I’ve been reading The Wisdom of the Wilderness by Gerald May, as part of an online book group discussion over at the High Calling Blogs led by Laura Boggess. This past week, we read chapter 4 – Cicada Song.
May spends time in the wilderness as a kind of healing therapy, including experiencing some extreme conditions like below freezing cold, isolation, a bear in front of the tent, and hearing voices. In this chapter, he's a bit more conventional and talks about listening to the cicadas, including a mating pair. (Listening to the mating calls of insects in the wilderness – not my dream vacation but it’s his story so I let him tell it.)
At one point in the narrative, he says this: “I am lost now, lost into the firelight’s flickering on the tree leaves, warmth mingling with cool night star sparkles, all into the cicada song; I have been shown the way into the joining, I have been guided in a harmony path, to a oneness within which I am, once again, freshly and absolutely alive.”
Those words could easily be structured into a poem; they sound poetic. But what really struck me about the passage, especially that last line about “a oneness within which I am, once again, freshly and absolutely alive.” Something like that happened to me, but it wasn’t in wilderness. Or maybe it was in a kind of wilderness.
In 2002, I was part of a three-man communication team sent by our church to Eastern Europe. We had Jack, the video guy; Steve, the guy who did all the logistics and planning; and me, the writer. Our charge was to meet with missionaries in Hungary, Czech Republic and Dresden in eastern Germany, interview them, and then use the resulting videos and stories in a variety of communication media – newsletters, videotapes and as “live reports” the missionaries could send back to their home churches and supporters. Our church had never had a short-term mission team quite like us, and for a while we were quite perplexing. The missions program coordinator who’d championed our team told us one thing that stuck in my mind: have your detailed plans and itineraries, she said, but be prepared to go where the spirit moves.
As we waited in St. Louis for our flight to Chicago (and then Frankfurt and Budapest), we saw on CNN that a shooting had occurred in Erfurt in eastern Germany – a shooting in a high school that sounded like a German version of Columbine. Several people had been killed. We saw the story but it didn’t register with us as a game-changing event for our trip. We’d no plans to be anywhere near Erfurt.
When we landed in Budapest Saturday, we were greeted by our missionary host with this: “They want to send you to Erfurt.” While we had been crossing the Atlantic, phones calls between our church in St. Louis, our denomination’s headquarters in Minneapolis and the Eastern Europe mission headquarters in Budapest had been occurring, with the discussion about the communication team switching gears and heading for Erfurt, to record what was happening and to help a young pastor. All we really knew was that this pastor had been counseling the families of victims – both the dead and the wounded – almost non-stop. What we didn’t understand was how we could help.
Jetlagged though we were, we talked about it for hours. It would clearly wreck the carefully planned (and packed) schedule. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do, and no one could really tell us. And then we remembered what the missions coordinator had told us weeks before – be ready to go where the spirit moves. So we did. Driven by Gary, one of the mission staff in Budapest, we traveled to Dresden, arriving late Sunday night. The next morning, we met with a local pastor and a missionary couple as we had planned, and then left for Erfurt.
Erfurt was where Martin Luther had attended seminary. It’s close to what had been the border of West Germany, but all those years under communism had left a spiritual wilderness. We drove down the autobahn; the pastor of the church was waiting for us just off the highway.
His name was Mattias, and he and his wife were originally from Hamburg. He was pastoring a small church in Erfurt constructed from a former communist social hall (there’s something delightfully ironic in that – a communist social hall converted into a church). As we'd planned with all of our other meetings, I rode with Mattias and the rest of our party followed. This allowed some time for me, the writer and interviewer, to introduce myself and talk a little bit about our team and what we were doing.
As soon as I sat in the passenger seat of Mattias’ car, a strange thing happened. We looked at one another and began to laugh for no discernible reason. We just started laughing together. It was as if we had known each other for a long time, and then found ourselves in an odd situation. As he drove and we talked, this strange feeling kept reinforcing itself. We didn’t openly talk about it, but it was there.
We drove to the church. From the outside, it didn’t look like a church. But the inside was definitely a church, including the smell. The design was contemporary – light-colored wood, royal blue carpeting. We toured the building and met two other church members.
We set up the interview in the sanctuary. Our logistics guy and driver wandered off to explore. Jack started filming, and Mattias and I started talking. And in the course of that 40 minutes, something profound happened.
Mattias was close to physical and emotional exhaustion. The shooting had happened on Friday; for three days he had been meeting with and counseling and praying with family and friends of the victims. He had been going on virtually no sleep, and hadn’t seen his wife and children in all that time. There weren’t a lot of pastors around to help; Mattias had been pretty much on his own. I asked questions, and he talked. And then we talked together. And in those few brief moments, the three of us became as one. I can’t explain it. But never have I felt as “freshly and absolutely alive,” as Gerald May described his cicada moment. The interview ended with all three of us in tears. Jack and I knew what Mattias had been experiencing because we were now going through it with him, as one with him.
Steve and Gary reappeared and could see something had happened. But not one of us could adequately explain it. I could only offer Steve what Mattias had said during the talk: “God is in this place.”
The four of us then went to the school, where thousands of people had gathered. Thousands of people – and almost total silence. I think we were the only Americans there – and we were recognized as Americans, as “people who know what this is like,” a reference to Columbine.
The last thing we did before we left Erfurt that evening was to lay our hands on Mattias and pray for him. We did this on a street corner. And then we left, driving back to spend the night in Dresden. I said very little during the drive.
A few days later, when we arrived back in Budapest, we were having dinner. I tried to explain to Gary what had happened in Erfurt, but I could only come up with a rather lame description.
Finally, I said this: “I don’t know what happened. But I came from America and unexpectedly went to Erfurt, and found I’d come home.”