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Friday, April 07, 2023

Losing for Lent, and other reminders of the season

Today Good Friday, Passover, and Ramadan all intersect, holidays that have shaped cultures around the world to remember that the path to redemption passes painfully through deserts of deprivation, rocky wildernesses where we are called away from what makes sense, what looks sure, what our natural inclination towards self-preservation and self-promotion would cling to. We've been at this a few decades now, but the truth still startles. The pivotal moments of our Christian story remain: not a battle or a coronation, but an obscure displaced birth of a baby forced to flee across borders, and then a public execution of that child grown into an itinerant teacher with no official title or position, chased down by manipulating crowds and fears and courts. 

In that spirit, we had our (we hope) final meeting yesterday with the wealthy, highly placed, political police fire brigade commissioner, plus his parents, and his three sets of lawyers, who have drug us through court for 9 years to reclaim land that his father sold the mission over twenty years ago when money was needed for this man's school tuition. The property was a small piece of farmland which we used for the first decade or so for food production for CSB students as well as agriculture practical education, until the seller changed his mind. We lost the land, lost the appeal, and to add insult to injury were presented with an exorbitant bill for the court costs for those who orchestrated the injustice. Months of negotiation later, they agreed to a quarter of what they initially asked for in legal costs, which is still more than the actual value of the land (but thankfully we had quickly sold another piece of mission farm land as soon as we lost this one to cover the expenses.) Nothing like sitting in a room for hours with people who have stolen from the poor of Bundibugyo, using the court system, to really enter into the spirit of Good Friday.  Sigh. We think of ourselves as nobly being on God's side of the dispute . . . but that does not translate into being on the winning side, as Jesus showed us that day. We've shed tears and hours and sweat and sorrow over this court wrangle, but not blood. Jesus did both. 

Sitting here on Friday now, we take it by faith that the weekend will progress to Sunday, to resurrection and transformation. All of history drew to a point on a hill that Friday, to darkness and agony. And all of the future began at that chiasm, spreading out to a new way of the universe operating, as Mike preached this morning. Those hours of cross and grave were the mysterious unseen unimagined way that evil was defeated forever. 

And so we are called to keep walking on those wilderness ways, away from insta-glory, into areas that are risky and uncomfortable. And as we do so, we trust for the moments where all-things-new joy presages the peace and wholeness of "today you will be with me in paradise", the home Jesus prepares.


A few of those moments have been ours this month, visiting teams in Rwanda and Burundi (as well as Fort Portal and our usual Bundibugyo both in Uganda) where we walk into the hard stories each person carries of burdens for kids struggling close by or aging parents far away, of cross-cultural faux pas or danger from insecurity or lethal disease, of new regulations or old prejudices that just make this sojourner life hard . . but even as we walk into those realities and grasp them we also catch views of the beauty God is working.

Kigali, Rwanda, Cropsey family and RIIO eye clinic and teaching (our new partners even gave us a certificate!)

Kibuye, Burundi, our biggest area team, dozens of meetings, and the unexpected treat of getting to see our SON as a surgeon (he was finishing up a month there!).

And at the end of that week . . Abby arrived!!! 

Which began an epic road trip to Uganda, her first time to see where Luke grew up! We camped in the wild at a game park, hiked a shoulder of the Rwenzoris, immersed in the Ngite Falls and saw the Ituri Rainforest hot springs. More importantly, she met teachers and friends who had shaped Luke's life since infancy. Luke spoke to the students at Christ School and visited his old Rwenzori Mission School (and Bundimulinga Primary). We watched the district football tournaments, and after three packed Bundi days visited Aunt Pat and other friends in Fort Portal and then Kampala and then out via Entebbe.

That's a lot of life in a few weeks, many miles, many faces, many conversations and questions. Luke and Abby came to us in an excruciating (cross-filled) time, and their perspective and loyalty and love reminded us that this path is truly worth it. Thanks for reading and prayers . . . and may all of us hear Jesus calling us by name this Sunday.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Making the extraordinary ordinary

A bit over 24 hours into the week that has so far included: two newborns (one Monday morning, one Monday afternoon) with severe congenital malformations that needed urgent surgical attention, each brought to the gate of our yard with a small family entourage looking for reassurance and advice and financial help to seek care more centrally at a more resourced Ugandan hospital than our District can manage. A meeting with the highest elected official in our district to plead the injustice of a relatively wealthy policeman (big nice house and business in the top 1%) using the courts to not only reclaim a 7-acre piece of land his dad sold the mission 23 years ago to finance this man's education, but also to attempt to extort from us fees amounting to three times the actual value of the land. (Which is money that comes right out of the capacity to buy new textbooks for Christ School students, or send those first two babies mentioned above for specialised care). Management of our Area by what's app video calls with 3 different countries, each filled with the rejoicing alertness of God's work in various lives but also with unsolvable dilemmas occasioned by living unreachable by elderly parents or living with the trauma of nearby warfare and displaced people and intractable poverty. Trekking down to CSB for a couple hours and marking the goodness of having had a "Director of Development" for the last 3 years, an experienced educator pour into the capacity of staff to change the lives of students, and hearing those staff recognise the milestone of such service with thanks. Spending another couple hours with that family's kids as they prepare to move to Kenya, taking time to verbalise the paradox of gratitude and grief. And in between all the above, sometimes during it, the peppering of lesser issues, quick meetings about schedules or strategies or needs, queries from a former student who is distressed by lack of employment, a parent who had hoped his child would be sponsored for school by us, neighbours with chronic hypertension or diabetes or a resolving infection or just a proposed project that want empathy and assistance. 

That's actually a pretty ordinary start to a week, though the nature of the rare anomalies and the sheer scale of the corruption and the deep grief of saying goodbye to 7/22 team mates within a week's time felt extraordinary. 

As we keep marching through the Jesus story in John this Lent, today's poem (Biola Lent site, Mary Karr) said 
"But we want magic, to win
the lottery we never bought a ticket for. . . " 
Yep, that's what I want. But the poet goes on to say voice of God is "small & fond & local". 

And there is the dilemma. When the broken world's edges scratch us, they feel extraordinarily damaging and sorrowful, even though we know that the entire continent is reeling with the same babies prone to early death or greedy men stealing from the poor. When we miss our own family and have to say goodbye to team mates, it feels extraordinary, even though our choices have caused that pain for others too and in 2023 global mobility is widespread.  When we, like the people of Palestine scrutinising Jesus, see that he can suspend entropy and remake eyes and turn water to wine . .  . we ask for the magic ticket to fix everything and do it now. He heals a finite number of sufferers, feeds a countable number of people on a hillside, even raises a friend from the dead. Extraordinary events, so shocking we call them miracles. But their very notoriety exists because they are the exception, not the rule.

Instead Jesus refused to call down angel armies and burn through all evil instantaneously.  He left us with an example and a mission that is small, fond, and local. Helping the two families with babies on our doorstep, while knowing there are dozens and hundreds and thousands more with challenges. Struggling to keep one school afloat, which has slowly infiltrated many aspects of this place with life even though we are a tiny drop in the national picture. Resisting one person bent on injustice even though so many others are not stopped. And not in that 24 hours but the 24 before it, praying with a family devastated by a teenage pregnancy that sent a life into a tragic direction . .  we can't fix that at all, and carry the weighty sorrow that that story is one of hundreds around us. 

But we stick with all those tiny bearing of burdens and small flickers of light, because the end of the story has a plot twist. The extraordinary will become ordinary. The exception will become the rule. The newborn will be young as a 100 year old Isaiah says, the Psalms are full of visions where justice reigns and ends evil, Revelation pictures us in a crowd of beauty with no more goodbyes. Until then, here we are.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Sustenance, Safety, and Significance: giving them up for Lent or forever?

 One day this week, Scott was gathering supplies for fixing Christ School's broken pieces and deteriorated problems. A phrase I read in Isaiah for the beginning of Lent came to mind: you will be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell in. That's Scott's groove, repair and restore, re-settling scraping doors, repainting peeling walls, finding solutions for trash or for water run-off, remaking an unusable stove or rehanging a broken gutter. The reality is that people leave and moth and rust do corrupt and thieves do break in and steal, so those who stick around have some non-glamorous work. He sorts through barrels of nails and screws for the right one, talks to curious people in the market, does small experiments to see what works. Sustaining a school is no joke, or a team, or an Area. Or a wife. We constantly feel needy, for so many things.

While he was scouring town for supplies, I was walking up the road in the mid-day sun, the dry embers of a rain-deprived season that has left even our jungle crunchy, hazy, parched. I had come past the old airstrip, marvelling at the hours we used to spend hauling the mower and meeting planes, grateful for the road now but a little sad to see the encroaching gardens confirming the end of that small-plane era. Once upon a time, that airstrip was a lynchpin of our safety.  (Today is son #2's 28th birthday, and he made it to a term delivery partly in thanks to the fact that we were one of the early flights out of here to deliver at Kijabe). So may memories of this airstrip during ADF attacks, during Ebola. A mile later I happened to be passing a village that is difficult to recognise now with the pavement and bridges and change, but I remembered the many times I had followed up on a little girl who lived there, K. Grace. She was my patient for some years whose rare neurological infection made her limbs and voice spiral out of her control, but did not dampen her spirit. She had a family that managed with some nutritional help and support of a padded chair to keep her in school, which she loved. Her life was short, but I'm still glad to have been part of it. But sobering to raise kids in a place that needed an airstrip and that had dangers like Grace encountered.

Yesterday we were in Fort Portal getting car work done, and while we waited we walked up to Mountains of the Moon. This used to be almost the only place in town to order food, which took hours to prepare, but we would come and open our mail from the post office and the kids would chase a ball around the grass while we sat reading the letters and the staff no doubt scoured around town to find the one or two items on the menu to prepare. Decades later, the grass and porch remain but the whole place has received a major upgrade, and the road nearby has offices for Dutch and British and Irish government assistance, Baylor's AIDS project. Dozens of non-African organisations now base their work here, choosing the pleasant climate and order and convenience of this spot. The area carries an aura of significance, of people with money and skills that make things happen, people in the know. I have to admit that looks tempting, the climate and the tea and the respect. 

These three little moments do have a relationship, besides occurring within a couple of days. Fixing broken things and people still take up many hours of the days, struggling to sustain ourselves and our work. Listening, researching, making decisions, helping with referrals, we still spend lots of energy on the safety of people we care for. And the increasingly tedious piles of administration usually done from a 90+ degree home office don't always feel significant, but we do try to make a difference.  Those seem like good goals.

Jesus started his ministry with 40 days in the wilderness, and the Lent readings start there too. Not straight to the seat of power, but out to the rough edges. This time reading through the temptation narrative it struck me: how reasonable to ask God for sustenance (turn these stones to bread), for safety (send angels to catch the fall), for significance (let the people respect the good you're trying to do).  I certainly pray for those things. It's not like the tempter was trying to lure Jesus into an orgy or to benefit from drug money. Food when we're hungry, a barrier from harm when we slip and fall, success in our realm of influence. If this was any normal Kingdom, that's exactly the kind of wins we would expect to be promised. They all sound good, and indeed they all can be good. But Jesus didn't take any short cuts to Heaven. He held onto the paradoxical way of the cross. Even at the beginning he was choosing a lonely counterintuitive path that would require death to bring life. He said no, to the quick fixes of bread, of help, of power.

So as we now are a week into Lent, and almost 30 years into this life, and we have to keep asking for God to mercifully give us what we need not what we want. To choose Him over sure-fire success in being established, safe, recognised. To walk with Jesus through this wilderness of uncertainty and hardship, trusting that even hunger, danger, and obscurity will be redeemed for good. Not going to pretend we have that down pat in spite of all the opportunity to practice. Still need grace.

Just one Happy Birthday photo to end with . . . 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Ashes and Dust : Lent as a narrative re-set

 Ash Wednesday turns a corner in the year, from the celebratory relief of Christmas and Epiphany, incarnation and escape and the good news crossing national and cultural boundaries, the songs of Mary and Simeon and Anna full of vision for the triumph of good over evil, for the remaking of all things into a just world of reversal and joyful surprise . . . to the somber reality of how that will happen. We trade in the sparkling lights and festive gifts. Now we enter a 40-day reflection symbolised by ashes and dust. 

(just scrolled back on my phone to find these photos of a brick kiln and the roadside, dust and ashes in Bundi)

Abraham and Job used that phrase, ashes and dust, to mourn their powerlessness. Ashes, the remnant of an offering consumed by fire, destroyed beyond recognition. Dust, the poetic substrate and ultimate state of the carbon-based world of life, including humans. 

Lent asks us to reset our drive to control and produce and succeed.  To reflect that God's method of salvation does not align with our choice narratives. My Bible reading last week was from Mark 9, which pretty clearly lays out this dilemma. Jesus takes his close friends up on a mountain to pray in peace and quiet, and they witness for a brief time a truer vision of who he is, filled with light and speaking with heroes of the faith in another dimension. They even hear the voice of God. They are all in. Ready to stay there for the duration, build shrines. But Jesus says no, and quotes from Isaiah 53, asking them to grapple with that prophecy of a suffering servant. He changes the story from glowing glory, to a rejected and bleeding figure. In the aftermath of seeing a Heavenly power, they resist the path of death. As do we all. They trudge down, begrudgingly, to find a crowd. The disciples have tried to heal a young boy, using power they thought they could wield over an evil spirit that harmed him. Jesus sighs and talks to the parents about belief, fasting, prayer. Lord I believe, help my unbelief, says the father. An honest prayer of struggling faith, followed by the boy appearing dead but standing up when Jesus takes his hand. One quiet healing, personal and draining. But not yet the dramatic victory that the mountaintop seemed to promise.

Me too, I'd like to see Jesus and Elijah and Moses with fire and sword blaze right through Bundibugyo, East and Central Africa, eliminating child hunger and deceptive traps and desperate poverty and selfish curses, like to see everyone so overwhelmed by God's beauty and power all else pales. Frankly the interminable bureaucracy, hourly knocks from people who are sick or hungry or lonely, the students who will miss out on education due to lack of funding, the corrupt processes, the inevitable moving on of people we depend on and care about . . . when you're living at the edge of the fray, it's easy to want a dramatic narrative of visible victory. I'd like to be more comfortable, or more famous, or feel more worthy.

Instead, we need a 40 day pace of dust and ashes, of reality check. The prizes that appeal, the crutches that numb distress or distract from sorrow, none of those are the real goal. A new world is coming, but not by might. Jesus leads us to the cross. To a call to let go of what looks like life, and trust him for what really is life. To hold on through hard, hard days and weeks and years because He's bringing goodness by His own suffering. To stay in the story because the days of Lent and crucifixion end in Easter and resurrection. Life is coming, not in spite of dust and ashes, but because of dust and ashes.

The call to ashes and dust is an invitation to God. To mercy, love, justice, hope, healing. May we spend the next tough weeks of February and March believing that. Our world is dusty and singed and we pray with a kernel of belief,  but needing help for our unbelief. And that's what is promised.

    Some dusted-off pictures of the hope we're heading towards, from this week:

Piper's birthday with her beloved teachers

CSB new class of senior one students arriving .. . . 

Helped by upperclassmen and student leaders to move into the dorms.

Weekly women's bible study transformed to a birthday celebration for Alexis

Our BundiNutrition Administrator Bwampu keeps this huge, important program running to feed hungry children. We were delighted to visit him this morning as his wife delivered their 4th last night. Welcome Anna.

This is real: dust became flesh, a baby willingly entered the burning destruction of ashes to pull us through to life. And so we wait through Lent two thousand years later, still trying to reset our story to grasp such mystery.

IF your'e still here . . . two resources. We have loved the Biola University daily Lent and Advent offerings for years, they combine art, music, poetry, scripture and meditation. 2023 Lent will focus on the Gospel of John, and we are focusing here daily as a team. 

Serge has a great post listing some free resources as well as recommended books for Lent here. 

I also try to keep up with daily lectionary readings, here or what I actually use is the app created by Church House Publishing.