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Sunday, April 04, 2021

Of Death, Daffodils and Resurrection

 Easter Sunday finds us quietly awakening in Sago, WV, less than a mile from where 13 men were trapped by an explosion and collapse in 2006. One was rescued alive, for the other twelve the vigil yielded only grief. That vigil may have had echoes of Easter's. Not our modern Easter, where we know the end of the story. The original, historical one, where the body sealed into the ground could only have been considered lost for good. Some of Jesus' followers ran and hid alone while others did gather together, though none wanted to bring attention to themselves.  Even the Mary's who stood by the cross, who wiped his feet with perfume for burial, who prepared the spices for proper embalmment to augment the hasty disposal of the body after the shameful execution, did not anticipate the events of Sunday morning. They spent their Sabbath in stillness, empty, depleted, crushed. The rescue ended in defeat, thought they would still risk the ire of authority to witness and attend to ritual, they did not dream of any change to the ending. Men in a collapsed mine do not return after days. Nor does a body that has been hung by spikes on a wooden crossbeam, stabbed, declared lifeless, sealed in a tomb with a guard. When the earth covers a life, the end is deep and final.

Unless, of course, that life is a seed.



We landed in the USA in the late afternoon Saturday, and drove 4 hours to the farm, arriving well past dark, making a 10 pm dinner and then falling into bed. So when Easter Sunday morning awakened us, we were delighted to see hundreds of daffodils. I planted some bulbs six years ago when we spent a sabbatical year here, but most have propagated as descendants of bulbs planted over the last century of farm occupants. You would never know that so many daffodil bulbs lie buried beneath the meadow grass behind the barn, until the lengthening of days around the equinox wakes them to sprout. The trees are still bare, just a suggestion of buds at their tips, and the temperatures were dipping to the 20's here last week. We passed patches of snow coming over the mountains. Spring has just begun to edge winter into the past. But the daffodils raising out of the brown grass of last summer, the brilliant green spears of their leaves and the dazzling drops of sunshine in their flowers, testify that the rest of the transformation will follow.

This is the resurrection we celebrate today. It's not summer yet; winter still grips too hard. But there is one who went into the ground and blossomed out in beauty, in life, ahead of the rest. When Jesus walked out of that tomb at dawn, folded his shroud and stepped back into the world, he became the living example of that future we all hope for. Yes, we still live with collapsed mines, and this year with an ongoing pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and left us all weary of isolation. The weight of impending doom that we have been carrying for a year; the delayed connections, re-shaped work, ever-shifting coping with barriers and expectations. The extortion we are facing on our land case, the sorrow of death and hunger we touch daily. All of this is barren trees and patches of snow. And yet . . . the daffodils have bloomed. Jesus resurrected.

The first Easter morning was a time of confusion, of questions, of we-hardly-dare-to-believe-our-eyes bewilderment. Of people alone, in handfuls, running, passing a message. Of a paradigm shift so radical we still write books and can't explain it all. Because one man walked into death and back out alive, we all can follow. Because the entropy and despair of this world turned in his body towards health and hope, the entire creation can be made new. Because he led the way, we are invited to follow participatorily. 

Easter begins the mission in which we now immerse ourselves, in which we now get our hands dirty into this earth, in which we now drip our sweat and our blood. The mission of bringing the groaning of creation into the future newness. That might be raising a child, or teaching a class, or performing a surgery, or feeding the hungry. Or planting daffodils.



Friday, April 02, 2021

Liminal

 Liminal-a word that has always grabbed my soul, perhaps one of those words whose sound of breath and cloud imitates meaning. It is actually the word for a door's threshold, which sounds firm enough place to step. But in so stepping, one is momentarily between inside and outside. It is the space that joins two realities, part of both and neither. If we accept that the visible, concrete, perceived-with-five-senses reality in which we live and move and have our being is not the sole reality, that there is a parallel universe of the spiritual realm, then the liminal places are those in which one passes from earth to heaven, from seen to unseen.


Good Friday is a liminal day; the cross is a liminal place. After 33 years of walking the paths of Palestine, of heat and dust and thirst, of reclining at meals and drinking of wells and embracing the sick, of touch and smell and taste and sound and sight . . . Jesus hung at the threshold between earth and heaven. Over those hours, he slowly ebbed from the world of oxygen and lungs and hemoglobin, to enter a space that we know of only in the most foggy ways. Hebrews 10 connects this place to the curtain that separated the holiest inner sanctuary of the Temple from the rest of our existence, the veil between God's presence and the priest. When Jesus gasped "It is finished", the physical earth convulsed and the curtain tore in two, opening the space between God and the world. Jesus' human body, his flesh, became the threshold, the passage, the pathway to connect us. In so doing, that body was torn, that blood spilled, and uncountable shifts in reality occurred.

Chagall, White Crucifixion

We are spending this Good Friday in liminality as well. Our two realities are Uganda and America. Our lives are embedded in both, simultaneously. The threshold for us is an airplane, an enclosure of transport that opens a passage between our worlds, that is neither here nor there. Sometimes the travel feels like suspended time. We have people we love in both places, meaning and work and life and home in both places. We are people shaped by both places, who love both places. The analogy fails at some point of course. But Jesus as a full citizen of both heaven and earth, Hebrews says, transformed the system of sacrificial death to one of obedience to the will of God. In doing so, instead of requiring a surgically painful and bloody operation, God transforms hearts to align with good.



Clifford Possum Tjalpaltjarri, Good Friday, 1994


William H. Johnson, Jesus and the three Marys, 1939

Liminal spaces invite lingering. Like the bewildered core friends, we pause today at the cross. I'd rather gloss right on over into arrival, Sunday, sunshine. But let us stand on the threshold of worlds today, weeping, hoping.


Saturday, March 27, 2021

Deliver us from Evil

Pre-dawn star-fade, the quiet slap of our tennis shoes on the asphalt, the early morning jog that has kept us relatively healthy and sane in another year of struggle. One or two early buses careen by with their bright headlights and blaring horns, and a smatter of motorcylce taxis ferrying passengers punctuates the morning, but the road is otherwise mostly deserted. I hold Nyota's leash and Scott holds Bwindi's, a few yards ahead. Once or twice a morning the dogs lurch off to try and chase a cat or some other unseen creature in the darkness, but mostly concern themselves with the density of scents and with jostling each other. Sometimes a neighbour will call a greeting from their dark compound, or someone will call out our names from a group heading home from a burial. The milky way dims as the sun begins to grey the sky beyond the dark shape of the mountains. It is mercifully cool, and the most peaceful time of day. 

So it was a shock a few days ago to come down the hill and hear loud passionate prayers start pouring out from a few teen girls who were kneeling in the grass just meters off the road, silhouettes in the dark, hands raised. Their voices were desperate, intense, edged with fear, and I kept hearing them calling out for help against Satan. The pitch escalated as we passed. I thought of stopping to comfort or question, but I wasn't quite sure if the fearful prayers were directed against us. Bwindi is a fearsome sight, if you don't know that she has a benign heart, so between our white skin and the two dogs and the unfamiliar spot for such a group, it seemed quite likely we were the Evil from which they sought deliverance.

Still, their intensity has stayed with me.

Perks of a team Preacher: Pastor Mike teaching about the Lord's Prayer at chapel. 

I seem them as more angelic than demonic, at least by the light of day.

Someone whose life did depend upon the deliver-us-from-evil prayer this week.


And someone for whom that prayer was answered over the last few months, 800 grams to 2.49 kg!

Bundibugyo is a liminal place. I mostly love that about it. We do not surround ourselves with the illusion that only the material counts, that reality stops at the seen. Every patch of the world is charged, with grandeur (GM Hopkins), with danger, with possibility, with the "repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" immediacy of parallel physics in the barely glimpsed universe. Every moment might be torpedoed by malicious spiritual forces intent upon destruction and consumption. And those girls knew that what appeared as a black dog or a pale spirit out of the night might have meant something worth being terrified, so they dropped to their knees in prayer.

That kind of acknowledgement of the reality of capital-E Evil makes us uncomfortable. As it should. 

In many places, evil is something we manage with distraction and numbing, with walls that not only protect but encourage us to ignore. With laws, liability, insurance, bank accounts, credit cards, 911 numbers. With entertainment and comfort. But in the majority-world, that's not possible. When night has barely begun to melt into day and the road is lonely and there is fear afoot, the only recourse is to pray as if one's life depended upon it.

Tomorrow begins the week of Easter, where Evil gets an apparent upper hand on Friday, only to be proven defeated on Sunday. The word used in the prayer 'deliver us from evil ' or from 'the Evil One' relates to futile toil in pain and suffering, which harkens right back to Genesis and the curse that seeped into labor of all sorts, for children and for crops. Loss, effort that does not match the result, personal cost, death. In the forehead pocked by thorn scars and the hands severed by spikes. In the flesh rending process of birth and the back-aching swing of the hoe. 

Cost of birth being paid in blood and pain

And he says, it wasn't exactly a picnic for me either . . . but in this case again, evil did not triumph.

Deliver us, we pray, and when it pours out of our hearts in the darkness with no human help in sight, I think that desperation burns out the filler-fluff of pious words and leaves purity

This week we are praying, deliver us from Evil. On Wednesday, the same day those girls were passionately seeking aid from God against Satan, a few hours later we were sitting in court yet again. We lost the land case in December (short version: a man sold the mission a piece of his land for tree planting and farming in 2000. We used the farm for Christ School agriculture classes and support, and he used the money to put his kids through school. But when cocoa started to become profitable and companies were buying up land in about 2014, his son engineered a case to sue us for trespassing by claiming that the land was never sold only leased and that the documents his father had signed were invalid due to his poor eyesight . . 6 years and countless witnesses later, the judge decided that by virtue of being a foreign NGO we could not own this land, and awarded it back to the family). Our lawyers advised appeal, we reluctantly agreed, not because of the land but because the settlement included a catch: we would have to pay the court costs of the plaintiffs who won. Though the appeal has not yet been heard in the higher court, the lawyers for the family went ahead and presented a bill for 132 million shillings, 36 thousand dollars, more than double (closer to triple) the value of the land, and an absurd price for their dozen or so days of work, in a country where that would be the annual income for several dozen people. We went to court thinking it was a simple matter of our lawyer producing proof of the appeal and delaying this bill. However our lawyer's designated representative failed to show up, leaving Scott alone in the docket with zero preparation, only a vague understanding of the processes, facing the inflated greed of the other side's lawyer alone. Scott gave a short speech about the injustice of it all and the nature of our a not-for-profit work and who this would hurt. But the judge was annoyed with our side and said he may or may not allow the appeal, and the whole day was a pretty disastrous scenario. If you've never been helpless, abandoned, and unfairly treated in court, let me just bear witness that it is miserable. We are praying for deliverance.

Evil looks us in the eye hourly. Sometimes it is finding out medicine has been stolen, or the electricity- fried the oxygen concentrator so a baby has no help breathing. Sometimes it is caring for a child who has been badly burned, or who is in inexplicable pain. Sometimes it is finding an empty bed where the family of a malnourished baby whisked her away at night. Sometimes it is the loneliness we see in a teammate, or the way one of our Ugandan friends is being manipulated by a family member. Sometimes it is a storm that damages homes, or a miscarriage, or misunderstanding. And sometimes, most times, too many times, it is in our own hearts, impatient criticism of the way things are, intolerant judgement, unkind words, unwilling hardness of heart, unreasonable anxiety that God may not be on our side.

This baby came starving, and after a week of small increments towards survival the family disappeared.

However, these triplets are still doing relatively well, though at 9 months old now they are receiving nutritional help from our program.

A year in, we are still battling COVID.

Deliver us from evil. Deliver us from ourselves. Deliver us from injustice, from suffering, from futility, from loss. Deliver us from those cups we'd like to pass on drinking, the ones that contain the wrathful wine of judgement. Deliver us from the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms, the consuming caverns that want to devour light, the defeated enemies that still lash out to wreak harm. And after a year poised for COVID disaster, just when we're one vaccine closer to surviving it and getting to go see our moms and kids, deliver us from the pandemic. Kenya just shut down again as a third wave broke there. Sobering.

Team Bundi March 2021

The good news is, of course, that we are delivered. The cross went right through the heart of Evil, a fatal wound. Nothing can separate us from the good intent of God to heal and save. But each bruising encounter with the fatally wounded darkness still stings. And so we pray, like those girls, as if our life depended upon it, because it does. 

Join us in praying for justice in the courts, for healing from COVID in Africa, for vaccines and equity. For protection. And for our soldier who is in the most intense two weeks of the last 5 years, right now. A bit of deliverance there would be glorious.

Wednesday evening after the prayer encounter in the dark and the crushing misery of the court case and several of the medical photos above . . . God reminded us of His promises. And so we hold on.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Contagion flows both ways

Listening to the Lubwisi Bible yesterday, Luke 8 . . . full of crowds, requests, miracles, women, storms, revelation. In Lubwisi they don't even try to translate the disease of the woman who seeks Jesus desperately . . . it is called "a disease of women".  In English the Greek becomes: A flux of blood, an issue, a haemorrhage.  A flow. Something that by the laws of her day defined her not only as unclean, but as a transmitter of uncleanliness. Anything she touched would be impure. The hesitant translation speaks of shame. The position she is in becomes untenable. Basically, she's contagious with evil.

Meaning that as she is bumped and shuffled in the crowd, she cannot say why she is there. It would be like a person with flagrant COVID wanting to see Dr. Fauci by showing up at a political rally with no mask, coughing and sneezing on everyone, elbowing his way near to the stage. Not only would the crowd be unsympathetic of one person's right to demand the famous doctor's attention, they would be angry that he was putting them all at risk. By first-century standards she is likewise putting everyone around her at risk of ceremonial impurity. So she keeps quiet, and sneaks close enough to touch his robe, hoping against hope that her years of dwindling resources and useless cures will end. 

The Encounter, by Dan Cariola, featured in Biola Lent

And in that moment, the unstoppable tide of blood, pain, shame, contamination . . . stops. Instead there is a flow in the opposite direction. Jesus feels power flow out. The word refers to the nature of who Jesus is, a strength, goodness, virtue, force of miracle and wonder, that transmits from him, to her.

This story is rich with nuance and meaning. But for today, I'm just thinking about the contagiousness of evil vs. good. Disease DOES pass from person to person, and we need measures like masks and sanitiser. Isolation is a good public health principle. But other evils also exude, spread, flow. Racism, criticism, sarcasm, doubt. We are people who are disturbed on many levels and we too often drag others down. This woman's sickness was not actually harmful to anyone but herself, but she and they did not know that, so she suffered the consequences all the same. 

How much more rare is the flow in the opposite direction, the river of good, of health, of life, of hope. And what a story to show that the power of love to reverse damage exceeds the force of wrong. That the darkness can't overcome light, that evil can't overcome good. The streams of blessing the freely spring up in Jesus were offered to the woman at the well, to the woman in the crowd, to all of us. 

The same day I read Luke 8, I was teaching on Abraham at the hospital staff meeting. Abraham was blessed IN ORDER TO BE a channel of blessing to the world. Through witness, through faith, through obedience, through Isaac. Yes, he eventually inherited land and livestock too. But the blessing was meant to flow.

I go through my days trying to limit my contact with contagion. And aware of the ease with which my own weariness and frustration and sin can harm others. But I'd like to be the kind of person through whom light flows like the painting, abundant, healing, unstoppable. 

The owner of this brain had a heart rate of 200 and a temperature of 103. 
Not pictured: a child post-op from a typhoid bowel perforation, I palpated and pus and stool came right out of the old incision.
Or the baby with intractable seizures.
Or the one starving after his mom stopped breast feeding.
Or the preem who the other moms told me "died three times" the day before but was revived  . . . 
This was all yesterday, all places that felt quite impure and evil and broken and sorrowful.

This baby was also so so so hungry.

And yet . . . the triplets that miraculously all survived to discharge 9 months ago are still OK! Well, they are all down with gastroenteritis and all slightly malnourished but I think this is one family where the flow and power of love is prevailing.




Saturday, March 13, 2021

VACCINES!!!!

Five days before the one-year anniversary of Uganda declaring the COVID shut-down, the first vaccines have been given in Bundibugyo. Dr. Amon Bwambale, our medical superintendent, was #1. Scott was #2. I was #3.  

Dr. Amon looking appropriately celebratory with dose #1

This story starts with people like GAVI, the Gates Foundation, the World Health Organisation, COVAX, the researchers at Oxford, the plant workers in India, the Ministry of Health in Uganda, pilots and technicians and nurses.  It is a global story of people who took the pandemic seriously, who leveraged emerging technology, who ran clinical trials, who published, who readjusted, who advocated for justice.  The mantra of COVAX has been that no one wins until everyone wins. If COVID-19 has brought home truth, one of the main ones must be that we are a global community. We would hope that the world would want the billion-plus people in Africa to be saved, but even for purely self-interested reasons it is clear that we are in a race between variant mutation and the dampening down brought by vaccines and public health practices. 

We are thankful that our moms in their 80's, our medically vulnerable nephew, our first-responder kids, have been vaccinated in the USA with the higher-tech RNA vaccines. The USA has a much, much worse pandemic than we do in Uganda. But, we also have very little to fall back on if we get a severe case. So this first dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is a glimmer of hope. This is the vaccine the majority-world will get, because it relies on a more robust delivery vehicle, a modified chimpanzee virus, rather than pure RNA. This vaccine can be kept at fridge rather than intense deep freeze temperatures. It can use existing cold chains and health organisations. It is thought to be 65-85% effective compared to the 95% numbers for others, but we'll take it. The first doses in sub-Saharan Africa (besides South Africa which is a different story) landed within the last two weeks, and Uganda got theirs less than a week ago. Friday a truck with an armed guard pulled into the hospital, and the RDC (top central government appointee in the district) and DHO (District Health Officer) officially received the 3720 doses in 372 chilled vials, escorting them to the hospital's fridge.





Less than 24 hours later, injections began, with health workers. We had been registered, the vaccine teams had been trained, and by 8:30 this morning there were coolers moving to five sites to administer doses. Health workers get three days to get in line, then the elderly, then teachers. 



The arrival of the vaccine truck yesterday felt like Christmas, but in a typical wrinkle of the universe it was offset by a crazy series of events including bad news about our court case (extortionist amounts of money being demanded, see our mailchimp prayer letter just sent) and our car breaking down. Not to be deterred, we rode a boda to the hospital (which puts vaccine risks in perspective!). The atmosphere was festive, and Dr. Amon led the way even as others were posting on our what's app groups crazy disinformation that runs around the web. We felt that Dr. Amon, Dr. Scott, and Dr. Jennifer sending photos of receiving vaccines would help public uptake! So far so good.








The world is not yet put to rights. BUT . . . this is one big hooray from Bundi. Now back to life. Back to fixing broken things, praying for mercy, fighting corruption, listening and empathising, hoping for change. Back to a lenten push of prayer for our second son, the one who goes into his final month-long field-exercise exam tomorrow hoping to emerge as an SF officer. Join us in vaccines, in work, in prayer.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The vulnerable CEO: getting method and message to match

 We are deep into the season of Lent, the reflective space that precedes the agony of Good Friday and the blinking incredulousness of Easter Sunday. On our team we are working our way through "Surprised by Hope", because, well in this global season we all need a bit of hope and surprise. NT Wright explains the victory of Jesus over evil as a CEO who has taken charge of a global enterprise, still working out the new way of running things as his messengers disperse to all the various branches. But the message, he says, must be matched by the method. 

"The kingdom will come as the church, energised by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always--as Paul puts it in one of his letters--bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed."

"we are in the struggle"- on a masked student in chapel at CSB. Message and material matching.

Not a forceful triumphant dictator unilaterally changing the culture and operation of the company by fiat from the top down, though I for one feel that method is quite tempting. Of course the fantasy is an illusion, that if only the church (or more accurately my brand of it, right) were in charge of finances and information and medical procurement and the prison system and taxes and infrastructure and education, well we could sort this out more beneficially.  Christendom through the centuries has brought a mixed record of blessing and oppression. No, the method must match Jesus' life. Which means, the cross before the glory. The night before the dawn. Which means suffering is not excluded, the cup does not always pass. Which means even the moments of power, of dazzling angels or thousands fed, happen with enough obscurity and alternate explanation that faith is never forced. Our CEO Jesus knows how to live in a body authentically in feasting and friendship, how to speak justice and truth, how to handle wounded sinners with mercy. But He does it gradually through time and through people who are salt sprinkled over the globe, who preserve and flavour, whose power is perfected in vulnerability and sacrifice and not primarily in money and weapons. 

Biola Lent devotion image,  Peter Koenig, Jesus CEO

Biola Lent devotion image, J Kirk Richards, Jesus vulnerable


Being a team leader, or a parent, an Area Director or a doctor, are hardly CEO roles, but we all have some leadership. Like Jesus, we have a sphere to influence, to till, to order, to care for. And in that process we constantly face the dilemma of how much to direct, and how much to empower. Jesus cast out demons and gave some blistering speeches. There is a time to run a code and tell people what to do. Yes. But. The vulnerability piece has to also be there. First, because we are NOT Jesus and we are prone to bossiness and drifting into arranging our world to suit ourselves. But also because Jesus took the path of "not my will, but thine, be done." The method of Jesus came down to a night of betrayal, of nakedness and scourging, of abandonment and weakness. The method of Jesus required complete humility, complete surrender to the worst evil could do with the secure assurance that none of that love would prove stronger than death.

A week ago we drove back into Bundibugyo, hurrying to change clothes and join the pre-exam celebration dinner (our equivalent of a graduation party) for the seniors at CSB, and then directly from there to the house of mourning where one of our longest-term faithful partner midwives had lost her adult son. The week was back to normal life revved on the steroids of a preceding absence. Mentoring meetings with team, delving into issues. Greetings and welcomes. Teaching our staff Bible study and our team study and our weekly CME. Leading our Area prayer zoom. Calls, security check ins. A day-long Board meeting for Christ School. Supervising construction, repairing damage to our pizza oven, ploughing through laundry. Hundreds of emails and texts and communications. Nutrition supplies from UNICEF still delayed, plugging gaps. And of course the patients, the wards, the ongoing dilemmas. 

We felt loved and missed!


McClures at the party for CSB grads!

Scott giving a speech about value-add to draw the parallel between them and the Bundibugyo cocoa bean to bar chocolate--we brought them each a real deal chocolate bar produced by Latitude trading company from Bundi cocoa.



Back to the stories of struggles and joys

Covid-era board meeting under the trees, masked and spaced. Though we did remove masks a few seconds for the snap below!




Scott's day yesterday: patient #1 was a lady who needed a C-section for a nearly-dead baby . . .

Who was remarkably revived by quick care. This is the perfect juncture of CEO insistence and vulnerable service. We push back against evil with all our might, but we are only able to do so much, and completely dependent upon God's mercy.


In all that, I wonder, what does it look like to be a vulnerable CEO? I think it is this: to hold ourselves accountable to pour into this place the best we have to offer, the best explanations, investments, decisions, guidance, service. To gather data, to follow best practices, to be responsible. Yes. But at the same time, to do all of that with our scars visible. To ask questions, take feedback, adjust. To be willingly inconvenienced and uncomfortable. To keep breathing the humid fog of cough through the suffocating N-95 mask, to keep crouching to the floor, to keep filling out lab forms or struggling to draw blood when surely those tasks could be done by someone else. To strain to listen for the heart behind the complaints, to understand, to love. And to know that our best might not be enough, and that's OK, because God has resurrection up His sleeve.