Category Archives: Pastor Miriam’s newsletters

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.

Advertisements

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.

 

 

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.

January Pastor’s Letter

This month I am having a hard time finding my place in time.

I find myself falling into memories of the recent past. The last three months of life here in Slovakia have been full.

Then there is the present. At this moment, it is actually snowing, which means that maybe Jeremy and I will find ourselves better able to live “in the present.” Instead, these last few weeks we have been anxiously-hoping-for-snow-and-trying-not-to-whine-about-it, but not-always-succeeding.

Then there is the future: We have come to the point that all long-term ELCA missionaries come to – the time of planning Home Assignment. This means that I find myself spending more time than seems possible or proper with my head in the future, writing emails to sponsoring congregations, calculating travel times (like from Spokane, WA to Sheridan, WY) and otherwise lost in months that do not even exist yet.

So here is my January pastor’s letter, in three parts, following from my addled state.

Part 1: Remembering things past

Esme was baptized on the second Sunday in Advent. To be a part of this powerful rite, her American godmothers, Jennifer and Josie, flew across the ocean. They poured water into the font during the Thanksgiving Prayer. Esme’s Slovak godparents, James and Jana, presented her with her baptismal candle (“Let your light so shine before others”) just before the assembly joined in a rousing “I’ve Just Come From the Fountain,” to welcome our new sister in Christ.

At the Bratislava International Church, we worshipped more than usual throughout Advent – gathering on Wednesday evenings to sing Holden Evening Prayer, and also gathering with the other three English-speaking congregations here in Bratislava (City Lights, Bratislava International Fellowship, and the International Baptist Church) for a special joint service of song and prayer.

Ursula would want me to mention her favorite Advent activities: The BIC Children’s Program at worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent, and (she would add) “don’t forget that we also had the Christmas program at my school!” She and her classmates trilled out Slovak Songs about little (baby Jesus) Jezisko, as well as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to finish the show.

Then came Christmas, and with it, many Blyths! Jeremy’s immediate family was (amazingly) able to come for two weeks to Slovakia. We were able to gather for multiple meals in our home with 8 adults and 5 children throughout the Christmas season. Ursula and her two older cousins spent the whole time dressing up, putting on shows, doing art projects, and even managing a little sledding and skiing, in the snow we finally found on a trip to the High Tatras.

Part 2: Living in the Present

There is a delight to returning to simple routines, though perhaps more delight for us who so often get to break them. We wake up; I make coffee; Jeremy drives Ursula to school. At the end of the day, we sit and eat what Jeremy has made for us; we bathe the girls, and put them to bed. I am more than a little excited these days, for I am now reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to Ursula before bed. (I am not sure that I am reading it so much for her enjoyment as for my own.)

In between dawn and dusk, I meet with congregation members, communicate (a lot) via email, plan worship, prepare to preach, lead Bible Study, write recommendations, meet with the BIC intern, talk with the YAGM in Hungary about their frustrations and joys, go for runs, try to pray – for the unity of the church, for the world in all its need.

But in the middle of the present (which has been rather grey — did I mention? – until today), Jeremy and I are also hard at work planning the future.

Part 3: Planning for the Future

Sometimes it seems simply wrong to spend so much time organizing for the future. If now is the acceptable time, and now is the day of salvation, then we do well to live in the now where Christ is surely coming to meet us, feed us, grace us with the very presence of God. We do well to settle into the flesh and blood reality that is for me life in Bratislava, late January 2014. Shouldn’t I tune my senses to the present? Taste daily bread (now); listen carefully to the people around me (now); hold my daughter’s hand as she toddles around the room (now)? Live today in all its mysterious grace?
But I am a planner by genetic constitution. My head is more often than not in the future. And while I do not always think this trait is altogether healthy, it is at least required in my work as an ELCA missionary. So I can feel so very justified – even if I wonder if this is how the Gospel calls us to live.

All that to say, we are planning trips, right and left:

In February, we will travel once again around Hungary for eight nights, to visit our young adult volunteers, make plans for possible new YAGM sites next year. I will also have my first experience of guest preaching in translation, at the Lutheran church in Szombathely.

In March, we will lead a Lenten retreat for this year’s YAGM’s in the Slovak mountains.

In April, I will leave Jeremy and the kids for 12 whole days (unheard of, for our family, though we know so many families who must deal with separation all the time) to go to California and Chicago. I will visit one of our sponsoring congregations, and take part in the yearly event where young adults interview and discern and are finally placed in YAGM country programs around the world.

In May, after we have worshiped our way through Holy Week and taken a few weeks of Easter to catch our breaths, we will all be off for two months of Home Assignment visits to more supporting congregations and of course, family and friends. The itinerary looks, you might say, brisk.  We are hoping to travel thru WA, OR, ID, MT, CO, WY, UT, SD, NE, IA, IL, MN, MI, IN, PA, D.C., NY, NJ, MD, and VA. We ask for your prayers as we prepare for this time: We will need all the health and grace that God can provide us.  (Of course we also think that traveling across the country for two months is one of the better ways to spend one’s time.)

I am living in past, present, and future these days. I wonder about all of you, to whom I am writing. I imagine it is a balancing act for you as well, a juggling act with time, wondering how to live in the present, when past and future are both pulling at you?

I am no expert. But these days, I am trying to regain my morning routine of Morning Prayer that has been somewhat disrupted since Esme’s birth:

“Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.”

And, “ In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

And, “Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

And, “Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.”

I join my lips with the prayers that call me out of my obsession with past or present or future, and root me in Christ. Who was and is and ever shall be world without end.

Death, Life, and Images from Romania

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.

September 2013 Pastor’s Letter: Snapshots from August

Fall is here in Bratislava. As I run along the Dunaj, the breezes blow cool against my red cheeks; the clouds above swirl, and whisper the shifting of seasons to anyone interested. These days, I dress in the sweaters that last year’s Intern Pastor gifted me before she left. (Thank you, Rachel.) Ursula is back at Slovak “kindergarten” — doing better than her parents would, functioning entirely in Slovak, 8 to 4, Monday through Friday. Esme, who is working on 10 months of life, is trying to stand up all the time, though she doesn’t have the brains for it yet. Falling down, yet again, she bonks her face and shrieks. She is not content to do what she has already mastered. Is crawling too boring, too safe? Are we adults any wiser?

 

I love fall. Always have. Perhaps because I was one of those kids who loved school with a passion, and fall meant new teachers and more books and uncharted learning. Still now, I love it. But even as we are discovering the pattern of our lives this our second fall in Bratislava, I do not want to forget August quite yet.

 

Here are three snapshots from the last month of summer. (Verbal ones mind you, I take terrible pictures.)

 

Snapshot #1: On the peak

We didn’t plan to be sitting up on a mountain peak in Berchtesgaden (in the Bavarian Alps) with both our daughters on August 6th, Ursula having gotten there entirely on her own two feet. We had woken up on that morning in one of those oh-so-European mountain huts that provide travelers with plentiful, filling food (and drink) and a bunk bed, at altitude, year around. We were eating muesli outside with other hikers, and were almost ready to head down the trail we’d come up the afternoon before. But we thought we’d go up just a little ways –just a little closer to the glacier – go up, and maybe find an alternate, less traveled path down the other side of the mountain ridge, which might connect to our original trail, and then get us back to our car (Jeremy loves to travel in loops).

And God help us (that is, God must have helped us), three hours later we had made our way to the top of a peak. We wrote Ursula’s name and age in the register at the summit cross. Another four hours later we had made our way safely down, helped by story after story. (I told a lot that day at Ursula’s request — traditional fairy tales and feminist-friendly ones – Tatterhood, and Three Strong Women, and Janet and Tamlin – in which there are thankfully no damsels in distress.) But on the peak, we reveled at Ursula’s stamina and strength, and let Esme out of her carrier to feel the rocks; and we ate chocolate and cheese and bread and a summit apple.

 

Snapshot #2: Worship with the Liturgists

A few days later, we had made our way to Wurtzburg, where the bi-annual conference of Societas Liturgica was taking place: Here were Christian leaders from around the world, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, all of whom care deeply about the liturgical life of the wider church. Our family came here as visitors, for the assembly’s central Eucharist. It was a Thursday morning. We gathered outside an abbey of Lutheran nuns, and Mark Mummert, the cantor (whom I have had the pleasure of knowing since I was 12), led us in a simple and powerful round: “Alleluia! Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus; with your Spirit, come to us.” We sang our way into the sanctuary, as the presider (our dear Gordon, one of Ursula and Esme’s three amazing grandfathers) sprinkled us with water, reminding us of the gift of baptism. (Or in Esme’s case, giving her a taste of what is yet to come in December, when, with both Slovak and American godparents present, she will at last be reborn to new life in Christ, through the waters of the font.)

The service continued inside. Our Gordon preached what we needed: the Gospel. Various languages echoed throughout the room during the distribution of Holy Communion, as all the assistants offered bread and wine to the assembly in their own tongues: The body of Christ…The blood of Christ…for you.)

It was simple really. God gathered us from all over the globe, opened our ears to the scriptures, fed us with grace, and sent us out, back to our lives. But not unlike climbing a mountain peak, it will never happen in quite the same way, ever again.

 

Snapshot #3: Holden Evening Prayer at the Penthouse

I admit that Saturday evening I was tired and sick. I didn’t have much of a voice, but still, I climbed the stairs to what we call the Penthouse flat of Palisady 48. The balcony gives you a 360 degree view of Bratislava. Stunning at sunset. That night, the 5 Central European Young Adults in Global Mission (who had just arrived in Vienna a couple days previously and the next day would head to Hungary for two weeks of intensive language study) and many of the ELCA volunteer teachers in Slovakia climbed up there, and gazed out over the rooftops.

We ate BBQ chicken, pork, salad and bread. We drank wine, or perhaps I only drank water because I was (did I fail to mention?) sick. The teachers and the YAGM’s were getting to know each other a little, and Ursula was close by the side of Ånna, the new intern Pastor Kyle’s spouse.

Then we passed around Holden Evening Prayer booklets, and with a wavering voice, I led the Vespers service that many of us had sung before in previous portions of our lives. Our song was buoyed up by those diverse communities that had taught us to sing “Joyous Light of Heavenly Glory” and “Let My Prayer Rise Up.” Assemblies – from Washington and California and Arizona and Saskatchewan and Minnesota – hovered at the edges of the balcony that night, filling out our voices, adding to our prayer. At our feet lay Bratislava and so many ventures of which we still cannot see the ending. When we had finished, we shared the peace and I left to try to get better before Sunday morning arrived. Sore throat and all, it was entirely worth it.

 

Dear ones, and all of you supporters of our family: I give you these August snapshots, shot through with what are life-giving threads in my life: Christian worship, mountain heights, and shared meals with friends and strangers. I pray these threads will continue to be prominent for me, and my family this year. Whatever those life-giving threads are for you, may they be abundant and strong, the whole year long.

 

 

July 2013 Pastor’s Letter: Sabbath

Summer in Bratislava has come. Here are a few images: Days of city heat (somehow dirtier than country heat) that translate into more ice cream for Ursula and more cold showers for her parents. Mornings of running before it gets hot, feeling the cool breezes blow off the Danube. Lots of salads topped with meat grilled on our little terrace by Jeremy (who has recently figured out a way to make chicken that gives us a new reverence for chicken). Seven month old Esme dressed in a onesie, sporting a smattering of mosquito bites on her chubby body, laughing, smiling, occasionally shrieking. Ursula, playing with friends, her legs covered with summer cuts and bruises, occasionally breaking into Slovak sentences that leave her parents open-mouthed.

 

Many things are on hold for the summer months at the Bratislava International Church – no Bible Study, no choir, no Sunday School. We rest from these activities. Yet on Sunday morning, God continues to gather an assembly. So we listen for God’s word in our midst, trusting that it is very near; we sing out our sorrows, and sing of God’s grace; we share the Eucharist meal, hoping for, tasting, week after week, the true presence of Christ.

 

 

 

 

Church continues, but we are also in transition. Rachel, this year’s intern, only has a month left in Slovakia before returning to her last year of seminary. Our Young Adults in Global Mission complete their last official day of service today in Hungary. Tomorrow, they travel here and take part in this Sunday’s worship. Then we’ll all head out together to the High Tatras to make an end of their time here. We’ll pray together, study scripture, and hike. We’ll reflect, and I hope this retreat also offers them something that one rarely gets living abroad for a year in a foreign land: Sabbath rest.

 

I find it wonderful and challenging that the Ten Commandments include a law about the Sabbath. Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. Of course, this commandment has been interpreted in countless ways. But for me, at root, it has two parts: The commandment calls us to actually make space in our lives for rest, and at the same time remember that true rest is only possible in and through God. Sabbath rest is always God’s gift to us, a gift that God knows we need.

 

Those who can and do keep Sabbath are blessed, for we have the ability to rest from actual work. Many are searching, longing for work that will bring food to their tables, and pay the rent for the month. Sabbath rest seems impossible until there first is work. Others work all the time, at home, at a shop or an office; there seems no end to the work that must be done. The only rest comes in exhausted sleep at night. Sabbath rest, holy, God-given rest, seems illusive, the property of the rich or the lazy.

 

In any case, I am grateful to God that in the midst of a Bratislava summer, our family was able to go away from the city for ten days. During that holiday, I was gifted with Sabbath rest.

 

We were up in the Maly Fatra mountains, staying with friends in some old wooden cabins, a 40-minute hike or jeep ride away from the nearest village. The grandmother — who has been coming to this place every year since 1968 — called it holy.  And though I believe that God can make any place holy, even the most vile and degraded corners of this earth, there is something about a cabin in the mountains — no email, no electricity, chop wood and carry water, soak in the cows and the rolling mountains and the sun and meals with friends. It’s not everyone’s idea of a vacation. But for me, it is indeed holy, Sabbath-full.

 

I sat on the porch and prayed Morning Prayer (though, I admit, it was getting on towards lunchtime), and I thought through every place I have ever called home, with Esme asleep on my back. Ursula ran free with a troop of little girls, helping get water from the spring, reveling in water fights. Jeremy chopped wood and lit fires and hardly cooked (a rare bit of rest in his life of feeding our family).

 

The place, Podsip, was special enough that we even left our coffee pot there – a little Italian percolator, that has traveled with us on numerous camping trips, to Guyana and back, and to every other place we’ve lived over the last 10 years. We left it there, so that others might enjoy good coffee in that holy mountain retreat, and in hopes that we might go back there some day and use it again.

 

Now we are back in Bratislava, ready to purchase a new coffeepot. But in all seriousness, I am ready to be here with the Bratislava International Church assembly and with the YAGM’s. I am ready to breathe out and accomplish the work that I am here to do, since I returned filled up with so much holy, Sabbath breath. My lungs are thick with it.

 

So my prayer is this: May God grant all of you some measure of Sabbath — this summer, and regularly, throughout your years.

 

Easter Season Pastor’s Letter, 2013

 

Here we are: Still held in the Easter Season, day 38 of the Resurrection Celebration if you happen to be counting. And it is time for me to write a letter to all of you who are reading now.

Somehow March and April have come and gone, with their accompanying and multiple frustrations, surprises, and joys. I’ll share one of each here.

First, a frustration, because life is full of them, even when you are a missionary doing God’s work with your hands.

My intern is in exile. She is out of Slovakia, in England for the time, while her complicated visa paperwork is processed and she is able to legally return to the country.

She wants to be here. I want her to be here. The Bratislava International Church and her students at the Lyceum want her to be here. However, as in so many other life situations, what we want now is not always possible, at least immediately. We have to wait. And wait, and wait.

But I rest assured knowing that though she is far away, she is safe, fed, and clothed. She has hosts who are her friends. Her experience – though frustrating to many of us — is so utterly different from the experience of true refugees and aliens, who live daily under harsh and adverse circumstances. So many are truly in exile around this globe, with little hope of return. So many are not safe or fed or clothed. So I pray for these, even as I wait for Rachel’s return to Slovakia.

Second, a surprise  (to remind those of us who like to pretend we are in charge that we are not). At the beginning of Lent, a couple from the Bratislava International Church approached me. They had been invited to the congregation by one of our regular assembly members. They had been worshipping for a while with us, though they had never come forward for communion. I found out they are a young, married couple, a couple looking for a religion, a faith to share which might hold their family in the years ahead. She is Slovak, but was raised during the Communist period, and had never been baptized. He was born and raised in Iraq, and grew up in a non-practicing Muslim household.

Now this couple found themselves attending the Bratislava International Church, and talking to me at fellowship hour about what it would mean to baptized.

So we began meeting. Week after week we met, and by the end of February the couple was clear – they wanted to be baptized, and yes, at this year’s Easter Vigil. Our meetings were moving and challenging. They asked great questions about the Trinity, about the sacraments, about who baptismal sponsors might be. I loved getting to know these two 20-somethings who were actually interested in learning about the Christian faith they were preparing to enter.

The Easter Vigil was full of surprises: I had anticipated less than 30 in attendance and around 60 came, including multiple children. We overflowed the candlelit room we’d set up for the Vigil readings. The children danced with me as we sang “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” and they provided musical accompaniment to the outdoor reading of the Three Men and the Fiery Furnace, next to a real blazing fire, with the rain falling down on our heads.

Finally we came into the sanctuary, and gathered around the font to baptize the couple that our assembly had been praying for throughout the Lenten season. I prayed the thanksgiving prayer, poured water over their heads, laid hands on them, and anointed them with a cross of oil. Just to remind us that baptism invites renewal, a dear 50-something member of our assembly affirmed her baptism that night as well.

The Spirit of God was surprisingly tangible, remaining with us as two new Christians took their first communion in a circle of people from Korea, Iran, Ghana, Slovakia, England, the USA, Denmark, and Norway.

Finally, a joy: We returned just a week ago from the yearly meeting north of the ELCA Chicago Churchwide offices, affectionately known  as DIP. The Discernment, Interview, and Placement Event this year brought together 65 young people, moved by God to serve for a year in communities around the world.

There is something about interviewing 10 young people in less than two days. As exhausting as the process is, I was inspired and encouraged, by these young adults’ energy, accomplishments, and stories. At the end of the weekend, I was able to invite 5 young men and women to join our program next year in Hungary.

Having one year (almost) of YAGM coordination under my belt, I can confidently say this new group of volunteers will be stretched and deepened by God, the Lutheran Church in Hungary, and the Roma communities they will come in contact with throughout their year abroad. It will be a joy for me to get to be a mentor, witness, and companion on their journey.

Of course the other side of this joy is preparing for the YAGM group of 2012-2013 to leave soon. We will journey with them to the High Tatras for a final retreat in mid-July. Then we will say goodbye, giving thanks for the ways that knowing them has blessed our family. I will be thrilled to hear what ventures of which we cannot see the ending lie in store for them.

February 2013 Pastor’s Letter

 

 

So we’ve reached the other side of the one-year mark. Last February 2012, we arrived in Slovakia and began settling into our flat at Palisady 48. We brought a two-year old Ursula, our tent for camping, and lots of wonder about what life abroad would bring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A year later, we have a three-year old Ursula, who comes home from pre-school singing songs in Slovak, and a second daughter, Esme, born in November, who is burrowing her way into our hearts, fast and furious. We have traveled (a lot) this first year, and have used our tent only once. (A remarkable statement coming from our family, were we still living in the American West.) But we have now learned that when you visit the High Tatra mountains of Slovakia, there are “chatas” in which to stay, not to mention countless hotels, pensions, and a variety of people who have opened their homes to us across Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria.  A year later, we are still full of wonder about what life abroad will continue to bring.

 

I have learned a lot this year, and continue to learn more daily. I am learning (sometimes smoothly, sometimes clumsily) how to balance my call – being both Pastor of the Bratislava International Church (part-time) and Coordinator of the YAGM program for Central Europe (part-time). How exactly does one do two things part time so that they form one complete whole? Perhaps I will know better a year from now!

 

Despite the challenges, I love the mix – even the messiness — of the call. Mentoring young adults on the one hand. Guiding a seminary intern on the other hand. Building relationships with Hungarian Lutheran pastors on the one hand. Welcoming strangers to Jesus’ table Sunday after Sunday on the other hand. Planning retreats for the young adults on the one hand. Preparing for weekly text study on the other hand.

 

A year later, I find myself deeply thankful for the time that my family gets to spend together, in a life where work-life bleeds into home-life (and visa versa) all the time. At one point, I thought I would always want to separate the two: Family and home life over here, work and pastor-ing life over there. But such separation is impossible here (even before a nursing baby entered the picture), and I am now noticing the benefits of the messy mix. One example: My whole family has shared dinner with multiple pastoral colleagues and their families in Hungary, while discussing the YAGM program and life in general. The kids – across language barriers– have managed just fine together, and perhaps we parents have learned something in our children’s company.

 

A year later, I also find myself so very grateful for my spouse, who is so clearly my partner in the missionary work we are doing, and for my daughters, who are making me feel – quite contentedly — middle-aged!

 

And now it is Lent, the season of baptismal renewal, the journey the Christian church makes every year toward the Great Three Days. Marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday, and “remember that you are dust” still ringing in my ears, I find myself living Lent in both parts of my call.

 

Here in Bratislava, we gather on Wednesday evenings to sing Holden Evening Prayer and read some of the great “water” stories of our scriptures. In true international church fashion, I am presently meeting with quite a mix of people who are preparing for their children’s (or their own) baptism:  the parents of a part Slovak-part English baby; the South Korean mother of a 4 and 6 year old; a recently married couple, one from Slovakia, one from Iraq, who themselves will be baptized at the Easter Vigil. It has been an amazing mix of baptismal conversations.

 

And soon our family will take five days, and journey to Strbske Pleso, Slovakia to meet the four YAGM’s for a Lenten retreat. We will take time to worship: we’ll confess our sins, pray for healing, and remember God’s gift of baptism to us. We’ll study some of the Bible stories usually read at the Easter Vigil. And hopefully, if the snow is good, we’ll do some skiing in the mountains as well. In this way, I hope to share a time of Lenten renewal with Matt, Dave, Kristen, and Ashley, and prepare them for the final four months of their service.

 

As we enter our second year of life as missionaries, I ask for your prayers as we continue trying to balance life and work in Central Europe. My prayers are with you as well, as you mark so many personal journeys during this Lenten time, this time between thick snow fall and green and growing things, this time of communal walking through the wilderness toward the land of milk and honey.

 

In the words of this Lenten prayer (ELW p. 65): Sustain us in our Lenten pilgrimage; may our fasting be hunger for justice; our alms, a making of peace; and our prayer, the song of grateful hearts. 

December 2012 Pastor’s Letter

On home.

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.