rotating header

Friday, November 29, 2019


This morning, as I crept out of bed in the pre-dawn dark, I saw the little green light of the voltage surge protector where the fridge plugs into the wall, and I thought, wow, we have had electricity most of the week, and it's so helpful. Later I stood in our shower under a stream of warm water, and thought, it's so NICE to have a morning cool enough to want warm water, and the warm water supplied by the solar hot water system Scott fixed a few days ago. Power and water are two things we lived without (well, we had a small solar panel at first to run a couple lights, and collected rain water off the roof) when we moved here in 1993. Bundibugyo has come a long way, but the vagaries of the systems mean that those two luxuries are far from certain and never consistent. So as I was thinking about how much I appreciated them this morning, it led me to ponder the connection between fasting and feasting, between lacking and appreciating.

Scott on the roof fixing the system . . .

Myths and distortions notwithstanding, the concept of a harvest festival as enshrined in our American Thanksgiving holiday is rooted in the hungry time of waiting.  It is rooted in the harshness of survival in uncertain places, the reality of dependence upon others, the humility of living at the mercy of weather and sickness. The more strenuous the labor, the more grateful the celebration. Ask any mom.
This is what the post-labor joy looks like. Teacher Desmond and wife Harriet with son born on Thanksgiving!

Our team celebrated Thanksgiving together on Thursday. Our turkey was far from a butterball, but the fact that we had to work to find and buy one, to butcher and pluck one, to cook and stuff one, made us savor it. Likewise the homemade pies and rolls, or the fresh vegetables arranged from afar. We read Psalm 126, which was the lectionary Psalm for the day as well as being a true Thanksgiving. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.  There is more than just a contrast there, there is an organic connection. Tears water the crop, labor produces the fruit, longing accentuates the fulfillment.

Giving leads to thanks. And we give, and we give, and we give ourselves away. Paradoxically, that emptying, that neediness, that powerlessness can be the path to greater joy and thanks.

Tuesday celebrations at the neighboring Church of Uganda

This week gave us a glimpse of the thankful part of the giving equation, which is more of a circle. Thanks, giving, giving, thanks. On Tuesday, we witnessed a wedding of a neighbor here, a glimpse of pure joy that was forged in years of poverty, work, survival.

Yes, that's a hemoglobin of 2.5 (less than a quarter of one's blood supply left). Transfused and saved.

A starving five-month-old who weighs less than many newborns

On Wednesday, I found myself alone on the hospital ward, and it took me five and a half hours just to plow through all the patients one by one, but in that grueling process I found a handful for whom a careful physical exam or an insistent push for a lab or a medicine or a procedure led to a life-extending outcome, which made me thankful. That afternoon, in our cell group Bible studies at CSB, the students listed their own thanks and own challenges and I was struck by how concretely connected they were to the marginal assurances of their lives. They were thankful for sicknesses survived, for family members healed, for classes passed, for fees paid. Life is fragile, money is scarce, so coming through a year means a lot.

Lindsey is our newly arrived teacher, helping the parents at RMS this year, for which we all give much THANKS. 

On Thursday, at the team Thanksgiving dinner, I was just struck by the spirit of community and ease, of progress and comfort, that I think came from going through a challenging year together. As we ate pie and played charades, the kids engaged and eager, or went around the circle sharing our thanks, I felt very thankful for the giving of 2019 that brought us here.

CSB staff at the PTA

Parents listening intently

Scott may be a doctor not a school administrator, but he knows how to preach and how to serve, and his steady presence has turned this year around.

Showing the Bibles they all received this year. Scott challenged them to read them every day during break, to improve their English and reading skills, and to feed their hearts.

Boarding school waiting to empty on last day of the year!

Pinching ourselves to say, was that the best parent meeting ever or what happened?

Then Friday, after a hurried morning to see some patients and get to the CSB end-of-term all-day Parent Meeting, we once again had reason to rejoice. The first and second term parent meetings were contentious near disasters, with divisive arguing, poor turnouts, rumors, student discipline issues. This meeting was an amazing feast of thankfulness for the peace that now characterizes the place, for the good performance, for the long list of improvements. We heard the PTA chairman affirm that "this is not a school for any one tribe or race, it is for all the people of Uganda . . . you are here to work with us to expand God's Kingdom." Our District Education Officer, the highest official for all schools in the area, came and spoke and affirmed that CSB is the best in the district and addresses "the head and the heart" with quality education. Where we usually have an hour or two of parents complaining or demanding, we had a brief request about getting more security guards and setting aside some of the need-based scholarships for merit-based. Only two parents stood up to speak, and both said, we are satisfied. It was pretty incredible, but again, if we had not been through this tough year we might not have felt the depth of relief of having such a good day.

(stolen from Julia's instagram) my miracle brother-in-law Steve with Micah, Caleb, my mom Judy, my sister Janie, and Julia

Today my brother-in-law wrote a long post about his year, about his thanks heightened by the experience of nearly dying in August. His time of need was dire, his heart had stopped beating effectively, and he was unconscious and helpless. My sister and niece acted quickly, the excellent and ready EMT services acted quickly, the hospital ICU care was effective, his family, friends, and community came to support, and while all of those things existed prior to his near demise, he can sense the thankfulness for them more deeply now.

So, while 2019 has been a year of struggle, this has been a week of thanks, and I know in my heart that it was the going forth weeping with our seeds for planting that let us come again rejoicing with the sheaves. And that this moment of rejoicing needs to propel us outward again into more giving, more sweat and tears and even some blood. 

Click here to go to this page at Serge
This year you have an opportunity to join this cycle of Thanks and Giving. Serge has devoted #givingtuesday, on Dec 3, this coming week, to support Christ School. Link to this page to sponsor a student and transform a community. We have been giving our literal lives to this idea for a couple of decades but most intensely, this entire year. Scott is at an end-of-year school staff meeting as I write this. Much of the thanksgiving of yesterday was directed to the unseen could of witnesses, the mercy of God through the supporters who subsidize school fees and improve the infrastructure for learning. As an example of how that pays forward, a former missionary here Rick Gray once helped a young man who had struggled his way to University but had no money to live on while in school. That man is now our District Education Officer, a believer who is working to serve children and families in schools all over Bundibugyo. You never know who today's teenager will become in ten or twenty years, and the impact of a place like Christ School reverberates through the far reaches of our roads and the far stretch of our years.

Giving thanks for those who give, thanking God in the words of Psalm 126: The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Redemptive Disruption

As a team, we have been reading Bethany Ferguson’s The Mission Centered Life: following Jesus into the broken places.  Since we lived with Bethany in Uganda and Kenya, and visited her in South Sudan, the stories resonate and we are no strangers to her wisdom and insight. Last week though there was a line that so encapsulates our experience that it has really stuck with me. “He will disrupt our expectations, and that is a gift.” (P 62).  I invited team to share times their expectations had been shattered and then out of the resultant pain and chaos a picture of redemption, of good, had emerged. I shared a brief version of the story in the post before this one, a young man who thoroughly disrupted two days and how we therefore been treated to a glimpse of redemption, God working through the counter-cultural response of our Christ School alumni, to bring beauty.

Life last week included not only the challenge of a violent and psychotic young man, but: two children dying from cerebral malaria, one right in my hands as I tried pushing meds through an emergency needle into his bone marrow while also doing CPR, countless patients with complex stories of vulnerability, an all-day CSB board meeting spent debating the triumphs and trials of the 2019 school year and listening to the cultural lessons I could draw in the undercurrents, a day in court witnessing the absurdity of trying to pin down facts from people who do not think in those patterns, leading team meeting, bailing out a flooded house, meeting the District Health Officer with Dr. Marc and Dr. Amon, teaching, cooking, hosting more than half the nights, multiple distance meetings by internet-based calls. It wasn’t until yesterday that we even had a few hours to take a deep breath and sort out the final piles of boxes and bags from moving, make the final beds, hang a few curtains.  And as I looked around thankful for electricity (even if it’s intermittent) and our delightful clothes washing machine, for fresh paint, for comfortable chairs, for the pottery collected over years, for light and peace and air, a space to live . . . The phrase came back.

2019 has been a red letter year of disruption. 2019 has been a gift.

Last year at this time we were approaching our final weeks at Naivasha Hospital, and preparing to clean and pack up our rented house to put everything in a storage container for a few months. We did not know our Christmas Eve was going to include an engagement!  Nor did we think that we’d be in Uganda more than a few months. We anticipated sorting out a few issues at Christ School and supporting the team in transition, then deciding the best place (good internet, access to airports, manageable but meaningful medical work) to continue as Serge Area Directors. We thought we’d take a month Home Assignment when Jack graduated then move into a new place in probably Kenya by June.

Well, God disrupted those expectations, in the form of a complicated implosion of leadership of mostly Christ School but also this team. And in the form of listening to what people we were serving asked of us, and deciding to take a deep plunge back into a messy life that we thought we had finished. Selling our car, living in temporary quarters most of the year, engaging in spiritual battle left and right, and marching out to the edge of the fray, further from comfort. I won’t say it was always clear or ever simple, but by God’s mercy, the courage to follow this slope was supplied, and here we are.

And yesterday, as we hung those curtains, I thought, this is good.  Not just the best one can do in a hard situation, but objectively good. We love Bundibugyo. We are back in the house where we raised our family for 17 years. We have a sweet new puppy. We are engaged up to our last shred of energy in work that impacts a generation of people in a smallish place. We have teams across the Area soaring on, getting grants and giving hope, and we have a team of dedicated friends here in Uganda too. We have regular interaction with young men and women we’ve known since they were children, and get to witness them raising their own families and making their own counter-cultural choices because the Gospel has taken root in their hearts.

Yes, I wish everyone I love was at my fingertips, and that malaria and Ebola and measles were eradicated, and that my own heart was more gracious. It’s not all lovely. But it is good.

Praying you can see some redemption in your own displaced hopes in 2020.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Psychosis and Sacrificial leadership: how to really multiply your Giving Tuesday to Christ School Bundibugyo (and why long arcs make the best stories)

On Saturday, I got drawn into a text chain about antipsychotic medication options and slowly sorted out that there was a young man in Bundibugyo town with a known mental health history who was wandering the streets attracting fear and attention to the point that people had injured him, and he was now at the police station. In a culture where evil spirits are widely feared, and disturbing communal peace quickly draws backlash, he was in real danger. And as the story unfolded, I realized I knew this young man. Nearly 15 years ago, he was a bright pre-adolescent the age of Luke, and he played with our kids sometimes. He was an orphan (both parents died) with minimal family support who excelled in school, but around that time he began having psychotic episodes and we diagnosed schizophrenia. There was a short period of time when I kept him at our house to preserve his life. I remember thinking, if one of my kids with their curious intellects and competent expectations woke up in this boy's life of nearly zero resources or loving connection, would they also lose their minds? What must it be like to be him? He got better with treatment, and later went to Christ School where he graduated. I had not seen him in all those years, but it turns out he joined the army and was out of the district most of that time, then suddenly showed back up in town in an agitated and decompensated mental state last week.

Which brings us to the weekend. What does the community do with an acutely psychotic man in his 20s who has been beaten by bystanders?

Enter the Christ School Old Boy-Old Girl (OB/OG is the name for the alumni) Association. Through the general way that news travels, calls fanned out, and it came to the attention of several that a CSB graduate was in trouble. One of them went to the scene and got the police involved to protect him. Others called for medical consultation, which led to us hearing. I remembered my soft spot for this kid all those years ago and got in the car, picking up one of the alumni along the way (thankful to note he was also young and strong, as I wasn't sure how much muscle we might need for protection). The patient had been released to a "guardian", someone in town whose parents had been distant relatives of his parents. When we arrived, she told us that she could not help him so had sent him to his "uncles" and she would show us the home. As we three got into the car, she called ahead and heard he had left the uncles immediately upon arrival and was wandering the roads again. She had the idea he'd come back to town and directed me down a dirt road short-cut.  Sure enough, within a few minutes we saw him, barefoot and shirtless in his torn jeans. We stopped the car, unsure how he would react.

"MAMA SCOTT!" he exclaimed with a smile, coming straight to my window. "Now you are here. I am safe." I told him to get in the car, and he did.  That afternoon he was dealing in some alternate realities but relatively compliant. We prayed, and I told him we were all here to help him. It took quite a long time and a lot of talking to get him to get OUT of the car at the hospital. We went and brought him a hot meal, and I held his hand while Dr. Amon put in in IV and gave him medication. It took the whole afternoon, but after the family (uncles/cousin) refused to contribute anything the alumni pledged to raise half the cost of an ambulance to the national referral mental hospital in Kampala and we agreed to raise the other half. We left him pretty knocked out in the bed, and the alumni had reached a relative who promised to come stay with him overnight.

Only the relatives had long since given up on this young man, and no one showed up. So when he woke up Sunday early in the darkness, in the unfamiliar hospital bed, he just walked out. By Monday the alumni were tracking him again. He was in town, moving about, much more agitated. Stones were being thrown. Dr. Amon and I got in the car again, and drove all over looking for him. It turns out that boda-boda drivers (the motorcycle taxis) are the best source of news, and we had multiple groups on the lookout.  When we finally found him in an alley, he was much worse. He was angry, scared, violent, abusive in his language and gestures.  But once again there was a deep part of his brain that recognized our history and he got in my car again.  This time it was much harder, with banging the windows, hitting at us, taking off his clothes, constantly threatening to kill himself or us. Honestly it was a bit traumatic. At the hospital we could not lure him in even with the food we bought him, and I had to get him into a point where three men could grab him and hold him to get an injection. He still wanted to hold my hand, though I did get a little scratched in the process. When he was naked he had grabbed my hospital coat in the car, so there he was sedated wearing the Dr. Jennifer Myhre Paediatrics coat only. Now we knew we had to get him to the psychiatric hospital 8 hours away immediately. How?
OB/OG executive at the 20th Anniversary

THE CSB OB/OG GROUP acted like his family. John coordinated raising the funds for half the cost of fuel the ambulance. And Sam, the alumnus who had helped me both days, said he would ride with him. That's a two-day trip. He just dropped everything else in life and went.

These young men and women were deeply changed by their time at this school. The rest of the community was throwing stones and hitting with sticks, laughing and chasing or fearing and reviling. And I get it, this was a frightening patient. But the OB/OG group responded with sacrificial care and concern. They acted out of responsibility which they did not have to assume. They gave of their time and money to help one of their group, to help someone whom the rest of the culture had discarded, someone who would most likely never be able to return the favor. That's the Gospel in action.

This experience highlighted for me the ongoing multiplicative impact of Christ School.  It is not just the 4-6 years that these young people are within the school gates. Once they leave, they see the world differently. So much so that on a random weekend, they rose to the occasion of danger and discomfort and bailed out a person who was otherwise without hope.

Giving Tuesday campaigns abound. This year, Serge has decided that our entire mission's Giving Tuesday fund will go to CSB. Like other organizations, there are some larger donors whose gifts are used to prompt the rest of us to give. But the real multiplication is here on the ground in Bundibugyo. We subsidize half the operating costs in order to keep tuition within the range that people living in poverty can stretch to afford (parents pay about $400/year in tuition for 3 terms, 12 weeks each, boarding, meals, and instruction) and we at Serge raise enough to reach the actual expense of education, which is nearly $800/year by the time we pay salaries and meet food budgets and buy books and on an on. We also raise all the capital expenses for infrastructure and equipment. Most years that comes to over $100,000 in investment . . . this past year we've put in an extra nearly $50,000 and we will continue to do that as God provides. That changes the lives of the 253 students enrolled now, the 300 we aim to recruit for next year, the 700 or so alumni out in the world, the thousands of families and businesses and schools and health centers where these young men and women live and work.
Scott with Michael and John, two OB's, at the CSB Board Meeting

This story is about the OB/OG network and how they responded, unprompted by us. We came alongside when THEY reached out to US, not the other way around. It's about the way investments in schools and students continue to grow as those people mature and change their world. We did not expect to be back living in Bundibugyo right now, so a side note to the story is this: in spite of all the hard realities of life here, it is a privilege to witness the maturing of these kids into adults I respect, admire, and love. Thanks to all who are part of this process from afar.  It matters. 

Friday, November 15, 2019

Let's not repeat this week . . .

A week ago we pulled into Bundibugyo on a Friday evening, having flown back from the USA, spent one day doing errands and resupply in Kampala, then driving across the country. We went to bed for the last time Friday night in the borrowed Dickenson house and woke up Saturday to news of my dear friend Robin's death. No time to grieve because that day we had to move into our new/old house, loading up the last carload or two of suitcases and groceries we had lived out of since last December and bringing it across the road into the freshly repainted, re-wired, re-plumbed and cleaned house in which we raised our family for 17 years. All our Kenyan furniture, books, clothes, sheets, curtains, etc etc had been stashed in a container 11 months ago then hauled across two countries in August then moldered in a dusty ratty store room a few months. Each piece of a bed or chair, each trunk, had to be washed off before it was installed/opened. A few of our team mates were able to come up to help for a few hours, which was tremendously important. Our goal was to get all the junk dusted/cleaned a bit and into the house, and a bed set up that we could sleep in that night. Six days later we have a functional kitchen (except for the fact that the electrician came to work on a final step last night and turned our power off for the last 24 hours, not so helpful for food storage). We have places to sit to talk, and to eat. We have books on the bookshelf and clothes in the wooden wardrobes. The guest room is still a pile of curtains and blankets, and the office pass through is still cluttered with unopened boxes. But we can affirm that we made a huge amount of progress by staying up late and hauling and discussing and sorting and repacking. The second phase (curtains, pictures, rugs, office) will take another couple of weeks I'm sure.

Having a new puppy helps attract workers

Moving, transition, is just plain hard. It is hard to re-learn patterns, to find keys and the coffee filter and your toothbrush. It is hard to get filthy things clean and dry when it rains much of every day. It is hard to put the energy into yet another home, though a bit easier since this is round two on this one. It just takes tremendous energy to go through days without ANYTHING being easy and routine; such is the nature of crossing cultures and making moves. It is hard to live in the spot where the most significant parts of life occurred, without 4 of the 6 people involved. It is hard to focus on trivialities like shoe storage and trash disposal when being pulled into much more significant issues. Still, we know that a spot of visual peace will sustain our souls, and our bodies need a place to exist in the minutes between crises. And hospitality has been a crucial part of our life. We got the first taste of that last night, as our team of 23 came for pizza night, and we added in two freezers turning of homemade ice cream to celebrate Scott's birthday.

Bwindi the birthday dog

Meanwhile, our push to get ourselves settled this week had to be squeezed into the gaps in the tension of the four other huge parts of our job.

Team-we are the de facto leaders, trying to have meetings, organize the finances, supervise, plan, meet with individuals, and on and on. We're not doing a superb job. We used to be much better at this. We are weak and even though the Bible keeps saying it is GOOD to depend on God, we need some pretty big prayer here.  We have pulled together the essentials, and we have a great group of people independently moving forward, and helping each other. We have our son John Balitebia without whom we would surely be lost; he's an accountant and Scott's right hand on team and CSB matters. This week we added the Dickenson family back, having grown to five with the birth of Benjamin in September! And we welcomed Lindsey Knapp who had interned here for a summer three years ago. Ready or not, the team is growing.

In our weekly team meeting we are working through Bethany Ferguson's "The Mission Centered Life"

CSB-Scott is still up to his neck in CSB affairs, and there is always something.  The jungle basically pulled down another section of fence. We discovered the social security taxes had not been paid all year. A teacher had to be let go. Thankfully the O level (UCE) exams finished without any scandal, and A level (UACE) exams started. There is a weekly leadership meeting, weekly chapel afternoon, weekly Sunday services. We are getting ready for a board meeting next week, and the next court date for the land case. Our main witness changed his mind and now wants to retract his testimony.  Policies are always in question and needing shoring up. Again, weakness. It's too much.

Medical-Monday was one of the most hectic days I've ever spent on the Peads ward, and that's saying something!! Expected help had last minute issues, patients had accumulated all weekend and were literally spilling out the hall into the sidewalk, every space crowded and every case difficult. This morning I had five in a row who would have been in an ICU most places: hemoglobins less than five, oxygen saturations in the 80's, respiratory rates 60, 80, 98 (!!), heart rates 188 or an ominous 85, moaning, grunting, lethargic, pale. Malaria is a wicked disease. The nursing staff was mostly absent for various reasons, the blood supply had trickled to zero whence we all realized that the person in charge of documenting and ordering had stopped doing so due to a personal family member with illness that took away his full attention, the oxygen cylinders had not been exchanged since emptying, and the night staff had run out of essential meds.  And on and on it goes. Dr. Isaiah, one of our Kule scholars, was with me and what a life-saver--he ran and got one of the only two units of blood left (both group B, but 2/5 kids in shock were group B !), made sure IV's were in, pushed malaria meds, talked to patients. Dr. Ammon found an ambulance from a smaller health center willing to take the closest-to-death child to Fort Portal if I paid for fuel, and thankfully Scott had handed me some money so I did. Jessie found a guy with a wrench to work on the oxygen cylinders.  I kept plowing through the ward, found a child with a probable brain tumor, two with mysterious hepatitis quite ill, and while some horribly infected lesions were improving one was probably entering bone, a six-year-old with TB. If ampicillin, artemether, or abscess drainage can save your life, Bundibugyo is the right place.  For everyone else, it's stressful. There are a thousand things that need to be improved, and yet every day I am there I just try to keep my head above water. Again, feeling inadequate.

Highlight of the week: the hand-carts that Rhett got donated and Marc cleared tediously through customs were finally here, and distributed to people who have been crawling on the ground their whole life since polio.

Area--yes, we are still supporting our teams across East and Central Africa. Between travel and moving and the last two months of the 20-year celebration, the language intensive, the Bible Storying week of seminars, doubling our team size . . well, our attention has been thin. Ebola has finally started to taper off in the DRC. Building projects are marching on in Burundi. Kids are being taught and coached and mentored all over the region. Our emerging Malawi team leaders made another vision trip with potential partners. Our Ugandan NGO registration was updated and our Kenyan company forms are still in limbo. Some under-the-wire visa pressure had a happy ending, and many others are still in question. Our apprentices from Uganda and Kenya will meet up on Monday for a prayer trip to Litein.

Tomorrow my mom and sister will represent at a funeral I hate to miss. We will be here plugging along, doing a lot of things marginally, wresting a tad more order out of chaos around us, and praying for a new season of God's presence and grace.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Robin Maury Hutchison Iida: A tribute of grief and memories from across many miles and years

Robin Iida was my best friend growing up. Basically until I met Scott. We both got married in our early 20's (my dad walked her down the aisle; she was my only non-sister bridesmaid) and our paths diverged, but from about 1rst grade until college we were kindred spirits (our preferred Anne of Green Gables term for friendship). We met because Robin's aunt lived across the road from my family in Herndon, Virginia, and our moms became friends at a pivotal time. Pivotal, because Robin's dad died that year, and my family absorbed hers into a circle of four families that created a little community of shared faith, geographic proximity, carpools to the same small Christian school and church and Pioneer Girls' group. Robin was two years ahead of me but we were the oldest girls; the other two families started with boys. So, friends. That friendship deepened into kindred-spirit-quality though untold numbers of slumber parties, books passed back and forth as we both loved to read, forts built in the woods, paths explored, dress-up and imagination and drama, sewing and crafts (who remembers decoupage and counted cross stitch?), camps, vacations, homework.

Robin died on Friday. She was 59. She had a sudden hemorrhage in her brain from a burst aneurysm, one of those 1 in ten thousand kind of rare events that upends a life. The initial bleed occurred the prior Saturday; we got messages during the party Abby's parents threw for her and Luke. We were able to go see Robin and family in the ICU in Washington DC the next day and in spite of all she had been through she opened her eyes in surprise at my voice. We prayed for her. By Monday she was off the ventilator and whisper-talking, and through the week as we flew back to Uganda we all had great hope. But on Friday a second and larger bleed occurred, and in spite of high levels of care, she died. Her community now will remember her for her four wonderful young adult children, her three and one-on-the-way darling grandchildren, her marriage, the musical gifts she shared with her church and other groups, the international students to whom she gave a home, her active role in making this world a better place. But I have been thinking of the earlier part of her life, and the unique gift of her friendship.

And if I had to sum up that gift in two words, I think it would be smiling grit.

For some reason, we were both quite concerned about our knobby knees. I'm not sure I've even heard that term in the last few decades but as pre-adolescents we looked at our bony legs in despair, feeling awkwardly gangly, and talked about those knees a lot. We both loved to play soccer, but were never the first-picked athletic types, not particularly muscular or speedy or coordinated (though in our small-school world that didn't put us off the teams, just off being stars). We both liked boys, but never felt like we were the most beautiful or interesting (in our world, that did not mean zero dates but did prevent the status of cheerleaders or the homecoming court). And neither of us hit puberty with sudden graceful curves. Our hair difficulties were opposite: Robin's sandy blonde straighter hair was thin but cooperated with the 70's allowing her bangs and feathered layers. Mine was kinky curly thick and unruly and very much NOT blonde and I thought at the time, along with those knobby knees and flat figure, socially irredeemable. Trivial as it sounds, navigating growing up as a girl is a thousand times more survivable with a companion. So the first thing I have to remember about Robin was the life-saving effect of having a knobby-kneed partner who could commiserate, normalize, and LAUGH. Yes, Robin taught me to not take my self and my hair and figure woes so seriously. She exuded a kind of strength and spunk and humor that let us be ourselves. We didn't mourn about it, we made it funny. We had clubs and codes and secret languages, phrases that could send us into doubled-over giggles. I think all girls look around and assume everyone else has it more together than they do. So having a true soul friend walking through all those adolescent years with laughter, was priceless. (And I should have done more of this for my sister, but am grateful for Kristin who was the parallel in her life).

Secondly, and probably related to that ability to take life with humor, Robin swam against the current. We attended a very conservative Christian school in primary and middle and early high that met for years in a massive Victorian house in Leesburg. Then by a tragedy of county lines dividing us, we went to separate public high schools. Looking back, I think Robin shored up my own determination to find the path less traveled. She was an artist at heart, a talented musician with an eye for beauty. She married a first-generation Japanese American, and embraced his cultural heritage (one of my high school friends actually, so it seemed quite normal to me then, but in 2019 eyes I can now admire the courage of that decision). Perhaps losing her dad so early, perhaps just her personality, but she had a core determination that did not bow to changing tides. She decided to have all of her children as home births, even when she was a bit high-risk. She decided to home-school them creatively. She supported her first son's desire to train as an officer in the marines, and her daughter's passion to become a professional ballerina/dancer. She and Ken were never financially rich, but they made their town-home into a place of nurture for their own family and many others. Robin had opinions, and she did not mind those being different from the majority. Her goal in life was never wealth or success or fame; her goal was to be faithful, to serve others, and to sparkle. She was loyal, protective, assured. And again the humor let her stand against the flow without being obnoxious. While her adult life remained within a few miles of our childhood homes, and her adult focus within the walls of her own home, and mine went out towards medical school and Africa with all those miles and all that immersion in a more public arena, I think our kindredness of spirit is that we both made choices based on faith, hope, and love. We both risked the less expected paths. And I suspect that those choices were possible partly because of the strong foundation we gave each other.

Today is Scott's birthday. From the late 60's to the 80's Robin gave me her grit and her smile; from the 80's to now it has been Scott. Losing Robin makes every birthday a wonder. Objectively, Scott has nearly died multiple times but here we are. This year has been one of the hardest ever, wresting Christ School from the brink of demise, moving away from the slightly more do-able comforts of near-Nairobi to the decidedly more tiring life of the Uganda-Congo border. I know Robin's family needs her just as much as our family and community need Scott. It's not fair. God's mercy is an inscrutable tangle that I cannot justify and explain. I can merely be grateful today for Scott, and ask Jesus to walk closely with Ken, with Robin's mom Kay, and my mom, and all our siblings and friends. I can ask Jesus to be a presence of peace in a time of anguish. I can give testimony to the assurance that Robin's death and Scott's birthday are both redeemable mercies, even if one feels severe, in the end all shall be well.

I wish I could be with everyone who loved Robin on Saturday at her service. I wish I could find photos in the chaos of this move. But these words are all I have to give today. Rest in peace Robin.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Celebration: where the paradox of connection and creativity cross

"This touches on a real paradox: as humans, we crave belonging, we need the connectedness to others that brings security, but this connected ness can prevent the natural movement and evolution that we need in our lives.  It can also get in the way of creativity and stifle the natural loneliness that pushes us to discover something new, that pushes us closer to God . . . we are caught between competing drives, the drive to belong and be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and the drive to let our deepest selves rise up, to refuse the accepted and the comfortable. . . it is in the group that we discover what we have in common.  It is as individuals that we discover a personal relationship with God. We must find a way to balance our two opposing impulses. " Becoming Human, Jean Vanier.

(All quotes from chapter one of this book, highly recommended.  Raising children, getting married, this is about becoming human.  Human in the glorious sense of that word, soaking in love, being refined into the imago dei.)

"There are, for me, seven aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart. . . The first is to reveal someone's beauty, to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. . . To love also means to understand, and this is the second aspect of love."

(Abby's parents said their goal in this party was for Luke and Abby to feel loved. I think they succeeded grandly, because this night was just the flowering flame on a bush of days and years of loving, giving, noticing, protecting, honoring.)

"The third aspect of love is then communication. Communication is the heart of love.. . understanding, as well as truth, comes not only from the intellect but also from the body."

(Vanier writes from the perspective of a life with persons who have intellectual different-abilities. When we reflected on this wedding, we all felt one of the highlights was the giftedness of our nephew Micah, his unabashed joy in dancing at his cousin's wedding. He carries an open-hearted curiosity towards others, a passion for music and rhythm, a delight in being in the middle of the crowd, that lifted all of us to a better place. Both Luke's and Abby's family have members with a spectrum of different genetics and life-long challenges, and we are the richer for it. And Luke is one of the few doctors I can imagine who would have connected with a Congolese refugee janitor so meaningfully that he would also brave the journey and crowd to join in.)

"The fourth aspect of love is celebration. Every child, every person, needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated."

(Those are celebrated faces right there. It takes a village as pictured below, to help convince someone they are a source of joy. And the effort and sacrifice these people made to come and be with us . . we are so grateful.)

"The fifth aspect of love is empowerment.  It is not just a question of doing things for others but of helping them to do things for themselves, helping them to discover the meaning of their lives.  To love means to empower."

(I'm not sure we helped Luke discover he could do things for himself, so much as gave up trying to prevent him. Still, a wedding is a milestone of launching, a time of leaving that must precede cleaving to a new loyalty.)

"Communion is the to-and-fro movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives.  Communion is not a fixed state, it is an ever growing and deepening reality  . . [of] mutual vulnerability and openness."

(Abby and her sisterhood, perhaps most significantly Ruth (second from left) and her new sister Julia (far left). Vulnerability needs practice, and that is difficult in a culture of shame, of canceling, of taking the easy road of scorn rather than the harder road of empathy. We should all be on our knees over the fear of vulnerability in our world right now. We're a mess, and God loves us anyway, and in that very fragility we find beauty. Truth.)
 (My two generations, daughters and mother, a bridge between)
My mom brought out the same dress she wore to my wedding 32 years ago.

(the Myhres)

"There is a seventh and final aspect of love, and that is forgiveness. All of us carry within ourselves brokenness, as well as shadow areas, dark corners of the spirit. Human beings cannot be constantly attentive, loving, and nonviolent. [we must] learn that is is acceptable to be less than perfect."

(These seven taught our four kids at various stages in Uganda, forging life-long ties as mentors and friends. Surely that's what living a forgiving life looks like, being able to encourage and empower children and having the joy of watching them grow into adults).

"There was a place where much of this spiritual struggle and growth occurred: in prayer.  For most people, prayer necessitates stepping back from the pains and joys of daily life. That vision we are seeking together . . is to create a place of love and belonging.  Prayer is a time to let the light flow into our lives, to literally 'enlighten' each day."

(Light was flowing this weekend. A celebration is a form of prayer, a time apart, a sparkling glimpse of eternity. Keep praying for Luke and Abby who have been plunged today back into trauma and impossible situations and sleepless nights. Pray they would seek the primary connection of their own new community of a family, and they would take their aches and loneliness to God. Pray they would be strengthened by love to risk, and that sacrifice would bless this world.)