This is where we live: between the planting and the reaping. In the long pause.
The entire past week, that song from Monday's advent devotion just keeps coming back to me. The planting and reaping are never the same, but your labor is not in vain. There is always a gap when the work seems futile and the connection between the soil and the fruit too tenuous to be real.
After remembering Dr. Jonah, ebola, the ten year anniversary, the week pummeled on with impossibilities and sorrows. We had seven newborn deaths in six days: six of those were babies so small that the six of them together (two sets of twins and two others) just topped 8 pounds, the size of one normal newborn. (A seventh tiny one still struggles on. . . so many premature births, one after the other after the other). There was a baby who was stuck in a breech position at delivery and got a broken leg. There were moderately premature twins who should do fairly well, but their mother is very disabled by extreme burns as a child, including scarring that will make it hard for her to hold them and that will make it impossible to use both breasts to feed them. There were brain-damage level jaundice cases, dehydrated infants, a girl with cerebral palsy starving to death, a boy with inoperable heart malformations. There were daily calls of people unable to come to work for various reasons. Let me just say that the week seemed to hold a lot of futility.
But I realize that part of that futility stems from our time-limited existence. We can't see ahead. We're slogging through a week with blinders, the future turning a corner and our eyes unable to scan a bending ray of light.
Which puts the Advent season in context. Looking backwards gives us a more linear arrangement of occurrences, so we can rise out of the time trap and see the way promises led to rescues, the way prophecies blossomed into real events. As we put ourselves into the old stories and imagine their desperation preceding deliverance, it gives us hope that this hour's troubles will change into tomorrow's glories. The entire season carries this double entendre, Jesus came and Jesus will come.
I think this season, then, calls for two disciplines. One that looks back, and another that looks forward.
First, thanks. Thanks as we look back, be it 3000 years or a month, thanks as we acknowledge that good has come. We sent some miraculously healed children home this week, and as discouraged as I get I KNOW how important it is to celebrate these. Two little preems we'd cared for for about six weeks, with parallel stories and growth, went home the same day. One was the sole survivor of a very premature set of triplets; her siblings died on arrival after being transported poorly from the clinic where they were born over an hour away. Both these babies had taken tremendous attention and care over more than a month, measuring out feeds by the teaspoons, monitoring temperatures and growth, responding quickly to downturns. Both mothers were grinning ear to ear when the time came to actually go home. We thanked God, and our team.
The second discipline, the forward-looking version, is hope. Hope is a choice, a recognition that the time of planting and watering may be very, very long. The harvest will come, but not fast enough to negate the long wait. Hope takes the backward-looking thanks and assumes that in the future we will also look back to this moment and see something worth being thankful about.
The photo at the top I snapped on the edge of a side-road near our house. It used to be thick with thorny bushes, but over the last couple of months someone had cleared them and planted cabbages. One evening about a week before I took that photo, I had been walking the dog, and came around the corner to see the gardener at work. Presumably he's a landless man trying to survive by cultivating the roadside "public" space, something quite common in land-strapped areas of Kenya. There is a very large and congested urban settlement just down the hill from us. His industry was inspiring enough, but what really moved me was the swing. He had strung up a little rope and plank swing from that low acacia tree, and a toddler daughter happily swung as he worked. She waved and smiled, and I waved back and greeted, and they were both delighted. Here is someone who has to grow cabbages on the margin to survive, but he took time to make his daughter a swing. Since that evening, I think of the pair often. I think that the human spirit that shows, the divine spark of love, of industry, of scrappy ingenuity, of grace right along the fraying edge of a road, gave me reason to hope for this country and for us all.
On Tuesday, the political turmoil that is Kenya will be taunt and stretched again. The opposition intends to inaugurate their own candidate as their own president; the supreme court justice has warned this would be treason. In South Sudan, the militias clash and the people flee. Our old nemesis the ADF killed more than a dozen UN peacekeepers in Beni, across the border from our old Bundibugyo home. And perhaps the saddest thing I saw all week: our team in Burundi caring for two little boys, each with one hand amputated as retaliation for supposedly stealing avocados. A hungry ten-year-old picks a fruit which is an abundant and renewable resource and pays with a life-long disability. Shocking. I can't get that one out of my mind.
But Advent insists on faith, on looking back with thanks to remember that Jesus set in motion a history-altering world-pervasive ripple of resurrection that will reach all of us. And on looking forward with hope to remember that the ADF and the hand-hackers are a small minority; the cabbage-cultivating swing-builders will inherit the earth.
The season of Advent, an annual rhythm of longing and hope.
For an excellent overview of the season, check this post on the Serge blog. The author begins with what I consider to be the one of the most frightening verses in the Bible: God gave them what they asked, but sent leanness into their soul (Psalm 106:8). When we spend this season, this life, pushing and scraping and demanding and striving for what the world tells us is necessary, for what we imagine might make us happy, God may eventually let us have it. But the cost is too high. Every year we need seasons of re-orientation, so we long for what is truly good, long to be in God's story, and even if our Christmas is lean, our souls will be fat.
For several years, our family has reveled in Biola University's Advent and Lent projects. You can return to the portal daily, or sign up to get an email link sent to you daily. This site combines art, music, poetry, scripture, and a meditation for a uniquely rich Advent experience. In yesterday's post I alluded to the Dec 4 offering, which I am still processing. Over the last few seasons this has ushered in new poets and new artists to our awareness, a huge plus when living in isolated circumstances.
And this year, I bought on Kindle a book of daily Advent meditations by a Dean and professor in Duke's Divinity School, Luke Powery, called Rise Up Shepherd!. We heard him speak at one of our kids' commencements and resonated with his spirituality and wisdom. Here he takes a different traditional Spiritual, the songs of the enslaved, and juxtaposes them with Scripture, bridging the liturgical traditions of the Duke University Chapel with the reality of impoverished people of color. If possible I search for the Spiritual on Spotify and listen as we read. A beauty of combining the Bible readings, the Biola portal, and the book, is that patterns jump out in new ways. For instance, the Dec 4 poem and meditation on Biola talked about God rushing in like a flood. The Dec 4 Spiritual in Powery's book was about "the old Ship of Zion" singing "Ain't no danger in de water" . . . yet this music comes from a people for whom ships meant death, so many flung into the sea. Taking them together, can we see that even in a flooded death there is no danger, because God is there? Even as we long for Jesus to come, for the Shepherd to Rise, we tremble that the Day of the Lord is called great and terrible, but hold onto the faith that ultimately all shall be well?
Lastly, throughout the year our family uses the Lectionary App from the Church of England's publishing arm for daily readings. We have found the tradition of putting the story of the Bible into the pace of the seasons of the year to be helpful to us as creatures living in bodies on earth. Many of the readings overlap with the two other resources above, and frankly it's a bit much to try to keep up with all three, so in this season I sometimes let this last one drop a bit.
And since we just spent 24 hours in the car, here are a couple of Christmas albums. I like my Christmas music a little bit gritty and loud and Heaven and Nature Sing, so here are two with a lot of overlap from TobyMac:
December 1-World AIDS Day
December 4- The tenth anniversary of the death of Dr. Jonah Kule, from Ebola Bundibugyo.
And in between, December 1 and 2, the wedding of a young man born in the height of the AIDS epidemic, orphaned, who just finished medical school and internship on a Kule Memorial Leadership scholarship.
Uganda in the 1980's was a country devastated by AIDS even as it began to turn the corner from Idi Amin's brutal and repressive reign of the 1970's. An entire generation of people our age was decimated, leaving behind many orphaned children, overwhelming the capacity of traditional networks of aunts, uncles, grandparents. In 1993, we moved to Bundibugyo and Pastor Sam Kasule with his wife Zoe moved to Fort Portal, both of us working with Serge (formerly World Harvest Mission) for a holistic Kingdom vision. We were deeply involved in screening, preventing, treating AIDS. The Kasules were raising their own 8 children (their 8th and our first were born a day apart) as well as another 8 or more of their nieces and nephews left behind by dying parents. So they developed a program called the Good Samaritan Project with the help of churches in Florida, and particularly Dick and Barbara Johnson. They planted a church and established a primary school, and the Good Samaritan project helped orphans with school fees. A few years later, a student's caretaker at Hope Primary who was sponsored by the project recommended to a neighbor that she take her son to see if he could get help there. Katuramu Tadeo was 9, in Primary 3, an eager bright learner whose father had died while he was in the womb, leaving his mother with no support. As Katuramu progressed through primary school, he also responded to the mentorship, teaching, example of the Kasules as well as elder and teacher Chris Mwesige. He finished primary school with high marks and solid character, and so the Good Samaritan program decided to send him over the mountains from Fort Portal to Bundibugyo to attend Christ School. At the time, nobody would actually WANT to do that, because the people in Tooro consider the people in Bundibugyo to be a bit backward, and the area to be known for rebels and danger. But CSB was a good bargain, we were both working with the same mission, and Katuramu was willing to go anywhere for an education.
That was 2004, and our just-turning 11 Luke was bravely entering Senior One at CSB as the only non-Ugandan. He and Katuramu were soon friends, top of their classes, and both slightly outsiders. Katuramu earned the nickname "pastor" as he emerged as a spiritual leader of the class, but humbly also earned his pocket money as a cobbler of shoes. For four years he and Luke studied and played together, and he was one of the friends drawn into our family orbit for meals, camping trips, hikes, books, soccer. This young man had next to nothing, but never failed to bring a huge smile, and a servant's heart into any situation. In November of 2007, they both sat for the O-level national exams. Katuramu placed first in our district, and Luke placed second. The Good Samaritan program decided to send him to A-levels at Nyakasura in Fort Portal, and we pondered sending Luke to RVA.
The same month they were completing exams, a mysterious disease was getting our attention. Numerous people were plagued by high fevers and diarrhea, and we began to hear of deaths in a nearby village. Dr. Jonah Kule had finished medical school and internship that year, and returned as the first doctor in 30 years from our district to do so. He was our best friend, and after working with him through the mid-90's as a clinical officer, we had raised money to send him to medical school recognizing his superb clinical and community-organizing skills. That November, we were finally realizing the dream of being colleagues, working together at the local health center, when he said he wanted to go see what was happening in that village. I remember pushing a bottle of hand sanitizer on him, and him saying, "If I die, I die, these are my people." We all thought it was a typhoid epidemic. He came back puzzled and concerned, and the next week Scott and I also went to the village, and then to the central district hospital to examine patients and see what we thought. We wore gloves, but no other protection, noting red eyes, some bleeding, lots of gastrointestinal symptoms, family clustering. We got a team from the Uganda Viral Research Institute to take samples, but the initial results were negative for viral hemorrhagic fevers including ebola. Jonah left for Kampala as we turned the corner towards December, to pick his daughters up at school.
I won't tell the whole story here, but the disease turned out to be a new form of Ebola, named later Ebola Bundibugyo. While in Kampala, Dr. Jonah became ill himself, and to protect others admitted himself to the national Mulago hospital where he was put out in a tent for treatment to keep him isolated. At first we got good news that he was improving, but on December 4th, 2007, we got one of the worst phone calls of our lives. He was dead. The one other doctor in the district besides us also became ill, and Scott cared for him as we went into emergency mode, sending our kids and team away to safety not knowing if we would live or die either. Jonah's body was returned to Bundibugyo with the scary space-suited isolation teams for burial at the hospital along with four other health workers. We had all touched the same patients, but we were spared. As he was buried, only his family and us came to mourn. People were terrified. MSF set up headquarters, the entire month became an marathon of medical care and contact tracing and isolation and fear. In the aftermath of that crisis, we set up a fund to sponsor other young people from Bundibugyo to become doctors. At Jonah's lonely graveside, Scott read prophetically from John 20. The seed that falls into the ground and dies, bears fruit. (http://paradoxuganda.blogspot.co.ke/2007/12/dr-jonah-kulekilled-by-ebola.html and http://paradoxuganda.blogspot.co.ke/2007/12/bundibugyo-where-tears-never-run-dry.html and other posts from 2007 tell the full story).
Katuramu became one of the young students chosen for a Kule scholarship. He shone his way through medical school and internship, holding onto faith, ever humble and cheerful. His mother had died in 2009 while he and Luke were still finishing secondary school, leaving him a full orphan. He lived with his sister when on breaks, and continued to lean heavily on the spiritual guidance of the Kasules and the support of our family too. During his internship, he cared for a young woman dying in the ICU. Over the course of her illness, he met her family, and particularly her youngest sister Carol. Katuramu and Carol fell in love. She finished a university degree, and he finished his internship, and declared his desire to marry her. Only she was the youngest of 34 children, born by 6 wives, to a pretty powerful patriarch from a different tribe all the way on the other side of the country. She was beautiful, educated, and the last thing an 84-year-old man who had controlled a lot in his life was holding onto. It wasn't going to be easy.
So after some difficult negotiations, many snags and trials, the whole thing hanging by an uncertain thread, this weekend, Katuramu, the kid who was as poor as they come, orphaned and alone, married Carol. And what a production it was. He pulled off having the traditional ceremony and the church wedding back to back on Friday and Saturday. Friends and family contributed, the Kasules, Chris Mwesige, and we acted as his parents. He hired a bus from Fort Portal to bring his four sisters and one brother, a handful of Hope Primary friends, and a number of the Kasule adult-children too. We were about 30 people representing the groom's side.
Friday's "Introduction" was an all-day affair with many phases. The groom's side and brides's side each have a mukwenda go-between, who act as masters of the ceremony, bantering back and forth. They tell stories and joke as the bride's friends parade out in groups, each cluster in matching outfits, each bringing up some barrier or reason the marriage cannot take place, "forcing" the groom's side to bring money and gifts to solve those problems. At last the bride comes out, brought by her paternal aunts, who then go amongst the groom's people symbolically searching for him. They then dance with him and bring him to the bride. There is a moment when the groom is symbolically acknowledged to have been born again into the bride's clan, making him acceptable. Then a smaller delegation of parents goes into the bride's home with her father, and the groom and father drink from the same bottle of water to seal their unity. The father blesses the bride and groom with a laying on of hands, and then we all shared a meal. Finally the bride-price is paraded into the bride's compound, probably 20 baskets of food, sacks of rice, suitcases of clothes, even three cows. The entire day is meant to establish the worth of the girl, the solidity of her family standing behind her, the fact that the groom has to work hard to earn their trust, the peace between the two families being established. There were traditional dancers, a DJ, a cake, a hundred or so people, banners, tents. We only began to leave when darkness fell.
Saturday, we were to report to the main Church of Uganda cathedral in town for the actual wedding. This was a very traditional ceremony with hymns, praise songs, rings, vows, pronouncements, a sermon, a signing of the marriage certificate. Carol was escorted down the aisle by her father and uncle, and thank God no one objected when the pastor asked, we all held our peace. Since this is a prime season (school's out, rainy season is ending, Christmas is coming) for weddings, the cathedral is booked every two hours, so as our bride and groom exited the next group entered. Then it was photos, and off to the reception. Another full afternoon of people dancing their way in, some speeches, gifts, food, cake feeding, honoring parents, thanking everyone involved. Again we went until dark. Full of joy for the obviously ecstatic Carol and Katuramu. Wiped out by the booming unrelenting over-powered sound system and two full days where everything except the church ceremony was in a mix of Lugwere (hers), Rutoro (his), and Luganda (major language of the country). There was enough cross-over with the Bantu languages we get better, Lubwisi and Swahili, to help us follow a tiny bit at times, but mostly we were lost. Amongst all the kids we have sponsored and acted as foster-parents to, this is only the second one to pursue a formal cultural introduction and a church wedding before living as husband and wife, so we aren't experts on the proper etiquette. We just tried to follow the gracious Sam and Zoe Kasule!
By night, everyone had filtered away except Katuramu and Carol who were honeymooning their first night at the reception venue, and us, who Katuramu had also booked there. Polite young man that he is, he kept thanking us for coming and helping, but we insisted on saying bye and leaving them alone, departing early the next morning to drive all the way back to Naivasha. Though we had tried to garner a quorum for honoring the 10th anniversary of Dr. Jonah's death in Bundibugyo today, it just wasn't a good time for his wife and children to gather. Meanwhile my colleague here in Naivasha went on a 6-week leave, and we discerned it best to come back and work. Today was one of those insane days, 46 babies in the NBU including 4 860-870 gram preems at 28 weeks or less. Two were twins whose mom came in and delivered abruptly, both died in spite of hours of resuscitation effort. Scott was caught up in a C-section, and both of us ended the day thinking that slogging it out on a Naivasha Monday honored Dr. Jonah's memory as well as any memorial service.
If anyone read all this, thanks. It's a lot to process. Today's Advent devotion said "There is a tendency to delude ourselves into thinking that damage will never come to us, those who surely have God's favor. . . then The Advent of God comes upon us suddenly, flashing like a flood . . right now, God is here, and everything is a mess." Amen. AIDS and Ebola, loss and death that seemed to us futile and tragic. But we are called to the work of repair, to a toil and a recognition of God's presence and the possibilities of redemption. All day as I've thought about Jonah and his family, about all of our grief, about Katuramu's difficult life, about the twin preemies I laid dead into the arms of their mother this afternoon in spite of all we could do, the song from the devotion has echoed.
Your labor is not in vain.
<28 and="" anything="" as="" died="" dozens="" dr.="" effort="" far="" honors="" hours="" i="" in="" jonah="" kids="" kind="" lived="" mention="" much="" nbsp="" not="" of="" other="" out="" oxygen="" p="" probably="" resuscitating="" running="" sick="" so="" spite="" that="" thing.="" think="" to="" trying="" two="" weeks.="" would.="">
Though the ground underneath you is cursed and stained.
Your planting and reaping are never the same.
Your labor is not in vain.
For I am with you, I have called you by name,
Your labor is not in vain . . . (Work Songs, from the Porter's Gate Worship Project).
Isaiah 25, Amos 9, the story unfolds. Our current struggle will not be forever. Jesus knows our names, and the flood that feels destructively frightening will clear the way for a forever-feast. We cling to that by faith. And this weekend we caught a glimpse of that in the wedding. Nothing justifies the death of our friend Jonah. Or of Jesus. Their loss clarifies the stakes are high, the struggle is real, the consequences punishing. But their deaths are not the end of the story. Resurrection comes. The doctors multiply. An orphan marries what seems like a princess. People from different tribes and continents came together to feast. Hope grows. The labor is not in vain.28>