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A letter from Jane Holslag in Lithuania

December 22, 2010

Dear Friends of Christmas and the New Year!

Yes, it has come! Winter! Boy howdy … it began snowing December 3, and the piles of snow now mounting on the corners and along the sidewalks in Klaipeda are taller than I am! Of course, that is the news one can see and slide through on a daily basis. Then there is the “news” that is less visible but perhaps more important and worthy of note, the news in the lives of those students with whom I cross paths. I’d like to share just a few “bylines” from my semester. These anecdotal snippets are my tiny prayer presents for your Christmas stockings. As is the case when we get presents from someone we don’t know so well, we might be surprised, looking at the unwrapped “something” not knowing what to say?! “Uh, uh … thank you, I guess …” Don’t worry, I’m sending all this along — rejoicing at the gift embodied by each of these dear ones and all those I don’t write about. Thanks to your support and prayers, these news items are real people and part of my life!

Before leaving for Christmas break, a senior stopped in to say “thank you” … though I’m not sure for what exactly. She sparkled with anticipation of Christmas and family and asked for prayers that her trip home would be safe, anticipating problems on borders and with demonstrations. And yes, there is a somewhat secret and mostly illegal church youth conference before New Year’s she would be helping with, hoping it might come off without problems. She breezed in and breezed out leaving those words trailing behind her.

I’d just finished marking final exams for my Intro to Old Testament classes. Many students took the time and effort to answer the extra credit question, in which they had to explain to a former classmate from high school what had been learned in class, telling the truth — the good, the bad and the ugly! (my rather lazy catchall for that which makes the Old Testament a great surprise and a great challenge). Some of the answers I share for your pondering pleasure:

“Really, I was surprised to go to Bible classes. I learned of God new things … that God forgives … I found it disturbing that God was punishing the good and letting such sins as killing and daughters sleeping with fathers happen … I considered to know Bible, but I was wrong … Each day was more and more interesting. We were passing from detective stories, like selling of Joseph to the Egypts by his brothers to love stories of Samson … I was not reading the Bible, I was learning life. Now I can state clear that I know from where we came, where to search God and how to be forgiven for a sin.”

“For my friend I would answer that although I thought that the Bible should encourage a reader to believe in God at first place, after studying it I think that it is rather deterring than encouraging. I’ve seen that God asks people to murder children, women and burn anything in their way … God cares for Hebrew people while destroying other nations. These were the main things why it is hard for me to say that Bible pushes to see God’s goodness ….”

“Bible is the most perplexing and puzzling piece of literature I have ever read. It frustrates expectations while creating new understandings, for it retells the history of LIFE itself in the full complexity of it. I have read it for the first time this semester and was turned upside down for at least 10 times. I expected this book to be a story about peaceful people that smile and heal and a God that has grandpa’s kindness and Santa Claus’ laugh. After the first 10 chapters, I’ve tasted all the bitterness of people’s sin and God’s anger. I wonder what is wrong with these people that from their very first occurrence on earth they keep messing up? ... I came to the Bible looking for answers, but everything I have read so far has only triggered endless questions. However, namely these very questions make me stop, listen for the silence, and hear an answer inside me that I can’t yet figure out.”

On the last day of classes before finals, one of the students I advise announced she was dropping out, quitting without taking finals. She was abandoning three and a half years of work just one semester before graduation. It took my breath and what little energy I had left away. It soon became clear there was no changing her mind. I and her other teachers are deeply saddened. There are, as you might well guess, many factors that led her to this point. I’m not sure where she is now, and she was not sure what she will do next.

What is it that happens to us when we say or try to say to God, “Use me … for your sake”? Exhaustion, surprises, overwhelming joy and deep sadness, satisfaction, disappointment, wonder, and — at the end — relief at not having to know and understand it all! There is, this week before Christmas and as we face a new year, a great certainty that these students are in God’s hands, and, minute by minute, so are my days (yours as well?). At this juncture in the year, this long overdue letter isn’t quite enough. It’s what I have though, and so I share it in the spirit of the season.

Grace and peace,

Jane Holslag

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 204

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