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Friday, April 30, 2021

Ordinary miracles: Home assignment, love, and vaccines,

 We are about half way through our two-month "home assignment". This April half has been based in West Virginia and North Carolina. We tramp through the woods, split logs and stack firewood, prune and clean, drag debris and pick up trash, cook meals with the wonder of Kroger, and jump in the frigid river for an icy plunge. (By "we", I mean royal we, mostly Scott . . . ).  And the weekends have been times to celebrate our family. This past weekend my sister and brother-in-law brought our nephew Micah up to Sago to celebrate her birthday. In spite of a rainy forecast we hiked to some favourite spots from our childhood, played dominoes and crazy 8's, made s'mores around a campfire, read aloud from The Princess Bride, and had a delicious pizza night. In between the weekend visits, we've enjoyed more relaxed time with my mom, including, ironically, a trip to a funeral on Tuesday. Our main supporting church's organist, who had been a member for probably 55 of her 88 years, passed away, and as old-timers ourselves we wanted to join the service. Masks and distance and an outdoor reception in the parking lot allowed us to reconnect with some of the people whose prayers have kept us all alive. We visited my 90-year-old Aunt Ann who is heading into some cancer surgery, and stopped at some familiar points along the 4-hour drive there and back. 

All of these are ordinary miracles. Frozen custard from a stand that has sold it for longer than my lifetime. Conversation with people who have loved us since childhood. Views of rocks and rivers that have been the backdrop of all we know. Stories with siblings. Yard work with parents.

These are the fabric of every day life that we miss. These are the moments that now the whole world does not take for granted.

Because a funeral, an ice cream cone, a day in the car, a visit in a home, are all things that not just we in Uganda but most people in America have missed for a year. And yet here we are. By grace and grit, vaccines have enabled us to interact again as humans.

Except for probably some church members at the funeral and my cousin who is still in line (with whom we stayed masked and distanced), almost everyone we have seen in our month in the USA has been vaccinated for COVID. Tomorrow we will get our second Pfizer dose. A year ago we had barely begun to imagine what COVID-19 would do to our world, and here we are immunised. It's amazing if you stop and think about it. Sadly over 150 million people have become sick and 3 million have died (2%, holding at 10x more lethal than serious flu and 100x more than average flu).  Our whole world has been disrupted. Poor places tried to stay isolated; rich places tried to guarantee expensive treatments. But in the background research skyrocketed and now there are 8 fully approved vaccines, 6 more in limited use, and about 90 in various stages of development. Because of this, we can hug our moms, we can eat with our medically vulnerable nephew, we can visit our pre-op elderly aunt, we can fly to see our kids without worrying that we are putting them in danger. It is miraculous.

Recently, a couple of people have asked me about whether there is any ethical problem with vaccines because some vaccine research for some types of shots used human cells that were derived decades ago from two babies whose tissue became available after an abortion. Many wise people have researched and spoken, including church leaders, saying, GET THE VACCINE. My answer is this: the ethics of getting a vaccine (which does NOT CONTAIN any fetal tissue mind you) I think parallel getting a liver transplant from a teen killed by a drunk driver. It is grievous that a child died, and that it was a death related to someone's choices that were wrong. But the family would take some comfort in knowing that the teen's liver saved others (we know that in our family as our cousin inadvertently met the family of his liver donor, which was deeply meaningful). The family of the aborted baby from decades ago has stated this themselves. The abortion was not done to provide tissue for research. But the tissue was redeemed as it was put to life saving use.  It is also horrible that police or soldiers or firefighters die in the line of duty (though they have adult choice in the matter) but we thank them for their service particularly when their sacrifice saves others. For vaccines the ratio must be 2 to millions. Lastly, there are many many types of vaccines now and most do NOT involve the human cell line in their production. So if the ethics of donor tissue or of sacrifice for others does not compel you, get a viral vector or attenuated vaccine instead.

Secondly, people have feared vaccines because all reports of adverse effects have been taken out of context. If a disease would kill 100 people, and a vaccine would kill 1, would you get the vaccine or the disease? That's the kind of context needed to understand the rare clotting disorders seen in a handful of cases after some types of vaccine. Only the ratio of more like 10,000 times more dangerous to get the disease than the vaccine. No medicine, no minute of life, is completely safe. It is more dangerous to get in your car and drive to work for an hour ten times than it is to fly ten hours from London to Africa, but most people don't think that way. We tend to fear the sensational, the new, the newsworthy. We need facts and context.

But the real question comes down to this: are you willing to inconvenience yourself, perhaps have a headache or chills for a few hours, for the good of others? And that's where our character is seen. Will you wear a mask, stay six feet apart, stand outside, forgo a concert or movie, delay a trip . . . if it means your 85 year old mother gets to live ten more years and see her grandchildren grow up? We are proud of the way our family let go of their privileges, changed their habits, so that WE would get to see them again, so that we wouldn't have to hear about their hospitalisations while we were locked out of travel. Will you take a 1 in a million chance of a serious vaccine side effect so that as a world we can slow down the mutations and spread of a disease that has killed 3 million others?

We are so thankful that our family chose to vaccinate, and had the opportunity. And that we have been given the opportunity as well. India reminds us that this disease of COVID-19 is not over even now in 2021. As long as there are places in the world with poverty, crowding, low access to vaccines and treatment, misinformation, fear, political manoeuvring, poor health, and rampant spread . . the virus will continue to claim lives. And to change. And to become more infectious, or more lethal. We are all in this together.

For us, a month in rural West Virginia with forays to North Carolina and Virginia has been a miracle of ordinary days. Tomorrow we head West to see the other half of the family, Scott's mom Ruth for a week then Luke and Abby (and Jack again!) in Utah. We try to stay in touch with our teams, and there is still a lot of work going on. But we are so thankful for this time.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Treasuring and Pondering, Life Breaking Through

 Today we sent out a prayer letter, so if you're on that list thanks for reading and praying. (If you're not, you can message your email address in a comment which I'll add to the mailchimp and delete here as soon as I see it.) Short story is: we are in West Virginia after a week with my family in North Carolina, snow blusters in waves but the forces of Spring are definitely winning the day, and the major prayers we had for our son who was in training were realised (oh JOY).  Plus the court in Uganda recognised our appeal yesterday as a valid reason to delay requiring payment of the extortionary fees, and our team in Nyankunde escaped with pretty much everyone else in the hospital and aviation compounds after days of escalating violence between a local mono-ethnic militia and the national army. We have had meals and hikes and games and talks with 3 out of 5 kids, 1 out of 2 moms, and the sister who lives in the USA. We entered the WV vaccine system. We tested negative for COVID. All that has been pretty great news in the almost 3 weeks since we began this journey. What is harder to explain is my own reluctance and hesitation to post about any of it. True, for the big family news, we are now entering a new life stage of security so that will no longer be part of what we speak about on the blog or social media. But even given the mind-spinning nature of tracking with people on two continents and multiple time zones, the desire to be mentally and emotionally fully present with people we love whom we've not seen in 18 months, the gaps in tech as I replaced a broken computer . . . perhaps it is just too much. But I have noticed that there are two deeper realities I'm aware of in this time.

First, in Luke 2, Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. April has been a season of treasure and ponder. And second, related perhaps, I think that the last 13 months have taken a toll on us all. Last April, we wondered if we would survive the pandemic. We had been making hard calls for a month about who should go when the occasional evacuation flights opened after all our Area's countries closed borders. More and more Americans were going back to the USA and it was really hard not to second guess ourselves constantly. We knew that ICU care would not be an option, and in many places not even oxygen. An entire year of uncertainty, of pockets of doom, of feeling cut off, of help melting away and little returning, of knowing that if one of our moms got COVID we would not be able to reach them, of concern for our front line essential worker kids, reacting to restrictions, closed schools, protocols, questions. Plus the added layers of ongoing baseline problems like TB and malaria and malnutrition and corruption and broken utilities and no mail and always more work than we could accomplish. And the heart-wrenching near-misses for the above mentioned child. All that time we wondered if we would be here in Sago where my family settled, if we would see our nearest relatives again. And yet, here we are. 

Treasuring the sheer incredulousness of being alive, being OK. Pondering what that means for the next year, and the next, for us and those we love. Grateful to be in April 2021, while knowing that the scars of April 2020 will also always be part of the story. Trying to take this space we've been given to process and breathe. 

Winter lingers. The spiritual battle never ends in this life.

But evil never wins.

Life breaks through. Spring is here.

If you've never been to a special olympics baseball game after a year of COVID delay . . you haven't lived.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Of Death, Daffodils and Resurrection

 Easter Sunday finds us quietly awakening in Sago, WV, less than a mile from where 13 men were trapped by an explosion and collapse in 2006. One was rescued alive, for the other twelve the vigil yielded only grief. That vigil may have had echoes of Easter's. Not our modern Easter, where we know the end of the story. The original, historical one, where the body sealed into the ground could only have been considered lost for good. Some of Jesus' followers ran and hid alone while others did gather together, though none wanted to bring attention to themselves.  Even the Mary's who stood by the cross, who wiped his feet with perfume for burial, who prepared the spices for proper embalmment to augment the hasty disposal of the body after the shameful execution, did not anticipate the events of Sunday morning. They spent their Sabbath in stillness, empty, depleted, crushed. The rescue ended in defeat, thought they would still risk the ire of authority to witness and attend to ritual, they did not dream of any change to the ending. Men in a collapsed mine do not return after days. Nor does a body that has been hung by spikes on a wooden crossbeam, stabbed, declared lifeless, sealed in a tomb with a guard. When the earth covers a life, the end is deep and final.

Unless, of course, that life is a seed.

We landed in the USA in the late afternoon Saturday, and drove 4 hours to the farm, arriving well past dark, making a 10 pm dinner and then falling into bed. So when Easter Sunday morning awakened us, we were delighted to see hundreds of daffodils. I planted some bulbs six years ago when we spent a sabbatical year here, but most have propagated as descendants of bulbs planted over the last century of farm occupants. You would never know that so many daffodil bulbs lie buried beneath the meadow grass behind the barn, until the lengthening of days around the equinox wakes them to sprout. The trees are still bare, just a suggestion of buds at their tips, and the temperatures were dipping to the 20's here last week. We passed patches of snow coming over the mountains. Spring has just begun to edge winter into the past. But the daffodils raising out of the brown grass of last summer, the brilliant green spears of their leaves and the dazzling drops of sunshine in their flowers, testify that the rest of the transformation will follow.

This is the resurrection we celebrate today. It's not summer yet; winter still grips too hard. But there is one who went into the ground and blossomed out in beauty, in life, ahead of the rest. When Jesus walked out of that tomb at dawn, folded his shroud and stepped back into the world, he became the living example of that future we all hope for. Yes, we still live with collapsed mines, and this year with an ongoing pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and left us all weary of isolation. The weight of impending doom that we have been carrying for a year; the delayed connections, re-shaped work, ever-shifting coping with barriers and expectations. The extortion we are facing on our land case, the sorrow of death and hunger we touch daily. All of this is barren trees and patches of snow. And yet . . . the daffodils have bloomed. Jesus resurrected.

The first Easter morning was a time of confusion, of questions, of we-hardly-dare-to-believe-our-eyes bewilderment. Of people alone, in handfuls, running, passing a message. Of a paradigm shift so radical we still write books and can't explain it all. Because one man walked into death and back out alive, we all can follow. Because the entropy and despair of this world turned in his body towards health and hope, the entire creation can be made new. Because he led the way, we are invited to follow participatorily. 

Easter begins the mission in which we now immerse ourselves, in which we now get our hands dirty into this earth, in which we now drip our sweat and our blood. The mission of bringing the groaning of creation into the future newness. That might be raising a child, or teaching a class, or performing a surgery, or feeding the hungry. Or planting daffodils.

Friday, April 02, 2021


 Liminal-a word that has always grabbed my soul, perhaps one of those words whose sound of breath and cloud imitates meaning. It is actually the word for a door's threshold, which sounds firm enough place to step. But in so stepping, one is momentarily between inside and outside. It is the space that joins two realities, part of both and neither. If we accept that the visible, concrete, perceived-with-five-senses reality in which we live and move and have our being is not the sole reality, that there is a parallel universe of the spiritual realm, then the liminal places are those in which one passes from earth to heaven, from seen to unseen.

Good Friday is a liminal day; the cross is a liminal place. After 33 years of walking the paths of Palestine, of heat and dust and thirst, of reclining at meals and drinking of wells and embracing the sick, of touch and smell and taste and sound and sight . . . Jesus hung at the threshold between earth and heaven. Over those hours, he slowly ebbed from the world of oxygen and lungs and hemoglobin, to enter a space that we know of only in the most foggy ways. Hebrews 10 connects this place to the curtain that separated the holiest inner sanctuary of the Temple from the rest of our existence, the veil between God's presence and the priest. When Jesus gasped "It is finished", the physical earth convulsed and the curtain tore in two, opening the space between God and the world. Jesus' human body, his flesh, became the threshold, the passage, the pathway to connect us. In so doing, that body was torn, that blood spilled, and uncountable shifts in reality occurred.

Chagall, White Crucifixion

We are spending this Good Friday in liminality as well. Our two realities are Uganda and America. Our lives are embedded in both, simultaneously. The threshold for us is an airplane, an enclosure of transport that opens a passage between our worlds, that is neither here nor there. Sometimes the travel feels like suspended time. We have people we love in both places, meaning and work and life and home in both places. We are people shaped by both places, who love both places. The analogy fails at some point of course. But Jesus as a full citizen of both heaven and earth, Hebrews says, transformed the system of sacrificial death to one of obedience to the will of God. In doing so, instead of requiring a surgically painful and bloody operation, God transforms hearts to align with good.

Clifford Possum Tjalpaltjarri, Good Friday, 1994

William H. Johnson, Jesus and the three Marys, 1939

Liminal spaces invite lingering. Like the bewildered core friends, we pause today at the cross. I'd rather gloss right on over into arrival, Sunday, sunshine. But let us stand on the threshold of worlds today, weeping, hoping.