A letter from Eric Hinderliter in Lithuania
“inner stillness and joy”
Lithuania becomes a dark place this time of year. By the time this newsletter reaches you we will be down to seven hours of daylight. Sunrise is at 9:00 am; sunset is by 4:00 pm. For many days in a row the days are mostly overcast. Lithuanians light candles to ward off the darkness. This time of year can be depressing, to say the least. For years Lithuania had the highest suicide rate in the world; alcoholism was rampant. Fortunately the trend has fallen and some social support is now available. Yet Lithuania is still described as a land of darkness.
In our family we have a saying, “Never throw anything out—you never know when you might need it!” In preparation for this newsletter I have been looking over several Advent devotionals from the last 10 years. One is from 2001 from Lewistown Presbyterian Church; another is from First Presbyterian Church, Warren, in 2005. We usually read about the rush, the over-scheduling, and the stress of Christmas preparations. The typical complaint is about too much to do, being too busy. A number of years ago an Advent devotional booklet from the writings of Henri Nouwen, Living in Hope, described Advent as a time of listening. “Advent does not lead to nervous tension stemming from expectation of something spectacular about to happen. On the contrary, Advent leads to a growing inner stillness and joy allowing me to realize that he for whom I am waiting has already arrived and speaks to me in the silence of my heart.” As we grow older we identify more and more with the older couples in the Bible—with Abraham and Sarah, Simeon and Anna—and now with Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were “getting on in years.” In spite of age, Zechariah still had the spirit of prophecy to declare, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death...” (Luke 1:78–79).
How do we prepare, how do we celebrate? Advent observances here relate to the church liturgical calendar. The colors change and some decorations appear in the church. Even before we left the United States for Lithuania we abandoned the traditional Christmas tree, so we don’t decorate much. We spend our time sending off notes of thanks to churches that pledge and individuals who contribute to our mission account, hoping that we do this early enough to counter the habits of the archaic postal system. We enjoy the Christmas messages and photos we receive. Lest you fear, the marketing gurus have reached Lithuania, so there are many seasonal displays—often earlier than we thought. The city has an elaborate street lighting program and the mayor lights up the city Christmas tree in the town square. Beyond this we hope for quiet time after the busyness of the semester’s teaching schedule.
So our preparation for Advent is a time of quiet and reflection. We wonder about what we have become—in the eyes of our family, our friends, our students and those around us. We wonder—and sometimes doubt—if our witness is as sharp and clear and winsome as we imagine it should be. Are we at a place where the light shines for others? We wonder what will happen to us in 2012. We pray about what God’s will is for us. A decision about a new mission term is due to be made then; otherwise, 2012 could be our last year as mission co-workers. We have expectations of new, committed Christian leadership for our mission partner, LCC International University. We reflect on the joys and sorrows of the past year. We are glad to have useful work as teachers, despite the drudgery of marking exams and the occasional disgruntled student. These are more than offset by former students who write or stop by to tell of their successes in study and career or to show off their children. Some sadness lingers. We still grieve for Elizabeth, our daughter-in-law, who died in January this year, age 38. And we miss sadly all the saints from our families with whom we shared the joy of Christmases past. We have also lost key mission advocates who joined the church triumphant. Memories of home are with us, even as we know that as we are far away in a foreign land, our "home" is wherever the light shines in the darkness, and that the One we are awaiting is in fact here with us—God with us, Emmanuel.
For us Advent is indeed a time of “inner stillness and joy.” Our watchword is, “Be still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10). We breathe out the bite of our failures and disappointments; we try to let go of the slights and petty unfairness that hurt us. We grasp for the new hope that the light brings to awaken our souls and to draw our attention to the hope that has come to us and to the world. And we know that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Nouwen’s prayer centers us: “Jesus, help me to keep listening for you in the stillness of my heart.”
May we all be listening expectantly for God’s call to us in this Advent season.
Grace and Peace,
Becky & Eric Hinderliter
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 204
The 2012 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 278