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Monday, October 31, 2022

All Hallow's Eve: on community and facing the unseen realities

Theology, in most of the world, is a communal concept. 

In Africa, we remain hourly aware of the impossibility of survival individually. We lean into the vast, frayed, knotted, repaired, beautiful net that upholds each person in a family, a clan, a tribe, a region, a country. And not just the living, but the awareness of ancestral lines stretching back into time, the sense of a parallel reality that breaks into ours. Perhaps because of that assumption, it makes sense from this continent to read the Bible seeing that God spoke to communities of people, called families and tribes, and is so vastly beyond us that we need an entire world of humans to refract and reflect His light. 

So “All Saint’s Day”, the commemoration on the church calendar tomorrow, reminds us of this communal nature of our faith. We are part of a vast multitude of humans through time and across continents who have worshiped God. It’s an opportunity to be thankful for those who have lived and those who have died. For Martin Luther who re-set the idea of church as infallible power to an institution in need of constant humility and reform. For Bishop Hannington who died bringing the Gospel to Uganda, and for Dr. Jonah Kule who died living that out here in Bundibugyo. For the untold stories, the invisible-to-us saints who are nevertheless precious to God. The neighbours who rose with the light this morning to feed their children and get them to school, the pastor up the road leading an early morning prayer gathering, the nutrition team heading to the hospital with peanut paste. These are the saints, and their faithfulness and tenacity lend courage to our ongoing walks of faith. We need each other.

Some saints you may not have ever heard of: Bwampu and Bahati above, Nusula and Swalleh below.
And the unnamed people who feed us, plus the very dear saints on this team.

The communal nature of “All Saints” seems obvious from our continent of vulnerability, in spite of the peculiar individuality of American traditions. 

And on the Eve of this day, I’d observe that the spiritual nature of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) seems more obvious on this side of the world too. 

From the 600’s onward, the holiday of All Saint’s Day and Eve has been influenced not only by pious proclamations but also by local traditions, which crossed cultures and evolved and came back, in a complexity beyond this short post. But suffice it to say that medieval people were much more in touch with the constant lurking presence of death . . . so practices of wearing disguises, baking cakes, singing, moving about in groups as the holiday began at sundown on the 31rst made sense in a cosmology thick with angels and demons, spirits of the dead, forces beyond explanation. 

It is only in the last century or less that the form was divorced from the meaning. In much of the wealthy world, the idea of dressing up and having parties has become popular for all ages. And almost no-one who participates assumes ANY connection with an actual spiritual world, good or evil. 

This year, however, the tragedy in South Korea screams that evil is not an imaginary concept, it is dangerously real. It’s hard to read about a surging crowd and suffocation and not be overwhelmed by the sadness of it. Of course, we personally don’t doubt that reality encompasses more than what we see, that the “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” that Paul mentions in Ephesians are the real enemy, NOT flesh and blood. So from wars just over our border to the west that lead to death and displacement, and connect to greed and precious resources, to an Ebola epidemic in districts to our east that has smouldered and flared because fear drives people to hide and spread the risk, to the apathy and cynicism of our own hearts . . . we don’t pretend immunity from evil this Oct 31rst. Or any day.

But that gives the All Saints Day context too. We need each other precisely because it is TOGETHER that we are called to overcome that evil. The Eve might be dark and full of dangers. But dawn comes. The last week, as we’ve been out for our daybreak early morning walks, we’ve passed dead snakes on the paved road twice. Forest Cobras both. And quite large. In a place where antivenin and ICU care do not reach, and where children sleep in homes where reptiles can slither in for warmth, I can’t blame anyone for defending themselves or their family. Traditionally a killed snake is thrown onto the path to be crushed over and over, to be out of the family compound. So frankly, the sight of those dead snakes gives a little picture of the defeat of all that is harmful. 

A bit past dawn, but my hopeful morning view of the Rwenzori mountains, royal palms dangling weaver bird nests, and home. 

May your All Hallow’s Eve strengthen your hope in the end of all evil, and your All Saint’s Day bring joy in the community traveling that way together. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Love, mystery, beauty: thoughts on why we keep on going on

I got a text this week, asking why we keep going. Perhaps inertia, perhaps hope, perhaps the sovereign plans that are bigger than us, perhaps many motivations we aren't even able to see. 

In Ephesians 3, Paul writes that "through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." Not a phrase that ever stopped me in my reading tracks before. But this week, it did. It sounded like a pretty good summary of what's happening here. 

First that word "manifold" is actually in the Greek, “multicoloured”.  Varied, diverse, multifaceted. A good reminder that God’s thoughts and ways are complex, even perplexing, and also beautiful. Mysterious, but in a way that invites rather than excludes.  In a novel I was reading this week, this line about the ritual of a funeral: “the opacity of God unites them briefly before His clarities again divide.”  Yes. Manifold wisdom has lots of space for variety. And as hard as it is to take in and comprehend, when you do, it is rich and resonant. A painting perhaps, or a musical, being watched by the unseen cloud of witnesses. Or a rainbow, stretched over a perplexing landscape. 

As complex and beautiful as the shining wisdom is from our human viewpoint, because it comes from God it is consistently true. And the deepest truth of the universe is love. Which is what the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places can witness, watching life on earth play out.  To quote Tish Harrison Warren one last time (sadly we’ve reached the last chapter in our team study) . . . God’s love is the primary constant of our reality,  like the speed of light, an unchanging reliable center.  Sounds clear . . . Yet we encounter the love of God paradoxically in our actual life, slogging through the gritty fray… refracted through suffering. When the speed of light is refracted by rain/cloud/tears . . we get a rainbow. Light plus cloud, love plus suffering, viewed from a place apart, show the way.

Rainbows courtesy of Rwenzori Mission School 1rst and 2nd grade

Ebola map from yesterday

So we keep at it. This week, this month, this year, this life. Bumping up against corruption when we get called to pay dubious fees, for instance. Bumping up against poverty when only 3 of our 76 students taking final exams have actually paid their final tuition, making it challenging to feed everyone or keep up with electricity and water and staff salaries. Bumping up against our own weary frailties, and the pesky illnesses of team kids and friends, or the dangerous reality of Ebola climbing to over 100 cases and 48 deaths in Uganda now. Bumping up against hard decisions, separations, longings as we work with 76 Sergers in our Area who all have to weigh the needs of their families of origin , their families on the field, their kids who might be in boarding school, their teams and communities close by, and want to love them all in spite of it being impossible. 

Praying with our Area

Monday afternoon, a good portion of those 76 joined in an Area prayer time by zoom, because our vulnerable humanity trying to shoulder those crosses NEEDS the powerful presence of Jesus, and we find that as we pull together with Jesus’ family in prayer. From people in a dusty arid town in Kenya learning Bible Stories to share with others, to teen girls in Malawi receiving counseling as they heal from trauma, to a doctor in Burundi pulled out to rush to an emergency C-section, to food supplements for people in DRC displaced by yet another flare of rebel warfare, to a Bible study with ophthalmology residents in Rwanda, to an engineer triple checking a zillion calculations to bring clean water to thousands of people in Uganda, this is the refraction of that light of love through the cross of Jesus in our Area as we prayed.

CSB chapel today, the good news of God's love into our vulnerability going out

If all this reflection on why we keep on going, what is really happening in Serge East and Central Africa, in the lives of countless real people in the church universal, is too "manifold" to make sense, well, that's part of being human. But let me end with one of my favourite songs ever, because Dave Wilcox expresses everything I've stumbled clumsily through above in poetry and music, which are a much better language for love.

SHOW THE WAY (click here or here or here to listen as you read the words)

You say you see no hope

You say you see no reason we should dream

That the world would ever change

You say the love is foolish to believe

'Cause they’ll always be some crazy

With an army or a knife

To wake you from your daydream

Put the fear back in your life


If someone wrote a play

To 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 mixed 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

Now the stage is set

You can feel your 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 mixed the mortar

And it's love who stacked these stones

And it's love who made the stage here

Though 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

Friday, October 21, 2022

How to risk Joy?

 Paradox was a concept I first encountered in GK Chesterton's writings (before we were even a pair of docs) and have held onto like a life-raft ever since. Gratitude and grief, for instance, the words that described the last year of severe injury and mostly-recovered relief, apply to most of our review of the past. We aren't forced to wear rose coloured glasses, to pretend everything was wonderful. We can lament honestly.  But we are enjoined to pay attention to the mystery of good, even as we acknowledge and mourn the losses.  Holding two opposite, disparate truths at the same time, it turns out, is also the path to hope. Looking ahead as well as looking back, we know that everything won't go our way . . . and yet we dare to believe that love is stronger than death, that good overcomes evil. That ultimately, everything we actually need will be true, because God is with us.

But living with paradox takes a toll. As we slog through reality, choosing joy risks experiencing disappointment. 

Right now power is out, again. We have a long slew of tasks to accomplish that are made more difficult by the zero-electricity state, not to mention the thunderstorms pouring forth. People we love have some significant injury and illness issues, heart-breaks and challenges abound. In the last week, our team's been slammed with some confusing tax/facilitation/government/legal fees here in our country that could potentially mount up to way more than our annual salary (not that we have to pay it all). That plus Ebola simmering on the edges, and constant reminders of disability, make choosing joy a challenge. 

To quote the book I always quote because we're reading it as a team,

And we pray that far under the surface of our lives, however easy or arduous, there would be a deep source of joy, a constant current of love that will never run dry.

This rain has me thinking of that underground river of joy that is available, but needs some excavation to tap into. So how do we risk it?  How do we dig down to the source of joy?  Paying attention to the presence of God in daily life, and reminding our soul that that is what we actually need. Looking back on the week, for me that happened one morning in a little wooden shack of a pharmacy shop, across the road from the health center. I had gone down to see the daughter of one friend who was recovering from a C-section and as usual the needed medicines were missing from the hospital stock, so we had gone across the road to buy them. It was a place I hadn't been to in ages, and so when the proprietor turned out to be a nurse we'd worked with long ago still cheerfully plugging along and delighted to connect, it was encouraging. She had about 3/4 of the vials needed for the full dose, and the energetic commitment to procure the rest.  But even better: her daughter was on the porch of the shop and came in, and she had not only graduated from CSB but was a trained nurse-midwife herself and worked at the local government health center too. (In fact, we hadn't even been aware of the first friend's daughter's C section because the health care system we and others invested in for so many years, including these people, worked to save the mom and baby alive.) And the daughter's daughter was the cutest little preschooler, all smiles. To encounter a family who embody the all-things-new of what God is doing in Bundibugyo, lives spent serving the sick and endangered, faithful to their jobs and enjoying each other's presence, investing now in the smallest 3rd-generation member like we had invested in the 1rst and 2nd . . . it was a moment to glimpse that committed work with the hospital, school, church, discipleship, scholarships, encouragement and example, does keep rippling out. For the world's good and God's glory, our vision statement says. Many days we don't see much of the world turning good, and we don't feel that we're reflecting much glory. But risking joy means celebrating the "sacramental reality", the presence of God in the muddy, complex, tangible stories around us.

the little newborn who we went to see . . .named Lindsey after one of our teachers!

Glimpses of glory, Margaret and Asita with decades of faithful work for this place

And Yoneki and Damali, saints that remind us God is present

2nd and 3rd generation blessings, which give us the audacity to risk joy

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Living on the Edge

If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much room.

Our friend Pat found that on a shirt for us once and bought it off someone's back, because it so encapsulated a life principle (I've seen it attributed to dozens of sources, including Jim Whittaker first American to summit Everest, or Morgan Freeman the actor). "Hard-to-reach hard-to-stay" is the phrasing the NGO world uses. Every part of our world contains unexplored depths of beauty and brokenness, every village and city and farm welcomes justice and mercy. But some spots are more edgy than others, be it access to goods or power, to water or electricity, to child survival or media attention. Living on the edge, then, reflects a willingness to do without guarantees. And trying to insulate oneself from all risk means less space for the majority of the world that can't make those choices. The edge symbolises proximity to hardship.

And the edge seems to be a place where God's presence becomes particularly palpable, be it a burning bush in the desert, a thunderous trembling mountain, a shelter shared with farm animals, or a cross in a cursed hill of skulls. 

When we're trying to be at the center, it's hard to be open to loss, to change, to being wrong, to being weak. 

What does that look like this week?  Watching kids gather to the ever-cheerful Clovis at Nyahuka Health center where he prepared to weigh and enrol those who were suffering from not-enough-nutrition. A mentoring meeting with team mates designing a new water system that will save lives, and give women back the hours of carrying marginally clean water from distant unprotected sources. . . and another preparing to re-open the mission preschool. An ultrasound for the pregnant wife of a faithful young man who works for our mission (all is well); another for a friend's daughter. Brainstorming with another NGO interested in advancing care for sickle cell disease, since we live in one of the world epicenters of that gene prevalence, and researching potential testing and treatment options. Reports and emails, immigration issues and plumbing issues, laundry and cooking. Suppling  all the 76 seniors at our secondary school (S4 and S6) with malaria prophylaxis (they also sleep under nets, but malaria is so pervasively endemic here) to take that one factor out of the equation as they begin their month of national exams next week. Praying together with team. Wrestling with our cultural assumptions, with discerning truth. 

Oh, in the fine print of team leading, managing construction of new latrines for the church. . . 

And in the background of all of that, the looming terror of Ebola. 74 cases (54 confirmed) and 39 deaths (19 confirmed) per today's numbers. We are proud of our local hospital and health center IV for preparing, drilling, educating. . . but we also know that human behaviour can be dangerously illogical when fear over-rides the hearts and thoughts. 

with my two girls, Abby left and Julia center, on a hike in August . . 

And as much as we love the edge, and tomorrow will mark 29 years since we landed in Uganda and shifted our main sense of home here . . . another reality of the edge is that it separates us from people we cherish. So today our hearts are actually with our daughter-in-law, who is having surgery for a chronically torn ligament in her ankle. She's a nursing professor and a triathlete so being unable to walk puts quite a stress in her life. If you read this pray for Abby to have a good result. 

And pray for us, to not grow weary of embracing edginess, to stay expectant of God's mercy in places where it's hard to see. Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? Ps. 78:19 says that's the crucial question of faith. Pray we can keep saying, yes.

Please pray for CSB students beginning national exams next week . . . photo above is all the S4 and S6 kids coming forward for prayer by staff during chapel last Sunday.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

Character, purpose, and seeking the good life in Uganda

Uganda, as a 20th century political entity, turns 60 today. 1962 saw both of us emerge from gestation and begin a long path towards each other (I've now lived here or near here almost half my life, and half of Uganda's!). 60, however, sounds ridiculously truncated as a duration for a civilisation that existed many, many centuries before ancient Greeks became intrigued with the legendary Mountains of the Moon, or Europeans began seeking slaves or farmland or influence. But 60 years ago on October 9th, Uganda as a protectorate of the British empire formally gained independence.

And the day before, we celebrated the upcoming independence of our Christ School soon-to-be graduates. The end of "high school" here does not involve the same sort of graduation milestone that we personally grew up with. Because the 4 years of O-level and then 2 more of A-level end with a multi-week staggered series of national exams, students sitting for a dozen or more half-day papers in 4, 8, 10 subjects . . . their final days are somewhat scattered and anti-climatic. Instead our kids enjoy a "candidate dinner", a good meal with speeches and music and hoopla, a week BERORE the long and strenuous exam stretch starts. So Saturday afternoon, the 33 A-level and 43 O-level students decorated the chapel into a party hall, fussed over a cake and a special meal, dressed up in their finest, did their hair, and danced in. We joined the staff as invited guests to celebrate them. And Scott as chairman of the Board of Governors and last-man-standing parental figurehead, was given the concluding speech.

He commended them for reaching this point when they will leave the structure and rules of a boarding school, the limitations of childhood, and move out to seek the "good life" by making choices. That transition from submitting to parental and teacher authority to exercising personal responsibility is a part of maturity in all cultures. Exciting, intimidating, heady to some extent.  In this one, there is less risk of the illusion of living only for self . . . All of the accompaniments of adulthood are more deeply communal, life consciously tempered by the collective. Job, marriage, children, home, income, spending, tribe and clan, voice, worship, further education, all involve some choice and some negotiation with family.  But, he said, a good life requires those choices be made with two things in mind: who you will be as you live your "good life",  and what that "good life" ultimately accomplishes. Character and purpose.

Will you serve others in the model of Jesus, working for the kind of all-things-new world He gave us a glimpse of? Or will you serve only yourself, willing to take whatever paths are necessary no matter who is hurt?

We certainly hope and work for the former. Christ School's vision is to produce servant leaders (character) for the good of Bundibugyo and the glory of God (purpose). We pray that these 76 add to the hundreds of alumni who have gone before them to enable child survival, to produce art and literature, to govern well at the community level,  to treat illness and teach school, to invest in business and farming, to establish loving families, to care for and honour the elders. We pray that the temptations to progress by stealing, cheating, taking or giving bribes, witchcraft, violence, will be resisted. Those paths might look easier, natural, rich at first. But the life they lead to will not satisfy. 

None of us can always make Jesus-like choices. But that's the good news of the Gospel: that the Spirit invites us to participate in the good-life-for-the-world anyway. To work for 60 years towards a Uganda, an Africa, an earth, that is more like the Kingdom of God, we lean on the supernatural help of God. Let's pray for the Spirit to enable these graduates to fight evil, to purify their hearts, to heal the brokenness of systems all around us. To have the character of our meek Saviour, and the purpose of our loving God.


PS. Would you like to partner with us to help sustain Christ School-Bundibugyo, financially?  

We desperately need more partners who can help subsidize this increasingly expensive project in this desperately poor place.