Monday, August 12, 2013

A Slight Detour

Here’s the gist of questions recently raised. Why are you telling these old stories now? Why are you stuck in the past when there are so many more relevant problems and questions facing the church? One answer is that, the mission of the church was understood in various ways by leaders in the Hungarian Reformed Church back in the 1940s and 1950s. Those differences had an impact on the lives of the men and women whose stories will be told in following blog posts. I wonder how different understandings of the church's mission and the relationship of church and state affect us today. Reflecting on my own story has also helped me understand my own extended journey. Here's how it began.

At My Childhood Home

Mom & Dad & Four Sisters
Voices drifted up through the register that allowed only a whiff of heat to seep through to the second story of our old brick farmhouse. One time, lying still and silent, spying on the adults, I heard the hushed voices of my father’s visitors telling of water torture and bamboo slipped under the nails of Christians in China. During other visits, short films flickered in the dark, revealing atrocities in China and Russia.

Exposure to these reports made me realize that the cornfields surrounding our house were no protection, and fearing that enemy paratroopers had silently drifted down during the night, I often fell asleep filled with quiet terror. Born at the end of World War II, I came to consciousness hearing stories of tanks capable of crushing buildings bigger and stronger than our brick farmhouse. Undoubtedly, the images of Communist atrocities merged in my mind with World War II mayhem and created a monster more fearful than wild things of children’s books.

The big bad wolf of my nightmares would not be stopped with bricks and sturdy wooden doors. Sometimes imagining bamboo slivers under my nails, I would fall asleep begging God to fix the world and protect my nails. And so I made a kind of treaty. Remembering my mother’s assurance that God would never give me more than I could bear, I promised to bear as long as my courage held up. When faced with bamboo slivers, I was quite sure, though, that I would deny him, but I would not mean it. This fear haunted my childhood. We worried about bomb shelters and radiation sickness, and wondered whether we would be able to keep family secrets if faced with diabolical Communist inquisitors.
Catherine, Marilyn, Cathy Weber &
 me with my brothers Jim and Sam

Then, with the 1956 revolution, Hungary joined our family’s prayer list. My father was appalled when the United States and other western countries seemed to look the other way, having calculated that the cost of defeating the Soviet Union was more than their weakened economies and war-tired citizens could endure. And so despite its efforts to slip from under Communism, Hungary, like other Eastern Bloc countries, fell more firmly under the control of Moscow. Though stories of barbarism leaked out, it seems that we, the West, found it convenient and useful to ignore them.

The Wisdom of the Young

During my high school and early college years, touched and energized by the Civil Rights movement, I signed on for justice. We opened our ears to the cries of the poor, hopefully singing “We shall overcome somedaaaaay,” wanting to believe that if we looked long enough and deeply enough into our essential human nature, we would find the answer to peace in our time. In an effort to free ourselves from the rigid morality that circumscribed our lives and stunted our creativity, we opened our hearts and minds to different political systems and different cultures. We sang. “Oh Freedom,” trusting that we would truly become one world singing in perfect harmony.

Oddly enough, I could hear the cries coming from Latin America and South Africa, but could not really listen to reports of torture coming from Romania and the Ukraine. Because Communist ideology promised a world of bounty for all, we could barely hear stories of Romanian refugees in our churches and communities. We wanted to believe that in search of a better omelet, only a few eggs would be broken. For many young Christians, it was appealing to embrace a system that promised equality and justice for all, and we heard the words of Jesus confirming our beliefs. By demythologizing the monster, I had defined away the source of childhood fear and recreated it as savior.

Over the years, my father’s discussion mode softened and was not as harsh as when we carried on ferocious arguments during the 1960s and 1970s. But as his death approached in 1984, he gloomily predicted a future swamped by relativism, dulled to the lowest common denominator, run by faceless, spineless bureaucrats, awash in materialism, and lacking in the moral underpinnings necessary for genuine charity. He had faith that God was in control and that Christ had won the victory over sin and death, but if I had to place him somewhere on the Already/Not yet spectrum, he would certainly have landed squarely in the Not yet camp.

Like many others, I wanted to believe that the already encompassed the political liberation underway in Europe, and if somehow they could just get it right, the system would work and God’s kingdom would come in our time.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

So What's with the Genevan Psalter?

Back in Debrecen, I had been advised to look for Dr. Istvan Almasi, a musicologist well-acquainted with the Genevan Psalter. It was not difficult to find him, generous with his knowledge and gracious with his opinions. Below are some excerpts from a refreshing interview.

Dr. Istvan Almasi, Musicologist – Kolosvar (Cluj Napoca)
June 9, 2003

When I described the first part of the project, to collect testimonies and record psalm singing, he smiled and nodded, but when I suggested the possibility of creating a new version of the Psalter, he was adamantly opposed to what he described as yet another attack on the Psalter. I explained the position that a new, updated version would attract a new, younger audience. He willingly explained his.
Farkas Utca Church, Kolozsvar, Romania

"The 1607 Molnar translation of the psalms was a wonderful gift along with the original melodies and rhythms. However, especially in Transylvania, the Psalter was a victim of theological and social trends. Enlightenment thinking, rationalism, greatly affected the church. Whether related to this trend or to a reaction to it, I am not certain, but in the 1777 Kolosvar edition of the Psalter, the number of psalms was first reduced, and the last full Debrecen edition was published in 1778. By the end of the 19th century, only forty psalms remained in the Transylvanian Psalter."

What Happened?

"In reaction to the Enlightenment, Renewal trends stemming from the Pietistic movement swept through the church bringing with it a whole host of Anglo-Saxon hymns and songs. The melodies of these new songs were much easier to sing than the more complicated, modal music of the Genevan Psalms. Many of the tunes were profane, that is, popular music sometimes from bars and dance halls. It was the music of the people. The effect of this music was to dramatically change the taste in church music."

If the music tastes had changed so much, did the remaining 40 Genevan tunes play a role in the preservation of faith?

 “You may be absolutely certain that the singing of the Psalms did help preserve faith during the Communist era!” Although there were only forty psalms left, they were well-used!"

How was the church affected by Communism?

"Although there were some people of strong character who resisted Communism and remained faithful, many more succumbed to the fear and pressure, either leaving the church altogether or collaborating with the state." In his opinion, the assertion that the pressure of Communism strengthened the church does not reflect reality. "Communism was a disaster for the spiritual life of the people, for the church, and for society in general. During that period, lacking pastors, many congregations faltered."

Can you tell me more about the history of the Genevan Psalter in Hungarian Reformed Churches?

Farkas Utca Church, Kolozsvar, Romania

"The scales, modes, moved from the large 6th interval of the Dorian scale to the reduced Aeolian scale." He sang the changes. "In 1542 the first edition, Bourgeois tunes appeared, followed by Goudimel’s harmonies in 1556. Those harmonies were brought to the Hungarian Reformed Church by Marothi and have been used in the village of Szaszcsavas for 200 years."

He attributed the practice of slowly singing the psalms in unison and without the original rhythms to the poor training of cantors and the low level of general musical instruction. The introduction of the organ also played a part in the demise of good psalm singing. Because organists were often poorly trained, they slowed down to pick out the notes; the congregations slowed down as well.

"Though this psalm singing may be ugly to the trained musician’s ear, it is sung from the heart. I am happy to
be among such singers and to worship with them even if their singing is not perfect rhythmically or in beautiful harmonies." He noted that in Hungary, mid-20th century musicians attempted to restore the integrity of the Genevan Psalter resulting in some positive changes.

How would you describe the Reformed heritage? 

It is purely a matter of dogmatics and theology. Any attempt to assign cultural baggage to being Reformed is utter nonsense.

I have heard several people, especially here in Transylvania, describe their reformed identity in cultural and even ethnic terms. Can you help me understand this?   

It is a historical matter. Hungary became largely Protestant as a result of the Reformation. During the 17th century Counter-reformation, the Roman Catholic Habsburgs, Austrians, tried to crush this threat to their authority and waged war on Protestant Hungarians. This is when the political and ethnic content joined the religious definition. In Transylvania Hungarians who were anti-Habsburg were also anti-Catholic and thus considered Reformed. Existing as an oppressed minority has reinforced this understanding of being Reformed.

What Do You Think? Two Versions of Psalm 25

In all the documentation of our interview project ten years ago, I called it The Psalm Project. When the Dutch Psalm Project came to Calvin College a couple of years ago, I was immediately drawn to the name. At the same time I remembered Dr. Almasi’s exclamation that such a project would be an attack on the Psalter. He also said, “Music has the power to capture and transform in a way that no other medium can. Teaching the psalms to children depends on the love for the psalms and the ability to lead them to Christ.” Maybe that's the key.

Below are links to two recordings of Psalm 25, a contemporary one by The Psalm Project performed at Calvin College. The other is by Ernst Stolz, a Dutch musician who responded to a hearer's lament that the psalms should be sung by advising all listeners to sing in their own languages. Sing along if you like.

1. The Psalm Project’s Psalm 25. If you would like to hear more, search for them on YouTube.

2. Psalm 25 from the Genevan Psalter  (Ernst Stolz) Search for his name on YouTube to find many nice recordings of early music.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Romania Stories

On the Road Again

Sunday Morning Fiddlers

Replete with images of ducks waddling in the street, itinerant fiddlers, and kerchief-clad worshiping women, we left the village of Szaszavas (Ceuas in Romanian) and made our way back to the city of Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures).

You can find Targu Mures on the map and using the scale of miles, go southwest about 18 miles. That’s about where you will find Szascsavas.

On the east side of the map you will find the Danube Delta, site of a notorious prison camp.

About the Duna (Danube) Delta

"The construction between the Danube and the Black Sea represented a economical solution for covering the murders of Romanian elites; communists saw this goal as a political way of getting rid of those that could mean a threat to the regime. . . ."

"Sent to the channel as “enemies of the state”, all prisoners were put through an extermination regime...sent in from different jails in distant parts of Romania, hungry and weak, they were obliged to work even harder. A doctor remembers digging endlessly in rain, storm or snow, returning from work soaking wet and frozen stiff, thronged in a single room. On the next day, they would be sent to work in the same frozen and wet clothes - temperatures were extremely low, especially in the winter time."

Our history from the tears written
Will remember and between sheets will gather
This awful Danube that drops
On three sides water and on the fourth blood.

Andrei Ciurunga - "Poem"

We Made It!

By the time we arrived in Marosvasarhely, about mid-afternoon, the heat was again oppressive, and I was feeling the effects of burning the midnight oil to revise our interview approach. We settled on the following questions as a framework for the coming interviews.

     What happened to you – what was life like for you under Communism?
     Tell us about the things that helped you survive?
     What did the Genevan Psalms mean to you? (Favorites? Verses?)
     How did Communism affect the church?
     What helped the church survive?
     What did the Psalms mean for the church?
     What can the church today learn from your experiences?
     What is the heart of the Reformed heritage?

Our afternoon visit would put the revised protocol to the test. When we reached his home, Rev. Dezso Bustya graciously welcomed us, sweaty and frazzled though we were. While part of our team was engaged in perfunctory introductions outside, the crew set up inside and were soon ready to begin. At that point, Sonja and I retreated to the van, the shade, and bottled bubbly water.

I settled for a quick summary: 

Eager to hear how it had gone, I was about to ask for an immediate translation, but seeing that everyone else was tired too, I settled for a quick summary:

  1. Rev. Bustya had been imprisoned by communist authorities while still a teenager and had spent time at the Duna Delta. 
  2. He explained that pastors, on one hand, signed the official papers required by the state in order to be able to hold a church office – but at the same time were able to retain their integrity as Christians. 
  3. He gave the following shorthand description of the progressive deterioration of the Christian church’s influence in Romania:

                                        Much Church – Little State
                                         Little Church – Much State
                                         No Church – All State

Excerpts from the interviw with Dezso Bustya

A Teenaged Revolutionary

My Hungarian colleagues used to say that within the minister training there is preparation for the first exam, for the second exam, and the third training is for prison. I always used to say that I got the third training out of order because I was in prison after my high school graduation and before my seminary training.

I applied to the university to study literature, but I was arrested in the midst of the entrance exam. There was a joke later that the communist government chose the education for those not accepted to university. For me there were openings in geology not theology. I became a geologist at the Duna Delta; I shoveled the geo, the earth, at the delta.

Gherla Prison
There are different ways to look at the reasons for my arrest. In today’s eyes I would say it was for foolish ways 16 or 17 year olds wanted to change the world. The name of our organization was IKESZ, an illegal organization against communism. One members was Zoltan Veres who now lives in Stockholm and is an official in the Lutheran church there. Others were Adam Bodor, a famous writer and Palocsai Zsiga, a poet.

Thanks to his father, we were able to get out of prison before our sentence was completed.
Palocsai’s father was a miniaturist gardener. Each year he would get a medal to wear on his chest. In 1952 we were arrested, and in 1953 he received another award. He told the party that he didn’t want another award or medal. He wanted his son back. They asked where his son was. He answered that his son was in prison in Szamoszujvar (Gherla).

The party official agreed to look into the matter. He came back saying that not only his son, but eighteen had been arrested along with his son. In 1953 another sixteen students had been arrested, so there were thirty-five of our group all together in prison. The official said that they could not release one and keep the others in prison. After this, the parliament created a general amnesty setting us free, but we were warned. If anyone ever tried to recruit us again, we should know where to report them. They even tried to turn us into informers there. Eventually they transferred us from an underground prison in Bucharest to a prison in Kolozsvar (Cluj Napoca) and released us from there.

Our organization was a real revolutionary group with our naïve ideas. This was painful for the party because they thought they would be able to raise a new generation that would cry for happiness when they received their communist young pioneer tie. We were older and able to think for ourselves, listen to foreign radio, and keep our eyes wide open. We saw how hypocritical the system was and how they tried to mislead children from the age of kindergarten. They were disappointed in our generation, the one they had hoped would be the next communists.


I entered the seminary in 1955. On my books and class list I only wrote my name and  the Roman numeral I, because I did not know whether there would be a second year. The world was supposed to change. All of us were waiting for Americans to come and free us. They never came in 1956 or ever after.

Finally the second year came, but it was not until my third year that I began to love the seminary. In every person’s life God uses some people or events as his tools. He does not always scream down the chimney at you. In my life the tool was Andras Nagy, a professor of Old Testament.

He took me seriously already before I did. He always said to me, Young man, you should do this or that. So along with Hebrew I began to study Arabic. When I finished seminary, I applied for acceptance in a master’s program, and that’s when I felt and said, “My Lord, even if you gave me a hundred options, I would still choose your service.” Really his influence was a determining factor. I was ordained in 1962, three years after I finished the seminary.

What makes a Christian?

Many people say that here in Marosvasarhely there are many believers whose faith originated in the Bethania movement or in the CE. Many of them accept as believers only those who can answer the question about when they became a Christian by identifying the exact moment by the year, month, day, and hour.

I could not tell the hour when I became a Christian. God has different methods and tools for each person. Paul converted in the length of a second, but when was Peter converted? And how many times was he converted?  Peter said, “Go away because I am a sinner, my Lord,” and to hear, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” So Luther is right. A Christian person’s life is an ongoing confession. Every day and every night one is ashamed – God I really want to be a Christ follower today, but again I failed. Please give me strength and maybe tomorrow it will go better. This was the story of my faith.

The Party and the Church

Whoever the Communists wanted to recruit, they had recruited already at the seminary. Even more, forward thinking party officials insured that of the five or seven people admitted to seminary from a certain region, some were already ensnared. Those were not called by God to enter the seminary but by the party. They wanted to hold the church and all the ministers on a leash.

Under the influence of alcohol, a securitate (secret police) agent once said, “We have to work for a year until we are able to create a high church official with whom we can cooperate. A bishop takes even longer. We choose a possible bishop candidate very early; we shape him; and then we send him out.”

To recruit seminary students, the Communists knew that everyone has an Achilles heel, as every jar must have a handle. One might like alcohol and get into a fight. The police might threaten him with a half year’s prison sentence but if he agreed to sign a cooperation agreement, it would be viewed as a foolish mistake. So he would sign the agreement and be in their clutches.

Survival Strategies For Pastors

Sometimes the Communist authorities simply picked someone out though there was no reason. I was told that no one, not even Laszlo Tokes, escaped the pressure to sign. Later, one’s ethical stance and common humanity determined who and what he would report. You could do this in different ways. It’s like when in a war someone is forced to go and fight but doesn’t necessarily have to kill. You can shoot in the air or put a hole in a leaf. Some only reported things that did no damage.

Some of them warned others that questions were being asked about them. Many emmigrated to Hungary, not because it was wealthier or there was Hungarian TV or it was better there with nicer jobs. They left because they would have been forced, for example, to report on the bishop, Kalman Csiha, and their conscience could not bear it. Others threw themselves in front of a moving car, and while we never knew the reason, some of us suspected that they simply could not bear the pressure. I don’t know what it was like in Hungary, but here the party wanted to transform the whole country into a network of informers. It was a horrible thing.

Travel Restrictions

A condition of using a passport was that when you returned home from abroad, you had to give a detailed report to your supervisor who gave it to the officer responsible for church affairs, a man who cooperated with the securitate. So everything went before the bureau of internal affairs. You could get around it though, if you had a sense of humor and were clever.

They wanted to know whether you had met any foreigners who spoke English, German, or Dutch, and what you had talked about.  Instead of answering, you could write about the movie theaters you had visited and the films you saw. You could give a long and detailed description of the plot. You could report that you visited your wife’s cousin and then describe the visit in boring detail. This was the report you handed in. Of course they came back saying they were not interested in these details. They really wanted to recruit you as a spy. These were hard times, but with God’s help we survived.

Some Thoughts About the Bustya Interview

Bustya was still a teenager when arrested, and his time at the Duna Delta must have shaped his actions and responses over the next decades of Romanian terror and repression. His thoughts on pastors’ strategies for survival alerted me to the theme that would surface in nearly every interview – the effect of Communism on the church.

When Rev. Bustya talked about the Genevan Psalms, he showed the record books of his service. He noted every text, every psalm, and the content of every sermon. For him and his congregation, I’m sure that the psalms they could sing were the ones that reflected their fear and grief. And like many others we would later meet, for him, the Genevan Psalter reflected his heart, his fear and his faith.

He was ordained in the early 1960s, during my formative years. The students there lived under a cloud of fear. We lived in a bubble.

He Was With Us

It is amazing and really a miracle of grace and mercy that faith survived. Like other former prisoners in Romania and the Ukraine, Father Ervin B. Ferencz said,

I would say that a person who has faith has the chance to survive. A person without faith, and I speak from experience, breaks down, cuts his wrists, commits suicide, or simply goes mad. I can say in all honesty that none of the prisons was hard. God was with us. Even there, He was with us.”
Quoted from the transcript of Anna Paskandi’s 2004 film, Transylvania 1956, published November 8, 2011, in the Hungarian Review.

Another Note ~ On Hungarian Names

When a Hungarian refers to another Hungarian, the family name is first and then the given name. So if I were Hungarian, I’d introduce myself as Lantinga Beth. Of course I’d never do that because I’m quite sure that true Hungarians would view it as gauche and pretentious. I recently learned that the same practice applies in Korea. I wonder whether it reflects a different cultural view of  community vs. the individual.

Ten years ago and maybe still today, a baby’s name was chosen from a limited list of approved names. So it is common to find several Hungarians with the same given name – hence two people in this post have the given name Dezso.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On the Track of Psalm Singers

Sunday, June 8, 2003 - Pentecost

Reformed Church - Szaszcsavas, Romania
Dr. Csaba Fekete, the Debrecen librarian, had recommended that we visit the small village of Szaszcsavas in Romania to hear the psalms sung in harmony.

So on June 8, 2003, we visited the Reformed church there. Though  we had expected around 200 people to attend the worship, that  morning only 70 were present. The pastor later explained that many  had gone to a market in a neighboring village - out of economic necessity. It was the only time and place for them to sell their  produce.

We also learned that the church musician responsible for the  congregation’s exquisite psalm singing was no longer there.  However, even though the organist’s playing was a bit shaky, the  congregation followed along sturdily. Their voices filled the white-  washed church made colorful by red embroideries typical of  Transylvania.

Of the 46 women sitting in the women’s pews, many wore kerchiefs, some colorful, some widow’s black. Ten of the twenty-four men present gathered together in the balcony as a lead choir, while a young man pumped the organ. The video crew crept up into the men’s balcony to capture the moment.

Rev. Jozsef Biro preached for about 20 minutes.

The music to be sung was posted in the front, just like I remember from my childhood church in Jamestown, Michigan. I had intended to write down the list of songs, but missed my chance because partway through the service, while I wasn’t looking, someone turned the song board around to display additional numbers. The final psalms were Psalms 141, 23, and 137.

The older generation

Because it was Pentecost, we witnessed a typical village communion service. A woman in our row muttered the prayer of confession from memory right along with the pastor.

Old is relative. The first pastor began in 1623.

First the men came forward and stood in a circle around the communion table. The pastor offered each man a piece of bread and then retraced the circle offering a sip from a large communion cup. Between each worshiper he swiped the rim with a white linen cloth.

After the men returned to their seats, it was the women’s turn. A small wrinkled woman impatiently pushed past Sonja and me; she was the one given the honor of leading the women to the communion circle.

Women's cup on the right, men's on the left

When the women's circle was finished, the same small woman led the way back to our pews. The rest of us peeled off in formation, falling into step behind her. I counted twelve young women. It appeared that about ten of the men were under age thirty.

Later I asked whether they were worried about the absence of young people in the worship. I was told that according to tradition, the young will come back as the older ones die off.

After the service ended the pastor invited us to join several of the church leaders in the manse. Following tradition, the men gathered in the church’s wine cellar to drink the left-over communion wine and finish the bread, a convivial communion. Sweet breads and cakes were delivered, I might add, by young women who did not linger, but promptly left to join the women upstairs.

The informality of the group encouraged conversation. I don’t remember who asked the question, “Is it better to pour wine into a glass of water or water into a glass of wine?” He quickly answered himself, “It’s better to pour wine into water because it improves the water, but doing the opposite would ruin the wine!”

On that note of good cheer, we packed up and headed for Marosvarsarhely (Targu Mures).

Leaving by the men's door

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Into Romania

Our First Effort

We were all pretty nervous when we first gathered on that June Saturday morning. On the forty minute drive into Budapest to pick up the crew, Janos was silent, but I talked nervously. One by one we picked up the team: Andras Suranyi a skilled camera man; Vince Kapcsos, a calm and competant sound man; Bernadette Frivalski, a talented interviewer; Janos Erdos of the Ars Longa Foundation; and me. Of the five, four were Hungarian, and the other one could speak very little Hungarian and understand only a little more. Can you guess who? Language was just the most obvious sign of the cultural differences soon to emerge.

The Haller Castle ~ One View
The excitement of a new beginning carried us to the first test of our teamwork at the ruined Haller Castle near the village of Kereloszentpal. Mostly home to birds and bees, the castle was also the residence of a Roma family living in the stable. In the past, the Ars Longa Foundation had often provided food, medicine, and other aid to the family living there. So they shyly welcomed us and graciously allowed the film crew in. To see the film, follow this link:

While the film crew was in action, I stayed out of the way – mostly – camera in hand. I saw: =yo

The music is Psalm 77 recorded during an informal conversation at the home of Emma and Rev. Lajos Gulacsy in August 2003. As a young pastor, he was taken to a gulag in Kazakhstan and spent several years there. Emma said that Psalm 77 reflected the hearts of those left behind.

Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?
~ Psalm 77: 9 NIV

Until Now

So far, if you have read the posts, you may have received the impression that everything was sweetness and light. To be honest, it wasn’t. Puzzled looks, averted gazes, embarrassed silence, sleepless nights, occasional inclusion of scatological language, and excessive use of antacids were all signs that in spite of our good intentions, being a team would not be easy. Limited by my personality and my cultural blinders, I had made assumptions about the interview strategy. My assumptions were not shared. Communication was complicated and sometimes tense – and that’s putting it mildly. I didn’t sleep much that first night; it would not be the last.
Sonja Henderson
 Kolozsvar Seminary Chapel

To further complicate matters, the heat was relentless, over 90 degrees F. every day. Air conditioning was pretty much non-existent. Hardly an auspicious beginning.

With apologies to the skeptics out there, I can say that whenever I was acutely uncomfortable in my producer role and ready to pack it in, an angel appeared. The first was Sonja Henderson, a Canadian English teacher living and working in Cluj-Napoca (in Hungarian, Kolozsvar). I was especially relieved when she agreed to accompany us for a few days.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Psalm Contacts: A visit to Debrecen

Reformed Theological Library
Debrecen, Hungary
Dr. Csaba Fekete was a thoughtful and gracious host when I visited the theological library and museum in Debrecen. I gasped when he presented an ancient book of maps. If I remember correctly, it predates the Reformation. We saw an old copy of Calvin’s Institutes and numerous Genevan Psalter treasures. It gives a whole new meaning to the term, “old” especially to one coming from the “new” world.

Dr. Sandor Berkesi, director of the Debrecen College Cantus, had many suggestions for our interview team, but the most lovely gift was a copy of the CD, Hungarian Psalms.

I used some photos from the library visit and Psalm 42 from the Hungarian Psalms CD for the slide show. The psalms shaped the project.

Here's a link to the choir's website:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

One More Introduction?

You might be thinking, “So when will she ever tell the stories." I beg your patience for just one more introduction, this time to some of the Hungarian people who helped with the Psalm Project. You can find the page, "Getting Ready" in bar at the top of the blog. Crossing into Romania is coming soon!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Early On

Summer Camp Staff - 2001 
It didn’t take long to discover that American directness didn’t go very far. In 1999, I accompanied a mission group of fact-finders. They, too, were shocked by the conditions in the Ukraine and Rumania and genuinely wanted to know more. In typical American style, they asked direct questions, fully expecting to hear straight answers. Instead, they were introduced to a style of discourse rooted in years of Communist control.

They heard polite evasions when they expected direct answers. Church leaders and ordinary farmers evaded questions that in the United States would have been candidly asked and answered as a matter of course. It was both puzzling and disconcerting.

I wondered where this dialog style had come from and heard this from my colleague. “During the days of the dictatorship, the truth was only told between four ears,” meaning that after 40 or more years of surveillance, oppression and sometimes torture, fear trumped truth-telling. Later a seminary professor would tell me that it would surely take at least forty more years to erase such embedded patterns.

Beregrakos, Ukraine
For the next few years, as an American contact for the Ars Longa Foundation of Hungary, I traveled to Rumania, the Ukraine, and Croatia as well as to Hungary. I participated as an English teacher in summer camps held for children and young people in Baranya County, Hungary and visited weavers in Transcarpathia, Ukraine. There, Reformed Christians had launched clinics, homes for abandoned children, and Christian schools.

I walked the main street of Szent Laszlo, a Reformed village in Croatia that was ravaged during the Bosnian conflict.

Reformed Church
Szent Laszlo, Croatia 2001
Each trip made me more aware that the Hungarian character and culture would not be easily revealed and that I was limited because I could only see with my American eyes. Janos Erdos, my main contact with the Ars Longa Foundation, never volunteered explanations or offered tour-guide talks. He waited for questions and then answered but only obliquely. And after fifteen years, while some aspects have become clearer, I still cannot claim to really understand what it means to be Hungarian.

However, in most of the churches I visited between 1998 and 2002, I did recognize many of the Genevan Psalm tunes and could even sing along - sometimes. In Transcarpathia I saw full churches and wondered how faith had survived. Even in very small Reformed congregations, I heard psalms sung with remarkable conviction not only in the Ukraine, but also in Hungary, Rumania, and Croatia. I wondered about the music of the Genevan Psalter and the survival of faith and hope during the Communist era.

In 2003, with encouragement and support from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and with the logistical support of the Ars Longa Foundation of Hungary, I set off on a journey. I was part of a team that gathered the stories of Reformed Christians and the Genevan Psalter during the Communist period.

Looking back, I can say that while many may have felt abandoned by God and humankind, there were those whose faith sustained them through long hard years. And these men and women of faith survived with their spirits intact and a vision of God’s kingdom that has led to the rebuilding of churches, schools, homes for abandoned children, and clinics. A living faith blossomed in many communities; yet it has been a difficult road for the faithful – overcoming the destruction of trust and the withering of community cohesion. Rediscovering charity as the overflow of full and grateful hearts, these faithful men and women told stories that gave voice to the words of the Psalms, stories of hope and fear, doubt and faith, and most of all, of God’s amazing grace.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

There Was Hope

Though the dominant theme was grey, we did discover hope in Transcarpathia. Stories were grim, but faces were peaceful and smiles were warm. Though cautious, some were willing to talk. One was a church member we met on a spring day in late April 1998. He was sitting on a bench planted in muddy water puddled everywhere from a recent rain. His clothing was shabby, but his lined and worn face also carried genuine good cheer.

Our guide stopped to talk with him and asked how he was doing. He responded by describing his aching knees. (“How are you doing,” is not simply a polite way to say hello; it is considered to be a genuine expression of interest with the expectation that an honest response will ensue.) I was tempted to say that maybe he had been on his knees too long or not long enough, but fortunately, only asked why they hurt so much. His answer stunned us pampered North Americans. He said that he had spent several years on his knees picking coal in a mine shaft only a few feet high - as a guest of the Communist regime.
Tivadarfalva, Ukraine 1998

The second encounter was with the widow of a pastor who had disappeared during the Communist era. While we stood in a narrow hallway, I listened to the story of her efforts to track down her husband’s memoirs. Although her clothing was severe, widow’s black, she was filled with a grace and serenity not often seen in the faces of harried North Americans.

A third encounter was with Daniel Szabo, a lay leader of the Reformed church who during the weekend retreat, challenged Christian teachers to “cradle the baby birds who had fallen from the nest, and gently return them to the warmth and safety of their home.” Their work nurturing the young, he continued, was at least as important as rebuilding monuments and establishing universities. Although Communist authorities denied him the privilege of ordination during the long years of occupation, he never stopped nurturing the faith of the leaders and ordinary church members with a gentle strength always seasoned with a deep and abiding trust in a good and loving God.

A Reformed church service in the village of Tivadarfalva was, perhaps, not a fourth encounter but more of an epiphany. At that time women filled one side of the church and men occupied the other, while the placement of the teenage boys in the balcony and the girls below definitely discouraged eye contact, presumably promoting concentration on worship. When our contingent of two women and one man arrived, not one more could fit in the women’s section, so we were led across the room to the last empty pew in the territory of the men.

When the singing began, it was immediately apparent that the psalm books were not stocked in the pews; worshippers carried their own Psalters. My attention to the small shared book was soon broken by the voice of a man sitting in the pew ahead of us. Light flooded his face as his solid voice boomed out above the others. I wondered at the fervor of his singing. What had kept the light shining for him?

Before we left to return to the States, one of the Ars Longa principals asked whether I would consider acting as the foundation’s representative in North America. We agreed to a trial run that lengthened into more than a decade of joint effort on behalf of the Reformed high schools in Transcarpathia, Ukraine, and other projects supported by the Ars Longa Foundation.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Listening to the Teachers

It was challenging to lecture in tandem with a translator, reading faces to guess whether I made sense at all. By the end, I could only imagine that the people packed in the classroom were tired too, ready to get up and stretch. To my surprise, after the Q. & A. time and after I had thanked them for coming, they just smiled and stayed in their seats. Puzzled, I asked the translator whether something was wrong. He explained that they just wanted to talk.

During the days preceding the conference, many questions had surfaced for me, so with a translator at hand, it was my chance to ask them some questions. It was surprising to hear that in this bread-basket region, getting enough food was a problem. Later I learned that many teachers had given up precious planting time to attend the conference. It was precious because most of them relied on their own gardens to supply food for the following year. The economy was in a state of collapse; stores were empty; many relied on their own gardens to supplement meager salaries.

And then other stories tumbled out: how the disaster of Chernobyl affected pregnancies, how much of the rich and fertile soil was polluted by many sources including tractor fuel. Prior to the communist period, farmers tilled their own fields and managed their own production. After the takeover, though, their farms were incorporated into collectives managed by distant bureaucrats who could articulate ideology but weren’t so good at farming. For a time, a farmer’s pay was based on the amount of fuel left in the tank at the end of the day. As cynicism grew the farmers-turned-machine found it expedient to make a few passes with the tractor, and then drain the fuel out into the ground.

How It All Began

Toward the end of my educational career, I helped revise a Bible curriculum. This work led to an invitation to participate in a weekend conference for Christian teachers living and working in Transcarpathia, Ukraine. Eager to travel and interested in the story of Hungary and its 1956 revolution, I accepted the invitation. Dutifully, I read Hungarian internet history, visited the local library, scoured bookstores, and read every bit of tourist propaganda I could get my hands on.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the trip across the border into the Ukraine in April of 1998. Surly guards first stared at and then ignored us, leisurely finishing their cigarettes. Finally, after a couple of hours, they searched our little car, inspected our passports, and waved us through. It was only the beginning.During the next few days we traveled through this westernmost area of the Ukraine, an area once part of Hungary and once populated mostly by Hungarians. It was a time to look and to wonder what we were really seeing. I became painfully aware that I was quite ignorant of the history that had shaped this part of the world.

One time our guide stopped in front of a small store. He handed us a few grivna, the local currency, and instructed us to go buy something. Though we spoke not a word of Hungarian or Ukrainian, we didn’t want to appear intimidated, and entered the store. It was soon apparent that his goal had nothing to do with using grivna. He wanted us to see the shelves, mostly empty except for shelves loaded with bottles of vodka.

We saw ornate bourgeois public buildings, purposely encouraged to decay, standing side by side with more recent public buildings whose grim form reflected their function.
We shared the road with aging Trabants, fat-wheeled bicycles and horse-drawn wagons. I saw a derelict stadium built with public funds at the behest of a faithful local comrade, a gift to the 200 or so souls living in the village. Unneeded, unwanted, and unused, it too had fallen into decay.

Roma children often greeted us with expectant faces, and outstretched hands. Our guide responded with gentleness and humor, always ready with a gift of food or money. We were impressed.

By the time the conference began, I wondered whether I should ditch my lectures and instead be the student.


This is to welcome you to my new/old blog, Journey With Psalms. Ten years ago, I began a journey that initially took me to Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine, and even Slovakia. I wanted to learn how and to what extent the Genevan Psalter had served to preserve faith of Reformed Christians during the Communist dictatorship.  I learned much more during that 2003 visit, so since then I have been on a journey of discovery. It has taken me back in Hungarian history, to Hungarian thoughts on the period of the dictatorship, and to musings about faith, the church, and its mission. The main part of the blog contains the stories of the people I met along the way – stories of courage and fear, faith and treachery. In sidebars you will find some ancillary material: how I became involved, some history and pictures of the countryside along the way.  As the blog evolves, watch for film clips and more. I welcome feedback and comments.