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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Adult in name now too

Tomorrow, 28th of February, marks the official threshold of adulthood for Caleb as he turns 21.  His wonderful sponsor family invited him for dinner and cake tonight, for which we are grateful as we miss yet another milestone.  This kid has been a functional adult in many ways for years, leaving home for boarding school at age 14 (2 years after the photo above), choosing the demanding path of a military academy, working his way back from a severe knee injury, dedicating himself to sacrificial service.  But tomorrow marks a cultural touchpoint in our culture, and we salute him.

Once upon a time, he was that smiling little boy, fascinated by airplanes and with a propensity for the wildness that results in broken bones.  Not that much has changed I guess.

Playing football, during basic training

After running an obstacle course, basic training

Parent's Day a couple years ago

With room mate, courtesy of room mate's mom

In Morocco last Fall

With a group of senior (Cadet First Class) friends, courtesy of facebook

Thankful today for this young man, strong in spirit, marching to the drum of serving others and willing to go against the flow, with a loving courageous loyal heart, staking his life on his faith.  Praying these years of entering adulthood will first of all be survivable . . . and bring him solid community as he enters military duties, a satisfaction that he's using his gifts for good purpose, and an ever deeper walk with Jesus.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The second-to-last truth

Tomorrow, February 27th, marks the one-year anniversary of a dark day for teams on our field.  We lost two first-degree relatives on that day, a sister and a mother of two of our missionaries.  The sister, in her 20s, engaged to be married, vibrant, was driving home from a final visit with her soon-to-depart missionary family.  We'll never know what sent her car flying into the forest.  The mother ended her long struggle with ALS, leaving kids in their 30's and a pastor husband.  We'll never understand why that disease singled out someone so needed in her medical practice, church community, family.  These two deaths coming on the same day reminds us all too sharply that we are broken people, and even as we are sent to the fraying edges of the world we acknowledge that all is not well where we started either.  That we who go to comfort those who mourn also mourn ourselves, we are not immune.  That this resurrection we preach is not a theoretical construct but a matter of life and death, literally, of giving we who are left behind the hope that enables us to keep on breathing when we are nearly in despair.

As a tribute to these two women, who have joined the great multitude of witnesses, saints,  (like my dad) waiting for us and watching, and to their families and to my two sorrowing friends, here is a Buechner quote of the week:

By faith we understand, if we are to understand it at all, that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth.  Madness and lostness are the results of terrible blindness and tragic willfulness, which whole nations are involved in no less than you and I are involved in them. Faith is they eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things—by faith we struggle against all odds to be able to see—that the world is God’s creation even so.  It is he who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of his peace to live in peace, out of his light to dwell in light, out of his love to be above all things loved and loving.  This is the last truth about the world.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

So what are you actually doing?

A glimpse of a unique season for us.  Winter farm days mean wood fires, watching chickadees and juncos and titmouses peck at our birdfeeder.  Listening to the slate-green snow-melt river rush by through the leafless trees.  Sitting on the front porch, or in the kitchen, reading.

Books are perhaps the primary delight of this season of living by a library.  Buechner and Gawande are current favorites.  And I have a stack of novels.

Occasionally, there is the chance to host Luke and a medical-school-mate.

Sundays at our local church, where we receive the grace of unquestioning friendly inclusion.  I even got asked to play the piano a couple of times, which I bombed as I didn't even know the hymns, but everyone thanked me so graciously anyway.

 Long walks and jogs and bike rides through the countryside, now that the snow is melting.

Medical appointments, the long-delayed dental work and that sort of thing.

Farm projects, like clearing brush or fixing a gutter or roof.

Phone/skype/video meetings.  Lots of them.  The world hasn't stopped just because we are on sabbatical, so we still pray for our teams, call them, mentor and listen and hope.  Uganda came through elections without too much disaster.  Burundi has made progress in appointing a Board for the Kibuye hospital, and we're praying for that to enable our evacuated Watts family to settle their work plan.  Our South Sudan team is settling into exile in Arua, studying the Moru language and making connections with the Sudanese community.  In Kenya, we pray for the new families learning language, for ongoing medical miracles, for the hard work of building community. Some weeks we spend an hour a day on this, some weeks it can be several hours a day.

And Swahili study.  Yes, we are trying to put in time every day listening and repeating, reviewing things we never really learned well.

Because later this year we hope to return to Naivasha, Kenya, where we will be posted to the Naivasha District Hospital,  a busy government hospital to provide OB and Neonatal care to the women who work for poverty-level wages in the vast export flower farms.  It will be an opportunity to teach medical officer interns once again, and to support a very needy place.  We still be supported as always through Serge, and continue as Area Directors.  Our organization embraces the player-coach model, so as we coach our 7 teams, this will be our player work.

So this month of February slips by, from snow to sprouting bulbs.  We are surprisingly content with the simplicity of this season.  Perhaps because we know we'll be back to stress-packed days of non-stop need, this long inhale is sweet.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trumping Jesus, or thoughts about leadership on a Sunday

First, disclaimers.  I know someone is going to tell me that missionaries shouldn't get political dirt on their hands by taking sides.  However, the way I read the Bible, the prophets called into question the political leaders pretty frequently (see previous post).

Second, even though many of us are stunned and saddened by the South Carolina result, we should remember that 2/3 of even those that identify as republican and politically active enough to care about primaries still voted AGAINST Trump.

And third, this post isn't about Trump.  It's about us.

Because I think the most disturbing thing going on in this season of rancor, accusation, posturing, consideration, shifting alliances, awakening opinions, is, at least for someone who is often outside, what it reveals about us as a nation.  Why do we like a brash candidate, who is overconfident, a braggart, who promises we will all be winners with him?  Why do we want to be inside a wall? To punish our neighbors economically to build it?  Why do we want to trust someone because his main qualification is that he's rich?  As I've thought about these questions and listened to what is being said, it seems to me that we want to define ourselves by being better than everyone else.  We want to be stronger, wealthier, more intimidating, more secure.  We want to be independent from, not interdependent with, with the rest of the globe.  If our values can be summed up into one word, winning, then that clarifies a lot of the moral grey areas.  It justifies our own lust for dominance and for comfort.  In a year when we are pummeled by perceived terrorist risks, when we are strapped by financial anxiety, when we are confronted by racial tensions we'd rather pretend don't exist, and by strident voices deconstructing things like gender, well, a know-it-all no-holds-barred I'll-make-you-win attitude becomes appealing.

Appealing, but to the basest instincts of our nature.

Jesus dealt with the same crowd instincts.  The people of Israel, like the people of America, saw themselves as special.  Chosen.  Blessed.  Only their situation didn't quite fit their expectations of what God had promised them.  So when the crowds began to sense that Jesus was the Messiah, they began to salivate over presumed perks that would soon come their way.  They would be winners!  They would defeat their enemies.  They would be rich.

Only Jesus didn't quite go along with the program.  He saw Israel's special role as not primarily being blessed, but being a conduit of blessing to all the nations.  He refused to equate His Kingdom with any worldly one.  Instead he said difficult things, like how he did not come to be served but to serve, and to lay down his life.  He didn't seem to be creating a Christian Nation, but a movement of people who would embrace his values of being peacemakers, of comforting the suffering, of healing the sick and preaching the good news, to all the earth.  He didn't abolish politics or militaries, but he admonished those involved to be honest, to serve their constituents, to remember the poor.  He didn't promise to make any of us better than our neighbors, but enjoined us to use our gifts to bless each other.

So where does that leave us today?  As Americans we can choose from any platform or system that restrains evil and promotes good.  As a pluralistic society we will have to make some compromises along that way.  But let's think twice, or a hundred times, and pray, about why we are voting for whom we choose.  Is it to be winners?  Or are there other values we might bring to the table, like justice, or love?  

I'll end with two slightly random thoughts.  First,  a shout-out to a TV series we found in our library here (choices are pretty limited) and are totally enjoying.  Foyle's War is a Masterpiece-Theatre type British drama set on the English coast during WW2, and each episode pits the perceptive and principled police detective against all the wrongs in society.  He repeatedly chooses to do the right thing even at personal cost.  That's leadership, and I'm not sure where we're seeing that today.

Second, being successful in business can happen for many reasons.  It may mean a person is a competent manager.  Or it may mean a person had a great inheritance, hired skilled advisors.  Or it may mean someone cut corners, cheated, exploited workers, and destroyed the environment.  Being successful in marriage might be a more robust measure of competence to lead a country.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Honoring prophetic voices

This article, published on a Sudanese radio news site, details an interview with Bishop Bismarck, our partner in Mundri.  In it he challenges the warring factions to "put down your guns, sit down and dialogue over your issues.  There is no point of subjecting the rest of the population to suffering." Strong words from the man who brokered the last regional peace accord, signed in the church there in Mundri.  Since then more attacks, food aid diverted, children reportedly starving.  It takes courage to speak out against the government forces who seem to be bent upon power and extermination of opposition, even at the expense of civilian lives.

Today is the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Janani Luwum of the Church of Uganda, in 1977.  He hand-delivered a letter of protest to Idi Amin objecting to the excesses of violence and repression in that government, and paid with his life.

These men are, or were, leaders in their country's primary protestant denominations.  They are examples of men of God looking at the injustice perpetrated by those in power, and choosing to stand with the suffering.

Those days are not just in the history books; they continue this week.

Please pray for the people of Mundri, Western Equitoria, South Sudan.  They are hungry.  Their homes have been burnt.  They are without access to medical care.  Join Bishop Bismarck in advocating for them.  Pray for Bismarck's safety as his voice is heard.  Pray for a willingness on all sides to respect the needs of the civilians.

Please also pray again tonight for the people of Uganda.  Much has improved there in the last almost-40 years since Luwum was murdered by Amin.  But armed military-looking police are patrolling the capital and tomorrow's elections could spark violence.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

He makes wars to cease

Today's Psalm, 46, contains this verse:
"He makes wars to cease in all the world;
he shatters the bow and snaps the spear 
and burns the chariots in the fire."

Truly today, making wars to cease will take supernatural power.  You may have heard that hospitals were bombed in Syria, for the 5th time.  If anything there can be worse, then surely targeting the places where people go for healing is diabolical.  All sides are blaming the other.

Closer to our hearts, the country of Uganda is less than 48 hours away from elections (Thursday the 18th).  President Museveni, who has been in power for 30 years, faces two challengers who were formerly his colleagues and allies.  The democratic process in Uganda is tenuous, fraught with tension and suspicion.  Today one man was killed and 11 wounded as police fired rubber bullets at close range into rioting opposition crowds (article here).  Would you please pray for a peaceful, fair election?  For ordinary people to be heard, and to be safe?  For our school to proceed smoothly, as teachers are in their training week with the new Headmaster in place?

And once you warm up on Uganda, don't forget Burundi where 5 grenades were thrown in public places yesterday, killing at least two.  While we are thankful that Hope Africa University, where our teams work, was able to hold graduation last week, recruiting new students into a situation of insecurity and poverty remains problematic.  And once you have prayed for both of those, you will be ready for the greatest challenge, South Sudan.  Our team is now settled in exile in Arua.  Today we talked on the phone, and the international food relief that was finally reaching the displaced people around Mundri did not get distributed due to more fighting.  The tribalism, fear, and violence are augmented by economic collapse.  People are desperate.  It is hard to see an end to the cycles of death.

So in this context, a verse like Psalm 46 strikes me as remarkable.  Our God makes wars to cease.  Destroys the very instruments of war.  It is hard for me to believe that tonight, but I know it is possible that God will do something dramatic in our region.  Let us be still and ask God to be glorified in a saving peace, particularly for these places in Africa full of people we love.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Bragging about the Son

I love the little country church near our farm, where a half dozen people felt inspired to come and shake our hands in welcome this morning even though we came in late and the service had started, and almost to a person they asked if we had walked to church in this sub-zero weather (we had), amused in a delighted way by our idiosyncrasies.  Being Valentine's Day, we were almost the only people not wearing red or pink.  The pastor, in fact, had a bright pink t-shirt on under his formal white button shirt (and his red-hearts-with-cartoon-characters tie).  He explained that his lack of fashion wast to illustrate a point-we all noticed the pink showing through, just as God sees the hearts of all people under whatever we put on top to show the world. But my favorite line today from the sermon:  If you want to please God, try bragging on his Son.  As a parent, I can relate to that.  What is better than having other people notice how great your kids are?  So, here are a few brags about Jesus, and what's happened this week.

Katuramu's smile

The class of 2007
First, we got the gratifying news this week that Katuramu Taddeo, one of the young men who attended Christ School on a scholarship for orphans, in Luke's class, successfully completed his final exams in medical school.  I remember six years ago, on a disaster-laden trip to Gulu to support the girls' football team and Julia, we took Katuramu to try and get him an admission to that medical school, and failed.  But God opened another door, and in partnership between the funds raised after Dr. Jonah's death and a couple from Florida, he was able to complete his degree at KIU.  You would never guess from this kids's cheerful heart that he lost both parents and has taken on jobs from shoe-repair to tutoring to make it through school.  He is a gem.  His nick-name in secondary school was "Pastor".  He and Luke competed in a way that spurred each other on.  We rejoice that God saw him, put him in the right place to get this degree, and will bless many in Uganda through his life.

Ivan and our kids at his A-level school

Another of our "foster-sons" Ivan got his A-level scores this week, with successful results.  Another, Kadima, preparing to graduate with a diploma in Agribusiness Management, sent his final transcript with grades worth celebrating.  These are kids who have to work hard to overcome their less-than-ideal start in the world of education, and we rejoice with them.

And another, Basime Godfrey who already graduated from University a few years ago, sent the good news that he and his wife had a baby girl, Natalie Atugonza.  Their first child died because of the difficulty of accessing a C-section when labor arrested.  This time thanks to our team on the ground, we were able to get him funds in advance, just in case.  Which proved to be the difference between life and death, because another C-section was needed, and all are so far well.  Keep praying!

Our former Team Leaders Travis and Amy Johnson celebrated milestone birthdays this week (hint, they are twice as old as they look, and way younger than us).  Nearly 3 years ago (in March) Travis was diagnosed with an aggressive colon cancer.  Those three years have been a long battle, with hopes risen and dashed and risen again.  As treatment continues, we rejoice that they were able to have a blast (it looks like!) romantic Bday trip, and we keep praying and hoping for full healing.

Baby Eliana, the pre-term little girl born to some of our missionaries in Nairobi, gained enough weight to go home.  Cheers!

That's a list of spotting places where God has graciously given recognizable gifts this week, where it is easy to brag on Jesus.  But in every single story, there is an undercurrent of pain as well.  Those boys who are graduating are still facing a life stacked against them.  Those babies have a long way to go.  Those friends are still battling cancer.  As an excellent must-read article by Kate Bowler put it today, "Life is Beautiful.  Life is Hard."  And that sums it up.  The paradox of bragging on Jesus is that Jesus doesn't always do things the way we wish.  But he is always good.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A rending invitation, Lent begins

Now, therefore, says the LORD,
Turn to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.
So rend your heart, 
and not your garments;
Return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents from doing harm.
Joel 2:12-13

Today marks the beginning of Lent.  Though we spent most of our lives in the kind of protestant churches that don't recognize a yearly liturgical calendar, which is fine, we also have grown to see that when God meets us He does so in space and time.  And knowing how humans need tangible reminders of truth (such as the feasts of the OT worship), it helps our hearts to purposefully remember the Incarnation for the Advent month before Christmas, and the Crucifixion and Resurrection for the 40 day-Lenten fast before Easter.

Repentance, in Scripture, is an invitation.  It is God inviting us to come in, to sit down to supper, to listen and bask in Presence.  To turn aside from evil, from fear, from self-centered rat-wheel exhaustion, and turn towards the only relationship that can satisfy our hearts.

That turning can feel painful at first, prying our fingers off the little hand-holds on the climbing wall that we think are keeping us aloft.  That rending can feel frightening, until we swing out in the freedom of the harness and find that Jesus is doing the belaying.

Here is a link to the excellent Biola project, that combines music, art, Scripture, and a meditation for each day.  Join us in the journey.  Let's pray for each other, because true repentance requires the clarity of the Spirit at work in our hearts.  Pray we would hear Jesus' invitation, and find His kindness.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Remembering Hope, on February 8th

Twenty-three years ago this morning, in Baltimore MD, our first-born son reluctantly emerged.  After anxious months of preterm labor and bedrest we made it to 36 weeks, then all that hurry-up turned into not-so-fast. . . and after a LONG night, as the C-section was being planned, he finally emerged.  I won't say that we became parents 23 years ago, because that happened two years earlier when we were first pregnant.  Which is why today is a milestone of hope kind of day.  We don't forget the scars of lost babies-in-utero.  We don't forget the darkness and ache, particularly as we walk through the same with others.  But we also celebrate life that overcame death in the end, in a very tangible way in our story.  When I want to re-write life as it is pounding on my friends, I think of Luke, and remember that I don't understand divine grace enough to know what is around the corner for others, only to testify that what came to us was so good.  Insightful, courageous, funny, diligent, crazy, thoughtful, a whirlwind of creative and passionate dreams, a guardian of family tradition, a promoter of his siblings and friends, and just all-around one of our favorite few people in this whole world.  The last time I actually spent his birthday with him he turned 16, but this year we caught almost 48 hours together for carrot cake and hikes.

And as we have spent the last 6 weeks nearly continuously on the road, we've run up against plenty of sorrow.  The three young couples we long to see healed of recurrent miscarriages tug at my heart and prayers.  And also in my daily prayers, families with kids our kids' ages struggling with mental illness and homelessness.  Then the long list of cancer, kidney failure, Alzheimers, injuries.  Unemployment.  Estrangement.  We have thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with many old friends, thanking many faithful supporters.  Doing this face-to-face though, means that instead of the quick two sentences on facebook or a card, we have heard a smattering of the depths of life's punches.  Sobered, we walk away grateful that these friends still make room in their hearts for people like us, on their periphery, and for the needs of people in East Africa, even further out.  

But perhaps there is a connection.  While I might expect the suffering to be too poured-out to open their hearts to more evidence of the world's mess, instead they are the empathetic and generous fabric of this world, the people whose perseverant faith against all odds makes a difference.  So we humbly salute our friends on February 8th, recognizing the prayers that laid the foundation for our life and our children's survival, and the kindness that follows us through the last 23 years.  And purposing to lean into the same prayerful bearing of one another's burdens during this sabbatical, because here we stand as a testimony to hope, and as long as we have breath we will pray for those that are still waiting for their day of joy.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

On evil, and telling stories to children

I was asked to write an article for an on-line magazine dealing with how we protect our children from evil, and the use of story.  If you're interested, just use this link and page through to pages 6-10 (it makes cool page-turning sounds too).

Even though the book has not sold as many copies as we hoped, it has done much better than the average first-time-author attempt (or so they tell me to cheer me up).  And New Growth Press has begun preparing the second book in the series for publication.  Any promoting of A Chameleon, A Boy, and A Quest to your school, library, bookstore, home-school group, whatever is much appreciated!  It's hard to break out beyond our own small network.  Thanks.

Here's a sneak preview of the next cover:

Zika, Math, Preparedness and Panic

If your news-feed doesn't have enough to scare you from Donald Trump, then the Zika virus is probably filling the gap.  Once again, Uganda gets the bad rap of being the site of discovery and the source of the name of this virus, which avid colonial-era scientists found in rhesus monkeys inhabiting the Zika forest in 1947.  The virus rarely infected human, but the mosquito which transmits Zika is the same one that transmits other more prevalent diseases like dengue and yellow fever.  The virus also jumped continents via world travel, finding non-immune populations and causing rapid spikes in transmission resulting in epidemics in Micronesia (2007), French Polynesia (2013), and then (courtesy of World Cup football) Brazil and the Americas (2015).  And unless you were a medical student preparing for exams, or a viral research scientist, you had probably never heard of Zika virus until a month ago.

In November 2015, Brazil began to publish reports of an unexpected increase in cases of babies born with extremely small heads.  They collected 4000 reports that year, represented a 20-fold increase in some areas over historical trends.  In a handful of cases, an autopsy or blood tests showed evidence of exposure to the Zika virus.  Temporally the two trends have been associated, so a hypothesis was suggested.  So far so good.

Then in lightening-fast fashion, we went from an observational report to a massive world-wide crisis and panic.


A foreign-sounding name, the vulnerability of pregnant women and young babies, the terrible headlines with words like "shrunken heads".  The culture of blame, so that if officials don't sound the alarm fast they are later liable.  The sense of guilt over the ebola non-response.  The moderate level of anxiety that is whipped up constantly by our access to skewed information.  

First, the math, because truth usually begins and end with some calculations. Brazil has a population of 200 million people (about 2/3 of the US population).  They have a birth rate of about 15/1000 so we'd expect about 3 million babies/year (about 3/4 of the 4 million US births per year).  Now the tricky thing is how do we define normal and abnormal for head size.  Generally we do this by creating a database over time of massive numbers of babies at various ages, documenting their weight, length, and head circumference, and when the number of babies per size and per age are graphed, you get a "normal" curve.  There is an average size, that tails off to the high and the low.  95% of babies fall within 2 standard deviations above and below the mean.  Statisically speaking, about 2.5% of babies would have a head circumference below 2 standard deviations (33 cm), which in Brazil would be 75,000 babies and in the USA would be 100,000 babies.  Most of those would be normal, just the kids on the smaller side.  So for truly talking about microcephaly, we usually take 3 standard deviations below (32 cm) as a cut-off for severe, where only 0.15% of people should be.  That's 4,500 Brazilian or 6,000 American babies.

In America, the teaching is that we have about 25,000 microcephalic babies /year based on a cut-off of 2 standard deviations (link here), which would mean that we are missing 75,000 of those we statistically expected to find.  I'm guessing that's because those are normal kids who are small and don't get reported as microcephalic.  If you look up incidence of microcephaly, they don't always define the problem well, and the numbers range from 1:6000 births to 1:250,000 births (giving expectations in the USA from 16 to 667 babies/year), 10 times below the numbers we would expect statistically.  That also makes sense to me, because while size is normally distributed, at the low low end of head size we don't just have small cute babies who are normal.  That's where we have babies whose heads are small because their brains didn't grow properly in utero.  Babies with chromosomal rearrangements and deletions, babies whose mothers were exposed to teratogenic substances, babies who were infected with diseases known to affect brain growth.  Also in the USA abortion is legal, so it is hard to know how many abnormal babies never make it to birth.

OK if you're lost now, that's just the point.  Do 4000 microcephalic Brazilian babies represent a shocking increase in incidence, or an admirable increase in detection?  Are more microcephalic babies suddenly being born in Brazil, or did the suggested association lead to raised awareness and reporting?  We don't know.  Some states are using head sizes below 33 cm, and some below 32, to report.  Some are reporting all babies, some only those with a suspected Zika association.  This epidemic is still spreading, and 80% of cases are asymptomatic, with the rest being mostly mild.  If there an effect on unborn children, perhaps we never found it before because the numbers were too low (in semi-immune populations) to be noticeable, or the infections were occurring in places with less medical access.  

For now, the panic is escalating way out of proportion to the known risk.  For a factual scientific read on all the details, look here.  Having a baby with microcephaly in most cases means a lifetime of struggle for the family, physical and occupational therapy, feeding challenges, special education.  It is not something to be taken lightly, and if this media frenzy does anyone good, I hope that it leads to increased empathy for families who already have children whose brains have not developed normally.  I hope the surge of attention attracts funding for resources for microcephalic kids of all stripes.  There is a long, long list of potential causes.  Zika virus may be one more cause on the list one day, but a temporal association is not strong enough evidence for causation.  

In the meantime, kudos for global thinking, and it's pretty much never good to get mosquito bites.