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Friday, December 29, 2023

Bucolic, exotic, horrific : why complex stories matter

 Mostly our Christmas readings tend to sanitise the historical event with a focus on miracles, angels, light, gifts, bucolic shepherds and exotic wise men. Cue the orchestral music, the peaceful candles and cozy cows. Which is not entirely unreasonable, given the fact that the events of that night instigated a cosmic shift in the trajectory of the human story from tragedy to glory. All memory is impacted by the outcomes of events, and a hard labor that ends in a joyful healthy baby is recalled differently than one that results in a stillbirth. I love putting out my wreath and hanging stockings and ornaments just as much as anyone. Beauty and community and joy are central to this story.

But the second half of Matthew 2, after the kings and gifts, is as horrific as any story ever told. And as horrific as the nightly news from the area in 2023. Herod can't find the individual infant that his  constituents are beginning to suspect could be the answer to prophecies, the awaited king, the potential disruption to a political and social order where he and his court are quite comfortable? Well then, just send in overwhelming force to indiscriminately kill all infant boys. To be safe, given the imprecise timing of stars and camel-paced approaches, all boys two years old and under. 

Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, refusing to be comforted because they are no more . . . not the phrases we put on our Christmas cards. But certainly the lived experience of most of the world. Including the same area today, where the powers with weapons have justified killing 8,663 children among the 21 thousand (mostly) civilians killed so far. 

This story is one of the many I'd prefer to edit out of the narrative. But as a mom who once scooped kids and ran from evil men with guns shooting at us and our neighbours, as a doctor who has been present at the moment of too many child deaths to count, as an aging senior who prays for and supports so many families facing danger . . . I think this horrific chapter needs to be included. The incarnation does not magically make life immediately perfect, not even safe. And the need for the infiltration of God's ways into our world is seen in the blood of the babies. It's a serious story with real consequences. Evil really is evil. Jesus doesn't shy away from the worst our world can conjure. He entered real weeping, and because of that the end of the story will be no more tears.

I call my preferred movie genre "dark and redemptive",  because that's the truth of the world. Walking into darkness and not sugar coating the losses. BUT . . walking through that to light. 

Merry Christmas from the Bundibugyo Team

(since it's the 29th of December, probably incumbent upon us to remind any readers with end-of-year impulse to plot-twist some stories on our side of the globe towards the beatific . . .

Christ School Bundibugyo, BundiNutrition, and the Myhres, all plod on by your kindness.)

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Christmas in the Ruins . . . choosing to be a doorway to good


Christmas Eve Eve . . .since the 24th and 25th will both have major church services, and today is market day, it feels like we are fully into Christmas. "Webhale Bhilo Bhikulu!" we greeted this morning on our sunrise walk. Literally, thank you for the valuable/important/old/big days. In this community, people feel a sense of gratefulness and accomplishment for living through another year. The New Year's greeting is "Webhale Kwiko", thanks for reaching, making it, arriving. As the light faded in to the cloud-covered rainforest that is Bundibugyo, we passed women sweeping any twigs and leaves from the smooth dirt compounds in front of their homes, lines of kids carrying water or firewood, adults washing clothes or tending fires to prepare for cooking (and sadly a few tipsy men still reaching home from a night of drinking). A few hours later we needed a couple of things at the market, which was a chaotic mass of boda (motorcyle) taxis and last minute preparations. And now as I cook and clean and prepare, I can hear more traffic in five minutes than used to pass in a month. The sense of bustle and anticipation is palpable.

But it all occurs in the context of a place where the rubble of a broken world still longs for redemption to break in more brightly. This morning was the second time in two weeks that one of us has found a car window smashed from thieves who managed enter the fenced compound in the dark, searching for anything they can grab. Yesterday evening we visited our two nearest neighbours whose lovely welcoming spirit shone even though we found one grandmother quite ill. We've been harassed this week by a man who reported Scott to the police for taking a picture of his business sign (so we'd have the phone number!), just a person angling to make up an offence that he could "sue" us for. All while still reworking budgets that suffered from our own losses due to embezzlement, keeping in close touch with our DRC team during disorganised and protested elections (but thankfully no violence), all our Ugandan team mates as the ADF attacked a village about 50km south, and all our teams facing their own struggles. This world we live in has little veneer to create the illusion of glory. And in the world of Gaza, pictured above in a side-by-side painting of Mary and photo of a Palestinian woman in 2023, the suffering is almost unimaginable. 

But that painting and photo capture Christmas exactly. A baby has been born who incarnates hope, who has entered into the very debris of our lives with the power and love to crush evil. Mary didn't get to see the final restoration of all things, and niether do we, yet. Like her we are asked to participate on faith. To open our lives to God who is in the process of making all things new, while those things still apparently teeter on the edge of disaster. 

From Alea Peister on Biola Advent two days ago:

"In Advent we take four weeks to remember how we, like Mary, live in a world that is ill. It is broken down and violent. It is a place where people are isolated from each other and God. It is a world where we seem to always choose the wrong thing. It is a world that is dying. And we are, like it or not, participants in its death.

As we do so, we find – like Mary – that God visits us and asks: Will you let me dwell in you and remake you? Will you let me burn up the chaff within you and restore the wheat? Will you become the place where I reside, become yourself my throne and temple? (1 Cor. 6:19-20)

We cannot possibly know what our assent will lead to. We can hope for specific outcomes – but that is, in the end, not the point. Our task is simply to become a residence for the life of Christ, a doorway through which he will make his love known to the world. When God visits and asks if we will say yes, we find life can have no other eventuality than our total, simple, and grateful assent. 

Behold, we say with the Theotokos. I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word."

That captures life in the ruins of creation pretty well. We are part of the problem, and we suffer the impact of much of what was already broken before we added to the mess. But by grace we accept the calling to become a doorway of Heaven, a place where others can glimpse the feast of goodness to which we are invited, and where God can reach through to feed the hungry and comfort the weary. 

Been reading this excellent, thoughtful book on Advent as a time of spiritual formation, a fast before the feast.

The BundiNutrition team Christmas party is the type Jesus would enjoy . . 1178 kids got 9 weeks of locally made supplemental food this year, and they all survived.

Speaking of parties, this feast was followed by our very own Rwenzori Mission School Christmas Pageant, organised by the indomitable Miss Michaela below with the cast

Final weeks of the year mean budges and new contracts and a lot of meetings and work. But this crew keeps us all going, very thankful for them.

A few pauses in a non-stop week to actually harvest the bounty IN OUR OWN YARD, cocoa, mango, avacado and papaya are all in season.

Second year to lessen our impact on the planet by just cutting branches off trees planted years ago and stringing lights and ornaments to make it a Christmas tree

Bailey and the library crew ... love the safe space with old books from all the mission families shared with the community.

Annual watching of this movie hit home in our hearts this year. It's our story. 

Sweet to see kids we helped grow up now as parents themselves, particularly ones like Ivan who embody the spirit of this blog post, a doorway of good for the world.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Creativity as an act of both beauty and survival

This morning I read a quote by musician Jon Batiste, discussing a lullaby he wrote for his wife when she was hospitalised with relapsed leukemia awaiting her second bone marrow transplant. He called the song writing process "a testament to creativity as an act of both beauty and survival." 

Amen. It isn't often that a phrase knocks one over as a succinct capsule of the truth of life. 

Beauty and survival, inextricably intertwined because we are humans grappling through a broken universe, but resonant with the spark of God. So we see the goodness in colour, harmony, form, light, taste .. . but we also see goodness in making it through another day. Today we walked around Christ School again with Alex, the facilities manager. Beauty and survival could be his job description, and ours. And creativity is called out by our scarcity, our limits.

Many of the buildings and campus of this school are about to start their 25th year of service. . . and 24 years of heavy rain, abundant insect life, generations of student use, pounding equatorial sun, the occasional earthquake and landslide and flood and war, well, it takes a toll on all of us. Particularly when we started a quarter-century ago on a limited donation-dependent budget, using local materials and builders in a place where few concrete buildings existed. Perks of surviving, we are now past the establishment phase and squarely into the major maintenance and repair stage. Which sounds much less noble and exciting. 

But repair and restoration put us squarely into Jesus' redemptive story of all-things-new. In Bundibugyo these days, it's about replacing termite-crumbled doors and frames with welded metal ones, about re-plastering crumbled cement, about modifying beds to more securely hang mosquito nets in this malaria epicenter,  about digging out clogged drainage trenches, about fixing leaks and repairing bent rusted roofing sheets. A lot of survival. And then about new coats of paint to brighten and clean the students' bathing room spaces, to make new chalk boards for learning, to bring neatness consistency to the appearance of classes, to replace ceiling holes with new white tiles. A lot of beauty too. 

It's actually a very tangible example of all of life here. The repair and restoration of hungry little bodies or the wresting of drinkable water down a mountain slope or the patient teaching of young people all are ways we push back against the entropy of decay and give life into the groaning creation. With Alex today we tried to prioritise the many needs of the school, to choose the projects that we could do. Do we have to replace all 27 doors that are falling apart, or could we start with 20? Do we have to replace the whole ceiling in this room, or could we just do half? Even the budget we cut and modified will nearly empty our Serge fund. Scott sent out a fundraising letter, but if you read this far and want to participate feel free to click here and join in.  We need the help, and the act of creatively figuring out how to make this place renewed leads to survival and beauty. Not a bad goal for Christmas!

This is how the day looked: Scott and Alex pondering the needs (above) or showing a worker how to dig out the drainage ditch (below)

On to the next set of dorms and classes . . .

Termites munched the door frame above, and time has not been kind to the latrine below.

Leaking roofs ruin the paint and ceilings in the classrooms

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Global, tangible, contemporary ... what the prophets saw, and we see

 Week 3 of Advent took us to Isaiah and John the Baptist, two prophetic voices sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. Like most American Christians I think, we visualise the "salvation" the prophets preach as an appeal to the individual to shape up, and we think of that shaping up as a spiritual matter of inner belief, that matters mostly for an after-death dichotomy of eternity. Individual, spiritual, future . . . sort of an optional self-help program that can be indefinitely delayed. 

So it was a refreshing wake-up to be reading long portions of Isaiah this season (check out chapter 35) and also study the no-holds-barred words of John the Baptist. These messages paint elaborate pictures of hope, and don't mince words calling out anything that stands in the way. Their visions include the entire world, people of many languages and social classes streaming towards the mountain of God, forming a new community. The transformation they call for is practical, tangible, physical, tasteable. And while we live between the times of Jesus' incarnation into humanity and full enthronement over the universe, the all-things-new power of healing has already begun. Global, tangible, contemporary wonders fill the pages.

If Isaiah and John were looking at Bundibugyo, here are a few images of the week that they might have described.

BundiNutrition served 1178 kids in malnourished kids in 2023, with 80% improved enough to exit the program after 9 weeks of care. And we fed mothers of prematures and surrogate breast feeders, and supported clinical care and education. We're calling this global because donors from one side of the world plus dedicated workers from the other side combine efforts to shine light into the darkness of hunger, and fill kids with ground nuts and soya and vitamins and love. Entire cost of food and medicine and staff is $40/kid .. . pretty efficient for 9 weeks of feeding and care. So in spite of the heart-breaking financial mismanagement we experienced in other parts of the mission this year, BundiNutrition still managed tangible, real-time good. 

Bwampu has done an excellent job managing this program! 

End-of-year means budgets and contracts and untangling the losses, so the team Finance Committee (these three plus me) have been putting in some long hours.

Quick glimpse of new patients on Friday, why all the budgets and recored matter.

Our Executive Leadership of Serge traveled to Burundi to sign the new MOU we had earlier gone there to negotiate with our partners. . . .and this is definitely a global, tangible, and immediate blessing to the world. In the first decade our team and this hospital treated 300,000 patients and performed 30,000 surgeries. We are so grateful for the McLaughlins and Alyssa (pictured below) and the entire enterprise.

Lastly a few smaller celebrations. We spent a morning with a very impressively professional epidemiological public health team investigating a potential viral cause to some clusters of neurologic symptoms.

And engaging team kids in Advent and Christmas does my heart good.

A huge blessing for Bundibugyo is that BundiWater project has almost completed 5 km of pipe laying in Mabere, and this week Josh's team succeeded in a ferrocement design for pressure break tanks along the pipeline.

Just a glimpse of some of the many people we are thankful for, Zawadi and Abel.

And finally, seasonal shopping in Bundibugyo means buying vanilla beans seen drying out in front of dukas (look closely for Scott improvising a weighing scale with a water bottle and a tire iron).

We bought vanilla and sold chocolate . . the final pictures are of our few cocoa trees and the pods and beans we harvested today. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 09, 2023

When it rains it pours: a season of trouble this Advent

 Advent season is a fast before the feast of Christmas. In 2023, for perhaps the first time, the "fasting" nature of Advent has become more real for us. A season to humbly acknowledge all that is wrong in the world and in us, to take stock of the darkness where we wait for the light. 

A few nights ago in the deep dark part of the post-midnight hours of a waning moon, our dog Lindi started barking quite emphatically. For better or for worse, my waking thought was that we had accidentally left her outside (she usually sleeps in our front room) and therefore she was agitated by her exclusion or awakened by people on the road. I felt a bit annoyed with the interruption to sleep, but she so rarely barks at all I forgave her in my heart and when she stopped, went back to sleep. In spite of the fact that we live near a tenuously secure border and on the urbanizing edge of a growing town, it didn't even occur to me that something might really be amiss.

When morning came, it turned out she had spent the night in the front room as usual, but she had good reason to try to get out. Our big car gate was pushed open and we found our car parked in it's carport with the rear side window smashed. Some money we had left in the console was missing. Oh. Thieves. Perhaps they tried locked containers and looked for anything portable to remove, and finding none, took a piece of rebar from the workbench and broke into the car. 

waiting for light

Why don't they listen to me?

That morning two different neighbours told me about goats stolen that night, in one case the young man woke up to blood in the front room of the house because the thief had slaughtered the goats there (for silence?) and in the other, goats tied to stakes disappeared. The day before this happened I had read this written by a friend in Nairobi, the gist being that when you work for justice, you might find yourself scared by the same wounds that your community suffers. We foreign workers have way more social safety net, but are nevertheless not immune to trouble.

The night-time break-in was a concrete, small, visible point of loss.. . . in the context of the last month where we discovered a pattern of much more significant loss due to corrupt bookkeeping, borrowing mission funds for personal use by someone we trusted. We are both sad and weary, reeling from the implications and working hours and hours of extra time to recover. And of course we can all look around us, including in the mirror, for constant evidence that this world is not OK. This morning we saw a friend's relative with advanced infection into bone needing transfer for specialised surgery, then were visited by a nearly blind young man needing help to get to a follow-up, then an older man who was hungry, a mom feeling desperate about her kids' schooling, a young couple trying to burn bricks to build a home. In 2023, our local community mirrors the desperation of the whole world, with wars in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza and dozens of less-reported places like Sudan. Our friend's article begins with this quote:

“We live out our call most fully when we are a community of faith with arms wrapped about a community of pain.” — John M. Perkins

We want our faith walk to be a twinkling Advent of spiced cider, warm cookies, and beautiful lights. But the light comes to shine in the darkness.  Advent season takes a realistic and sober look at the darkness in and around all of us, the very hard places we live, and chooses to hope. To look for that small star that beckons us on towards a future that shines in glory, even though the current story feels heavy.

So we keep on keeping on. The rainiest rainy season continues, the power flickers in and out, we miss our moms and kids, and wonder what God is doing in the pain around us. But tomorrow we'll light a second candle and read more truth and affirm that the light is coming.

First we find the broken window . . 


Then we take the vehicle to our trusted long-time rescuer Atwoki in Fort Portal

And he rescues us once again

School holidays are a good time for Ann's Bhuhanguwa (creation) camps, teaching kids about God through environmental education and activities

Advent week one (see the single lit candle)

A lot of loss and sorrow this year, but these staff give us hope

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Fragments creating a Mosaic

 Sitting in a circle with ten women who work cross-culturally and sharing prayer requests, some common late-November themes are how we miss our extended families, how we try to keep up with other workers in our countries or areas, how we are asked for help a dozen times a day, how we juggle kids' needs for structure and for freedom, for attention and for independence, how we value our friends from earlier phases of life and our new friends in our communities now, how we want holidays to be both familiar and fresh, meaningful and fun, how we bear the concern for health of distant parents and grandparents and nearby neighbours and friends, how our work takes us into contact with one language group or another cultural niche. As we prayed for each other, the word that came to me was fragmentation. Truthfully telling God that we feel fragmented. Our hearts stretch, our capacities stretch, and it feels like too much. I prayed for a centering reality, for that solid rock of rest that allows the fragments to fall into place.

And a few minutes later, my colleague Anna prayed that as those fragments arranged, they would become a mosaic.

Not just a manageable pile, a work of art. 

What a hopeful and true picture of life. Not that we won't break but that our pieces will be curated by the Spirit to tell a story, to depict a truth, to draw our hearts to beauty. As November draws to a close, that seems to be a faith-aspiring way to see our days. A mosaic of broken pieces whose fit into the big picture we only rarely understand. 

So here are some pieces from the week, in a few sentences and a string of photos.  Our DRC team visited, for a festive Thanksgiving meal, a pizza party, prayer times and meetings, walks and talks, sharing lives. We spent hours in extra team "finance committee" meetings sorting through our 2023 reports, finding problems, looking for solutions. We visited a dear friend who is chronically ill, another about to deliver a baby, another who we just haven't seen for a while. We wrapped up final chapels and cell groups and leadership meetings with the school, working on contracts and budgets. We listened to testimonies from graduating seniors who spoke about finding a home at CSB, about getting second chances, about choosing faithfulness. We (royal we, mostly Scott) fixed broken things, cleaned gutters, mowed grass. We had to suspend a drunk guard and rearrange plans a dozen times. Do some consults and brainstorm how to stretch dollars. All in a week's work, all fragments with their own colour and texture, and all parts of the new story God is writing here and in us.

Two teams on Thanksgiving

Our final cell group meeting for 2023

The district feels the festivity of grasshopper season and school holidays

Monday night our friend Asita cooks for the whole team

Youngest baby for Thanksgiving this year, Pat's granddaughter Zuriel

Morning walk with the DRC team and our adventurer Kacie

Dr Jonah's daughter Biira is now a lawyer!

The Stafford family a little like the Myhres 25 years ago, doc-doc couple and oldest boy Luke ... 

Thanksgiving spread 

Tropical turkey at home above, and in last moments below

Our friend Kisembo has been a faithful pastor for decades. This is his son's wedding a few days ago!