Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Garden of Christian Community Part II

        Early on during my time in Estonia, I bought myself a pad of paper and a small watercolor kit at the local grocery store, with the intention of using them to spend my free time The first painting was of the ruined Orthodox church I blogged about earlier.  As I spent the afternoon working on it, I reflected on where the church is which resulted in the blogpost.  I’ve been meaning for a while now to paint again, this time reflecting further on the ideas raised in the blogpost about the garden of Christian community.  When the paint of this reflection finally began to leave its mark on the paper, I learned another important lesson about what it means to be part of Christian community.
        As I painted, I was surrounded by the two young girls were each working on their own painting.  Having spent an hour working on perfecting her painting, Mim let out a cry of frustration as she looked at the three skinny petals on the flower she was drawing in pen.  She had been aiming to outline the broad petals of a sunflower and began to fall into paralyzing despair that what she had done didn’t match up to what she had envisioned.  I tried to reassure her that the flower was still beautiful and added to the allure of the picture overall.  Realizing that this tactic wasn’t giving her the hope to lift the brush again, I offered to finish sketching out the series of skinny petals.  I made this offer with the assumption that she looked up to my artistic abilities (although they are equal if not surpassed by hers) and would be encouraged that I wanted to take part in what she was working on.  She didn’t accept the offer for me to add to her painting until I asked her to fill in the empty center of a sunflower on mine.  As we exchanged paintings again after making the requested additions, she eagerly began to paint her picture with renewed enthusiasm.  Looking at my painting, I saw a visual reminder of the beauty of Christian community that takes form when we let others into our lives, particularly as the painting reminds me of the events that occurred during the painting process which left their mark on the final product.
        Another story that conveys a similar beautiful growth from a faithful community is that of Ruth.  Having committed herself to Naomi as Naomi was in despair, Ruth finds herself waiting to be married to someone who will carry on the name of Ruth’s late husband.  When Boaz, whom Ruth has offered the position to, offers it to another man who has first-dibs, the other man rejects it as soon as he realizes accepting it would be a risk to what he had planned out for himself.  Inviting Ruth and Naomi into his life, which undoubtedly changed his own plans, Boaz takes Ruth as his wife and they have a son who will become the grandfather of David. 

        While we may catch glimpses of the beauty of community when we let others impact our lives, God may be doing more through our devotion to one another than we could even imagine.  Acts 2:42-47, a Christian community is portrayed where they are clearly invested in one another lives, not just with the excess they don’t need to keep for themselves, but rather with all that they had.  They saw some of the fruits of this community in the numbers that were being saved, but think of how surprised they would be if they had known how many people their story would inspire.  The call to community is not just a call to help out, it is also a call to be willing to be helped yourself, to be known, and to end up looking back on the picture of your life and see a beauty that can only be created by community.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Sustenance of Stories

This past week was Rapla’s English Camp.  As the anticipated camp approached, I spent time reflecting on my camp experience last summer with Hume Kauai.  Most of what I remember from Hume Kauai is tied to a video shot by professional videographers throughout the camp.  The high-energy video highlighted the best moments of camp with shots ranging from kids yelling from inside bubble balls to kids sharing their testimony of how God made Himself known to them during the camp.  With the Hume Kauai video in mind, I spent my waking hours, which far outnumbered the precious hours of trying to sleep on the school’s hardwood floors, filming short clips around English Camp.  By the time camp was over, I had a few memories of where God gave growth to the work put in (1 Corinthians 3:6), such as an unanticipated invitation for the people at camp to play soccer against the local youth (the camp team lost, but connections were made).  As the other intern and I pieced together a video the day following camp, I was reminded though of the many ways that God created visible growth which served as yet another reminder for how some of the seeds planted may yet yield such visible growth in the future.

As I read through the Old Testament in preparation for seminary, I am struck by how many times the history of what God has done up to that point is recounted to the Israelites.
For example, in the last chapter of Joshua, a brief summary of what God has done to bring the Israelites into the land they are just beginning to settle into is recounted.  The account of what God has done is immediately followed by a command for the Israelites to serve the the LORD alone.  The Israelites affirm that they are willing to take up the command and the covenant is renewed.  Notice that the telling of what God has done has a purpose, namely to showcase God’s character and inspire trust.

This week will turn another chapter in my life story as I conclude my internship in Estonia.  The stories contained in the concluding chapter will still play a role in how I live into upcoming adventures (see blogpost on embracing culture).  The stories that influence me though are not only those that I’ve personally experienced, but also those I hear from others and those I read.  As I’ve attempted blogging about my adventures this summer, I’ve found several stories from the Old and New Testament to be helpful in providing me a framework with which to think through my experiences.  Stories, even really old ones, are active and crucial as encouragement and sustenance as one grows into their identity in Christ.

The video of the English Camp: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObWSxdbD--8

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Roadtrips and a local highlight

I've enjoyed having the opportunity to travel throughout Estonia this summer.  Recently, the pastor took the interns on a trip to the two largest islands, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, where we learned about the history of churches on those islands and the construction of windmills.  A few days later, we joined several other families from the church on a church camping trip on the shore of Lake Peipsi with an excursion to Narva.  Here are a few photos from those ventures:


(An Estonian castle on the left and a Russian one on the right)

Between these extended explorations, I enjoyed a day of rest in Rapla.  As I walked through town that day, I thought I would see if the Lutheran cathedral was open to visitors (I had been inside once before).  As I approached the open doors, I heard the joyful roar of the organ and was greeted by two elderly women as I stepped inside by the info desk.  Neither of them spoke English and I realized in that moment that I really should know how to say 'I don't speak Estonian' in Estonian (for the record, I do know a few phrases and can count to ten in Estonian).  After trying to speak to me in Estonian for some time as I tried to do my best bewildered smile, they motioned for me to walk further into the church.  After enjoying the organ rehearsal, which was now being accompanied by a male singer, for half an hour, I went to leave and passed by the info desk to say thank you.  The women tried to talk with me again and though I still could not understand any of their Estonian, I was able to read their non-verbals enough to gather that they wanted me to sign the guestbook, which when accomplished seemed to please them.  They each reached into their purses and pulled out bags of Estonian candy to offer me a piece and didn't take 'no thank you' (a phrase I know in Estonian) for an answer.  I walked out of the church laughing at the humor of the whole experience and treasuring the feeling of being loved despite the lack of a shared verbal language.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Working in the garden of Christian Community

Surrounding almost every Estonian home is a masterful garden.  When the weather is pleasant, I often see Estonians tending to their gardens and other outdoor projects.  The other day the pastor invited the interns to help out with a project in his yard the following day.  He texted us the morning of to say that he might start on the project that afternoon since it was raining that morning.  The rain, however, continued to fall throughout the day. I met up with the other intern that evening for the church worship service and we walked over to the pastor’s house afterwards.  We found the pastor taking a break, standing by a pile of burning wood, having worked most of the day on the outdoor project.  Despite the unaccommodating weather, the yard was being improved upon so that even more work could be done on it when the weather was more pleasant for being outside.

When do we invest in the life of the Christian community?  Do we wait for the ideal weather to come along when it is pleasant to be in the midst of such community, rather than being present and active even when the community doesn’t meet our ideals?  

In Matthew 14, the Jesus’ disciples urge him to send the crowds away that they may buy food for themselves since they think they don’t have enough to share.  Jesus instead tells them to give what they have (five loaves and two fish) to him, blesses it, and the crowd partakes in it and is satisfied with extra leftover.  In Matthew 15, Jesus again is with a crowd in a desolate place.  Rather than sending them away hungry, he tells his disciples to give them something to eat.  Again the disciples question how they could possibly give anything since they only had seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.  Jesus takes what they give him, blesses it, and the crowd’s empty bellies are filled.  By the time we reach Acts, it seems believers have finally caught on when we read in Acts 4:32-35 that believers shared everything they had so that no one among them was in need.  In these situations, the context is not what we might call ideal, yet by using what people contribute, God works through those situations and shows Himself sometimes even more fully than if those situations would have been ideal by our poor standards.

Dieterich Bonhoeffer in the book Life Together writes, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”  When is the situation ideal to invest in Christian community?  This is not a question that we are invited to ask.  Instead of being invited to ask and dream, we are called to participate, even when it is raining, and hope.  Bonhoeffer continues, “The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.” Bonhoeffer also writes, “Human love breeds hot-house flowers; spiritual love creates the fruits that grow healthily in accord with God’s good will in the rain and storm and sunshine of God’s outdoors.  The existence of any Christian life together depends on whether it succeeds at the right time in bringing out the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and human community.”  Even in the rain, we are called to be gardeners and nurture that community which God is sustaining and growing.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Processing through Photos

One of the things that I've enjoyed about this fellowship is having the time to process what ministry looks like in several different forms.  One of the ways that has helped me to think through some of the unique aspects ministry is photography.  Here are a few photos from my recent ventures along with questions that I have been pondering.  

What does it look like to treasure the beauty in the process of ministry?

Where is the Church visible?

Do we focus too much about preparing what we think will be big fires (such as delivering a great sermon or hosting a fantastic summer camp) that we ignore what seems to be small fires (such as day to day interactions with youth, members of the church, and broader community)?

What does it take to see things from a new angle?

Do we worry too much about momentary discomfort that we miss out on what could be a revitalizing experience?  (Note: I did not miss out on swimming in the Baltic)

Another blog post, like the previous ones, coming soon...

Friday, June 17, 2016

What happens when we lose our shell?

The other day we went out on a small road trip to the neighboring villages surrounding Rapla.  Nestled in one of the thickets near such a village stood a church, ruined through weathering and neglect.  There is a particular history behind how the church came to be in such a state, though I pondered the broader question the scene brought to mind: is the church too much like a snail, defining its existence by its shell?

By outward appearances, Joseph seemed to have a good beginning of life.  He was favored by his father, exemplified in his unique coat, and received dreams in which he saw himself in a position above the other members of his family.  When his brothers grew jealous they sold him into slavery after stripping of his coat.  They dipped the coat in blood to make it look as though Joseph had been killed, causing their father to enter into mourning.  The destruction of Joseph’s outer life, however, led him into a position where he was able to provide for the needs of his family.  In his speech self-revealing speech to his brothers, he states “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5-8a, ESV).  Joseph saw that the destruction of his earlier life led to him being able to apply himself in a new context where he was able to better help others.  In this speech, he recognizes the authority God had throughout the entire process.  

The church, once given a beautiful building/coat/shell, has been stripped of its exterior.  Where might God be leading the Church (which remains committed to Christ as its head) that it may better reach the lives of others?

(Link to a study done about the history and current proceedings about the pictured church and others like it across Estonia: http://www.ainova.sk/files/file/BHCD%20Abandoned%20Buildings%20and%20Public%20Involvement.pdf)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Active Anticipation

        For my last exegesis paper as an undergraduate student, I researched the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac found in Genesis 22.  The professor of the course had encouraged us to focus on ways in which our texts showed humans wrestling with God, which had been the theme for our course.  Whereas Abraham seems to not contend with God and instead comply with God’s odd command, I argued that Abraham was arguing with God through his obedience.  Abraham’s ready obedience was a display of his active anticipation and hope that God would follow through on His promises (Hebrews 11:17-19).  
        As Abraham prepares the altar on which he would nearly sacrifice Isaac, the narrator slows down the narrative and focuses on the details of what is going on.  The detail-oriented phrase ‘and he arranged the wood’ also appears in 1 Kings 18 where Elijah is in the midst of preparing an altar onto which he will soon pray for God to send fire.  In both circumstances, the people are expecting God to act according to His previously revealed character (Abraham: God will keep His promises, Elijah: God hears and responds to prayer).  These are not instances of idle expectation, but rather are acts of active anticipation.
        I was reminded of the stories of Abraham and Elijah arranging the wood as they anticipated God to act on my walk to church last Sunday.  Like several cities in Estonia, Rapla is preparing for St. John’s Day, the longest day of the year, by building a giant bonfire to be lit that night.  I had observed locals coming to the pile and adding their sticks, logs, ladders, fences, and other yard trimmings to the growing pile.  They are expecting the fire to be lit based on what they have witnessed in previous years and responding to that expectation by their actions.  
       What does such active anticipation look like in ministry?  In his book Homiletics, Karl Barth describes preaching as being in a chronological place between two poles.  The first pole is the revelation of Jesus Christ, which he calls the “unconditional whence.”  The “unconditional whither”, the second pole, is the second coming of Christ.  This same spot is occupied by ministry in general.  We point to Jesus Christ in both directions and expect God to continue to make Himself known to people during the space between the poles.
        As I participate in ministry in Estonia, I am arranging my metaphorical sticks and adding them to the pile that is growing here.  These sticks include building relationships with people inside and outside the church, learning the language, and finding ways to serve.  Like the physical bonfire that is growing in the public park, my sticks are contributions to a larger pile of sticks laid down by people, both past and present, who have this active anticipation and hope, based on the unconditional whence and whither, that God will show Himself to the people here.