It’s high summer. During the warm afternoons, tourists abound in the center city, and the locals are likely off on holiday, planning holiday, or swimming in the Danube (or, more prosaically, still stuck in the office). In the evening, the neighbors’ voices drift in through the open terrace door as the long dusk reluctantly deepens. As night descends, the soporific chirping of crickets makes me think of Tennessee and hot summer nights with fans running and fireflies flickering outside the open windows.
I’m certainly glad for the end of the school year and university semester, for the lighter workload, some travel on the agenda, and the prospect of family traveling this direction. But, before I get carried away with such anticipation, a grateful glance backward is in order to sum up the past few months since Hannah’s visit and my last blog post.
Besides running around in the figurative sense of being too busy, there have been two fun group races that I have participated in in the last months. In April, as part of the 150th anniversary of the Catholic school where I teach part time, there were four teams organized to participate in the relay portion of the Vienna City Marathon, an event that attracts something like 40,000 participants (including half marathon, kids runs, etc.). I volunteered for whatever stretch needed to be covered for whatever team I ended up on — and of course I got assigned the longest stretch. I’ll have to admit, it was not remotely my best running day, but the point was passing the baton (again, figurative, thanks to our tracking chips).
Afterwards, after racing home (metaphorically speaking) for a shower and change of clothes, there was still time to head back downtown to watch some of the finishers (including a guy who has run every consecutive Vienna marathon for the race’s entire 40-year history!) and then to hang out with fellow teachers. I felt about as much of the school team as I ever have, which was worth the 15.5 km of discomfort!
In June, a friend from church motivated five of us women to participate in a 5k “hobby run” in a small town just outside of Vienna. It was the total opposite race experience. We were all of about 170 participants, and the course took a idyllic loop out of town into the fields (corn, wheat, sunflowers). When I realized how few runners were participating overall, I launched into competitive mode and was terribly pleased to finish under 25 minutes — hilariously, second place of women between 30-40 years old!
If summer sunshine, exercise, and friends have been refreshing to mind and body, the highlight of spiritual refreshment in the last months was attending a Langham Conference on the Old Testament. The Langham Partnership is a ministry associated with exegetical preaching and growing out of the ministry of the well-known British pastor John Stott. In recent years, an Austrian branch has been established, and the yearly conferences are open to clergy and laity wanting to deepen their ability to communicate the gospel through proclaiming the Scriptures.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. Out of about 100 participants, we were just about 20 women, and most of those had an obvious reason to be there — tied to a particular missions agency or student ministry, etc. I signed up, realizing I needed something fresh and outside my normal routine, especially since I’m almost always “on duty” at my home church, where it’s hard to lay aside my church secretary hat and just to “receive.”
All that said, the conference was amazing. I came away deeply encouraged through the lectures and sermons, through observing the representation of participants from all over Austria, and through Christians from different denominational backgrounds uniting around a common love for the Gospel proclaimed in and through the Bible. The conference this year focused on Old Testament exegesis. Since that’s a slightly large topic (ha!), we camped out largely Exodus 33-34, with time for individual and group work — identifying our listeners (Bible study group, congregation, whatever) and then working on steps for how to get to the heart of the passage, break it down in manageable pieces, etc. I guess that’s all pretty normal for pastors accustomed to exegesis, but I found it both fun and frustrating!
Between sessions, there was also the chance to catch up with a couple of friends and to meet new friends. The first day, a handful of us who ended up standing around after the evening session realized we had all four voice parts covered among us, and we had an impromptu hymn-sing. The other two evenings were spent laughing more than I had in a long time.
It didn’t hurt that the conference was held in the beautiful Schloss Klaus, a couple of hours outside of Vienna. Since there was plenty of decent food to enjoy, it was a good thing that we spent a lot of time running up and down stairs. I think from the main entrance to my dorm room, there were something like 188 steps!
Another joy in recent months has been the ongoing gift of getting to know our Syrian neighbors. I think I’ve been more or less adopted into the family — I can’t say how many cups of coffee we’ve shared, or how many times the mom of the family has brought my flatmate and me something she’s cooked…homemade cake or pizza or lamb and rice rolled up in grape leaves picked from the vineyards on the edge of town….
I’ve been really amazed by the family’s efforts to make Austria home — working diligently on German, looking for work, etc. One of the biggest joys was getting to be part of finding a high school for their daughter, a daunting project that was most providentially arranged!
Over a long weekend in May, I visited the wonderfully old city of Kraków with my friend Anne. The city boasts beautiful architecture, a plethora of ice cream shops to rival gelato shops in Venice, and a complex history.
We enjoyed getting a bit acquainted with the local culture. We tried some interesting and delicious foods, but not the sort to facilitate trimming your waistline. Imagine a generous helping from this bucket of lard (below, left) being slathered upon a giant slice of bread and topped with roasted onions and pork! Or, this decorative, smoked cheesed (below, right) – grilled and topped with lingonberry sauce….
One day we made the journey to nearby Auschwitz-Burkenau, to visit two of the most horrific concentration camps of WWII. It was a strange day. On a warm, sunny afternoon, with a few happy clouds sailing across the sky, we joined one of the numerous, well-organized tour groups in various languages that were spread out across the extensive grounds. As we listened to our tour guide and entered various barracks or viewed the remains of ghastly gas chambers, it was hard to believe what we were seeing. We looked at piles of shoes belonging to children, practically-minded souls, and the fashion-conscious, at a vast assortment of vintage crockery carried to a final resting place in a spirit of naivety or optimism, and at mounds of hundreds of pounds of hair clippings — all belonging to people systematically destroyed….
…For many individuals, whether Holocaust survivors or philosophers, Auschwitz is the epitome of the problem of evil, of how a good, all-powerful God could exist. For some, the place and all it stands for completely negates the possibility that the Christian God could have anything to say that’s worth listening to, especially if the perpetrators were identified with “Christian” nations. The darkest of sarcasms, written on the gate into Auschwitz, offers a sinister welcome — “Arbeit macht frei” (“work sets you free”).Distancing those words from their immediate context, lest I be guilty of armchair ruminations that in any way make light of the original context, I got to thinking about that phrase, about how it encapsulates the absolute antithesis of the gospel of Christ. Work sets you free? No way — not the good works that are never enough, not the self-help that never quite suffices, not the busyness of the day-to-day that tries to stuff full an inner void. But, whose work sets you free? Christ’s work — “It is finished.” The Cross, so incongruous a throne for a God who holds all power, possesses all knowledge, is goodness itself, himself. Yet it is Christ’s work there that supremely displays the Good Shepherd’s love for his people. He is the Gate welcoming all nations to salvation, the I Am, who promises a redemption that will somehow, some day, unravel evil so completely that no one will doubt his power or his goodness…. “Lord, I believe — help my unbelief!”
Although the end of the school year means the cessation of some regular activities, other work carries on irregardless of the academic calendar. Work at church is going well, with the new twist of looking forward to welcoming a new assistant pastor to our staff team, hopefully arriving in the early fall!
The last few weeks included the provision of some un-looked-for work — a book editing job for a contact at the university. Whew, commas became the temporary bane of my existence, but Friday I turned in my final edit of the 250-page volume — having learned at least a little about editing and also a bit about literary criticism as it meets some very interesting New Testament exegesis. (And, hopefully you are not now fine-combing this post for proofreading errors!)
A pleasant juxtaposition of work and leisure materialized in being invited to join an outing with a small group of Uni students and faculty, organized by the professor for whom I have been doing a good deal of translating work. We spent a beautiful summer day — it felt like Kansas, with the wide fields and big sky — visiting Carnuntum, a Roman military outpost dating back to the first century A.D.
An impressive monument preserves a bit of the glory of conquering Rome, humorously vying for attention with the windmills that today dot the surrounding landscape. Partial reconstruction of the town (with its commodious homes and communal bath house) and the hints of the arenas and gladiator training grounds all seemed rather otherworldly amidst the windswept wheat and sunflower fields that now march alongside the Danube River.
I found it hard to fathom that soldiers of the first Roman garrison there were tramping around what is today Austria — at the same time the boy Jesus was growing up in Nazareth. Later, famous Roman emperors spent time there, including Marcus Aurelius and Diocletian.
The famous maxim — “quit while you are ahead” — may also apply to blog posts. So, rather than adding more words, I will sign off with a promise to report next time on a road trip to France and on visits from cousins and sister and brother-in-law!
But, if you are up for more reading, do take a look at Hannah’s latest blog post, where she has described her and Peter’s renovation of our parents’ home — a whirlwind trip but with her characteristic attention to detail.