  I can sense that the separation created by sending our two oldest to an American boarding school is not fully bridged in their return, that there is a new caution on their friends' part here, and a new reluctance in my boys' hearts who have tasted a different sort of camaraderie now, part of the cost of being of many worlds.  By late afternoon the students all drift out to their homes or other places, and we get a daily handful of other visitors, or occasionally go out for a visit ourselves.  But the evenings and nights have been quiet, family-only (mostly) times.  This is unusual in our house, and we purposely set boundaries with the bittersweet realization that this is our last Christmas before Luke goes to college, perhaps our last Christmas as as we know it in this house where we've had so many . . . so at our kids' request we've had sumptuous family feasts on our Christmas-holly plates, good conversation, candlelight.  And tonight will be the 6th and final episode of Lord of the Rings, watching the extended version a disc at a time.  Like Mary, I'm treasuring all these things in my heart, grateful for these days, knowing I can't hold on to them forever.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A decree went out . . .

Not from Caesar Augustus this time, but from the personnel office and the Chief Administrative Officer, that every health worker should report to the central offices to be counted and documented.  I suppose the disruption does not compare to that of Palestine two millennia ago, but in my narrow world it felt rather significant that EVERY HEALTH WORKER was to simultaneously leave his or her post and gather in one spot.  In some places an administration might consider the ongoing necessity of health care and worry about taking every nurse, every midwife, every lab tech, every person off duty district-wide for two days this week.  In fact they might consider leaving their office and traveling a few miles to count and document  personnel AT the hospital rather than calling the workers away.  But not in Bundibugyo.  Just like in Jesus' day, the powers-that-be make their declarations, and the small people have to sacrifice to comply.  Of course when we started making phone calls we were told that it was all an abrupt plan from above, that the district was powerless to stop it, that no one had been informed, that of course the workers could stagger their reporting or send representatives.  But by then the masses were not going to risk losing their perpetual pay-check, and EVERYONE decided to heed the call.  Everyone except our most senior staff member, the in-charge clinical officer, who dutifully rallied and stayed on site.  Biguwe is a good man.

Which is why I am particularly grateful for the student rescue.  Our med student Baluku Morris, two of my CSB students Birungi and Mutegheki, and my own personal student-son Luke, stepped in to save the day.  Particularly Luke and Mutegheki, who ran the HIV-nutrition program today.  I suppose since we were gone last week and next week is Christmas week, a month's worth of patients decided this was the day to come!  All four young men worked very hard, weighing babies, counting out eggs and beans and pills, writing in ledgers and charts, translating and organizing.  I think they got to see some science-in-real-life as we talked through cases, as well as get a sense of the hard work and important consequences of medical service.

And in the midst of frustrations with the poor planning, with the usual sadnesses and struggles, two outstanding moments of redemption today.  First, a chunky cute little six-month-old whose AIDS-patient mother wanted to save his life by weaning him, but only if he was actually not infected.  His blood screening results were not yet back, but some phone calls to the lab in Fort Portal actually worked, and we found out he was HIV-negative.  Unusually, both mother and father were present together, and their joy on hearing the news fortified me for the rest of the day.  And, to save the best for last, Masereka Jokim smiled.  This is a 9 month old who has been barely alive at 4 kg for several weeks, one of the most skeletal and scabby infants I've ever seen, held by his all-alone Congolese mother, inactive and whimpering.  Over the last few days he finally began to respond, to be hungry, to drink, to inch upward in weight.  Today he hit 4.5 kg, and as I examined him, he looked up and SMILED.  This is a monumental sign-post of hope.  

We can live through arbitrary decrees, absent staff,  and just about anything for a smile from Jokim.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Congratulations Scotticus!

Good news on our email this morning: Scott Ickes defended his doctoral dissertation at UNC, using data gathered right here in Bundibugyo! This is an amazing feat, and one which only someone of Scotticus' can-do nature could pull off. The BBB arm of BundiNutrition was developed by another 2-ish year missionary, Stephanie Jilcott, who initially wrote up the funding as a post-doc for a Fulbright Scholarship but ended up putting together a program for our mission and working here to implement it. Scott was teaching our kids and coaching track and taking a pause in his own doctoral program in nutrition at the time. By the end of his commitment in Uganda, he had decided to return to UNC and complete his degree. I remember well the late-night discussions on our patio, waiting for bread to bake in our brick oven post-team-pizza, talking about his future and providing a listening ear. But when Scotticus did come up with a dissertation plan based on Bundibugyo . . . I was not a believer, I'll admit that right now. I was very worried that the inevitable frustrations and inexactitude and muck of life here would derail his educational success, and said so. Thankfully, he didn't listen to me . . . and others were more faith-filled. With the help of Baguma Charles, a couple of short term trips, efforts from half our team and especially Nathan, the project continued. A couple of posts ago I quoted Elizabeth Elliot who says that we missionaries should not be afraid to take a critical look at our work, our impact, our successes and failures. I like the fact that thanks to Stephanie and Scott we have done just that with BBB. We learned through his research that our educational messages to caretakers had to be tailored to address diluting methods of cooking the food we gave. And in spite of that, we learned that only about a third of what we distribute is actually fed to the malnourished child. We learned that the caretakers face significant hurdles to come even to the decentralized closer-to-home programs. We learned that the program significantly changes and IMPROVES the quality, variety, and amount of feeding, even after the families are no longer enrolled. We learned in spite of that, the diets of children in Bundibugyo are particularly lacking in protein and calcium. Which gives further impetus to the newest branch of the Matiti project of BundiNutrition, developing local breeds of dairy goats for ALL children to supplement their diets with milk.
A "mission" is so many things, the hands and voice of Jesus to the poor, the seeds of a church, a small factor of justice in a messed-up world, the inadvertent importation of values of a foreign culture. . . .and the incubator of the next generation of leaders, both Ugandan and otherwise. Baguma Charles is also applying to grad school. One of our Kule-Leadership-Fund med students appeared to pitch in at the hospital yesterday, on his Christmas leave, while a second stopped to greet us and a third called on the phone. Nathan is in the middle of a week of med school interviews back in the States, having decided during his work here to become a doctor he began the application process so that God-willing when he finishes in Uganda next summer he'll head back to school. Sarah has applications in for an MPH. A former engineering intern Josh is back in touch this month, nearing the end of his graduate studies and processing the possibility of return. And on an on. It is a privilege to cheer from the sidelines as God uses the unique experience of Bundibugyo to propel these young men and women along their journeys. And to cheer when they reach significant milestones, like Scotticus!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Merry Christmas to Me

Those who know me know I'm a bit of a Christmas fanatic, the kind of kid who requested Joy to the World for hymn-sings in July, and had "We wish you a Merry Christmas" as my ring tone on my phone all year long. And in the tropical heat and mold, we still open advent calendars and decorate with pine and candles and play the Messiah and bake cookies. We insist upon a live, fresh tree even if it is not much to look at, and can only hold a fraction of our ornaments. And we always string up lights, but not very many. For one, our tree usually can't support more than one strand (though we also add in lights around doors or windows). But mostly our power can't support them. With solar panels charging batteries to run computers, house lights, internet satellite, and other essentials like the coffee grinder . . the margin available for Christmas lights has been slim. So we put them up, gather, plug in and ooohh and ahhhh for about five or ten minutes, then have to turn them off. Better than nothing. But this year Bundibugyo has POWER. It has been a complex month-long process to get the wires running along the road connected to our house, involving inspectors and papers and stamps and fees and grounding wires and tests and indoor outlets. But last night Scott put up FOUR strands of wildly colorful hypnotically blinking LED Christmas lights he bought in Kampala, on our tree and around two windows. WOW. That's about all there is to say. Anna said she could see them from the community center. We left them on all evening, for hours, playing with the different light-blinking modes (there are 8, from slow fade to disco). In the cause of Christmas, nothing is too tacky, and these are the essence of cheer. And we could even simultaneously watch Lord of the Rings (we're going through the extended version a disc at a time for six nights . . . actually a good family Christmas-time treat). All for about 25 cents worth of power, the meter runs on a pre-paid card. These lights are my Christmas present, and I get to enjoy them for hours a night for the next two weeks!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Signs of Christmas

Still waiting for the hot dry wind that ends the rainy season to blow in, which for most of the last 17 Christmases has been a herald of the season in our lives.  But other signs are in evidence today.  Cow prints in the margins of the road, from the herds going to market.  The margins of the road widened by the powerful grader, while choruses of "Make straight in the desert, a high way for our God!" resonate in my head.  Longer church services, as the choirs multiply and gather momentum, and the congregation builds in anticipation.  Massive lorries full of cocoa dominating the road, grinding gears, as this year's crop exits the district, leaving Christmas funds for many in their wake.  But not for all.  Old friends coming out of the woodwork, so to speak, showing up to greet us after months of laying low, mentioning their financial needs exacerbated by the expectations of the season.  No kids in school uniforms, a startling absence.  The scent of vanilla pods drying in the sun.  An evening at home decorating cookies, fingers stained with the not-likely-FDA-approved powerful food coloring we buy in Fort Portal.  Jack scouting out a likely capricious (juniper-like scrubby pine, the best we could do this year) and Luke single-handedly chopping it down with a panga (machete) and dragging it to our door.  Carols on our ipod, and on the piano as Julia learns them, while Caleb fools around with the guitar.  All four conspiring to get into the attic and bring down the boxes of decorations even though I'm still settling from our trip . . we set out manger scenes, hang ornaments on the windows, drape red-and-green tie-dyed kitengis everywhere we can, open Christmas picture books like greeting old friends.  Even a wreath on the door.  Our third Advent, this time with a handful of Ugandan co-workers and our down-sized team of 4 singles, making pizza and lighting candles and singing songs and reading Scripture.  Getting out my holly-wreath glass plates, an unlikely find in a duka years ago.   The biggest treat is yet to come:  this year Nyahuka has power, and Saturday our house was connected to the grid.  Scott is finishing some wiring and then our family Christmas present will be:  electricity!  Abundant and relatively cheap hydro-electric power will, we hope, allow us to turn on Christmas lights for more than 5 minutes at a go, for the first time ever!  Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Splendrous Gates

On the way back from Kampala, I re-read Through the Gates of Splendor.  Today, I saw on the news that an Irish priest who had lived in Kericho, Kenya, since 1968 (!!),  was brutally murdered in his home.  For a CD player and two mobile phones, it looks like youths pried the windows open before dawn, tied him up with rope, and killed him with a machete in his bed.  The priest was nearly 70 and had given his life, 40 years of it anyway, to the people in that community.  This happened near the town where Scott spent his summer college internship that drew him towards missions.  Brutal and senseless and absolutely WRONG.  

If we, like Job, asked for explanations, I think we would be told, like Job, that God is God (Job 38).  Elizabeth Elliot quotes that chapter in her epilogue--those last pages are worth reading again, often.  For my own heart and anyone associated with Fr Jeremiah Roche, I quote EE:  

I believe with all my heart that God's Story has a happy ending.  Julian of Norwich wrote, "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

But not yet, not necessarily yet.  It takes faith to hold onto that in the face of the great burden of experience that seems to prove otherwise.  What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive . . . 

The massacre was a hard fact, widely reported at the time, surprisingly well remembered by many even today.  It was interpreted according to the measure of one's faith or faithlessness--full of meaning or empty.  A triumph or a tragedy.  An example of brave obedience or a case of fathomless foolishness.  The beginning of a great work, a demonstration of the power of God, a sorrowful first act which would lead to a beautifully predictable third act in which all puzzles would be solved, God would vindicate Himself, Aucas would be converted, and we could all "feel good" about our faith.  Bulletins about progress were hailed with joy and a certain amount of "Ah! You see!"  But the danger lies in seizing upon the immediate and hoped-for, as though God's justice is thereby verified, and glossing over as neatly as possible certain other consequences, some of them inevitable, others simply the result of a botched job.  In short, in the Auca story as in other stories, we are consoled as long as we do not examine too closely the unpalatable data.  By this evasion we are willing still to call the work "ours," to arrogate to ourselves whatever there is of success, and to deny all failure.  

A healthier faith seeks a reference point outside all human experience, the Polestar which marks the course of all human events, not forgetting that impenetrable mystery of the interplay of God's will and man's . . . 

I think of the Indians themselves--what bewilderment, what inconvenience, what disorientation, what uprooting, what actual diseases (polio, for example) they suffered because we missionaries got to them at last!  The skeptic points with glee to such woeful facts and we dodge them nimbly , fearing any assessment of the work which may cast suspicion at least on the level of our spirituality if not the validity of our faith.

But we are sinners.  And we are buffoons. . ."O Lord, deliver us from our sad, sweet, stinking selves!" . . It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on.  It is God, and nothing less than God, for the work is God's and the call is God's and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package--our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses.

Amen.  These are the words of experience, pain, hard wisdom, long perspective, that ring true to me.  We are a mess.  God knows the full picture.  Terrible, terrible things happen, and are not immediately justified or explained.  Some of the terrible things are our fault, many are not.  We must examine all the data, even the unpalatable parts, to grow in holiness and grace.  But in the end, God is God, and I am not.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

If you have not read this book in the last week, it's time to read it again. Preferably out loud, with people you love, under stars around a campfire. And if you're prone to crying, then have someone else read Chapter 7.
It is a slim story by Barbara Robinson about an annual Church Christmas program that is unexpectedly thrown into disarray when the Herdmans, absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world, get involved. It is a story about nothing less than grace.
Imogene is bossy, loud, mean, manipulative, aggressive, unpopular. But when she encounters the reality of Christmas, it "comes over her all at once, like a case of chills and fever". Unlike the self-righteous flower committee . . she encounters Jesus' mercy without presumption or preconceived ideas. This has been an Imogene Herdman sort of year for me. I'm reflecting a bit on why as we go through this season of Advent, preparation, anticipation. As a team we're looking at the first chapters of Revelation and the gifts God gives of life, a new name, a vocation, and a home, paralleled in the Creation and Fall , redeemed in Jesus' first coming, and to-be-perfected at the end of time. And I'm grateful for the deepening awareness of sin and shortcoming and the harsh cost inflicted on others, or at least I want to be grateful, which is a good first step. I think God planned out our lifespans so that people in their 40's have teenagers to sanctify them (and vice versa), and for some of us we're in the "adolescence" of our 17th year in community as well. In your 20's and 30's a lot of life goes on, but you're so busy surviving . . . that in this decade of 40's it's time for some important character forming work, a lot like the teens, with swinging hormones and decision branch-points, to become hardened in one's ways, or to become a person of gentleness and joy. That's where a few bold teens come in handy, particularly if you're blessed with one who is brutally honest, verbal, insightful, growing spiritually, and partially separated from home so that he has a separate world of holy, patient, committed, competent adults to contrast you to. Then throw in some good hard relational conflicts, some great meditation time with God, some insights like the poison ice cream that peel away how you wish people saw you and mirror what your friends and colleagues really encounter, and the stage is set for a Herdman-sort of pageant, a coming into Christmas tentatively and sorrowfully.
Imogene, after playing Mary in the pageant, asks for the Sunday-School picture of Mary as a keepsake, perhaps revealing the purity of what she longs to be. When we got to that point in the book this time, I was deeply impacted, because about a week ago a picture came to my mind which we had seen in the civic museum in San Sepolcro, Italy, some years ago, and with the wonders of the internet I actually found it to look at again. It is by an artist named Gerino da Pistoia, and is called something like Madonna del Soccorso. I had never seen any portrait of Mary quite like it and was very drawn to it at the time, and all this delving into names and vocation brought it back to my heart. In it Mary is clubbing a demon with whom she fights for the life of a baby . . but all the while looking serene, beautiful, radiant. Since pictures of Mary are not a normal part of my life and thought, the two encounters this week caught my attention. How to have the passion and power of a club-wielding woman-of-God, without friendly-fire accidents, with a face of love? And how to know His grace when I see how far from that portrait my own reality lies?
The season is not yet at its final chapter, the awe of grace has not yet fully washed over. Let us wait in anticipation, welcoming redemption, unexpectedly wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Kampala

Mission guest house, quiet oasis in a seething city.  People, stories, lives, walking on roadsides, packed into mini-van matatus, selling fried grasshoppers out of large tupperwares at traffic stops, dining in suits and ties, shopping, tending sidewalk newspaper stands, pumping gas with aggressive service, braiding hair in open-air "saloons".  Horns, sirens, whistles, traffic police in their shocking white uniforms looking for trouble, careless drivers, barreling buses, inching traffic, stalled round-abouts.  Hawkers carrying entire stores, from the car window offers of newspapers, airtime, shoes, maps, inflatable toys, phone-chargers, ties, pants, tomatoes, green peppers, suitcases.  Boda-cycles darting around the slower SUV's, garbage being dumped on a sidewalk.  Our mechanic's junk-yard-looking work-compound at dusk, handshakes and greetings to all our kids, remarks on their growth as we pick up our truck after the latest fix.  Laughing with craft-market ladies as I try to come up with Christmas shirts for all my boys that aren't as wide as they are long.  Candlelight and spicy Indian food at the end of the day.  

It is not optimal, or easy, to shop in a few hours for weeks of food, something small for our kids' stockings, and for the six names we drew for the team, while also buying a truck-load of medicine for the hospital, dealing with some minor immigration paperwork and adding pages to our kids' bulging passports, paying phone bills, getting mechanical work done, etc.  On the other hand, it's kind of nice to have only one mall, and one day, and one bookstore, and few other choices, and to know that the rest of the season we'll be home.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Weekend of Wilderness

Saturday morning most of our team headed out of Bundibugyo, and in spite of car problems and forgotten items and a rain storm, managed to make it over to the eastern side of the Rwenzori range to Campsite 2. This is a promontory overlooking the Kazinga Channel between Lakes George and Edward, an isolated patch of national park where we love to camp. Everyone who had not previously camped there with us joined in. We arrived in the late afternoon to set up tents and cook dinner, grilling sausages and vegetables to wrap in tortillas, all over a fire, as dusk deepened and a light chilly rain began to fall. Because of the rain we all scurried into our tents early, and miraculously Scott slept. He is usually up tending the fire and shooting hyenas with a sling-shot, but he was so utterly spent by the last few weeks, that between the rain and the weariness we didn't notice any nocturnal visitors. Not so the newcomers, who were anxiously attentive all night to the plethora of animal calls.
Sunday was a true Sabbath. We drove for several hours around the park. My favorite memory of the day was the swallows, blue, darting, swooping, keeping pace at eye level as we sat on top of the truck bouncing along the rutted tracks. And a monitor lizard, a grand-daddy of the reptiles as big as a small crocodile, stretched across the road blocking our path, in no mood to move. And the afternoon boat launch, breeze on the water, thousands of birds, up-close yawning hippos, wallowing buffaloes along the shore, graceful stilt-legged storks and jeweled kingfishers in the reeds. And the elephants. And sitting around the campsite reading, while the kids kicked around a small soccer ball amidst the cactuses and clouds, in the heat of mid day. And just about everything! In the evening we joined up with Pat, and the PIerces, who were staying in lodges, and after dinner had a celebratory cake to say goodbye to Sarah.
Then back at the campsite we read through our week's Advent readings aloud and shared what God had been impressing on our hearts this week, as the fire sparked upward and joined the millions of starpoints of light in the clear sky. Kids young and old roasted marshmellows (or as Ashley says, marshed roastmellows), and we sat around the fire singing every Christmas carol we knew and some we didn't, until late at night. Lions rumbled their territorial growls across the channel, and later we were awakened by the rising sharp call of hyenas gathering nearby. But nothing disturbed our circle of fire and friendship.
There is something about getting away into the wilderness that brings our hearts back to God, to the wildness and order that He created. The tensions and problems of life fall away as we enter the isolation of the game reserve. Our humanity is put in context, and we are humbled. Very thankful.

Friday, December 04, 2009

GIVE-A-GOAT

This year's opportunity to buy a dairy goat (and get a Christmas tree ornament) is now officially open! Here is the information, provided by Heidi:
Hunger, sickness, loss: the gift of a goat to a family with any one (or more) of these challenges, leads to milk for a malnourished child. This gift translates directly into protein and calories - a very tangible demonstration of the love of Immanuel: God with us. This year, as a result of your generous gifts last Christmas to BundiNutrition's Matiti Project, 109 goats were distributed to families coping with these very real challenges in sustaining life in Bundibugyo. We are so grateful for your generosity. It is a privilege to be your "hands and feet" on the ground here as we see the smiles on a mother's face as the arrow on the scale creeps higher and higher! This Christmas, if you would like to "Give-a-Goat" to provide milk for a hungry, sick or left behind child, $130 allows us to purchase a high grade dairy goat (due to the number of goats distributed to date, we are now able to purchase their progeny locally here in Bundibugyo), train the family in its care, give them a few tools for constructing a simple shed, and then enable them to take the goat home. $200 will allow us to do the same AND to set aside a portion for supporting the ongoing development of a local high grade dairy goat breed in Bundibugyo – an effort to develop a culturally appropriate and sustainable source of milk to boost the protein and caloric intake more widely, in a district where half of all children are chronically underfed. For the third consecutive year, we are offering African handmade Christmas tree ornaments to the first 100 Give-a-Goat donors (at the donation level of your choice). Please read the following directions carefully, and a very Merry Christmas to you from all of us here in Bundibugyo! How to "give-a-goat": 1. Use the "Give-a-Goat" button on this blog or at www.whm.org <http://www.whm.org> to donate by credit card. This is the simplest and fastest method, and allows our colleague Ginny Barnette in the Sending Center to quickly confirm your donation and address and mail you the ornament. Here is the direct link : http://whm.org/project/details?ID=12375 2. Send a check to WHM Donation Processing Center, P.O. Box 1244, Albert Lea, MN 56007-1244, writing "Goat Fund 12375" on the memo line. Since the processing and return of the information to Ginny could take a couple of weeks, you may want to email her (GBarnette@whm.org) in order to be sure you receive the ornament before Christmas. 3. If you would like the ornament mailed to a DIFFERENT address than the one on your credit card or check, you must also communicate this to Ginny. A card will be included with each goat describing the program.

2 years

Today marks two years since the death of our dear friend and colleague, Dr. Jonah Kule, from Ebola. Last year we had a formal church memorial service. This year we simply spent the afternoon with his family, his widow Melen, 5 girls, and toddler boy Jonah, plus Pat, a family day of lunch and hanging out. We've been through a lot together. And in spite of the soberness of the memories of loss, today was relaxing. Little Jonah is a babbling, active, laughing little boy, chasing balls and delighting his bevy of sisters. The older three girls are reserved, polite, finishing another year of school on scholarships provided through the Kule Family Care Fund. The two younger girls are playful and uninhibited. Julia as usual poured herself into drawing everyone into games, and sent them home with an armful of books to borrow and read. Melen, Pat, Scott and I reminisced and just sat with each other, giving Melen a chance to debrief. She has moved through the last two years with courage and grace and success-against-many-odds. The workers-compensation funds finally paid out by the government have led to hints of death threats against her, greedy people imagining taking over care of her children and assets, which she finds more distressing than the actual work of surviving or the weight of grief. I told her today that Jonah would be proud of her. Perhaps my favorite moment, I mentioned that a few days ago I was on the road an met a motorcyclist wearing a yellow helmet and for a second expected it to be Jonah, and she nodded and confessed that whenever she sees anyone approaching with a hint of yellow she thinks it could be him. Jonah laid down his life in a way that few people ever will. Today we honor his memory.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Bhibabulu

This is a local term for "intestinal wounds" . . a syndrome that came into my awareness as a belief-disease-entity about five years ago.  I remember the case, twins, one was dwindling, and quite ill, and the parents refused IV antibiotics.  The idea is that this disease causes wounds inside, which are not seen, and must be treated by local herbalists/witch doctors, and if the family instead accepts IV fluid or antibiotics, the child will die.  So they usually stay at home and give enemas using herbs, soap, water, administered into the rectum via a gourd.  The child I first remember seeing did die, which reinforced the belief that hospital treatment is fatal, though over the years I've also seen many respond to general nutritional rehab and recover.  The idea of bhibabulu has gained momentum.  Tuesday we had two children admitted who had been treated for this at home for a week or more using local herbs, and they both died shortly after arriving at the hospital, within 20 minutes of each other.

On World AIDS Day we remember that that illness was first recognized as a syndrome, that alert people had to put together constellations of symptoms and risk factors and recognize that a new disease had emerged.  In a place like Bundibugyo with an extremely high background level of disease and death, how do we know if bhibabulu is anything other than just the end stage of under-nourished children, diarrhea from a hundred causes, some with sickle cell, poor family dynamics, inadequate hygiene?  The kids tend to be under age 2, listless, with fungal infections in their mouths and perineal area (hence the wounds), poor appetites, anemic.  But that describes a large swathe of the population.

What I do know is that staying home and further dehydrating a child with enemas is deadly.  So we preach against it, at every opportunity, encouraging ORS, encouraging prompt evaluation in the health center.  Of course when two kids come in and die, it does not exactly inspire confidence.  One was not yet 2, with a pregnant mother, weaned months ago (way too early), deathly anemic, convulsing, unconscious.  In spite of warming, glucose, blood, anti-malarials and anti-biotics, his body was too far gone.  The other was a motherless baby a couple of months old, whose two grandmothers seemed to be mismanaging him, the one who had been breast-feeding fell ill, so the other one took the baby to her home, and at that age and size a little body can't survive for a week without milk.  Both were of course convinced that they had been doing the right thing to save their children, both involved older women in the family preventing treatment at the hospital, both came at the last minute when the child was dying.

I'm reminded this season of Rachel weeping for her children, of the way that the battle between good and evil on this earth most often sweeps the under-2 infants into death, collateral damage in struggles that involve belief, evil, spirits, sacrifice, trust, mistakes, family conflict, tragically inadequate intensive care in the hospital, etc.  So we will keep pleading for their lives.  And looking for ways to pull them back.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Adventures

Luke's friends left Bundibugyo yesterday, on foot, hiking together over the mountains to Fort Portal. Unfortunately, it was another down-pour day, so the steep rutted path was a muddy bog or a flowing stream, and there was no real rest in the downpours. The three boys from RVA, Luke, Caleb, and one friend from Bundi, all spent the night in a local hotel in Fort, before parting this morning as the three RVA boys boarded a public transport bus to Kampala. Then Luke, Caleb, and Mutegheki hiked back. This time the day was clear, and since all three are wiry football-playing Bundibugyo natives . . .they made the crossing of the pass in 3 hrs 16 min (I include that detail in case any interns are reading, it's a ridiculously fast time . . . ). I guess I'm transitioning as a mom, to take in in stride that my 14 and 16 year old can traverse a 20-plus km trek on an uninhabited pass through a national park, find their way on bodas to town, arrange for dinners and a place to stay, and return back the same way the next day, all on their own.

Monday, November 30, 2009

On Stealing and Belief

Two moms on the pediatric ward were busted, for taking some of the food we give their malnourished children, and selling them it in the market.  An alert nurse noticed, and did some detective-work, uncovered the truth, and led us to tighten our distribution policies.  But the whole scenario raises disturbing questions.  What kind of mom takes food from her already-starving child and sells it?  Well, it could be a heartless or cruel one, but in my observation it is more likely a desperate one.  One who does not believe her child is helped THAT MUCH by our care, and one who is so marginal in her own existence that she is willing to take the risk of selling off her food to buy something else, one who believes that there is no other option.  Would I?  I know I had a hard time coming up with enough food this week for my family and visitors and team, and that there are times when my reserves of attention and provision and care are just plain depleted.  In what ways do I sacrifice my kids' well-being for my own survival?   What these moms did was wrong, and jeopardizes the program for others.  But I'm learning not to judge so harshly, to realize there are life circumstances which I can only guess at, and to avoid punishing the children for the sins of their parents.  I also saw a malnourished twin today, whose mother had for months claimed to be the aunt taking care of orphans, until we realized that she was actually the biological mother enrolling in our orphan program just to get some help.  I don't trust this lady, but I also respect that she was merely trying to make it.

Today was our first day of RMS school at the former Tabb house.  And Jack's bike was stolen, right smack off the front-door-stoop, in the middle of the school day.  Again.  In broad daylight, some kid must have slipped in the ajar gate and boldly come right up to the door to steal the bike.  Scott and I each went around to some of our neighbors to inform them and ask them to be on the look-out.  I'm a bit less sympathetic to this thief, a kids' bike is not quite so directly tied to issues of life and death and margins of survival.  I also heard today that someone's clothee-line (the actual wire lines) was stolen off the poles.  I'm sure it looked appealing for some practical purpose, and the thief rightly guessed that we missionaries could afford to replace it.  

Stealing is a way of life in Bundibugyo, perhaps in most places.  No one likes to be the victim.  When I announced our new policies and the reasons for them on the ward, there was much sighing, clucking of tongues, and shaking of heads.  When I made rounds to our neighbors, there was the same reaction of shock and dismay and sympathy and disgust.  EVERYONE in Bundibugyo has been the victim of a thief, and often suffered much more, losing all their clothes, or their only mattress, or the month's crops, or a goat that represents a significant portion of their net worth.  If a thief is caught red-handed in the market, he could be killed by the mob.  There is an innate sense of injustice that translates across cultures that can flare in the excitement of the immediate.  But usually the thief gets away with their crime, the victim is annoyed but must go on with life, the friends who may have witnessed the crime may respect the cleverness of the thief or just want to avoid conflict, and the culture tends to cover-up and continue-on.

At the root of stealing it seems to me there is the belief that we are on our own, that every person must scramble for what they can get, that a small gain at someone else's expense is justifiable if that person had more than you did to begin with.  In a spiritual milieu of a myriad of random and potentially malevolent spirits and relatives, cleverness, stealing, deceit, are all simply means of survival.  And so the kids around our neighborhood pedal off on one of our kids' bikes, believing that we don't deserve such riches all to ourselves, that their need for a Christmas set of new clothes trumps our claim to own six bikes in one family, and that no one else will help them if they don't help themselves.  And a few moms decide to sell off their food, believing that the resource is endless, that they can always get more for their child, or that their need for charcoal to cook food justifies their selling off some of their resources.  

And looking at most lives, I'd be challenged to believe that God cares for His children so completely that stealing is an act of unbelief.  

Praying for the bike to come back again miraculously.