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A letter from Jane Holslag in Germany

January 12, 2009

Dear Fellow Travelers,

Hearty greetings! I have returned from a brief but full visit to Berlin. The days flew by until New Year’s Eve when time stood still as my friend Ursula and I learned of Baerbel Eccardt’s death. She’d been with us the night before at a family gathering, and though she’d been feeling weak, no one was quite prepared for her passing on the last night of the year. She was 85. Baerbel was my predecessor of sorts when I first came to Germany in 1990. Ted Schapp, a U.S. Presbyterian pastor, and she were faithful engines for the ministry of Berlin Fellowship for over 20 years. Her open heart and genuine love for people in the East (Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary) played no small role in my life the last 28 years. And just two months ago, my longtime and dear friend Terry was also released from this earth after a long illness with cancer. 2008 began with my father’s passing. It was a year of chapters ending.

On a somewhat different note, I’d like to share an extraordinary tale in poem form from Miroslav Holub, a Czech poet. It’s based on a true story told by Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi.

Brief Thoughts on Maps

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who knew a lot about maps
according to which life is on its way somewhere or other,
told us this story from the war
due to which history is on its way somewhere or other:

The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
immediately, snowed for two days and the unit
did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched
his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees.
—Mirslav Holub, Times Literary Supplement, February 4, 1977

Last August, at the beginning of my second stay in Lithuania, I was returning to “somewhere or other” that I knew rather well. But I felt like I had been sent out on reconnaissance, and soon it started snowing. In November, I found a map in my pocket, waited a bit, and started to discover my bearings:

  • I settled into my apartment from 10 years ago, and it feels as much like home as ever.
  • Though I don’t have the time, I’d like to work on my baby Lithuanian, which is coming back bit by bit.
  • A new doctoral advisor and friends in the Netherlands are providing compass points and sound advice, encouragement and cheer I’ve so needed
  • The students in my two “Introduction to the Bible” classes are great, and in spite of it being a required course that many wouldn’t choose to take, they seem to be learning and benefitting from reading the text (even the ones who know it already).

Two more examples of how a map of the Pyrenees helped me to navigate the Alps:

  • In a recent conversation, a student, confessing she was no longer an atheist but rather an agnostic since she couldn’t really know if there was a God, in the very same breath proclaimed, “but if I could meet God face to face, I’d probably believe in him.” She came to my office to talk about an assignment. I looked at the map (in my mind) and had to wonder and be grateful, for it was to this very moment my journey had brought me.
  • Earlier in the semester, another student, a growing-more-earnest seeker, announced she was thinking of changing her minor to theology. Not wanting to hide my surprise but at the same time not wanting to overwhelm her, I casually responded, “Oh? What would make you do that?” She answered, “Well, I’ve never read the Bible before, but this is a fascinating book. It’s so interesting. I like it!” She is at the top of the class, and is, I think, opening this “text” for the first time in her life. She is also being opened by the truth and grace it contains. Was this map really in my pocket?

As the first semester drew to a close, I realized that this map had footnotes with the names and faces of all those I teach. We are at the very least, footnotes in each others’ lives for this year of reconnaissance in introduction to Bible! I am trying to teach these co-journeyers to read the map! Keep us in your prayers please!

And as I begin another semester and another year, I think of Baerbel, of Terry, of Dad and the “bearings” their lives and love have given me. I thank God for them and for my students and for you — congregations and friends across this continent and North America who are on the map and also on the way!

Grace and peace,

Jane Holslag

The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 178

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