Wednesday, August 27, 2008

So ... how's that move coming?

Cardinal rule of blogging: broken. I could make excuses about Internet access and bein' busy, but Sean's been in the same situation as me and managed to send out quite a few posts since we arrived. Of course, he was often doing this:

Yes, that is Sean precariously balancing his laptop on the sill of our bedroom window (no screen, sixth floor up), hoping to catch some wifi on the wind. We found that if it was both morning and not too humid, we had a fairly good chance of getting a weak-and -unstable-but-serviceable signal at that exact spot. Fortunately, you can't really beat that spot as far as views go. I mean ... castle! I love waking up and looking out to see it every morning through these huge, cheerful windows.

While we still enjoy standing at those windows, our wifi pirating days are over. These last few days have been remarkable in terms of taking care of the necessities: we have cable Internet here at the house, we have cell phones and bus passes. Today we started the process of getting our visas at the police station and tomorrow we will go for a medical check up required by the school--after this weekend (long weekend for national holidays) we'll also have a local bank account. None of this can be credited to our ambition or moxie: our hosts and guides have taken care of us and all the details--we've just shown up with our documents and been ready to sign stuff! We're feeling blessed in so many ways these days.

So, now that I really have no excuses, some first impressions of our new home:
  • Sean is still an excellent cook here, and my baking skills seem to have traveled with us as well. Of course there are some differences in the ingredients, tools, measurements and methods, but so far we're doing quite well. I'll be sure to document our first (and, from what I've heard, inevitable) spectacular cooking/baking failure. Until then, though ...Sean made one of the best spaghetti sauces ever with oven-roasted tomatoes, bell pepper, onion and garlic. I made a loaf of banana bread, which you can see featured in this picture along with a St. Luke's prayer shawl (we've had some cool days already!) I substituted plain yogurt for the sour cream and it worked beautifully. I also made bread pudding, but it was a Paula Deen recipe and maybe unnecessarily sweet. I think I'd like to make cookies next, but we'll need to track down a cookie sheet. Everything is just a little different, and it's hard for me to explain exactly how: sugar, flour, butter ... but so far it's all turning into yummy stuff. One interesting difference we've noticed in the grocery store is that we can't find celery but celery root, or celeriac, is everywhere, even little tiny convenience stores. Time to make some soup! Also, the quality of fruit, especially stone fruit, in the grocery stores seems better here. It had been a long time since I'd had a good plum.
  • On our first day in Slovakia, David and Carla took us to one of their favorite places for pizza. When we sat down our menu didn't have any pizza in it. We got a menu from another table--it, too, seemed to have had a page removed. We found out from the waiter that the restaurant, which continues to have the word "pizza" in its name, no longer serves pizza. This was especially weird because David and Carla had just gotten pizza there recently. Then a copy shop that had been open the day before closed without warning for renovations. Then Larry noticed the picture on my desktop: I told him I took it from the tower of Bratislava castle. "When?" he asked. "In January." "Right before it closed down for repairs... why ... it's you!" Yes, I am behind all these strange events. Beware. Bwah ha ha.
  • So, between all that and successfully predicting the weather (I've started getting migraines the day before storm systems move in ... blergh) I've been pretty busy, but not too busy to pick up some basic and useful Slovak phrases. I'm pretty good at saying thank you, hello (at various times of day), excuse me, I'm sorry, good-bye, please and I don't know. I've gotten good enough at these phrases that I have misled many well-meaning strangers into thinking I know Slovak; hilarity ensues. The only solution is to learn Slovak! Put it on the list!
  • My first Sunday in Slovakia I helped lead the singing and the prayers of the church, enjoyed sitting in the congregation with Sean, and got to meet many good folks after the service at coffee hour. My second Sunday I got robed and led worship with Pastor David, taking on parts of the liturgy previously off-limits to me (parts marked "P"!) I got to lead my favorite part of the service: the order for confession and forgiveness. It is such a reliable and powerful witness to God's grace--we confess that we are in bondage to sin, we cannot free ourselves, and we hear and receive the Good News that ALL our sins are ENTIRELY forgiven. What could be better? How about a baptism? We baptized an adult member of the congregation--it was baptism, confirmation, and first communion all at once, as in the Orthodox tradition. That baptism made everything feel even more precious than usual: the gift of water, the welcome of the table, the way the Word came to us in the sermon and the hymns, especially as we sang "Go, my children, with my blessing," the beautiful sending song by Slovak hymn-writer Jaroslav Vajda, who just passed away this summer. "In my love's baptismal river/I have made you mine forever/Go my children, with my blessing, you are my own." My parents and I sang this hymn and wept before I moved to Texas; Sean and I sang it walking down the aisle together as very-newly-weds; we sang it at St. Luke's again the Sunday I preached and the congregation prayed for our safe transition to Slovakia. I've always associated it closely with St. Luke's, and home, but now I also connect it with Slovakia, with the baptisms celebrated and remembered all over the world, and with finding home in Christian community near and far.

Well, now I've broken another rule of blogging and gone on for too long. No excuses, just one more picture.
This is our magnetic photo wall. We realized the day we left for Bratislava that we have lots of prints from our wedding and pretty much no other recent events. We also ended up with too many pictures of just the two of us and we know what we look like. Send us photos! We will display them with honor and care. Our mailing address is here.

Later, gators.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So ... how's that list coming?

Today is the day Sean and I depart for Slovakia; our flight leaves from O'Hare at 10 pm and will arrive in Vienna at 5:30 pm tomorrow. Today is also our two-year wedding anniversary. It seems fitting and auspicious to begin our adventure together this way, this day!

But, you may ask, what ever happened to that To-Do list you made back in June? It was completed, and quickly replaced by other lists. But it's worth taking another look, just to give me a small sense of accomplishment on a morning when we aren't ... quite ... packed (one of our brand new suitcases had a defective zipper. Eh, could be worse. We're going back to exchange it today. Plenty of time! =))

Done in June, July and August as preparation for pastoral internship and mission volunteering in Slovakia:

1. Sold most of our earthly possessions. This went really well, as previously reported. We are free of excess stuff and it's great. Very liberating. We hope to never own a car again. But before you make us saints of simple-living, know that we have probably over-packed for our trip. Neither of us is really sure how to pack for going abroad for a whole year--what clothes to bring or to leave--and we've both leaned toward "bring" since we have this neat allowance from the ELCA to go over our bag and weight limit. This is probably a mistake, but we won't know what was right to bring and what was wrong until we get there. If we do another short term mission assignment, we'll be better prepared for this part. Still, I'm going to take another look in the bags today and pull out what I can.

2. Went to the Jersey Shore, soaked it up. Sean is really hoping my first call will be to shore town. As long as there's a boardwalk with rides, soft serve, fried oreos and mini-golf, I'm there!

3. Prayed. For my family, missing Jason, and for my future students, the third years: at the end of this past year one of their classmates committed suicide. For my cousin L and my sister M who are sick. For safe travels and preparations for all the missionaries I met at orientation--and for all of us in that group, for support and love as we navigate transitional times. This is one that can't be checked off the list! Please keep us in your prayers, especially as we travel today and tomorrow.

4. Got trained. I'm still processing everything I learned at the Bread for the World Hunger Justice Leader training. The days were densely packed and each workshop was full of useful, engaging and meaningful material. If I'd been good, I would have blogged every night. Sleeping is for the weak. =)

This picture is from the training, and it's on the Bread for the World page promoting a really exciting campaign that all of you voter-types living in the US should consider taking part in: BEAT Hunger 2008. You sign up, Bread sends you emails when there are political events/townhall meetings in your area, you go and ask the candidates a question relating to domestic or world hunger, and maybe someone goes with you and records it and puts the whole exchange up on YouTube. Candidates start to realize that hunger is a real and relevant campaign issue, and should be a priority for them when elected as well. This will be tricky to do from Slovakia, but my dad signed up last night; you can join him by signing up here, and reading more about it here.

5. Wrote prayers for Sundays and Seasons. Look for my intercessory prayers in 2010: the First and Second Sundays of Christmas, Epiphany Sunday, Vigil of Easter and Easter Sunday. The Easter Vigil prayers were the most fun to write: if you haven't been to an Easter Vigil service, I highly recommend it!

6. Enjoyed New Jersey. We did! And we miss it. We've also enjoyed Park Ridge, my hometown. It's been very, very good to have this time with my folks, but I bet they'll be glad to have their condo, and they're regular routine, back! We're looking forward to getting into a regular routine of our own.

7. Enjoyed our family. This is also not something that gets crossed off the list. We will continue to do this, if from afar, over Skype, through emails and letters, and with the pictures y'all post. As we told our niece and nephew, "It'll still be good, just different."

We very much enjoyed time with our friends and family at the sermon/sending/anniversary party my folks hosted August 3. It reminded me of my high school graduation party, and our wedding reception, too ... so many good people coming together from different parts of our lives, interacting with each other in neat and unexpected ways, the room filled with warm, good feeling. Laurel said: "This is a good group, this is a safe place." It's true! We are blessed to have such a strong, loving support network. (And prayer shawls, from the St. Luke's Prayer Shawl Ministry--we also have one Mim made us for our wedding--we were advised to bring 'em all, as it can be cold indoors and outdoors in the winter!)
So, what's left to do? Replace that suitcase, finish packing, take it all apart and pack again, get on the plane. Do these things that are ongoing ... Enjoy our family! Pray! Wistfully remember New Jersey! Depart for a new place, knowing that we are loved unconditionally, glad for grace.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Those who know me know ... I'm a cupcake fan.

In August 2005 we were starting to plan our wedding; I wasn't all that into it. I was excited about getting married, I just wasn't excited about ... getting married. I looked forward to planning worship, but I dreaded all the logistics of a reception. Then my mom said, "How about cupcakes instead of cake?"

That changed everything! I realized the reception could be a chance to share our quirky selves with our friends and family--enjoyable for everyone involved. We could have cupcakes instead of cake, lunch at the church instead of dinner at a hotel, and playing cards and a potted plant at every table. Cupcakes gave us permission to be creative and to be ourselves.

I enjoyed my cupcake-related research so much that I kept up with it after the wedding--seeking out blogs with good recipes and ideas. The best is the clearinghouse of all things cupcake, Cupcakes Take the Cake. I go there for all my cupcake-related news. =)

Which is why this totally made my day. Woo hoo! It may not be the most flattering photo, but it captures a joyful moment, and now it's been shared with others. Neat!

Here's another picture of us recreating the ceremonial "cutting of the cupcake" from our reception, 2 years ago August 12.
And here is my favorite cupcake recipe, a vegan applesauce spice cake I put together from several sources and tweaked into a never-fail favorite. Other cupcakes are prettier; none I've had are as consistently tasty. =)

Table prayer

As I sat down with the children of St. Luke's, I realized I was pretty much a total stranger to them. So I introduced myself: "My name is Annie--I grew up in this congregation, just like you are now. As you know, this is a great church to grow up in." They nodded knowingly. And it's true! Demonstration to follow ...

So, I summarized the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (more knowing nods from the children ... they were quite familiar with the story already) and tied that into the work of the ELCA World Hunger Appeal, which St. Luke's supports. "The World Hunger Appeal is one way the church gathers all of our gifts for Jesus to bless and multiply, so that people have enough to eat." Then they helped me teach an extended version of "Come, Lord Jesus" to the congregation. Together, we learned:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest
Let these gifts to us be blessed.
Blessed be God who is our Bread
May all the world be clothed and fed.

One boy in particular volunteered that he already knew the prayer, so I asked him when he prayed it.
"Exactly! It's a mealtime prayer, a table prayer ... and I want to pray this prayer with all of you now, but we need a meal and a table ... do you see a table in this room?"

This was the part that amazed and impressed me: I didn't even finish the question before all of the children had turned and pointed to the table behind us, all set for Holy Communion. I learned to think of the altar as a table and Communion as a meal in seminary. Most of these kids were pre-reading age, most of them don't receive Communion yet, but they already have a deep theological understanding of the Lord's Supper as true nourishment. They know that we gather around the table, we are fed, and we are sent out to feed others. How cool is that?!

Which is exactly what I said at that point in the children's sermon. "Yes! You're right! That's so cool!" We all stood up and gathered around the table; we held hands and the congregation joined us in praying the prayer again. At the second service there were fewer kids, so the assisting minister, lector ("That's my mom!" I explained to the kids,) the music director, and presiding minister all joined the circle, too. I gave each kid a magnet with the words of the prayer (and the ELCA World Hunger website) to take home.

"Come, Lord Jesus" has always been meaningful for me; it is my family table prayer, a sign that I am home with people I love. Praying it in this new context--with the children and the table set for Communion--added a whole new layer of meaning and made me think about the words and appreciate them as I never have before. I'd recommend the experience for kids of all ages.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sermon Podcast: Bread for the Journey

I was honored to preach this morning at St. Luke's, my home congregation. The texts were Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:13-21. I also got to do the children's message, but I'll post more on that later! Also for a later post: a report on the wonderful party we had back at our house after church.

But for now, subscribe to our podcast (via iTunes or other software) or download and listen to the sermon here. The text of the sermon (not a transcript, but close enough) is available as a pdf here and as a Word document here.

It was a wonderful day spent with family and friends. Now it's 10 pm and my dad is starting to turn off all the lights around the house ... must be bedtime for Edison-Swift-Albrights. I will not argue! But first, a picture of me and Mommy, after the service:

You can see more pictures from the service and the party on our flickr page.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Sermon Podcast: When Jesus Comes to Dinner

Click here to listen to our podcast of Thursday's sermon. Below is the artwork we used as part of our reflection: a paper cutting of the loaves and fishes by Fan Pu, a Chinese Christian artist I met in Nanjing in 2002. What do you like/notice/find interesting about the picture?