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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Why Family Reunions Matter

Yesterday the Aylestocks of Sago/Buckhannon West Virginia celebrated the 70th annual Family Reunion.  A Saturday in late June has meant a family picnic gathering since 1946, after all five brothers who served in WWII came home alive.  Since those five only represented 1/3 of the 15 siblings, a family reunion in this clan can involve quite a crowd.  I remember playing in the creek in the woods around Uncle Woody's, contiguous with the hollow where my grandfather and great-grandfather were born in log cabins, as the food was spread on picnic tables.  Later the event shifted to my parents' "Camp", a century-old farmhouse a few hundred yards down the river which they slowly and lovingly transformed into a family gathering place.  As both my grandparents and 12 of the 15 aunts and uncles have passed away, the enthusiasm for the gathering has waxed and waned.  But this year, as the 70th, was a BIG DEAL.

And so on Saturday, 87 of us gathered.  Uncle Woody, the oldest survivor, was hospitalized just a week before; at age 96 with pneumonia and cancer he is slowly releasing his grip on life and peacefully preparing to go home.  That left Uncle Harold and Aunt Ann, the two closest in age to my Dad who was youngest, to represent, along with my mom and Aunt Wonie as faithfully loyal surviving spouses.  The festivities actually start Friday night with grilled burgers, s'mores, and fireworks at a nearby camp.  The Reunion Day centers around food, of course, this year a whole pig barbecued by my cousin Doug, plus tables sagging with salads, breads, fruit, beans, and dozens of cakes and pies.  Games of corn hole, badminton, bocce, croquet, and basketball and baseball occur around the yard.  There is an opening prayer, and we recognize the many other families in Southern WV who suffered great loss in the Thursday night extreme storms and floods.  There is a time to recognize the youngest (Henry, a few months) and oldest (Uncle Harold celebrating 90) attenders, the first-timers, the ones with the most grandchildren and great-grandchildren (Aunt Wonie with 37), those driving the furthest (cousin Vicky and family, from Mississippi), those celebrating birthdays (me, on the very reunion day, and Lois two days later).  People who only see each other once a year, or once a decade, catch up.  Photos of the many missing are shown on ipads, and old photos of decades past are passed around.  Stories are told, hikes to the nearby Split Rock complete with bear scares occur, and a few hardy souls brave the cold rain-swollen river. The youngest form new friendships, gelling as a pack.  The oldest sit ensconced under the trees in the most comfortable chairs, holding court.  As evening gathers, home made ice cream is turned and my sister's famous chocolate chip cookies come hot out of the oven.

For my mom and sister, and for some of the cousins, this event represents a tremendous amount of work as they plan, clean, prepare, organize, cook.  For others it represents a huge investment of time off work, of travel, of arranging accommodations, of looking up old recipes for coconut cake or a particular cole slaw.  So why keep doing this, 70 years in a row?

Identity.  In America, a family of 15 siblings who all survived to adulthood, is not common.  So something about that number always made all of us feel special.  We may have been poor WV hillbillies, but by gathering and celebrating our heritage we all gain a little anchor of identity.  We come from this spot of ground, from these people.

Peace.  We are all sinners.  So every family has its tensions, people who feel hurt or left out, who remember offenses, who feel a dearth of love and a disappointment of expectations.  Some feel unappreciated, some feel judged.  But a day of a shared meal, of handshakes and hugs, or compliments and service, goes towards cementing bonds and smoothing squabbles. A day of abundance reminds us that we are all cared for.  A day centered on the concept of family takes the focus off a particular person and levels the field.

Connection.  For most of us, our parent amongst the 15 siblings has died.  Yet a day with one of the remaining siblings reminds us of our own parent, their mannerisms, their teasing sense of humor, their stubborn hold on integrity and common sense, their twinkling eye.  Sometimes a story comes out that brings the old days alive.  My mom was missing in her first reunion photo, which she attended as my dad's girlfriend, because they were "on a walk in the woods."  Hmm.  I asked my Aunt about how they sat around their huge family table, and her assigned seat on the bench between her two brothers was pure torture as she would refuse to eat if they waved their hands over her plate (and her brother corroborated saying "we didn't have kleenex in those days, we had long sleeves . . ").

Perspective.  Let's face it, as life goes on, we tend to segregate amongst people with whom we are comfortable.  But the family connection is based on blood, not politics, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, geography, or any of the common poles of difference in our American life.  So a reunion brings together groups of people who might not socialize otherwise. It also brings us together over time, over and over, so that instead of only knowing a particular slice of a story we see its arc.  Sort of like the book The Time Traveler's Wife, we get that Divine point of view that holds the innocence of youth and the wisdom of age in tension with the messes in the middle.  And the benefit of that diversity over time is perspective. Perhaps a handful of people who are carrying concealed weapons (one cousin thought it funny to ask for a show of hands, and half a dozen went up) find themselves in the orbit of another handful who work for gun control, and we realize the people who think differently are people we love.  I'm sure some of the tattoos would put off some of the people if they weren't attached to our own flesh and blood.  Someone who makes their living in a church jokes with someone who hasn't entered one in ages.  Farmers and soldiers and teachers and doctors and bikers and musicians, all remembering each other as awkward tweens or cute babies, humanizes the next drug-addicted or mentally ill person you meet, because you remember it is only a small part of who they are.   As the token crazy people who moved to Africa and lived in a jungle, I like to think we bring a touch of diversity to our relatives as well, an opportunity to feel bonded with outliers on the spectrum of life.

Hope.  Over the decades, one thing remains constant.  Adorable toddlers.  Take away the background and the disarmingly cute blond two-year-old could be her own grandmother back in the day.  The stuffed animal left behind this year could have been my cousin's rag doll "Precious" from 50 years ago.  The youngest ones remind us that in spite of cancers and accidents and horrible sadness, life renews.  Everything we've made a mess of has another chance.

I have only made it to a handful of reunions since I left home.  My kids don't know their relatives well enough, a cost of our distance.  We aren't part of the way things are always done, so we have to ask a lot of questions, and we generally don't hit the right times for being useful.  It is only reasonable to not depend too much on people like us who may not show up for another five years.  But for this year, I'm glad we were able to be at the right place and the right time.  We get a lot of the connection and perspective and hope from our Serge family too, but there's no substitute for this patchwork of people from these beautiful hills.  So if your family has a reunion, try to get there.  And if they don't yet, consider planning one.  The hassle will be outweighed by those golden intangibles.

Which brings us to the closing speech, offered by my 16 year old nephew with Down Syndrome, when cousin Mike the MC opened the stage.  I'm sure we were all a bit nervous, he watches a lot of action hero movies and knows how to push buttons and say inappropriate things for a reaction.  But not this time.  He stood up on a chair, and listed off the people he loved.  His mom, his dad, his sister, Julia, me, and on and on.  Which was the essence of the whole affair.  LOVE.  He got it right, exactly.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Reflections on the Orlando massacre

Stunned grief, again, in another week of hateful carnage in the USA.  This crime pretty much distills all of our woes into one grisly event:  a hate crime against the LGBTQ community, targeting people of color, committed with a military-style gun, a mass shooting in a place meant for relaxation and belonging, potentially a religiously motivated assault on perceived laxness and sin in the society, spun (by the shooter and the press) for its connections to ISIL-inspired anti-American-involvement in the world at large, by someone who exhibited at least some signs of anti-social violent behavior (against his wife no less) and one might assume mental illness, an born-and-raised American whose parental origins immediately connected the event to anti-immigration sentiment.  Complex?  I should say so.  If one set out to crystalize all the dissent, angst, mistrust, discomfort of America into one event, it would be hard to top this one.  Muslims, gays, guns, immigration, and psychotic breaks.  There's not a small leak in the dike of safety which one can easily point to and plug on this one.

So should we cynically deride anyone who tries?  Should we helplessly throw up our hands?

The song that keeps going through my head this week is a Dave Wilcox oldie.  "There'll always be a crazy, with an army or a knife, to wake up from your day dream, put the fear back in your life . . . "  Yes, we live in a broken messy world.  There will always be evil people.  But the song goes on to state in faith that "we get up on our feet and do our best . . because it's love that wrote the play."  So in that spirit, let me list a few truths.

1.  Love is stronger than death.  The ultimate, final truth of the universe is love.  One day all the shooting and hating will stop.  We live in a trajectory that ends in beauty, newness, healing.  We aren't there yet, but the ending is ultimately good.  We don't have to live in fear.  The love of God is enough to go around.  

2.  In the meantime, we are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Wisdom would dictate that when the crazies get to hating, it's better when they can reach for a knife than an army.  So our political process matters.  Our mental health care system matters.  Keeping guns out of the hands of people being investigated for terrorism matters.  Limiting guns to those that are difficult to fire rapidly and repeatedly matters.  Voting for people who don't foment hate, isolationism, shaming matters.  There are big picture systems that we can improve.

3.  While there is not an easy prevention to this event, a million small interactions along the course of a lifetime could have changed the course of history.  When your kids love a bully (Geniene S!), when your kids befriend an immigrant or learn a new language or seek to understand a different religion or lifestyle, the ripple has an effect.  Repeated local acts of justice and kindness matter, the small picture day to day ways we live.  Terrorism will never be defeated by force.  Force can win a conventional war, but not a battle of trust, beliefs, not a struggle of the heart.

4.  And lastly, in view of all of the above, I think there is no better answer to Orlando than to live missionally in the footsteps of Jesus.  I've also been reading this week some good critiques of the "white savior Barbie mentality" that we can so easily slip into (here and here and here and here).  Thinking that we Americans have all the answers, or that a quick trip to a distant place is inherently saintly.  I cringe at the elements of truth in this, the ego-boost of being needed and appreciated and admired.  Yuck. But I do not reject the entire enterprise, because I think the best of what we do is exactly in opposition to Orlando and San Bernadino and Paris.  To Ferguson and Charleston.  That is to actually live in places where infant mortality spikes off the charts, and have children there as well as resuscitate other people's babies.  To teach in places where literacy lags, and invest in students over the long haul there.  To preach an alternative to fear-based tribal spirits in places crushed by war, and be a witness there.  To become part of a community to the extent that a stand against raping teen girls or a stand for accountability in medical funds will be heard.  To take on some of the risks that the majority world can not choose, because we can choose.  To learn language and listen carefully, to become true partners with our host communities.  Those things take long-haul commitment, and we are thankful for the scores of people we partner with who are doing just that.

If this week has you down, listen to the Wilcox song, and think about the lyrics.  In the darkness love can show the way.

You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You're saying love is foolish to believe
'Cause there'll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream
Put the fear back in your life
Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What's stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?
He's almost in defeat
It's looking like the evil side will win
So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins, it is
Love who makes the mortar
And it's love who stacked these stones
And it's love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we're alone
In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it's love that wrote the play
For in this darkness love can show the way
So now the stage is set
Feel you own heart beating in your chest
This life's not over yet
So we get up on our feet and do our best
We play against the fear
We play against the reasons not to try
We're playing for the tears
Burning in the happy angel's eyes, for it's
Love who makes the mortar
And it's love who stacked these stones
And it's love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we're alone
In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it's love that wrote the play
For in this darkness love will show the way
Show the way, show the way

Read more: David Wilcox - Show The Way Lyrics | MetroLyrics 

or Watch the live performance

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Spain, Serge, and the love our culture needs

This week David Brooks wrote an editorial in the NYT responding to the bathroom uproar, which said our country has become addicted to sideshows that distract from the real struggle to develop a culture of character and care.  One paragraph caught my attention as we returned from our triennial Serge conference:

The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.

For ten days, we were in Spain with about 500 people who are committed to these very things.  Most were Serge leaders and staff, plus board members, musicians, counselors, child-care volunteers.  We were there to encourage one another, to give thanks to God for where we have come, to strengthen our leadership structure with more training, to attend to the hurting, to forge closer relationships face to face, to lean into the future with prayer.  But the Brooks' analysis crystalized for me that we are very very privileged to have Serge as our lens for viewing not only our work but also our cultures of origin, and in fact we can bring some of our triennial sense of who we are as we move on.

 Communal:  The ethos of our organization rests in the local team, which functions as an extended family, a small mobile church, a bond of kinship and commitment.  As we gather, we realize the community extends beyond each small band to include our ties to each other all over the world.  We challenge each other, pray for each other, share our burdens and our humor.  There are hugs and sidebar conversations galore, so that it is difficult to get meetings started.  Meals are a chaotic cacophony.  Kids find each other and the three-year-gap melts in the face of shared experience as perpetual outsiders tasting the one spot where they are home.  The Kingdom is not an individual pursuit, and this reality is something we can bring back to our culture.  Bethany's catchy phrase from some training we did a couple of years ago on our field kept getting repeated:  comparison kills community.  Serge embraces the value of acknowledging our weaknesses, repenting of our sins, reminding ourselves that God's love is inclusive enough for each unique person's existence, and doing the work of living in true community with all its messiness and joy.

Morally Minded:  By this Brooks seems to mean basing decisions on a code of right and wrong rather than a short-sighted utilitarian metric of benefit and loss.  That shines through when you listen carefully.  We have teams in places which are beset by war or disease or poverty or extremism or isolation or a thousand other difficulties, not because that brings results but because IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.  Our vision and mission call us to lay down our lives.  We are following a Person whose only metric is love.

Spiritually Literate:  Yes, we all struggle with this, the paradoxical reality of our embodied spirituality, the simultaneous truth of living in a material world that is spiritually alive.  We enjoyed Spain, the coast, the sun, the abundant fish and olives and cheeses and figs.  We enjoyed the bracing waves of the Mediterranean Sea and the quiet rest of a hotel room.  But those things alone would have left us empty.  Our time was also spiritually rich with teaching by Pastor Scotty Smith, exhortations from our Director of Ministries Josiah Bancroft, worship, and prayer.  Our seminars focus on things like sabbath and rhythm, not success.  We may not be completely literate yet, but we are putting that spiritual health front and center.

Emotional Intelligence:  I commend our leadership for bringing a bevy of counselors to acknowledge that we are beat up by the reality of living on the edge.  We had seminars on how a team can embrace and support members suffering from depression, because depression and anxiety are all-too-common facts of life everywhere but even more so on our fields.  Our kids' program had a theme (loosely connected to A Chameleon, A Boy, and A Quest) of finding out who you really are.  This is an organization that is not afraid to cry openly and laugh raucously.

So while we are working in places from rural South America to massive Asian cities and everywhere in between, I hope we can take the sense of inclusive community, of commitment to truth, of a rich spirituality, and of a merciful emotional kindness, everywhere we go.  And for those of us who returned to the USA (temporarily) in a week in which the nation was in an uproar over the light sentencing of a campus sexual offender at Stanford, and mourning the shocking mass shooting in Florida, we know that standing for these things is actually a matter of life and death.  If we are only individuals making utilitarian decisions based on a cognitive understanding of a material-only world, we will continue to pick up the pieces of the devastation that follow in the wake of greed, anger, self-centered actions.  Instead we need to quietly, boldly, consistently live an alternative lifestyle of love.  I'm thankful for the way a conference strengthens and reminds us to do just that.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

US Air Force Academy Graduation

He made it.

This is one graduation where the sense of celebratory accomplishment was heightened in proportion to the deep valleys our cadet traversed to reach the day.  Entering a USA school for the first time since Mrs. Mund’s memorable Kindergarten in Baltimore during our MPH year, straight to Basic Training’s 6 weeks of grueling exertion, sleep deprivation, harsh psychological onslaught.  Being seven thousand miles from home with almost no communication.  Choosing the most difficult major, and adding on an Arabic minor.  Compressing classes in order to study abroad, almost impossible as an engineer.  A devastating knee injury during Christmas break the first year that led to surgery, recovery, and punishment from above in spite of the appeals by his student leadership.  Dedicating himself to learning to lead in a different way, to commitment to the kids in his Officer’s Christian Fellowship, to pushing his limits running a marathon with a heavy pack and maximizing physical fitness tests consistently, hours of PT and recovery and then a last-month rupture of his quadriceps muscle in the other leg.  Losing a summer research position abroad for one missed meeting which followed late nights with younger cadets reeling from the death of a classmate, but rebounding to do an excellent project locally.  Carefully considering the proffered pilot slot but opting to take a very unconventional course by cross-commissioning into the Army.  Enduring all the skepticism and criticism that entailed because he prayerfully believes that a path towards working globally with local militaries in places beleaguered by war will be the most effective path to justice and mercy for those who suffer, so he heads off to infantry training in hopes of joining the Special Forces (Green Berets).

In fact, at one point this week, our graduate joked that our mother-to-child-HIV-transmission-prevention project slogan in Uganda could be the theme of his college career:  Webale Kwejuna, literally ‘thank you for surviving’ or ‘thank you for pulling yourself through’.  It is the greeting for a mother who has just delivered a baby, recognizing that surviving childbirth in the majority-world is not a given.  Nor is reaching graduation at the military academies.

For all the uncertainty, stress, demand, difficulty, however, we can see the value of this education and the severe beauty of this experience.  The USAFA core values are:
Integrity First
Service Before Self
Excellence in All We Do.
And while we are very proud of our cadet’s hard work to achieve the honor of being a “distinguished graduate” (the Air Force equivalent of Magna Cum Laude), we are even more grateful to see these values deeply etched into his soul.  In these four years we have seen him choose integrity, holding to what is true and right even when it costs him dearly.  We have seen him shape his life around service to others rather than personal gain.  We have seen him strive for excellence in everything from completing projects to developing skills.

So it was not even a question in our minds that we would depart early from our Serge triennial conference to make it back to Colorado for the party.  We were in Spain for the last ten days of May, participating in leadership training and prayer (and more on that later).  Then last Monday morning we departed at 3 am for a 29-hour travel marathon to Colorado Springs.  Tuesday and Wednesday involved picking the rest of the family up at airports, shopping for the post-grad party, and attending a series of meaningful events.  

His room mate’s open house, dinner with his best friend’s family, a cloud-covered chilly parade formation to watch the seniors step out of their squadrons as they symbolically prepared to leave the academy, a brunch with another friend’s family.  Those days culminated in the Wednesday evening commissioning service where the 22 cadets in squadron 12 gathered in their uniforms to swear their oath of office and enter military service, pledging to defend the constitution.  Scott and I had the honor of pinning the 2nd Lieutenant bars onto his shoulders.  At the end of the hour-long service for those cadets and families, all rose to sing the Air Force song.  Then in recognition that our son had just joined the Army not the Air Force, they played the Army anthem as well.  To our surprise, our son stood alone and sang it as a solo.  It was to his surprise too.  I think that moment symbolized a lot about this phase of life:  standing out of the crowd, singing truth even if alone.

Thursday morning, the actual graduation day, dawned clear after a week of thunderstorms and cold damp.  I know this because I was up before 4 am with a rare doozy of a migraine headache, a vortex of altitude and exhaustion and time-change and emotion that ended in throwing up and stumbling into the day.  The challenge of logistically managing three over-80 year olds, one of whom suffers from advanced dementia and visual/hearing impairments, along with the intersection of all our kids (rare!), and guests, and traffic, and rules and protocol, in a borrowed house (for which we are eternally grateful) and a rental van, almost defeated us, but by 8:30 or so we were seated on our perch in the stadium.  The band played, the faculty paraded in.  The cadets marched in with precise formation, and for about five minutes I was convinced that some dire fate had befallen ours, who did not seem to be in the spot we expected amongst the honor graduates.  Until Jack figured out, oh, the OTHER right.  And there he was, spied through the binoculars, smiling with his colleagues.  The President of the United States arrived, with secret service and snipers positioned.  The sun beat down.  The speeches proceeded.

President Obama’s speech carried a myriad of personal references to the class, to their experience arriving in the canyon fire that threatened the area, amidst evacuations.  He spoke soberly and politically, though his humor peppered the paragraphs occasionally.  The moment that stood out to me:  when considering the Syrian refugees, he said, he thought “those could be my children”.  That global thinking is not universal amongst his potential successors.  Nor is the ability to compromise, to see paradox and nuance.  To temper realism and idealism together.  Frankly I felt sad that my son will not have this Commander in Chief for long, because as much as one may disagree with some of his policies, he remains a reasonable person who is not trying to use our military to control the entire world.

Then the graduates were called forward, all 812, one by one, their names read loudly as we applauded.  They received their diplomas and then shook hands with the president.  Caleb paused with President Obama, hearing a brief “you will do great” encouragement.  Our row in the bleachers stood and yelled when his name was called, all 20 of us, his biological family and sponsor family and local friends, all people who have poured into his life and helped us parent from afar.  The sense of completion, closure, relief, joy rippled through the crowds.

But 812 names take a long time in the mid-day sun on metal benches at high altitude, with not a speck of shade.  One of our friends who happens to be an Air Force colonel from our main supporting church took my mom to find respite, but Scott’s parents thought they would be fine.  A little later I decided we should move them to shade anyway, which was timely because his mom became completely overwhelmed by the heat and the situation and we had to get medics and a wheel chair and ice.  I accompanied her to the emergency medical tent where I stayed for the rest of the graduation, so I missed the iconic official dismissal followed by the hat toss as the Thunderbirds swooped from behind out of nowhere in a deafening roar.  This graduation ends every year in an air show, heart-stopping maneuvers by six F-16 fighter jets flying in close formations, passes, flips, spins, acrobatics.  The graduates laugh and cheer and roar and mingle.  The formality of the ranks dissolves into celebration, and they stream up into the stands to finish watching the show with their families. 

Then hugs, photos, the massive traffic jam, and a couple of hours of frantic preparation as we decorated our borrowed house and prepared dinner for about 60 people.  The evening was a wonderful, relaxed time of food and drink and fellowship.  The grill, the deck, the slowly cooling darkness.  An abundant spread.  A generous handful of the Officer’s Christian Fellowship kids with their families, sponsors, some faculty.  Handshakes and cake and excited anticipation of the next phase.  Thankfulness for these friendships that carried our kids through.  Sadness of goodbyes.  The glimpse one gets as a parent that this child we only know in part has meant a lot to a lot of people.

It was a spectacular day.

But a day that took a toll, nonetheless.  Deeply satisfied joy in completing this milestone, and yet the poured-out complete exhaustion of getting to that point and hosting and not quite getting it all right or all done.  But our 2nd Lt. was honored and glowing, and that’s all we wanted to see.

The day ended with news that one of the Thunderbirds had crash-landed at the end of the graduation show, which was why the traffic was inexplicably not flowing.  The pilot ejected to safety and maneuvered the plane away from homes.  The same day a Blue Angel airplane crashed on a training flight, and that pilot died.  I believe the juxtaposition of those two crashes with the glorious graduation exactly pictures the reality of this military education and commitment.  We aren’t just talking about getting a good job or starting a good career, we’re talking about service that will cost some of these kids their lives.  That makes the present moment more raw and sweet and full, the undeniable edge of mortality hovering over the toasts and the laughter. 

In fact the very danger and difficulty of the last years, the very depth of the valleys, made the joy of the day much more palpable.  I wonder if graduation would be that dramatic for someone who partied through four years of higher education.  When the bulk of life is perfused by hardship, the day of relief becomes a real reason to rejoice.  Which, I think, is a picture of all our lives and the hope of Heaven.  To the degree that we embrace the struggle of reclaiming this world, enter into its darker and more painful places, we will long for the party-to-end-all-parties completion of the all-things-new.  Choosing the military academy mirrors choosing a life of risk, service, voluntary deprivation, and while the years take their toll we anticipate a glorious day ahead.

Meanwhile back in the present reality, we bask in the taste of the revelry that for now is only a temporary glimpse, and plod on.  We are humbly aware of God’s grace to this point, and desperately dependent upon God’s mercy as we go forward.  The road from here out does not exactly get smooth.  But for this moment, we are all enjoying our 2nd Lieutenant’s relieved smiles.