Uniquely Lithuanian

When one first encounters Lithuania, the most striking feature for many is the language. It has its own melody, a cadence that is mesmerizing. Life here is the same way: melodic and rapturous; but this isn’t something that you can see, that is obvious, it is an undercurrent, that comes at you from behind and sweeps you along. Suddenly, you realize that you are in Lithuania, and it is amazing. But this culture did not appear, or gradually evolve: it was fought for, and forcibly built over one thousand years of history, occupation, oppression, revolution, and finally freedom.

When the Roman Empire spanned the breadth of the Mediterranean and further, Lithuania was there, though not in a strictly national form. The loose Baltic tribes that would become this amazing nation mined a rare golden substance, and traded it with other “barbarian” tribes, who in turn, carried this strange jewel to the centers of Rome along what was know as the “Amber Road.”

At the turn of the first millennium these amber traders were immortalized forever, this time as a nation called Lithuania, for in 1009 a brief entry in a German manuscript notes that the first person who tried to bring the growing religion of Christianity to the pagans of Lithuania was killed in the attempt. Lithuania would be the last European nation to adopt Christianity, desiring to remain free, even from the religion of their neighbors. Russian manuscripts from the next 100 years make mention of Lithuania, usually to note battles fought with the Lithuanians. Ironically, the Russians should have listened to what was already evident: Lithuanians do not take to being ruled by foreign powers.

By 1253 a man by the name of Mindaugus unified the loose Baltic peoples into the State of Lithuania and he was crowned king of the Lithuanians. Lithuania grew until Vytautas the Great came to power and instituted a rule that encompassed Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia, but the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not to last. By the 1400’s Lithuania as a nation was starting to break apart, and under threat of a growing Russia, they formed a union with Poland in 1569. This lasted for almost 200 years until 1795 when Russia grew to enormous size and swallowed Poland and 90% of the land that was Lithuania. They would not be free again until 1918 when Lithuania would declare its independence from the Russian Empire.

Even though the political nation was under much duress and change during the latter half of the first millennium, the culture was stronger than before. In 1547 the first book, a catechism, was published in Lithuania. Books would become a unique feature of the culture, and a sign of rebellion, once Lithuania fell under the control of Russia. By 1865 there was an underground publishing movement that printed books by the thousands and smuggled them throughout Lithuania. The Russians had forced the populace to learn Russian, and only allowed Russian to be printed, but these illegal book makers preserved the language, and through it, the culture of Lithuania in a time of oppression. Fascinatingly enough, the majority of those involved in this process were ordinary peasants, and not intellectuals. The common people of Lithuania fought a revolution, not with swords and bullets, but with culture and literature.

For forty years Lithuania struggled to maintain itself, and in 1940 a new Russia, the Soviet Union, occupied Lithuania. Utilizing their self-reliance and deep commitment already learned under hardship, the Lithuanians maintained their culture and endured. From the 1970s and beyond, a small cultural revolution was being fought, again, mostly through culture: music, films, and literature. The Soviets were cruel, and ruthless, but they could not conquerer, only occupy, and when, in 1991, the Iron Curtain shattered, Lithuanians were there to sweep away the pieces and found a new Lithuania for the second millennium.

Since March 11, 1991 Lithuania has been free, joining the European Union and NATO of a free will, and in 2009, on the 1000 year anniversary of their first mention, they will become the cultural centre of a unified Europe. Surely this is a moving tribute to the long standing Lithuania that refused to die.

Throughout their history, Lithuanians have been set apart by fierce independence as a nation, and unyielding devotion to language and literature as a people, building from that a culture truly unique.

Am I Ugly?

I have something to confess: I traffic in cultural stereotypes. The French are pansies and hate America; Canadians are bumblers; Mexicans just want to cross the border illegally; Americans are the best. I tell jokes about them, I laugh, I amuse with my stereotypical ideas. I tend to think that American has it going on, America is right, and the rest of the world is trying to be America, and they just aren’t right until they have Wal-Mart and Wendy’s.

That is, I used to stereotype. I don’t so much anymore. What caused this change? I left America. I saw a few small corners of the world. First: Papua New Guinea for a year. Second: Japan, for twelve hours. Third: Quebec, for three weeks. Fourth: the Netherlands, for four days. Now: Lithuania, for 19 days and counting. Even my short times in Japan, the Netherlands, and Quebec were enough to give me glimpses and snapshots into the lives and cultures of the people who live there.

Papua New Guinea for a year was certainly a time of personal revolution. For the first time, I was a white minority in a black majority. For a white southern American, the reversal was startling. Other things changed my thinking as well: for instance, we shopped for our vegetables at an outdoor market. We didn’t buy the imported American brands at the local store because they were at three times more expensive. We walked. How much we walked…something a bit odd for an American to do.

In Japan, everything seemed small, conservative. The cars were half the size of American cars. Space was a premium commodity in Tokyo. My mother, surfing channels in our hotel room was perturbed that there wasn’t a channel in English. And then it struck me: why should there be? We don’t have Japanese channels back home.

Quebec showed me French people that weren’t anything like I imagined them. Despite cynicism that says French Canada is different that France itself, I found many Quebecers who had only recently moved from France. Most everyone I met was kind, gracious, and very friendly.

Holland, the Netherlands, was peace itself. Quiet, homely, and tranquil. I marveled at the slowness. Bicycles outnumbered cars, and pedestrians had the right of way at any roadway. People were friendly, others-centered, and hospitable.

And in Lithuania, I have found a new home. For me, it is a culmination of the past four years of experience. I am once again living in a country that is not my own. I am not passing through in hours, days, or even weeks: I am here for a third of a year. I buy, work, walk, and breathe the air day after day. I wake and sleep under the same sun at a new angle. I insinuate myself into a culture, into the lives of people who are not like me. We speak differing languages, and have different ideas, but I feel at home. I feel settled.

For me, the breaking of stereotypes comes in the infusion of experience. Moving beyond borders, boundaries, and barriers. Shopping for food by picture and deciphering strange alphabets; riding buses and walking rather than jumping in a car; counting hours to 24 instead of 12 twice. All of this is the experience that breaks down stereotypes, for me. I look around and realize that here is a culture, similar and contrary to mine in many ways, and it works every single day for thousands of people. They find joy, happiness, and contentment just as I would back home in America, and suddenly I can find no criticism, no joke, no feeling of superiority: only a feeling of community, of oneness with the family of humanity.

I am so glad that God moved my family to become missionaries, and moved us far beyond the borders of the “Land of the Free” so that I might encounter the free souls of a hundred cultures and lands in places I could never have imagined. I pray that through my own change, I may enact change in others. I would like that the image of ugly America the world tends to see is not reflected in me, and that I can play some small part in changing the ideas of those that would see me as I once saw them, as facades of what they are not, instead of seeing them as the people they are.

Miraculous Conception

I have a new niece with me in the world: Katherine “Katya” Elizabeth Martin. My sister-in-law Christine gave birth yesterday, and my brother’s family just got a little bit bigger.

Ever since I was old enough to understand, I have thought it strange that people tend to refer to children only as separate entities once they have been born. You don’t “become” a father, or mother, or uncle, or grandmother, or whatever until the baby is born. As I understand human biology, the unborn baby is completely dependent upon its mother, but is also a completely separate individual, according to one example, it is even possible for a baby and a mother to have different blood types. The baby is certainly by all accounts alive, and although the debate rages about when actual life begins in the womb, it is common thought that the baby will be its own person after birth.

But why? if they are separate biological entities, if they will be individuals, why can they not be understood to be alive and among us while remaining unborn? The question of dependence does not, to me, make much sense, as a newborn is hardly any less dependent upon its mother than a few weeks prior. Indeed, most new people are completely helpless until 3 to 4 years of age, perhaps at the very earliest. So why do we not speak of them as people until they are born? I have yet to figure that out.

I, for one, refer to unborn babies as the people they are, and continue to be after birth, from the moment I know the mother is pregnant. I “became” an uncle the moment my brother and his wife conceived their new daughter. Katya was as much a niece to me then as she now, all wrinkly and beautiful as a newborn.

If I can get my wife to agree, my children will always have two “birthdays” a year: the date we can most accurately identify as conception date, and their birthday, to impress upon them the personhood of the unborn baby.

Why should someone be less than a person merely due to their physical constraints and situation and for no other reason?

Tears of the World Shakers

They walked the world. Most times, as you passed them on those long, hot dusty roads, you wouldn’t think anything of them. Another old man, leaning on a staff, clothed a bit shabbily, but then, what do you expect? Israel is in another recession. Judah is having financial troubles. And sure…the barbaric Assyrians are breathing down from the north…the Babylonians from the east…the Egyptians from the south. They can smell it…the stink of corruption in the monarchy, and the scent of weakness. But then, that’s the way it has been most of your life…and really, things aren’t that bad. Your dad’s flocks and herds are a bit lean, but you still have enough cow to go around. The crops haven’t done as well the past couple seasons, but it’s just one of those times. All these thoughts bounce around your brain, and by the time the dust has settled behind you…you have mostly forgotten the bearded man who walked by with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

But then, the next day, your friends are talking…the town is a buzz. Did you hear what happened yesterday?? Did you catch what went down in the palace court? A friend’s friend’s father is a guard and he overheard…the prophet, ish ha-elohim: the man of God. Apparently he stalked into the court in the middle of some meeting and berated the king. After that, the crazy guy started yelling into the streets, tears streaming down his face. Something about a prostitute and the wrath of God. It doesn’t make much sense…the story, coming as it does in bits and pieces, but it burns in your mind…”Elohim has spoken!” It damages your calm…your casual nonchalance has fled and suddenly the world shrinks in around you. The twisted branches of the fig trees you pass seem menacing. The bull behind the fence glares with fiendish gleam. The crow caws ominously. The sky seems to grow dark…even at midday.

The prophets…the seers: they spoke for God, they saw crazy visions and dreamed impossible dreams. They cried in the towns, they wailed in the desolate regions; they shouted, they cursed, they called down doom from heaven.

Daily routine was interrupted…the ordinary became disjointed…comfort was annihilated.

They were mocked, beaten (finally the authorities stepped in to do something), imprisoned, or simply run off. But still, cousins talked and wanderers told tales. Their messages became splinters in the mind, itches beneath the skin, burnings in the ears.

Messages heralded the signs of the times: the oracles of God shattered the status quo; the tears of the world shakers shredded the peace…

Lately, that is to say, the last week and today, I have begun a study of Hebrew prophetic literature. It is something that has long fascinated me, and my recent learning of the ancient Hebrew language has rekindled a desire to delve into the Bible once more to unearth these strange treasures: the oracles of the prophets. It certainly isn’t easy reading, but then, it was never meant to be. The prophet’s soul task was to create chaos in the current world system, so that God could reintroduce His order and display His sovereignty.

In my life, just over two weeks into my time in Lithuania, through the teachings of professors and simply life experience, I am becoming uncomfortable. I am not at ease with how little I know about the world, about the Bible, and how small my faith is. Some things the profs teach enrage me, and I don’t quite know why…but I am becoming compelled to find out…to learn for myself. In their own way, they have become prophets to me, to shake me from my lethargy into active pursuit of knowledge, of faith, and of God.

I am become unsettled…by the tears of the world shakers.

It Was Horrible!! (Updated)

Hello friends

I blogged awhile ago about the online video sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. Well, the geniuses behind that sensational web-epic have released the soundtrack on iTunes, so now you can enjoy all the original and catchy tunes for only $9.99 and can support the revolutionary artisans that created Dr. Horrible.

Check it out: Dr. Horrible

Phil

UPDATE:
To my great chagrin, having reviewed my posts, I didn’t actually post here about Dr. Horrible! I will amend: Dr. Horrible is an aspiring super-villain who blogs about his infamous exploits. His alter-ego is shy Billy who has a crush on his laundry buddy, Penny. His nemesis is the smarmy Captain Hammer. And, they all SING! It is hilarious, poignant, and rollicking good fun! Written, directed, and totally done by Joss Whedon and his brothers…this revolutionary web mini-series was the brainchild of the writer’s strike and is completely independent of any major film studio…and was the number one downloaded TV show from iTunes for 5 weeks running, and the soundtrack is on its way to #1 downloaded album! (The TV show is $4 download from iTunes).

It really is worth watching.
Check it out.

the Klaipeda Kid

Hello there…

it has been awhile since I have posted, and I will try to update ya’ll on since then the happenings to me…but first, something that didn’t happen to me: my brother (Nate) got engaged! Congrats to the happy couple and many happy days ahead to them both!

Now, we (me and 34 others…1 leader, 1 co-leader, 5 interns, 27 American students) have toured Vilnius (the capitol of Lithuania), Trakai, Nida, Kretinga, and finally Klaipeda where I will be living for the next four months attending the Lithuania Christian College International University.

While in Vilnius we saw the presidential palace (where you can walk right up to the front…not something you can do to the White House), a KGB prison which was in operation right up until 1991, much of the old town and amazing architecture and many many cathedrals.

In Trakai we were able to tour a castle that had been operating the late 1500’s. Hannah and I took a walk around the outside, and just inside the courtyard, but declined to pay to see the rest of the castle, though we may try to get back when we have more time available.

Nida is on the Baltic coast, and is host to the massive Great and Parnidis sand dunes, and between them the valleys of Death and Silence. Essentially a tourist/resort town, the panorama of the Baltic Sea is stunning and the huge dunes and wide valleys were amazing. The only thing close to the dunes I have seen is near Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. Simply amazing. We hiked to the top and looked around…breathtaking. Also of note, I took an unplanned dip in the Baltic Sea, upping my total of large bodies of water swum in to 3 (Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and Baltic Sea). I tried to see how cold the water was, but the concrete pier was slicker than it looked and as I leaned down, I slipped in. I soaked my shoes and my jeans, so I spent the next 45 mins looking for a shop to buy shoes and pants, which I did, and was able to spend the remainder of my time there dry. Also humorous, when Hannah and I sat down on the beach to eat lunch, several pigeons who were just hanging around became curious in our meal, and started to walk in circles around us…it was hilarious. I felt like a pioneer headed west being circled about by Indians.

Kretinga is a small town near Klaipeda. We visited there a Catholic mass, and afterward received a tour of the church including a tall tower overlooking the town. After that we were taken to lunch at this massive restaurant that had a great many tables, and was so big that there was a basketball court and playground in the courtyard so that you could play while waiting for your food. Very cool. This was today, and we were officially taken off of our leashes, and told that our hands would be held no more, though the study abroad staff were still available to us, and we have other trips to take together. We were challenged to write letters to ourselves that will be mailed to us at the end of the school year including our first impressions and hopes for the semester. At the end of the four months, we will write another letter looking back. A very cool idea and it will be interesting to see what we wrote and how we thought nine months from now.

I am very ready to start classes and get into the routine of the semester. My schedule is as follows: I have History of Western Civilizations from 0830-0930 MWF, Introductory Lithuanian 0945-1045 MWF, Introduction to Theology 1330-1430 MWF, Hebrew Prophets 1445-1545 MWF, Lithuanian Culture 1200-1300 F, and Linguistics which will be online. I have Tuesday and Thursday completely free of class! I can’t wait…this will be an awesome semester. I will try to keep up to date on this blog, and am working on an independent web site for pictures to accommodate those without access to Facebook.

Thanks for reading,

Phil in Klaipeda, Lithuania