New Horizons

Ending the Student Era

For basically the entire time I have lived in Austria I have been a student – first at the University of Music and Performing Arts and then the last eight years at the University of Vienna. There is a certain irony to this: I still remember walking across campus as an undergrad student, having just turned in my last paper, and feeling as if I were waltzing across a cloud. Such relief! Never again would I have to write a college essay! …A couple years later, however, I somehow ended up at the University of Tennessee, writing several more essays and also playing a lot of nerve-wracking piano performances. Back then, when anyone asked about whether I wanted to go on to do a doctorate in music, the answer was an emphatic no! …Then I ended up in Austria and nearly ten years later, I’ve added a master’s degree in Religionswissenschaft, which included writing one big essay to beat all previous essays. Lately, when anyone asks me about further study, I say that if I start to exhibit symptoms of such aspirations, they should immediately consult a psychiatrist on my behalf.

The last big hurdle of the study program was, of course, writing a thesis. After brainstorming a number of topics, discarding one I thought was quite promising but that didn’t meet my supervisor’s approval, I ended up deciding on a topic relating two major interests: music and church, or more precisely: “The Role of Music in Church Services of the Freikirchen in Österreich, with Special Focus on the Congregations Located in Vienna.”

It’s worth mentioning here that the way church functions in Austria at a denominational or confessional level and in relation to the state is utterly different than in the U.S. To be as concise as I can, for a very, very long time Austria was staunchly Catholic. Although Reformation teaching was very popular in Austria, it was suppressed by the Hapsburg state, with Protestants either emigrating or going underground. Eventually, the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions gained recognized status, but many Freikirchen (“free churches,” with historical and theological ties to the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation), long remained officially unrecognized. …Who cares? Well, one (of many) reason(s) that may surprise American readers especially is that being an officially recognized religion means the right to offer confessional religious education in public schools.

My thesis project focused on a coalition of five denominations that jointly gained official status as a recognized church in 2013. These denominations hold in common foundational theological and ecclesiological convictions, yet vary widely in other respects, such as understanding of the gifts of the Spirit. Partly because the coalition is a relatively new development, which hasn’t yet been thoroughly researched, it is of interest from a religious studies perspective. And because of my background in music, as well as involvement in weekly service planning in my church (not part of the coalition, due to baptismal practice and different church governance structure, even if similar in many other respects from theology and general church culture), I settled on a topic relating to music and the weekly church service. And since that is obviously too big of a topic, I focused in on the perspective of pastoral and musical leadership.

What proved really daunting was trying to do justice to a massive topic in a way a) that would be credible and accessible to the religious studies department at a secular university (albeit a sub-department of the Catholic theology institute), b) that would honor the musical and pastoral leadership and the local congregations of the denominational coalition which was the focus of my research, and c) that would honestly reflect my own observations, conclusions, and also open-ended questions arising out of interviews, questionnaires, church visits, and song repertoire analysis. No doubt precious few readers will want to tackle the whole thesis (totaling about 75,000 words and 180 pages, if you count all the footnotes and bibliography, etc., etc.!), but perhaps of interest to some is the official abstract:

This master’s thesis explores the role of music within broader aesthetic and liturgical practice in church services of congregations of the denominational coalition Freikirchen in Österreich (FKÖ) located in Vienna, Austria. Primary research methods were expert interviews conducted with pastors, questionnaires completed by music leaders, participant observation of church services, and analysis of lists of songs sung in congregations over a three-month time period. An anonymous church member survey was also conducted. The FKÖ was recognized in 2013 as a gesetzlich anerkannte Kirche (“legally recognized church”) but traces its roots back to the Anabaptist movement within Protestant Reformation history. The five member denominations are united around key theological doctrines (Jesus as Lord and Savior, the authority and dependability of the Bible, the universal Church united around the Apostles’ Creed, the mission of the Church) and classic free-church emphases (personal conversion with believer’s baptism, autonomy of the local congregation, separation of church and state). Church services are a central expression of faith and practice and exhibit individual and communal aspects of a multifaceted understanding of Christian worship. Services are generally characterized by an informal atmosphere, falling along a spectrum from “familial” to “trendy.” Service elements, with special emphasis given to the music and sermon, are embedded in flexible liturgical forms. Music in church services draws from numerous sources and is especially influenced by current trends in global Christian music. Songs within this contemporary repertoire draw both on core doctrinal content and on vocabulary of individual experience and lend themselves to flexible instrumentation and to unison singing. Diversity at a denominational and congregational level is showcased in varying degrees of emotional and gestural expressiveness and by a continuum of musical styles ranging between “collective” and “concertlike.” Nevertheless, congregations share extensive crossover of actual musical repertoire and manifest a consistent emphasis on the primacy of authentic worship. The aesthetic and musical elements of church services of Vienna congregations of the FKÖ illustrate historically and theologically rooted characteristics that find resonance in contemporary worship practice of broadly defined free-church Protestantism in German-speaking Europe and beyond.

With the thesis turned in on April 1st (and no April Fool’s Day joke!), I had a few weeks to prep for the Abschlussprüfung, which included a short presentation of my thesis, plus two topics for longer oral examination. This was quite a good experience overall: The two exam topics were 1) millennialism (i.e. End Times as understood by, but not limited to, various Christian traditions) and 2) perspectives on Jesus in Judaism and Islam. The latter question was especially fascinating! Although my thesis was written in English (with tons of German footnotes), the final exam was in German, which felt like a good way to conclude a degree at Universität Wien.

After the exam was over, I sat for a long time in a beautiful garden next to the university — enjoying the warm spring sunshine, talking on the phone with Hannah, having two acquaintances happen to wonder by and getting to chat a bit. In the evening I went out for dinner with a group of friends, and then we enjoyed fancy cocktails in an equally fancy hotel bar. Quite fun! (The photos were unfortunately taken after a few friends had already left.)

Hats Off

While it would have been nice to immediately go on holiday, the weeks since have been pretty intense. I said goodbye to the Ukrainian woman who lived with me for three weeks but decided to return to her home city, wrote two book reviews for my thesis supervisor, and rehearsed for a trio concert that took place this week. I also tied up lots of loose ends for my job at church, which I am leaving at the end of this month. In fact, today was the last morning working side by side with Susanna, the friend who is taking over the job with fresh energy and real expertise.

While the admin assistant position has always been very part-time, it has been the focus of a lot of my thought and energy, and the role has grown and changed a good bit over the last seven and a half years…including everything from posting sermon files to the church website, to keeping up with internal and external correspondence for a growing congregation, to helping prepare portions of weekly service liturgies, to managing the church calendar, to making sure there are enough Cherrios on hand for the nursery, to sending out a bilingual weekly newsletter.

It’s been a real privilege to observe a growing church from the vantage point of a staff member! It’s also become clear I can’t stay on in the same capacity long-term: With my studies completed, I need to find a full-time job that allows me to have a work visa instead of a student visa. Additionally, I’ve increasingly found it difficult to wear the “church member hat” and the “church staff hat,” however compatible they may at first glance appear to be. So I decided at the end of April to take one hat off. Easier said than done!

While the last weeks have been challenging, there have been very good parts. One of these has been working with Susanna, enjoying a series of mornings at the same desk, sharing a delight in detail, and finding humor along the way. There was a very special staff lunch last week with my two pastors and their wives, plus an impromptu visit with the assistant pastor and his wife today, who brought in pastries to share to mark the official handover.

And tomorrow I fly to the U.S. for eight weeks (hurrrrahhhhhhhhhhhh!). In case it’s not obvious, I’m pretty excited…even if also aware I won’t get to see everyone I would like to see, and that the time will probably seem too short with friends and family.

Speaking of family, one highlight of the spring — in the middle of final edits on my thesis — was a visit from my cousin Ben! He lives in New Zealand but had a work conference in Germany. Based on Covid regulations at the time he booked flights, he realized he could escape the hotel quarantine requirement in NZ by delaying his return by a week, thus deciding to spend a week in Vienna!

It was a novel experience doing home office with company at my usual spot at the kitchen table! I worked on church and university tasks, and he worked on computer programming (including work calls that sounded like English but were in parts incomprehensible!). Besides working, we did a lot of walking and whole lot of talking. We also attended a wonderful concert (Bach’s Johannespassion) the evening he arrived, did a lot more eating out than I usually would, and took a day off to go hiking. It was a great time; Franci, thanks for encouraging Ben to make the extended trip…but next time you both have to come!

Speaking of trips, since the alarm is going to ring before 4 a.m. tomorrow morning for a dash to the airport, I’d better sign off here and get a bit of sleep.

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Stepping Back in Time . . . Summer 2021

It’s been months since I’ve updated my blog. While that silence is due to various factors in the intervening time (like being busy writing tens of thousands of words for another context!), explanations will have to wait in the interests of chronological consistency. So, for anyone keen on joining me in stepping back in time to last summer, here’s a glimpse of some lovely summer travels from 2021.

Europe Tour

Some time in the spring of 2021 my long-time French friend Pauline – our friendship goes back to our first autumn in Vienna in 2012 – suggested a road trip together. She was going to be in Paris visiting family, and why not meet there, together visit a mutual friend in Berlin, and see a bit of France and Germany on the way? It sounded like a great idea! And was!

As plans developed, however, some alterations had to be made. For one, renting a car from Paris-Berlin-Constance (not too far from Zurich) in the Covid-era was going to be preposterously expensive. So we were going to have to fly the first leg. Also, instead of returning to Vienna directly from the conclusion of our joint adventures, I decided I could add a leg and fly from Zurich to Barcelona and spend a week with friends there. Now in case you think this all sounds rather wonderful (Europe tour!!!) and rather complicated (three different [budget] airlines with their varying luggage allowances and five countries for which to consider current Covid regulations!), you are absolutely right!

France

I love Paris. So cliché, but so true. I arrived in Paris late-evening and felt an immediate sense of exhilaration on entering the subway. I rather like the Paris subway: the narrow, winding tunnels, the different-to-Vienna ways of marking lines and destinations, the vibe of the city even underground. Although I arrived in Paris a couple days ahead of Pauline, I was staying at her parents’ flat and was glad, considering the late hour, that I knew the lay of the land a bit.

The next day, a Saturday, I did what one must do in Paris: walk. Rather than catch the metro, I decided to just walk the city center, first north toward the Seine, with Notre Dame eventually appearing.

After some meandering near the Latin Quarter and the fortification of a chocolate croissant, I made my way to the Louvre gardens. Glorious! Lounging by a fountain, I read, people-watched, and sipped a to-go espresso. Eventually, I figured I should proceed somewhere and headed in the direction of the Jewish district, originally with the thought of returning to a splendid pie café that friends introduced me to years ago. But, instead I was captured by the sounds and sights and smells of a square where a busker was playing saxophone, tourists were eating gelato, a few locals were leaving a synagogue service, and the scent of falafel was emanating from a corner café. Eventually I discarded the pie idea in favor of a taste of the Levant and joined the queue for a falafel sandwich, enjoyed on a park bench in the sun. Late afternoon I walked home, picking up baguette and Boursin for supper, and discovering a tiny park (named after Louis Armstrong) with beautiful flowers near the flat.

Sunday morning I headed via a different route towards the city center. But I only got a few steps from home before realizing one knee was seriously unhappy with overuse (or the wrong shoes) from the day before. Instead of aiming for the nearest bus or metro station, however, I proceeded with characteristic stubborn optimism to keep walking….

Sunday was a Garden Day. First the Jardin des Plantes, a riot of color: from what seemed to be an orange theme in part of the garden, to pyramids of morning glories (flowers I associate with late summer in Tennessee, trailing up half-dried corn stocks in the veggie garden), to water lilies. And complementing the colorful array of flora, there were brilliant green parrots flying about. So exotic!

From the “Garden of Plants” (sounds so prosaic in English!), I proceeded to the Luxemburg Gardens for much of the rest of the day. Again lounging with a book by the fountains, vicariously delighting with the children sending their toy sail boats round the pool, basking in the sunshine.

At some point, it seemed to be time for lunch. And while not every bakery is open on Sunday, I found one not far from the park and returned to a shady spot in the park to enjoy a raisin “snail” and vanilla custard pie (I mean, why not just eat sweets in Paris?). A small joy was being wished “bon appetite” by a nun strolling past. During lunch, I heard the sound of petanque from somewhere nearby and figured I’d better investigate. Wow, some serious Sunday afternoon entertainment! A series of dusty courts provided space for multiple simultaneous tournaments, with teams composed of a variety of ages, mostly men. A healthy contingent of spectators looked on, some parked on green park chairs and apparently planning to stay a while.

Mid-afternoon I decided to visit an English-speaking international church that was listed as meeting a few blocks from the park, followed by watching more petanque and then wandering over to the Latin Quarter. I felt kind of bad for the people manning the crêpe stands. Instead of long lines of tourists, I was about the only person waiting for some cheesy goodness. The friendly German-Greek proprietress seemed happy for someone to chat with.

Monday I did a bit of baking in anticipation of Pauline and her mom arriving. (It is indeed foolish for an American to bake pastries for Parisians, but then our mutual love for lemon meringue pie goes way back!)

The other morning activity was a trip to the pharmacy. Not only did I need a Covid test for flying to Berlin the next day, but my knee was hurting enough to make me rather a spectacle limping along the sidewalk. A kind pharmacist directed me to some magic ointment (Hallelujah!).

I arriving back to the flat to be greeted by the scent of cantaloupe fresh from Provence and the delight of seeing Pauline and her mom just arrived home. In the afternoon, I took a long and unsuccessful trip to the outskirts of Paris, in hopes of meeting a friend who was going to drive in from an outlying town. But traffic delays and lack of phone access stymied the plan, and I headed back into town to spend a quiet evening watching a ballet with Pauline’s mom at home.

Germany

Tuesday morning Pauline and I flew to Berlin (thankfully not missing the flight — we were plenty early, but got rather excited about watching the Olympics while waiting in the airport). We spent the next couple days at the home of our mutual friend Seo and her husband Ben.

I’d like to spend more time in Berlin. It’s multiple times bigger than Vienna and definitely has a different vibe. The first afternoon featured a relaxed walk (okay, not so relaxed, because of my knee) around Charlottesburg, followed by delicious Korean-style (savory) pancakes made by our hosts.

Wednesday morning I went to the local Covid testing center for an obligatory test, and then Pauline and I took the train to the visit the 1936 Olympic stadium. It’s a bizarre place, part museum, part active sports area. The architecture is the epitome of the bleak National Socialist adaptation of ancient Greek models, and the stadium remains as an eerie testament to the propaganda of the era (all about youth and honor and sacrifice).

After touring the grounds, it felt really odd to get to the swimming pool area and see locals doing their morning laps. Pauline and I found ourselves discussing the strange feeling the place gives off — on the one hand, the museum aspect of the complex unequivocally denunciates the ideals of the regime that built it, and yet it feels odd (however practical) that parts are still used today for sports training and events.

In the afternoon, Seo, Pauline, and I took a tour of the Bonhoeffer house, something I’ve wanted to do for years. Our tour guide, a retired Lutheran pastor from a neighboring community, went above-and-beyond to give us an excellent (private!) tour, weaving together a picture of the Bonhoeffer family, elements of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology, and the context of Berlin in the era leading up to and during WWII.

In the evening, Pauline and I cooked for our hosts — Pauline made French beef stew and I baked American apple pie!

Thursday we said goodbye to Berlin, picked up our rental car, and headed in the direction of Dresden, a city neither of us had previously visited. Much of the city was destroyed by heavy bombing during the war, with decades of reconstruction delay. In fact, if I understood correctly, one part of the museum we visited was not just being renovated, but was still undergoing major repairs not made in the previous 75 years.

We just had a few hours in the city, but we took in a tour of the Residenzschloss (Dresden Castle) — medieval armor, an Ottoman tent that would bring camping to a whole new level, an exhibit of clothing warn by royalty (they must have been such small people!), and state-room opulence à la Louis XIV — and had a good talk over a coffee on the plaza in the rain near the restored Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).

After our only night in a hotel rather than a host home, we got up Friday morning to visit a garden and then to drive to Bayreuth, in order to get a glimpse of the famous Wagner opera house there.

Then we met friends of Pauline’s nearby for a lovely visit over lunch (ridiculously delicious and heavy German fare) and a tour of their house renovation project. Although I didn’t follow any of the French conversation that featured prominently, it was a delightful time!

After some frustrating road delays, we arrived in Pforzheim, where we spent a relaxed evening chatting and cooking together with our gracious hostess Aline. The next morning we returned the rental car in Constance and caught a train from there into Switzerland. Pauline and I said goodbye en route, and I got off at the Zurich airport for a flight to Barcelona!

Spain

In Barcelona, I was met at the airport by dear friends Jon and Kathy. Kathy’s parents and my parents became friends more than four decades ago. And the friendship has extended to the next generation.

What an incredibly relaxing week! For instance, morning coffees on the terrace beanbags featured prominently, where we enjoyed the quiet of a very small town an hour or so from the busy city center (visible in the distant haze, although you need clear air and binoculars to get a proper look at La Sagrada Familia in miniature). The week included so much good conversation, a couple fun movies, great meals — and exciting outings. If Jon wanted to take on a new career, he should definitely consider being a professional travel guide!

On Sunday, Kathy and I took a delightful long walk just up the road from their place. It was hot, the kind of dry heat that lets you know you are far, far away from East Tennessee in August! Not to mention that amid the rolling hills, there’s an abandoned villa that’s slowly getting overtaken by the forest.

On Monday, Kathy and I drove into the city on a mission to see as many external views of La Sagrada Familia as possible. If you’ve never been to Barcelona and are considering a trip, let this be your one non-negotiable destination. I’ve been inside twice on previous trips. The first time, standing in the massive cathedral, you could watch and hear the stone masons at work while admiring the tree-like pillars supporting the loft structure. Several years later, the bright colors of the stained glass windows stuck out. In 2022, it’s clear that the structure is adding mass and height, although the tallest tower is yet to be built.

On Tuesday we went on a volcano-hunting adventure. I had no idea there had ever been volcanos in Spain — it must have been a long time ago! However, we did indeed take a walk around part of a rim of an old crater, although instead of spewing lava, the grassy crater housed a small stone chapel and exposed you to the hot afternoon sun!

We also visited a picturesque town and admired the village perched directly on a cliff-side!

Wednesday we spent a day at the coast, enjoying the vistas from roads that follow the coastal outline and then finding a spot where we could descend to the rocky shore for a picnic and a dip in the sea (and a bit of snorkeling).

Thursday afternoon we headed up into the Pyrenees in the early afternoon. That would seem to be a strange time to start a day in the mountains (two hours’ drive away), but our primary goal was staying late enough to catch some stargazing and see some meteors, far away from the city lights!

The afternoon was spent bird watching (a beloved hobby of Jon and Kathy) and taking in the expansive vistas. We shared a picnic supper and then drove to what seemed like a good viewing spot and set up camp: lawn chairs, snacks, blanket, and the car as a windbreak.

Slowly dusk settled, then it grew dark. Stars appeared, the Milky Way emerged out of the darkness. We did indeed see a handful of meteors, including one ferociously bright one that appeared to ignite twice as it streaked low across the horizon. The stargazing was made more fun by the friendly Spanish couple who had the same great idea, and also by the sense of doing something a bit crazy (after all, we still had a two hour drive home, but it was worth going to bed after 2 a.m.!)

Friday I flew back to Vienna. A wonderful trip.

Austrian Alps: Berliner Höhenweg

In early September I enjoyed the long-anticipated opportunity to share a favorite hiking trail with former flatmate Jessica. Two other summers I’ve hiked part of the trail (and blogged about it), but now it was time to do the whole trek in one go!

We took an early train from Vienna towards Tyrol and by early afternoon had arrived in the Zittertal region, ready to leave the Tal (valley) and head up into the mountains beckoning.

Our first afternoon’s jaunt was short, just over two hours, and we enjoyed finding huckleberries and raspberries along the way, took breaks to enjoy the vistas, and excitedly arrived at our first hut.

Rather than giving a day-by-day account as I have in the past, I’ll let the photos do most of the talking!
One side note: A a prominent feature of the trip, but not very photogenic, was knee pain (not to mention impressive blisters and going to bed one night with a fever!). The knee issues turned parts of the week into more of a mental/physical challenge than I was hoping for, and I found myself wondering why it is that I love hiking so much.

So, what is so great about a week above tree line?

It’s the rugged peaks…

Mingling sky and land…

Getting to the peak or to the next mountain pass…

The steep descents, at least minus knee pain (there’s a hut at the bottom for the sharp of eye)…

Rock art…

The friendly sheep and downright cheeky goats…

Iconic Austria…

The huts…far away … nearer … arrived

Taking off boots, checking out the dinner menu (and maybe some afternoon Apfelstrudel?), reading, playing cards…

Fun fellow-hikers — those with a similar pace one sees multiple times a day and again evening and morning in the hut…

Wildflowers…

Stone walls and hanging bridges…

Cascades, serpentine streams, decaying ice, placid lakes (a glorious, very chilly swim, anyone?)…

Stargazing and morning and evening skies…

Friendship enjoyed and deepened in shared enjoyment of the wonders of Creation and the pleasure of a good holiday’s work…

…With all those good reasons to take to the trail, where to next?

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Daily Life: Studies

In late January, I got back to Vienna after an extended Christmas visit with Hannah and Peter. In the remaining days of the month and throughout February, I compensated for the days out of the (home) office with lots of extra hours proof-reading, scrambling to meet deadlines for projects with my university job. The texts I’ve been working on off and on for the past many months deal largely with the historical development of Sunday as a day of rest. Let’s just say it’s complicated!

In March, the pressure shifted from university job to my church job, as we moved into a new building and simultaneously back to in-person services — during Holy Week, too, which added another whole level of complexity! Our first service was held on Good Friday. Thinking how to describe it, the German word “Feierlichkeit” comes to mind — which can mean both “celebration” and “solemnity.” It was a beautiful service, interweaving prayers from Every Moment Holy, classical music, silence, reading of the Passion narrative, etc.

Easter Sunday was the first Sunday we met again as a congregation since late fall, when we had a couple of outdoor services. At a personal level, the highlight of the day was dinner with three close friends from church. Our host Eric grilled trout, which made me very happy because it reminded me of Dad and his love for fishing.

All late winter and into spring, the Covid numbers and regulations kept fluctuating. Being able to work from home, not being a big restaurant-goer, and not liking to shop meant I didn’t feel it as keenly as a lot of people — but it was pretty exciting nonetheless when cafes and restaurants opened again in mid-May (closed, except for take-out, since the beginning of November). Even before I went out to dinner myself, I found myself feeling happy for people I saw sitting in cafes, as I rode by on my bike. The city seemed to have more life about it.

Granted, to sit in a Viennese coffee house or go out to dinner or (as of 1 November) to show up at the office, you need the magic password, known as the “3G rule”: geimpft, getestet, genesen (i.e., you can show proof of vaccination, current negative (PCR-)test results, or Covid recovery). But, I don’t want to write about Covid, so I promise to move on to other subjects now.

Aside from church work and my Uni job, studies continue to be a big part of my life. A necessary part, since my visa is dependent on my student status. In fact, for something like 13 semesters, I have perused the course catalogue, searching out the required or interesting (or sometimes both) courses, slowly accruing credits towards the religious studies degree I started in 2014. (This semester — glory be! — I am not enrolled in any courses and instead writing my thesis — more on that another time.)

I don’t blog often about Uni, but this post I’d like to share the fruit of a course that caught my eye last winter term — a cooperation between the University of Vienna and the University of Music: “Text – Musik – Kirchenraum: Kontexte sakraler Musik.” The focus of the course turned out to be various Psalm texts and their musical settings.

What particularly interested me was that the course included not just the standard research paper requirement (ugh), but also the alternative of composing a piece of music! I opted for the latter — and thought I’d post both the composition (click HERE for the recording on YouTube) and the accompanying text (below).

“You Say You Are Near”: A Song of Lament from Psalm 130

The Psalms are striking for their diversity. They vary widely in length – from two verses to 176 – and in their historical context of origin – from the time of the wilderness wanderings (Psalm 90) to the post-exilic era (Psalm 137). They differ in literary style (acrostic poem: Psalm 112; word/thematic study: Psalm 119; verse and refrain/call-and-response: Psalm 136) and authorship (from David, the quintessential psalmist, to Moses, to the “Sons of Korah,” to numerous anonymous psalmists). Most strikingly, while they are united in their praise of Yahweh, they are richly diverse in terms of specific content and emotional tenor, ranging from poetic accounts of key events in Israel’s history (Psalm 106), to texts serving specific liturgical functions in corporate worship (Psalm 30), to intimate expressions of personal doubt and trust (Psalm 130).

I have always been drawn to the Book of Psalms, returning to this portion of Scripture more than any other. Sometimes I find myself reading the psalms in observer mode, noting either the expressions of ecstatic worship or the harsh imprecations of enemies with a certain element of bewilderment. Other times I am drawn into prayer or worship along with the psalmist, as I am reminded of God’s character and gracious deeds and respond afresh to the open invitation to speak honestly and boldly the intertwined joys and longings of my own peculiar experience.

The inspiration for my composition is Psalm 130. It is a psalm of lament, a genre that figures prominently in the Psalter as a whole. In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, author and pastor Mark Vroegop defines a lament as “a prayer in pain that leads to trust”[1] – a type of prayer which usually involves the following “key elements”: “(1) an address to God, (2) a complaint, (3) a request, and (4) an expression of trust and/or praise.”[2] As many biblical scholars, pastors, and lay believers have written, preached, and put into daily practice, Christian lament expresses a unique capacity of the faith to take seriously both the brokenness of the world evident on a cosmic scale and also the sorrow experienced at a deeply individual level – within the context of confidence in a creating, sustaining, and redeeming God. The Psalter’s declarations of the character and mighty acts of this God, first sung by ancient Jewish psalmists, are understood within Christian faith as finding their ultimate fulfillment in the person of Christ – in God incarnate who suffered with and on behalf of his people and whose resurrection is the foretaste of the assurance that he will one day “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5, English Standard Version [ESV]).

Of course, in the context of their origins in Jewish worship, the psalms, whether celebratory texts or laments, were intended not simply for private meditation or for public recitation, but for singing.  This is made clear throughout the Psalter – from rather cryptic musical instructions (for example, Psalm 56: “To the choirmaster: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths”), to the multitudinous references to singing and to musical instruments, to the psalms designated as “Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134).

This practice of setting psalms to music has been carried over from Jewish worship practice into the Christian tradition(s). Countless hymns and other religious songs sung in churches around the globe to the present day are drawn directly or inspirationally from the Psalter. Additionally, the psalm texts have inspired many works for the concert stage. Psalm 130 is no exception. Within the Western classical tradition, this psalm has inspired composers ranging from Gluck to Gounod, Luther to Liszt, Schütz to Salieri, Byrd to Bach to Boulanger. These settings span all eras of classical music and various languages (English, French, German, Latin); and their compositional proportions range from an entire cantata (Bach, of course), to a straightforward rhymed setting of the text for congregational singing (Luther), to a dramatic orchestral tone poem with choir and soloists (Boulanger). However, Psalm 130, in its universal yet individual expression of longing and hope, is really quite simple. This simplicity suggests that setting this psalm to music is not the exclusive privilege of household-name composers like Bach, nor of theological giants like Luther. Rather, humbler would-be composers are also invited to make the words of this psalm uniquely their own.

When some time in 2017 I began composing a song based on Psalm 130, I did not have any inkling that my improvisation at the piano could prove useful for a university course. Nor was I in the middle of reading any insightful books on the topic of lament. Instead, I was profoundly sad – wearied by a long season of grief following the death of both of my parents the previous year, losses that sent out unexpected ripple effects into all parts of life and which compounded an already lurking sense of God’s absence. There was something therapeutic about sitting down to the piano and being honest about my sadness, and also in declaring God’s goodness and trustworthiness despite any feelings to the contrary; musing and music-making were a valuable exercise, whether or not the song would ever be ready to be shared with others.

Written for voice[3] and piano, “You Say You Are Near” is very simple in terms of musical form – instrumental introduction, verse, chorus, piano interlude (based on the verse/chorus), chorus, bridge, chorus. The style evades a specific genre.

With regard to text, the first two verses of the psalm express what I felt at the time I began the composition: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (ESV). These words I adapted just slightly for the opening (and only) verse of my composition: “Out of the depths, Lord, I cry to You. O Lord, hear my prayer! Incline Your ear to my voice, O Lord, to my plea for help!”

In the psalm, verses three and four focus on God’s character as a forgiving God. Although some musical settings highlight this penitential aspect of the psalm (Byrd’s “From Depth of Sin,” for example), I chose to interpret the “depths” from verse one as referring to those of bereavement and loneliness and thus decided to pass over these two verses of the psalm.

Verse five of the psalm offers insight into the appropriate response to the God who promises to answer those who call upon him: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (ESV). This verse inspired the song’s bridge: “I will wait; I will wait; I will wait for You, Lord…. In Your Word I will trust; I will wait for You, Lord!” The repetition of “I will wait” (seven times) highlights how arduous waiting can be.

The last three verses of the psalm underscore this posture of waiting (verse 6) and affirm God’s character and deeds of love and mercy (verses 7-8). Instead of incorporating these verses into my composition, however, I chose instead to bookend the bridge with a chorus that focuses on the tension of waiting amidst grief but in hope. The three phrases that make up the chorus are reminiscent of other psalm texts: 1) “You say You are near” could reference Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted” (ESV); 2) “You say You count tears” suggests Psalm 56:8: “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one” (New Living Translation); 3) “You say You hear prayer – hear mine!” echoes passages like, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you! [H]e regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer” (Psalm 102:1, 17, ESV).

The song is written in D minor – a minor key seemed to be the obvious choice for a text of lament. The chord pattern that features throughout the piece is based on a descending line – D (minor: i), C (major: VII), Bb (major: VI), A (major: V) – “into the depths,” so to speak. While the tonality of the piece as a whole is clearly minor, I have intentionally minimized the appearance of the 3rd scale degree in the chord progressions, in an attempt to create an element of tonal ambiguity that reflects the tension of grief and hope, doubt and trust. Both the descending chord pattern and the avoidance of the 3rd scale degree can be seen in the following figure:

The element of tension is highlighted in the use of dissonance. The bitter edge of grief and the strain of waiting are especially apparent in the piano accompaniment (and in combination with the vocal line) of the bridge, as shown below:

Melodically, two elements are worth noting. First, the opening sixteenth note motif in the left hand of the accompaniment is composed of a repeating group of five notes that is intentionally asymmetrical within the 4/4 time signature. The rapid descending notes could suggest the flowing of tears, and the metric ambiguity the disorienting nature of grief. The following examples show this figure in the opening bars of the piece, as well as where it reappears in the accompaniment to the chorus (m. 45ff) and in the bridge (m. 62ff):

The second melodic pattern to note is the interweaving of descending and ascending lines – for instance, in the descending bell-like tones of the right hand (in blue), which contrast with the ascending register of note groupings (in green), as shown below. (This descending line is echoed in mm. 10-13 and mm. 58-61.)

Another example of juxtaposed ascending/descending lines is the melody of the opening “Out of the depths” as it is loosely mirrored in the descending line of the opening notes of the chorus:

This sort of contrast is particularly apparent in the accompaniment at the climax of the bridge (m. 65, though see also m. 49). Here one could even imagine that the descending triplets take on a further significance – an allusion to the Triune God’s condescension to answer the one crying out from the depths who is waiting in faith:

The ending of the song features an intentional inversion of the chorus text, concluding with “You say You are near.” The core of this song of lament is a longing for God’s felt presence, for the comfort at an experiential level of a promised theological truth. The accompaniment ends with an ambiguous D minor arpeggio in the left hand – the 3rd scale degree (F) is again missing, and two E’s appear in the last bar. At one level, these two tones introduce a final dissonance (when heard against the D minor chord), but they can also be heard as borrowed from the dominant chord of A major. Thus, the last note of the vocalist (A) belongs not only to a D minor chord but, when heard in combination with accompaniment’s closing E’s, suddenly is equally at home as the tonic note of the dominant chord. Additionally, the final E of the concluding ascending arpeggio rises just above the D minor tonic in the right hand, offering a closing note of ascending and overcoming hope:

This note of hope, however tentative, is evident in most of the biblical psalms of lament, indicating a determined clinging to God’s promise of covenantal faithfulness: “[H]ope in the Lord! For with the Lord there steadfast love…” (Psalm 130:7).


[1] Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), p. 28.

[2] Vroegop, p. 29.

[3] I am extremely grateful to Abigail Hunter for singing for the recording of this piece, as well as for acting as sound technician.

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A Glance Back: Christmas 2020

A Kiwi acquaintance likes to say that summer cookouts make her think of Christmas. Well, I can’t claim that same association — but here it is August and I am thinking about Christmas. Guess that means I’m just that behind on blogging!

Way back last September I booked (incredibly cheap) tickets from Austria to the U.S. for Christmas, in hopes that Covid might be more or less “over” by then. (What optimism!) Initially, I halfway deluded myself that I wasn’t going to stress about whether the trip would be possible or not. Celebrating the holidays in Vienna instead of with family would also be nice, right? And, after all, the airlines were promising full reimbursements for canceled trips, no questions asked.

However, as the date of departure approached (and both departure date and airport of arrival shifted, due to airline-initiated cancelations), I had to admit to myself that my heart was set on spending the holidays with Hannah and Peter. So, when I developed very strange throat issues a week or so before I was to fly, I became intensely anxious. (It seemed like any symptom could be Covid, which would keep you off a plane. But no, apparently it wasn’t that – and also wasn’t major thyroid issues, which the doctor has me scurrying to get tested before being gone for a month.)

In the end, after all the worry about whether the flight would really take off and whether I would really be on it, it did and I was. And once past all the pre-boarding stress, flying felt rather normal. Sure they’d added a few lines to the safety measures spiel, and we were all wearing masks (except when we weren’t: the irony of most of us gladly relinquishing our masks to enjoy dinner still amuses me). But maybe it just felt “normal” because hurtling through the stratosphere while watching a string of movies and going backward in time (traveling west, that is!) is already weird enough!

Arriving in Philly, I discovered that the health declaration form I’d filled out on the plane was apparently of no interest to anyone — unless I deemed it to hold souvenir value (I decided it didn’t).

I also discovered a WhatsApp message from Hannah, clarifying who was picking me up from the airport. I should start by backing up to say that a few days prior Peter had come down with a “cold” or “sinus infection,” which proceeded to suspiciously rob him of his sense of taste and smell; so I was already prepared to spend a couple days at his sister Margrethe’s place, in case he tested positive for Covid and they were quarantining. But, I wasn’t quite expecting Hannah’s message at the airport, apologetically explaining that, well, she didn’t feel so good that day…. Turns out they both had Covid — mercifully, mild cases.

As disappointing as the change in plans was, I was so thankful to be greeted with a big hug by Margrethe, and she proceeded to host me at her place in the most gracious manner possible for the next week plus. Since Hannah and Peter felt more like they had a cold rather than something more threatening, I admit that we did some just-squeaking-by-the-letter-of-the-law quarantine maneuvers, featuring visiting through the front door at their place or Margrethe’s back door. In our defense, it was hard to be in neighboring towns, rather than on different continents, and not be allowed to be in the same room!

That first week or so turned out to be a great chance to get better acquainted with my brother-in-law’s sister — or should I say my sister’s sister-in-law? Both terms are rather cumbersome, so I am happy to report that in this case the German language (or at least Austrian dialect) offers a shorter word for something than English does, and you can colloquially refer to your sister’s sister-in-law as your “Schwippschwägerin.” (Admittedly, also a bit of a mouthful.)

At first, we had to sort of feel each other out about shared space, meals, etc., but we conveniently share a love for coffee, for long morning chats over said coffee while standing in the kitchen, for enormous amounts of popcorn with a movie, for quiet to do our own thing (for me, reading and doing a bit of work for university), for cooking creatively…. I guess the food theme is kind of obvious, but Margrethe is a great cook (it seems to run in the family), and we had a lot of good conversation in and around Indian butter chicken and zucchini soup in homemade bread bowls, and (did I already mention?) mugs of coffee.

For Christmas Eve, I joined Peter’s two sisters and their dad for a very low-key celebration — everyone was more than willing to postpone the “real” Christmas celebration till the rest of the family could be there. But we still enjoyed a festive evening, and I felt very grateful to be welcomed in so warmly!

Christmas Day Margrethe made the two of us French toast for breakfast, and I spent a lot of time reading by the Christmas tree. Hannah and Peter dropped by for a through-the-closed-back-door visit (where we all tried hard to be cheerful and make the most of the situation), and I ate yummy Indian leftovers for dinner. Margrethe returned from her dad’s in time for us to enjoy watching a movie together. Probably the strangest 25 December I have every had — at least rivaling Christmas 2005, when we Holders were in New Zealand for a summertime Christmas with our aunt and uncle and cousins there.

Finally, the day after Christmas, Hannah and Peter were both finished with their quarantine, and I got to step inside their front door! When I was there last, it was still a massive pre-move project — in Summer 2019 we spent many (happy!) hours painting walls and ceilings. So, one of the first things I had to do upon arriving at Christmastime was to take a grand tour — appreciating the artistic style with which they have together crafted a home from the attic on down! Quite the show-and-tell session. And then the evening proceeded with decorating the Christmas tree together (yes, on 26 December!) while listening to Christmas music and grazing on a splendid charcuterie and opening our Christmas stockings and ending up rather giddy with laughter.

Sunday started off with the oddly named “Dutch baby” for breakfast (half the fun is watching it rise magically in the oven).

Then we headed off to church (rather a novel experience for me, since we were only having livestream services at the time at my church in Vienna), followed by a leisurely afternoon with Peter’s sisters and dad. Again good food, plus a fire in the fireplace, and the pleasure of being able to gather after the strange semi-isolation of the preceding days.

Monday Peter and Hannah and I determined was our “Christmas Day.” We started off with the Holder traditional breakfast, followed by opening gifts.

The best gift was Hannah’s replicating Mom’s loose-leaf recipe collection — complete with a less-faded version of Mom’s cloth-covered binder (and the revised edition adorned with Hannah’s embroidery) and copies of dozens upon dozens of recipes Mom either cut from magazines or copied from friends or received as part of a family letter or otherwise collected over 35-plus years of cooking for the family.

After opening gifts, the traditional Christmas Day trajectory took a novel turn: Instead of a big company dinner in the afternoon, the three of us spent the rest of the day taking a beautiful country drive, spontaneously stopping for ice cream, and sharing what was, growing up, our favorite birthday dinner menu.

The following days I won’t try to describe is great detail. But common themes were games (Hand and Foot, Zilch, Ingenious, Dutch Blitz), walks (in town and on nearby rail trails), a whole array of delightful meals and interesting drinks (whipped coffee, anyone?), visits with friends from the neighborhood or from church (it’s so nice to like your sibling’s friends!), snatches of work and study (one morning involving getting up for an online lecture at 3:30 a.m. EST!), movie nights, and a trip to the festively decorated Longwood Gardens.

Another highlight was the multiple country drives we took together (Amish farms, buggies, bald eagles, miniature horses, big skies).

New Year’s Eve we gathered with Peter’s side of the family, including his brother and family in from D.C., for a combined Christmas and New Year’s celebration. The family’s Scandinavian roots became freshly apparent by the amount of pickled fish that appeared on the table — oddly tasty, but very foreign to the Holder palate! Definitely also not a Holder tradition — but seems like it wouldn’t be so bad to institute — were the midnight ice cream sundaes.

The following weekend my former flatmate in Vienna drove up from D.C. for a visit. Jessica is an avid conversationalist, game-player, and partaker in outdoor activities. So, we did some exploring of the area together, including a walk near the Susquehanna River. It was also quite handy to have a fourth person for the team version of Hand and Foot!

…Back in the fall, I had booked plane tickets for a whole month’s visit, the plan being to stay just long enough to be able to celebrate Hannah’s birthday on 14 January. (The last time we celebrated a birthday together would have been hers in 2012.) Peter and I had a lot of fun planning and executed surprises that lasted all day!

For starters, I got up early to make a three-course breakfast: 1) yogurt parfait with (H and P’s homemade) tomato preserves and topped with caramel-pecan crisps, followed by 2) mini sweet potato and bacon quiches, and ending with 3) lemon-blueberry gingersnap tartlets.

Afterwards, Hannah and I attended a C. S. Lewis reading club she has been part of for quite some time — a diverse group of women, ranging in age from 30-something to around 80, and coming from quite a spectrum of Christian backgrounds. It was great to be able to meet those attending that day and to be able to picture the group and discussion style.

In the afternoon, H and P and I enjoyed some frisbee-playing in a nearby park, as well as multiple rounds of Ingenious (nice when the birthday gift is an instant success).

In the evening, we enjoyed take-out from a favorite Nepalese restaurant in Lancaster, followed by the surprise of their pastor and his wife showing up for dessert and conversation and laughter!

Well, all trips do come to an end at some point. In this case, British Airways canceled my flight, so I rebooked with another airline and stayed an extra week. The last days were pretty low-key, partly because we were waiting to see if I had caught Covid from the friends who came for Peter’s signature New Year Day’s pork and sauerkraut. Thankfully not, and I headed back across the Atlantic on the emptiest flight I’d ever seen. (Only in the middle of a pandemic can you find affordable, one-way, non-stop tickets from Newark to Vienna, get from baggage drop-off and through security in less than 20 minutes, and have only one other passenger sharing a row of seven seats.)

Having arrived in my tale back in Vienna, I’ll conclude for now!

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This Old House

Today (meaning, when I started the draft of this post on 26 October) we signed the sale of our childhood home.

Strange — especially since Hannah was signing for both of us, though I was included via phone from 4,836 miles away (or at least that is the number you get when you google “How many miles is it from Vienna to Knoxville”).

Good — because we are so happy about the buyers . . . a young couple who cherish old things and are excited (?!) about upkeep of an old house. Moreover, like our parents who bought the house 37 years ago, they look forward to practicing hospitality, tending their part of the garden and enjoying the fruit of their hands, delighting in children’s laughter wafting in from the big yard, and investing their time and energy for the gospel, whether locally or across the globe.

Sad — not really yet, but probably later. Less sad because I suppose I can invite myself over for coffee some time.

It seems like the right day to try to put down on paper some of what this little corner of Tennessee means to me. What comes to mind are some of the smells and sounds of home and what the house and yard contain of wealth than can’t be lost when the physical property passes on to new owners.

Smells — Dad mowing the lawn. Man, I love that smell of fresh-cut grass, with maybe just a tinge of fumes from the mower mixed in. The summer evenings, still and peaceful but still plenty hot and humid, and the mingling sound and scent of Dad finishing off the lawn before dusk settles.

Other smells — countless kitchen aromas. That kitchen — the center of almost any home, and most definitely the best room of our house. If Mom was cooking or baking, there was a very big chance that I, or both Hannah and I, were at her elbow, eager to stir and taste what was being concocted. Who doesn’t love the smell of onions sautéing, promising any of dozens of potential dinners within the next hour or so? Or the remarkable once-a-year olfactory treat of an apple pie or a blackberry pie in the oven? Or the comfortingly familiar scent of Sunday night popcorn? Or the pungent odor of parmesan sprinkled across the birthday-dinner turkey-tetrazzini, the kind of smell you might not like if you didn’t know it was cheese?

Sounds — Well, there was the inescapable volume of the solid old upright piano, which saw us from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to Brahms or Beethoven. (How many afternoons did Mom sit next to the piano writing letters and taking in the music — or other times listening from the kitchen and calling out reminders to slow down or play more accurately?!) Or the beloved record player — Handel’s Messiah or Vaughan Williams’ Hodie and other Christmas favorites that accompanied tree decorating and the whole Christmas season — or the less frequently played Bob Dillan or (totally random) synthesizer Bach. And the muted roar of college football, an acquired taste we Holder women never acquired (though Hannah and I might now be moved by it with a certain nostalgia). And the tones of East Tennessee itself — cicadas and crickets winding up their nightly music boxes, while lightning bugs danced in the humid July air. We liked to watch the fireflies from our beds, the shades raised enough to invite in whatever summer night breeze just might be stirring outside. Probably the best sound of my childhood was the sound of books being read aloud. I remember Dad sitting down with us on the couch to introduce us to Hobbits. Much of the reading, though, happened in the kitchen, with Mom reading while we girls ate lunch during home schooling years or while we washed dishes in the evenings. Together we took in Charles Dickens and Philip Yancey, the Mitford series and Moby Dick (ugh), spellbinding historical biography (Endurance) and classic children’s literature like The Wind in the Willows — oh how Toad made us laugh!

Smells, tastes, sounds. Spaces. For starters, the dining room — the furniture Mom loved, fitting just so and offering a sort of elegance that suited her unique mix of frugal and proper. The scene of countless meals with guests, usually followed by a game (dominoes, Pictionary, the poem game, zilch), dessert always delayed till we had supposedly worked up a bit more appetite. Most days, though, the table was where Mom read the Bible and prayed in the morning and where she often sat to write letters.

Dad had his own prayer closet — literally. Because the kitchen had enough storage space, Dad made the pantry his “study,” a miniscule space stuffed with desk, stool, shelves, books, papers, family pictures. Countless mornings he was cloistered there before the rest of us were awake — a narrow beam of light escaping from the crack between door and doorframe or a squeak of his chair indicating he hadn’t left for work yet.

Back to the dining room for a moment: Hannah and I liked that room partly because of the heating register there — somehow that register was warmer than the others, or at least it was about the only one set in a carpeted floor. As little (and not so little) kids, we liked to sit right next to the register, intermittent blasts of hot air billowing up under old-fashioned flannel night gowns or beloved quilts. Both of us still sing the praises of the heat produced by the kerosene furnace of our early years, which was more satisfyingly warm than that produced by the gas furnace to follow.

Of course, there aren’t just warm, cozy memories of the place, but sad things, too — to deny it would be to paint the wrong picture. But raised voices, out-and-out arguments, and patterns of misunderstanding hardly invite nearer description. There were also lots of apologies and a sizeable portion of forbearance — and lots and lots of laughter. Oh man, for another of those volleys of hysterical laughter with Mom and Hannah after supper, the three of us still sitting around the dinner table and Dad already off to watch the nightly news. Something would get us going, and then Dad would appear, curious and slightly bewildered by what could have come over us in the space of just a few minutes. We couldn’t really explain.

Moving outside, more memories show up, clamoring for recognition. There’s the view out the front door — the hazy parade of the Smoky Mountains, the nearer green hills, the fog painting the river’s course — oh, the many beautiful sunrises we’ve enjoyed from that vantage point. In the side yard on the bedroom side, there’s the strapping tulip popular tree Dad planted when I was in the fourth grade, it’s upper branches now far above the roofline. On the same side of the house, the old pecan tree — some years not a nut to be found, or then again one year a bumper crop — same with the peach trees on the driveway side.

In the backyard, the veggie garden and old smoke house. For a number of years a treehouse — and, even better — a rope bridge leading to it from the now deceased oak.

Speaking of trees, the sycamore that shaded the western side of the house so many years is worth mentioning not only for its shade and the copious quantity of leaves it let fall this time of year, but also for the big rope swing Dad hung from it. That same tree, or the neighboring maples, supplied with their shallow roots one of the hillbilly-golf features of our croquet lawns — “lawns” being a euphemism for the sloping, bumpy, or downright steep courts where we honed our skills. How many games did Dad and Hannah and I play — punctuated by yells and howls of delight and dismay! I must say, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Hannah and I are competitive, having Ron Holder, the soul of competition (and good sportsmanship), for our dad!

Other sports tended to spill into the neighbors’ even bigger yard. Frisby and baseball were favorites — I still remember the time Dad told us he’d take us to Disney World if we could catch his next fly ball. I’m not a good catch, but I caught the ball. We didn’t make it to Disney (which I don’t regret), but eventually we tasted real rollercoasters on a summer vacation up the East Coast — Dad and our uncle promptly getting motion sickness and Hannah and I rather enjoying the thrill and not one bit queasy.

Back to trees, the same old sycamore served as a popular “fairy house” site. We loved to gather twigs and moss to build miniature houses, one imaginative past time among many in a childhood blissfully free of digital dependence and ignorant of the very existence of cell phones.

When I think about growing up and doing it in the same house since age one, I think especially of routine, of ordinary days, of a certain predictability. Sometimes that bred a bit of boredom and plenty of wishful imagining of what life might be like some day. I remember playing in the backyard, hearing and watching a plane high overhead, thinking how amazing it must be to fly. Would I ever get to be in an airplane myself? Two to three decades later, I feel a reverse longing for the simplicity of that childhood moment every time an otherwise quiet summer day is interrupted by the distant hum of an airplane.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts our parents gave us was to grow up with the stability of quiet routines. For that I’m grateful.

* * *

Hannah’s addendum:

Smells. Turkey coming out of the oven while international guests watched a bird being carved for the first time. So many batches of homemade bread. Christmas baking. Curry dishes. All those amazing aromas you mention. And the terrible, mysterious smell that eluded us for years and turned out to be an old light fixture. 

Sights. The sunlight coming in the kitchen windows all afternoon and evening and the leafy shadows on the kitchen wall. Water rushing down the driveway in a huge storm. The pattern of Christmas lights shining through cedar needles onto the ceiling in an otherwise dark room as we ate Christmas cookies by candlelight and listened to the Glen Ellen children’s choir and organ after decorating the tree as a family. 

Sounds. A record of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played as we went to bed. Mom listening for years to Elisabeth Eliot’s short daily radio broadcast (and doing a few stretches and exercises while she listened). Laughing with our family and Aunt Renie over dictionary words zyzzyva and zarf. Popcorn popping every Sunday night for a simple dinner with fruit and cheese. 

Assorted. So many meals of garden vegetables after we helped Dad plant and Mom harvest. Pretend tea parties with doll dishes in the sunroom before the room turned into storage. Using the coffee table both as a slide (with one end propped up on the couch) and as a shuffle board court; Mom let us draw the scoring triangles on the table with crayon and leave it like that for weeks! Many jigsaw puzzles occupying the dining room table over Christmas break. Two person games in the hallway that involved balls, rackets, and closing all the doors. Hide and seek in the dark with Dad. Three o’clock coffee with Mom whenever we were home to join her. So many thousands of laps walked or run or cycled around the block. Joining Dad on the roof several times. Playing on our ladder swing set and sheet metal slide that was an accident and tetanus waiting to happen. The sandbox in the smokehouse and the various horses we kept; several of the latter got out, including a pony, a lively colt, and a Clydesdale. 

 

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The Great Outdoors

I always feel like summer starts late in Austria. For one thing, the university term wraps up at the end of June or beginning of July. This year, the weather also couldn’t make up it’s mind. And to top it all off, even if I don’t necessarily pine for every American holiday, I spent July 4th as my last day in quarantine (after a friend, together with whom I’d spent considerable time helping a mutual friend move, ended up testing positive for Covid, which landed a couple of us stuck at home for a while). On the evening of Independence Day, I sat on my wide windowsill — as close as I was allowed to get to the outdoors — sipping a glass of celebratory wine in anticipation of my own personal “independence” from quarantine the next morning.

Having become quite enamored with cycling in the previous months, I spent my first day of freedom, and in some sense the first day of summer, cycling well over 50 kilometers — first to drop by friends’ place on the outskirts of town, then peddling further upriver along the Danube, enjoying a funny little ferry (really, a glorified raft) across the river, cycling downstream on the other bank and then along the long island, stopping for a much-needed dip in the river, and showing up (still quite damp) for a “house church” service mid-afternoon. Dinner at a friend’s flat rounded out one great day.

Vorarlberg and Tirol

Mid-July I headed west, on a now oft-traveled route to the furthest stretch of Austria — the province of Vorarlberg borders Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, and Italy. Koni (a friend from church) and I arrived by train just as a rain front was due to roll in. Our lovely hostess Rebecca (whom we know from her few years in Vienna) figured we could outwit the weather and head the next day to Italy, where the sun was shining. This turned out to be an excellent plan, and once across the pass (or rather, through the tunnels) and into Switzerland, the skies cleared.

We spent a good portion of the day lounging along an idyllic tumbling stream. Hot sunshine, cold water. The foreground full of sun reflecting on water and stone, the background — clear sky and steep green hillsides and small stone houses exquisitely wedged into the hills — so motionless and picturesque as if a mirage out of some other time and plane.

When we were sufficiently saturated with sun, we continued our drive, now along the northern part of Lage Maggiori, Italy’s second biggest lake, which covers over 200 square kilometers.

We stayed two nights outside a sleepy village above the lake. Not surprisingly, tourism was down this season. Although there were some regulations about wearing masks in any shops, otherwise things seemed pretty normal.

            

We enjoyed the lake, especially attempting a stand-up paddle board, did some wishful thinking about the sailboats in the harbor, and enjoyed pasta and pizza.    

Back in Vorarlberg, it was special to join Rebecca’s church on Sunday — the first really official church service I’d been to since March.

Monday featured our one big hike of the week — the Drei Schwester (“Three Sisters”). I like the sort of hike where you can see your goal repeatedly from along the trail, each time appearing somewhat closer.

The final ascent was exciting or scary or both. Besides some cables to offer assurance, there were two ladders and a bit of scrambling. (Notice the funny wooden “stairs.”) On top, we had a glimpse of four countries (Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein), plus mountains in every direction, except out over the Bodensee (Lake Constance).       

The rest of time in the far western reaches of Austria was spent in a very relaxed fashion — walking with Rebecca’s dog, drinking tea, lounging in hammock. And no trip to Vorarlberg would be complete without some good strong cheese!    

Then it was time to head back east; I stopped for a few days near Innsbruck to visit good friends there, and I was joined by my former flatmate Rachel. It was a relaxed long weekend, with good conversations, taking in the beauty of the surrounding landscape and enjoying the antics of an adorable two-year-old.

Gesäuse Nationalpark

In August I spent a week with hiking buddy Stefanie in a national park in Styria (southeastern Austria). It was a different experience than our Tirolean adventures — first, most of the huts were very sparsely populated (largely due to coronavirus restrictions) and, second, we didn’t stay at the relatively high elevation of one of the Höhenwege (“high ways”) but instead descended every day to what felt like the valley floor before tromping back up to our next hut. This level of up and down (with the “down” coming at the start of the day and the “up” when we were more tired) was pretty demotivating. But in the process, we were blessed with incredible views and rewarded with satisfyingly sore muscles.

Day 1: Wien → Mödlingerhütte

Stefanie and I met at Vienna’s main train station about 6:15 a.m. and were soon on our way — even if, thanks to a train delay, we actually didn’t get to the trailhead till around 11 a.m. The damp air and soggy earth told us we had narrowly missed a series of rainy days, which was just fine with us. By mid-afternoon we reached a decision point — turn right, losing a good bit of elevation, to follow a long and undulating path to our first hut, or turn left, heading up and over two peaks before meeting back up with trail option one?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I was definitely excited about option two, even if slightly concerned that the day was progressing faster than we were. Also, neither of us was quite sure what we’d find at the second peak in terms of a short Klettersteig (via ferrata), but I was pretty optimistic, based on previous shared experiences. After some discussion, we did indeed head left and up — after I agreed that we could retrace our steps if from the first peak the path ahead looked too alarming.

Arriving at the first, lower peak, all I could see was the tantalizing prospect of how the trail continued — beckoning along a zigzagging line to the next peak and then coasting across the shoulder of the mountain and disappearing up the valley.

It took a lot of faith to accept that my hiking buddy saw things pretty differently and that the most loving thing to do was to retrace our steps to the trail divide and then continue down, down, down (maybe 750 vertical meters total) to where the lower trail eventually started to re-ascend. As overblown as it might sound, the thing that got me moving downhill was John 15:13 playing over and over like a broken record inside my head.

After the descent, we still had a loooonnng way yet to go — plodding up and down over successive hills while the afternoon waned and dusk gathered. Just before 9:00 p.m., Stefanie got our her headlamp to light the last ten minutes of our way, and then we finally cleared a final strip of forest to see our hut waiting, light shining from the windows as if it were Tom Bombadil’s house and we were footsore hobbits. (To be fair, we probably wouldn’t have gotten there much sooner by the up-and-over route.)

We apparently looked as worn out as we felt — the Hüttenwirtin (hut hostess) served us bitter but warming Zirpenschnaps (pine schnapps) on-the-house.

Day 2: Mödlingerhütte to Hesshütte

We woke up with big appetites, which thankfully the kitchen crew had anticipated! It was fun to see the hut in daylight before we headed out.

The trail led us back down “into town” — and we took advantage of it to refuel for the trek up.

The next stretch of trail was busy — a popular day hiking area and the route to the one big hut of our tour. Above the initial ascent, the landscape spread out like a verdant carpet before leading us to our hut, where we enjoyed some good Austrian fare before retiring to bed; the only disadvantage to the accommodations were the snorers.

Day 3: Hesshütte → Ennstalerhütte 

Day 3 started with views of the sunlight illuminating a neighboring peak and with  breakfast porridge on the lodge deck. Our trail took us up and over a small pass. On the way up, we surprised a Gämse (chamois) out for his breakfast, and on the way down, we ended up chatting with a herdsman out for his morning rounds.

Carrying on, we descended in and out of shade along a mountain brook, covered as fast as possible a stint along a valley road, and then headed back up. The afternoon proved to be more unpleasant than I thought possible on an Austrian hiking trail. After baking in the hot sun along a forest road, our path cut steeper uphill through the woods and grasses. But, it was apparently anything but a popular route and looked far more like a paradise for ticks than a proper path. With the August sun beating down, it was truly miserable, and before we reached the hut, I felt like I was using my hiking polls more than my legs to keep myself going!

However, the less than ideal trail led to an idyllic hut. Seated at a flower-adorned picnic table and enjoying a delicious meal with friendly fellow hikers, the frustration and weariness of the day subsided and gave way to delight in the drama of sunset unfolding before us. We lingered till the stars came out and the Milky Way dazzled.

Day 4: Ennstalerhütte → Haindlkarhütte

The next morning started early, as a handful of folks decided it would be fun to see the sunrise from the nearest peak. By 4:30ish we were on the trail. The Milky Way had swung 90 degrees while we slept, and we added out own feeble dots of lights till the light of day began to arrive. We weren’t the only ones already up — we surprised three Gämsen, silhouetted against the still-dark sky, above them Venus making a last brilliant stand against the coming day.

Arriving at an overlook just below the peak, we were greeted by the glory of pre-dawn, the whole eastern horizon a stripe of read, orange, and yellow above the dark mountains and light gray fog that had settled in the intervening valleys.

 

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy” (from Psalm 19). 

From the peak, we watched the sunrise — marveling how fast it rose, exclaiming over how it tinged the mountain sides pink…

and pointing out the remarkable shadow the mountain we stood on cast west.   Back at the hut, we enjoyed a well-earned breakfast and headed down again, into a small town, before a short hike up to our next hut. Thankfully, it wasn’t far, as rain moved in and we arrived rather damp — but before the downpour that followed. At the hut, we met up with another friend, Feli, who joined us for the remainder of the week.

It was kind of an odd evening in the hut — there was only one other guest, plus the three hut host/hostesses. We ate delightful Kaspresknödelsuppe (cheese dumpling soup — really quite splendid), while outside the clouds played hide-and-seek with the surrounding mountain walls.

Day 5: Haindlkarhütte → Admonter Haus

The next morning Feli and I did a bit of exploring, following a dry rainwater riverbed. Then Stefanie and Feli headed back down the same trail we’d come up the day before, and I opted for the slightly longer alternate route. There had been a landslide some weeks previously, and I was curious to see what the area looked like afterwards. Because I was about the only one on the trail, I sang a few hymns (after all, it was Sunday morning) and enjoyed going at my own pace, including a bit of “running” down the scree slopes.

The next jaunt started too far from where our descending trails ended, so we took a “mountain taxi” to the next trailhead. Arriving at the hut late afternoon, I still had a lot of energy — or maybe just the wonderful views made me think I did! So, while the others stayed in the cozy hut near the woodstove, I took two further jaunts. 

What amazing views! Layers of constantly changing clouds, with fog/cloud rising from below and shafts of sunlight illuminating fields and softly diffused over distant peaks — along with contrasting swaths of fathomless blue sky and layers of unshakable mountains. 

Back at the hut, we enjoyed bowls of lentils (the one menu option!), which went well with chocolate-banana cake before bed. Again, we were a small crew — just six guests at the hut.

Day 6: Admonter Haus → Hofalm

We awoke inside a cloud of fog, which didn’t bode particularly well for hiking weather. For the first part of the day, the rain held off, and the close clouds and damp forest became its own insular world of white fog, soft forest browns, and intense green.

After another jaunt through town, we stopped under an old oak for lunch, before heading up — as the rain started. I can’t say the rain made for a very pleasant journey, but the skies did eventually start to clear and we made it to our hut remarkably dry.

Our last evening was rather subdued — everyone was tired. I again stayed up later than the others, retreating into a favorite book.

Day 7: Hofalm → Wien

Our last day was uneventful — retracing part of our path from the day before, stopping at another hut, then making out way over a small pass (with intriguing views of the peak at hand — but off-limits due to needing Klettersteig equipment) and then down towards “civilization,” though this time with the train station in view, rather than another hut up the next mountain.

A full week — full of kilometers covered and elevation gained and lost, full of memories shared with friends. Wonderfully empty of phone calls and emails, replaced instead by the pleasure of physical exertion and the beauties of Creation.

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Changing Pace, Staying in Place (sort of)

The last post was an attempt to catch up on before-coronavirus happenings. But since it’s been five plus months since Austria’s lockdown and now many weeks since things started opening back up here, a lot more catching up is in order. My hope in this post is to look back over the spring with an eye to all the good things that it included and with special attention to the humorous. Thus, it is a personal, positive, and a-political post. 🙂

Lockdown

In the flurry of the Austrian government’s proactive approach to dealing with the corona crisis (not wanting to repeat the scenario playing out for our southern neighbors in Italy), everything shifted gears suddenly mid-March. For me, that meant picking up my laptop from the university to take up official “home office,” dropping the piano music I was practicing for a concert the following weekend, having rehearsals canceled for choir performances of St. John’s Passion, and spending lots of time on the phone with friends near and far as we all tried to get our heads around the abrupt halt to normal life.

At a personal level, I found lockdown rather . . . (dare I admit it?) wonderful. The longing for quiet, stillness, cessation of social expectations, etc., had been building for many months, yet seemed impossible to address without defaulting on obligations or missing out on good things. Of course, I didn’t expect the interruption of “normal” to be more or less universally applied!

The freedom to work from home was a huge gift — providing both ongoing income and a healthy routine. Being someone who enjoys being at home and is used to creating my own structure, the transition was quite easy. The days filled up quickly, with mornings usually given to editing work and afternoons and evenings spent with work for church, exercise, online meetings, phone calls, and time for quiet endeavors, reading, baking, etc., what with all the usual church and social activities canceled.

         Lockdown rules here in Austria weren’t stringent regarding freedom to be outdoors for exercise, which meant I was outside a lot, enjoying ambling walks, watching spring unfold with a more attentive and unhurried appreciation than in many other years, and doing a fare amount of cycling. To thoroughly amend a popular maxim: “Outside a book, a bike is this woman’s best friend.”Speaking of books, during lockdown I read, skimmed, re-read, began, finished, etc., a number of books, including a collection of Tolkien’s letters (slow-going, but I’m enjoying a better idea of the author behind my favorite story), The Lord of the Rings (just what one needs for quiet evenings alone!), UnChristian (slightly dated and not exactly spellbinding, albeit offering some insights on American pop culture and Christianity), Myth and the Christian Nation (for a book review for a university class — a book I can best describe as like second-hand smoke: unpleasant in small doses and potentially lethal in larger ones), Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy (a book on lament), Center Church (Tim Keller’s volume on church planting), and Surprised by Hope (true to its title).

Reading was a real highlight of lockdown — way more appealing than practicing the piano, for some reason. However, as shops started to re-open, I excitedly made my first “non-necessity” purchase — Ravel’s trio for piano, violin, and cello. Currently, it’s my favorite piece of chamber music.

Most music-making for an audience has been on hold. However, mid-May, I attended a small outdoor concert a friend was putting on for his neighbors — largely musical-genre, though I accompanied him for a couple German Lieder. Musically speaking, we were challenged by the evening breeze blowing my sheet music, the limitations of keyboard and sound system, and the noise of traffic going by. But, as the finale to a series of “window concerts” he’d put together over the previous months, the music was well-received by friendly neighbors and curious passersby.

…Although living alone was given new meaning during the lockdown, I was spared being particularly lonely. Besides lots of spontaneous phone calls, I found a new tradition developing of cherished Sunday afternoon coffee dates over video chat my old roommate, now in D.C. Locally, I enjoyed “visiting” friends by cycling or jogging by and chatting from the street up to their window. Or I met up with one or maybe two friends in the park or for a walk. What was really missing was being in each other’s homes — and hugs.

Staying in Touch

As odd as it sounds, perhaps the most shocking moment of lockdown was discovering the fact that international postal services had been interrupted. Letter in hand to a friend Stateside, I tromped merrily over to the post office one day, only to learn that no regular airmail could be delivered to the U.S. Stunned, I wandered outside and — as one does in our modern age — immediately communicated my consternation to Hannah and Peter via Whatasapp. A number of days later, when I again tried to post the letter, I got the same answer. I don’t know how many weeks it actually lasted till there were enough planes flying again to take regular mail across the Atlantic, but it was a far cry from the inofficial creed of the U.S. postal service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Easter

What a strange Easter Sunday — the highest point of the Church year, but church buildings empty around the world. Nonetheless, I found it to be one of the more special Easters I can remember. Slightly bending the rules, I got up early to meet two friends in a park for our own “sunrise service.” It was low-key in the extreme, but a beautiful, crisp morning under a clear sky and accompanied by bird song. We sang “Thine Be the Glory” and had an impromptu reading from John’s Resurrection account, followed by a mini Easter “brunch” of the hot cross buns I’d baked.

Back home, I enjoyed a second breakfast (I guess I was pretending to be a hobbit), accompanied by a favorite Easter reading from Surprised by Hope. I found myself laughing hard as I read — a joviality that suited the festive nature of the day!

We had a recorded Easter Sunday service online, which was quite good. Afterwards, I took a long bike ride, in part along the Danube, and later shared a “cocktail hour” with Hannah and Peter over a video call, followed by a delicious dinner. (I’ve never cooked such a nice meal just for myself!) Then I stayed up ridiculously late watching episodes 2-7 (i.e., basically the whole season) of The Chosen, a retelling of the life of Christ that is surprisingly fresh, winsome, and even funny. What a great day!

…Most other Sundays are a whole lot more low-key! We’ve had online services for about five months now, though at some point we started meeting in small “house church” groups. For many of us in the congregation, this has proved to be a wonderful opportunity to connect with different people or at deeper level than might be possible on an average Sunday. We’re now also meeting once a month in person, with lots of precautions — while waiting for the renovations of our new building to commence.

The New Mode

Everyone talks about the “new normal.” But rather than intending to close by philosophizing on the new modus operandi, I instead was to close with a bit of light-hearted reflection on the the neue Mode (German for “new fashion”). Namely, I found myself wondering if ten years from now, fashion designers are going to draw inspiration from the corona virus masks. I mean, just take a stroll around town and observe the remarkable diversity, creativity, and oddity of your fellow man!

First there’s the style question: Sleek and monotone? Bright and cheerful? Oddly patterned (perhaps upside-down dog print, or cacti)? Obviously homemade? Readily disposable?

But then there’s how you wear (or don’t wear) your mask: Across a bald scalp? Dangling from the elbow? Dangling from one ear? Hanging from a dress shirt button? And there’s the “low-ride” look — mask hanging just under the nose. Or the “at-the-ready” model — paper medical mask, with the elastic band drawing it tight under the chin. Remarkably, with the right outfit, this version looks like a new style accessory, offering a measure of convenience and a sort of subtle statement of social solidarity.

Masks: the “new normal” for public transport, grocery stores, etc. The new litter. A new standard of legalistic righteousness. (The low-riders are definitely missing the mark.) A new manner of self-expression, whether of practicality, particular caution, creativity, indifference, or adaptability.

Lest I accidentally tread out upon political sensitive waters, perhaps a bit of humor to finish off the topic:

Back in May, I joined a small gathering on a Sunday afternoon for an informal church service. We sat in a large circle around our hosts’ living room to watch and discuss a recorded sermon and to sing a couple of songs. We had all been requested to wear masks for the service, and I admit I felt pretty uncomfortable — being new to mask-wearing and also feeling pretty out of my element trying to lead the two hymns acapella, sitting on a couch, without optimum airflow. Thankfully, it was a forgiving bunch, and everyone was a good sport about it all.

After the service, our gracious hostess appeared from the kitchen with a platter of cupcakes, baked for someone’s birthday. The cupcakes were adorned with candles, and the birthday girl proceeded to do what birthday girls do: Blow them out. Then, to my intense and enduring amusement, we proceeded to take off our masks and, defying all cautionary logic, ate the cupcakes…. Happily, not only were the cupcakes tasty, but apparently the birthday girl was a specimen of good health.

On that note, I’ll sign off for now.

Coming up next: River, Lake, and Mountain

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B.C.

It’s been almost a year now since I headed Stateside last summer — so glad for that wonderful trip, especially considering how disrupted travel plans have been for countless individuals in recent months.

Now with the last assignment for the university semester handed in (virtually) last week, I’ll take this chance to step back in time to try to trace a few highlights of the fall, winter, and early spring.

Home and Office

When I returned to Vienna in September, I returned to lots of change. Not having been successful in finding a flat before summer travels, I found myself scouring fresh apartment ads while trying not to wear out my welcome at friends’ apartments. In the end, I stayed in six different homes of friends from church for a total of about 10 weeks. It was extremely stressful being in limbo — and at the same time a great gift to be able to get to know friends better and receive their eagerly offered hospitality.

As of December, I finally moved into my own flat — a quiet space with a combined living room/kitchen and a big bedroom, with high ceilings, creaky wood flooring, and tall windows letting in a lot of daylight. Little did I know that the following months would offer plenty of time to settle in, with home office/home learning/home everything just around the corner!

Also in the fall I found myself in a wonderful new work setting, providing quiet and a routine that were priceless in the midst of the housing search. After six or so years in four different school settings, last June I left my part-time job as an English teaching assistant in order to take on more translating and editing work in the University of Vienna’s Church History department. Although working as an independent contractor, I was given an office, first all to myself, then joined by a friendly Italian philologist. After the hubbub of middle and high school classrooms (however youthful and potentially pleasant), I’ve relished the quiet, the clearly defined tasks, and the greater engagement in a German-speaking context.

Besides the 10-15 hours a week at the university, I’ve carried on with my comparative religions studies and my admin assistant work at church. Our fall church retreat included well over 100 people this year — it was a full weekend, like always, included Bible talks, singing, evenings playing games and a “pub quiz” night, and a glimpse of the local countryside and a beautiful nearby monastery.

Holidays

Come Christmas, I was joined by my Uncle David and Aunt Renie from Phoenix, who had been in Poland for about 10 days and thought they’d take a “detour” to Vienna for the holidays! Their visit was a huge motivation to get settled in my new flat. In the process I discovered a new extreme sport known as washing windows. (Long story, but picture old-fashioned lower and upper windows, with both an inner and outer set. Then imagine discovering that the the upper, outer windows — at about head level when standing on the generously wide windowsill — didn’t open in or out, but rather lifted straight out of their frames. To wash them meant maneuvering the heavy panes between the inner and outer frames — being careful not to angle them all wrong, lest they somehow manage to crash to the street below!)

With my aunt and uncle in town, we filled the Christmas week with various festive and touristy activities — events with friends from church, Christmas markets (photo: D.T.), the musical instruments and ancient armor museum (photos: D.T.), and traditional Holder Christmas baking and a festive Christmas dinner.  And we played a good bit of Hand-and-Foot and Zilch, accompanied by plenty of Glühwein.

Perhaps the highlight for all three of us was a day trip over the border to the Czech Republic, to the town of Znojmo.    It’s so amazing how a short train ride can land you in another world or another time. We meandered through the quiet streets, taking in a cheese shop (photo: D.T.),colorful buildings picturesque in their mild state of decay, and an ancient church set grandly between the river below and the winter sky above.

For New Year’s, I traveled to Vorarlberg, the province farthest from Vienna but which I have visited more often than most of the others. My friend Rebecca welcomed me again for quiet days spent between the cozy comfort of home in small-town Austria and the refreshing air of the surrounding hills and mountains.

Highlights included getting up above the sea of fog for incredibly warm sunshine on New Year’s Day,   as well as a day skiing….

So, now I’m caught up to 2020 — more coming soon!

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A Marathon

Quiet. That’s what Vienna usually is on a Sunday morning, but in these strange times the quiet extends into the rest of the week. Necessary businesses have been kept open, but shopping areas, restaurants, tourist destinations, and many businesses are closed, not to mention the fact that other offices, international organizations, universities, and schools have shifted to home office and home learning.

In the past days of gorgeous spring weather, many have flooded to the city’s parks. But even there, playgrounds are largely corded off and people are pretty good at keeping the required 1-meter distance from anyone outside their immediate household. Police are patrolling the parks, which gives one the uncomfortable feeling that one might be breaking a rule even without realizing it. (Last Sunday I got reprimanded for riding my bike no-hands — surely that’s not really illegal!?) On the island park that stretches 20 kilometers along the Danube, there would be no hope of patrolling the whole area; but one is still within earshot of the loudspeaker repetitions of the current regulations — not German at its gentlest and finest, however necessary the announcements.

But, I suppose many of us may be feeling a surfeit of Coronavirus news these days. If you are one of those, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs before I get around to what I’ve been wanting to post for months!

…The current situation for me personally is not without much good. I am grateful to be able to work and study from home and am enough of an introvert to find the quiet like a glass of cool water after a long jog. I try to do my translating work for the university in the morning, get out for a long walk or bike ride or such and soak up the glory of spring sunshine, and tackle church admin tasks and university coursework — interrupted with plenty of phone calls to friends — into the evening. Then, at some point, I decide it’s time to read — what a glorious luxury to curl up on the couch and enjoy a good book! At the moment, two books — Center Church by Tim Keller and book three of Herr der Ringe.

Even if everyone who lives alone is going to be starved for a hug by the time this is all over, it’s such a blessing to be able to see friends — whether at the park (depending how you argue, it falls within the letter of the law to meet a friend outdoors and sit at opposite ends of a park bench) or even over GoogleMeet or from an apartment window. (Yesterday I took a jog by five friends’ flats and managed to catch three of them for a chat.)

That said, certainly one of the lessons we are all learning is that this is not just a personal experience, but also a dramatically corporate one. Our social distancing may not be chiefly about staying well ourselves, and hopefully it’s not just about sticking to the law of the land. It is about caring for others, about loving our neighbor. For those of us who identify as part of a church, we see anew that we are part of the Church universal. As the Church universal, i.e., throughout time, we are encouraged to look back at how believers have faced crises in other eras, how their Faith has borne them up in Hope and motivated them out in Love during times of plague or war that, at least for me, are unimaginable. As the Church universal, i.e., throughout space, we sense not only the global nature of our current predicament, but also practice reminding each other of the Savior who through his Resurrection has already laid the groundwork for making all things new, and who calls us to actively rest in him and to extend his love in whatever ways we can.

Well, meanwhile, it’s going to last a while. On Friday, the Austrian chancellor announced that the present regulations are valid through 13 April and then, if things have improved enough, life will start to return to (the new) normal. He called it a “marathon.”

And that brings me to another marathon. About a year ago, I watched a documentary film about a small group of elite runners who were attempting to break the 2-hour marathon barrier. The idea was to combine a team of experts – running coaches, nutritionists, pace setters, etc. – who would create the most ideal environment in which the world’s best long-distance runners would see if the human body and mind were capable of pulling off a marathon in under two hours. (In case you haven’t already done the math, that means running four-and-a-half-minute miles for 26.2 miles, or about 20kph.) They didn’t quite manage it in their first attempt (missing it by 25 seconds), but their effort was certainly inspiring.

Needless to say, it came as a very happy surprise last fall to learn that the next attempt was to be made in Vienna, with just a single runner (plus his team of alternating pace-setters). There was a lot of suspense building up in the days preceding the race – a range of dates were posted, but the final decision was made just days before, after the weather forecast assured planners of ideal conditions on 12 October. (For me, the date was special: Not only my mom’s birthday, but she once admitted that she had long dreamed of running the Boston Marathon some day. I confess I found this funny, as I knew Mom as fit but definitely not as a runner, but I have never forgotten the statement.) Not till Friday was the race-time posted, which added to the suspense.

Since it’s not news to anyone who follows the news that Eliud Kipchoge made history by running a marathon in 1:59:40.2 (or at least that was the unofficial time posted at the finish line), I can only say that it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen firsthand.

The route was over familiar territory for anyone in Vienna – a huge percentage of the local population has covered more or less the same ground on foot or by bike (e.g., where I got reprimanded by the policeman last week), or by stroller or scooter or skateboard – many of us more times than we could count. But there’s nothing like joining hundreds of other people, all rooting for one man to do something no one has ever done, right there in front of you.

Having shown up to the start on my bike, as soon as the runners had breezed by, I joined several dozen other riders who had the same idea – jumping on our bikes in a state of reckless enthusiasm and racing in parallel with the runners less than a stone’s throw to our left. I certainly didn’t ride the whole time, but since the race route was primarily four repetitions of the entire length of the park and back, there was ample opportunity to cheer from the sidelines or race along the bike paths, dodging pedestrians and people on scooters – and hobby runners seeing how long they could keep pace – yelling out cheers and joining in the general exuberance. I’ve certainly never had more fun on a bike.

The event was impressive to me on multiple accounts. Of course, it was a unique sporting accomplishment, a world record being played out in real time meters away. Moreover, on a different level, it felt like a human reality was being enacted by the gathered crowd. I remember the pastor at my home church in Knoxville talking about people’s fundamental need to worship and how striking it was to see fans at a football stadium expressing the postures of worship on a Saturday, even if they proceeded to sit unmoved in church the next morning. Even as I found myself thoroughly caught up in the atmosphere surrounding the marathon, I was simultaneously analyzing the crowd, and myself as part of it.

Here we all were – everyone cheering for the same team, everyone’s hopes set on a single individual. Yes, because we wanted to see him cross the finish line before the clock read 2:00:00 and, yes, because we wanted to see him make history – and also, yes, because his feat represented something for us collectively. We wanted to have the best distance runner mankind could offer make a statement for all of us – about physical ability and especially about mental strength. We wanted to see perfection (albeit defined on our terms). And seeing it, we were compelled to praise it. People clapped and shouted, finding themselves united around a common goal, forgetting for a moment the troubles of the past week or the ones the day might yet hold. Faces reflected joy and amazement. In the present of marathon-running perfection, the response was (in some sense of the word) worship.

Of course, one could call it idolatry and be half right. I’m sure there were plenty in the crowd who had no thought of God and whose only creed was the race organizers’ motto “No human is limited.” But calling it that would also be half wrong. We were made with beauty and excellence, and we were made for beauty and excellence. We were made for a single-minded pursuit (of God), and we are drawn to those who display an unwavering dedication to a goal. The jubilation wasn’t wrong – but it made me wish for more lively joy and wonder in the Source of all perfection and beauty and in the Goal that truly satisfies. I think of the words from the book of Hebrew: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2).

Well, here’s to running the current marathon well — meanwhile embracing the quiet, pursuing prayer, and, in a world buffeted by brokenness, turning afresh to the hope of our coming redemption. Most days, whether there’s Coronavirus in the air or not, I find the great challenge is remembering that Jesus has already crossed the finish line for us.

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France

The summer travels concluded in style, with a trip to southern France for the wedding of a dear friend I met my first semester studying in Vienna. Back in the fall of 2012, we found ourselves returning practice room keys to the porter at the same time one day and somehow started to chat. Both wishing for friends in a new place, we agreed we should meet up some time. She suggested the following Thursday; I had plans for a group of acquaintances to come cook/share Thanksgiving dinner at my place and invited Pauline to come along. Since then, we’ve shared many happy memories together – in Vienna, in Paris, and at her family’s summer home in Provence. Also, I think she’s my only Vienna friend who has ever visited my home in Knoxville….

I’d never been to a French wedding before this past summer, but I guess this occasion set the bar hopelessly high! Pauline’s family is wonderfully hospitable, and it’s hard not to have a good time when you are surrounded by quiet countryside, with vineyards and truffle oak and olive trees filling the view from the stone house that fits right into the earth-toned surroundings.

I arrived on Wednesday, Pauline’s dad picking me up at the closest train station in a little car that’s about as old as I am.

Thursday morning, a bicycle ride had been planned for all the American guests. (The groom is from the States, and he came with a fairly large contingent of family and friends.) At first, I was a bit skeptical of an e-bike  tour. But, in the end, what with rough terrain, enough hills, and jet lag, e-bikes were pretty brilliant. We had two guides, who didn’t stoop to e-bikes themselves and who were ready for the couple of flat tires we encountered.

The route took us through the countryside – dotted with vineyards and oak and olive trees – and through ancient towns – square church tours and rustic stone homes graced with lace-edged curtains.

     

The following morning, wedding preparations continued. (The civil wedding on Friday afternoon was to be followed by a party in the back yard.) Colorful lights were strung, tables were set with Provençal tablecloths and simple decorations gleaned from the nearby olive trees. A food truck arrived. We practiced snatched of music for the church wedding on Saturday.

 

The afternoon civil ceremony was held in the village’s town hall – I’m not sure it had ever been so packed! Monsieur Mayor read the brief articles of marriage, and the happy couple said yes and signed the requisite paperwork. After the brief ceremony, we gathered on the local plaza, the photos and visiting accompanied by background music provided by two local musicians.

The evening’s party was relaxed – twilight settling over the festively-adorned lawn, good food and drink, and a few speeches.

Saturday dawned with rain in the forecast, but that wasn’t allowed to spoil the day. Early afternoon, the musicians for the church ceremony gathered for our one and only rehearsal all together. There was a small choir, as well as violin, cello, clarinet, bassoon, and organ (me: keyboard). It was a bit nerve-wracking, but also fun – we were short on time and everyone wanted to play especially well for Pauline (a fabulous violinist).

The ceremony was conducted by a priest hailing from Chile, who is a close family friend. The beautiful setting and thoughtfully crafted service — a tiny, packed church, dating probably to medieval times,  simple decorations made of dried wheat and lavender, beautiful Baroque music — created a very special atmosphere.

After the wedding, there were the customary photos for family, and then we all headed to the reception at a hotel some little distance away. Oh my, what a grand occasion! Drinks and hors d’oeuvre were followed by a splendid meal.  The tables were set not only elegantly, but Pauline had carefully placed the guests; I found myself seated between a French violinist and a Korean cellist – both friends whom I met at the music university in Vienna. Moreover, each of the perhaps 100+ guests’ name cards included a hand-written note!

A leisurely four-course meal was interspersed with speeches and by the rather hilarious retelling of the bride and grooms’ first meeting. Dinner was followed by dancing that continued far into the night. I think I left around 2 or so (a.m.), but the party was far from over!

The next morning, there was a brunch for all the wedding guests, and then people slowly dispersed to their respective homes. I caught a train back to Paris and spent the night at a friend’s place. The next morning there was a bit of time to walk through Paris – past the construction zone around Notre Dame and along the Seine and through a corner of the Luxembourg Gardens – before an afternoon flight landed me back in Vienna.

What a summer! I am thankful for the many wonderful visits and for the time outdoors and for the special occasions to celebrate with family and friends.

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