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A man joined us for dinner on Thursday night. He  recommended that we go to a Georgian restaurant where, over  skewers of meat, along with red cabbage, cold pickled green beans and bread, he talked about what it meant to be Estonian.

He talked about how Estonians and Georgians feel camaraderie as they are both countries that have been taken over and occupied in the past by the Soviet Union. He described how in the late 1930’s  his father watched as 115,000 Soviet soldiers marched into Tartu. He recalled that they were marching so close together than if one got out of step, many would have tripped. And the column was endless

The man also talked about  compulsory military service in Estonia. He told about how, before Estonian independence, as he was coming to the age of subscription he was fearful that he would have to serve in the Soviet Army. Estonian independence freed him from that burden.

Listening to this man’s words,  there was a paradigm shift in me.

I don’t know what it’s like to wonder what would happen if my country no longer existed. I don’t know what it would be like to hold on to a national identity when your country no longer exists.

My country is a superpower. There are things my country has done that I am proud of. There are things my country has done that I am not proud of. But I have never pondered what would happen if my country no longer existed.

Estonia is a small country roughly the size of Ohio. It borders Russia, which as a superpower could move in with force and swallow up this nation into it’s borders. It has happened before.

That thought could make a nation of people feel vulnerable. Americans felt vulnerable on 9/11 when we saw terrorism within our borders. Americans feel vulnerable in considering which culture should prevail. But we never think what it would be like if our nation no longer existed.

In the face of vulnerability, the Estonians I met exuded a sense of national pride and a commitment to embrace a bright future.

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Todd and I met our taxi at the end of the street from the Institute. Taxis can only go so far into the walled city of old Tallinn. We threw our bags in the trunk, jumped in the car and started the ride to the airport for our flight home.

The way people drive in Estonia could be described as polite aggression. Vehicles move with purpose, but defer to other drivers at the last minute. They also drive fast in icy conditions but are able to stop without skidding. Our taxi driver hit speeds of 60 kilometers at spots in the city. I found the drivers in Estonia to be remarkable and very skillful.

The streets were deserted of cars but the sidewalks were crowded. There were random groups of revelers walking like they were not quite ready for the partying to end for the evening. There were also lovers holding on to each other walking arm in arm down the frigid concourse.

Eating dinner last night, we sat near a group of young people who kept the laughter and the beer flowing. When we left the restaurant at 10:30, they looked like they were just getting started.

The impression I was left with was that the streets were alive with those trying to squeeze the last of the partying out of the evening.

It reminded me of the Las Vegas strip at sunrise. It seemed to me that between the big difference between the party people in Tallinn and Las Vegas was the sporting of winter wear.

On Friday Todd and I boarded the bus back to Tallinn. Our bus window overlooked the window of a cafeteria in the bus terminal building. Below some of the tables, we observed three men sleeping on the floor. They looked homeless and they looked drunk. Their hair was matted and their clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in a long time. We watched from our seats, along with others on our side of the bus, as the drama unfolded. The police moved in to rouse them and remove them from the premises. The police were professional and without brute force worked to get them on their feet. It was apparent that they were inebriated as they stood, unsteady on their feet, in filthy clothes.

As we watched the scene play out, it was tempting to judge the worth of these men. In front of us were men who had lost hope, seeking solace in alcohol. In most people’s eyes they were non-redeemable.

A voice inside reminded me that God loves them every bit as much as he loves me and his desire for me as well as these men was redemption.

At that moment I remembered Brennan Manning’s story of how for years he struggled with out of control alcoholism to the point of being found in a gutter almost dead. Now a successful author and speaker, it is easy to listen to his story and agree that he is socially redeemed and a valuable member of the spiritual community. He heralds the powerful grace of God to redeem anyone. His books have had a powerful influence on me as I have attempted to plumb the depths of the Father’s love for me.

As I was tempted to be judgmental, that same voice reminded me that any one of the staggering men I was looking at through the bus window, could be another Brennan Manning. I was reminded that all three men were God’s children and as valued by God, as I was, as anyone on the bus was, or in the whole town of Tartu. I was prompted to pray for them, that they would be able to receive the redeeming love of God.

We concluded the class we were teaching on Friday. Knowledge had been dispensed and at the end of the week, we said goodbye to our new friends.

There was a mixture of  joy and sorrow in meeting fellow believers. Joy in having shared a part of the journey together and sorrow at having to go our separate ways.

We were faithful to our mission in teaching aspiring pastoral counselors in Estonia. The students showed up faithfully to receive what we were giving. In our time in Tartu we have seen God’s hand on our efforts. Now we wait together to see what God does with the time all of us gave.

With a few loaves and several fish, Jesus fed thousands. There is no way to gauge the impact of our meeting together. And the rewarding part is that it isn’t up to us now. God will use it as He sees fit. This is God’s show and we are merely stagehands.

Thursday morning I woke around 7AM and decided to go for a walk to the upper part of the city. I took my camera and headed out in 5 degree weather. It was cold. I got about a block away from the hotel and realized that I didn’t have a stitch of identification on me. Not wanting to turn back, I decided I would be REALLY careful. I walked up cobblestone streets that passed on the side of The University of Tartu. There were random people chopping ice out of the entryways of the buildings that lined the street. At the top of the hill I found pathways that overlooked the city.

The air was frigid, but there was no wind so it was tolerable, other than taking gloves off to snap a picture.

The path wandered by many monuments to famous people. I didn’t recognize any of them, and yet it was obvious that their memory was being maintained. It provided a sharp contrast to my visit of the KGB museum on Wednesday where thousands died in relative obscurity.

I struggle with the meaning of life. Why is it that some lives appear to be valued for their achievements, while other lives are crushed out without any memorial of their own? If they are remembered at all by the public. it is memorialized with a picture or a journal entry on the shelf of a museum.

In the book “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell, the author quotes the passage in Matthew 10:29. It says “Not a sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” The author makes the point that people who value the Bible’s words have found comfort in the knowledge that God see us. But as the author points out, the sparrow still dies.

Whether we die as a person of note or in complete obscurity, the Father sees. The Father maintains a memorial for each of us. We are not forgotten, and we wait for the day where we can perceive with our whole being that we are truly known by our creator, sustainer and maintainer of our own personal memorial.

With jet lag from the trip, I was struggling with a little reflux, and had quickly depleted my small supply of Tums. I decided that I would purchase some at a store near the hotel. I found a store that in Estonian was labeled something that looked like a pharmacy. Entering the store, all the sales women were in scrubs. The layout was very open and looked a lot like an Apple store. I asked if the saleswoman spoke English. She shook her head, no.

I asked for antacid tablets. I pointed at my stomach. I got a quizzical look and she directed me to what looked like acetaminophen. I walked around the different products to see if I could locate anything that even closely resembled stomach relief.

Combing the store several times, I located something that looked like it might work. Anything that says “sensations d”acidity gastrique” must be what I’m looking for. I purchased it from a cashier dressed like a nurse.

On the way back to the hotel, Todd was musing that maybe I should be careful, did I have what I thought I had. I checked at the desk. The woman at the desk said she was pretty sure that it was for stomach relief. Opening the package, it contained 10 grey tablets in foil wrap. Not quite as appetizing as the colorful antacids in the U.S.

I haven’t any reflux yet. Maybe my head is telling my stomach to behave itself so we don’t have to test these puppies out.

Todd and I were walking back to the hotel from teaching at the Academy. The snow was a little slick and we were stepping lightly.

We rounded a corner and headed in the direction of a bus stop located in front of us on our side of the street. There were three people there, two younger women and an elderly man. The man caught my eye. He was dressed in a long brown coat and a fur-lined hat. His face was weathered with round cheeks. In his gaping mouth was a single tooth. It was very white, and very big, hanging off his upper gum like a cocoon. As we approached the bus shelter, the man started staring at me, his eyes getting large and round. His stare was so intense that I felt increasingly uncomfortable. His mouth opened and his tooth looked very lonely. I wondered what he’s was staring at.

In the next instant I felt something whiz by my ear. It was the mirror on a bus that passed inches away from me and stopped at the shelter.

After I caught my breath, I looked back and the man had disappeared through the bus doors. I was alone with my tingling ear. A close call, but it was cold, really cold! I moved along the street faster, closer to the buildings than the road.

On Wednesday Todd and I went to the KGB museum in Tartu. It was in the basement of a very unassuming building. We were told that it was hard to find because the signs directing tourists to the entrance were very small. When we got to the site where the map said it was, we walked around looking for it. We asked a postal worker who directed us to talk to the people in the building on the corner.

Looking hard, we found very small sign for the museum in a doorway on the side of the building. We went in and descended a steep stairwell into the basement . As we descended, I felt heavy. In a way, for thousands of people arrested by the KGB and tortured here, this truly was a descent into hell.

We got to the basement and turned right. There was a room with a curator sitting behind a desk. She was an older woman with grey hair wound up in a bun. Her hair was thin and not very well behaved. She looked stern but not aggressive. She didn’t speak any English but pointed to where we were to sign in. She stood and showed us where to begin, directing us to a plaque that talked about the subjugation of the Estonian people. It was a sad history of a people who were oppressed by cruel regimes.

We walked through rooms with metal doors and massive bars. There were artifacts from many of the thousands who were ferried from here to slave labor camps in Siberia. It told a story of a people persecuted by Hitler, only to be enslaved by the Soviet Union.

We passed through rooms that spoke of great cruelty, great bravery, great sadness and great loss. It told a story of a people who continued to survive in the face of massive persecution.

One of the main reasons the Tartu Academy of Theology exists is because there was an absence of pastors and ministers in Estonia from the Soviet Union’s deportations.  Most of the religious leaders were sent to Siberia, and many of them did not return. Tartu Academy of Theology was founded to fill empty spaces left by the Soviet Union.

The Estonians we have met have told us where to find the museum. It’s not a major tourist attraction. It is not easy to find. The museum was empty of anyone but us. It is a history that is etched on a psyche of a people, who acknowledge a tragic past, but will not be deterred from a hopeful future.

We have completed day 3. Todd and I have developed a pattern in the morning before class. We meet in the hotel restaurant for breakfast and it is quite a spread. Todd tries to communicate effectively, but it seems that he needs a substantial intake of caffeine to sound coherent. We then take a 10 minute walk across the river to the Academy. The last few days it has been in single digits, which makes the walk brisker. But with everybody walking, we don’t feel so alone.

In class today we covered perceptions and several models of how to change thinking. The students were a little more interactive. There was a discussion about what truth was and if can we actually know the truth. Then they worked on a case study that they energetically discussed and presented to the class.

Meelis has been our translator. He is an energetic man who is willing to help as he can. He has been invaluable in helping us communicate to students who speak mainly Estonian. At times when he has been  translating, he has struggled to find the right words. Some of the student have helped him with the phrasing. While Meelis is apologetic, it is also good to see how others help when he feels inadequate.

Classes have run about 4 hours. There is a range of students in the class. One is going into youth work, another is a nurse. One is a businessman studying to become a minister. Another one talked about wanting personal growth. One is a Sunday School teacher who has a heart for children. What they all believe is that God has them where they are to help others.

The first day, the class felt very stiff. It was explained by Meelis that Estonians are very shy. It feels a lot like guarded and cautious. Over the last couple days the students have gradually gotten warmer. Today there were some very good discussions going on in class. It makes it particularly interesting when the translator has to field rapid fire response from different students and Todd and I.

After class we put on coats, hats and gloves, and slip and slide our way back to the hotel.