Pastor’s Letter, June 2015: Sudden Goodbyes

I have been waiting for a brilliant introduction to flow from my fingers for this pastor’s letter. Words from an Icelandic folktale echo in my head: When you wake up in the morning, you never can tell what might happen to you during the day. Yes — like when you wake up in the morning in the Italian Dolomites, and your spouse goes to the playground with the girls, and comes back with a broken leg, and the broken leg leads to serious foot and nerve complications, and the medical complications lead you back to Minnesota.

 

There is no brilliant introduction. Instead, I simply write with the announcement that we have made the decision to end our Global Mission call in Central Europe. Our official end of service date will be September 30th. I will work for the most part remotely until then, making two trips by myself back to Slovakia and Hungary in July and later in August-September. The girls will stay here in Minnesota with extended family and with Jeremy, who with Mayo Clinic’s help, will be doing what he is advised in order to one day walk normally again.

 

 

 

 

Our reasons for leaving our life and call in Slovakia and Hungary early are, in the end, simple. Jeremy’s medical situation is serious: After meeting with a very competent orthopedic surgeon at Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Branch, Jeremy was told that his case was (unfortunately) “interesting.” He was given a referral to an even-more-of-a-specialist orthopedic surgeon at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. That appointment will take place on June 30. Whatever prognosis that appointment may offer, it seems already abundantly clear that Jeremy will be in recovery for multiple months into the future. To that end, we need the ongoing proximity of family to help us, and access to good English-language medical care.

 

Of course, this simple decision has complex repercussions for me. I was not ready to say goodbye to the Bratislava International Church. I was looking forward to accompanying another group of Young Adults in Global Mission in their year of service in Hungary. I was excited for Ursula to begin first grade at the Lutheran Slovak-language elementary school across the street. Part of me is saddened — that the life I thought was not yet finished is finished, or will be very soon.

 

I am old enough to know that I am – we all are – replaceable. The Bratislava International Church will go on, empowered by the Spirit of Christ Jesus, fed weekly with word and sacrament. The YAGM’s in Hungary will have a new mentor, who will have gifts and skills I do not. Ursula will start school in the USA, happily, even as the Slovak folksongs she learned in preschool remain imprinted somewhere on her bones. In other words, in the mercy of God, we will adjust, and the world will adjust to our sudden goodbyes. And there will be new beginnings for all involved.

 

I remain thankful for many things: We are here in the USA with supportive family from east to west coasts; we have grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle here in Minnesota who are helping us care for our daughters midst Jeremy’s pain and our waiting; we have been wholeheartedly supported by the ELCA Global Mission office, and by so many other church people, praying for us, reaching out to us.

 

All of this helps us hope for healing, which is not always an easy thing to do. It’s strange how disability and pain become — so quickly — familiar bedfellows. It’s been less than 6 months since Jeremy’s initial injury, but we are more used to his crutches than we’d like to admit. It can even seem presumptuous, dangerous even, to hope for healing that may or may not come. I think of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5 in a new light: After 12 years of bloody pain, and enduring much in the hands of physicians, how do you keep hoping, praying for healing?

 

Yet she does. And we do. As importantly, maybe more, you do. You, who are our family and friends and sponsoring congregations, hope and pray for healing, for Jeremy and for our whole family. For this, I am deeply grateful. Hope is a heavy thing; we need to carry it together. Carry it as church, carry it in Jesus’ name, carry it in God’s amazing grace.

 

In closing, this pastor’s letter is only a piece of my goodbye – my goodbye to a call and to individuals I have grown to respect and love in Slovakia and Hungary. Practically speaking, we are not done yet. There is still work for us to do for this year’s YAGM’s and this year’s Horizon intern and BIC worship on July 5 and 12. Later in August and September, I will get to help orient the interim YAGM coordinator for Hungary and interim BIC pastor, both of whom Global Mission is committed to calling for service in Central Europe.

 

You will hear from me again about this progress, and when we know more, I will update you on Jeremy’s foot and the-general-state-of-our-family.

Ventures of which we cannot see the ending

May 2015: Blyth/Schmidt Missionary Update

 

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown…

 

So our family has reached one of those times when this prayer seems especially appropriate.

 

We are now in the fifth month since Jeremy broke his leg back in the Italian parko bambino, and he is still on crutches. While his bone has healed, his March diagnosis of “Complex Regional Pain Syndrome” and his experience of daily pain have not gone away. After consultation with an Austrian specialist last week, we learned that further surgery will likely be necessary in order for Jeremy to walk again normally in the future.

 

In lieu of this reality, we have decided that our family must return to the USA for Jeremy to begin comprehensive medical care in MN. We need the support of our families at this time, and can’t keep holding things together across the ocean in Slovakia.

 

We are not sure of any timeline after we fly to the USA the first week in June. I will remain in my position as BIC pastor and YAGM coordinator for Hungary at least through this summer, flying back to Slovakia in late June/early July to run the YAGM final retreat, and attend to BIC in person for 2-3 weeks. After that, we do not know. It may be possible for our family to return to Slovakia in the fall. It may not be.

 

As trying as this time is for us, and especially for Jeremy, we remain deeply grateful for so many blessings: Healthy children; a supportive and welcoming family back in the USA; USA medical insurance; understanding Global Mission supervisors; and prayerful and loving friends and communities around the world.

 

We thank you for your thoughts and prayers, and we will keep you informed of Jeremy’s prognosis and any subsequent decisions, as we know more.

 

… Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

Miriam flew off to Chicago last week to meet with all the YAGM Coordinators based in countries all around the world, and to DIP (Discernment, Interview, Placement) of next years YAGM volunteers. Meanwhile back in Bratislava, Matthew, our good friend and Ursula’s Godfather, flew in to help Jeremy.

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Captured.

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How many feet do you really need to climb a tree?

 

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Matthew’s European concert.

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Miriam returns and we break out the terrace dinning.

 

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It’s like the county fair.

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A little early jockey training.

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Why not go to Vienna for Breakfast in the Statpark after dropping someone at the airport.

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Esme quickly had Matthew providing hours of entertainment.

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Crutching around.

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Esme even gave up some crackers to the ducks.

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Vienna underground

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Morning coffee and strudel after a PT appointment.

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How to carry the wine?

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Lots more driving these days as Jeremy’s walking distance is limited.

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Hitting rocks into the Dunaj

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Hot water is good for the foot.

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Eastertide 2015: April Pastor’s Letter

It has been quite the year so far: 2015 began with a trip to Italy, to meet up with our dear friends and godparents of Esme. We hiked and skied and cooked wonderful food for two days, but on the third day, as most of you know, Jeremy broke his leg. Beware the parko bambino in the mountains of Italy, apparently.

 

By early March the cast (or cast number 8 or 9) came off for good, yet Jeremy was still not able to walk. After another week, he was diagnosed with a rare disease called “Complex Regional Pain Syndrome,” one of those syndromes no-one understands all that well, though everyone has lots of theories for what might help.

 

So March gave way to continued trips to the Hainburg hospital, and various drug and physical therapies for Jeremy (laser therapy, ultrasound, massage, the list goes on.) Jeremy joined a gym, to swim and exercise his foot. In the past four weeks, his pain level has lessened, though his discomfort continues. His foot is noticeably better, yet outside the flat he still needs crutches to help him walk.

 

Our family is adjusting, to what looks to be a long road to recovery. We hope and pray for full recovery, but nothing right now is certain.

 

For three months now, our house has been a-wash with help: Guardian Angel Aunt Gretty came for two full weeks when we first returned from Italy. Grandpa and Bibi helped us travel to Austria in February, cast and all, for a long-planned holiday. The snow, the fireplace, and skiing together with my father (at 68) and Ursula (not yet 6) was a great gift for me. Later Rachel D., a cousin in every way but blood, came to help out during our YAGM Lenten retreat. And just last week, we welcomed Austin and Tanya, YAGM Country Coordinators from Madagascar, for the Three Days and Easter Monday. As I prepare to travel away from my spouse and daughters for 8 days to Chicago – for Country Coordinator Meetings and the yearly Discernment/Interview/Placement weekend for YAGM – Ursula’s godfather Matthew (as I write) is flying over to help a still hobbled Jeremy care for our girls.

 

Suffice it to say, we have been blessed – there is no better word – with physical help, and with the prayers and love of so many far away. I thank you.

 

In the midst of a life where I have had to do a good deal more cooking, driving, shopping, and maintenance of home than I am used to, I have failed to send out a Pastor’s Letter. At last, I am trying. Broken legs and CRPS aside, Lent came as it always does, dressed in purple, this year gathering our Sunday assembly with a procession and great red cross. Hold us in your mercy, we sang. Our Lenten YAGM retreat happened, as well, relocated from Slovenia to Bratislava. And most recently, we celebrated the glorious Three Days. I admit I live for these days, year after year.

 

I have wanted to share some images from this year’s 40 day, which have now given birth to the 50 days of Eastertide.

 

The Lenten YAGM retreat:

We gathered not in pristine, quiet mountains, but in the bustling streets of Bratislava. We discussed Holy Places in the Bible, and went out to visit some: The old Jewish cemetery with Hebrew letters etched on old stones; Saint Martin’s Cathedral, marked by historic coronations and still daily prayer. We prayed with the Bratislava International Church assembly, and as a small group, with song and ashes.

 

But the YAGM’s most appreciated the various gatherings for meals and informal conversation. A former YAGM, now ELCA volunteer teacher in Slovakia, hosted the group for borsht and Holden Evening prayer one evening; and we ended the retreat with pizza at our flat and Night Prayer (Compline). While retreats can never be everything that everyone wants them to be, this one succeeded in being – at least – a time away for the YAGM, a time of worship, a time of discussion, and a time of preparation for returning to Hungary for their final 4 months.

 

The only serious mishap: Some renegade bedbugs at the nearby hostel did their best to test the skin and spirits of a select few of the group.

 

The Three Days:

Not only the Three Days, but the whole 40 days of Lent, I love. This year: Weekly gatherings for Evening Prayer followed by Bible Study; singing the Rain Song, composed by this year’s intern pastor; intoning the litany of prayers that first knit my bones together back during the Lutheran Summer Music Program at the Augustana Sioux Falls Chapel in 1990. Or maybe ’91.

 

But all this time, preparing in mind and body and spirit for Holy Week and the Great Three Days. A preparation that doesn’t seem to make sense, certainly in an international congregation, where so many of our regular attendees leave to visit family, to travel. Yet of course it does make sense; because small, surprising, beautiful assemblies still gather, and worship happens in a way it only happens once a year. How could we miss the opportunity?

 

So on Maundy Thursday, 25 of us gathered, including 6 little children, in an unfamiliar chapel down the street. The organ key was never found, so we sang a cappella. When it came time for the Washing of Feet, we joined our voices in Ubi Caritas, and Robert Buckley Farlee’s “Forgive as you have been forgiven.”

 

Feet, and more feet, were washed. A Norwegian woman, visiting just that day; an old Englishman — who stiffly but gently, so gently, washed another’s feet after his own were dried; my dear spouse as well, uncovering his foot with all its troubles; and even 2 year old Duncan, who whispered to his father “Duncan’s turn,” before trotting up, barefoot, and solemnly letting a stranger pour water over his feet and dry them.

At the end, the choir led us in Psalm 88, the lights turned down. The children gathered near the base of the altar, quieter than you might expect, as the intern and I stripped the table, and blew out candle after candle.

 

Then Good Friday, with John’s Passion read, and the opportunity to sing hymns we rarely sing, not to mention Psalm 22 – which seems to go on forever, yet you do not want it to stop. We joined the church around the world, praying for everyone we can think of, though it is still not enough. And at last, the painful verses of the Solemn Reproaches echoing around us, we made our way in ones and twos to the cross. Lit candles. Knelt. Kissed the wood. Kept praying.

 

Then the Easter Vigil: Jeremy stoked the Easter fire with dried Christmas tree branches (they do a wonderful job, blazing the fire high). We processed, following the new paschal candle, to the courtyard where Sarah sang the ancient Easter Proclamation. This is the night, we echoed. Then we made our way into the sanctuary for the readings.

 

Noteworthy was a family presentation of the Exodus reading of the Deliverance at the Red Sea: The 11 year old son read the first part of the story, as his father improvised on his double bass; then the son, an adept break-dancer, danced an interpretation of the drowning Egyptians and Miriam on the safe side of the sea, as his mother finished the story.

 

Later our intern, invited us to hear the story of Ezekiel’s Dry Bones coming back together with our bodies as well as our ears; and a father and his adolescent son, (baptized in our congregation only a few months ago) told the story of the Three Boys and the Fiery Furnace, outdoors, the Easter fire, a helpful backdrop behind them.

 

Around the font, we sang the litany of the saints. Around the altar, we celebrated the Eucharist with a big loaf of challah.

 

The service was over, but we needed to keep on celebrating, eating. So we moved back outside, to Jeremy’s roasted lamb kabobs and more.

 

After all that, Easter Sunday morning always surprises me with joy. The Sunday morning familiarity made new, dressed once again in Alleluias. And may I never kvetch as a pastor, about those folks who just show up on Christmas and Easter: They are reminding us of what church folk can forget – this is the day that the Lord has made; a holy day. A day worth showing up. A day worth sharing.

 

Now Eastertide continues, a full 50 days. Here in Bratislava, we continue to pray for Jeremy’s recovery. We enjoy Esme’s wild growing curls and wide smiles, and endure her 2 year old tantrums. We remain in awe of Ursula’s unquenchable exuberance for people. We try to live in the hope of resurrection, for us, for you, for all.

Easter Vigil

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Pastor Austin Propst and Tanya visited from Madagascar for Holy Week.

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Palm Sunday, Ursula’s 6th Birthday Party with a Pinata and a cake at fellowship, 1st lost tooth, Rachel came to visit and kept us going, and a new stage in the recovery from a broken leg.

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Palm Sunday Procession around the Maly Kostol.

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Gathering in the Courtyard.

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The final blow on the Pinata.

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Thanks to Shannon, Ursula had the cake of her dreams.

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Listening to the confirmation class read the Passion according to Mark.

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1st tooth came out, one already in there behind.

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Thanks Rachel for your great visit and all the help. Chauffeur extraordinaire to Austrian Hospitals and Wine Caves. Not too mention all the cooking, playing, and washing dishes.

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Electro Therapy on my bone healed, but CRPS diagnosed foot.

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One last cast, and a good way to celebrate.

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Canned Apricots near the end of winter.

Making ashes for Ash Wed, one of the great rituals of the church. We burned palms from last year after Sundays service and then sifted them down some more and added oil for smooth forehead application. And some pictures from laying around with a cast for weeks, and snow in various parts of Europe with family.

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Burning the palms.

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Sifting the ashes.

 

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A new place to put the leg up. One more surgery down, long screw removed.

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Miriam got to ski with her father for the first time ever.

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Ursula going up, Tom coming down. Grandpa, Mama, and Granddaughter all on the slopes together. Ursula finished this day with a remarkable 14 KM downhill run!?

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Esme and Bibi on the Gondola with GrossGlockner Park behind them.

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Aunt Gretty came and rescued us for 2 weeks in the middle of January.

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Ursula x-country skiing in Italy.

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Esme in Austria.

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Of course we should all be skiing.

 

A GOOD BREAK FROM WORK and THEN A NOT SO GOOD BREAK: We enjoyed playing in Bratislava during the 12 days of Christmas, even getting some snow for sledding before the rains returned. Then we took a Holiday in the Italian Dolomites, which are simply amazing. The sunshine and lack of snow made it feel like April, so we hiked straight up a mountain in the woods. The next day Miriam and Jeremy got the wonderful gift of a day skiing the Sellaronda. Unfortunately the following day, while playing on a Parko Bambino with Ursula and Esme, Jeremy fractured his Fibula is two places. Luckily there was a very nice small Italian hospital nearby, which happened to have much experience with Broken Bones due to the proximity of so many ski resorts. Ursula went x-country skiing for the first time, while Jeremy tried to reduce the swelling. Luckily we had good friends with us who helped out immeasurably. After a few days of resting we took a slow drive back to Bratislava with Jeremy’s leg propped up on the emergency break. We are home now and starting to settle into the new reality of Jeremy not being able to put weight on his foot for 50 days. Luckily we have a family member coming to help and Miriam’s Intern Pastor Paul is returning to service after his visa issues got worked out over the Holidays. Oh the winding tracks of life or as the Italians say “C’est la Vie” (actually that’s French, but the Italians seem to say it as well).

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Merry Christmas from Bratislava

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Esme’s American Godparents join us for Christmas

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Esme makes her first Bullas

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Ursula’s School Christmas Program

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Snow anyone?!

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Lighting the Advent wreath at Bratislava International Church

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Magi and Star Carrier.

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Ursula taking her role very seriously.

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Doubles as an Angel.

Advent Pastor’s Letter 2014

These past weeks, when I’ve taken Ursula to materská škola (kindergarten) on the 93 bus, our path through the usually empty field between bus stop and school has grown a Hungarian circus tent. (I admit some small amount of pride that I can recognize the Hungarian signs here in the Slovak capital. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I know how to pronounce the vowel written ő.)

At 8:00 in the morning, there are rarely signs of life in the tented field, but I imagine clowns and acrobats, ponies and elephants, hidden, waiting for the night’s performance. I envisage the set up and take down of a traveling circus. I think of our own life.

Our family is no traveling circus, or at least, we do not intend to be. However there’s a lot of set up and take down in our lives. Since I last wrote a pastor’s letter on the last day of September, we have traveled as a family 3 separate times to Hungary for work (one 2 day trip, one 9 day trip, one 3 day trip) and managed a holiday to Slovenia with Ursula’s godmother, Chrissy, for 4 additional days.

Jeremy is our packer extraordinaire. But Ursula should get some credit too: At 5, she knows how to pack for a 3 day trip, a 7 day trip. How to count out socks and underwear. She remembers details — a swimming suit (you never know;) papučky (house slippers;) Highlights magazines, and colored pencils for the car.

All I have to do is pack my clerical garb – if needed, — our 4 toothbrushes, and Christian Century back issues.

As soon as we’ve arrived in whatever our destination – a rented apartment, an empty pastor’s flat for visiting guests, a hotel room – we set up. It’s doesn’t matter if we’ll only stay a night or two. Everything gets unpacked from Lola (the red church Skoda auto) and put away. Insta-home.

Then a day or two or three passes, and it’s take down time. We pack up the stove-top espresso maker, take our clothes out of foreign drawers, check under the beds, ready a bag of snacks for the car. And we’re off. To the next destination, or back towards the Bratislava castle, which is our signal that we’re almost home. Then up the stairs to our flat on Palisády 48. Everything must be put away, and a load of laundry started, before life can continue.

We do this rather often. For the most part we love it. We are, at least Jeremy and I are (we’ll let the girls speak for themselves as they get older) committed travelers. Uprooting from a pattern (that has barely had time to become a pattern) coupled with the open road energizes us. Our love of adventure is of course one of the reasons we answered the call to serve as ELCA missionaries in Middle Europe, where I must be two things at once, Bratislava International Church pastor and coordinator for the YAGM program in Hungary. There in no center to this call. We will yo-yo back and forth between Slovakia and Hungary until we leave. Our whole family will set up and take down again and again, because we can, because we choose to travel as a team.

When Chrissy joined our family for three weeks this fall after her season’s work as a kayak wilderness ranger in Alaska, we found ourselves a team name. Or rather Esme did by singing, “Boo la la, boo la la, boo la la la,” whenever we got in the car. So we became Team Boolala, joining Esme in the team song.

Set up, take down. It is a good and rich life, one that teaches us adaptability and an open definition of home. But the set-up-take-down life (like any life) has its limits, its downsides. It does not give us time or energy to grow deep. We are not learning to sit still, in one place. I wonder – can we learn peace, stillness, again? For how long?

Set-up-take-down musings aside, I will make our only trip this month, an overnight in Budapest to visit the YAGM volunteer there. Otherwise we are and will be marking Advent, anticipating the coming of one set of Esme’s godparents, Jay and Josie, and Christmas.

We are here in Advent, drinking warm honey wine at the Christmas Market, and putting another ornament on my godmother Elaine’s felt Jesse Tree, each day.

As our dinner prayer, we sing: “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come Lord Jesus. With your Spirit, come to us,” and we light the candles on our Advent wreath. Esme echoes the words, “COME LORD JESUS” as she lies in bed, resisting sleep. I laugh and shush her, more and more convinced that parents are suckered into having yet another child because of the sound of their 2 year old’s voice. (Let me be clear: We have not been suckered yet.)

Through phone calls and emails, we try to encourage the YAGM in Hungary, who recognize occasional moments of grace, but still struggle uphill to speak a difficult language.

We gather on the 2nd Sunday of Advent to celebrate not only the Eucharist, but also an adult baptism of a young German woman, who began singing in the choir last spring. Now, here we are. After church, I meet with two 12-year old girls for the first Faith Formation/Confirmation class I have taught in awhile. I am blown away by their questions; I am excited to get to know them better.

We attend the Christmas program at Ursula’s kindergarten, and watch Ursula and her friend Daniela swirl each other around in a Slovak folk dance. Jeremy fashions aluminum foil angels’ wings for the upcoming Children’s Program at church.

On Advent Tuesday evenings, members of the BIC assembly come together for Night Prayer (Compline) in the sanctuary. We sit in a circle, near the piano. We light the candles. We sing, “All Praise to Thee My God This Night.” Ursula tries to find the right page numbers in the ELW though she cannot yet read. She sings the leader’s as well as the assembly’s parts, not knowing there is a distinction.

My 38th birthday is such a Tuesday: A simple day spent with Esme and a gift of flowers from a friend at lunch, ending with Compline and Bible Study. I think, I certainly am meant to be a pastor, because I do not want any other ending to the day.

Here is a taste of our Advent, midst our set-up-take-down life. My prayers go out to you this season: May unexpected and mysterious, gentle words of grace find their way to each of you. To your ears, to your lips.

A Blessed Advent from our family to you, to your families, to your assemblies. Thank you always for your support of us, and your prayers.