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Thursday, December 31, 2015

URBANA 15: pick me up to write your story

We are closing the year here in St. Louis, MO, along with 16,000 college students and a few hundred mission organizations and leaders, with the theme "What story will you tell?"  Once upon a time, we were students ourselves, attending Urbana in 1981 and 1984.  I remember the colored pencil manuscript Bible studies, the heart-breaking stories from Helen Roseveare, the Scottish accent of Eric Alexander, the midnight communion then trekking through the snow for our all-night bus rides home. Our "Africa Team" committed ourselves during the 1984 Urbana.

Fast forward the story by 30 years (!) and here we are again, only now the event has moved from the bleak utilitarian university and dorm setting to the skyscrapers of downtown St. Louis with it's convention center and football stadium.  The artistry, in music, drama, videos, lighting, integration of themes, sheer movement of thousands of people have all taken leaps ahead.  The worship team has gone to great lengths to be multicultural in content and appearance, celebrating diversity, and to be professional in quality.  The art and drama enhance the truths taught through the Gospel of Matthew.  Our main speaker is the head of OMF, a doctor from Hong Kong with detailed and deep scriptural analysis sprinkled with inspiring stories of OMF missionaries.  Besides the Matthew study, there are a dozen or more other speakers sharing their stories, plus about 200 seminars on a vast array of topics in the afternoons, plus hundreds of exhibitors.  It is dizzying.

A few months ago we volunteered to lead a couple seminars, and were thankful to make the cut.  On Monday we spoke to a couple hundred students on "Child Health in the Majority World:  A Billion Reasons to Hope", which was part public-health stats on the improvements in child mortality in the last 25 years (we've gone from over 12 million under-five deaths/year to just under 6 million), part evidenced-based medicine examining which interventions actually work, and part missionary-testimony talking about what we believe are best practices.  Yesterday we tackled a more emotional topic:  "Risk, Safety, and Faith:  Missions in an Age of Ebola and Terrorism."  As per the conference theme, we told some stories of our own struggles with risk and loss, and examined Jesus' story as an example to us of incarnation (taking on the reality of the people we are reaching), the cross (the path of suffering is the path of love), and resurrection (risk becomes worth it when the redemption of the world is at stake).

When we're not attending the morning and evening massive gatherings in the dome, or speaking in afternoon seminars, we're on the Serge teams at our booth.  We make ourselves available to talk to students, to ask questions, to listen to their concerns, to pray for them sometimes, or to just encourage and offer options for their journey onward.  It is sometimes loud, chaotic, tiring, exciting, fun, draining.  Our Serge team does an amazing job of really ministering to students who are at times confused by the uncertainty of their future, and looking for God's leading.  We also represent our teams as we look for connections with people who can boost them.  Last night we were one of nearly 50 pairs of leaders serving communion to the crowd of students, which was a joy, blessing them over and over, one by one, a moment of individuality in this crowd experience.  Just getting in and out of the halls in flows of massive crowds, or managing to get food, or find our family, can be a challenge.

Yes, find our family.  Jack, Julia, and Caleb are attending as college students themselves.  Experiencing this worship together, discussing the topics speakers bring up, working together at the Serge booth, have all been a priceless gift.  We miss Luke but he is studying diligently for his board exams coming up in a month.

And perhaps that has been the highlight for us, processing the experience in a way that helps us understand our own kids' reality as people raised in Africa and immersed in the American University Culture.  This Urbana has not yet really felt like the call-to-leave-all sort of classic mission-promoting conference of old.  Maybe that comes today, in the final sessions, I hope we focus on what story GOD is telling. But Urbana has tackled some important issues head-on, namely racial tension in the USA, the persecuted church around the world, and our approach to Muslims.

The first day and a half were largely focused on issues of race.  Which felt authentic, since the conference is on the doorstep of Ferguson, in a year marked by tragic injustice and loss.  It also felt uncomfortable at times, as speakers grappled to both acknowledge that weighty iceberg of history that we would rather not see below the surface, and to sound a clarion call towards reconciliation, which was mostly excellent, but at times simply sounded angry and divisive.  My favorites were Christina Cleveland's appeal to move from a dichotomized view of the world separating us from them, to a trinitarian-based view of us-only, unity without loss of uniqueness.  And this quote from an activist named Michelle in one of the videos:  "The goal of activism is not to defeat a person who is your enemy but to defeat the force that is making you hate each other."  Amen.  If only we could truly keep that in mind.

While the call to bring the church to the nations has not sounded so loudly, the truth that the church exists in suffering and danger in many nations has been beautifully and soberly shown.  One night we were invited to bring candles (battery ones, of course) onto the floor of the arena and pray for believers who suffer persecution in about 8 different countries around the world, including Kenya and S-lia.

And lastly, in a climate of American politics where Muslims are presented with fear and blaming, it has been refreshing and courageous to see Urbana speak with calm, loving, joyful rationality.  Several speakers have told their own stories of coming to faith, and pleaded with American/Canadian college students to listen, to build bridges, to pray, to be respectful, to present truth with love.

Tonight we will end 2015 with most of our family, enfolded in the Serge family, and surrounded by the family of God.  The spiritual battle is real, as we tackle racism and persecution and as we move towards others in love.  This spiritual battle feels palpable as we meet a few blocks from the Mississippi river which is flooded to its highest stage, ever.  The conference ends at midnight, at which point we move into the next year and the rest of life.  Pray today that many many students grasp a bigger view of their own story within the context of God's story, and take courageous steps to join wherever that leads.  I'll end with a chorus we sang last night:

O God, here am I, send me, use me for your glory.
O God, here am I, send me, pick me up to write your story.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas and Motion

The Christmas highlight of 2015 will be, for me, celebrating with four kids in a real home, a place we are working to make our "basecamp" for decades to come.  We are still a family of pilgrims, but having a specific spot tied to family history, a spot that is ours, where any of us can land when we need to, means a lot.  And even as I consider that, I know that it was not true of Christmas two thousand-plus years ago, when Mary and Joseph had no place to call home.  And it has not been true of many Christmases for us, when we've been displaced by war or on the move.  So while I truly am thankful for our wood-burning stove-warmed kitchen, our hand-me-down table and plates, our new comfortable beds, I know that Christmas was more than a glow of lights in a West Virginia mountain hollow.  The gathering of people whose hearts are bound to each other makes the home, and that can be mobile until we are all rooted together in a New Heavens and New Earth.

So with that in mind, we celebrate the moments and the memories.  Taking Granddad to play putt putt golf with the hunch that once he held the club and was oriented to the hole, muscle memory would take over.  It is no small thing to find an activity that engages late-teens and mid-80's, so let me recommend miniature golf.  He was far better at it than the rest of us.  Except Nana, who with her 5 foot frame and laid-back personality was never the family athlete, but came out of nowhere to hit 4 holes-in-one.  The shock on Scott's face and the delighted surprise on hers were priceless.

Then there were the little photo albums of baby pictures my mom put together from the stacks of old pictures as she moved.  The cousins all remembering the old days and poking fun of each other as we celebrated with my family, the fun secret-santa gifts, the creative putting together of Christmas in a hotel room where we all met the weekend before.  Memorable.

Music flowed during the rainy days back at home.  Caleb's siblings decided that the main family Christmas gift would be an amplifier and loop pedal for him, so we had some jam sessions with our 80 year old minipiano and multiple guitars.  The special Scandinavian treats, with Nana teaching Julia to use her own grandmother's rosette iron, and me making lefsa that even impressed Granddad.  The traditional annual puzzle project.  Abundant meals, lingering conversation, games, movies.

And because we are still cross-cultural in some ways, we made cookies and went caroling to some neighbors, and found a local Christmas Eve service as well.  West Virginia has plenty of Angel Tree kids.  Small ways to give to others.

On Christmas day itself, the first firing of the new pizza oven, with leisurely production of gourmet pies.  And if you can't beat it join it . . . days of rain and milder temps inspired a family dip in the frigid river that runs by us, with some adventurous kayaking.  Probably the first time ever for pizza or a kayak on Christmas, but hey.

But the cozy days (all four of them) of home-for-Christmas came to an abrupt end on the 26th.  Luke went back to Charlottesville to study intensively for his board exams, coming up in a month, and weighing him down with oppressive hours and determinative outcomes.  (Prayers appreciated, particularly as he strained his back and is in a lot of pain).  He went by way of Dulles to get Scott's parents to a flight back to California, while the rest of us dismantled the tree and packed our bags.  By early afternoon we were on the road to St. Louis, with an overnight in Louisville.  And we'll be on the road for all but 2 nights in the next 5 weeks.

Which brings us to Urbana, the biggest student mission conference in North America, held every three years to worship God with thousands and thousands of college students, focusing on God's merciful heart for all nations.  Tornadoes and floods pounding the midwest give this event an apocalyptic feel.  We were awakened at 4 am by harshly alarming cell phones warning of flash floods for our area, but since we're on the 16th floor of a hotel we went back to sleep.  In a few hours Scott and I will give a seminar called "Child Health in the Majority World:  A Billion Reasons for Hope."  There are exhibits, booths, books, speakers, chatter, music, lights, and a lot of damp cold young people asking God for purpose and direction.

Christmas in motion once again, our brief respite and taste of home now a memory in the more realistic life of pilgrimage.  Pray for us to move in faith, and to see the hand of God as we go.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Letter

Merry Christmas!!

CLICK HERE to download our annual Christmas Letter - full of pictures and a re-cap of 2015 in the life of the Myhre family.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On the Paradox of Home: Holy and Hard

Christmas movies are my jam.  Favorites include It’s a Wonderful Life, Family Man, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, Prancer . . . all of which capture something which is essential to the Christmas story. Namely the numinous supernatural reality that shimmers just out of our sight, just beyond our consciousness, until that moment when a glimpse is given.  Perhaps the main character is in desperation, or perhaps the character’s longing is recognized and fulfilled.  Or perhaps the main character just needs a shocking infusion of terror and grace to shake life onto a better track. 

This past weekend I was watching the beautifully animated and true-to-literature recent version of A Christmas Carol (Jim Carrey, Colin Firth).  There is a scene on Christmas Eve when Scrooge leans out the window and sees the air filled with spirits.  The holiday seems to bring the visible and invisible worlds to a common threshold where communication becomes possible, and epiphanies occur.

Which, if you think of it, fits into the story.  Zecharias and Mary receive visits from the angel Gabriel, Joseph receives instructions in dreams, the Magi interpret signs in the sky, the shepherds see a sudden infusion of light and glory.  After a long silence, God is speaking.

And for most of those characters, the revelations come in the mundane routine of daily life, unexpected, unsought. 

More often than not, home becomes the site where spiritual otherliness pierces concrete ordinariness.   I imagine Mary with her hands floured to the elbows, or sunk into a washtub.  I imagine Joseph on a pallet covered with a woven blanket after a hard day’s work.  I imagine the shepherds around the embers of a campfire, at one of their regular field shelters.  Moments which are as familiar to them as a thousand days of life before, only on this thousand-and-first there is a ripple in the molecules of air, a tremor in the energy waves of heat and light, and for the first time in their lives they are aware of a Heavenly realm which coexists.

And after the revelations, the briefest of glimpses, there are hours and years of laundry and sheep.  There are doors and drains and hearths, mending and sweeping and cooking to be done.  There are journeys and dramas, but even for Jesus the majority of life still happens at home.   Which is why the good news has to matter here, or nowhere.  The transformations in the best movies lead to refreshed love for the core people in our hearts.  The Kingdom images, again and again, involve feasts and children and vines and safety.  Miracle on 34th street ends in a new home, a new family.  Home is the context of the holiness and wonder that God’s presence brings, the Garden restored, the city rebuilt, the temple of His light.

I believe we get that right much of the time with our Christmas traditions of meals and family.  But there is a danger here too.  Because if home is the place we meet God, it will also be the place we face our greatest challenges. The Enemy knows the potential of home to reflect glory.  So from Cain and Abel on, we see home corrupted and frayed.  We see people of faith in exile, longing, excluded, unsettled.  We see friction between sisters, jealousy between brothers, alienation between parents and children.  We see unfaithfulness.  We see murder.  And that’s just in the Bible, let alone the world.

So we hold the paradox of home:  the potential to re-create a taste of the divine wholeness of shalom, with the battle against our own selfishness and despair. 

And here is the hope:  Emmanuel, God with us.  Our homes may be shining rather dimly at the moment.  We may carry heavy hearts as we care for a family member crumbling from illness or dementia, as we watch a kid struggle, as we worry about the future.  But as we think about what our homes may hold in the next 48 holiday ours, or the next 48 years of life, let us remember that God will be there.  In the beauty of a perfectly wrapped gift or the messiness of a broken heart, God has chosen to dwell with humankind.  The unseen world meets our experience in space and time.  We are not alone.  This is the hope of Advent, the truth of Christmas, the barely-glimpsed reality with power to heal our fragmented interactions into . . . home, a holy rest.

Friday, December 18, 2015

"Selfishness posing as freedom"--W.B.

American Christianity will break your heart.

This week, we had another Republican debate.  As far as I can tell, everyone running claims to be Christian.  Which is awkward when they speak with rude disrespect for our current President and attack each other ten times more often than they actually debate issues.

At the Service of Lessons and Carols this week, the pastor prayed against "selfishness posing as freedom" which is about the best description of current affairs I've heard.  So many people want guns, they want low taxes, they want to exploit all the coal and oil they can get their hands on, they want cheap gasoline, they want access to the ultimate in medical technology, they want zero risk of crossing paths with the wrong kind of foreigner.  All of that no matter what the cost to their neighbor.  So we have candidates who, with a straight face, say that they can not support denying terrorist-watch-list people the right to buy assault weapons, while at the same time saying, with a straight face, that we should build a wall to keep out the undesirables.  Selfishness goes on masquerade as policies that ensure freedom.

Then to add insult to injury, a sober, respectable, intellectual Christian college suspended their only black female tenured professor because she expressed an opinion that Christians and Muslims (and one must also wonder, Jews) all worship the God of Abraham.  Not that Christianity and Islam (or Judaism) are the same religion, but that at their core they aim at worshiping the one true God. As a missionary who grew up on Richardon's Eternity in Their Hearts, who sings worship in Lubwisi and Swahili that uses local-language names for the one high creator God which preceded Christian thought but are now incorporated and enriched, the fact that this is a debate baffles me.  Read an articulate response here, an essay I thought was on-target and well put.

Yes, American Christianity will break your heart.

Until, of course, you spend your weeks with American Christians.  People who give sacrificially.  Who open their homes, care for the poor, sing with gusto.  Who bring their faith into art, creating beauty.  Who provide safe haven for the alien and the widow.

It's just that the heart of American Christianity exudes silent goodness while the vocal minority comes across as stridently self-righteous, paranoid about being persecuted, over-ready to draw lines.

There are worse things than a broken heart, namely, a hard one.  So even as I look around and mourn the way our faith is portrayed and discussed and maligned, I know that I need to start with my own broken-hearted embrace of my own part in bigotry, in fear, in self-protection, and isolation.  No guiltlessness here to justify throwing stones.  Just a hope that the silent majority of decent kind American Christians will not swallow the fearful hateful rhetoric we are being fed.  Repent.  Ask disruptive questions.  Consider.  Listen to Jesus.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent: Darkness, Silence, Unknowing and Longing

In this darkness I do not ask to walk by light,
but to feel the touch of your hand 
and understand that sight
is not seeing.

In this silence I do not ask to hear Your voice,
but to sense Your spirit breathe
and grow in me a heart
that is listening.

In unknowing I do not ask that You explain,
but for grace to comprehend 
Your love for me 
that casts out my fearing

In this longing I do not ask to forfeit pain,
but to gain the strength to love
through loss, and bear Your cross
in my waiting.

(Pat Bennett/John L. Bell, Iona Community)

Advent begins in darkness, the stage empty.  Hope seems dim at the nadir of the year.

The story of Christmas begins in centuries of silence.  The temple destroyed, the peoples scattered and occupied.  Even the priest Zechariah does not truly expect to meet God.

The plan of salvation is unveiled piece by piece to the unknowing, to villagers, shepherds, and foreign magi.

The season is born in a sharp, deep place of longing.

So when the Festival of Lessons and Carols choir at Trinity sang this song in a soft minor key this weekend, it caught my heart.  So much darkness in our world, so often we meet silence in our struggle to know the Mystery of our God.  The soul-piercing sorrow of emptiness precedes the Messiah's coming, and pervades the story, from Elizabeth's womb to Mary's witnessing her child's suffering.  This prayer does not gloss over those aspects of the story, but asks for Presence in the darkness, a breathing in and out of faith to bear the cross.

Today I am mourning the loss of a friend's baby.  Which is both the physical bleeding sorrowful loss of a tiny miscarried body, and the gaping unknowing loss of grasping onto our assumptions of how a loving God works in this world.  Another dream deferred.  Another wrenching shift of plans.  Another cycle of doubt, of walking a road not-chosen into a valley which has no guaranteed re-ascent.

Let's pray this Advent for those who are bearing a cross of waiting to sense the Love that holds them up, to catch a glimmer of light in their darkness.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Video Link!

As we travel around the USA this year sharing the stories of our work, thanking our faithful supporters, we are showing a short (5 min) video which we put together while we were in Kijabe this past summer.  It summarizes our vision, our work, and the work of our East Africa Teams.  It's the next best thing to a visit...

So, take a look and share it!

Click HERE to watch.