Saturday, August 30, 2008

Theological Reflection from Estonia 1

When it came to organising my Parish Placement I knew that it would present certain challenges. My Anglican friends discussed which local parishes were sufficiently dissimilar to their own while remaining open to accepting someone on placement, and all were able to be accommodated reasonably close to home. As a Lutheran, I suppose I could have simply gone to a local Anglican, Methodist, URC or Baptist church and still have met the NOC criteria, but I felt that would not have been acceptable to my Bishop.
Both my predecessors had travelled to the United States for their placements in order to experience a Lutheran setting and I knew that such would be the expectation for me too. However, I was not keen to travel to the USA: I had some contacts in Europe through having toured with the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and I wanted my placement to have a European Lutheran context. I already knew that many churches in major cities abroad conducted services for English speaking congregations and so through a friend in Estonia I was able to contact Dean Gustav Piir and set the whole process in motion.

In order for this to be a worthwhile experience, of course, it had to be a placement of some weeks duration and so it could only be accommodated in the summer school break, whereas everyone else would already have completed their placements in the spring term.

What I realised some months into the planning was that I could have simply gone to London to have my placement at St. Annes’s, the LCiGB’s flagship congregation.

Every Wednesday evening during the spring term, then, I would turn up at college and hear the others talking about how they were getting on and sharing their experiences and the more I heard, the more I looked forward to my own placement.

For many months, therefore, the placement was simply an event on the horizon: practicalities were sorted out with Dean Gustav by e-mail and other than booking flights, I didn’t pay it too much attention, with far more immediate concerns relating to the ongoing college experience.

As I travelled down to Stansted airport by train, I was surprised by my feelings: the enormity of what I had not thought too much about hit me and I felt very down. I thought at first that it was my innate anxiety about travel: would the Stansted hotel really have my booking? Would I oversleep? Would I make it to check in at 3.30 the following morning? What if I missed the plane? And so on. These were, of course, to some extent valid anxieties, but on reflection I don’t think they were at the heart of my malaise. I was unhappy to be leaving the family for such an extended period of time and I know that the implications of that hit me hard on the journey down, but the reality of the situation was that it was a standard "fight or flight" reaction to an unknown situation. Would I be able to cope? What if Gustav and I didn’t get on? Tallinn is a long way from Leeds to be for such a long time if things are not going well and you know virtually no one in the city.

Three hours disturbed sleep in an airport hotel did nothing to improve my mood.

It was at some point during the flight, as I was mulling over the content of my first sermon in Tallinn that an idea began to dawn on me. The semon would be based on the Gospel story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water from Matthew 14. I would be talking to the congragation about trusting Jesus enough to get out of the safety of the boat and the routines we cling to and stepping into the unknown of the storm. Well, that is exactly what I was in the process of doing: I was stepping into the unknown and it was threatening. How would I know whether I would sink or walk if I didn’t even step out of the boat? Well I was stepping out of the boat, but I didn’t have to be enjoying the experience.

From this epiphany onwards my mood lifted: the travel related anxieties had proved to be without foundation and things had gone without a hitch. Even the presence of a large stag party on the plane seemed a good omen. "You’re English and you’ll be in Tallinn? Give us your mobile number. Come out for a beer with us – well a few. It’d be good to see you."

Dean Gustav was there to greet me and I instantly warmed to him: he seems rather a shy man and it struck me that agreeing to have me must also be rather like stepping out of the boat and into the storm in faith. After all, I could be a nightmare.

This Gospel theme continued to guide my thoughts and actions beyond my arrival. In my journal I describe in detail how the Russian assault on Georgia had serious ramifications for our church community. Two hours before I was due to deliver my sermon I attended a pro-Georgian rally outside Tallinn’s Russian embassy. I did this after much thought as a totally inadequate gesture of support for one of the church staff, herself a Georgian. As I was eating my lunch and going over the sermon I was very struck by the fact that I was going to challenge people to respond to Jesus’s command "Come". I had felt in my own conscience that Jesus was telling me "Come". Could I fail to respond to that call myself and then in all integrity talk to others about hearing Jesus’ voice? Clearly not, but I felt that it had to be more than just attending. Like Peter, I had to move outside my comfort zone: it wouldn’t be enough just to be one of the crowd. I had to express a Christian presence and so I went to the rally in clerical shirt and collar. People smiled at me and one of the speakers thanked me for being there. It would seem that I had made the right decision.