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.
The Last Day of September 2014, in four movements and a postlude
To start with something delightful: Ursula has begun in these past weeks, since she started her third and final year of “skolka” (the year before a child enters first grade,) to play at home in Slovak. Esme is now a little sister in every way, able and most times eager to follow Ursula’s direction and take part in the imaginative worlds that Ursula creates (only occasionally breaking down because Ursula is “directing” her a little too much.) It is a joy to overhear my daughters becoming siblings (not to mention I can sit after a long day, glass of wine in hand, and talk to Jeremy as he makes dinner, for whole minutes uninterrupted). But it is fascinating to overhear this play take place in a language that – for the most part – neither Jeremy nor I understand. Ursula however, understands. Every day, she negotiates a Slovak language world with grace and energy. And now she seems bent on teaching her little sister.
Is this how parenting unrolls, down through the years? More and more, your children becoming part of worlds that are magically, frighteningly, outside of your own experience? Will I always register Ursula’s (not to mention Esme’s) journeys into worlds unknown with such delight?
In the Bratislava International Church:
It is now my third fall at the Bratislava International Church, and once again, a new assembly gathers on Sunday for worship. New families. Children that speak Russian and German and English. Brothers who come from three different parts of the globe. Single men and women: a lawyer, a student, a consultant, a former Young Adult in Global Mission in Hungary. Also, beloved, well-known faces.
Last week, we celebrated 20 years of worship life together in Maly Kostol. We sang, and the children led us in prayer for the world; and we shared in the Holy Communion. Then we gathered for an international potluck lunch, with dishes from around the world. We saw pictures, and heard the penned reflections of former pastors, members, and interns.
It was moving for me to hear the stories of those who have come before us. I know that 20 years is almost no time at all for many congregations. Yet, Bratislava International Church — which sees many people come and go so quickly yet still, they find a center here, Christ broken and shed for all, and a community away from wherever home may be – should serve as a reminder to other assemblies. You never know how only a few months, a few years, can matter. The members of your assemblies may shift as well, leaving (it feels like) too soon to make any difference. Yet from this 20 year-old congregation I am learning God can work quite well, with little advanced notice and not much time.
With the Young Adults in Global Mission:
We completed our third orientation in early September, and Jeremy finally came up with a way to distinguish our roles, as together we lead 7 young adults in Hungary. He is in charge of the “essentials” and I am in charge of the “existentials.” We’ll see if the moniker sticks.
Remarkably, we learned that 7 young adults is more than 4 or 5 (the size of last 2 groups)! This year’s group members tend towards quietness, introspection, serious questions, and independence. As with previous YAGM, I wonder if the hardest thing for these young people will be letting themselves depend on their hosts, and one another.
I am thankful in the short time hat I have known this group, for the stories – beautiful, sorrowful, real – they have shared form their pasts. I pray for them this year as they wander through loneliness and surprising moments of grace, and try to speak Hungarian on top of it all. But these young adults have not had light lives so far. They have been challenged; they have had to dig deep for strength before. May God continue to grant them mercy as they move into years of service, figuring out what work they can do with energy and love.
To round off the month, I spent last Friday night reconnecting with my Montana pastoral colleagues. My bishop, Jessica Crist, (though I serve through Global Mission, I am still a rostered pastor of the ELCA’s Montana Synod) invited me to take part in a Bishop’s Covocation: “What God has joined together.” The day was to offer space for conversation on Lutheran responses to same-gender relationships, with legal updates pertaining to the states of MT and WY, alongside Biblical and theological reflections, and deep listening to one another.
While I was unable to take part in the whole day, I joined on Skype (at 9:30 pm my time) for the last part of the discussion. I shared my perspective on these issues as mission personnel serving in Slovakia and Hungary, and got to hear some of my colleagues’ perspectives, personal stories, and theological and practical questions. I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to be in a small way a part of this day, and even more grateful that Bishop Crist is proactively engaging the pastors of our synod in honest conversation before the laws about same-gender relationships actually change.
But most meaningful to me was the moment when others were speaking, and the Assistant to the Bishop, Jason Asselstine, panned the Skype camera around the room. For the first time in almost three years, I got to see the faces of ELCA pastoral colleagues whom I began to get to know during my years in Plains.
I missed them, and remembered that one of the most difficult parts of my call in Central Europe is not having a community of ELCA pastors to gather with throughout the year — for convocations, assemblies, and continuing education events. Such time with my colleagues is nurturing and powerful, and always challenges me to be a better pastor.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing to complain about in Bratislava these days, and much to give thanks for. We hiked to an old castle ruins last week on rest day. Ursula went to the Planetarium with her class yesterday, and Esme says the word “hot sauce” with excitement every morning when she eats her eggs. We think of the promised visitors and travel this winter with smiles. But we also miss many of you across the ocean. You remain deep in our prayers.