The fog is thick here in the hug of the Carpathian mountains. Heavy. Like the snow that charms an inky night with its shushing lullaby to the arctic wind.
On this day, we shepherd an array of children through the mud caked paths that have been loosely coined streets. Slick and chocolatey, our feet fail to keep rhythm with the chatter in a Romanian English puddle of fragmented language. The brightly colored houses beckon from their ancient foundations like children who have been set free with a box of crayolas. One senses wisdom here in this corridor of the village Viscri.
Climbing ancient walls, my hands read the rough syllables of men and women who spoke their life in echoes of centuries past. Their living is an unknown language to me, their coming and going, their hows and whys of doing, their understanding of self within their world … mystery. But, I can decipher something of their heartbeat here and it reads like an awakening for my 21st century soul. It stirs me with the shake I give Sophia in the morning, begging her to slip from the sheets of her bed and go to school. These are syllables that I can learn.
As shadows guide my way, voices that once begged for mercy, pleaded to see another day, cried for sanctuary catch an air current through time. I can hear them. The narrow climb up is precarious, wood and brick and walls that squeeze my gulping of heavenward air but history has a habit of repeating what humans so easily forget to hear.
Turkish armies, exotically strong once breached these Transylvanian walls, bringing new ways of speaking life into this being. Fear. Death. Blood. Terror. And the people of Viscri ran as the armies came. They gathered their babies, left pots boiling, shrieked the name of loved ones who had already been silenced.
‘Sanctuary,’ they cried as they ran into the arms of the White Church that I now caress in its aged state of decay. Once, these rocks were the only fortress that separated life from death; an embrace against the cold, tumultuous chaos of marauding invaders. Once, these rocks hid sustenance for the people of Viscri, where they could nestle into its foundation and tap into the stores of grain and meat and vegetables that would fortify against the evil that waited outside.
My fingers trace the contours of time turned stone cold. The word has changed, it seems.
When was the last time desperation fueled my run into the arms of mercy on a Sunday morning? Would my worship look different, feel different, sound different if the only barrier between my living and my dying were a place called sanctuary?
‘Everybody in the community would give something in the way of food’ the Arkansas tones tickle my ears as Roberta sets my pace, ‘so that when the invaders came, they could just wait them out without starving.’
Would my giving in easy digital formats or neat envelopes, or nonchalant empty intentions seem more necessary if a tithe bought another breath of life for my baby?
I stop to let the puffs of air crystalize and dance on the currants of an arctic breeze and I notice the hodge podge of real people that we are.
Relu, a young carpenter turned pastor and his wife and their two sweet girls.
Relu’s sister and her boyfriend and her children.
A teen-something girl named Mugalena who hungrily gives me one hundred hugs if she gives me one over the course of the day. Our syllables do not dance to the same rhythm but the heart understands the need for affection.
An Auntie of someone who met us half-way to Viscri with a passel of kids bouncing a 7 year old sprite in her arms who has cancer in her leg. Heartbreaking, this reality. The government will pay for the medical care if they can get to Bucharest. But, a family budget in Viscri cannot. It just cannot. End of story.
And here we all are, skirting the memories of an almost forgotten world. Making time together before we walk back to a house that is a home along a street where the Ludus live.
The Ludus; an ordinary, Romanian family with five daughters who moved to the village because God told them they should. Obedience. Simple like that. And for five years they talked about Jesus and prayed their prayers and lived out their faith in everyday matters like feeding the chickens and planting the garden and weatherizing the windows. Because that is how you live in the village.
The church board did not vote to send them to a new church plant. They had no budget for announcements, or signs, or bulletins, or paper for copies.
And it showed.
For a good five years, nobody came to their prayer times. Nobody. They asked. They invited. But nobody came.
About mid way through that five years, a young mother from the village had an argument with her boyfriend. In anger, he bludgeoned her to death.
Right there in the village. In Viscri. During the day. In the middle of the muddy street. While her little daughter watched from the yard. No way to run. No where to run. No sanctuary.
And Mrs. Ludu invited her neighbors to come and to pray about this madness that had the village by its jugular. But nobody came. Nobody.
When the chickens began picking at the new seedlings and the sun turned warm, the Ludu hearts could not settle and they birthed an idea to hold a kids camp for the village. In their backyard. With the chickens. And they prayed. A crop of village kids showed up. Curious. Questioning.
And camp became teen group in the Ludu’s living room where there is no budget for outreach.
I look around me on this day within the embrace of the White Church. Hear the kids running through the ruins discovering questions from another era of living. Its no easy task, this gathering them once they have been set free to roam but the doors are closing. The museum hours are done. The sanctuary is closed, you see, until tomorrow.
And we have a short walk back through the village to the Ludu’s where village folk are waiting to have a prayer meeting.
I watch Viscri slough through the mud, hear the sucking nose as they force their feet forward and feel the grunts as they take off their boots in the entry and enter the sanctuary, which is the Ludu’s living room, that at night is a bedroom because that is how it works here in Eastern Europe.
And the mother of the girl who was murdered in the street cries her heavy tears and asks why death came so early and how to live in its shadow.
Sanctuary. Raw like that.
Call me crazy or sentimental or simple-minded but a part of me wishes that we could throw away the ornaments of Sunday worship and come honestly for sanctuary. Maybe, if the rawness of my living was a desperate obedience to Jesus, there would be no need for outreach budgets.
Is it so foreign, so unreadable, so incomprehensible that our living rooms, our honest Jesus–lives with unanswered questions and the muck of sin and fear sucking at the souls of our forward movement might really be the only language that our world can understand?
There is this cry that I know that I hear.
Can we throw open the doors? Can we lean out of our window sills so far that we teeter precariously between heaven and earth and just expel a loud and clear call, ‘SANCTUARY! SANCTUARY here!’
Come as you are, rough, ungroomed, unschooled, unforgiven, irregardless of your orientation or your history or your addictions or your failures, or your successes, or your midnight terrors. Just come. Just find.