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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

You know you're in California when . . .

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge should be enough to know where you are, the iconic red suspension structure like a giant erector-set construction spanning the Bay where the Pacific Ocean flows into America. A mile or two of stunning views, the waves far below, ships pushing seaward or returning, cormorant-like birds perched on the rocks sunning their wings in the breeze, the stepped skyline of San Francisco a few miles into the landward haze, the natural air-conditioning chill of the Pacific ocean cooling the full-noon sun to a pleasant live-able perfection, the brisk exercise of a long walk suspended high in the air. Of course there are the carefully spaced emergency call-boxes connecting would-be jumpers to a counseling hotline, labeled "warning, a fall from this bridge could have fatal or disastrous consequences" (note that the two are not synonyms), which injects a slight doubt into the otherwise idyllic scene.
But you really know you're in California when you're passed by a biker decked in full reflective gear, skin-tight racing togs, clip-shoes, streamlined helmet, and look up to realize she's a 70-something year old, and there's a group out for a training ride together, all with grey hair. Or when you're passed by a 20-something running male, shirtless, designer sunglasses, discreet tattoo, glistening in probably organic sunscreen, wearing a personal training heart-rate monitor . . and he's pushing an inhabited baby-jogger. This is the land of the healthy lifestyle, the gender-neutral role, the environmentally-aware consciousness, the impeccable image, where it's probably easier to find a tofu-based fair-trade free-range all-organic anything than an ounce of fat. A land of spectacular views and climate, and thoughtful people and meaningful community, still some opportunity and a good bit of wealth.
It is also the land of half our family, so we know we're in California when we're eating gourmet meals every night, when we're cared for and rested, when we have access to all their toys and time. Jack and Julia are loving boogey-boarding, riding in the foamy crash of waves up onto the sand, in wet-suits to protect from the frigid ocean temps. We've accompanied granddad on his bike rides, sat around the table with papers and coffee, walked on the beach, and cheered the cousins on in roller hockey and volleyball games. So, to close, we know we're in California when we hear the question that haunts our hearts: "Mom and Dad, why don't we live here?"

Unlikely Headquarters

This, friends, is one of the power centers of world mission, and we made a pilgrimage there yesterday. This is a modest 50-year old home on a random street in Berkley, where an 88-year-old widow labors for the world. Mrs. L taught school, raised two kids, and supported her pastor-husband's ministry all her life. But she had a heart for missions. And a friendship with the Millers, founders of WHM. Early in our experience with World Harvest, some extremely committed saints in the USA were recruited as "prayer warriors", people who would read all the missionary letters and reports and really engage in prayer. Mrs. L was one of them, and we met her briefly at a WHM conference in 1995. She took a look at 2-year-old Luke and 2-month-old Caleb and decided to take it upon herself to pray milk into our lives . . . and a rich flow of first powdered milk, then UHT (long-life) boxed, then goats and a cow, ensued, enabling not only our children but many others to thrive. She prayed for a hospital that would become a regional center for excellent care for kids, and we can see that in the care that NHC was offering. She prayed for Dr. Jonah and mourned his death with us. In short she has been a regular and faithful and persistent force for redemption in Bundibugyo over two decades. So it was a privileged pilgrimage we made, to hug her frail frame and thank her for her advocacy in the heavenly realms. We know of other well-disguised locations like this one, for instance a nursing home near Lancaster . . . part of Jesus' upside-down Kingdom, that people with failing hearts can embrace them around distant needs, that people with artificial knees can bend them to serve, that people subsisting on pensions can generously give beyond their means, that people who are considered a marginal burden in American society can be the very center of the movement of grace.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

cultures within cultures

So here we are in the good old US of A where both Scott and I were born and raised.  And where both of us now have to work hard to fit in.  Yes, we've changed, and we've fallen behind many changes here.  But I've also noticed that the nature of HMA (home ministry assignment, the process of re-visiting and thanking and hopefully inspiring a few supporters) is also very cross-cultural.  When we suddenly decide to return to all the places and friends that have made us who we are, we find that there is a huge diversity of cultures that we have to cross, that we lived rather complex lives, and left a trail that is far from straight.  This is accentuated by our own current uncertainty and rootlessness, and by the unnatural time compression of experiencing a decade's worth of friendship in a month.  

It's fun, but also a bit disorienting.  Appalachian country folk, with ATV's and guns.  Suburban family, with kids in umpteen activities, committed to church and neighbors.  Urban poor, deep in the inner city for the duration.  Western ranch, expansive sky and land-rooted values.  Wealthy and generous, or some who used-to-be-wealthy, now pressed financially.  Academic, specialists, pursuing the frontiers of knowledge in their field.  Student-simplicity, still forming lifestyles and opinions.  Small-town, integrated and settled.  More suburbs, with gracious everything-matches kind of houses, and space to enfold us.  Coastal environmentalist.  Historic farm.  Homeschool protective conservative.  In each of these cultures we land with our own mix of messiness, and try to understand a bit of real life for our friends, try to fit in enough to relate and connect, try not to feel to discouraged by the contrasts which show how short we fall, and then we move on.  One day we can be discussing AIDS research with the people who are actually doing it, another day clapping to spirited gospel music in a mostly black church, another day making small talk with successful and relaxed Californians on the sideline of a roller-hockey game.  

We have some really amazing friends, people with vision and passion, people who are raising remarkable children, people who agonize over global warming and middle-East peace and authentic gardening, and people who seem far removed from any of that.  And perhaps BECAUSE they are all such good and interesting people, I find myself trying too hard, to change quickly with each new venue.  And this time that is supposed to be the restful feel-at-home time has become a tiring one.  So, please forgive us, who are supposed to have the stepping-over-culture-line dance down pat.  Realize that we love you all, and that we want to affirm your uniqueness.  And that we are too weak and unsettled to hold our own adequately in this rich and various mix.  

Until Heaven, then.  We salute the palette of cultures, and continue to press on.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Scarred Beauty

I ask you right here to please agree with me that a scar is never ugly.  That is what the scar makers want us to think.  But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them.  We must see all scars as beauty.  Okay?  This will be our secret.  Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying.  A scar means, I survived.

Chris Cleave, Little Bee

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What is Normal??

Here we are in Colorado, staying in a semi-hotelish place surrounded by pine trees, with a view of Pike's peak to the west, to be "debriefed".  That means we spend our mornings in sessions with a seasoned missionary counselor couple and a dozen returning missionaries, then our afternoons journaling, reading, talking, walking, or resting.  And it means that our kids are in programs with a handful of age-mate third-culture-kids too, discussing similar topics of culture, values, stress, and paradox.  The best and worst of times, often too intertwined to distinguish.  In our group there are people who served two or three years overseas, 8 or 10 years, 17 or so like us, and one delightful woman retiring to North Dakota after 38 years in a single mission hospital in West Africa.  People who are coming from China, Thailand, Albania, Jerusalem, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Cameroon, Ghana, and Uganda.  Half male and half female, singles and married, and ranging in age I'm guessing from about 24 or 25 to 65.  In short, a very diverse group.  

Yet when we brainstorm lists of what causes stress in our lives, the responses are all very familiar.  We filled a whole page, for instance, under the topic "daily hassles", things like power and water shortages, inaccessible supplies, stares and comments on the streets, insects in the food, cars that break down, requests that exceed our capacity to respond.  Things that form the normal background of life overseas, so normal that they don't even come to mind under the category of "stress" when we're mentioning wars breaking out, gunfire close by, epidemic diseases, being held up at knife point, etc.  Yet the chronic daily background of life can take a hidden toll, year after year.  Our facilitators look at us and say, people, do you realize, that this is not normal.

But is it?  Part of me wants to say that "normal" for most of the world DOES include poverty and insecurity and unclean water and buggy food and mediocre school choices.  And in spite of the amazing diversity of our group, our lives are pretty similar, so one could call that "normal" for missionaries. But I think I get what they are trying to tell us:  that our "normal" is set in our formative years, and in spite of living decades in hard places, or in spite of the fact that we KNOW that most of the world endures worse, there is a constant push on our hearts that tells us that our life is not "normal" compared to our childhood peers. 

So we can reach our limit and leave, seeking a more "normal" life.  Or we can build capacity, learn to "live artfully".  Which is the purpose of this time I think.  To name losses and grieve, to examine our responses and anticipate where we will struggle, to seek life rhythms that promote healthy growth through all this stress.  We've looked at Jesus in the Garden (crushed, anguished, stressed) to acknowledge that encountering stress does not mean we have missed God's will, there will be times when we just have to walk through it.  Praying we can learn to do that with more grace, to carry the cross as a light yoke, able to love others as we go, even if we'll never again be normal.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

On the Mount

Ten thousand feet high, the Colorado Rockies, a 500-acre working ranch where friends who are generous-beyond-anything-we-deserve invited us to spend a weekend of contemplation and fellowship. An old log homestead, long hikes up sage-covered hills and along fencerows, six cows in our back yard, candlelight meals, hours to read and pray, unfiltered powerful sunlight, space and quiet. The blessing of being drawn into a holy family's God-seeking life, and gifted with their friendship. The renewal of pure beauty. Here is what Julia jotted down today: A forest of ever-green pines dotted with clumps of brilliantly golden aspen. A clear mountain stream gurgles by. Here and there huge stands of aspen turn a hillside into solid gold. Tall bare peaks above the tree line are capped with snow during winter. To top it all a cloudless blue sky stretches above.
Even Jesus called a few of his disciples away from the crowd to the high mountains. There is something about the inaccessibility, the strain of the climb, the removal from pressing demands, that we need in order to have the veil of the ordinary peeled back, for a moment, and to glimpse glory. In Matthew 17 this interlude comes just after Jesus' predictions of his death, and just before the real cross-bearing begins. He knows that his friends need to be overwhelmed by the bright cloud of an approving God, need to fall on their faces, feel his touch, and hear his reassuring words, do not be afraid.
So here we are on the mount. We've moved from the ranch to a MTI missionary conference at the Hideaway, five days specifically designed for people in transition like us. Called away from Africa for this climb, and waiting for God to reveal and speak in ways that will empower us to walk back down in the new year.

a tale of redemption

Remember the boy who was so discouraged about football (i.e. soccer)?  And the parents who also grieved to listen to that discouragement at such a distance?  After a soul-searching weekend, the boy decided to play JV and give it his best.  By the end of the week he was named co-captain of the team.  After discussions with his new coach, whom he greatly respects, he changed from defense to mid-field, better suited to his physique.  And at this week's first home game, he started, scored two goals, played almost the entire game, and helped bring his team to victory.  So we're remembering redemption, they way that stories can seem to be drawing to a disappointing fizzle or despairing disaster, and then turn into something better and unanticipated.  And we're trying to remember that the time frame for redemption is usually much longer than a week, so we can all hold on.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Christmas Carol in September

Some of my favorite Christmas movies revolve around the Dickens' Christmas Carol plot, the restless or discouraged supernaturally given a glimpse of what might have been (It's a Wonderful LIfe, Family Man, etc.).  Missionary "HMA" (= Home Ministry Assignment in missions-speak, previously known as furlough) is a bit like being transported by the ghost of Christmas Past as we show up after 20 years in friendships that have lain dormant.  And at times, the Ghost of Christmas Present bedazzles us with alternative lives which we might have lived.  Here in the parallel universe of the United States of America, people who were once very much like us now own expansive houses, write important research papers, take their kids on meaningful missions trips around the world, participate in triathlons, manage hospitals, see patients at experts in their field, provide a backbone to their church, raise fabulous teens, champion important causes.  It's good stuff, and even though everyone who loves us is very respectful of our peculiar life choices, we would not be human or honest if we did not admit that it takes a certain amount of fortitude to bump up against these lives without a bit of wistful wondering.  What if.

Wednesday was one of those days.  Thanks to the advocacy of a fantastic doctor who was a year behind me in residency and in many ways a real soul friend, I found myself invited to speak to the current group of pediatric interns at the same Chicago hospital where I worked from 1988 to 1992. 18 years ago I was one of two "Chief Residents", and I planned many such conferences myself.  And though I have been teaching weekly at Nyahuka, this is a very different world.  The 30-40  young doctors in the room had been selected from a couple of thousand applicants.  Applicants who had COMPLETED medical school, so not exactly average people.  These people are lectured by world-famous researchers and dedicated physicians all the time.  It was a bit intimidating.  In another life I might have been doing such lectures bimonthly, not bi-decadely.

However . . .  as far as I can tell through the fog of this peculiar season in our lives, our calling is to just be who we are, and tell our story, which is really not OUR story but a bigger one of redemption and change and hope and struggle.  So with Scott's help I put together a presentation that was part medical-informational, and part life-experience.  After all, if HALF of all childhood deaths in the WORLD occur in sub-saharan Africa, and if the top five diseases I treat are among the top five problems in the world but uncommon at this hospital, then it is my place to give a voice to the children who remain obscure, to bring a photo of those easily forgotten.  The residents listened politely and respectfully, some asked good questions, many nodded and seemed to connect.  Global health is in, it turns out.  Young doctors are eager to get cross-cultural experience.  I don't know how many want to actually make it their life, but we can all pray for that, that at least a few would consider really coming alongside Africa for the long-haul.  A huge treat for me was that five faculty members who were my teachers and still work at Children's came, and a sixth called in to talk on the phone.  I have not followed in their academic footsteps, but it is nice to be remembered by mentors.  I was really honored.

But the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come did not stir me there.  It was fun and nostalgic to be back, I felt the twang of wondering if I should have tried harder to be more research-oriented, more on top of the game, more connected to higher learning.  The hospital itself represents the stark contrast of that parallel world, more equipment in one room than in our whole district, more doctors in one building than in our country.  At least it seemed that way.  I love my old home, and fully believe in the passion for excellence that serves that city and gives many, many children longer and better lives.  But I did not feel at home the way I do walking into any random African hospital in Congo or Uganda or Kenya or Sudan.  Children's was amazing but not familiar anymore.  I'm not used to the sterile safety of a functional and funded atmosphere.  I miss the paint-peeling grunge, the tangled IV bottles suspended by nails, the flashlight exams, the appreciation of the value of every glove and every needle.  

I suppose in the stories that is the point, to embrace the exact life we've been given, every turn and terror of it, for bringing us uniquely to this exact point of grace.

Monday, September 13, 2010


We are gorging in Chicago.  Gorging on relationship.  After 5 or 10 years of fasting from most of these friendships, we suddenly feast, abundantly, and stagger away amazed at the generous kindness and helpfulness of people. 

 From Indianapolis we drove North to the lakeside home of Scott's partner in residency who returned to the small town where he grew up and established a thriving medical practice.  It also happens that his front yard melts into the lakeshore, and his family pulled out all the "toys" for an evening of tubing, swimming, kayaking, and even (for Scott) water skiing.  Good food and blending our families once again and discussions around the beach fire.  We were blessed.  

From there we drove to Chicago, arriving in time for a reception another residency friend had planned.  It is hard to describe how wonderful it is to stand in someone's home and greet couple after couple coming through the door, people we went through those crazy work-day-and-night years of medical training with 20 years ago, and a few we've befriended since, all taking their Saturday night to just come and be with us, to listen and catch us up on their kids and work and lives.  Most of the people we really hoped to see were there.  It was a taste of Heaven for sure.

On Sunday we returned to Lawndale Community Church, our worship home for five years during our training.  This church taught us much about cross-cultural missions, about living among the poor, listening and learning and loving in concrete ways with healthcare and housing.  About lively singing and clapping.  About the gospel.  We were embraced by those who were still the church greeters after all those years, we saw women who had been single teen moms now mature and married and sending out their own teens.  Our clinic colleagues took us for a tour of the facility across the street where Scott worked for two years, now vastly expanded.  God has really blessed this church.  And one of the greatest treats was to hear "Coach" preach again, about being defined not by issues but by love.  Again, a feast of fellowship, and we inhaled it.

Now we're staying with a family whom we've known since those days, who could not be more welcoming.  They have the incredible gift of radical hospitality, late night conversations about things that matter, great meals on short notice as our schedule keeps evolving, introducing us into their lives.  And if we needed one more infusion of undeserved favor, at the last minute we were able to arrange a meeting with a pastor and his wife who had taught Scott in seminary and faithfully supported us (which is really humbling).  Though we did not know each other long or well, we felt like we did as we were again led to the banqueting table of kindness from this couple who asked insightful caring questions and overwhelmed us with thanks (when we were trying to thank THEM).

So it's been a week of heroic portions of friendship, and we still have a couple of days to go.  Wish we could spread all this goodness out over time, but such is the missionary life, so we'll keep gorging and try to remember these days in the hunger seasons ahead.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Uncle June

Last week as we drove westward through West Virginia, we arranged to stop and visit my Aunt Dink and Uncle June, my mom's 89-year-old brother. June (a nickname for the "Jr." suffix as he shared his father's name) lived alone with only a part-time housekeeper checking up on him, but my Aunt was in a nursing home, so we met at the home. We saw pictures of their 70th wedding anniversary party from a few months ago, and their great-grand-children, and showed them our pictures of Uganda. Uncle June was a marine who fought in the Pacific in WWII, and remained active in the VFW. He was part of that amazing generation of hardworking patriots, loyal, opinionated, pillar-of-community, church-going, brave, with a great sense of humor and an interest in the world. He spent a lot of time in his later years tracing the family genealogy, and even had a copy made for me to give me during the visit. When his marine grandson was posted to Africa and relayed stories of the school conditions, Uncle June mobilized the local school board and the VFW, got a truckload of books donated, boxed, and sent to Africa as a gesture of American good will.
When we stopped, Uncle June had a fresh bandage on his arm, sheepishly explaining that he had woken up in the night to go to the bathroom and thought he was only 50, forgetting those extra 40 years. He fell on the way to the bathroom and said he hit his wrist against the chair rail. Well, it turned out his fall was more significant than that for an elderly man on coumadin. A couple of days after we saw him he went to see his doctor because he just did not feel right, and by the time he came out of his CT scan he was rapidly deteriorating from intracranial bleeding. He was comatose by the time he was admitted, with no hope of recovery. My mom rushed to his bedside at the hospice where he was transferred. The doctor did not expect him to live more than a few hours, but he held on for over two days. He was one tough guy. He died yesterday afternoon.
I have so much respect for my many uncles (2 on my mom's side and 5 on my dad's) who fought in WWII. They were so young, and put up with so much hardship and horror and loss, then stoically returned and steadfastly worked to raise families. Until the 50th anniversary of the war, they rarely talked of it. The last visit to Uncle June's before this one, though, I remember him pulling out a Japanese sword from his basement that impressed my boys.
Only 1 of my mom's 4 siblings is now alive, and 5 of my dad's 14. They were both the youngest in large families, so this is a decade of many deaths. I'm thankful that God allowed us to stop and see this Uncle in what turned out to be the last week of his life, to give a good hug and goodbye not knowing it would be our last.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Road Grace

Grace = undeserved favor.  WHM talks a lot about grace.  But instead of preaching it, we're living it.  Two days in Cincinnati and one in Indianapolis, and another wave of grace washing over us in the form of hospitable friends new and old.  An extensive carpeted private basement with a king-sized bed, a quiet suburban home with a pool out back, gourmet healthy meals for which we do no work whatsoever, free childcare during the day while we went to meetings, and to top it off, dozens of people old and new who are willing to take an hour to listen to our story and ask questions and ponder the parallel universe of Bundibugyo from the American midwest.  Scott's home church from childhood, the Presbyterian Church of Wyoming, offered us a space Tuesday evening.  Both pastors came to listen and pray for us, and almost thirty of our supporters.  As Scott introduced our short video I looked over the group and remembered sitting in many of their homes with our little support-raising scrap book 18 years ago, telling them our hopes and dreams.  So it was poignant to be back on the other side, describing what really happened.  Many things we would never have dreamed of living through, war and displacement and ebola and painful partings and hard decisions.  But more that we actually HAD asked prayerfully for, community health efforts and deep relationships and changed lives.  

Two brilliant and successful physicians from pediatric emergency medicine at U of C are our friends here, both with strong ties to global health, influential positions, and pages of resume detailing much more good for the world accomplished in their lives than we will ever manage.  One arranged for us to speak to a group of medical students at the University, so we prepared a more medical talk about the common diseases we encounter in Bundibugyo and what it is like to work as a doctor in such a setting.  Frankly it is humbly intimidating to presume to speak with any authority in the presence of people who are recognized as experts in global health, but we did it anyway.  That evening we also met with a Bible study group that was largely medical, including the husband of one of our former interns from a summer at least five years ago!  

Today a quick intersection with the VR's--Dr. Dave took me into my first African hospital when I was a 19 year old college student and they were living in Liberia in 1982, and over the years we've held onto our brief connections.  Ruth is one of the wisest women I have had the privilege of just sitting in the presence of and absorbing the fruit of hard experience she offers, as she moves all over the world lecturing and ministering around the issues of third-culture-kids.  Stopping off at their home was like a quick gulp of cold water in a thirsty land.

And lastly this evening (after an afternoon off, at the Children's Museum in Indianapolis, an incredible place) we had yet another small group to interact with, an unlikely mixture of young professionals associated with Redeemer church, a couple we knew 20 years ago when we all worked in Lawndale and who still supports us, and even Jessica our soon-to-be colleague raising support to come to Bundibugyo.  This was orchestrated by a young pediatric resident Emily we had corresponded with through a Duke-Blacknell-Bart connection, who came to visit in Bundibugyo last year, and graciously threw a dinner and open house evening for us with her friends.  (and whose room mate happened to be Ashley's friend, manager of the college soccer team when Ashley was captain!  I can't begin to unravel the multiple threads that connect us to people we meet)

Sometimes I'm not sure what we're supposed to be doing, the sheer audacity of inviting people to listen to us talk about ourselves seems distasteful.  And to bounce from home to home receiving respite, feels uncomfortably presumptuous too.  But I take a deep breath and remember that we are here to be thankful, to offer that sacrifice of thanks to God and to the many people who have played an essential role in our lives.  And to testify that as we pour out God fills, over and above, that a peculiar off-the-track life is also a desirable one, and a possible one.  And to mingle those life-long friends with new acquaintances, sowing widely, hoping that some will invest in the Africa we love as they pray, and give, and even go.  So we try not to fall silent in the face of so many other fascinating and useful and unique lives, try not to second guess what might have been if we had been more academic, or if we had stayed on a different path.  Instead we offer thanks for all that we have lived and thanks to all that have helped us, and ask God to bless our words and enable them to point others to Him, even if we only manage an evening a decade with these people.

This is grace.

Monday, September 06, 2010

If by sea or land I roam . . .

I miss those West Virginia Hills, as the state song goes.  So it is always a soul-balming treat to return to them for a couple of days.  We have started our west-ward trek with a weekend in Sago, the riverside hollow in the hills where the Aylestocks settled generations back.  Coal mining has denuded and decapitated some of those beloved hills, swathes of forest have been laid bare for power lines, ugly metal scaffolding rises to hold coal chutes for loading the train, equipment rumbles, and most disturbingly the massive dump-trucks full of the black mineral roar up and down the narrow curving two-lane road only meters from the house, day and night, every few minutes, so that a thin film of coal dust permeates everywhere.  But not on Labor Day weekend, and without the trucks, if you look more east than south, it is possible to remember the old days here.  A screened porch, cool blue sky, towering maples and pines, a slow river crystal clear over smooth stones, acres of grass and shade, and the sheltering hills all around.  Hikes and swims, reading books and cooking dinner.  Open windows and chirping crickets.  I love this place. 

The per capita density of ATV's and guns must be pretty high in West Virginia, and my parents' place is no exception, so Jack and Julia enjoy the thrill of driving.  We shoot old soda cans from the rail-road track across the yard.  But mostly we just explore the woods and the river.  Point out the way a birch twig tastes like root beer, or how sycamore trees with their peely white bark lean out over the river.  Jump off rocks and splash.  Walk or drive up the road to a high spot for cell phone reception to check in with Caleb and Luke once a day.  Watch 1940's movies with my mom at night (Cassablanca, you can't beat that, and the lesser known The Best Years of our Lives, which is a post war re-entry tale that hits close to home in many ways).  There is some time here to be quiet in the woods, to listen and pray, that we need as we head into a month of testifying and travel.

If by sea or land I roam (and we have done both), still I think of happy home (not sure where that is, but this is as close as anyplace), and my friends among those West Virginia Hills . . . 

a tale of parenting

A tale of two boys.  One tried out for Club Soccer at his university.  This is a step down from Varsity, but still represents the college in games and tournaments, wearing the jersey, competing against other schools.  30 new students competed for 5 spots on the established team.  So in addition to figuring out life and classes and schedules and requirements, this boy was going to try-outs.  And this boy made it, at 3:40 a.m. on Saturday morning he was informed he was in the club.  A good group of guys to relate to, physical exercise, the joy of the game, and a place to belong.  

The other boy tried out for soccer at his boarding school.  Over 80 students started the week of try-outs, and 45 were cut by the end of the week.  This boy loves soccer as much as his brother does.  He's the kind of kid who needs LONG periods of sleep on vacation to catch up, but he set his own alarm and went running in the early mornings to improve his fitness all during the break.  As the try-out week went on was glad he had, as he was more fit than many, and though he made some mistakes he felt confident that he was doing well.  By Saturday, after scrimmages, the captain of the varsity team even came to him to comment on how well he was playing, considering him a shoo-in for varsity.  But the same day that his brother made his club, this boy found his name posted on the JV list.  Better than nothing, and perhaps the best place for him to get playing time, but a huge let-down for him.  He felt betrayed and confused when looking at the kids who were chosen over him.  Most Juniors were pushed up to varsity except for him and a boy who was injured.  

A tale of two boys, one who emerged with strengthened confidence and a sense of accomplishment; one who emerged bruised in spirit and questioning why adults in his life seem to push him down.  And a tale of two parents who ache.  Ache for the stress the first boy is going to face with a heavy practice and class schedule, ache for the decisions he has to make to be in the group.  Ache for the sense of failure and confusion the second boy has, ache because we know he's a great player and kid, ache while telling him to humbly give his all for whatever team he's on, to not give up, to see God's merciful hand behind even what looks like a disappointing outcome.  

Hoping, believing, this tale ends in joy for both boys.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

This week's schedule

Note to fellow-sojourners: here is where you can find us, and please
do, if you are in the area!

Tuesday, 7 September, 7 pm, showing our video and speaking at the
Presbyterian Church of Wyoming, in the Cincinnati suburbs.

Wednesday, 8 September, noon, speaking to medical students at the
Univeristy of Cincinnati (contact Dr. Chuck Schubert).

Wednesday, 8 September, evening Bible studay at the Bond's.

Thursday, 9 September, evening gathering at Dr. Emily Pearce's in

Saturday, 11 Septbember, open house from 6:30 pm on, in Chicago, at
the home of Dr. Sandi Hoogland and Dr. James Melia.

Sunday, 12 September, speaking at both services, Lawndale Community
Church, Chicago.

Please contact us, or the people mentioned above, if you need
information or help finding any of these venues. Our hope is that
over the next month we will stoke strong fires of prayer for East
AFrica, for our teams in Bundibugyo, Mundri, and Nairobi, for our
family and our kdis, for the Kingdom in hard places. Our hope is that
all of you who have read and wept and prayed and pulled with us over
the last decade-plus will feel thanked as we interact face to face.
And our hope is that God is orchestrating some divine appointments out
there to draw in the next wave of missionaries.

Notes from a week in the burbs

One week in the same place, well, almost And in many ways the world
of Northern Virginia is foreign. This place changed (thousands upon
thousands of new homes, malls, stores, highways, nationalities) since
I left 30 years ago as a just-turned-18 year old heading to college
from my rural redneck high school. And while Northern Virginia was
becoming urban and gentrified and complicated, we took a road that was
marginal and poor and simple. So now we are re-entering this world as
outsiders, who need to study the clues, and make the effort to
appreicate and assimilate. At least a little.

So here are some notes on a week of trying. First, Jack and Julia.
Community soccer was a pleasant surprise. Jack and Julia entered
teams in spite of missing the deadlines, and both fournd themselves
(in my humble side-line soccer-mom opinion) quite competent in their
age groups, the first time they're not playing against people 2 two 5
years older than they are. They've each been to two practices now,
and loved it. As Julia pointed out, a lot less shoving and more
orderly drills than she's used to. The only down side is that she
doesn't know the girls yet, and Miss Ashley isn't there. At Jack's
practice we even struck up conversation with another mom, who in
classic TCK paradigm was also a newbie like us, an American returning
after 3 years in England, super-friendly. We exchanged phone numbers,
and I called to arrange for Jack to play with her son the next day.
Julia has a friend on the street, too, who invited her over to play
games. They had a piano lesson in the neighborhod with a contact
through church, and Julia took an initial clarinet lesson and Jack
drums at the local music store. We're doing Geometry and Journaling
as our token home-schooling each morning. They can run and ride bikes
and juggle balls, we eat cereal and fresh fruit for breakfast and cook
spaghetti or grill on the patio for dinner. One night we invited a
family from church over, and another night friends passing through the
area called and joined us for dessert, and both of those opportunities
to host leant a sense of belonging.

Bouyed by all this illusion of normality, I braved unbraiding (!
tedious !) and a haircut. The last time I had my hair cut by someone
besides Scott trimming straight across my back .. was four years ago,
and the guy kept saying things like "oh, your hair, where have you
been, when was your last cut, do you see these ends, what are you
doing with your hair, this is terrible, you need moisture!" It was
humiliating. So I was on edge (which I know because I cried over a
sappy song on the radio about Letters from War, had to sit in the
parking lot and listen to the end before I went in the shop . . ).
But this time my hairdresser was delightful. I was initially
intimidated by her stylish 100-pound 20-something frame, perfect
streaked straight hair, tattoos peeking from under funky short shorts
and knee-high boots, various piercings . . . but she carried on one of
the most caring and seemingly interested conversations about our life
in Uganda the whole time, never bemoaned my awful curly hair, was
cheerful and competent, and connected with me as she shared about her
infant daughter's neurosurgery with the renowned Dr. Ben Carson at
Hopkins. In the end she did not miraculously change my hair from
being unruly and curly and frizzed, but she did her best to give it
some shape. And I so enjoyed the time, I didn't mind the lack of a

Now we were really on a roll. Kid activities, hobnobbing with fellow
parents on the fringes of the field, entertaining, personal hygiene,
and who could know we didn't fit in? But a few things always stand
out and strike us as peculiar. For instance, the bright green small
pick up painted with pictures of pets and in fat happy letters, "Doody
Calls". Yes, this is a pet waste removal service. Lest you should be
bothered with emptying the kitty litter, or scooping the dog poop, you
can call this handy truck to come and do all the dirty work for you.
I'm told people even have dog-walking services, NOT while they're on
vacation, just for every-day. On our street the only human beings one
sees most days are the lawn-care services who swoop in like a swat
team, roll out their mowers and blowers, and leave the lawn pristine,
or the dog-walkers. So many daily tasks are either too menial (hire a
service) or too complex (call an expert) to waste time on. There is a
definite trend towards making everything so complicated that it is not
worth your time to figure it out. Scott wanted to add one channel,
Fox Soccer Channel, to my mom's cable for $15/month for the next 4
months, so we (especially Jack) could watch some Premier League
games. But no, even though it is advertised, it turns out that it
took him multiple phone calls, weathering long sales spiels, and then
the cable people were so flummoxed by the idea of adding a limited
service that they just had to augment my mom's package to the ultimate
level for four months, at the same price, because they didn't know how
to do less. Which led to complcations in her phone line, and who knows
what else. The marketing pressure comes in every contact, try to buy
a gallon of milk and someone will be pushing you to open a new savings
card (so they can get your email address to send you even more
marketing schemes). A life in the burbs is one of gasping for breath
amidst waves of offers, choice, opportunity, services. In Bundibugyo
it's straightorward, people ask for what you have, and you say yes or
no. Here it is presented as asking to help you, to give you some
great deal, and when you say no you're potentially losing out . . but
in reality it's the same thing, just through a screen of illusion.

Now this is not complaint, just observation, which I'm told is allowed
if you are a long-time true-blue citizen but somewhat suspect if
you're a recent arrival. Don't get me wrong, we had a great week. I
did not have any idea I'd be able to integrate Jack and Julia into any
organized activities, and now that I did, we're on the road for a
month. Leading to double unhappiness. They grieve home (Africa), but
at their first taste of settling here (America), I'm uprooting them
again. Bad planning, mom, but how could I have known months ago when
we committed to this trip that we'd be missing half the season for the
youth soccer league? Will we be able to take back up where we left
off? Or are we doomed to always be catching up, off-schedule, missing
the balance.

Fenelon calls that living by faith. Hope I can explain that to two
kids who want to kick a ball and play some music instead of spending
untold hours in the car.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Nailed, helpless

Pastor Al preached Sunday about the thief next to Jesus on the crosses
there outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. We've read that story a
hundred times, more probably, but this time it really stuck with me.
This man enters the Gospel story for only 6 hours or so. But in that
short time, he goes from reviling Jesus, hateful, insulting, crowd-
pressured, resentful, scornful . . . to a changed man who recognizes
Jesus for who he is, expresses faith, and heads to Paradise. All of
that change occurs while his hands and feet are immobilized and his
body is physiologically failing. No clearer picture of how helpless
we are to effect change. No clearer picture that God's power can work
in the most unlikely of circumstances. Something very real but very
hidden occurs between two near-corpses, something that changes this
man's eternal destiny.

We are not exactly nailed, but in some ways trapped in suburbia far
from those who hold our hearts, and feeling just as helpless. One
child starting college: bewildering array of choices, hard-to-find
classes, required print-outs but no printer, pouring his heart and
sweat into making the club soccer team, feeling the let-down that the
promise of wonders has been revealed to be tedious hard-work among the
masses of freshmen in entry-level classes. One child alone in
Africa: also busting his anatomy to make the soccer team, and his
brain to be the lone Junior again in BC Calc, and to be himself. One
team in Uganda: a direct lightening strike took out their power this
week (how not-subtle an attack), turmoil and chaos as the district
insists that under-age but shadily registered-to-vote students be
released from school to participate in elections, a multitude of team
illnesses, and the ever-difficult-to-negotiate cross-cultural lines of
expectation. One team in Sudan: planning for the next year when the
whole region could flare up in war after January's referendum . . or
not, in which case we want to be ready to move forward. We listen to
all of these, and promise prayer, feeling helpless to really offer any
worthwhile words of comfort or wisdom, let alone real aid.

And there is something about plunging across cultural lines that
refocuses one's view of one's own sin. I don't like to think that I'd
challenge Jesus to get off the cross and rescue me in a haughty and
complaining voice. But is it any different to worry, and stew, and
complain, and notice all the things about this time that aren't what I
would choose? As we get distance from our normal life I remember the
friend-wounds of coming face to face with ways I judged and hurt
others. And I'm not proud of the weary, short, way I often react
here. Not good.

Six hours on the cross, five months in America. Not a peppy self-help
change-your-life program, but a nailed down helpless look-only-at-
Jesus state. If the thief can change into a spiritual human who will
be communing with Jesus by doing nothing more than looking at him,
then anything can happen. For those I love (friends, good classes,
direction, joy, fair elections, peace, power, healing). And even for
me, a changed human ready for the feast.