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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Countdown Days

Just what we need in our last ten days . . . another animal. Scott is the kind of farmer that tries to leave the loose ends tied up . . so we are "renting" the services of a handsome bull, hoping that Truffle (who is now old enough) and DMC (who is pouring out the milk, but needs to be pregnant again to keep it up) will tolerate his interests and bless the team with two more calves in nine months. Hysterically, this bull (whom we are calling Shadow, because he is smitten by Truffle and has become her shadow) had to be accompanied by his own little herd to the pasture. Yes, we had to pay an extra two dollars so the group of a half-dozen could be herded to escort him to our house, just like a traditional introduction party. They stood outside the fence, he was herded into the pasture, the gate shut, they went home. A simple but traditional marriage.
We're living off the milk basically. There is so much of it. Making very thick yoghurt and using local honey, for a taste that reminds us of Greece and the dreamy promised land descriptions in the Bible. Lunch is often an avocado from our tree, combined with lemons (which are green in Uganda!) from another tree. I know we're heading to a land of abundance, but we'll miss the food that comes right from our yard.
We sort out files in our office, burn 90%, and then try to explain the remaining 10% to Travis and Amy. Life is so much more complex than when we started, so they have to jump in full steam ahead where we had years to gradually build up to this pace. I hope lots of people are praying for them. Garnering more prayer has to be one of our biggest priorities in the five months stateside.
Meanwhile Heidi braves the hospital with Assusi, giving care and the dignity of listening and touching to the ill and dying. I feel guilty preparing to leave while children are such terrible condition. But the truth is only Jesus can heal them, through others as well as through me, and in His mercy He's calling a good number to Heaven these days. As Travis and Heidi keep reminding us, if Heaven were here already, we wouldn't need to be. OK, you're right. It's a long, slow process. And it will have to continue for many, many more years.
And lastly, CSB staff Bible studies, chapel, meetings, chats. Very encouraged by Eric's teaching from 1 Corinthians chapter 1. Paul writes glowing things to a church that later in the letter turns out to need reprimands for immorality, idolatry, strife, disorder, all kinds of mess. Because Paul knows that God's grace is at work. We don't have to pretend that Bundibugyo is in great shape to justify leaving. Bundibugyo is a mess. We are a mess. The world is a mess. But the Kingdom comes, slowly, surely.

The Feast and the Cross

Sort of stuck in Luke 14.  A good place to be.  After meditating on how we steel ourselves for battle only to find out that the draft letter is really an invitation to a party . . . kept reading and the whole analogy shifts from the FEAST to the CROSS.  So death is there after all.  

For any missionaries out there, I'm sorry to tell you, that you don't finish with verse 26-27 when you leave America and land in Uganda. . . . thought we checked that box off, only to find it coming back around, again. The same leaving, letting go, counting cost, applies again in the other direction.  In fact, it is a life-long process, this consciously agreeing to suffer for something better.  To carry the means of our eventual death right in the footsteps of Jesus.  I know we have only a shallow glimpse of what this means.  

The table is spread, but it is set up by candlelight in the valley of the shadow of death, right in the presence of the Enemy.  The feast is offered, but this course at least is served on the battlefield.  

A cost is paid because we value the item we are buying more than the money we spend.  Cost costs.  It hurts, for a while.  But the forsaking all to be a disciple is the best bargain ever offered.  Bitterness for peace, we keep hearing, by faith.

Our team prayed through this chapter for us this morning, interspersed with many of my favorite team worship songs.  Hard and beautiful.  The chapter ends with a prayer for saltiness, which is going to be our prayer for our time in America.  First, that we would be seasoning, a preserving flavor that is noticeably different, never bland, that we would give people a thirst for Jesus.  Second, that we'd be sprinkled in small doses that lend interest and life (hope no one wants to spew us out if we over-stay!).  

Salt is necessary at a feast . . and also goes on wounds.  Let us hold together the communion paradox of the celebratory meal in the presence of death.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bundibugyo ebolavirus, the official story

This was published on a CDC website this month, authored by the team from Uganda's Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization who responded to the crisis:

A friend sent me the link today, and I have read it with a mixture of memories, the stomach-pit reality of those 39 deaths returns quickly, the fear and uncertainty that once gripped this place still feels very fresh.  But the list of authors also reads like a list of heros, the men and women who descended upon Bundibugyo and set up isolation wards and contact-tracing methods and burial teams, who ferried blood samples and held daily briefing meetings.  

So let us pause and remember the fallen.  And remember those still picking up the pieces in the wake of tragedy, like Melen.  And thank God for those who persevere in seeking out the source, and the cure.

Party Planning

What if you had to list 421 friends, and then plan a meal that will realistically satisfy 600?  While we've been talking about a "farewell" for the last week or two, today we finally got serious.  Pat is calling the committee together tomorrow.  Our theme is "Basaija bya Kusiima" (OK we're going to check the Lubwisi), "Testimonies of Thanksgiving" for what God has done in the last 17 years that we and Pat have lived here in Bundi, and we're pushing against a few stiff post-colonial official-function norms by having lunch first (not at 6 pm when everyone is starving and exhausted), by allowing open-mike times of praise in various categories instead of a set schedule of big-men's speeches, by inviting four choirs to present new and original local-language praise songs and dances.  It is intimidating to undertake such an event.  I'm not really sure we'll pull it off.  Prayers appreciated, for July 11.  

My Bible reading today fell on Luke 14, the parable of the great supper.  A man prepares a feast but when his servants distribute the invitations, everyone has an excuse.  Not a very encouraging reading for the day of party planning, I'm afraid.  But what is so interesting is that the excuses in Luke are the very ones offered in Deuteronomy 20 as reasonable exemptions for particular soldiers entering battle.  Since God is fighting the wars for them, He graciously sends home those with new lands, new vineyards, new wives.  Which seems to mean that in Luke 14, the guests mistake their dinner invitation for a draft-letter into battle.  The host, representing God, has prepared a sumptuous and good event.  The people, representing us, sense a risky conscription to war, and balk.  

So how does that fit in our life right now?  It's complicated, so hold on.  We're the party planners in Bundibugyo, yes, but not the host in the Kingdom story.  We're actually the invited guests.  This party, this packing, this departure, this new season of service, is what God is inviting US TO COME TO, and in my heart I'm hesitating, gathering excuses.  Because I see it as being drafted into a dangerous situation of potential loss.  When all the while God is trying to give me something good.  We think the taste will be bitter, but God knows that He's dishing out peace (Is 38 again).

And meanwhile I do think of July 11 as more like walking into the valley of death (goodbyes, tears, potentially hurting anyone left out, chaos, not enough food, rain, etc. ) than as sitting down to a great feast.  Faith still needed, even in this final stretch.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pray for CSB

This morning we went to chapel at CSB, which we often do on the last Sunday of the month as visiting parents are welcome that day. And we were delighted to listen to the preaching of Eric. Eric was a former teacher who wrote to us a few months ago asking if he could do an internship in the midst of his seminary studies, coming back to live and minister in Nyahuka. We knew we'd have little to offer him in our transitional stress . . but Scott also saw that the school could use his gifts, and so we took the risk of asking him to come in spite of everything else going on. Today we are glad that he accepted.
First, because of who Eric is. A teacher who is now a student. A chemical scientist who now deals in unseen matters of the heart. An African married to an American. A believer from a Pentecostal persuasion attending a very conservative reformed seminary. An Eastern Ugandan from a relatively educated and well-to-do clan choosing to live in a very poor area of Western Uganda. A person with a keen mind and a sensitive spirit. Someone who crosses a lot of barriers, just as the Gospel predicts, breaking down categories and walls. Because God is not contained fully in any of those groups, the juxtaposition and paradox remind us that He is Beyond. And because Eric has grown up in the culture of Ugandan boarding schools, but moved outside of it now, he can use just the right stories and illustrations and proverbs and yet apply them in new ways.
And second, because it is June. Second term. The time of year when schools become restless, when students rebel, when troubles abound. Last year a brewing sense of riot stopped when everyone gathered to pray for Kevin's survival. Last week we understand that a neighboring school suspended classes after students there beat a teacher over a canceled trip and disputed funds. This morning we heard that at our school disgruntled students from the same trouble-stirring class that usually gets blamed bought a padlock and shut the on-duty teacher in his room, because he had confiscated the phones they were not allowed to have on campus let alone charge on school power. This is a very passive-aggressive approach, but potentially a death threat in a place where rebels have locked dorms and homes to burn and kill.
Deus handled it beautifully, seriously, spiritually. Calling the suspect class forward, asking them to kneel, asking others to pray for them. Speaking with a loving firmness that the students seemed to listen to well. One broke down in tears and two others made speeches of apology. None of these, of course, are likely the boys responsible for the actual lock-in. Please pray that what is done in darkness would come to light, as Annelise often requested. That those who wish to destroy the school would be stopped, either by converted hearts or by removal from the premises. That the innocent majority would not suffer as staff become frightened or angry. That Deus would move forward with wisdom. That other teachers, like Eric and Eunice, would be used by God to bring His word and real and lasting change.
Thanks for prayers for CSB . . . and for us, that we would not be so focused on our own departure that we fail to keep on our knees for CSB too.

Conflicts of Interest

Last night was an excruciating one for American soccer fans living in Africa.  The USA team has played against so many odds (two consecutive games with unreasonable calls that negated clear goals) while maintaining team work, spirit, attitude, honor, that we have grown quite excited about them.  It's probably the most America-connected our kids have felt in many years, a good thing as we head to the USA for the rest of 2010.  And yet, this is the first World Cup played in Africa, and there is only one African team left in competition.  Sadly USA had to meet Ghana last night, and someone had to lose.  Our team came over for ice cream sundaes (!), even the Johnson kids who were hours post-bed-time did their best to stay awake, and I even came up with some little American fags to wave while we cheered.  This was one match we decided NOT to watch with our neighbors, as EVERYONE in Africa was rooting for Ghana.

As it turned out, Ghana beat the USA 2 to 1 in overtime.  It was a close and well-played match.  Jack took the loss quite hard.  But no matter what the outcome was last night, we were going to be conflicted.  If the USA had won, we would have been living in a community where our country had dashed the hopes of the continent.  I remember well watching with our students as the younger Ghana team won the under-20 World Cup, an event that instilled hope and courage and pride.

So we are sad that America lost this, proud of their effort, glad that the continent of Africa still has representation going into the quarter-finals, and excited about the potential for football and sports in general to galvanize an entire people to live up to their God-created reality.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Birthday Highs and Lows

Our family often uses "highs and lows" (sometimes three of each, sometimes one or two) around the table as a way to share about the day as we eat dinner.
Low #1: burning life. Somehow I thought the freedom of divesting our selves of so much accumulated junk would feel happier. Instead, it is painful. Yesterday we attacked some shelves that were crammed with school notes. The typical Ugandan educational method is for a teacher to dictate and transcribe a lesson on the chalk board, so the students can enter the sentences word by word into their blank lined-paper books. Imagine the pre-printing-press monks copying the Bible, and you have the basic idea, texts are too expensive so copying is the preferred means of information transfer. Realistically, Luke at Yale and Caleb at RVA will use a library, and internet access . . . they will not need to refer to the pencil-diagrams of flowers or chemical equations in his old notes. But as we piled them up in a wheelbarrow and took them to burn in the trash pit, it felt like we were negating the value of all that effort, erasing all those years of cross-cultural struggle in the classroom. Hard. And from there to the boxes of files under our bed (our bedroom is our office). Old calendars for planning travel and retreats, team meeting notes about issues like school schedules and ministry goals. Documents written up as we planned our nutrition program in 2003. Interviews our interns conducted to research cultural ideas. Letters from people in the US. Bible study notes from my old cell group days. Notes about patients. All to the burn pile, clearing space for whomever will inhabit this house, protecting the privacy of the people in our past . . . but also giving me the sinking feeling of loss, as if by burning the evidence those things did not happen, or are no longer important.
Low #2: discordance. Emails and phone calls about the specifics of what date we can arrive here, or there, and whom we'll see, in countries far away from here. While life here, also goes on. So we're living in the future as well as the present and the past; in three time periods on three continents as we plan our movements for the rest of 2010. And while I know it will all fall together eventually (and much of it already has), when it doesn't seem to, or the dates conflict or the advertised fares are not available, it's hard to focus.
High #1: gifts of friendship. Pies and locally crafted ear rings and a funny story from team mates. Sweet cards from my family. Phone calls from a few different countries. And the graciousness of Pat, who allowed me to invite 5 of my closest Ugandan friends along with Amy to a "tea" at her house in the afternoon. What a gift these women are: Melen, first and foremost, with whom we have gone through births and deaths, the deepest and most significant times of our lives here, from the days we arrived until now, strong and faithful and continuing against the odds. Asita, a real neighbor, the practical support of survival and a hard-working testimony that shines in the community. Olupah and Assusi, women of skill and valor, who battle disease with me shoulder to shoulder day by day. And Juliet, sweet humility and family loyalty, a teacher who is also willing to ask and learn. There's a line in "It's a Wonderful LIfe" about no person being poor who has friends like this. I am blessedly rich in relationship here. But that leads us to . . .
Low #3: making my friends cry. Of course what began as pleasant conversation, shared stories, cold lemonade and cookies, ended in tears and prayer. Because the deeper the truth of friendship, the more excruciating the impending reality of separation. These women have poured into my life at cost to themselves, and right now that cost is very high. Amy shared an image from Psalm 1 on fruit, that was picked up by several in prayer, and came up in my reading again in Isaiah (44) this morning, the promise of our legacy in people springing up as willows along the river banks. Weeping and watering and growth.
High #2: "this dinner". That is often a high of the day as we sit down to the table. Not necessarily the food, though often it is worthy of a high. But after the tearful tea, coming home to cheery kids and Scott grilling chicken, lighting candles with Pat around the table, reminiscing. The feast of family that will move, with us. And lastly . .
High #3: faith. Reading in Joshua again, this post-Bday morning, about Achan, one of those sort of depressing, not-so-inspiring, a-bit-too-violent stories that one might prefer to skip. First steps into the Promised Land and he already refused to burn the loot, and instead hid some for himself, burying it under his tent. Where he could not enjoy it, really, but it made him feel secure. And this made God angry. I could sympathize this time with Achan. Because it's really a matter of faith, burning all the loot. It is a way of saying: God will provide, this is His world, we don't need to grasp. It's OK to let go of the stuff, to burn, to lighten the load for the journey, because the land ahead is good. Let me release my grip on old papers and baby clothes and favorite books, in faith. Not that those things aren't good, or important, or valuable. But like the Israelites, the extravagance of the burn is a way of saying that we know God is more than all of this. Which is definitely a high.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Whose side are you on?

When Joshua approaches Jericho, the first city the Israelites must conquer to possess the land they had left for 400 years as slaves, he looks up and sees a Man with a sword.  And in Joshua's mind, the important question is:  are you for us, or for our adversaries?  I can understand that kind of thinking.  When you spend your days bumping up against broken things, pushing for what seems to be the Kingdom, grieving when hard decisions seem to be made in hurtful ways by others . . well, Joshua and I tend to want to divide the world into "people on my side" and "people who aren't".  

But the Man answers:  No, but as Commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.  Not on any person's side, but working for God.

This is a sobering glimpse of unseen reality.  God has HIS OWN SIDE.  And it is not contained by any particular mission, country, church, denomination, family, or tribe.  As much as we want to claim to speak for Him, He remains outside of us, independent.  But not uninvolved.  The Man is, after all, carrying a sword.  

Since I'm reading through the Bible in several places at once, Joshua 6 got juxtaposed with Luke 12, which also "happened" to be the text for our chaplain's talk at CSB yesterday afternoon!  Verse 5:  FEAR HIM, because that sword-wielding commander has eternal power.  Verse 7:  DO NOT FEAR, because that awesome being also knows every hair on our head, every stumble you take, every need.  So while the Commander of the army of the LORD will not be taking orders from me, He WILL be involved to the tiniest detail to give that which is more than life itself.

Instead of figuring out whose side others are on, we are called to throw our full treasure, our total lot, in with the only side that will survive.  On a day when problems seem large, may we see by faith the the Commander controls the battle.

Some things I'll never get used to . . .

No matter how many years go by.  

Rats.  Taking a shower last night, drying off, turned around to see a very large rat.  He was a bit sluggish, which was why I could trap him under a bucket, hold it down with my foot, get clothes on, and then call for help.  Scott and Julia killed it.  No matter how many years I live here, my startle reflex does not diminish.  

Bodily fluids.  Talking to patients bedside, and getting a warm feeling . . . literally as the baby on the bed behind me soaked my back with a well aimed stream of urine, mom oblivious.  I jumped, mom jumped, baby stopped, I moved out of range (or so I thought) and he let loose in the new direction and got my feet!  At least his hydration shows he's drinking plenty of his milk. 

Dysfunctional families.  Getting histories on the four new "nutrition disaster patients", as Heidi put it, that came in yesterday, plus one more for today . . I hope I never see this as normal.  Happy Malioni is NOT HAPPY.  In fact she's a stunted little toddler, curled up under a sheet with distended weeping skin, and I know my frustrated lecture to her dad about why he disappeared for a WHOLE YEAR since her last admission did not really accomplish anything.  Nor did calling to task the teenage mom of the starving baby in the next bed by begging her parents to take charge.  Nor did finding out the next patient was one of 17 children of 4 wives in her father's home, with not enough food to go around.  Then there are two little girls with severe brain damage, one from a difficult delivery and the other from cerebral malaria, and in a place where kids need to fend for themselves at an early age, those who aren't able tend to slip away.  As much as caring for these kids feels like beating my head against the wall . . .I hope I don't ever stop knocking. Because it's not right.  Hunger season is upon us.

Death.  Heard that one of the nurses from our health center delivered a baby Monday after a long and not-so-well-managed labor, severe gasping distress and unable to be resuscitated.  So today I stopped to say sorry, and pray for her.  The investment of her body and heart for 9 months, and left with nothing but grief.  From there ran into another nurse friend who told me one of our long-term patient/neighbor/friends had died in the night, a teenage boy with a seizure disorder and developmental delay.  His competent, caring, patient mom had brought him to us for many, many years for anticonvulsants.  So I biked up there with our summer intern Anna, to sit hip to hip in the mud-floored house, trying to comfort this lady who was weeping as she gently held the dead hand of her son.  My teenager is about to graduate from high school and go to Yale; hers is dead.  Tears.  Part of almost every woman's life here, the loss of children.

Burdens.  I thought that in these last few weeks, it would be easier to NOT pick up the burdens.  So many things are no longer in our hands.  And I've cut back to only seeing patients one day a week.  But I still care, it is not possible to live here quietly observing without being drawn into the pain, and without trying to bear some of the burdens.  Scott carries even heavier ones, helping dismiss a teacher this week who was causing many difficulties at school, counseling about pregnancies, fixing electricity, sorting out budgets, and on and on.  We may lose another teacher who is trying to get to California to go to a church-based year-long supernatural-ministry training, which will be a blow to the senior students he's preparing for exams this year.  As our team reminds us, God's timescale is LONG.  He's not finished in Bundibugyo, not at all. 

And so while much of life feels very normal (the raucous weavers in the early morning, Asita's laugh as she brings a cooked dinner of beans and pumpkin into the house in pans stacked on her head, Jack and Julia working on a math problem together) there are still some very broken parts of this place that I hope I will never, even when I'm gone, accept as inevitable or tolerable.  

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Quilting Closure

Today, Julia and I finished her quilt. It has become a family tradition to make each child a quilt as they leave home. For Luke and Caleb, I scrambled to assemble quilts in the summers before they started boarding school at RVA. Since we're ALL leaving home this year . . I had hoped to make Julia and Jack each one, but Jack's will have to wait. He's only 12, after all, and we do have some more life to live before he separates from us I hope.
Julia was intimately involved in her quilt's creation from start to finish, choosing, ironing, holding, pinning, advising. We decided on this triangular pattern because it reminded us of the Rwenzoris, our home. Each peak is comprised of a fabric with a story. Miss Bethany's superwoman T-shirt she bequeathed to Julia, the sling I made her when she broke her arm, costumes from her Phantom Tollbooth Birthday, a dress she had that matched her doll's, our couches and curtains, pillows we used in the truck when traveling, left-overs from her favorite two skirts made locally, her characteristic bandana, school uniforms and soccer shirts, and even the matching outfits our team wore just this month for our dance-skit at the WHM retreat (Lisa Wood has it on video, pretty impressive). These are set against a subtle old-fashioned background: a rose-patterned cotton that has its own story. When we first came to Uganda in 1993, one of my dear friend and supporters, Judy Schenk, who rode on the rescue squad with me when I was in college and sensed the need for beauty in any life, donated this fabric from which I made our first set of curtains in our house. So we have the colorful pattern of our Rwenzori life set on the background of loving supporters.
The narrow pink border is my love, surrounding Julia's life. It was cut from our "Happy Pants", matching mother-daughter capris we inherited as hand-me-downs from my sister and niece. They were so wild and bright we felt happy just putting them on, and since they were culturally inappropriate to wear out of the house we often celebrated "family nights" at home in them.
And the wide outermost border represents the ocean of God's love, in which we live. It is a hand-dyed fabric I bought from a women's self-help group on Bushara Island, Lake Bunyoni, and calls to mind depth, water, billows, movement, infinity.
After months of work slowly by slowly, it is spread on the bed beside me now, soon to be packed. And now that it's done, I see the parable of our life in the process. Snippets and fragments, bits and pieces from here and there. Cut. Sometimes painfully. Sometimes inexplicably. But in God's hands the pieces are rearranged. One color contrasts and sets off another. The random shapes fit together. The juxtaposition of American and Uganda creates something new. From a pile of scraps a thing of beauty and warmth emerges, useful and pleasing. What was once a dress or a curtain becomes a blanket, changed, both old and new, with a story to tell. A bit like us, I hope.
And at least 3 of 4 kids have a good physical reminder of the only home they've known. . . someone hold me to my promise to not forget Jack!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

bitterness for peace

I said, In the prime of my life I shall go to the gates of Sheol;
Deprived of the remainder of my years . . 
I have cut off my life like a weaver,
He cuts me from the loom. . .
What shall I say?
He has both spoken to me,
And He Himself has done it.
I shall walk carefully all my years
In the bitterness of my soul. . . 

Indeed it was for my own peace 
That I had great bitterness;
But you have lovingly delivered my soul from the pit of corruption,
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.

This poetry comes from Isaiah 38.  The King has just been rescued from certain doom by the angel of the LORD killing a camp-full of Assyrian besiegers, but his great joy in deliverance is muted when he falls prey immediately afterwards to a fatal illness.  Hezekiah is having a very bad year, but he throws himself once again on God's mercy through prayer, and God decides to give him 15 more years of life.  This is poem is Hezekiah's response.  As I woke up early this morning feeling sad, unsettled, and anxious, this phrase really sunk in:  It was for my own peace that I had great bitterness.

This is the promise I am clinging to right now.  Because these days are bitter.  In church this morning the children's choir was announced, and I turned to see the 8 or so kids coming up.  Aligonilla met my eye, and smiled.  There he was in his best clothes, a rumpled white button-down shirt and worn tennies, hands in his pockets, mouthing a few of the words and concentrating on the steps of the shuffling dance.  He is a pale, shrimpy, little belly-distended 8ish year old boy whose life I have fought for untold times since he was born, one of the last surviving siblings in a family devastated by sickle cell.  Singing.  In the church choir led by his uncle, a fine young man who has been friends with and helped by many missionaries, now in a teaching job with Melen's Alpha Nursery and Primary school.  Aligonilla is as weak as they come, Byamuntula is one of our hopes for a redeemed Bundibugyo.  And they are both hard to leave behind. Though we are peripheral in each others' lives, we are present, and threads must be cut as we part.  This weekend we've had lots of visits, my widowed and disenfranchised neighbors who value our belief in them, one of our first house-workers who looked stricken to find out he wouldn't have another chance to say goodbye to Luke, one of our sponsored "sons" who chatted at length about school and life, and on an on.  And then we turn from visits to a trunk of old stuffed animals, each with a story of being given and being loved.  This is a life that has held together against many odds.

And is now being disentangled, cut from the loom, with an unraveling of the place we've been given in our community.  It is a bitter process.

But Hezekiah saw that the bitterness he was given was for his own peace.  Not just sadness, but sadness with a purpose and a meaning.  I miss Luke and Caleb.  A lot.  Leaving here brings us towards them.  I have not seen most of my family or Scott's in well over three years (except my mom, who visited here two years ago).  That's a long time in these days of short terms and quick trips.  Gently God is trying, at times, to remind me that it is for my own peace that He is giving the present bitterness.    

Bitterness for peace, and the hope of fifteen more years, different ones, but good ones all the same.

More Uganda-in-the-News

This piece was written by the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, about AIDS in Uganda this week, a topic close to our hearts:

At Uganda's largest AIDS clinic recently, I witnessed a remarkable celebration of life. The performers were a troupe of young African singers, drummers and dancers, ranging in age from 8 to 28. Rarely have I been so profoundly moved.

"This is a land," they sang,

"Where beautiful people

"Laugh and dance in harmony.

"Africa. O Africa."

Listening, it was hard to imagine that they easily could be dead - and would be, save for this clinic.

Each of those splendid performers is living with HIV. Some arrived at the clinic so ill they could scarcely walk. Others showed few symptoms but, having tested positive, came to be treated. They were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, children and grandparents. All were alive and healthy for one reason only: the Joint Clinical Research Center, in Kampala, and the drugs that it provides them.

Uganda was the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. There the scourge began in earnest; there (as elsewhere in Africa) it exacts its highest toll. Yet Uganda also is a success story. A decade ago, fewer than 10,000 people were on the new generation of antiretroviral drugs that suppress the disease and offer the promise of a normal life. Today, that figure is 200,000, thanks in large measure to generous support from the United States and the Global Fund in Geneva.

We have seen similarly encouraging progress elsewhere. Botswana, among others, has invested heavily to offer universal treatment and now is well on its way to ensuring that no baby is born with HIV - a reality in developed countries, but not so in Africa where 400,000 children are born with the disease each year. South Africa, with the largest number of people living with HIV, has spent nearly $1 billion over the past year in an ambitious counseling and testing campaign to roll back the epidemic.

And yet, there is a new and growing danger that these advances might not be sustained. Dr. Peter Mugyenyi, who runs the Joint Clinical Research Center, told me why. Part of the problem is the sheer weight of numbers. In Uganda, he explained, only about half of those with HIV/AIDS are being treated. Meanwhile, money for treatment is drying up. Because of the global recession, some international donors are threatening to cap their financial support.

In Kampala, Mugyenyi has begun placing new patients on a waiting list. Countries such as Malawi, Zimbabwe and Kenya, as well as Uganda, are requesting assistance for emergency drug supplies. As many as 7 million Africans with HIV who should be getting treatment are not. Worldwide, the number is about 10 million.

Compounding the problem: Donors also have been shifting their focus from AIDS to other diseases, where there is a sense that more lives can be saved more cheaply. In other words, at a time when we should be scaling up to meet the AIDS challenge, we are dialing back. In our global war on AIDS, the international community is on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Those who rallied to the fight are alarmed. They fear the impressive gains of the past decade will be lost. "We are sitting on a time bomb," Mugyenyi told me. Every day, he is forced into moral choices that no one should have to make. How do you choose, after all, to treat a young girl but not her little brother? How do you turn away a pregnant mother, sitting with her children, crying for help?

Surely we can do better. In Kampala, I promised I would do everything I could to help. In Washington recently, the United Nations rolled out an action plan that should dramatically accelerate progress on maternal and child health, including HIV. At the International AIDS Conference in Vienna next month, I hope the international community will rally around UNAIDS' launch of Treatment 2.0 - the next generation of HIV treatment, which must be more affordable, more effective and accessible to all. As chair of this year's replenishment of the Global Fund, I urge all donors to see to it that countries such as Uganda get the support they need, so that Mugyenyi need not make those difficult choices.

Yes, times are hard. That is all the more reason to act out of compassion and with generosity.

• Ban Ki-moon is secretary-general of the United Nations.

Uganda, national day of repentance and prayer

It was announced in church, and in the newspapers today, that President Museveni has listened to prophetic warnings about impending bloodshed and disaster for Uganda, and called for a day of repentance and prayer, following the example of Abraham Lincoln in 1863.  Here is and excerpt from the press release:  

"Accordingly, I have declared that on Sunday June 20, 2010, at 9:00am at Kololo Independence Ground, we shall gather together for a special day of prayer and repentance. This is so that together we may thank God and seek his mercy and forgiveness for this great and chosen nation," the president said.

According to a programme released by the planning committee chaired by Ethics minister Dr. James Nsaba Buturo, the list of sins Ugandans will repent of includes corruption, tribalism, Idolatry, Bloodshed, political injustices (election malpractices, violence, abuse of human rights), unholy priesthood, selfishness, pride, sexual perversion, witchcraft, ancestral worship among many others.

Let us join Ugandans in examining our own hearts and pleading for God's mercy.  In 2011 both Sudan and Uganda will hold elections, potentially pivotal for good or for evil.  Both are places where oil resources could bring great blessing or continued unrest, where the struggle between national African governments and corporate interests outside of Africa threaten to harm the people on the ground.  Kenya was just rocked by violence during a protest rally concerning the vote on a new constitution.  Congo plans for its 50th anniversary of independence on the 30th of June, and is sending the unpopular MONUC armies out.  All these countries surround us, and are places with strong Christian influences where the people of God can lead the way in blessing the nations.  

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Going Out, Coming In

Yesterday I sent an email out, desperate for prayer. Three weeks and a day until we fly out of Bundibugyo.  The last push.  Hard.

The daily Psalm that morning had been 121, my Dad's favorite.  It ends with: The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in, from this time forth, and even forevermore.

Going out of Bundi  . . . we ask for grace to bless others as we leave, as we say thank you, as we encourage, as we acknowledge what God is done while not pretending that His work is complete.  Coming in to America . . we ask for grace again to bless others as we come, as we say thank you, as we encourage, as we tell the story of Bundibugyo and ignite more prayer.  Already we've glimpsed God's preserving.  Without our asking, a family in our main supporting church offered us use of their car while we're on furlough.  Another friend offered to contribute to our airfare.  We're being kept, preserved, in the coming and going.

Our team listened to a sermon by Tim Keller from September last year, as Redeemer in NYC celebrated their 20th anniversary.  Something like our time now (well, only by a generous stretch of the imagination can we compare ourselves to Redeemer!).  The topic was HOPE, real Christian hope.  Real confidence that the last 20 years have brought permanent change, and that though the immediate future might involve suffering and even death the ultimate future is a guaranteed GOOD thing.  Living in a way that is different, that calls people to believe . . . but that also says clearly that we will sacrifice to make this place (Bundibugyo or New York) a great place for you to live whether you believe or not.  

Trying to keep that in view, as we go out and come in.

World Cup Fans

Yes, we're supposed to be packing. And we really are. Yesterday we cleared out three huge shelves of medical supplies from our store room. Sorting every medicine, getting rid of anything expired, carting the rest down to the hospital store for use there. Mostly what we have left: protective gear in case of ebola again. Glad to pass it on. Expired anesthetics, by the way, in glass vials, explode pretty dramatically when burned in a trash pit. And sound a lot like the irregular sharp pops of machine gun fire. Thankfully our neighbors were watching (as always) and no one panicked. Today we unloaded the attic: stacks of decades-old medical journals to burn, empty boxes that had become rat nests (Julia pointed out that one said "Nest Soap" on the side, so maybe we have literate rats), an old fan that eats too much electricity, and dusty baby-gear that somehow escaped being passed on, like a potty, a broken wagon, duplo boards. Lots of dust, and lots of memories.
In between, we watch World Cup matches, along with the rest of the world. Where else do you see young men from countries as diverse and conflict-prone as North Korea or Slovenia out on a field of non-lethal battle, testing their mettle, striving for victory, controlled by rules and sportsmanship? It's fantastic. The sheer volume and uniformity make it different than the Olympics I think. The world comes together and we see that people are people everywhere. No matter what the language or skin hue, when the team misses a close shot, everyone's hands go instinctively to their heads, the same gestures. When the anthems are played, everyone looks misty-eyed and proud. When the team succeeds, everyone jumps and hugs and acts wild. And football is an equalizing kind of sport. Not much equipment is needed for kids to grow up playing, and practicing. Sure, all the England players make boatloads of money in the Premier League. But the Ghanaians, coming from a place of poverty, can just as likely win.
And yesterday, we were proud to be Americans. Hoarse, but proud. Our team came from behind at the half to rally with passion and skill. They scored two goals, turning what had looked like an inevitable defeat into a tie. Then one of our players was fouled at the edge of the box in a blatant attempt to trip up a score. No red card? No penalty shot? Not fair, but we can still do it. Donovan crosses the ball on a free kick into the tangle of bodies in front of the goal. On the replay one can see at least three opponents basically body-slamming American players to the ground. But Edu (American) comes through, meets the ball, clean shot, goal. Victory is in hand. But then, wait, as the crowd erupts and the players celebrate, the ref (who has been notoriously power-playing throughout the match) has whistled the goal off. He negates the score. No explanation. The commentators on every channel review the footage. No one has a clue why the goal is disallowed. The ref refuses to answer the players on the field. The match ends as a tie. We're still in the running, but barely. Afterwards the reporters swarm the American coach, Bob Bradley, and the team captain, Landon Donovan. Both give inspiring, gracious interviews. They do not stoop to accusation, they admit honest disappointment and puzzlement, they vow to fight on. It was a class act.
So, an opportunity for young men from all over the world to test and prove themselves, for fans to cheer and glory, for Africa to be showcased as a continent of beauty and order, for a pause in all the other problems of life. And an opportunity for us to turn from sad, messy, sorting and packing for a couple of hours here and there. We're fans.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why Missionaries Struggle with Grace

As we returned, Travis called a great prayer meeting for all of us to just touch base, catch up, hear what God had been doing in our hearts.  And several people mentioned either significant struggles with identity/God's love issues, or significant lightning-moment apprehensions of God's grace.  It is, of course, what WHM talks about a lot.  And the heart of the way the reformation presents the Gospel.  So it's no surprise that we also seek to grasp the reality of God's unconditional approving love.

But it strikes me that one reason it is so hard, is that it is the opposite of being cross-culturally sensitive.  A good missionary is supposed to be alert to WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK.  What is culturally appropriate?  If I don't attend this burial will I send the wrong message?  If I wear those jeans will I cause others to stumble?  Should I let these kids do what they want, or reprimand them for their behaviour?  Is it OK to hurt someone else's feelings for my kids' sake?  So on one hand we have a whole way of life built around the mantra that we should enter into a culture by understanding it, thinking through the unspoken rules, adapting our thoughts and actions to those of our hosts.  

Then on the other hand we have the reality of grace:  nothing we do makes us more or less loved by God.  We are not measured by what other people think of us.  We have freedom.  

It's no wonder that cross-cultural living is probably the hardest place to hold a balance on this tension of self-censure for cultural appropriateness vs. basking in the unmerited approval of God.  I'm sure that this is yet another paradox that in the end does not need to be one, that living in the light of grace lets us willingly adapt to any culture.  But in practice, it's a tricky paradox to navigate.

Living in Ambiguity

Back home.  But never quite at home.  

Our trip in DRC helped us remember what it is like to be a new missionary.  All old(er) people like us should probably land periodically in a new country where we can't speak the language, don't know the way, and have to depend on someone half our age to take care of us.  While it was kind of nice (being taken care of!), by the end of the week I think we experienced again just what all new missionaries do:  being helpless, and being unknown.  Watching for cues.  Not knowing what was going on.  Asking a hundred questions.  Not knowing what should happen next.  Wondering what people were thinking.  Hoping we weren't causing too much trouble.  When I said some of this to our team mates I could see their faces light up.  Forgive us for forgetting what it is like to be new, and rootless!  Communication is a human attribute, so the entry into a new country where one can not communicate is rather dehumanizing.  And as people grow, they develop in the context of relationship.  Suddenly being in a new country, plucked out of the complex web, is strangely disorienting.  I hope I can remember that as our intern arrives this weekend.

So as we crossed the border back into Uganda, what a relief.  Before we were even through customs a friendly voice (in English) was calling "Doctor, how are you!"  The comprehension, linguistic and relational, was back.  Tuesday Scott and I basically walked around greeting people, something we don't do enough, spending the lunch period with the CSB staff, then Alpha Primary, Melen, the Health Center, some friends along the road.  We knew who we were talking to, and how to say it.  Weds he was in marathon school meetings and I caught up with cooking and survival, and today I went to the hospital while Scott is working on financial and computer issues.  It's good to be home.

However, we still feel the unease of ambiguity.  Who are we for these next 3 to 4 weeks?  Not team leaders anymore, and Scott is not officially Field Director until November.  We have entered the transition zone in a major way.  Suddenly it's all up for grabs:  where to start, who to give what, when or if to go to the hospital, how to arrange life temporarily while closing it up.  This is unfamiliar territory once again.  Not quite Congo, but not quite normal Bundibugyo life either.  The kids feel it. Are they still CSB students?  Will teachers be offended if they don't go to class?  Will they crumble emotionally if we push them to keep up old routines while plunging into packing and closure?  

So we need prayer in the ambiguity of this season, help in navigating this shadowy country of not-quite-gone-but-fading.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Congo Diaries, part 7

We have been traveling in Eastern Congo for almost a week, but without internet access, so all the posts have been piling up. Short version: flew to Bunia, drove to Nyankunde where a mission hospital is being resurrected, and then Epulu to see the famed Okapi Reserve. Back via Oicha and Beni. About 640 km of driving through an area that has been known for war, destruction, rape, and death on an unprecedented scale over the last decade-and-then-some (in the last year we've been to Rwanda, South Sudan, Gulu, and now East Congo, sort of have a theme going). But also a region that is rich in mission history, and on the verge of re-emergence. In most of the place, life goes on, as it ever has, in simple subsistence and family, work and worship. When the troubling conflicts are acknowledged, they are uneasily relegated to outside influences. The MONUC presence is muted, behind brick walls and barbed wire, and probably resented. And in this place where missionaries laid down their lives, countless Catholic priests and nuns and then the faith-based American missions we visited in Bunia, Nyankunde, Oicha, and Beni, in spite of much darkness the Kingdom holds on, both in people and in institutions. It is easy to be bleak and critical about Congo from afar, even from just over the border where we've watched. Our original "Africa Team" calling as we came out of college was to invest in the Batalinga of Eastern Congo, until we found out they are the same as the more numerous Babwisi of Western Uganda where World Harvest asked us to go instead. And as it turned out, in spite of our own rebels and Ebola and other heartaches, Bundibugyo has been a more stable base, and we see God's mercy in giving us that place to love. But a part of our hearts has always listened and ached for Eastern Congo, and now rejoices to see much good here.
For the long version, read the six posts below.

Hotel Congo

You can check in, but you can't check out. At least that's how we felt today (Monday). It's been a long time on the road. And we have a lot to do in Bundi. So from the moment we woke up this morning, we were eagerly anticipating being HOME.
Only Joel had to do some things at his conservation office in Beni first, anticipating an hour delay, so we took the opportunity to visit one more mission hospital. Nyankunde-Beni, another in the network of CME Chrisitan hospitals in East Congo. Basically when rebels smashed Nyankunde, the staff fled to Beni. And rather than sitting in stunned displacement, they found themselves an old building, renovated it, and opened a hospital. Like the proverbial backfire of martyrdom and persecution, the attack on Nyahkunde merely led to its duplication. Now five years later, they have purchased a large tract of land to build an even bigger, new facility. Meanwhile four Congolese doctors perform over a thousand surgeries/year, deliver babies, admit patients, manufacture IV fluids, run a pharmacy, preach and heal. Dr. Justin led us around. Like Dr. Mike at the original Nyankunde he grew up on the mission station but was at school when disaster struck. He and his wife now run this thriving, growing hospital, with input from Samaritan's Purse again, and visits by missionaries. The most fun was meeting the senior nurse, Mr. D, who is Dr. J's father. Mr. D's parents became Christians in 1931 when CT Studd preached in NE Congo, moved to Nyankunde to support the mission and church there. Now their grandson is the medical director of an off-shoot of that work. Again, the sense of history is amazing, and to shake hands with someone whose parents heard the preaching of one of the greatest missionaries ever, and to see the thread of continuity, the generations of bearing fruit.
From the hospital it began to be clear that the day was not going to go as efficiently as we hoped. The driver was making statements about mechanical work that needed to be done on the truck, which is probably always true, but we suspected he really did NOT want to drive to the border. Many times with the language barrier (French and Swahili only, forget English!), Joel's relaxed no-hurry style, and being guests, it was hard to tell what was just the Congolese pace and what was a passive-aggressive slow-down. Anyway it was out of our hands, so we accepted an invitation to visit the new UCBC (French initials for the Bilingual Christian University of Congo) and attend chapel, a rousing pentecostal-style service with a lot of electronics and speakers and good preaching and earnest good will. After the service Joel appeared, looking a bit shaken. The driver was now completely refusing to go further, because rumors were circulating that the ADF had distributed a letter in the last week threatening to attack, perhaps along that road.
You can't check out. It was now getting close to noon. Visions of another day in Beni, another week in Congo trying to get home by another route, began to loom. The University people thought they could send a driver, but then theirs refused too. Bundibugyo was only 100 km away, but so out of reach. We sent prayer alerts. And within another half hour had some good data: the MONUC forces and the US state department both knew of the threat and troop movements, but there had been no incidents, and neither considered the situation unusually dangerous. Our driver went to the taxi park and talked to others coming from that direction. Suddenly the threat lifted, and a third party was found who owned a Pajero and agreed to take us on the road for $50. Only it took him another hour to show up, and then we had to collect our bags and his phone and fuel and whatever. Finally we headed East.
The Mbau to Kamongo road is a bit of a track. Much better than a decade ago, we're told, when it was a bicycle path. Now there is a one-lane dirt road, sometimes with grass growing in the middle, many dips and curves, bumps and holes. It was slow, tedious going. Sparse population again, and frightening amounts of charcoal for sale. Until you drive for an hour through the Virunga Park and the forest seems endless.
The road seemed endless. Beautiful, but so long, as the day was fading and we knew Heidi was waiting for us on the Uganda side of the border. Just a few formalities for leaving Congo . . . which drug into another hour. We sat in a cramped room while a semi-hostile mostly-bored young man scrutinized every detail of every page of every passport. And insisted that Julia's photo was not of her, that this was not her passport. Asked her details, like her middle name, and age. She was not rattled. I was. Joel kept explaining that we were her parents. Then he did the same with Jack. Then he heard we were doctors and questioned us about AIDS at length, with rather explicit transmission details. We all just wanted to get to Uganda before dark. Heidi was trying to detain the immigration official there, as we kept exchanging sms's. But even after all the passports were cleared, more men needed us to unpack all our clothes from our backpacks and show them everything. It was invasive and a power-play. But also probably just confusing to them. They probably only get a handful of people with passports and baggage a year. This is not a well-traveled road. Most of the traffic is local trade.
Finally we emerged, and shouldered our packs, and walked through the knee-deep border river, the Lamia, amidst stony currents and women washing clothes and boda-drivers looking for fares. Uganda! I think it was our 7th border crossing of this long trip, and by far the hardest, and the most dramatic (actually walking IN the river, after all). And the Ugandan officials had not left thanks to Heidi, and she gave us all (including the official) a ride back to Nyahuka.
So thankful to have taken this trip, but the long road home shows it is not a route to be undertaken lightly, or often.

Epulu to Beni, more mission history

Early morning tea, the smoky taste of water boiled over a fire. Last group photos with Mama Asumpta and her 8-month old Joelle. Finding out the pick-up to take us out is also carrying considerable cargo and a half dozen other people. Swahili jangling tinny praise music on endless-loop tapes fills the cabin of the truck. The now-familiar domed leaf-and-pole structures of pygmy camps, the inevitable African scenes of boys kicking a football and women slinging heavy baskets onto their backs, old couples sitting under thatched kitubis by a fire, wooden shack shops selling cooking oil and sodas. A quick glimpse of three men dancing in unison to a radio in a forest clearing. A small rope rigged up with inexplicable hope to right an overturned truck in a jungly ditch. Another town where women were circling a compound, waving leaves in their familiar shuffling dance. An outdoor barbering session. All glimpsed at a breakneck 60 to 80 km/hr on a remarkably well graded road that occasionally degraded into muddy ruts. Jack throws up into the handy bag I pocketed from the seatback on our last flight. Another day in the car.
We passed east today, back through Mambasa and on to Komanda, where the eastern-most north-south route intersects the Bunia road, and where we turned south towards Beni. And as soon as we did, the atmosphere changed. Congo up to then had looked like Uganda, moslty, or rather our part of Uganda ten to fifteen years ago. But when we turned south we began to parallel the Bundibugyo border. ADF territory, the deep forests and unmarked trails of Mt Hoyo and the underpopulated expanses towards the Blue Mountains. Almost all the houses in this area are simple mud and thatch, but now even the mud was crumbling. Roofs were patchy. Gardens were few. Compounds were pitifully small and decaying. We passed what looked to me like IDP camps, huddled clusters of tiny shelters that were mere pole and sheeting. Even to us, who see Bundibugyo as "normal", this stretch looked beleaguered, poor. This was the epicenter of some of Congo's worst violence, and people are still wary. In the last two weeks rebels/bandits/ADF or NALU or just marginal men, attacked an army post nearby, a little detail we did not hear until we were passing by. The people are clearly surviving on making and selling charcoal. Our driver stopped to buy two bags, $5 each here, worth $25 by the time it gets to Goma much further south.
And then, suddenly, a paved road began. Part of China's agreement to invest in infrastructure in Congo while taking 25 years of mineral and resource rights in some areas. In the middle of nowhere, a line of transformation. Beautiful, smooth, unblemished, just-completed tarmac. And almost immediately, the border to North Kivu, and a marked increase in population density. Towns. Bicycles. Churches. Signs. People. More people. And a premonition of Bundi-to-come, where pedestrians throng with their historic proprietary air along the way, but where vehicles can now careen at terrible speeds. I saw our speedometer hit 120 km/hr a couple of times.
In no time we reached Oicha, and again the group graciously agreed to pause and let us tour the hospital. This was a medical center built in the 1930's by Dr. Carl Becker, now in the last decade almost completely renovated. The old Belgian-style brick bungalow staff houses are still there, but spacious new wards bear both Bible verses in Swahili and signs for UN programs to treat women affected by the sexual violence for which this area of the world is notorious. We were shown, reverently, pictures of Dr. Becker and his wife on faded calendars (I was told I look like her) while the all-Congolese staff proudly showed us around a very functional hospital. I noted on a map that Oicha is the center of the health district that would include the little corner of Congo over our border. The patient volume was about twice that of Nyahuka, with about five times the space and equipment. This is the town that the late Dr. Jonah fled to with his family the morning that we all ran in different directions under attack in June of 1997. He ended up working here in Oicha while we worked in Kijabe, until it was safe for all of us to come back, or at least it seemed safer in Uganda than in Congo.
And at last our pavement took us, smoothly, all the way to Beni, another city. Huge UN bases, barbed wire, containers, blue-hatted soldiers from Nepal. Two-story shops, signs in French and Swahili, lots of cars. We are about 75 km west of the Uganda border here, either east through Kamongo, Japonda and then to Busunga (our route tomorrow) or southeast through Bwera towards Kagondo and Kasese (by far the main route). And our day ended as only a trip in Congo can: in an outdoor restaurant run by a man born here to Greek parents, sitting around plastic table sipping tonic water imported from Kampala, while a wing-clipped hawkish black kite harried a cluster of four hustling anxious guinea fowl wandering the courtyard, next to a fountain inhabited by a turtle and four small crocodiles (yes, real ones), cheering with the Congolese as Ghana won the first African victory in the World Cup, chatting with three young American missionaries who are lending a year of their lives to teach at a new bilingual Christian University which a highly educated Congolese couple are turning from dream into reality in Beni. Crazy and wonderful, from the concrete visions of the Beckers to the 21st century ventures of "their" Congolese grandchildren.