On the Way

Praying in Croatian still feels laborious and even tortuous, like I’m trying to dig a deep hole in dirt that hasn’t seen water in years. Almost like I’m trying to fit oval-shaped ideas into square-shaped language boxes—sometimes with awkward or unfortunate results.

It is fairly ironic, therefore, that a few weeks ago I felt compelled to start a mid-week prayer service at our church.

After I whispered my idea to the other leadership right before the service for their agreement (our all-to-frequent way of operating),  pastor D. announced it at the end of church.

So there it was.

It has been taking place for a few weeks now, and we are a small group, between five and ten, and everyone is in various stages ‘on the Way.’ Some have just been coming to church for a few months.  Some have been baptized.

I drove one woman today, and it was  her first time to the prayer service although she has been coming to church for the last few months. She told me she  decided to follow Jesus and wants to be baptized sometime this year. “But I don’t have to say anything today?” she anxiously asked me.  “I can just see what is happening?”

I smiled.  “No one is going to force you to do anything.”

Some are unable to pray at all.

“I want to pray, but it gets stuck somewhere here, ” one man said, pointing to his throat.

“That used to happen to me, too,” another lady said, “and I’m not sure what happened but now I can pray.”

“You don’t have to be ashamed or shy to pray in front of others, ” pastor D. said.  “Look at Melody, she is praying in Croatian and making so many mistakes, but God knows what she is trying to say.”

I sigh inwardly, but also have to laugh that I am used as the example of the poor soul who makes little sense to anyone but God.

“Pray for me, ” Grandmother K. commands, “but pray in American!”

“In English?” I clarify.

“No!” she says, smirking, “American!”

At last! I think.  I am free to pray as I wish!  But when I look up from my heartfelt English prayer, everyone stares at me blankly. Okay, good for me, not so good for the community, I think regretfully.

Last week, I was the only one from the leadership team who could come. That felt like a long hour, since only two of the five people who came were able to pray in front of others. I was sweating a little bit toward the end.  “Ok, when I am weak…” I comfort myself.

Still, there is something strangely intimate and community-forming by sitting in a circle together, and it feels very different from Sunday.  Usually, I read a Psalm a couple of times at the beginning.  Well actually, after my nervously tripping tongue butchered the Psalm the first time, I now ask one of the people who can read to read it.

But that is good too, I think, because we are learning how to participate together as a community.  In fact, we are learning how to pray together.  For me, I am learning how to pray in Croatian.  For some, they are learning how to pray for others—the community, the refugees, the Roma in Europe, and all nations.  And still others, although just now they are only listening, one day they may feel the freedom to pray in front of everyone.

But I love this freedom—we are all on the Way—in our own ways.  And Jesus knows exactly where we are and where we are going.

 

Spontaneous Moments of Joy

When great-grandmother kicked the soccer ball,  long skirt swooshing around her legs, her smoke-deepened voice letting out a yell, we all shrieked with laughter. In a split second, all the children and adults were in the fray, chasing the the ball and passing it to each other.  All of a sudden, I was no longer the ‘church leader coming to visit.’ We were not divided by ethnicity, language,  life experience, socio-economics, or education.  We were just a group of people laughing with the sheer joy of being in this unexpected moment.

Although I felt fully present in a way that has recently been lacking in my life, I was also conscious of taking a step back.  Even as I also was chasing the ball and laughing hysterically when the great-grandmother kept calling for the ball, I was studying the faces: smiles stretched from ear to ear, eyes fully alive and full of light, bodies moving in a wild helter-skelter of grace and motion.

A few moments ago, we had been in the grim realities of survival tales.  A mother in charge of many children who incurred an astronomical and therefore unpayable fine because she didn’t have the proper bike lights while cycling at night.  Now she was threatened with going to jail.  A husband who was currently in jail. A pregnant daughter. The daily stresses of providing food for all the children, without jobs, dependent on social help. The list goes on.

And yet, in a single spontaneous second, all the burdens of life were forgotten and we were just in one wild, crazy moment of laughter and joy.  Afterwards, the great-grandmother invited us to eat from the large pot of beans she had made for the entire clan.  I knew their resources are scarce, and I knew this pot was feeding all the children for the day.  But I also knew that this was offered out of a sense of hospitality, connection, and respect, and I could not refuse it.  So my friend and I ate sparingly, graciously deflecting the cultural urging of “Just eat just eat.”

Sometimes, I reminded afresh of what it really means to be human, of what it really means to connect with someone, of these moments of joy that sprinkle life’s hardship like fine, powdered sugar.  And I am grateful.