“At that time, it came to pass that the old men of the neighborhood resolved to hold a Ngoma for me.”
“That time” was the end of Karen Blixen’s sojourn in Africa. She was forced by the failure of her farm in Africa to leave her adopted land and return to Denmark. The very old Kikuyu men wanted to honor her with a Ngoma, a rare ceremonial dance.
Ngomas had been forbidden by the government, yet a hundred dancers quietly gathered. Then, “Just as the dancers had ranged themselves for the dance, an Askari from Nairobi arrived at the house with a letter for me, that the Ngoma must not take place….”
At that time, when our days in Slovakia were running out, our young brothers and sisters wanted to send us off proper, but were forbidden by the government to congregate. Wanting to respect the authorities, but with stubborn love, they took counsel together. And so it came to pass that on the twenty-ninth of April, our last evening in Slovakia, we drove our cars across the Apollo Bridge to our trysting place behind the Economics University in Petržalka.
From there we walked through the Ovsištská lúky (“Oatmeal meadows,” saith Google) to the Ovsištská riviéra on the right bank of the Danube—an almost deserted area. In the tall grass not far from the water we spread our picnic blankets—socially distanced—and shared our last supper. Then, after the supper, the Slovaks opened their hearts. One by one they served up a dessert of memories of their lives with us, sweetened with words of affection and appreciation. I won’t tell you what they said, because you wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t believe them.
I again quote Karen Blixen: “When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them.”
When they finished, I tried to honor them in turn. I don’t know whether I did, because it’s hard to compose coherent sentences when all your energy is spent composing yourself.
I confess and admit for the public record that, when it was time to leave, we transgressed our social distancing in favor of warm embraces. And no Askari appeared from the bushes to arrest us.
On the contrary: a miracle occurred.
To understand the miracle you need to know about a short stretch of old highway 18 west of Kraľovany. The road tracks a few meanders to a long, wide, north-south, lake-like reach of the river Váh. There the swans gather. We dubbed it Swan Lake, because every time we passed that way (and we passed that way dozens of times) we saw swans.
Well, I saw swans. Paula reveled in them. They were her delight. As we approached she became alert, like a cat on the windowsill when a bird lands in the yard. She loved the swans like a child loves, and she had to count them every time. When she was asleep in the car and we came to her part of the river, I would nudge her and announce, “The swans,” and immediately she was wired, eyes wide and shining, nose against the glass, her finger touching and registering in the air each swan as she counted “twelve, thirteen—I see fourteen!” or, in winter, her voice rushed by the enormity of her task, “thirtyeightthirtynineforty—there are forty!”
Follow me back to the tall grass beside the Danube, where a small band of disciples are risking their lives for a hug. And there in the golden evening light, a troupe of Paula’s swans came to say goodbye. These magnificent white creatures gaudily splashed down in the water as close to us as they could, stretching their wings and necks in an angelic Ngoma.
We’ve reported to five churches so far, including a refreshing missions conference in Corpus Christi two weeks ago. In October we’ll venture “abroad” to Louisiana and New Mexico, piling miles on our Michelins. As I’ve prepared our presentations, I’ve spent many, many hours ruminating on our life in Slovakia, the opportunities, the friendships, the heartaches, the shared work, the lessons to learn and relearn. The years add up, and the memories break over me like waves, and my heart is swamped with a sense of privilege. Why was I given these fourteen years?
And the counting up of all that happened opens my eyes to the unperturbèd pace of God’s work. I remember our first day in Slovakia, arriving at our apartment to see the baby believer Marek making repairs to the roof, an awkward duckling of a 16-year-old; now he’s a shimmering swan and pastor of the church in Trnava.
There were Sisyphean seasons when it felt like nothing worked, and we wondered why we were there. We could be just as ineffective back in Texas. But stepping back to take a panoramic look at those years, I can see “the full moon,” as Karen Blixen might say, “throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me.” That is, if I look closely, I can see here and there shadows on the lives of Slovaks that look a little like Paula, a little like me.
I don’t mean to suggest that Slovakia was lucky to have us. Bonhoeffer reminds me that “It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others.”
There is a Slovakia-shaped shadow on me. We are lucky to have Slovakia.
Please thank God with us for his gracious gifts of friendship and shared service.
You may have heard the rumor that there’s a shortage of substitute teachers. Paula did some checking and, at least in Bryan, the rumor is fact. Being the kind of person she is, she’s now a substitute teacher for the Bryan ISD. Some days she’s a P.E. teacher, some days a music or science teacher, some days she’s helping with special-needs kids. Please ask the God who has so richly blessed her with his love and grace in Jesus Christ, to make her a blessing to the children and teachers she serves. And please ask him to keep her healthy.
Speaking of those dear Slovaks in Bratislava: remember that swell of visitors and potential members I told you about? It’s real, and as the school year and ministry season have spun up in September, Paradox is, as Tomáš described it to me last week, a different church from the one we left in April. Please ask the Spirit to grant to God’s children there the grace of the hospitality and humility that Jesus charged us all to imitate in John 13, when he filled a basin with water and began to wash his disciples’ feet.
One year ago we launched the residency program in Bratislava to train church planters and other leaders. This month they started year two. We have an MTW project that is helping to fund the program, especially seminary tuition and a stipend for a trainer in the Bratislava church. We need about $3500 to fully cover the annual stipend for the trainer. If you would like to help, please let me know. You can also make a gift at this link.
I’ve mentioned to you Lubica, the Slovak-American who after 30 years of exile in New Jersey is returning to Slovakia to serve with MTW in Bratislava. She has her tickets and will arrive Sunday morning, October 9 (D.V.). Please ask God to bring her safely to her new-old home, establish her among her brothers and sisters at Paradox, and give her harvest-basket-bursting fruitfulness.
On Sunday we traveled to Waco to witness the faithfulness of God from one generation to another: Augie James Greer, son of Karen and Daniel, grandson of Kris and Paula, great-grandson of Neal and LaVaughn, was baptized.
Now may our most blessed God give you the joy of seeing your own shadow cast on the lives of those you love and serve—and may that shadow bear a family resemblance to God’s Son, to whose image we are destined to be conformed, for God’s glory and our joy.
Kris (for Paula)
PS: You received this today because on this date fourteen years ago we arrived in Slovakia.