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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Between the planting and the reaping

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.  

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