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Category Archives: Bratislava International Church
Scenes from the life of the Bratislava International Congregation
Posted on December 13, 2012
I had planned for this letter to be written in the month of November. But November ticked by, full of consuming events: First, All Saints’ Day; then my first Remembrance Day worship service with the British Ambassasdor for Slovakia sitting in the front row; a Thanksgiving celebration with all the ELCA volunteer teachers from around Slovakia and Poland, along with the four YAGM’s who came to Bratislava from Hungary for a weekend retreat. (We baked banana cake and sweet potatoes and apple crisp and good Midwestern green bean casserole for the big feast, and each of them led our little group in worship one of these days. So we reflected, drew, sang, walked a makeshift labyrinth, listened to scripture, and prayed.)
All this to say, November got away from me, as we counted the days toward my due date. And then Esme Asher Blyth surprised us by being born a week early. After 27 hours of labor (not that I was counting), she came into the world on November 27th, remarkably calm and a little purple. We brought her home from the Hainburg hospital a couple of days later.
I had been planning — back before November got away from me — to write a pastor’s letter about “home.” Now, this letter must begin in a new way — after we have recently journeyed with a fragile bundle, a newly alive creature, across a border, across a river, to our home in Bratislava.
Esme is home now, though she has no words for “home” yet, though she can see this home only vaguely (through a glass darkly, you might say). But all the same, it is home for her. She knows it by smell and touch. Her father holds her close and changes her diaper. I nurse her when she squalls for milk. Her sister rests her on her lap, adoringly. Our dear friend walks her around our flat, showing her the Christmas tree. Esme is home; and at two weeks old, home is not particularly complex. As long as she is fed, and warm, and loved, she is home.
But for most of us who have a few years on Esme, home has gotten more complicated. I have called many places home in my 36 years: At least 25 apartments, rooms or houses have been home for me, for at least a few months. It should not be surprising that I am adept at quickly making a “home” of any space, and that I married someone who does so even better.
Yet, even with our well-honed home-making abilities, we continue to long for a home that is not quite where we are: A home that fulfills all our desires – closeness to family and friends who live thousands of miles away from each other; a backdrop of high, boulder-strewn mountains; proximity to the treasures of dense urban areas coupled with the almost silent nights you only find in States like Montana with its blue-black star-splattered night skies. Incompatible, impossible desires, of course. We will not find one such home in this world. So the verse from Hebrews comes to mind: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” We long for a city, or maybe just a small town, or yurt, or even a really nice tent that fulfills our deep longings for an abiding home.
In my work here in Central Europe, I find myself talking with many people who long for a home that evades reality. Many come to the Bratislava International Church who have left their homes-of-origin. These ex-patriots are living in Bratislava temporarily, and from here they may go on to another place, and still another. Though all of these locations may become “homes” in some sense of the word, none of them quite lives up to the longing for a lasting, abiding home.
The Bratislava International Church also draws bi-cultural families: A Slovak married to an American, or a Ghanaian, or a Tanzanian. These unions, for all that they are rich in love, shatter any simplistic notion either partner may once have had of home. Home for these families now spans continents. Travel, sometimes long and expensive plane flights, is required for at least one partner to “go home.” Home is bifurcated, appropriated, and ever-evolving for these bi-cultural families. Not simple.
There are also Slovaks who make their way to our pews Sunday after Sunday: Slovaks who have spent time out of this country, sometimes years. They arrive back changed by years of living abroad, and Slovakia no longer feels quite like “home” — but neither does the United States, or Germany, or Great Britain. So these members of our Sunday assembly feel home-less on an existential if not practical level.
I think also of my four Young Adults in Global Mission, who are struggling to live in a place that is not home for a year. Some of them hoped that their placement sites would quickly feel like home, but they have learned that home is not necessarily easy to come by, especially when you are a foreigner who cannot yet speak complex sentences in Hungarian (or even express your feelings!), especially when you are far away from everything familiar, far from everyone who has loved you since before you can remember. It is not easy for these young adults. They want to feel at home. Their hosts have welcomed them. Yet they are not, quite, at home. I am hopeful that by the end of the year perhaps one or two of them will find that their site in Hungary has become, surprisingly, “home” and they don’t know how or when it happened. But I imagine that others of the YAGM’s will spend the whole year somewhat off-kilter. Trying to inhabit a home that is not theirs. Longing for a home that is not where they are.
One additional thought: In October, I attended a conference with the YAGM’s: The European Boogieman Complex: Challenging Antigypsyism, run by Phiren Amenca out of Budapest, a volunteer network of Roma and non-Roma engaging the difficult issues surrounding Roma communities in Europe today. I began wondering, as the conference flooded me with ideas and information, about the relationship of the Roma peoples to “home.” While the prevalent theory is that the Roma have their origin in India, India (of a thousand years ago) bears no stamp of “home” for most modern-day Romani. Home is every country in Europe, and beyond. Home is many small villages, large cities, and mid-sized towns that Roma communities have populated for decades or centuries. Yet the Roma, for centuries now, have continually been driven out of this home and that home. Their homes have been terrorized, even burned down. How would it be to fight constantly for the right to call any place “home”? I will never understand, of course, what this is like.
It is December now. The snow is falling thick outside, as all these thoughts of “home” swirl in my head. I hear Esme, making those odd and lovely baby sounds out of deep sleep. I have a sudden and strong urge to protect her from the sorrow, the longing that she will no doubt feel one day — for an abiding, lasting home, a home that continually evades her.
In the meantime, I will hold her, feed her, and sing to her. And I will read her the children’s board book that I read to her older sister many times (written by Carol Wehrheim, illustrated by Betsy James.) The words are simple:
The bird has a cosy nest.
The squirrel sleeps in a tree.
The fish lives in water.
No matter where we live…God is our home.
I pray that Esme will come to believe this. (Though I am not sure I have the words to explain what this statement of faith really means.)
Perhaps, with her help, I will come to believe it, more deeply and strongly, today, and again tomorrow. That no matter where we live…God is, indeed, our home.
Posted on September 27, 2012
SEPTEMBER 2012, Pastor’s Letter
We in the ELCA, at least in Global Mission, talk a lot about accompaniment. It is the way we describe what we are up to, in trying to be a part of God’s mission around the world – walking together with churches and communities in faith.
Whenever I think of the word “accompaniment,” two images pop into my head:
First, I see the fingers of my father — a pianist and organist — flying gracefully over a keyboard as he accompanies a singer or instrumentalist. My father is an experienced accompanist. He knows that while his playing provides critical harmonies, he must hold back, not overpowering his companion, but assisting her in the making of beautiful music that takes two.
Second, from the Latin roots of “accompany” (com + panis = with + bread), I see a table with people gathered around, breaking bread with one another. Sometimes it is our kitchen table, sometimes it is Jesus’ table in one of the various churches where I have worshipped – but regardless, the image is the same: Companions, sharing food, one with the other.
I wonder, as I contemplate these images, if we missionaries do a disservice to the rest of the church by describing what we do, personally, as “accompaniment” to the exclusion of others: After all, isn’t the entire church’s work, whether at home or abroad, or running around from here to there and back again, to accompany others – whomever those others might be — in God’s grace-filled mission of reconciliation in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit?
But perhaps the real question – for all of us, wherever we may be placed presently on God’s green earth – is who am I to accompany now? Companions can be temporary, and still essential. We break bread with them only a few times, we join with them for just one verse of a hymn; but those minutes change everything. Other times, our companions are life-long, and we end up working long and hard to stay in tune with them. We keep coming back to the same table, again and again, joining hands in thanksgiving before the meal is shared.
During the last month or two, I have been asking myself: — Whom am I here in Central Europe to accompany? I know the answer is multi-faceted: The Slovak Lutheran Church, for one; but also the Hungarian Lutheran Church, and also the many and various Roma communities where the Central European YAGM’s are placed, and also the expatriates and locals who regularly or occasionally join the Bratislava International Church assembly. That’s the beginning of the list. But these past weeks I have been getting to know five other individuals whom I will spend a lot of time accompanying this year.
The first is this year’s Horizon Intern, Rachel Eskesen. Rachel is a student at PLTS, studying to be an ELCA pastor. She carries an impressive resume: She’s worked (as a YAGM!) with refugees in Egypt, and with “anti-social” (or at-risk) youth in England. She’s already completed one Master’s degree in Shakespearean literature, and she seems to be settling quickly into the intense existence that is the Bratislava’s intern’s lot: teaching high school students religion (no small task!) one day, and learning how to be a pastor of an international congregation the next (no small task as well!). My initial weeks of walking with and breaking bread (and sipping coffee) with Rachel have been deeply meaningful. I feel humbled – that as a 35-year old pastor who still has so much to learn, I have been given the opportunity and responsibility of accompanying one who is in a similar place I was 6 years ago.
I am also learning to accompany four others – the Young Adults in Global Mission, who (after a longer-than-you-can-imagine orientation period) are now settled in sites around Hungary for a year of service learning. It was a joy for Jeremy, Ursula and me to finally welcome Dave, Kristen, Ashley, and Matt at the Vienna airport after so much anticipation (and I admit, worry how things would go this first time). We brought them to our flat and fed them bread and cheese and pate and fruit and chocolate, and over the following days, began to get to know them.
I applaud the YAGM’s for how gracefully they managed those first weeks of travel (from their homes to Chicago to Bratislava to Budapest to Szarvas to Lake Balaton and back to Szarvas) and language study: Hungarian is no piece-of-cake language to learn. They managed to make it through such intense time with one another without even showing scratches or scars at orientation’s conclusion! The last day of orientation, we shared worship and a meal, and now they are settled in Nyirtelek, Nyiregyhaza, Szarvas, and Szombathely.
Jeremy and I will continue to accompany these four faithful young adults. We will walk with them through various media — texting, emailing, maybe some Skyping, and of course face-to-face meetings and retreats throughout the year. I hope that we will find ways to be present to Dave, Kristen, Ashley, and Matt when we are needed, and otherwise, get out of the way and allow the Holy Spirit blow where she will in their lives.
Whom do you have the responsibility and blessing of accompanying these days? I hope and pray that all of us continue to treasure what it is to walk with a companion for however long — breaking bread together, making music that we couldn’t possibly create on our own.
Posted on July 28, 2012
Posted on July 6, 2012
JULY 2012, Pastor’s Letter
Psalm 121:8: The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore (Psalm 121:8).
We have now been (home) in Bratislava for five months, a ridiculously short time on the scale of things. Yet already there have been many goings out and comings in. Jeremy, Ursula and I have already returned to the States – in April — for more training in Chicago, and to meet next year’s Young Adults in Global Mission. I have been over the border to Hungary three times, most recently in May with my family, when together we visited the four sites from western to northeastern Hungary where next year’s YAGM’s will live and serve and learn this coming year. On a smaller scale, we have traveled to the Vysoke Tatry (High Tatras) twice in this last month, exploring mountain crags and discovering surprisingly high-up (and fully-equipped!) huts or “chatas”. So much going out and coming in. And that is only our little family.
On the second Sunday of June at worship, we bid farewell and Godspeed to those members of the Bratislava International Church community who are “going out” of Bratislava this summer, some for good. Teaching contracts, or embassy appointments, or years of study are complete. Those “going out” are now on their way to ventures of which they cannot see the ending; or perhaps they are returning home, though “home” may appear surprisingly unfamiliar, because a year (or three or five) in another country changes us. We cannot step into the same river twice; the waters are ever flowing.
So much going out and coming in. And though I have been here for such a short time, it has been difficult for me to say goodbye to these who are “going out.” I am sorry for my own sake: I have only just begun to get to know this person, that person, and her story is so fascinating, his laugh is so infectious. I am sorry for the sake of the Bratislava International Church: This assembly has lost dear people this last month, and year after year — people who have shared their gifts, voices, prayers, sorrows and joys, so enriching the assembly. Those going out leave a hole behind. An empty space in the pew that looks wrong.
Of course, there will be comings in too. In August and September, and all throughout the year, new faces will appear at worship. Some new folk will keep coming back and find a (temporary) home in this international church. Like many who have gone before them, they too will share their faith, their stories, their burdens with this assembly. And the Bratislava International Church will be the richer for them.
The Bratislava International Church is far more used to all this going out and coming in than I am. Though you’d think, given my history, I’d be a little more prepared. After all, I am an ELCA pastor, and from the beginning of this journey I have known that no one place would ever become our “home.” One pastoral call may last 5, another 10 years. But no call lasts forever.
Not to mention — Jeremy and I are wanderers in our own right. Living any place for 4 years seems remarkably stable to us. We are not farmers, wedded to a piece of land for life. We are not the good friends we have made – in Philadelphia, in Minneapolis, in Plains, MT – who know their city or small town backwards and forwards because it has always been home. I admire these people for their commitment, their perseverance, their rootedness. Their ability to keep open eyes to new possibilities in the face of the seemingly familiar. Of course, I know that staying in one place carries challenges – how does one not turn inward? How does one keep remembering that the rest of the world is great and wide, beautiful and not-so-frightening? That the rest of the world is full of good people, with birthdays and dirty laundry and troubles and longings, just like at home?
There are, equally, pitfalls for those of us who live more mobile lives. We transient ones can easily become overwhelmed by so many goings out and comings in, friends lost or left behind, new people to engage all the time. We run the risk of hardening our hearts, failing to reach out to the strangers who are “coming in” because we anticipate, too quickly, the inevitable and painful “goings out.”
So, as I sit here on a hot summer day, at home (for the now) in Bratislava, I want to make a pledge – or perhaps, it is simply a prayer. During our years here, I want to learn from the Bratislava International Church community how to embrace the many, many goings out and comings in. I want to keep my heart open. And when it threatens to harden, I hope to douse it with water, anoint it with oil, or ask others to help me do so.
In a little over a month’s time, we will welcome four Young Adults in Global Mission to Central Europe: It is our call to get to know them, to care for and shepherd them as well as we are able, during their year of service. Then – a year goes by so quickly — they too will go out, and God willing, new ones will come in. I pray that I can learn to swim with grace through these yearly cycles of bidding farewell and Godspeed, and then, welcoming in the new with a soft heart. Keeping in mind that it is the LORD who will keep us through all these goings out and comings in, from this time on and forevermore.
Posted on May 20, 2012
Last week, I got lost again. Actually, I wasn’t really lost, I just couldn’t find the place where I was trying to go. I headed there a little too confidently, I suppose. I left without a map. I thought – I’ve been there before. I thought – I know where I’m going. But I was wrong. I searched up and down the streets for a building that never appeared. Luckily, I had no formal appointment with anyone. Luckily, when I finally gave up, I was able to meet Jeremy and Ursula in a nearby beautiful park and calm down underneath a canopy of green trees, sipping black tea and honey, watching my daughter play in one of the numerous playgrounds of Bratislava.
But the experience has made me think a bit about what it means to live outside of your country and culture of origin. Very simply — you get lost more often. You fail to find things, people, agreed upon destinations. You plan thirty minutes to get somewhere, and that is not ever enough.
I think about being lost when I look out over the congregation of Bratislava International Church. The pulpit is high up, so I get a good view of folks on the ground floor and in the balcony. Most people worshipping here are not from here. Even the Slovaks come from other parts of Slovakia. Many others have traveled farther — from Iran, Korea, Ghana. They come here to worship because they want to worship in the English language – yet oftentimes English is a second, third, or even fourth language.
I’m sure many of them get lost in worship. We print a pretty detailed bulletin, yet I’m sure it’s still confusing. What is she doing up there now? What song are we supposed to be singing? What are the English words of the Lord’s Prayer? Some of the bi-cultural couples come to worship here because the Bratislava International Church represents a compromise between two different Christian backgrounds: Say — West African Pentecostal meets Roman Catholic Slovak. How, given such a background, could you not feel a bit lost, at least some of the time?
Yet stunningly, people continue to come, which certainly speaks to the power of the Holy Spirit, nothing less. The power of Word and Sacrament to bring lost people home, at least for a few moments, during Sunday morning worship.
In April, we made a trip back to the United States, at which time I got to know the four young adults who will come this August to be “Young Adults in Global Mission” in Hungary for one year. They are amazing young women and men, excited about devoting a year of their life to service in foreign land, in a foreign church, among people who they will not be able to understand for weeks, or months. (They are just-that-little-bit-scared-to-death about learning Hungarian.)
I know these four competent and intelligent young adults will get lost. More than once. And I know my family will get lost too. We head to Hungary this coming week, to visit the four sites where these young adults will live and work and learn and grow next year. Our trusty car, “Lola,” is not equipped with GPS. We will travel the old-fashioned way. With maps. And my spouse tells me I have ways to go before I would ever be chosen in a contest for “navigator.” We will certainly get lost.
And when you get lost, you are made to feel vulnerable.
But as a wise and beloved pastor recently reminded me, what it means to be Christian – on a deep level – is to welcome, even embrace vulnerability. After all, this is what God does in Jesus Christ – God enters into our human vulnerability, even to death. But somehow, we trust that in and through God’s vulnerability, we receive healing and salvation.
So perhaps there is something to all this getting lost. Perhaps I need to let it wash off my skin a little more easily.
Breathe deeply. Walk slowly. And prepare for getting lost (as it will happen.) But also trust that by the grace of God, I will be found. Again and again.