Newsletter 4

Greetings! I recently published another newsletter with stories and events from March and April. Contact me if you’d like to be added to my email list, or just enjoy it here on my blog.

KLarsen newsletter4


In Memoriam

My maternal grandfather, Russell Lee Creaser, died on March 30, 2016. He had been recovering from a stroke since July 2014, and I had the opportunity to visit him a few months before I left for Hungary. We knew it was going to happen this year while I was abroad, but that doesn’t make the pain and grief any less terrible.  I was able to be present at his funeral service on April 11 via Skype. I’d like to share with you something I wrote for his funeral:

When I heard of Papa’s death, I first turned not to scripture, but to the hymnal. I miss the old, familiar tunes: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!”   “Just a closer walk with thee, grant it, Jesus, is my plea…”   “Come home! Come home! You who are weary, come home. Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling ‘O sinner, come home!’”.  A recent memory I have with Papa is when we were all singing “How great thou art” at the care home, and when we got to the refrain, he sang with such gusto: “Then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee, how great thou art! How great thou art!” Sometimes, the organist will play this as an instrumental during communion at my church and it always brings me to tears, because I remember Papa.

Papa is a soul-singer. Music is how he frequently communicated with the rest of the world and with the divine. I’ve never heard anyone sing with such conviction. He expressed his faith through music, and I know he touched many lives this way, including my own. In this time of grief and pain, I am comforted by the music he shared with me, and the music we both share as a larger church:

“Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever;

Unto them his grace he showeth, and their sorrows all he knoweth.”   (ELW 781, v. 3)

Nothing will ever separate us from the love of God: not Papa’s death, nor angels, nor rulers, not mountains or valleys or anything else in all creation. Because of the resurrection, death does not have the final say. Papa’s memory will live on in all of us, in the stories we tell and how he impacted our lives. Though they may feel far away, God is with us in this moment, accompanying us in this time of celebration and grief.

Let us pray: God, I thank you for the life of Papa Creaser. I thank you for his presence in my life for the past 23 years, and how he’ll influence my life for years to come. In these days of sorrow and rejoicing, be with all my family near and far who are remembering your faithful servant, Russell. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Papa and the Washington cousins, ca. 1999 (I’m second from the right)
Skyping with my grandparents, Nanny and Papa, on Christmas this year.


Easter in Hungary

Kellemes Húsvéti Űnnepeket! Happy Easter! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

For Easter, as on Christmas, I was invited to travel to Slovakia with our chaplain, Páli, and his wife, Helga. We went to three different Hungarian-speaking villages for worship. Daylight Savings Time also started in Hungary on Easter Sunday, so it was quite an early morning for us! We had communion at all three churches, and I even said a prayer in English and Hungarian. The prayer comes from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and Páli helped me translate it to Hungarian:

O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen. (ELW page 31)

Istenem! A Te egyszülött fiadat kínos kereszthalálra adtad a mi megváltásunkra, és dicsőséges feltámadásával megszabadítottál minket a halál hatalmából. Add, hogy minden nap meghaljunk a bűnnek, hogy vele élhessünk örökké a feltámadás örömében, a Te szent Fiad, Jézus Krisztus által, aki az Atyával és a Szentlélekkel együtt él és uralkodik örökkön-örökké. Ámen!

I was asked to help with communion at two of the services with serving the wafers. At many Lutheran churches in Hungary, the pastor feeds you the wafer and tips the chalice of wine to your mouth, so it was a challenge for me to give people the wafers without touching their lips or face. The pastor also says the equivalent of “take and eat, this is my body, broken/given for you” while serving the wafers. I couldn’t remember all the words, but I managed to say “Ez az ő teste” (‘this is His body’) to every congregant. I love being involved in worship in this way, and I didn’t realize I missed it so much until Easter Sunday.

Before Easter, we talked about how we celebrate in the US and Hungary in most of my classes. Many of my students said they celebrate with family, eating ham with horseradish and eggs for Easter, but most do not go to church. Traditional Hungarian Easter eggs are quite beautiful, but I did not have the chance to make any. On Easter Monday, boys and men will visit their family and friends, reciting a poem or a song for the ladies, and will sprinkle them with water or perfume afterwards. In return, the women and girls give them a chocolate egg. You can read more about Hungarian Easter traditions here.

Since Easter was so early this year, the weather was still chilly and hardly any trees had begun to bloom, so it was hard to get in to the resurrection spirit. As I write this now, a month later, spring has definitely sprung in northeastern Hungary. Within this past week, all of the trees on the Avas hillside have got their leaves, the lilacs are blooming, and the chestnut trees smell heavenly as I walk around Miskolc. It took the landscape a while to catch up, but it is hard to escape the joy of the resurrection with so much life around us. It is important to remember that as Christians, we are an Easter people, living into the joy of the resurrection as we die every day to sin.

Beautiful Hungarian Easter eggs. photo:
A group of adults with disabilities from Budapest presented a passion play at the church during Holy Week.
Leading prayers in English and Hungarian
Distributing Communion at Easter worship

Birthdays (and Name Days)

I want to thank everyone for the birthday wishes on Facebook, by email, and through the mail (yes, you can send me mail! Contact me if you’d like my mailing address). This year, my birthday was on Maundy Thursday, and it was the first day of our Spring Break. I had a relaxing day, and did some of my favorite things. In the morning, I had a Hungarian lesson (learning a language makes my left-brain really happy), and afterwards, I went to the family shelter I volunteer with once a week. They had a day full of activities for the kids of all ages, and we made some cute Easter crafts and had lunch. I spent some time exploring the park around the lookout tower on my walk home, since it was so nice outside. In the evening, I attended the Maundy Thursday service with communion at the downtown church. The Eucharist was particularly memorable on this day, since the painting behind the altar is Jesus praying in the garden.

Hungarians usually celebrate their birthday with a small gathering with family and close friends. It’s more common to celebrate your name day. Every day has a traditional Hungarian name associated with it, which started from the Catholic tradition of a saint’s feast day. Some popular names have more than one day, so you can choose when you celebrate it. If you’re name isn’t officially included on the name day calendar, you get to choose your own (or one similar to yours). Many calendars are published with the names for that day, and it’s also published in newspapers, magazines, and some stores, or you can find it out online. In my community, people usually bring their coworkers or choir members pogácsa (savory scones), homemade treats, or other home-cooked food (fried chicken, salads, bread, etc.) People usually give you a small gift: women typically receive flowers or chocolates, while men typically receive a bottle of liquor. The students say that they usually have a party with family and friends to celebrate their name day, and some students will bring treats for their class.

You can find a list of traditional Hungarian name days alphabetically here, or by calendar date here.   Unfortunately, my name is not a traditional Hungarian name (thanks, Mom and Dad), so I don’t have a name day. Since Kirsten is a Scandinavian form of Kristina, I would celebrate my name day on August 5 (Krisztina). When is your name day?

A typical name day spread: fried meatballs, homemade treats (turos taska), snacks (peanut puffs), bread, pickles, and fresh wine.

Light and Darkness: Lent Retreat in Bratislava and Vienna

“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’” (John 8:12)

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7)

Lent seems like an appropriate time to discuss light and darkness, especially in Central Europe, where the winter days are cloudy, gray, damp, and cold, and the nights are long. The past few weeks, I feel like I’ve been walking through the darkness. Many days, I do not feel like God is present in my life, and it has been difficult to experience God in the ways I am used to: through daily worship, in song, in my relationships, in creation, and more. As I entered our retreat time together, I was looking forward to exploring these themes deeper with my friends, gaining some insight to why I was feeling so detached from God.

We spent our second retreat, once again, in cities (see my blog about our Advent retreat in a city). Our first stop was four days Bratislava, Slovakia. Our country coordinator, Rachel, completed her seminary internship with the Bratislava International Church, and still has many connections there. In one of our sessions, we studied the Road to Emmaus story (Luke 24: 13-35), to learn how God speaks to us through scripture. One thing that stood out to me was how the disciples recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and they say, “‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” It was only after the fact that the disciples recognized him. Maybe I am in a similar time now, and I will look back and say, “oh, that was Jesus” or “oh, that was the Holy Spirit at work.” It’s just frustrating to be in the midst of the period of unrecognition.

After Bratislava, we journeyed to Vienna. We stayed at the Magdas Hotel, which is part of a social business organization that employs people who have difficulty finding work for a variety of reasons.  The Magdas Hotel employs refugees from many different countries. This hotel was transformed from an old retirement home that was run by Caritas, a Catholic charity in Austria. It’s decorated in an upcycled style (think Pinterest), and they had donations of furniture from all over Austria. The hotel’s intention is to provide refugees with the opportunity to work, giving them job experience that they can take elsewhere in the community. Magdas has only been operating for one year, and have already been internationally recognized for their work in the hospitality industry. It was uplifting to encounter a business that is doing such good work in the local community, and is a light in the seemingly endless darkness of the refugee crisis.

Here are some links to articles about the Magdas Hotel (here, here and here) and their main website.

While in Vienna, we went to Dialog im Dunkeln (Dialog in the Dark), a walk-through exhibit lead by a person who is blind. We walked through a forest, crossed a street, went shopping, rode a boat, and even visited a bar, all in complete darkness. It was really disorienting to have one of my senses gone. I felt really vulnerable to depend on my other senses, the others in my group and our guide. I’d never realized how much I rely on my sight, and when that was taken away, it completely jolting. When we were finished, I wanted to go through again with the lights on, to fill in the gaps of the experience. But I’m glad we were not offered that chance.  It taught me that there are many ways to experience the world around us, if we just engage our other senses.

I’ve come to realize that God works in a similar way. Say you suddenly lose a familiar way of interacting with God (such as moving to a foreign country where English is not widely spoken), and at first, you’ll feel lost, left behind, in the dark. But God is with us at all times and in all places, even in the darkness. It’s kind of like the electromagnetic spectrum (I watch a lot of educational science videos in my free time, but I hope this will make sense). There’s all this radiation out there: radio waves, infrared radiation, the visible spectrum, x-rays, and more. We directly interact with the visible spectrum, and if we take out the visible spectrum, the radio waves and everything else is still there, interacting with the universe. However, we can’t experience it with our eyes, as we do with the visible spectrum. We need some other method to experience the electromagnetic radiation.

One of the biggest struggles of this year has been finding those other ways to experience God. This darkness has been frustrating, because when I read scriptures like those in John and 1 John, it sounds like I am not following Christ (“in him there is no darkness at all”). But even in the darkness, God is still beside me. The retreat equipped me with new skills and tools to experience God in new ways. It has taken some time, but now I am beginning to experience God in other ways in my community. I’ve been intentional about reflecting on this every day: maybe it will be the way the birds wake me up in the morning, or the conversation I have with a teacher in the coffee room, or witnessing an interaction between people on the bus. It’s not what I’m used to, but God is still with us at all times and in all places, interacting with the world in surprising ways. Even in the darkness, God is still at work in the world.

Luke part 1

I began reading the gospel of Luke in January with the intent to finish it by the end of the month. Now, as I write this, it’s February 10th, and I’m only on chapter 10. But, we’re saved by grace through our faith, and not by works, so I’ll live into this grace and keep reading. I’ll continue to read Luke and Acts throughout Lent, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts, questions, and insights with you along the way.

In the first 2 chapters, we have three songs that have become an integral part of our worship traditions. From these songs (the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis), we learn that Jesus is the savior who has been proclaimed for generations, that the world as we know it will be turned upside down, and that Jesus has come for the Jews and the Gentiles. In the beginning of Luke’s gospel, the author intentionally includes events and descriptions about the ‘Jewish-ness’ of Jesus and his family. It’s important to the original audience that Jesus is legitimately Jewish.

Luke 6:1-11
When the Pharisees get mad at Jesus for plucking grain and eating it on the Sabbath, I thought they were upset because Jesus breaks the seventh commandment: “You shall not steal.” But really, it’s because Jesus is doing work on the Sabbath, and not resting. This is such an interesting entry point into culture! My American culture has a practice of possessing and accumulating things – houses, cars, land, crops, money. When I hear of Jesus eating grain from a field, I immediately think, “Whose field is that? Won’t they get mad that a bunch of people are trampling through their fields and eating their crops?” But the Jewish culture of the time was one that intensely honored Sabbath. I have never had one day in my life where I spent the entire day in prayer or worship or rest. I ironically read this on a Sunday, and I was already thinking of the things I need to get done that day, that week, the rest of the month. What would it look like in our Christian tradition if we practiced Sabbath – take a break from our daily business, our concerns for the world and simply rested? It would be so counter-cultural! What would our relationships with ourselves, God, creation, and others look like if we spent one day resting?

At Gustavus a couple of years ago, the daily chapel service was re-named ‘Daily Sabbath’. At first, I was turned off to the name; the word ‘sabbath’ is old fashioned and different from what I was used to calling it (how Lutheran of me to dislike change). But 10:00 – 10:20 became a time of rest and worship and community. This daily worship sustained me throughout the day, and this year, it has been different not to have a daily sabbath. I try to spiritually rest in other ways, like reading the scripture, running, or playing hymns on the ukulele, but it is difficult to do it by myself. Especially as we enter Lent today, I am curious about what you do to rest and sustain your relationship with God. Let me know your ideas if you’re willing to share..

Luke 7:1-10 Healing of the Centurion’s servant
I don’t have as much to say about this, but it’s a good reminder that people will go to great lenghts to provide for their community and their neighbors. I am still surprised when people are still so kind and hospitable towards me, even though I have already been here for five months.

Luke 8:4-15 Parable of the Sower
Something new I noticed while reading this passage is that the sower sows seeds everywhere. Not just on their own fertile fields, but on the path, the thorny weeds, the rocks, everywhere! Wouldn’t it be more efficient and profitable if they threw seeds only on the nice, fertile ground? God isn’t like that. God’s word is abundant and is everywhere, and is not just for those who are the good soil. Knowing this, how can we create a community where people can become the good soil?

Christmas Time is Here

Christmas is a special holiday all around the world, and Hungary is no exception. Advent is widely celebrated before Christmas: almost every home has an Advent wreath, where the candles are lit every Sunday in anticipation of Jesus’ birth. Most towns have a Christmas market, selling food, warm beverages, and handicraft gifts. The Miskolc Christmas market was about 2 minutes from my flat, so it was fun to walk around and explore all the stalls. There was even a skating rink!

Along with an Advent wreath, homes are decorated with Christmas trees. Families will decorate the tree on December 24 with lights, ornaments and garland, perhaps with some tinsel as well. On the top of the tree, you can either put a star, an angel, or a “csúcs” (“mountain peak” in English, looks like a steeple spire). The tree is also decorated with “szaloncukor”, a kind of flavored Christmas chocolate wrapped in colored foil. My favorite flavor is citrom-túró, it tastes like lemon cheesecake!

On Christmas Eve, I went with the school chaplain, Pál, and his wife to Slovakia. There are many small villages in Slovakia where Hungarian is still spoken, but the congregations are too small to have their own full-time Hungarian pastor. The first village we visited was Gömörpanyit (Gemerská Panica in Slovak), the second was Lekenye (Bohúňovo in Slovak), and the last was Balogpádár (Padarovce in Slovak). At each church, there was anywhere from 20 to 60 people, and there was even a short children’s program at Gömörpanyit and Balogpádár. We heard the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s gospel, and we sang traditional Hungarian Christmas hymns, like “Mennyből az angyal” and “Pásztorok, pásztorok”, as well as “Csendes éj” (Silent Night). Following the last worship, we ate dinner with a congregation member’s family, a delicious meal of sausage mushroom soup, potato salad, fried fish, and a variety of traditional Christmas cookies.

On Christmas Day and the subsequent days, I was invited to various colleague’s and friend’s houses for lunch. At first, I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted me to come for lunch, and I am continually amazed at my community’s hospitality and kindness toward me. I ate a variety of traditional Hungarian Christmas foods, like húsleves (similar to American chicken noodle soup with the broth, noodles, and chicken all served separately), rántott hús (deep-fried chicken), töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage), and desserts like bejgli (rolled Christmas cake, either with poppyseed (mákos) or crushed walnut (diós) filling) and mézeskalács (gingerbread cookies). I am glad that I had the opportunity to get to know many of my colleagues and their families during this holiday break.

To finish off 2015, I went hiking in Slovakia with a few colleagues and their families in Szádelő (Zádiel in Slovak), about 2 hours away from Miskolc. It was very cold, but the sun was shining, so we had a panoramic view on top of the plateau. To celebrate the New Year, I traveled with a few other YAGM’s to Cluj Napoca (Kolozsvár in Hungarian), the second largest city in Romania. Overall, my Christmas break was full of friends and adventure. Here’s to continuing building relationships and having adventures in 2016!

Békés Karácsonyt és Boldog Új Évet! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

One of the classes let me borrow their little Christmas tree and decorations for my flat!
Prayers on Christmas Eve in Hungarian and English
Hiking in Slovakia
Visiting Cluj, in front of the downtown Orthodox church – it was sunny and cold!

Advent Retreat in Budapest

Before I left for Budapest, I was thinking, “A retreat in a city? Aren’t retreats supposed to be peaceful and relaxing and secluded? How could a city of 2 million people provide an atmosphere for retreat?” Our Advent retreat was different than I was expecting, and even rejuvenating on many different levels, such as:

  • Spiritual: Every morning, we had worship and Bible study, and we concluded every day with evening prayer. I feel like I’ve been missing a communal worship experience in my life in Miskolc (church in Hungarian every Sunday is more confusing than it is spiritually moving). It was refreshing to worship and read the Word with other people who are having similar experiences as I am and who speak my native language. Our Bible studies focused mainly on Luke, the upcoming year’s Gospel, with each of us taking turns leading a Bible study (I had Luke 9:1-6).
  • Creative: One afternoon, we went to a paint-your-own ceramics studio. I selected a coffee mug, since I drink a lot of tea at home to warm me up after walking outside (my main mode of transportation). My mug says “you are the light of the world”, to remind me to be the light during these dark winter days.
  • Educational: We visited the Terror House, which is a museum dedicated to the terror and violence that Hungarians experienced during the 20th century. This building was the headquarters for the Arrow Cross party (Hungarian Nazi party) and the Communist political police. There were exhibits about the political leaders, elections, laws, trials, and the lives of ordinary people during this time period. I wish I knew more of the details of the history of 20th century Europe before visiting, there was so much information that continues to be relevant today.
  • Physical: Hungarians appreciate thermal hot springs, which can be found all over the country (including Miskolc’s cave baths), so we visited the Gellért baths to experience it first-hand. There were pools at various temperatures, steam rooms, dry saunas, cold baths, and an exercise pool. Afterwards, I felt like I had a good workout, and slept really well that night. If you ever find yourself in Hungary, visit a thermal bath for a dose of culture and healing minerals!

Overall, our time together in retreat was just what I needed. Within the bustling city of Budapest, it was a time of reflection, of growth, and of energy. I felt renewed as I returned to Miskolc and to my work with the schools and the church.

Christmas market at the Basilica
Christmas market at the Basilica
The women of YAGM Central Europe at Hero’s Square