4/19/2017

Burnout And Birth

I wouldn’t have taken the whole thing so very seriously but fortunately others did. I came back from the UK last Tuesday and after having dropped my suitcase to my apartment I went straight to the office. I thought I was well enough to continue working just like before and that I could ignore the fact that I still wasn’t sleeping nor eating and that I had to battle dramatic mood swings daily. It was my auntie who raised the issue and spoke to I. (without me knowing about it) and called doctors and was generally very upset and concerned. I preached on Saturday morning in a small church and realised in the middle of my sermon that I was utterly empty, I didn’t even feel the usual adrenaline rush. OK, I took a mental note, it does feel like I might need a break. By Sunday I had come up with a plan and had summoned enough courage to ask I. if I could take the following weekend off. We’re not talking about a weekend here, I. replied, you need to take two weeks completely off, you need to go and see a doctor, you need a sick leave, and you need to deal with your problems. We’ll reschedule all your preaching and other work-related appointments, he said, and you are off to a vacation. He sounded quite resolute.

So here I am. I’m on a sick leave for two weeks with a burnout diagnosis. Never has this happened to me before.

If you had seen me on Monday morning, you would have laughed. I sat on my bed in my pajamas, totally serious and in a business mode. I had my phone in one hand and my calendar and a pen in the other. OK, I thought, how do we deal with this? This is serious burnout business here. We need a plan. So. First, call your GP. Second, call the psychiatrist your auntie has recommended you. Third, write a masseuse. Fourth, write your cousin and ask if his summer house is free and available over the weekend. Fifth, see if any of your friends are able to hang out with you or speak to you. I did all these things and now I have a glorious strategy to tackle my burnout and also to make the best out of these two weeks.

I will have the appointment with my GP on Friday (which really means that the length of my sick leave is still unsure). I have seen the psychiatrist (it just so happened that she had had a last minute cancellation and she was able to see me in two hours instead of two months – this is what I call A God Thing) and I’ve got the medicine I needed. I’m going to a masseuse tomorrow morning – as I hear from M, he’s the best masseuse in the entire world. :) I have been hanging out with my friends (or calling the ones who are far away) every day. Yesterday a friend invited me over for a lunch and I decided to walk to her place. I knew it was far – on the other side of the town – but I didn’t quite realise the distance until it had taken me more than two hours to get there. It was 15 kilometers, Google Maps told me later. But that was fine because I apparently have ALL the time in the world in my hands now, there is no need to hurry. I read books I brought with me from the UK. I try to eat. Tomorrow afternoon I’m off to Tartu, getting there just when my cousin’s family is leaving the country. They have gladly promised to give me the keys of both their lovely Tartu apartment (my home) as well as their summer house (my paradise). I intend to spend the whole week living there.

Burnout is a terrible thing for anyone to happen. It is a place of darkness and despair. Future seems a big black hole, meaningless and hopeless. Voices in your head keep telling you you should have been stronger, that you’re weak and unworthy, and in the end, no-one really cares. You shout to God and hear only silence. You struggle with the most simple daily things, like eating a breakfast. But it is also a time of rebirth and rediscovery – once again you realise that many actually do care, that people love you and pray for you. It is also the time for you to realise that the world keeps turning without your help. Things get done without you pushing yourself to the limit. And even if some things are left undone, no great harm comes from it. It is the time you rediscover the pleasure and beauty of simple things – of a couple of hours of deep sleep, of your favourite music, of a phone call from a friend you haven’t seen for too long, of long walks, of the strength of your muscles when you are well enough to hit the gym again (this morning). Of a friend who doesn’t say one condemning word when you call her on Good Friday and tell her you’re not up to going to church that evening. Of an auntie who calls you every second day. Of good books you can drown your sorrows into for a couple of hours at a time. Of God who keeps suffering with you.

Do say a prayer for me. But also, be glad for me. Rebirth is a reason for gladness and gratitude.

4/11/2017

The Hour And The Day

Time is relative, they say. And I believe they're right. Sometimes time drags - I just sat on a plane for three hours and it felt like six. Sometimes it rushes so fast you don't even know what happened to all these minutes and hours. And it can also be relative as to its quality. Some times matter, some don't.

I've been thinking a great deal about time these past days, about its relativity and its weight. And this is what I've come up with - if I try to sum up all my days and times of a year, there are two moments that stand out. Well, there is one hour and there is one day that stand out, to be more precise.

There is an hour that is so laden with meaning and significance it outweighs any other hour. These are those 50-60 minutes I spend in The Lady's counseling office in Newbold. It happens only once a year and every second of it is pure gold for me. These are the moments when I can be utterly honest, when I feel very safe and understood and appreciated, and when I can expect the words of life to be spoken to me. I met up with H. in her office last Thursday. On my morning walk from Bracknell to Newbold I kept thinking about that appointment, about that hour, and I realised at one point with surprise that I was rehearsing the things I wanted to tell her in my mind. And it wasn't because I didn't want to be spontaneous in her office, but it was because I knew I only had time for the most essential, for the most important topics, and I tried to cut out all that was less relevant and less important. When you have one hour a year, you don't have any time to waste. You can only talk about the things that matter the most - about things that are most hurtful, things that are most joyous, things that move you the most. And that's exactly what I told her when I walked into her office. I said, You know, H., this is the most important hour I have in my life. I wasn't flattering or trying to be nice, I was just honest. And she was very touched by it. Another great thing about this hour is that I can continue exactly where we left off last year. I don't need to explain myself, I don't need to tell her my story and where I come from, what I struggle with, she knows it all already. She knows me so well there is no need for any extra words. Maybe she knows me the best. And she cares. Heavens, she cares about me so much more than I deserve. I don't know why she cares so much, why she is so interested in my life and how I'm doing. But that magic that happens during the counseling session really is my lifeline. It gives me strength and it keeps me going. Quite literally.

When our hour ended on Thursday afternoon, she asked me if she could pray for me. Of course she could. She did and while praying, she cried. It was the second time she has cried with me and for me. It was so special I didn't even want to breathe. I just wanted to be still and stay in that moment for a very long time.

Next April, I told her when I wiped my eyes and left her office. I'll see you again next April.

What an hour.

And then the day. It shouldn't come as a surprise that it is the day I get to spend with Dr A. N. in London (or Oxford). I look forward to it for months on end. And so far our dates have never left me feeling disappointed. They are always packed with culture and books and excellent food. And again, a lot of undeserved caring and mentoring.

This time we met up on Sunday afternoon in London, A. having just returned from Bhutan. First she sat me down in a cafe and let me unload all my personal dramas from last year. It was sometime last summer when I started opening the door of my personal life and started telling her little things about what was happening, not being sure whether I had crossed any lines or whether she'd be even interested in hearing about my mess. But little by little she encouraged me to tell more, and gave her opinion and advice, very softly, sometimes through the prism of her humor and sarcasm. Now we have come to a place in our friendship where I can freely tell her about my dramas. And she listens.

Then we headed to the National Gallery to savor some world class art. It was Michelangelo this time. After the exhibition we would sit somewhere in the quiet corridor of the Gallery, resting and thinking about Michelangelo, and we came up with a plan on the spot - hey, why don't we go on a art trip one day. Why, yes, let's. Let's go to Rome. Yes. Rome sounds good. I've got some friends in Rome who could host us (said she). Rome it is then. I'm serious - I want to make this happen, if possible, during the next year. Right now I can't think of any trip that would make me happier. And then we raided a book shop. She would give me her recommendations and I would buy the books. But then she would pick up some other book from the shelf, and look at me, and go like, This book I'll recommend you in, say, ten year's time, not now. You're not ready for this one yet. And I felt like a little kid who can't watch or read grown-ups stuff lol! And then a lunch and some Newbold gossip, and a little walk, and then it was time to depart.

And despite my burnout (or a breakdown or whatever it is that hit me last week) and lack of sleep, I would sit on a Bracknell train in the evening with a big smile on my face. Also with a pile of books in my bag.

What a day.


4/04/2017

I don’t quite know what to say after perfection, that is after what I wrote the last time. Especially when anything I have to say this time will leave me looking like someone with a serious bipolar disorder.

But that’s the truth.

I came down to Tallinn and down to earth after Tartu bliss with a degree of reluctance. But things were alright. It was last Wednesday after I had had a lovely evening with M. in a cafe when something started to shift. I had walked her to her bus and on my way home I felt my mood changing and energy dropping, and I kept wondering about it as there seemed to be no reason for such a change. On Thursday I overreacted a big time when I got terribly mad at a good friend over a simple misunderstanding. That’s when I realised things were bad. And on Friday afternoon after a long and boring conference which I had to attend, I went to my office and had a panic attack. A strong one, for that matter. The kind that left me unable to walk for a while. On Saturday I managed a long day of teaching and lecturing but on Sunday I hit the bottom again - I got some news that knocked the air right out of me. I haven't eaten nor slept much for four days now.

That’s how much perfection there is in my life.

I still don’t know what or how this happened. I’ve got no explanation to give. But a doctor my auntie spoke to on Sunday said it looked a lot like overworking and burnout. He recommended two weeks off work.

Two weeks are out of question. But I’m in Tallinn airport at the moment, starting my week long Newbold trip any minute. And that is a gift straight from above, right at the time I need it the most.

I’ve been thinking about the whole experience, the blissful days I spent in Tartu and the last days I’ve been gasping for air and hope, and this is what I think.

We need good days. We need those days when it feels as if our feet didn’t touch the ground. God, we need them. They give light and air and fill our hearts with gratitude. But if I look at myself, there isn’t much I learn during these days, I don’t grow that much. I savor the moments and feel grateful and have a smile on my face while falling asleep. But goodness, how much I grow and learn during the times when news break my heart and when light seems to have gone out. Because they are the days I don’t have any energy nor wish to lie to myself, I can only hold on to things that I really believe in, all pretences are down, no delusions are left. If you asked me when I have learned the most about my faith and its quality, it wasn’t in the comortable classroom in Newbold with brilliant academics all aroud me. It was at my mother’s death bed. I’ve never learned so much about faith and hope as I did back then. And to a lesser degree, this is also what happened this past weekend. I learned a lot. About love and friendship, about the depth of forgiveness, about hope and future. About the grace of God.

I guess that’s why we need those days.

But brighter days are ahead, I am sure. There are friends waiting for me in the UK, The Lady and her office, the annual London date with Dr A. N. Sylvia’s Garden and Newbold library. Spring.

Such are the tides of life.

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.