3/17/2017

Sheer Perfection

If I want to sum up or describe the last three days, only one image comes to my mind. It’s an odd one but it has to do. I picture Mary Berry tasting one of the Bake Off delicacies and saying emphatically, This is sheer perfection.

These days have been sheer perfection.

We picked up Dr G. P. from Tallinn airport on Tuesday afternoon. He is a wonderful and an equally strange man. He doesn’t like small talk, he doesn’t care about sightseeing, he seems to be not very interested about what’s going on around him, and at moments I feel very awkward around him. But it takes him less than two minutes on our way from the airport to downtown or from the hotel to the Seminary to start explaining the details of Christ’s redeeming ministry, past, present, and future to me. It’s as if he breathes Biblical theology, it’s as if this was the only thing that ultimately mattered to him. His daily bread. I’ve sat next to him in the class room for solid three days now, interpreting until half unconscious, and I see how excited he gets and how deeply these topics move him. I don’t think the students noticed but I have seen tears in his eyes more than just a couple of times over these days. It’s so touching and so beautiful it gives me goosebumps. And the good old Newbold feeling has come back to me, those moments when I would go to the Leading Motifs class and would sit on the edge of my chair and would look at the lecturer with my eyes wide open, and would think, My goodness, the Adventist theology must be the most beautiful thing in this world.

So half of these days I’ve spent in the Seminary with our students and some pastors from Estonia and also from Latvia. It has been a terrific course. But the rest of the time has been equally good. And I don’t know if it’s an objective reality and all the good things have just happened to happen to me for some inexplicable reason, or if this is purely subjective and I’ve finally reached the point in life when small things can bring great joy. Or if it’s a combination of both. In any case, the sheer perfection has also continued outside the classroom.

We came to Tartu on Tuesday evening and I landed at my cousin’s place again. As his family is on a longer vacation, I have their lovely apartment all to myself again. This place has grown to be such an important place for me, I caught myself calling it ’my home’ yesterday. It really has turned to be my home in a sense. It’s become my hiding place, a place that lets me breathe and lets me rest and lets me forget about my troubles. There are only a handful of places that can do this, and this is one of them. Every time I have my early morning cup of tea in this kitcen and see the bell tower of the nearby church, I feel a wave of happiness wash over me. I can’t quite explain it.

But I haven’t been hiding myself here, although I could have done it had I wanted. Instead I’ve been out having a late birthday dinner with my dad, I’ve been to the local gym sweating out the interpreting stress, I’ve taken a long evening walk near the place we once used to live in Tartu, I’ve been to a wonderful jazz concert with the Seminary’s principal and her husband. I also met up with a friend yesterday afternoon – it was sort of a coincidental meeting, not anything planned – and we ended up having a long and honest and good conversation. I hadn’t spoken to him properly for some time now and that ’let’s sit and talk’ thing really did good to my soul. Two hours passed like minutes. And when he had walked me home (see?!) and I got upstairs, I could hear the downstairs neighbor – who just happens to be one of the best jazz guitarists in Estonia – play his guitar. I would just listen, completely still, not wanting to make any noise or miss any note reaching me quietly through the floor, and would think, Sheer perfection, sheer perfection.

3/07/2017

Ecumenical Love

This week has turned very ecumenical, and it’s only Tuesday.

Ecumenism sounds so very boring but the truth is quite the opposite. It can be truly lovely.

We had the privilege of hosting the arch bishop of Estonian Lutheran Church in our office yesterday. The arch bishop is a wonderfully smart and sharp and witty man. I think the Lutheran church could not have done any better – they really elected the best man for the job. I have met him here and there, I’ve heard a couple of his speeches, and I see him once a month at the Council of Estonian Churches but we had never had any closer encounter. I hear he had declared some time ago in the media that he would like to get to know other Estonian churches better. Aparently ours was the first one he visited. We weren’t quite sure whether it was just a coincidence, an alphabetical choice, or curiosity. I personally suspect the last one – I think he was curious.

It was a nice and informal conversation we had with him. For the better part of the two hours he spent in our office, he wanted to know more about our structure and functioning. I didn’t have much to say. But in the end he was like ’So what about your theology?’ And then I did a happy dance (in my head, of course). So we told him. And I have to say this conversation made my heart so very glad. We told him about our theology and what and why we believe – and when I felt like I didn’t know how to go on, A. took over and then I. took over and by the bunch of us we were able to make it all very clear. And I was so proud of my colleagues and for the fact that we have come to a place where we can cherish our identity and explain it freely to someone as important as the arch bishop. There was no pride, no hitting or bashing with the Bible, it was balanced, it was friendly, but most importantly, it was Biblical to its core. Sometimes I get so very tired of all the theological fringes and fanaticism in our church. Then I find a lot of joy in conversations like these. There is a good and balanced way of doing theology, these moments remind me. What a relief.

Next time I’ll go to the Council’s meeting, I will shake the arch bishop’s hand with a different feeling. With a different confidence. And I might do another happy dance in my mind when I think about yesterday’s conversation.

With Mr Arch Bishop
But today I spent the whole day in the Seminary as it was the much anticipated and equally much dreaded accreditation day which all the colleges and universitites have to go through. There were a group of very serious looking people from the government and other universities who came to evaluate the Seminary’s progress and academic standards. I had to represent our conference since we have a contract with the Seminary and our students study there.

The place was like a war zone. The interviews took place in the library room in one wing of the building. The serious looking people didn’t leave that room even over the lunch time – lunch was taken to them there. We had our ’base’ in the other wing of the building, in the principal’s office. Groups of people went to the library room and then came back, and there was ever so much cheering and talking about how it had gone and what the serious people had asked and how the answers were given. A lot of coffee was passed around, and a lot of chocolate. We were serious too, and then we had good laughs which helped with the stress. Strategies were discussed, main points repeated. The president of the Baptist conference felt like praying. I too went over the important documentation and rehearsed my answers in my head because I too needed to know my stuff and do well, both for our conference’s sake as well as for my Baptist friends sake.

And the best thing about it was that I felt like home. Don’t get me wrong, I have a solid Adventist identity but it is just so cool to be part of such a process when you feel like your presence is appreciated and that you’ve become one of the Seminary’s family. The most of the Baptist conference’s leadership was present and no-one as much as raised their eye brow seeing me there, discussing Seminary’s future.

I had to leave before the ’after-party’ and sushi dinner to come back to Tallinn but I thanked the Almighty for all these wonderful contacts He’s given me across the churches.

This kind of ecumenism I love.

--

And I have a new favourite song - Coldplay's Everglow. It has hit a nerve in me. 

3/02/2017

I said I would explain why I was so tired this past weekend.

There are some processes that take so impossibly long that one can lose faith in them many times along the way.

It was in the summer of 2015 after I. had come back from the GC session in Texas when he told me about dr M. B. I had heard of this name many times but I hadn't met him myself. He's a professor in Andrews University and is considered to be one of the best scholars when it comes to issues relating to EGW and her ministry. He had come to I. and told him he was willing to come to Estonia and teach our students and pastors if need be. Now, these kind of professors don't go around, offering their services to conferences as remote and far away as Estonia. There's a catch - Dr B.'s mother-in-law was an Estonian, a war refugee who had fled Estonia after the Soviet occupation and who had made her way to the USA. She had married there and brought up her daughter in Estonian spirit. So Dr B. has family connections here and this is why hes has a soft spot in his heart for our corner of the world. Anyway, he said he'd come and teach an intensive course.

As this matter was in the jurisdiction of educational department, I was the one who had to get in touch with Dr B. I did. But the process was so long and so slow, a couple of times I lost all hope in this. Sometimes it took him a month to reply to my email, and when he did, we had serious difficulties finding a time that would suit both him and us. I grew rather tired of it and sometimes I'd forget about it for a long time. Until I. would ask me if I had had any progress. Uhmm, no. But I'll get in touch with him again, I'd say, sighing. And so I did. Finally we were able to pin down a date, and then proceed with smaller technical details. Translating course materials. Inviting Latvian pastors to join us. Taking care of bookings and reservations. I'm not a good administrator so it all took me an enormous amount of effort and energy. But on the 17th of February Dr B. finally arrived, together with his wife and daughter. The whole thing had taken more than a year and a half.

But it turned out to be worth all that trouble and work. I expected him to be good on the topic of EGW - I mean, he is a professor - but I hadn't really expected him to be that good and systematic. He really knew his stuff. And not only the academic stuff, he was also very pastoral, there were moments when it was obvious he had switched into his pastor's mode and he started half-preaching. It was very cool. So we spent three long days at Nuutsaku resort centre, listening to him. Four classes of 1,5 hours every day. We were pretty soft in the head by the evenings - especially me after all those translating hours - but fortunately there was sauna and there was the huge fozen lake for frisbee flying and there were some board games and there were friends.

I couldn't quite believe when it was all over. It was as if something I had been looking forward (with disbelief) for such a long time was suddenly gone, in the blink of an eye. I felt empty inside.

And that's why I needed that recovery weekend.

But the good thing is you don't have much time for emptiness in my job. Just yesterday I received one final email of confirmation (and plane arrival/departure times) from Dr G. P. He's coming from Newbold to teach us in two weeks time. And I'm so excited - I remember his Leading Motifs class, the last class I ever took in Newbold, and how it made me an Adventist again. I remember his genius, and how he would go over his class material and talk to himself quietly before the classes began. I remember how I admired him. And how he swung his arms and got into preaching mode as well, and how some "Amens" were heard in the class... And now he's coming.

I'm aslo in the middle of negotiations with Dr L. T. He has promised to come to Estonia too, either in the end of this year or the beginning of the next. If he does, if he preaches here and gives us a seminar on the Old Testament, dear heavens, after that I can resign from my job as the educational director with a light heart, knowing that we were able to host the best of the best of Adventist academics here. Pretty much all my Newbold heroes will have been here. Oh, wow.

2/25/2017

If I told you I believed there were no coincidences in life and that everything happened for a reason bigger than the happening itself, for some of you I’d seem like a wide eyed right wing lunatic, for some it might ring a bell and you might nod knowingly. It is a matter of viewpoint and of hermeneutics, and I am glad to let you decide over this question and choose the side yourself.

But there are two things in my life right now – and when I say ’now’, I literally mean today - that I cannot possibly categorise as coincidences. For me they look an awful lot like providence and grace.

First - books. Over these past three years when I’ve seriously come back to literature, there have been numerous occasions when I’ve felt like the right books have come to me at the right time. It hasn’t happened only once or twice, it’s been more on the opposite side of the scale – when I pick up a new book, I almost expect to find something from it which would directly speak to my life and circumstances. It has happened so often. And this I call providence. It happened with Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy which was the first book I picked up after my mom died, numb with grief and loss. It happened with Frederick Buechner’s sermon collection I read last winter. It happened with Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath which came to me through series of random coincidences (if you will) and which contained the right information I needed at that time for a lecture I was preparing. It happened a month ago when a friend told me to read Elisabeth Elliot’s Loneliness. And it also happened this past Thursday evening. I left Tallinn on Thursday, in desperate need for a break (why I needed a break is a matter of another post) and in the hope of a good long weekend away from my work and usual obligations. I landed at my cousin’s place in Tartu that evening and as I wandered through their apartment, I happened to pick up a book that was lying on a shelf. My cousin’s apartment is a place where they have always books lying around. When I’m there, I always sleep in their guest room which has tall book cases up to the ceiling, and I often take a long look at them. The book I randomly picked up this time was Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (google it!), an autobiography by a brilliant and extremely successful young neurosurgeon who one day was diagnosed with terminal cancer himself. It’s a book about life and death and the meaning of both, from a man who saw them from both perspectives – from that of a doctor and from that of a dying patient. The afterword was written by his wife Lucy after his death... I picked it up on Thursday evening and I finished it on Friday afternoon, and descriptions from it hit home painfully – I too have seen someone die of cancer, I too have observed the decline of health and the painful death of hope. I too have had to stand face-to-face with questions about life and death and about their meaning or meaninglessness.

When I put down the book, it felt like I was ready to do something I hadn’t dared to do so far – to write about my mom’s last days and her death. I had dragged my laptop with me from Tallinn, not sure it was a reasonable thing to do, but after Kalanithi’s book that decision made a lot of sense to me. Here’s providence again.

And the second thing – my cousin’s summer house. After a pit stop at their place in Tartu, I got on a bus yeasterday morning and headed to their summer house in far South. It so happened that they themselves had to go to the opposite direction. My cousin’s father-in-law, a well-known Estonian movie director, was celebrating his birthday on Friday, and they headed to Tallinn for the birthday celebrations. But they were kind enough to give me the keys of their summer house for the weekend. We tried to find any other cousin who could bring me here and stay for the weekend, but everyone had already plans made so I came alone. And thus I have the whole place for myself now. I’ve heated the sauna, I’ve cracked open the ice hole in the lake with an iron bar, I have read and drank tea and eaten chocolate, but most importantly, I have been able to open my laptop and a new text document and write about my mom. I would not have been able to do it if my cousin’s family or any other relative was here. Then I would have ran around with the kids and played board games or would have had to engage in discussions. But alone in this vast quietness in the middle of woods, I have been able to bring back the memories, and I have been able to write – write about the things I remember (for some things have started to blur in my memory), and the things I can bring myself to write about (there are some details about her last days and our last conversations I could never write about). I’ve done a fair amount of crying too, obviously. But that’s fine because there’s no-one here to see it.

The whole thing has been liberating and painful. And needed.

And this is what I can’t see as a coincidence – Kalanithi’s book, my laptop, and the little sauna house, all in one place over a long weekend. Providence. Grace.

2/08/2017

I'm sitting in a cafe near my home with my laptop and a book and a cup of chai latte, and I'm not sure what I should or shouldn't do with myself. I have a free day today. I can't be sure but I think it's the first day completely without work related obligations in three weeks. Sometime last week I began to confuse days because they had started to look identical and - I'm ashamed to say - the weekends didn't differ much from the weekdays. I was always attending meetings, organising events, or preaching sermons.

It's not a healthy way of living, they say. It's not balanced. People who care are concerned and I'm grateful to them for it. Dr A. N. tells me I should go away from Tallinn every now and then to rest. A., the secretary of our conference's ministerial association, talked to me last week after the executive board's meeting and asked me about how I was doing hobbies wise. I. asked... no, he didn't ask much, he just told me to take two days off and not to deal with work email until Friday.

But I have a couple of questions. And they're not rhetorical questions neither do I throw them in the air with arrogance. They're real questions. Why is balanced life important? Why do we think balance is something we ought to pursue? Is it an ideal? Why?

If I read the Old Testament, the people God called hardly ever lived a life we could call balanced. Heavens, there were some prophets who, I have a feeling, were driven to the brink of insanity and depression. Jesus was so mission and purpose driven it consumed all His waking hours - and maybe those of sleeping as well. Disciples, once they actually got what Jesus had been all about, weren't much different. And Paul was maybe the worst of the lot, he rode a donkey across Asia and planted churches everywhere, he got beaten by Jews, got beaten by Romans, got thrown out of cities, survived shipwrecks, and he never seemed to stop for a day. Only when in prison and unable to go on, he would write letters to his friends that smelled of melancholy and reflections.

Maybe these people didn't have anything in their lives that would have been nearly as weighty as their calling so whatever they put on the other scale pan, it just didn't weight as much so the life remained unbalanced. Now, I'm not comparing myself to the Old Testament prophets or the apostles of the early Christianity, but I think the same principle can be alive and lived also today. I really don't have anything in my life to compare to my work and to what I think God has called me to do. Nada. So I keep wondering about these questions, not knowing the answers.

If you have an answer, do let me know also.

There is one more thing besides the never ending working hours which has kept me wondering. I've begun to act in a peculiar way, I've noticed these past weeks. And it has something to do with this whole balancing issue. I know well what is ought to be or what usually is on the other scale pan - a family. And I know just as well that I haven't got a family of my own. So to avoid the emptiness and loneliness or just to be able to put something on the other balancing scale pan I have become much more active socially. I hang out with friends every other night. I have a small Facebook chat group called бабы в кафе which we mostly use for deciding which cafe we should go to next. I invite people to my place, a thing I seldom do. I call brother K. after a long and tough Sabbath and eat mountains of Indian food late in the evening - probably the first occasion of comfort eating in my life. I stand in the middle of an old graveyard late at night with my dad, trying to spot some owls in the darkness. Yesterday evening I went ice skating with our church planting group (it was -15'C outside and I wasn't exactly thrilled about the prospect of freezing to death but it actually turned out to be a fun evening although it did take a while for toes and fingers to melt afterward). This coming Sunday I'm going to a birthday party, not that of a friend, but that of a friend's dog (taking things to a totally new level here).

I'm reading Elisabeth Elliot's Loneliness at the moment. Reading that book is like taking cough medicine - I hate it but I know it's good for me in the long run. She talks about how our loneliness can be turned into a gift, into something you bless the world with. I don't know if I agree with her completely but it does help me to give purpose and meaning to my own experience. In loneliness calling can be clearly heard, out of loneliness many meaningful contacts and friendships can be born.

So I keep living the life of imbalance. It really isn't a bad way of living. 

And the good thing is that when my time is over, the world won't remember me by my loneliness or by my unanswered questions about balanced/unbalanced life but by my serving of God and church and by friendships and shared memories. 

1/22/2017

Here is the first update on my writing project. This update serves as a my inner reality check and accountability meeting but as I know that you guys are reading this post, in a way I can include you in that accountability circle and make the whole thing more real. If I'm left only by myself, not much will happen or progress.

Actually, now that I think of it, I can't say I've been left all by myself. It was about 1,5 weeks ago when I received a lovely message from M. She has lived and worked in Germany for a long time and although she remembers me from the time I was a child, I don't have any recollections of her from that time so it is purely a social media based friendship for me. I know she used to be a regular reader of my Estonian blog which I wrote during my Newbold years, and now she has switched to my English blog, and every now and then I hear from her. She wrote me and told me she was very happy to read about my New Year's writing resolution (which I still try to deny as such haha) and that she's looking forward to reading whatever it is I come up with in the end. It really brightened up my day and encouraged me to take this writing thing seriously.

Oh, and J. has made at least one comment on it and has asked me how I was doing. So I'm not alone after all.

This is how things are - I try to find a couple of hours of uninterrupted time each weekend for writing. It's not much so the progress is rather slow but it seems to me that I will be able to finish the first, uhmm, chapter by the end of this month. I have no idea how long a chapter ought to be but I'm aiming at 5000 words. (Newbold years trained me to think of any text I produce in terms of numbers - the word counting was pretty terrible sometimes in Newbold, I'm hoping things to be more relaxed now but one still needs a goal of a sort.) I know there are different styles out there, style-wise I'm keeping my eye on Rob Bell, Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott. And the blogging experience comes in handy too. If I took William Faulkner as my role model, 5000 words would make about 10 sentences. That's definitely not my goal lol.

I think the most challenging thing will be the regularity - sooner or later there will come a Sunday morning when I think I've got nothing decent to say or when I just run out of topics. How do you deal wih such a mental block and how do you keep working then, I have no idea. I guess it will be all about finding the inner discipline and a reason for continuing then - not worrying about the style or depth or quality of writing. There must be something that will make me sit down and open my laptop even during such a day. I am dreading that day but it is already on its way so all I can hope and pray for is endurance.

I visited M. a couple of weeks ago, we sat in her penthouse kitchen, drank tea and ate cake and had a truly lovely time. She's one of my few friends who has actually written and published a book. A successful one, too. Among other things we talked about books because for me she's a priceless guide to the world of writing - she has been to that world, done her thing, and come out with a precious experience. And she said something that got stuck in my mind - "If you don't enjoy the process, the writing itself, there's no point of writing a book. The most important thing about the whole thing is enjoying writing." My guts tell me it's true. I try to take this advice and really enjoy the process. Fortunately, these couple of weeks I've been to it, the writing really has delighted me. I hope it will last.

--

As to more mundane things, some plans for this year have changed. I remember telling you about the plan to go to Lebanon to see the refugee camps and to learn from their experience. Well, that trip has been postponed, partly for financial reasons, partly for security concerns. But as I got the news about it last week, it only took a couple of days for another trip to fill its place. The Danish Union will have their annual camp meeting in the end of May and the Union president has written me and has invited me to be one of the speakers there. There will be 800-900 people, he says, and I'm also expected to lead a workshop there. So even though I'm sad about Lebanon and hope this trip will take place some other time, I'm glad to accept the Danes' invite and preach there. And hang out with my dearest A. - it has been way way too long since we had proper time to talk and be together. It will also be a good practice before I have to stand on the big stage in Valencia in August and speak there.

Which reminds me that I really need to get down to the Youth Congress talk. That thing is starting to freak me out.

--

As to books, I've just finished Andrei Makine's Dreams of My Russian Summers. I didn't know it was possible to write so beautifully about countries. About people or God or experiences, yes, but about countries! It's a miraculous book about France and Soviet Russia. Beautiful and dreamy and at times excruciatingly tough (WWII and Stalinist Russia cannot possibly be a pleasant or easy topic).

I'm starting to run out of Dr. A. N.'s books.

--

And here's a picture of my favourite girls. We had a cake date last week.


1/14/2017

Sometimes I wonder why anyone should care to read my blog. From my viewpoint I rarely ever do anything extraordinary or have anything fundamental to say. Life is just a succession of ordinary days and ordinary events. But then I remember M.'s blog which I love to read, and I remind myself that I never leave her blog thinking it was boring, even if she describes the most usual and mundane things in her life. So here's another ordinary post about my ordinary life.

Once again I've dragged my suitcase back to my apartment after three days in Tartu. It was a good trip as it marked the end of the Greek course in the Seminary. The students (well, those who did show up) took the exam and now I can sigh with relief - it all ended well. I was rather worried after the classes finished in December as there seemed to be so much confusion and frustration among them and I started thinking that maybe I had indeed pushed them too hard or demanded too much. But the exam went well, thank heavens. The statistics was what it ought to be - out of fourteen students there were three people who have to give the exam another shot, four people (would it be mean if I mentioned that all these four were women?) aced the exam, the rest were somewhere in the middle. A classical example of Gaussian distribution. If they had all failed, I would have been the one to blame. If they had all got straight A's, well, then things would have been fishy too. But the results calmed me down, I did alright after all. Or maybe a bit better than alright - in the bottom of the last exam paper I graded I found a message that was meant for me - the student had written "Thank you for the excellent course" there. It sounded a nice cadence in the end of the semester. Now I can catch my breath and then start getting ready for the next Greek course, which I will start teaching in the end of April in Riga for Newbold Licence students. Long live Greek!

Other than teaching business, it's been, well, life. There have been good moments and moments I'd rather erase with a magical rubber if I had one. On Friday afternoon I had a longish conversation with a friend and in the end of the conversation we were both in the danger or drowning as I was crying a river for... I don't even know for what or whom. It felt a like a small breakdown. Out of the blue. Oh schucks. But then again, there were wonderfully good moments as well. On Friday evening I was invited to some friends place who had just recently moved to a new apartment and who wanted me to share the Word with them and other friends on the occasion. I had never done anything like this before and I was still recovering from my 'cry me a river' afternoon but it all seemed to go well and my friends appreciated my little dedication sermonette.

(Which made me think about how much we actually know about our pastors and what is going on in their lives. How many pastors have cried their eyes out and have then had to pick themselves up and go help someone else or share the Word with their congregation? Would we even want to know how often it happens? I don't know. Maybe not.)

Or the other moment - my cousin's little boys got table tennis bats for Christmas. They don't have the table though so in the evenings we had to use all of the floors and walls in order to play. They're all crazy about table tennis now and I had a blast playing with them. Again I left their place this morning with their hugs to warm my heart and with a kind invitation to go to their summer house again. My cousin cooked up a plan of a weekend with a lot of skiing and icehole dipping in it. I checked my schedule - my first free weekend is in the end of February and if we actually manage to make this idea happen, it would be a historical weekend. I have not touched skies since the last skiing lesson in high school - I absolutely dreaded and hated these lessons. They were one of my worst childhood (or high school) traumas, these PE classes. But if my cousin manages to make me ski again (he suggested downhill, not cross country which might make a big difference as I've never tried downhill skiing), he deserves a gold medal.

And here's the most common ending - an overview of books and music. I'm finishing Nevil Shute's novel A Town Like Alice tonight and I'm absolutely loving it. It's a very unusual love story, brilliantly written, an easy read in the middle of more serious stuff. And music wise - classical music! They have excellent play lists in those buses which I use to commute between Tallinn and Tartu, and it has long since become a habit for me to read a book and listen to classical music which makes these 2,5 hours go by as if it was just a blink of an eye. Today I enjoyed these two pieces the best: Puccini's Nessun Dorma by Jose Carreras and Gregorio Allegri's Miserere by the Claire College Choir, Cambridge.