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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent 2022: the paradox of walking in darkness to see light

 We all want to see the glorious sparkling lights, not exactly something we have to be talked into. As we turn the corner from Thanksgiving to Christmas, today marks the Sunday where Advent begins. Even yesterday we put up a couple little strands of partially functional much-used Christmas lights, which we rush to unplug every time the power goes our so our batteries don't bottom out. Still, 'tis the season of anticipation of what is coming, of waiting and hoping for good. Like a traveler scanning a web site brochure, or a shopper reading on-line reviews, those originally waiting in Advent had ancient prophecies to pin their expectations to. The entire nation of Israel after the defeat of exile held their collective breath for a change in the plot. And Isaiah the prophet wrote repeatedly to give them glimpses of the coming reality. Including, in chapter 9, a great light.

Bring it on.

But, Isaiah says, the light shines on people living in darkness, in gloom, in the land of the shadow of death. 

Chapter 9 speaks of yokes, burdens, rods, battles, blood, oppression. Not sure that sounds so Christmas-y. Unless, of course, you happen to be living in a land battling Ebola, or in one of our border countries with drought, famine, rebel warfare, displacement, intractable poverty, injustice. In the real world, in other words. Where the shadow of death is undeniable. And where Christmas comes as shockingly good news. 

Advent wreath waiting to be lit

It's raining here, mud and gloom feel palpable, particularly as electricity flickers on and off, and the water line remains interrupted. But this is the exact place and time for a strand of Christmas lights, for unreasonable faith to shine into the narrative. 

 We have the privilege of living in 2022 so that we can look back on both the anticipatory darkness of centuries of longing, and the light that shone in Palestine. We can read pictures of what-would-come painted for the ancients in Isaiah 9:1-7 and 49:5-6 . . . and the picture of what did come in the testimony of John 1:1-9. And yet, at the same time we must acknowledge that shadows remain in our own era and hold onto a hope for the light to come (Rev 21:22-25). Because the darkness is not a sign that the light has been defeated. It's a sign we're in the right place to wait for it.

Waiting for light, example 1 of 4 in last day  .. Miss Michaela, beloved teacher, has to go for a couple months to raise more support and see her USA family. Dark times for first grade. But the light on the horizon is that she agreed to come back for another 2 years!!!

Example 2: baby with a life-changing disability, but hope on the horizon as we refer for surgery and care.

Example 3: Melen (far right) has known more than the shadow of death, she felt the weight of it most achingly during Ebola (a week from today we will reach the 15th anniversary of Dr. Jonah's death). But she smiles with hope that the son she was pregnant with at the time will pass his exams finishing primary school well enough to keep on the path to be a doctor like his dad.

Christ School, perhaps the place we smack into the darkness most often and yet the place where the hope of change and hope rests. Today the Senior Six class had their last regular Sunday preaching service, and Scott spoke from John 13. As we say goodbye to them like Jesus did to his disciples, we not only preach leading with a servant-disposition . . . we demonstrate it as Jesus did by washing their feet (Madame Topista, deputy head teacher; Scott, Chairman of the Board; Peter Bwambale, head teacher, and Patrick, Director of development; in front of the 33 graduates)

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Thank you for Surviving: Thanksgiving in the context of risk, celebrating with community

Thanksgiving, an American holiday but a universal foundation for life. Reaching the 4th Thursday in November outside of American culture means that we have zero advertising promotion of turkeys or parades or time off or football or pumpkin or pilgrims. Instead we have another day in a country that is reeling from Ebola and struggling to address poverty and hunger and unemployment, that is rapidly attempting to organise and modernise and educate and cultivate. Except for the Ebola (in those days it was small pox and a dozen other plagues)  . . . not so different from the 1621 harvest-time feast. Thanksgiving comes into the context of risk, and thanksgiving calls out a communal celebration.

In Uganda, webhale kwejuna, thank you for managing to survive, is the traditional greeting to a new mother. Because childbirth is risky. And that captures the spirit of this holiday. In agrarian societies at the mercy of rain and weather, making it through to the next harvest is never guaranteed, the hungriest times being just before the food is replenished. And for the early Europeans attempting to colonise North America, the terrain, the defensive inhabitants with their suspicion and resistance (well founded, as it turns out), the impending cold of winter, the dangers of the voyage . . . all added up to a sharp awareness of the fragility of life. Just as childbearing brings dangerous hours into a woman's life, so that on the other side we note even survival with thankfulness. And while Thanksgiving in the USA was intermittently emphasised for the first century of the country, it became a more universal national holiday when? In the Civil War, 1863, in the context of the worst days of our history. That's when we needed to give thanks.

In Uganda, many greetings start with webhale, with calling out thanks, because we need to see life communally, to draw each other into truth. Being thankful takes discipline, intention, awareness. I suspect that's why the leaders of the pilgrim and indigenous American communities saw the importance of marking the day, and that's why the Psalms and the whole Bible have to keep enjoining us to taste and see. Hardship slams into us and grabs centre stage; it is a choice to instead lay out a table, sing and eat and celebrate. Reaching that point alone is nearly impossible, but in community we get a new and nuanced view of our situation, a reality check that we are part of a family.

So the context and celebration of thanksgiving, Biblically as well as historically, is that in the proximate inevitability of suffering we open our eyes to the undercurrent of good by gathering together to name the blessings.

I'm thankful for my family and my team, and for surviving 2022. And thankful to be reminded, today and this week, of the truth that love is stronger than death, that good overcomes evil in the end. So let us leave you with two Thanksgivings, two older community members who had been blinded by cataracts. It's a good story because it began in the context of risk and sorrow, probably fifteen or more years ago when a young man who had been friends with our kids graduated CSB and earned a University admission and Scott was filling out what he thought was a cursory health exam form . . and discovered that this kid had rare severe glaucoma-based vision loss. Thanks to a missionary short term ophthalmologist, connections to the eye hospital in the capital, generous donors and many trips, he's had multiple surgeries and some preservation of the limited vision he still had. He struggles. But he knows how to travel to the eye hospital. So when the CSB gate guard was about to lose his job this month because he was losing his vision (being blind makes security a bit of a difficult career), Scott had the idea to send him to Kampala with this young man at his next regular follow up, to see if he could also be helped. And that seemed like a golden opportunity to send the grandmother of our next-door neighbour too, with her granddaughter to help her. The four of them arranged seats on the early morning bus, for everyone but the glaucoma-guide their first time out to the big city 8 hours away. There were complications and setbacks, uncertainties and mercies. God opened the door to both the old man and the old woman getting immediate surgery. They returned able to see. Both came to visit in the last two days to say "thank you". Her comment: that much money could have bought land, I can't believe it was spent on me, God is good. His comment: I can walk alone, I can read the Bible, I can do everything. Scott recognised they were each like the 10th leper in Jesus' story--healed, and not taking it for granted, but giving thanks. A tragedy of glaucoma nearly destroying one young man's vision, still wrong and sad. But a redemption in his suffering bringing life-changing sight to two others.

So, praying we can be like that. Having our eyes opened to the goodness of God (the song and artist from the UVA memorial for the murdered student athletes this week, a powerful statement of intentional awareness of truth on the darkest day). And celebrating with our community. And in spite of all the valley of the shadow of death, finding a table laid. Not an escape (in the presence of enemies after all) but a declaration of faith that even on the hardest bleakest paths, God brings good.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Malawi, stories, and rain at the frayed edge of grace

A week ago we pulled out of our gate in the early morning, to drive across Uganda through rainy season profligate green to the international airport. . . and this morning we drove out of Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, to their international airport to head back, past dusty plowed thirsty fields. Out of rainy season into dry season and back again. The rains on our continent make the same north to south sweep this time of year. 

Rainy Uganda above, to dry Malawi below

Over 100 years ago, Scottish presbyterians and South Africa Dutch Reformed missionaries followed the call and example of David Livingstone into the interior, and an innovative risk-taking Malawian leader in Nkhoma saw that these Europeans had guns, and decided to invite them to his area. His tribe could handle wild animals and vagaries of climate, but he thought the firepower would be very useful in protecting his people from hostile neighbouring tribes who also took captives to sell to coastal slavers from abroad. The missionaries noted that Nkhoma, at over 4000 feet, provided a healthier less malarious climate for survival than the lower lakeshore. So they accepted the invitation. Still, at the end of the first year, the tensions of cross-cultural collaboration and suspicion were high. On Nov 27, 1889 a crowd surrounded Rev. Murray. The rains were desperately needed and late. If he really had a connection to God, he should pray for the rain. They gave the missionaries 24 hours, until sunset on the 28th . . . and if no rains had come, they would take that as a sign that these foreigners displeased the spirits and should be sacrificed. Those men prayed, and prayed some more, through the night of the 27th and day of the 28th.

A half hour before sunset, the skies opened and rain poured down.

And so lives were spared and land was granted to the church to begin a collaboration that translated the Bible, built numerous schools and churches, and established a hospital and nursing school and teachers’ college and eventually a University. The synod leaders over the decades transitioned from foreigners to Malawians, as did most of the church, school, and hospital staff. Family after family came and went from various corners of the country and the globe, moving into the solid brick houses with their tropical verandas and tenuous water systems. Thousands and thousands of treatments and surgeries and lessons and projects later, here we are in 2022. So much good. And yet, Malawi remains, like most of this continent, near the basement of any development index. The Kingdom comes, but in the slow way that a mustard seed grows, good but not enough for twenty million people the thrive. Yet.

A bit like the old missionaries, were were responding to invitation and going to establish collaboration, though this time we pray with less colonial hubris and certainly no firearms, but the ongoing heart to bless our neighbours. 

Arrival photos, Daniel and Bethany in front of their house

A year ago the Robbins family moved to Malawi. They had served a short term in the area as school teachers shortly after their marriage over a decade ago, and after finishing graduate training and working in the USA and having three kids then joining Serge and completing needed PhD coursework to qualify for seminary professorship and counsellor training to engage with safe-house programs for abused kids (a lot happens in a decade). . . they were ready to move to Nkhoma. We had intended to make a respectful visit as Serge leaders pre-move to Nkhoma in 2020 but . . Covid . . then when travel eased a little in 2021 but . . . injury . . . so this trip was long overdue. Though many others have served and lived in Nkhoma over the years, we don’t assume our welcome or right to insert ourselves. We need the clarity of the synod leadership inviting us organisationally, and so we primarily went to sign an “MOU” (memorandum of understanding) together (THANKS to advance work by the Brotherton-Streets). 

With Rev. Vasco in his office for the signing

This is the Area Director side of our job, and quite delightful. The primary meeting was fun for sure, Malawians have a warm humour, and Rev. Vasco graciously signed with Scott while saying : yes, now we have the papers, but more importantly we already have the trust with Daniel and Bethany.  They have worked hard, and God’s abundant grace at the fray, has enabled them to already establish relational connection that is more important than any document. And that’s the real joy of such a visit, not accomplishing paperwork but witnessing redemption. Getting a front row view of the Robbins and others as they grapple with poverty and broken systems and find the places where their particular resins can seal the cracks. 

Because in our era, even a century on, there is still work to be done. Daniel teaches in the seminary faculty of the University, which invests in deep theological training over 4-5 years so that church leaders fan out over the country with not only a degree but a spiritual resilience, and also invests in broader diploma-level 2-3 year enrolments so that secondary schools receive teachers with competence. Bethany not only homeschools her kids (and she’s one of those dream homeschoolers who uses the flexibility to stimulate creative, problem solving, real thought about the way the world works) but also mentors counsellors locally and at distance, particularly those working in the hardest heartbreaking areas of abusive trauma in childhood. Non-Serge missionaries are also on station, establishing family medicine and surgical residency training, providing medical care to the marginalised. We toured the hospital and met with some of the doctors and professors and pastors and friends. 

We loved being students again for a morning's dive into a Scripture passage as Professor Robbins drew out observations and analysis, then challenged us to examine trinitarian relationships in the context of voluntary submission. . . significant for understanding God but also human relationships. Wow.

Our role as outsiders now is to come alongside people who are the primary sealers of the broken pieces, people who were born and raised here. Like Rev. M who is preparing a thesis examining the Hebrew concept of “anavim”, a word in the Psalms that comfortable people assume to mean internal moral poverty . . . but perhaps the people who wrote it in ancient Palestine and the people who read it in 2022 Malawi see a richer (and more accurate) both-and meaning of spiritual and physical, internal and external need. Or Professor H who is juggling the finances and administration of the entire University while raising his family, or his wife E who brings quality improvement projects into the nursing care at the hospital. These people and their children are the future of Malawi, and yet God continually sprinkles in people from afar too. People who have benefited from a life that allowed for development of their skills and passions and who are now willing to be the seed of similar blessing and training in a new location, people who have access to tell the stories and channel the resources which are not fairly distributed in our world.

H, his son, M, and Robbins fam having stimulating discussions over fruit and eggs from M's chickens

That’s why we are in Malawi, new to Serge though not new to the centuries of Africans who have laboured and lived and loved here. To listen to statistics and witness the reality that Malawians endure. To willingly encounter the sorrows that harm so that we can be a tiny drop of the grace God rains down. 

On our final evening last night, I walked out on the porch to sit and read as the light faded, a moment of rest before our early morning return flight. It was about half an hour before sunset again, in mid-November, and the parched heat of dry season radiated back up from the dusty floor as it does after months of sun and wind. Gradually I noticed an unfamiliar sound and sensation. 


The tentative beginning of the annual deluge had arrived.

PS The team would love to have more help. Priorities are seminary professors and family medicine doctors, or nursing professors or teachers or counsellors. . . . mostly people with the humility to listen to and learn from our partners, and the faith to try new things in hard places.

We can testify it's a fun crowd to spend a birthday with!

Nkhoma mountain, Malawi. May God's Kingdom come here in all it's healing, refreshing beauty.