Joy?

To THIS world?


The other day I was listening to something Scotty Smith said – about the ‘weary world rejoicing” in O Holy Night.

There is some real truth in there, particularly relevant for many of us this Christmas particularly. The last year feels like it has been so full of sorrow, disappointment, and loss for so many (recognizing of course, that the fact that so many of us have not experienced anything more traumatic than social isolation, cancelled travel and shifting schedules is a testimony to how protected and incredibly privileged we normally are. I am perfectly aware that there are millions of people in this world for whom my 2020 would be the best they could imagine) Yes, our family has lost a lot this year. Things we were hoping for and deeply anticipating. Graduations, trips, reunions with family and friends, new beginnings – all completely thrown out. But it is good for me to remember that my 2020 experience is still a disappointment compared to my normal privileged existence. This does not mean we don’t mourn the real losses we have experienced. It means we don’t get sucked into pity and despair, and keep some sense of perspective.

Our Christmas Eve service of carols and readings with our team here is probably one of my favourite evenings of the year. As we sang through songs, specific lines were meaningful in ways they have not been in previous years. My still-yet-recovred voice means I’m merely mouthing words more than I am singing, so perhaps that puts me in a place where I have a slightly different perspective. Out of that came a few lines from different songsthat stood out to me. So here they are, along with a version of the song that I think enwraps the truth and delivers it to our soul, sometimes even bypassing our minds, in the way only music can do.

Joy to the world.

The operative word in that phrase is “to.” Not Joy from the world. Not Joy because of the world. Not Joy due to the world. Joy to it. From somewhere else. Joy comes to us in spite of or despite our world. It’s coming from the outside. We need it from somewhere/someone else because left to our own – we seem to have not the greatest record as a species of creating a world of peace, justice, mercy or joy.

Joy coming to the world is what Christmas is about at its core. True joy descending from somewhere outside of the human experience, somewhere above our ability to create it, someone more capable of it than us. That sure seems like good news to me.


A Weary World Rejoices

The trill of hope,
a weary world rejoices
For yonder brinks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born

It’s a weary world -but it’s still capable of rejoicing. We’re not rejoicing because we have no problems. We’re not rejoicing because we are winning. We’re not rejoicing because everything this going well.

We’re beaten down. We’re tired. We’re weary. Yet, we rejoice. Sometimes rejoicing is not an echo of all the joy around us, but more of a cry against the suffering. It’s an indictment of what we see. It’s a shout of protest, a cry against. We rejoice in defiance. We rejoice in the midst of our weariness.


Tidings of comfort and joy

What an incredibly powerful statement against the kind of discrimination that systemic racism used to be, and still is, in our world.

Both. Tidings of joy, but also tidings – announcements – of comfort. You only care about being comforted when you are hurting. You can only be comforted when something is troubling you. That’s what makes the message of Christmas so powerful. The news of God among us is not only cause for celebration, but is a message that brings hope, and comfort


And in his name, all oppression shall cease

Truly he taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name, all oppression shall cease

Christmas is a message of hope for the oppressed, and a battle call to the rest of us. It is a reminder that the family that has been created with the arrival of Immanuel has NO PLACE for class. There is no place for taking advantage of others. In a year when perhaps more clearly than in decades the painful reality of systemic racism has been brought to the surface, what better a song to be sung.


I think the overall theme here is that for so much of my life Christmas is a time of joy. A time of unadulterated celebration. A time where whatever little things may be bothering us are pushed aside by the joy of the season. And if not – the friends, family, parties, gift-giving, and everything else screams JOY -feeling like it can drown out the sorrow by sheer force. Concerts ringing with joy. Church services proclaiming good news. Reconnecting with those you love. And this is all good and all true. But when I take a more holistic look at the human experience I realize what an anomaly that is. I’ve never had a Christmas interrupted by war. I’ve never spent a Christmas in a refugee camp. I’ve never had a Christmas where work is completely uninterrupted because we aren’t able to stop work for whatever reason. I’ve never had a Christmas where we are hungry. I’ve never had a Christmas where I have just lost a loved one. I’ve never spent Christmas with someone I love in hospital.

I could go on and on, but the overall theme is that – obviously – I have had a life free from so much pain and suffering (due in absolutely no part to myself). However, when we sing songs that have accumulated from different seasons of history, from a few different parts of the world the picture is a bit more complete. (yet even at that – our Christmas songs clearly emergre from an almost 100% Western European /North American perspective – and even then a sub-set of those places)

There are songs that were written from places where lament, and disappointment, were woven through human experience more obviously and centrally than they often are for us. Written with fresh grief. Carols were penned during times when the author longed for comfort because they needed it. When they realized Joy wasn’t coming from this world but needed to come to it. Times of weariness. Times when oppression and abuse of power were so blatant that they cast a shadow over every Christmas gathering.

This is the more honest reading of the human experience. This coming to Christmas with longing, with neediness, with brokenness and sadness and longing and a cry out for justice and peace and pleading for joy. That is honestly where we realize we are if we are deeply honest. When we allow the trappings of the holiday to be peeled off us and get down to a more inner, true, central layer of ourselves where we often bury these feelings.

People who are winning all the time don’t need comfort. Perhaps one of the unexpected gifts of 2020 is that we can admit that is not who we truly are.

what it takes to get home

Getting our family from Edmonton to rural Burundi is not exactly a straight forward nor a simple task. Really, getting here from most places is not easy, even from most places in Africa. Our trip was 15,912 km of flying over 9 time zones, several transfers, at various airports in multiple countries. When we returned to Kibuye we knew we would do so with a lot of supplies (everything from clothes, to toothpaste, to electronics, to household items to candy, to bedding, to birthday presents )— in theory, to last the next few years. So it adds up pretty fast. On top of that, we had our nephew Silas travelling with us to Burundi where he’ll be an intern on our team for the next half-year or so, plus we had a suitcase for our teammates who have been mostly without any way to get goods from out of country for the past 8 months with the borders and the airport closed. So that added up to 17 checked bags in total!

The packing starts a few weeks ahead. We also had to get rid of everything in Edmonton and empty the house and move to a hotel for the last night. We have to get COVID tests – that will for sure get back before we fly….but not more than 72 hours before we boards our last flight. So there is a small window there where it’s even possible. Of course, 7 people and 17 checked bags plus carry on’s is two full van loads – so my sister and my brother in law volunteer to drive a load of our bags out to the airport, then bring two vans back. (Great way for Adam to start his 40th birthday…especially since we were so focused on getting going we neglected even to acknowledge it….)

Also, before we even leave our first flight is cancelled, and the reduced flight schedule means we have few options so we now have 49 minutes to make our first connection in Vancouver. As long as we leave from Edmonton on time…we should be OK…in theory.

Flight #1: Edmonton to Vancouver
– or –
“the one that took twice as long to board as it did to fly”

We arrived a full two hours before our flight, and we got to the ticket counter right away, but pretty quickly it seemed evident that it was going to take some time. This seemed to be some combination of: 1) the woman seemed to be pretty new at her job and kept needing to ask for help, 2) there seemed to be something peculiar about us checking in. It took 30 minutes, still, no boarding passes or bags weighed or tagged. Then an hour. Now there’s a man in a suit running to the desk next to us – hoping he can still get on the flight to Vancouver, I hear the woman ask to hold the plane for his bag to load. Now we should be loading. WE’re still there. Still, no bags tagged. Still, no boarding passes. There seemed to be some confusion about some COVID-related security clearance, that they could get for Frankfurt, but not Brussels, or the other way around. I show them the documents we have already preprinted for COVID screening for both countries. Finally, a more senior employee says “well, I don’t’ read German, but I”m going to override and say they have the right forms. We have to get them on the flight since we’re holding it as it is not their fault they’re not on it yet.”

ahhh…so young and naïve…..

Now there’s a mad rush of the more junior employee trying to print off 28 boarding passes and 17 bag tags. Something gets screwed up, the other woman is cancelling some. Throwing some out. Reprinting some. Now the plane should have already taken off. In the mad scramble to tag all the bags – NONE – of them even get weighted. They all have to go to the ‘oversize’ a few desks over, so they don’t even slide over the scale. Then when I go to pay for the bags that are extra, they have some system issue and it won’t allow them to charge me for the bags. She finally says (probably realizing that the delay is costing their airline more than our extra bag fees) – “just consider it free of charge”

Great, now we’re sprinting to the gate, we’re on the flight, and the added bonus that we did not pay for extra bags. Only two small issues: 1) we now have ~23 minutes to transfer in Vancouver 2) in Brussels they are incredibly picky about seeing your receipt for excess luggage. If you can’t prove you already paid, they will charge you there.

Flight #2: Vancouver to Frankfurt
– or –
“the one where we get flagged by German Authorities”

We land in Vancouver, and since we’re stuck at the back of the plane, and COVID protocols mean you have to stay seated and exit by row, we’re the last ones off. We start the mad sprint through the airport. At one point I think Silas gives his bag to Matea so he could run unencumbered and get them to hold the plane for us. We made it. As we’re trying to catch our breath and get our stuff together we hear:

‘CAN THE WATTS PARTY OF 7 PLEASE COME TO THE PODIUM FOR A VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE’

The message from a middle-aged German woman was this: “I just got off the phone with German border police in Frankfurt. They saw you on the flight manifest and flagged you. You are not permitted to board the flight”

Uh. What now?

Basically, since the current EU COVID restrictions mean Canadians cannot enter the EU and since we have one flight landing in Germany, the next flight to Belgium is ‘domestic’ meaning we have to clear EU customs. Which, we cannot do. Therefore, we can’t fly to Germany, since we can’t get off in Germany.

Some quick back and forth and we get to a place where she says if we have a document saying that our travel is essential, then we “may” be allowed in. “But I have to tell you,” she continues “worst-case scenario they refuse you entry and send you back to Canada”

uh OK.

Luckily, our teammate Heather is a night-owl, so she’s still up in Kibuye, and gets us the most official-looking document she can within what seemed like 120seconds. So we board the plane (which is now being held for us!) – knowing we may well fly 10 hours to Germany only to turn around and fly right back here.

“But your bags haven’t made the connection…. nope just wait…your bags are here”

hmm

Flight #3: Frankfurt to Brussels
-or –
“the one where the cranky Germans leave most of our bags behind”

Had several hours in Frankfurt, and were able to find a place to sit, and relax for a bit. When it finally came time to load it seemed to be taking a very long time. Then there were more delays. Finally, the flight attendants were saying they needed to move people around, as the plane needed to be rebalanced (love to hear that) Some very, VERY, cranky Lufthansa attendants decided the best approach was to deploy the time-honoured approach of toddlers and tell people “well if you won’t move, we won’t leave. So I can sit here all day, but we won’t fly to Brussels until you switch seats. “

nice.

As we finally pulled back – well over a half-hour late Silas noticed a luggage cart next to the plane. He counted at least 6 of our bags on it.

In hind sight they were probably left intentionally. IF they were asking a few ~150lb people to move, they sure were not going to load over 500lbs of our luggage.

Flight #4: Brussels to Entebbe
– or –
“the one we knew we couldn’t make”

We only had about 1.5 hours in Brussels, and by the time we land, that’s down to about half an hour. Of course, the COVID-deplaning-rules mean that since, once again, we are in the very back of the plane we are the absolute last ones to get off. As we were finally standing up in row 38 there were 24 minutes before our next flight left. Meaning boarding should be complete. The one that flies once a week. So now we knew that we were already missing a good chunk of our luggage, we may be charged extra for it, we STILL may have problems with papers, and also we’re never going to make the flight. So again we move into super-pursuit mode to try and get to the plane before it leaves.

See the source image

Anyone out there about my age – can’t hear the phrase ‘Super Pursuit Mode’ without thinking back to Friday evenings watching David Hasselhoff putting his super-awesome 80’s sports car KITT into Super Pursuit Mode to catch the bad guys who are especially fast.

So of course, they were – once again – holding the flight for us – and about 10 other passengers from the same flight…who we blew past during our indoor 800m record attempt. So no one had any time to double-check we paid for all our bags. And basically, said “you’ve got visas? COVID tests?…great…we’ll take your word for it.”

this was the one where the sprinting actually ended up in sweating

Flight #5: Entebbe to Bujumbura
-or –
“The one where it all starts to become a blur”

This isn’t really another flight, the plane lands in Entebbe Uganda where what feels like 80% of the passengers leave. None get on, and then we start the 1-hour flight to Bujumbura.

Now, landing at 02.00 after several days of travel is the kind of arrival where all you want is to gather up your bags and get to a bed.

descending the stairs into the dark, warm, moist, fuel-laded air of Buja airport at 02.00

BUT WAIT THERE”S MORE.

First – get in line to get into the airport to do…something. It wasn’t really clear. What was clear was that although there couldn’t be 100 people getting off the flight, it was taking quite a while. Also, an overly ambitious policeman would come around routinely and scold us for not maintaining social distancing. We all have to stand on our painted spots “but we’re in the same family!” “n’importe pas. a la distance!!” Ok. so we do,

Then after another 15 minutes, we tend to cluster a bit, talking etc. “A LA DISTANCE”.

There are two lines, one for non Burundians. which goes last.

none behind us…just the empty dark tarmac of the airport

After about another hour or so we moved up the line a bit. Seemed the bottleneck was one individual who was handwriting forms for the COVID tests. Kind of like this

sloth dmv GIF

After we pay for our tests, get the forms, fill out customs forms, and clear passport control, we get to the baggage claim area. Again, since we were at the back of the plane we – once again – were the very last ones through. So we see our bags – at least those that are in Africa – on a few carts. But we have to leave them there and go to the fancy tent set up on the grass next to the tarmac.

fanciest temporary COVID testing facility I can imagine anywhere

Repeat our names, birthdates, etc etc. So someone else can handwrite the info down and hand us a swab. We walk over to the guys in HAZMAT suits doing the tests. Then we find our bags, and head for the bus out on the tarmac taking us to the quarantine hotel. Except I have to find the person who has the papers to fill out for the missing bags. Of course, the luggage tags don’t match – due to the goat rodeo which was our departure from Edmonton. We have bags with no matching tags – many tags with no bags. In Buja they always double-check EVERY SINGLE bag you leave with -and you HAVE to have the matching tag. But…it’s almost tomorrow – so I think they are starting to care less. We had 8 bags there, meaning 10 missing. And I can mostly figure out which 10 they are.

at this point….she’s kind of an old pro. Why would a 9 -year old need help clearing customs??

By the time tall that is done, the sun is coming up on day three of our travels.

We get to the hotel which we prebooked earlier. They have two rooms with space for three each, for the seven of us. And one of them is currently flooding, water pouring out to the sidewalk when they open the door. They offer to send housekeeping.

Back to the front desk. Find new rooms. By the time we get into them, it’s well after 7.00. So we get breakfast, and then try to sleep for a few hours.

Fast forward about 24 hours, a person from the ministry of health comes to our door. He has a paper authorizing our exit. All six of our names are on it. Wait…we’re seven. He is checking off names and giving us each a copy. Then he sees Alma. “Wait…who’s that” “Watts, Alma. A-L-M-A. Non…A-L-M-A” He looks for a bit. then says….”hmm…she doesn’t look sick…you guys are good.” He writes her name on a piece of paper and moves on to the next room.

A week later when the next flight from Brussels comes – there are 9 of our bags on it. Wait…we were missing 10. So we are now a week on and STILL missing one last bag. But who knows which one or what was in it. We start looking at pictures from Edmonton and adding things up. Apparently, I can’t count to 20 well. Yup, we only had 17 bags. For some reason when we landed I was convinced we were looking for 18. BUt no. So…i guess we’re good.

So overall, not too bad. Two negative COVID tests for all of us in two continents, eight of the bags with us with the rest trailing a week later. But all seven of us did make it here in a bit over forty hours. Honestly, given all that could have gone wrong, I think I’ll take it.

I think we’ll just sit tight for a while now.

anxious

We are anxious to get back to Burundi.

We are feeling anxious about getting back to Burundi.

There are two distinct implications of that word.

One feels like an anticipatory excitement. “I’m so anxious for you to meet our new baby”. The other feels like dread that has been dragged from an expected future into the present. “I get anxious every time I think about it.”

This single word has two almost opposite uses.

I am nervous and worried about something bad happening in the future.
I am eager and excited for something good to happen in the future.

In that way (those ways) I feel like anxious is about as accurate of a description of how we’re feeling about returning to Burundi.

On one hand, we can’t wait to get back. To the place that feels like home. To our friends, our team, our community. To a feeling of normalcy. To our work, our place, our home.

On the other hand, there is a sense of not knowing what will happen. The other day I realized why it feels strange. Usually, if I am nervous about something it’s because I don’t know how something outside of my control will happen. I don’t know how someone else will act. I don’t know how something will occur. I don’t know because it’s out of my control. the weather could turn bad. He could get angry. This thing might fall over. In this case, the unpredictable future event…is me. I myself am the thing that I don’t know how to anticipate. I don’t know how I will feel once we’re back in our home.

When something happens so your own home – the place you normally feel the most secure, at ease and relaxed – becomes the site of a violent attack it throws something that felt secure into an unknown. It kind of dunks the idea “I feel at home” into a whole new set of emotional experiences.

“Be anxious about nothing” is the instruction given to followers of Jesus. I just looked it up, and the word there (μεριμνᾶτε, if ancient Greek means anything to you) is translated into English as worry, as often as it’s translated anxious. So we are talking about that second kind of anxious, the nervous, negative one. But it’s hard to do that- the never being anxious part. At least certain times.


UPDATE: WHAT IT’S ACTUALLY LIKE

We are now back in our home in Burundi. We’ve been back a few days and can now see – at least a little bit – what that anxiety was about. What it was for. If it was justified.

For me, it has been surprisingly uneventful.

I think the fact that we spent a few weeks here after the attack before we left for Canada was probably very helpful so our most recent memories are not those directly tied to that event. Our team has made our entry about as smooth as possible.

There are still times when I pause in a particular place in our home, and there is a surreal quality to the memories of that night. Kissing my daughter as I tuck her into bed then turning around and realizing “this is where I was almost murdered” is about as disconnected of a set of thoughts and emotions as I can imagine.

I don’t mean to sound flippant about it, but since that memory is actually part of my lived experience – it is actually real to me – in some way by definition it can’t feel unreal. It is what happened there. So there is this tension between what I know to be unreal, unbelievable, impossible, and yet at the same time is not.

It’s hard to discern how much of what the house feels like now is due to prolonged absence (these eight months is by far the longest we’ve ever been away), how much is a new reality that is painted over everything we’ve ever known here due to the attack, and honestly how much is the nine-hour jet lag on top of 40-some hours of travel.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, the one often associated with JOY. So that’s what I want to focus on this week. Joy, maybe not because of how I feel, perhaps even in spite of it. Joy that we’re home. Joy that we’re all still here. Joy that it’s almost Christmas. Joy because of what Christmas means.

‘Be anxious for nothing’ feels like a definition of joy, so I guess I’ll just go with that.

Family Hikes in the Canadian Rockies.

So this is quite a bit late on account of what our month or so has looked like. However, we had such a great family getaway – and it was so beautiful that I have to share some of these pictures.

Since it was now almost two months ago.. I don’t have a lot to say…so here are some images of what we were up to…

Scrambling to the top
summit of Ha Ling peak 2,407m up
pretty nice place for a snack break
Back in town
Start of the next day’s hike
The girls trying to do some kind of Lion-King-Pride-Rock thing in the middle of a hike up a mountain.
Alma checking to see if the bed of moss covering the entire forest is as soft as it looks. Answer: yes, it is.
lunch break at the top
If you’re going to have take-out pizza for supper – might as well have a nice view.

Thanksgiving

I am sitting in my mom’s hospital room where she has been sitting up, eating, getting out of bed, having a conversation with me, and was able to walk (with assistance) down the hall.
About a week ago she could do none of those things.
About a week before that the doctor told us as a family to be having end-of-life discussions.
About a week before that she drove up to the city and spent the afternoon picking plums at my sister’s house and felt fine.

So yeah…it’s been a bit of a month.

After only a day or so in the hospital, it was very clear that mom was very, very sick. So much so that my siblings all started to make their way out, knowing we might be saying good-bye to our mother. That her 15 grandkids would have to say goodbye through a window. That her siblings would never get a chance to sit and chat with her again. That us kids would lose our mom.

Her kidneys had shut down (creatinine levels ~500) they were seeing something in her liver, her heart was fast and irregular, she was in a lot of pain, was completely fatigued, and couldn’t walk. Her Thyroid was WAY off (so hyperthyroid that TSH was undetectable, and presented as hypothyroid as the thyroid hormones basically went toxic) There were some really rough days, but slowly she’s been getting better. There was one stretch where her body was so fatigued, worn out that she slipped into delirium, and didn’t sleep for over 3 days. Over the next while her kidneys recovered completely due only to hydrating them with IV fluids. Her thyroid is now responding very well do a steroid to suppress it (Prednisone) and her strength is returning.

I accidentally took this photo in the middle of the night during one of those hard weeks. I realized it fairly accurately conveyed what I was feeling. Everything was off-kilter and fuzzy.

Amazingly it was Thanksgiving weekend when everyone got here. So for the first time in probably a few decades, all of my brothers and sisters and all our kids were together. We had an outdoor, physically-distanced thanksgiving meal. A few of them actually. Since many of you will know what happens in a tight-knit community when the word gets out that someone is in the hospital. Ham dinners showed up. Turkey feasts. Someone brought out a massive roaster full of ribs one day at like 10 AM. One of our cousins brought down his camper so we could have more people stay at mom’s place, while at the same keeping the house empty so M and I could come home and sleep after our shifts at the hospital, in a COVID-free space.

This is sort of like Uber Eats….when you have family around.

Since she was admitted my sister and I have been trading off being with her since she was hospitalized (COVID restrictions means she can only ever have two visitors). That means that everyone else had to visit through the window. Amazingly she was put in essentially the ONE ROOM in the unit that opens up onto a courtyard so people could come to visit. We’d phone through, and they’d visit. Kind of had a lawyer-visiting-his-client-in-prison sort of feel to it. Except with more singing of hymns. And more laughing. And more family. And more smiles. And more singing. And laughing. And my 90-year old aunt throwing snowballs at my mom since there was snow overnight one time.

There have been LOTS of visits. Rows of cards, phone calls, and so many passed-on greetings have poured in, and continue to do so. Just today (her 21st day in the hospital) she got another flower arrangement and another card.

Unfortunately she has been moved from that room to another one, and the ability to visit is rather restricted. Although to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t put it past my 70-90 year old aunts to try to scale up to somehow get access to this roof.