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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Glad Tidings

This season has been, like many others before it, a full-scale plunge into the heights of reunion and reconnection and celebration and the depths of brokenness and risk and sorrow. In other words, just like life is supposed to be. While we are out in the night-fields metaphorically, juggling work and weariness, praying and communicating day and night about our Ebola-exposed colleagues in the DRC, the glory of the Lord has shined round about us in wonderful announcements that this world has been invaded by grace, that the stories we are living have plot twists towards happiness, that a beautiful force called love will prevail.

For us, that has been seen most clearly in Luke's Christmas-Eve proposal of marriage to Abby.

She said yes.

There are many things to love about these two, but one of them is that Sago, West Virginia, is a meaningfully romantic place in their story.  So much so that he spent weeks not only planning the ring but also negotiating a 48-hour surprise trip for her to come with him to this little farm (heartfelt thanks to Abby's supervising doctor for allowing her to come, and parents for agreeing too).  And instructing his brothers to construct a temporary bridge to a particular bouldered island mid-river where he wanted to ask the question. A second thing to love is how much they value this braiding of their lives together as one that includes family. Part of the timing meant that the engagement preceded a week planned where Abby's parents were visiting her in Utah, so they would have lots of time to process and enjoy the anticipation of a wedding. Abby is the only one who didn't know what was coming--Luke had brought both sets of parents on board. And while we were about to pop with excitement when he invited her on a Christmas Eve mid-morning hike a few hours after arriving here . . . we were doubly delighted when he suggested the whole fam come along.  So a third thing to love is that we were witnesses to joy. We held back and watched from a little distance, then rushed in to welcome Abby to the family and share the sure sign of God's goodness. Every marriage takes faith; there is no way to lay down your life for another without it. For these two, even finding a couple of days in the next year when they are both NOT WORKING is going to be a challenge.

But they both love Jesus, each other, and their families in the right order, and we trust a celebratory ceremony will eventually be planned.  For those who don't know Abby, she grew up in Annapolis but met Luke in Charlottesville where she finished her BSN at UVA and worked as a nurse. Then she did a master's degree (Nurse Practitioner with a Critical Care focus) at Vanderbilt, and moved to Salt Lake City a few months ago for a very competitive year-long fellowship in trauma/ICU. She ran her first marathon somewhere in those first weeks in Utah, is an outdoorsy, musical, kind person who loves coffee and house plants and puts up graciously with all of us.

So Christmas Eve was a pretty great day, as was Christmas and the whole week.  Hannah, a good friend of the family's from our days together in Kenya, joined us as well.  We baked and played music and ate great meals and exchanged gifts and hiked. There were some river trips down rapids on the giant inflatable pink flamingo, some heartbreaking card games, some old movies. There were long Pittsburgh airport runs, and long bike rides. There were uncountable phone calls and texts but we are thankful to report that all the Nyankunde Ebola contacts are so far without symptoms of disease, and the non-medical non-contact evacuees are stressed by the uncertainty of their lives but doing well. Please do keep praying for peace in the DRC, for sensible responses, for grace where our responses are fearful, for an end to this epidemic, for the bigger organizations like Samaritan's Purse who are sending in the next wave of help, and for wisdom for us as we walk with our people.

And every few minutes, there is the thrill of hope . . the realization that we have a better and bigger family than ever and more to look forward to.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

No Room at the Inn: the Shame of NOT BELONGING

A few weeks ago, a former student whom we know wrote a post about growing up in her multicultural world, and used the phrase "the shame of not belonging".  That phrase jumped out at me. Sure, there is pain in not belonging. But shame? The more I thought about it, the more it resonated. The world keeps us in line by shaming deviance. If you don't belong, then you are made to feel it is because of something wrong with you.

For instance, we landed in America on Saturday. Mostly we are back and forth so often, and we grew up here, so we know how to fit in. But 25 years is a long time to miss the small trends (toilet paper squares with scalloped edges, pretty cool . . .) and fall out of step with some of the larger ones (the sense of persecution and injustice felt by people who are in a pretty solidly powerful and comfortable position, for instance). A minor example caught my attention--my family knows that The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is one of our favorite books; we have traditionally read it aloud while camping in a game park over a December holiday. This year the Children's Theatre of Charlotte put on a musical rendition of the book.  It was professional and moving from start to finish, great costumes, sets, singing, orchestra.  A story that never fails to get to the heart of grace, and done with entertaining beats. Now I have not been to a theatre other than school productions in a couple of decades.  So towards the end, I took a photo on my phone, which is what I would do for an RVA high school show, to honor those performing and post something positive. Only this time, a green light bounced off my phone. It took me a while to figure it out. Photos are not considered positively in the professional Children's Theatre. Someone in the back was holding a laser to shame anyone who held a phone. I was embarrassed to be so foolish as to not know the accepted norms. I was out of step with the rules. And I felt the shame of not belonging.

That started me thinking: sure, being without a room at the Inn was inconvenient, messy, anxiety-provoking, a hardship. But perhaps for Joseph and Mary, it was also shameful. Perhaps they were considered too marginal, too poor, too young, too unknown. Perhaps the whispered rumors of their pregnancy-before-the-official-wedding preceded them and led respectable inn-keepers to prioritize other customers. Perhaps Joseph was made to feel he should have planned ahead better. Or Mary was suddenly aware that other families had cousins to welcome them in, so how could they claim Bethlehem yet be left on the street? Being relegated to a barn was not just uncomfortable, it perhaps felt like a verdict on who they were. Unworthy.

And yet, if God wanted equally shamed and marginalized shepherds to witness the good news, where else could the baby be for them to be allowed access? The place of shame, of the periphery, of the stable, was also the place where anyone could approach.

I am mother to four adult (well, the fourth is only 3+ months away from that official milestone) children who have experienced the shame of not belonging much more regularly that I. For all the kids who have been pierced by the unkindness meant to wound with shame, let us remember that Jesus was born on the edge. That God sent the best news of several millennia into a place where anyone could approach. Into a space of shared not-quite-acceptably-in-line-ness, so that all could approach. To a family that, while of a diffusely connected lineage, had a low social status and little economic or political security.

The baby in the manger is a picture of NOT BELONGING, of a shocking outsider, poverty status that embraced the majority-world experience in a way that 21rst century North Americans may struggle to grasp.

The antidote to shame is love. This Christmas let us try to remember the core message: that the Creator of the Universe risked humanity to live our life, die our death, and open the door to resurrection, leaving shame behind forever.  We belong.

With my mom and sister last week at church in Matthews

We met up with Greg and Beth Farrand, 20 1/2 years after evacuating from rebels together

Julia's host family in Greensboro

Dear friends, the Spangler family, part of our original intended Bundibugyo team, though our paths diverged when war started. Truly still kindred spirits.

With my sister's family in NC

Seeing spectacular lights in NC

At my mom's for brunch

Julia's fellow fellows in Greensboro

With Julia touring her sustainable gardens with spiritual purpose too

My mom with 3/4 of her grandchildren 

An evening Advent gathering for 27 of my childhood friends

We arrived in WV yesterday--stop one, groceries, stop two, tree

Sago Baptist had the BEST Christmas Pageant this morning.  Really.

Right now, a peaceful night as snow falls and 3 kids are on the way to Pittsburgh to pick up the 4th.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Stay Alert for Shepherd Sightings

Yesterday, we moved.  If you can call packing all your household into a 20-foot container (actually about 3/4 of a shared 20-foot container) moving. This season has been one of uncertainty and transition and all the unsettled emotions that brings--being between, not knowing quite what is next, missing family, having life in disarray.  Which actually gives us a glimpse into Mary and Joseph's Christmas, paring life down to what can be carried on a donkey (much less than a Land Rover's capacity), leaving home, looking for the next place to stay, following the vagaries of politics and the harshness of God's call.  So after giving birth in a barn, one can only imagine they might have wondered if they made a wrong turn.  Is this really what God intended for the promised leader of Israel, the heir to the throne of David?  In the context of suffering, night, dashed expectations and physical strain, I have to think that the arrival of the shepherds provided important affirmation. 

Suddenly here are people sent just to say--we see God in you, we see that there is glory hidden here, we want to be near and be a part of all this, no matter how rough it looks.

This crossed my mind yesterday twice.  First, on the road out to the container (just before the moving truck slipped off the road into a ditch on a muddy hill, just before the tow cable broke as Scott pulled them out with our car. . .) I received my first out-of-the-blue (or out of the angels) text.  Dr. M from a distant rural Kenyan hospital had called me the week before, having been given my number by a former intern Dr. L.  They had a very sick baby with a condition that is fairly common here but poorly recognized, hypernatremic dehydration with acute kidney failure in a 1 week old.  Dr. L, however, DID recognize the problem because of her training, and she had helped with the fluids and plans, and told Dr. M to call me and confirm that they did not need to transfer the baby for dialysis. I had run through calculations with them and reassured, and yesterday Dr. M just re-contacted me to say that everything was back to normal and the baby was nearly ready to go home.  We rarely get to see that direct-line story, the way training spreads as interns are dispersed, the way a life is saved.

February 2018
December 2018
The second shepherd-text came from a paediatric surgeon at the National Referral hospital.  I had cared for his premature niece in our newborn unit at Naivasha in February.  I had not heard from him in many months, but he just wanted to share a photo and thanks and good news that the tiny baby was now a thriving 9 kg (20 pound) 10-month old.  He was just sharing the joy.

I don't get those kind of follow-up reports very often.  Mostly we are all-out for all we can do, and then people blend back into the swirl of population and I may or may not ever hear about them again.  So two reports in one day, both received in the process of going to and coming from the massive task of storing all we own, was pretty encouraging.  I think I've generally seen the story of the shepherds as lovely, as musical, as quaint, as important evidence of God reaching out to the lower levels of the social order.  But yesterday it occurred to me that the story was for Mary too.  In her confusion over the way her birth story worked out, the shepherds were sent by God to reassure her that she was in the right place at the right time. That God sees, and she was going to be OK.

Watch for shepherds this season, people who remind you that God's plans, though they wend through shadowed valleys and midnight caves and lonely losses, will bring you good, that in the end all shall be well.
(And to top the day off right or Wright . . . friends from Uganda passing through met us for dinner)

Monday, December 10, 2018

Living on the Edge this Season and Always

Bluff Edge, Whidbey Island
by Luci Shaw, in Accompanied by Angels, 2006

This is the rock-rim edge of the known world.
This is the ragged planet where Christ landed,
and we are his people, craggy and knotted and burled,
and aching and lonely.  Restless. Stranded.

These firs could well have framed his wooden manger
and his cross; I never encounter Advent without
Dark Friday.  The days in the life of this stranger
were flecked with God-graces, threaded with human doubt.

Battered by storms of loss in her loving and grieving,
all her life Mary lived on the cliff-edge of cruel foresight.
Clinging, she rode the gusts and the glory, heaving
still with the donkey rhythm, dazzled with western light.

A tribute to our Naivasha Rift Valley Escarpment walking path, our own personal bluff edge of the rock-rimmed world, our reminder of the western light and the subtle glory of God.

And like Mary, we feel the rocking, shaking, unsettling donkey-rhythm of change. In 3 days we'll be on the airplane heading to the US for a month of Christmas, family, meetings with Serge, a couple of supporter events. Tomorrow a moving truck arrives to load up all our Kenya life and re-stack it in a borrowed half of a container, for a few months as we focus back in Bundibugyo. Today we're in the throes of the final cabinets of odds and ends and food and pieces and no more trunk space and time ticking down.

Though we love the feeling of associating "Christmas" and "home", Jesus' spent his Christmas in a shelter for animals, then in Egypt in exile, then in Galilee, then on the road to the cross.  So we are praying to embrace the edginess of this ragged planet as we embark upon journey again this season, shaken into chaos but never alone.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Gospel according to Saints and Santas

Today's Gospel Christmas Thought comes to you from a photo posted by our friends the Machogus.  Note the cutest baby in the world who looks appropriately cautious about this Santa fellow.  And don't we all?

We all know that the man in red is supposed to be benevolent.  He symbolizes a Turkish 4th century bishop of wealthy Greek ancestry who went about surreptitiously helping poor children by dropping off gifts, such as bags of gold (to save girls from being sold as prostitutes). The modern representation pales in comparison to Nicholas' wildly political origins, seeking justice, upsetting the status quo, undergoing torture, etc. However they both have in common a symbol of good will, of generosity, of safety, of kindness, of being squarely on the side of the voiceless children and willing to bless them.  And they both have in common the personification of some attributes of God.

We, like Mr. Cuteness, however, are not quite sure. Is God really good?  Will God really come through with what we need? Do we really want to be that close? Can we really trust?  Is he only going to bless the deserving, and will I make the "nice" cut? Who is this person, and should I perhaps run and hide behind some figs?

Because we have about the same relative wisdom and emotional maturity of the toddler in this photo (actually probably less, as his faith has not yet been molded by misinformation). I can talk about GRACE but rarely rise above the naughty and nice cloud. And even though I think I can plan a good win-win ending for everyone I love, I can't.  Fixing this universe beset by the ADF attacking in the midst of an Ebola epidemic, or our friend in Baltimore violently retching after the next round of chemo, or people we love going to bed lonely, is all beyond us.

So this Christmas, let's lean into Goodness.  For some of us the sound of bells may be so distant that we feel forgotten.  But let us remind each other that the real God pulls us close.  The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.  Even if we feel a little unsettled by the too-good-to-be-true truth of love, let's help each other live AS IF our lives rested on God's lap.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Choglorious Christmas: tidings of joy for moms at the margin

The Christmas story starts with a doubting priest, a geriatric infertile woman, a small town girl going about her chores, and a carpenter saving up money for marriage. Nobody famous, nobody that would typically be in a spotlight.  

I'm not sure where we drifted from that as a community of faith, but one thing God has impressed upon us this year is that the Kingdom moves in hidden steps, small increments. Sometimes the most important event is happening right under our noses, and we don't even realize it.  Like a fetus sprouting a heart and hands.  Or like a missionary mom holding a back-yard Bible club.

We visited Chogoria Hospital this week, and saw good work.  A new curriculum for clinical officers, a newly redesigned emergency room, a packed morning report, a new medicine consultant (who was our intern at Kijabe 6 years ago and is going to be the spark and brain this place needs), new equipment for the HDU, new missionary doctors.  There is great effort being poured out on many fronts to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, to equip a rising generation of health care providers to work with skill and compassion.

But today, in the spirit of Christmas, I want to reflect that the moms who move their families across continents, who order home-school curriculum and plan out their months, who make meals and change diapers and structure nap times, who spread out a blanket and invite the neighbors to learn about Jesus, may be the real point of all this.  I heard Lauren talk to her kids and others about theology just as deep as any Bible school.  They prayed for kids with cancer and kids needing transplants.  They talked about why this can happen in God's good world, and what it means to have faith, and about the mystery of God's goodness and our sorrows.

These conversations, with Serge kids and their friends, are the way the Kingdom draws near.  

After all, Christmas is about a mom, a baby, a family buffeted by bureaucracy and world events, a family unknown to almost everyone around them.

Whatever you're doing this Christmas season, take time to glance away from the glitter and spotlight and remember that God is possibly showing up in the young woman holding a baby.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

On Killer Cows and Christmas Miracles

This beast passed us relatively peacefully as we walked around Chogoria.  But that morning, at the hospital Chapel, the Chaplain had preached with some wonder about the stable.  Not the cozy stable that we see on Christmas cards, with the peaceful candlelight glow, the one-of-each animal artfully arranged in restful and reverent poses.  No, he was a farmer like most Kenyans at heart. And he waxed eloquent about the danger of cows.

Cows tend to kick the bucket.  They don't always stand still.  They can be restless or stubborn or uncooperative.  They can spill the milk pail, they can stomp on your foot.  Or your baby.

So this chaplain was reminding us, not that it was unusual for a baby to be born in a shelter, but that it was amazing for that baby to be SAFE in the midst of cows.

I love seeing and hearing the Christmas story through another culture's eyes and ears. Yes, from minute one, Jesus was in a place of risk. More, much more, would come later with Herod and soldiers and genocide. But that night, in the dark, in a cave or shack full of cows (?) and sheep and goats, the point was that animals may not respect the space of a baby, and it was dicey.

Just a stark reminder that God came into the mud and breath of humanity in the most vulnerable way. 

Sunday, December 02, 2018

A Dry Road through a Churning Sea: Advent Begins

Advent, the season of waiting.

Three friends who have longed for a child are expecting this year, and one just texted me the latest ultrasound video.  I have prayed for this baby, and rejoice, yet there is still a long way to go. Waiting, hoping, days and days accumulate to weeks and months as a baby gestates, and for much of that time the outcome remains uncertain.  How much more so for Mary and Joseph, bouncing on a donkey, stuck in a cave.

And once the baby comes, the stakes only get higher.  We can't know who will survive and for how long, or rebuild torn ligaments, or mend broken hearts, or engineer academic success or convince anyone's heart towards faith. We can't solve loneliness or shame or addictions or rejections. As Area Directors for Serge, our hearts pour out into not only our kids, and the Ugandan kids we have cared for as surrogate parents, but also the kids on all our teams. So many face really, really hard times.  How much more so for Mary and Joseph, whose child was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.

Then there are the systemic injustices that we long to right. I wish we could just guarantee visas, or protect our teams from removals due to rebel invasions or arbitrary politics. Or how about just leveling off the Ebola epidemic in the DRC? How much more so for Mary and Joseph as Jesus confronted the corruption and oppression of his culture, entering danger.

As Advent begins today, one of the first readings came from Isaiah 51:
Awake, Awake, O arm of the LORD! 
Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; 
who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over?

When we pray for the unborn, or for the sorrows of older kids, or for the injustices facing those we love, it feels as impossible as a dry road through a churning sea.  If our prayers are big enough, if we are really walking by faith, I suppose it should. Not a perfunctory mention of an outcome that is probable, but a desperate plea for something beyond our ability to solve.  I think we spend most of our life in the Advent of waiting.  Where the road ends into the ocean, with hostile armies approaching and no plan B route visible.  Where the only salvation road is one that only God can make. Where waiting is not a passive lethargy, but a determined view of the deep waters and a deliberate choice to actively ask that the dry road become clear.

This Advent journey begins again, year by year, a call to wait actively and expectantly. To pray with large hearts and impossible dreams, that we could cross over to joy.