No, not the golf course. Nor the university, nor the city. I miss St Andrews the cemetery in Bratislava. St Andrews is a garden of yew trees and cedars and crosses and flowers and marble. And quiet. Quiet as the grave, in fact. And I wandered there often.
I didn’t always wander alone. During the most recent wave of the pandemic, when it was forbidden to meet indoors, I elevated Jerry Seinfeld’s concept of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” to “Christians in Cemeteries Getting Coffee.” My favorite coffee in Bratislava was served out of a trailer outside the cemetery walls, so I would meet Martin or Lea at the coffee stand, grab my flat white, and step through the gate.
Comedians in cars with coffee can’t help being silly. Christians in cemeteries with (or without) coffee can’t help being sober. Surrounded by all those memento mori, the conversation must at some point acknowledge our mortality.
In the first episode of Christians in Cemeteries Getting Coffee I asked Lea, “What would you like to have chiseled on your tombstone?” I had to answer my own question, and that made me think about epitaphs as a genre. It seems to me that a good epitaph, in a single sentence or just a phrase, will provoke thought about not only the life of the one memorialized, but about the tomb reader’s life and death, and about God and eternity. (Pro tip: lines from pop songs, such as “I did it my way,” rarely rise to meet these criteria.)
The epitaph I drafted for myself that day didn’t quite satisfy me: “God kept him; God, keep him.” A testimony and a prayer, both of which I like, yet not provocative.
But allow me now, if I may, to provoke you: Imagine that you and I are sitting on a bench, sipping coffee in the spotty shade of a shaggy old yew, facing a marble monolith etched in incomprehensible Hungarian, yet marked with the immediately deciphered symbols of two four-digit numbers: the year of a birth, and the year of a death. And now leap ahead in your imagination to the time when your stone will be erected to proclaim your own two dates, your course having been run.
What would you like to have chiseled on your stone?
Jeremy Taylor says in his treatise on Holy Dying that “it is a great art to die well.” He goes on to point out, in grand prose, that one won’t die well if he puts off his training till he’s on his deathbed (rather like taking up chess the day before the big tournament). He says learning the art of holy dying is strenuous work that one must tackle while he still has strength and vigor.
When I was in the fourth grade, our class read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and I was not only terrified, but for a season gripped by a morbid fascination with the macabre. My adolescent reading led me through Poe and eerie 1930s pulp fiction to a book of horror by H. P. Lovecraft. No matter how hard I scratch my head, I remember nothing about the last of those except his name, and I only mention it because I find it suggestive.
Lovecraft. Love-craft. Love as craft. The craft of loving.
It’s a name worthy of meditation. It suggests to me the medieval craft guilds, masters and journeymen and apprentices, knowledge and art and skill worked into a disciple through long days of expert instruction and arduous directed praxis. I see Christ as the Master and us his disciples as apprentices and journeymen in his holy guild. Learning to love demands sweaty effort.
Think about Jesus’s work with his disciples. His teaching, his examples, his testing and correcting seem designed to shape them into crackerjack lovers. Think of his words on the night of his betrayal as the condensation and recapitulation of his message. John points us to the Master’s love: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” [13:1]. The Master stoops (immeasurably far!) to wash their feet, and says, “Copy me. Trace the lines of my life.” He calls it the New Commandment: “Love one another, just as I have loved you.” He says that all people will recognize them as his apprentices by their stoopefying love.
Well, I’ll let you ponder the implication of love-craft and artisanal love and your role as apprentice to the Master. The implications for me are on my mind, so I ask you to pray for my apprenticeship. My own mulling makes me realize that an apprentice of Jesus should stoop lower than I have, if he’s going to submit himself not only to the Master’s instruction, but his correction. So please ask the Spirit to work humility into me and make me the Master’s stoopefied apprentice.
We’ve been in Texas a month now, but we haven’t forgotten our Slovaks. I’ve led a theological reading group discussion with several of them, we’ve had a virtual lunch with others, and Zoomed with our community group for a warm greeting. I’ve coached our interns in their preparation to lead an upcoming class, and Paula continues two of her weekly discipling meetings with women in Slovakia.
We enjoy keeping up our connection with them, but it stings. We miss our beloved Slovaks. And Sunday we missed their public celebration of becoming a particular church. I’ll let you imagine the heartache of that. But also give thanks to God for the great things he has done with his small group of apprentices in Bratislava. Pray for them—elders and sheep, interns and trainers—that they would continue to master the craft of Christ-like, stooping love. And thank him for giving us the privilege of serving among them.
Being on this side of the Atlantic also has its advantages. Please thank our Heavenly Father for his kindness to our family: for the ability to be at Kristofer’s first birthday party, for almost daily times together with my parents, and trips to Waco and Houston to be with children and grandchildren. God is good!
Now may the God who is Love master your heart with his love, until his love flows deftly from your stooping heart to your foot-scrubbing hands, and into the lives of everyone you meet.
Kris (for Paula)
PS: I closed my letter last month by wondering where home is. We’ve been in this empty house a month now, and even without our stuff it’s starting to feel familiar. Our container is scheduled to show up at our door on June 10, and the real settling in should begin. We’ll be able to invite people over to our place for a change. That’s a step toward homeness we long for.