rotating header

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Sustenance, Safety, and Significance: giving them up for Lent or forever?

 One day this week, Scott was gathering supplies for fixing Christ School's broken pieces and deteriorated problems. A phrase I read in Isaiah for the beginning of Lent came to mind: you will be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell in. That's Scott's groove, repair and restore, re-settling scraping doors, repainting peeling walls, finding solutions for trash or for water run-off, remaking an unusable stove or rehanging a broken gutter. The reality is that people leave and moth and rust do corrupt and thieves do break in and steal, so those who stick around have some non-glamorous work. He sorts through barrels of nails and screws for the right one, talks to curious people in the market, does small experiments to see what works. Sustaining a school is no joke, or a team, or an Area. Or a wife. We constantly feel needy, for so many things.

While he was scouring town for supplies, I was walking up the road in the mid-day sun, the dry embers of a rain-deprived season that has left even our jungle crunchy, hazy, parched. I had come past the old airstrip, marvelling at the hours we used to spend hauling the mower and meeting planes, grateful for the road now but a little sad to see the encroaching gardens confirming the end of that small-plane era. Once upon a time, that airstrip was a lynchpin of our safety.  (Today is son #2's 28th birthday, and he made it to a term delivery partly in thanks to the fact that we were one of the early flights out of here to deliver at Kijabe). So may memories of this airstrip during ADF attacks, during Ebola. A mile later I happened to be passing a village that is difficult to recognise now with the pavement and bridges and change, but I remembered the many times I had followed up on a little girl who lived there, K. Grace. She was my patient for some years whose rare neurological infection made her limbs and voice spiral out of her control, but did not dampen her spirit. She had a family that managed with some nutritional help and support of a padded chair to keep her in school, which she loved. Her life was short, but I'm still glad to have been part of it. But sobering to raise kids in a place that needed an airstrip and that had dangers like Grace encountered.

Yesterday we were in Fort Portal getting car work done, and while we waited we walked up to Mountains of the Moon. This used to be almost the only place in town to order food, which took hours to prepare, but we would come and open our mail from the post office and the kids would chase a ball around the grass while we sat reading the letters and the staff no doubt scoured around town to find the one or two items on the menu to prepare. Decades later, the grass and porch remain but the whole place has received a major upgrade, and the road nearby has offices for Dutch and British and Irish government assistance, Baylor's AIDS project. Dozens of non-African organisations now base their work here, choosing the pleasant climate and order and convenience of this spot. The area carries an aura of significance, of people with money and skills that make things happen, people in the know. I have to admit that looks tempting, the climate and the tea and the respect. 

These three little moments do have a relationship, besides occurring within a couple of days. Fixing broken things and people still take up many hours of the days, struggling to sustain ourselves and our work. Listening, researching, making decisions, helping with referrals, we still spend lots of energy on the safety of people we care for. And the increasingly tedious piles of administration usually done from a 90+ degree home office don't always feel significant, but we do try to make a difference.  Those seem like good goals.

Jesus started his ministry with 40 days in the wilderness, and the Lent readings start there too. Not straight to the seat of power, but out to the rough edges. This time reading through the temptation narrative it struck me: how reasonable to ask God for sustenance (turn these stones to bread), for safety (send angels to catch the fall), for significance (let the people respect the good you're trying to do).  I certainly pray for those things. It's not like the tempter was trying to lure Jesus into an orgy or to benefit from drug money. Food when we're hungry, a barrier from harm when we slip and fall, success in our realm of influence. If this was any normal Kingdom, that's exactly the kind of wins we would expect to be promised. They all sound good, and indeed they all can be good. But Jesus didn't take any short cuts to Heaven. He held onto the paradoxical way of the cross. Even at the beginning he was choosing a lonely counterintuitive path that would require death to bring life. He said no, to the quick fixes of bread, of help, of power.

So as we now are a week into Lent, and almost 30 years into this life, and we have to keep asking for God to mercifully give us what we need not what we want. To choose Him over sure-fire success in being established, safe, recognised. To walk with Jesus through this wilderness of uncertainty and hardship, trusting that even hunger, danger, and obscurity will be redeemed for good. Not going to pretend we have that down pat in spite of all the opportunity to practice. Still need grace.

Just one Happy Birthday photo to end with . . . 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Ashes and Dust : Lent as a narrative re-set

 Ash Wednesday turns a corner in the year, from the celebratory relief of Christmas and Epiphany, incarnation and escape and the good news crossing national and cultural boundaries, the songs of Mary and Simeon and Anna full of vision for the triumph of good over evil, for the remaking of all things into a just world of reversal and joyful surprise . . . to the somber reality of how that will happen. We trade in the sparkling lights and festive gifts. Now we enter a 40-day reflection symbolised by ashes and dust. 

(just scrolled back on my phone to find these photos of a brick kiln and the roadside, dust and ashes in Bundi)

Abraham and Job used that phrase, ashes and dust, to mourn their powerlessness. Ashes, the remnant of an offering consumed by fire, destroyed beyond recognition. Dust, the poetic substrate and ultimate state of the carbon-based world of life, including humans. 

Lent asks us to reset our drive to control and produce and succeed.  To reflect that God's method of salvation does not align with our choice narratives. My Bible reading last week was from Mark 9, which pretty clearly lays out this dilemma. Jesus takes his close friends up on a mountain to pray in peace and quiet, and they witness for a brief time a truer vision of who he is, filled with light and speaking with heroes of the faith in another dimension. They even hear the voice of God. They are all in. Ready to stay there for the duration, build shrines. But Jesus says no, and quotes from Isaiah 53, asking them to grapple with that prophecy of a suffering servant. He changes the story from glowing glory, to a rejected and bleeding figure. In the aftermath of seeing a Heavenly power, they resist the path of death. As do we all. They trudge down, begrudgingly, to find a crowd. The disciples have tried to heal a young boy, using power they thought they could wield over an evil spirit that harmed him. Jesus sighs and talks to the parents about belief, fasting, prayer. Lord I believe, help my unbelief, says the father. An honest prayer of struggling faith, followed by the boy appearing dead but standing up when Jesus takes his hand. One quiet healing, personal and draining. But not yet the dramatic victory that the mountaintop seemed to promise.

Me too, I'd like to see Jesus and Elijah and Moses with fire and sword blaze right through Bundibugyo, East and Central Africa, eliminating child hunger and deceptive traps and desperate poverty and selfish curses, like to see everyone so overwhelmed by God's beauty and power all else pales. Frankly the interminable bureaucracy, hourly knocks from people who are sick or hungry or lonely, the students who will miss out on education due to lack of funding, the corrupt processes, the inevitable moving on of people we depend on and care about . . . when you're living at the edge of the fray, it's easy to want a dramatic narrative of visible victory. I'd like to be more comfortable, or more famous, or feel more worthy.

Instead, we need a 40 day pace of dust and ashes, of reality check. The prizes that appeal, the crutches that numb distress or distract from sorrow, none of those are the real goal. A new world is coming, but not by might. Jesus leads us to the cross. To a call to let go of what looks like life, and trust him for what really is life. To hold on through hard, hard days and weeks and years because He's bringing goodness by His own suffering. To stay in the story because the days of Lent and crucifixion end in Easter and resurrection. Life is coming, not in spite of dust and ashes, but because of dust and ashes.

The call to ashes and dust is an invitation to God. To mercy, love, justice, hope, healing. May we spend the next tough weeks of February and March believing that. Our world is dusty and singed and we pray with a kernel of belief,  but needing help for our unbelief. And that's what is promised.

    Some dusted-off pictures of the hope we're heading towards, from this week:

Piper's birthday with her beloved teachers

CSB new class of senior one students arriving .. . . 

Helped by upperclassmen and student leaders to move into the dorms.

Weekly women's bible study transformed to a birthday celebration for Alexis

Our BundiNutrition Administrator Bwampu keeps this huge, important program running to feed hungry children. We were delighted to visit him this morning as his wife delivered their 4th last night. Welcome Anna.

This is real: dust became flesh, a baby willingly entered the burning destruction of ashes to pull us through to life. And so we wait through Lent two thousand years later, still trying to reset our story to grasp such mystery.

IF your'e still here . . . two resources. We have loved the Biola University daily Lent and Advent offerings for years, they combine art, music, poetry, scripture and meditation. 2023 Lent will focus on the Gospel of John, and we are focusing here daily as a team. 

Serge has a great post listing some free resources as well as recommended books for Lent here. 

I also try to keep up with daily lectionary readings, here or what I actually use is the app created by Church House Publishing. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Stars, Rain, Trees: equatorial truths on a blazing Sunday

Perhaps we are all concrete and pictorial thinkers. Certainly a truth in a sentence does not enter the soul with the same power, or endure in the memory as long, as truth in a story, experience, picture, person. And the combination of visual, tactile, exertional beauty when out in the natural world makes that a key place to encounter authenticity. Psalms often paint a picture that challenges or settles the spirit. 

Our team is almost through Isaiah, and the last two weeks we've looked at 55 and 58, rich with metaphor and poetic invitation, landing in the reality of hunger and injustice. Three pictures end chapter 55 and keep coming back to me, finding them everywhere as reminders of how to survive this world.

First, STARS. The nighttime sky in equatorial Africa, often undiluted by electric lights, a glimpse into enormity. God's thoughts are not our thoughts, ways are not our ways, just as we can barely imagine lightyears and relativity and black holes and galaxies. The austere beauty, mystery, constancy settle our soul into trusting that as much as we try to systematise and predict and take responsibility, we are limited to a tiny sliver of atmosphere in a universe of wonder. The book of Job is synonymous with suffering, and God's answer is chapter 38. Look at the complexity and intricacy of all God has made. Stars remind us that we are limited, and called to faith.

Second, RAIN. We're in dry season here in Bundibugyo, but we still have gathering clouds and rumbles of thunder. Rain comes to earth, sometimes in deluges but more often in intermittent gentle showers, longed for, not always convenient, certainly not entirely predictable and never controllable. Rain seeps into the ground in hidden ways, and out of view has the effect of germinating seeds and causing growth, of filtering into streams and rivers and bringing life. God's work in the world is like that. Jesus said, consider the lily, to say don't worry, God is at work. Stars picture God's transcendence but rain God's hidden nearness, a humble behind the scenes building for good, that we also must wait on with patience.

And last, TREES. Branching to the stars above, reaching down roots to the rain below, trees give us a glimpse of the Eden to come, the all-things-new to which we strive as redemption changes the world. Isaiah says they will clap their hands. Romans 8 is a perennial favourite but today verse 18 grabbed my attention: the sufferings of this present time (which are real, half our team is sick and kids missing school and wheezing, and all of us face deception and disagreement and danger and disappointment) are not worthy to  to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed. It's easy for me to long for better times by looking back into the past, and resign myself now to the slog of entropy. But this actually says that the best is still to come. We're headed to something. No matter how hard life seems, there is a promise of better.

February in East Africa is hot and bright and dusty and energy-sapping. It's 90-some degrees outside and almost that inside our screened home. But we still ponder the stars, revel in the limited raindrops, and try to stay shaded by our massive mango tree.

Stars, because we don't grasp all the mystery. Rain, because we depend on the inexorable work of the Spirit. Trees, to remind us of hope. Now these three remain, faith, love and hope. Thanks for praying we can remain too.

CSB first Sunday morning service of 2023. Pray we can lead a few hundred kids into faith, hope, and love too!

Rain does its work, banana and cassava and palms giving life to this home.

Yesterday our team did a walk in memory of Dr. Travis Johnson . . tomorrow will be 3 years since he died. The Johnsons joined our team in 2010, as leaders and a much needed doctor/teacher combo. Their story reflects Job and the mystery of God's ways not being our plans, as he discovered metastatic colon cancer only a couple years into his mission service, and their road took an unwanted turn to years of therapy and struggle. But they held onto God's sweet rain at work, and hope of a new heaven and new earth and new body where we will all see Travis again. Until then we honour his life and mourn his death, and wait.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

When I grow up I wanna be an old woman. . .

 This song has been in my head today. Perhaps because getting old is a privilege that I'm more aware of after nearly dying. And also more aware of because we live in a place where in my time here, life expectancy has increased by almost 20 years but I've gotten almost 30 years older so rather close now to the published number. People who were my peers, now are either gone or struggling. Yesterday we had four pretty intense visits, starting pretty early to catch us at home. All were people we've known for decades, and care about, with significant real sorrows that aren't easily fixed. From those meetings the day spiralled on, from neighbours to colleagues to teams to everything. It seems getting old just means more and more bruising bumps against hard, wrong things in every sphere, absorbing the traumas of thieves and abandonment and wrecks and loan collectors and dashed hopes

It's exhausting to care, and to realistically feel the smallness of our impact. 

When the day seemed to finally be ending and we were making dinner, I had a text from a young lady here dear to our hearts, who grew up with Julia and has been a great support to many of us. She was past her due date and every few hours I've been a little concerned and then prayerful for her, in a place where so many face the riskiest hour of their life being born or giving birth. I've of course constructed daily disaster scenarios in my head. She seemed to be in early labor but unsure, and as night was coming, I felt we should take her to the hospital to be checked. I thought we'd drop her off and try not to get in the way . . . What I could NOT have imagined was the amazing few hours that followed. The delivery room was packed, the sole midwife on duty so overwhelmed, that Scott offered to help her by doing the initial check, and found our dear one was 8cm. From there I ended up being the coach and Scott the doctor in a corner bed curtained from the chaos, the three of us praying and talking and holding on and delivering a healthy, vigorous baby boy. 

A few hours before hitting the 30 year mark of my own first delivery, Luke's 30th birthday being today. . . we witnessed and assisted another little boy entering the world.

The privilege of being an old woman sometimes shines. I hate being far away from my kids and missing milestones, but I felt the grace, the unexpected confluence of so many things that led to a perfect, messy, hard, wonderful moment of warm liquid and a squalling boy, with a strong sweet mom I've read books to and fed and loved and cheered on and mourned with too, for many years. 

Yes, many of the stories we are entwined in are dark ones. But there are hours like this one where light and joy explode into the mess beyond our expectations.

Thankful for little baby Eugene and his mom Zawadi today. And for another foster-kid Mutegheki serving at CSB and team mate Anna Dickenson both also born February 8th a few years before Luke. But mostly for my boy and his siblings who make being an old woman look like a prize. He is fiercely aware of justice and willing to work long hours and yet also celebrate deeply and adventure dangerously. He loves loyally and communicates determinedly. And he gave our family the best addition ever with his wife Abby. So wishing all of them happy birthdays today, and hoping to keep adding onto my own plodding years to see more of theirs.

We start most days like this, visits from friends and neighbours, shouldering some of their burden.

So it was spectacular to end like this.

Two mambas and the happy mama and baby, getting ready to go home.

Birthday girl Anna meeting just-born boy Eugene . . 

Eugene, age zero.

Luke with Abby, age 30

Saturday, February 04, 2023

The many Hats of leading a team in Uganda


The hats of teamwork in Uganda, 2023, are many, varied, mostly worth wearing, though some are reluctantly accepted. Here are the few from this week.

Chairing the Board of Christ School Bundibugyo Hat. On Friday, we spent the morning meeting with the staff prior to the arrival of the students for Monday's beginning of the new school year. The day combined practicalities of how classrooms will be assigned, introducing a new Swahili teacher and curriculum, listing repair projects to buildings and security precautions to follow . . . with inspirational speeches by the Head Teacher (Peter), the Spiritual Life Director (Mike), the Director of Development (Patrick), and us. The vision and mission were right over our heads, and Mike reminded us that our goal is to connect the head and the heart. Academic excellence, that's a given. But we don't just want to turn out people who take tests well, we want leaders who are committed to the common good of the community and who reflect and honour God in their lives. 

The staff listening to Deputy Head Teacher Theopista Salube who was celebrating the growing number of female teachers.

Peter reminded us that we are a team, each with unique strengths and weaknesses, but collectively we are a strong whole. Scott reminded us that our path is faith, that it's not easy to work with low resources in a remote place, but the vision of academically excellent servant leaders for the good of Bundibugyo and glory of God is worth our sacrifice. It's been over 20 years now, and we are seeing the impact of our graduates. This is Kingdom change, slow and fragile at times, but sure. We walk a difficult line of keeping fees low enough so that families in this place of poverty can afford to send their students, but also paying just wages to teachers and having nutritious food and safe facilities. This can only be done by subsidising half of operational costs and all of infrastructure costs. Parents pay fees that we match with donated funds, and we raise all the money for bricks and mortar (and computers!). We also have a provision of "OVC" (orphans and vulnerable children) scholarships, for those whose family can't even meet our subsidised fees. So the Board of Governors hat is also a chief fundraiser hat . . . and a budget supervisor hat, which involves nearly daily meetings, emails, bank transfer approvals, spreadsheets. ( I also had a short moment to speak to the staff wearing the "mama Jennifer" hat of having the long view of the school and the prayerful love of many life trajectories). 

Lindi our dog taking the cue that I've set out all the chairs for team meeting . . . 

Team Leading Hat. This one is daily and all hours for encouragement and supervision of a diverse team, and can range from medical consults to meals to technical advice to prayer. This hat is our main style on Thursdays when we are preparing a Bible Study (currently going through Isaiah using a Serge/New Growth Press Gospel Centred Life guide), prayer time, and business meeting that usually runs two hours and a 5-page 15-20 item agenda. The weekly anchors of Monday night local food in the kitubbi, and Thursday night team meetings and pizza (plus weekly women's and men's prayer times) help us stay on track, and build capacity to roll with the punches of living on the fraying edge. This week we had individual meetings with about half our team as well . . . and cheered on Alexis as she ran a 3-day literacy workshop training primary school teachers in the public and private schools locally to teach reading phonetically. 


Another fun team hat this week was substitute teacher at Rwenzori Mission School . . . since one of our teachers is on Home Assignment to raise more support and connect with family, and the most sensible alternative Alexis who IS a Kindergarten teacher was pulled out for the Literacy training above, I got to teach 1rst graders social studies and recess and reading comprehension and just delight in their ideas and energy. We can use a new teacher for Fall 2023 since our beloved Miss Laura is about to finish her two year term!

Legal Face of World Harvest Mission Uganda Hat. This is one of the heaviest hats we wear, and took most of Tuesday and Wednesday this week. On Tuesday we spent the day in Fort Portal, where our land lease as a foreign NGO requires us to renew periodically. The first Serge missionaries who came to Uganda worked to establish a base of operations in Kabarole district, both to serve as a more accessible and secure office for Bundi work and to invest in a local church in that area. We walked the land and spent hours with the elders and deacons of that congregation, men we have known for decades and who have often been advisors and friends. Our goal is to get all the paperwork in order to be sure the New Life Presbyterian Church denomination has the title to the church land, and that the mission land can continue to be used.

With Christine, Isingoma, Chris, Patrick and Abia from Fort (and John our mission administrator)

We also met with our lawyer, who then came out to Bundibugyo on Wednesday for episode-too-many-to-count in our seemingly endless court case here. To remind you, World Harvest bought a sizeable piece of land about twenty years ago to plant gardens to feed the CSB students and teach agriculture. Which we did for over a decade, then 8 years ago the family who had sold us the land and used the money to send their kids to school saw that cocoa was becoming a more lucrative option in Bundibugyo and decided to sue us to get the land back, saying that the man who sold it only really meant to lease it. In spite of many witnesses and years of struggle, the court decided to award the land back to this family  . . and this surprising ruling was upheld in spite of our appeal. So now we are in a stage where the plaintiff not only gets the land back, but is allowed to charge us all their court costs. So Christ School not only loses the land, but a lot of money. Not surprisingly, there are three law firms all claiming to represent the plaintiff and all vying for the right to bill us, and all their bills are not only 5+ times inflated from any possible reality-based legal costs but also amount to more than double the actual value of the land! However, in the Ugandan legal system, only one bill is allowed to be presented. So the judge called us all into his chamber and told the squabbling law firms for the other side that they were embarrassing the legal profession, but he gave them two more months to get their act together and create a unified bill. 

I sat for about two hours post the time we were told to appear, in the empty court waiting for the lawyers and magistrate.

The experience of injustice, while universal, still drains us. It is part of standing with marginalised people in places where the more powerful step on the less connected. We know that, and we resonate with a hundred Psalms that say the same thing. But it's still hard, and dehumanising to become revenue sources for the greedy.

The Serge Area Director Hat. This week we also had a long zoom with our Executive and Area leadership, to make some decisions, hear reports, and pray through many needs. These are people we love and know well and look forward to being with, both in person (see previous post!) and virtually. And pretty much every week there are a few hours of calls with the 11 teams in the six countries of East and Central Africa we supervise, or security committees, or emails to answer or reports to create.

Let me end with the human being hat. We still need to survive, to shop, to cook, to clean . . to have friends and to love and pray for our families. 
Living in the reclaimed jungle means the grass and weeds grow quickly . . . I do the laundry and Scott pretty much does everything else. Saturday mowing is in process as I type.

This week Ann Kieser, one of the most long-term team mates that we have and whom we lean on a lot, left for a 4-5 month home assignment. That's the normal rhythm of mission life, but a weight on the heart none the less. One of our kids had an injury-related surgical procedure, our niece and brother-in-law have birthdays today, Scott's mom lives in one of the American towns that had a mass shooting event this week. Perhaps this stage of life, with mothers who are 86 and 90 (but still independent!) and with kids who all live and work on a different continent than we do, the reality of this world not quite feeling like home is more acute. 

It's been a full week with many hats. In a few hours we'll be back down at Christ School for our beginning-of-year prayer walk, then we'll end the week in our Manchester United fan hats hopefully watching a great game. Thankful that one of our hats is being blessed by many friends who care, pray, and pull alongside us for a better world, in Jesus' name.