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Monday, December 26, 2011

Strangers and Aliens and the End of Gloom

There is a light. No matter how dark it might become, there is a radiance that will not be denied, that cannot be ignored. Prepare yourself for the coming of this luminous Presence. Get ready for the end of gloom. Is 42:16

If you know me you know that I love Christmas. It is a month-long tangible spirituality, anticipation and holiness, colors and tastes and music and memories. Over almost two decades we have developed a rhythm of traditions, from our families and from Bundibugyo and from Scripture and from experience. For me, at least, it was a blessing. But Christmas, the real Christmas, is a story about interrupted lives. Mary, interrupted by a turn-life-upside-down pregnancy. Joseph, interrupted by doubt and scandal. Their known world, interrupted by the chaos of a census, movement, displacement. The shepherds, interrupted from their duties by light and wonder. The wise men, interrupted by a quest, foreign intrigue, danger. Herod, interrupted by the threat of a new king. This was the theme of our sermon in church yesterday. For the first time I can remember, the Sunday School's presentation of the Christmas Pageant included soldiers marching in formation to genocide, and the main characters running out the side door, which African kids know too well. Our hearts keep trying to make order, safety, ritual, and yet the story is one of upheaval.

As newcomers to Kijabe, I felt this acutely. Trying to hold on to some of the things we "always" do, but in a new setting, with new people. A lot of that was good, and meaningful, and fun. Having advent with new colleagues, Kenyan and American and otherwise. Inviting friends for our White Dinner. Pulling out the old decorations in new arrangements. Less obligation, in some ways, brought more freedom. But in the few days before Christmas, a lot of that was hard too, and I felt the alienation of not being "home" in Bundi. In my old life our family would have taken little gifts to all the kids still admitted on the 23rd or 24th in the hospital, but here a major organized party went on the ward while I was stuck in the ICU struggling for a baby's life, and I didn't even know until I found all the balloons and stuffed animals that had been give out when I was on the ward that afternoon. In my old life we would have gone caroling as a team, but here we didn't find out about the caroling plan until a couple of hours before and it was too late as we had invited friends for dinner. In our old life we took beans and basins and practical gifts to each of a half-dozen neighbors and visited on Christmas Eve, so here I signed up to distribute Christmas gift baskets organized by RVA but our family inadvertently got dropped from the list (we could have just gone I know, but it threw us off, and it just wasn't the same as taking it to people we had known for years). All of the timing was just a little off, the services too early, the meals hard to work in. We ate our Christmas dinner with a family we had never met until that afternoon, at someone else's house. None of this is wrong or bad, people here were uniformly gracious, it is just the reality of uprooting and entering a place that has its own ways of doing things. Of moving from being the center of planning and instigating and creating, to being on the periphery of not-quite-keeping up with the established program. Compounded by working most of those days in a hospital where acutely ill children keep showing up regardless of the holiday, and being on antibiotics for a minor infection that I couldn't quite shake off.

So the words of Isaiah in the advent devotion called for faith, in a way that might not have been possible in a more comfortable setting. Get ready for the end of gloom. For a new thing God will do. For gifts He will send.

The real story is one of aliens and strangers and interrupted lives and making do. But also one of unexpected blessings, of inversion of expectations, of beauty in the strangeness.

So here are a few snapshots of Christmas, of moments that came as gifts.

Julia decided to make a wreath herself.

Christmas Eve dinner table, with the plates I found in a duka in Fort Portal once, who would have thought, all the way from China to Uganda to make an American table beautiful.

A fireplace, for the first time ever.

Best moment of Christmas: up on the soccer field at sunset, kicking a ball around, as rain swept over the valley and the dust and droplets lent a golden glow.

By Christmas evening there were four paediatric patients in the casualty department needing admission. After working with the intern and evaluating all of them, I went to do a final check on the ward, and thought I'd pop in and say Merry Christmas to my favorite little patient, Ryan, pictured above last week when he was feeling perkier. He has TB and his heart has not kept up with the damage to his lungs. He's moved from near death to pretty much alive over the last month. Only Christmas night I found him irritable and struggling to breathe. What!?! My greeting turned into an alarmed exam, and I found his heart much worse. A review of his medicine chart showed one of his essential meds had been mistakenly canceled. I got the nurse and we gave an emergency dose. It is a Christmas highlight because I think the Spirit sent me to his room that night, and I'm so glad, I doubt he would have made it much longer.

Second favorite moment: this morning, I went out to hang the laundry early, up because of various calls from the ward. And a flock of about 30 red-fronted parrots landed in our tree! They chattered and squawked, their beaks clacking as they fed on the tiny green berries. They've been here much of the morning. Luke set up the spotting scope so we could see their bright green feathers and red faces in exquisite detail. Christmas birds.

This is the bright red pullover and the silver cross Scott brought me back from his trip to America. I love both.

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