I am writing this letter half-way through Lent. Spring has been settling on Bratislava — occasional cold winds notwithstanding – restoring my belief in the sun. Ursula, along with many others around her age, find their way outside whenever it is possible, to ride a bike for the first or thousandth time. Ursula’s training wheels keep her balanced for now, and she rides proud.
Esme is becoming a person — determined, stubborn, with a wonderful laugh. She eats more than we can comprehend. She does not allow Jeremy even a moment of contemplative time at church these days. (Though he may argue it has been a full five years since that was possible.)
Jeremy is painting more, so our kitchen wall of art grows. He continues to make his three ladies amazing food. We try to be adequately appreciative of such a spouse and Papa. I hope we sometimes succeed.
As for me, my Lenten discipline has been to get – and stay – healthy. Which tells you a little bit about my January and February. For health and strength and daily food, we praise your name, O Lord; we sing the grace before dinner. As many of you know better than I, health seems more precious each month, each year.
Lent began with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, and soon after, we were off to the High Tatras for a Lenten retreat with this year’s YAGM’s. Last year, at this same retreat, we enjoyed winter storms and amazing snow for cross-country skiing (not to mention mushing, that is Ursula and Jeremy pulling a five month Esme on a home-rigged sledge) on the frozen mountain lake. This year, instead we basked in blue skies and bright sun. With the remains of the winter’s snow, we even managed some spring skiing.
But perhaps the best group outdoor event was after a homemade American breakfast of eggs and bacon and French toast and maple syrup, we spent the day hiking further into the mountains, to Popradske Pleso, another mountain lake. There, we watched what none of us had ever seen before: One after another, helicopters circled down toward the lake, and from them lowered down to the frozen ice were mountain first responders with search-and-rescue-dogs in training in tow. We watched at least 4 dogs and their people make the descent to the surface.
Retreat worship was meaningful, and I’ve read the evaluations, so this isn’t just the pastor talking. The first night we sang Holden Evening Prayer and read from 2 Corinthians, Now is the acceptable time! On Tuesday, we followed the confession that many ELCA churches use on Ash Wednesday, in which we confess almost everything we have done or failed to do in the past year. Wednesday, we worshipped on the side of the trail, praying especially for the healing of the world, those we love, and ourselves, during this Lenten season of renewal. An older Slovak man hiked by in the midst of our worship, and I think he understand we were up to something on the snowy mountain path, for he stopped and smiled and said in faltering English – God you bless! On our last night, we heeded Luther’s call and “crept back to the font,” affirming our baptisms, and breaking the bread.
I think what is most dear to me is that these worship services actually mean something to the young adults serving through YAGM. They are grateful for the familiarity of prayers and songs in English. Though Lent may be a foreign land for them in Hungary, they hear the Lenten call to renewal in our worship together. At the week’s end they are revived and ready to return to their Hungarian homes.
Since that retreat, our family has been back in Bratislava, doing our best to settle into some manner of routine. It is — unsurprisingly — a routine that will be broken in a few days time, when I travel to the States for a congregational visit in California, and YAGM Country Coordinator meetings in Chicago and the Discernment/Interview/Placement event for next year’s young adult volunteers. (I will be gone for 12 whole days. I am still in shock at the thought of it. )
But for now, Ursula goes to Slovak kindergarten during the day; Jeremy and Esme keep up our house and home; and I prepare for mid-week services, Sunday worship, and of course Holy Week and the Three Days.
If you know me at all, you will not be surprised to hear how important is this time of preparation. I sit with the intern pastor, Kyle, and our cantor, Ivana, and discuss music choices for all the special services that will take place as Lent comes to a close and Easter slips into our world, and our laps and hearts and voices. We discuss how the Passion Readings – both Matthew’s on Palm/Passion Sunday, and John’s on Good Friday – should be read this year. We scout for interested lectors for the great Easter Vigil readings: Which one this year is calling you? The Creation story of Genesis 1? The deliverance through the Red sea? Jonah in the fish’s belly? The fiery furnace?
And we also, in the Bratislava International Church assembly, get to pray for a little baby named Isla-Fe who will be baptized in our midst this Easter.
My sisters and brothers, whether you succeed or fail in your own Lenten devotions of fasting or prayer or works of mercy, may you continue to experience Lent itself as our shared prayer. Our prayer for the church’s, for the whole world’s renewal. This year and every year.