Pastor’s Letter, November 2013
Death, Life, and Images from Romania
Part 1: Death
It is November, so we must talk about death. After all, even if the leaves weren’t brown and crumbling underfoot, All Saints Day marks the month’s beginning. And in Central Europe, you cannot easily overlook this holy day that looks death straight in the face.
In the last days of October, flower vendors flock in cities and villages. On All Saints day itself, whole families and solitary widows process to the cemeteries to place bouquets and candles at gravesites.
It is good to go at night, and wander around the graves. Votive lights illumine your path. The old and the young are there, praying in hushed whispers or with sighs too deep for words. They are remembering and grieving their beloved dead. You can too.
At worship on November 3 at the Bratislava International Church, we marked All Saints Sunday. We lit votive candles around the Paschal Candle and baptismal font. We shared holy communion with all the saints. We sang, with gusto, “Shall We Gather at the River” and “When the Saints are Marching In.” And I realized, after celebrating All Saints in so many different assemblies for 37 years, why this Sunday festival is so important for me.
I am one of the many these days who has no one hometown, no one graveyard where most of my ancestors were laid to rest. My grandparents’ bodies are buried and ashes are scattered in unfamiliar places I will rarely have a chance to go. So the best space I have to remember, grieve, and mark the dead is liturgical space.
Ursula asked me if we can think about Great Grandma Jean (who died just a few weeks ago) when we walk through the foreign cemeteries of Slovakia. I said – of course, my darling. (Memory, not to mention grief, need not be tethered to a specific geographical location.) But even wanderers like myself long for some familiar, dependable space to touch down, year after year, and remember.
For me, this space is the church, especially on All Saints Sunday. The church in various local manifestations – the Bratislava International Church; and First Lutheran Church in Plains, Montana; and Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Betsy Ground, Guyana; and Saint Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan. Year after year, in assembly worship, I remember my dead. Year after year, on this holy day, God renews me in faith, and holds out to me the mystery of the resurrection.
Part 2: Life
November is a month to speak of death, but also of life. These last months have been full of rich and beautiful life for our family, here in Central Europe.
I have continued to treasure the communal life of the Bratislava International Church and the individual human lives that gather here. Every fall new men, women, and children join our Sunday gatherings around Jesus’ table, and our conversations at Next Apache café during Fellowship hour. This fall, new voices have joined the choir, new minds have graced our Bible Study with questions. People have to join us from China and Kyrgyzstan and Romania and Singapore. People have come back after summers away in Canada or the United States or New Zealand or South Africa. People have come carrying their broken pasts and uncertain dreams.
I have a new intern pastor, Kyle, here with his wife, a nurse practitioner. Once again, I find myself blessed with the responsibility of helping someone learn what the life of a pastor is about — even as I am still figuring that out myself. In any case, intern pastor Kyle and I pray together and lead worship together, and I try to share with him what my teachers have taught me:
Preach the damn Gospel! (I give tribute to Dr. Wengert.)
Every Sunday someone has come to worship in desperate need of resurrection, so we must take this odd pastoral calling seriously.
Treasure Word and Sacrament; know that they hold us more than we can ever hold them.
Beyond life in the Bratislava International Church, there is new life for our Young Adults in Global Mission as well. I have visited all five of them by now in their Hungarian homes and workplaces. Meredith is teaching Sunday School in translation and working with Roma teenagers at an after school program. Chelsea is connecting with teachers and students at the Lutheran elementary school, as well as getting to know the local Roma Government Program in her town. Thad is living with a Roma family in a rural village, and working with the Filadelfia Lutheran church outreach programs there. Mari is serving meals to people without homes in Nyiregyhaza, and playing with puppies and kittens at the animal shelter in her spare time. Ole is teaching religion to high school students and building relationships with Roma women at their pentacostal house church.
Life this year is stretching, unsettling, and challenging these young adults, and sometimes, it fills them with joy. I – and sometimes my family along with me – get to glimpse bits of the new life into which these young adults are being immersed. You might call it – being washed by the Holy Spirit in Hungary. Often the Holy Spirit doesn’t work in the ways you prepared for. The Spirit has a way of scooping you up into unexpected life where the days last forever but weeks fly by.
As the coordinator of the YAGM program in Central Europe, I get the pleasure of checking in, and sharing lots of meals and coffee around Hungary.
Of course there is also life going on in our own home. We’ve had a good rhythm these past couple of months. Ursula goes to school in the morning and learns more Slovak songs that we can count. Esme naps like clockwork, and shrieks loudly when she wants food or drink or attention, though she remains adorable enough to keep. Jeremy and I try to keep Mondays as a Sabbath day and go for long walks in the parks of Bratislava. Jeremy holds our household together, though amazingly enough I have started to cook pots of soup and even bake scones for the first time since I was pregnant with Esme. Jeremy is stunned to remember such a thing is possible – Mamas can make food too?
Part 3: Images from Romania
In the middle of so much death and so much more life, we made a trip into Romania during our recent visit to three YAGM’s out in eastern Hungary. I close this letter with a few images from our four days of travel in a country brand new to our family:
- Sixteen (we counted) working horse carts traveling on the same roads with us and the semi trucks
- Rolls of vinyl flooring (“vinylay” we called it in South America), a cross between linoleum and wallpaper, which we hadn’t seen since our time in Guyana, for sale all over the open air markets
- Painted and mosaic saints covering every inch of wall and ceiling in the Orthodox Cathedral of Sibiu; and front and center, Mary Magdalene, announcing the resurrection to the gathered disciples (I have seen the Lord!)
- An old woman in that same cathedral, coming up to Ursula and me, speaking in fervent — if incomprehensible to us – Romanian, gifting us with a loaf of bread that fed us all the way home to Bratislava
- A young man with long hair and without legs, smiling and wheeling his wheelchair confidently down the same dark street where we were walking, startling us with his strength and speed
- A campfire sparking, near the tent sheltering our two sleeping children; overhead the moon peaking between fast moving clouds; around us the outline of the southern Carpathian Retezat mountains. (Truthfully, it was not unlike camping in Montana, though the place names lend an air of the exotic.)
In closing, we continue to be so grateful for you – the family members and friends we love and miss, the congregations who support us with prayers and monetary gifts. Thank you. You remain in our thoughts and prayers. God be with you and those you love during this November season of death and life, thanksgiving and harvest, on the edge of Advent darkness and light.