December 5, Vulcan, Romania
It’s 4:25 p.m. and the sun has already dipped below the horizon. Early winter has stretched the nights longer and longer and daylight begins to wane not long after we arrive to work for the day. The air is cold, some of the higher mountains brushed in snow that has not yet descended to our valley.
Something catches my eye through the window and I step outside. It is a fire, burning hot on the bare ground several yards away from the gym. Around it, young boys, some of our climbers, playing and poking and throwing old cartons into the flames. Above them the mountains are glowing yellow and purple in a sheen of fading sunlight.
I am in awe of this view. I am witnessing a different kind of childhood, and it is teaching me.
I am currently in my second year of serving in the Jiu Valley, Romania through Cultivate, a program for young people to serve alongside Reformed Church in America missionaries at sites around the world. I have found a home here, and I have grown mostly accustomed to life in this corner of the world. This doesn’t mean I’m not still discovering new things: quite the contrary. It’s more that I’ve learned to expect that just about anything can happen, and I’ve learned to remember that this is not the world I was born and raised in.
I take in this view for several minutes. The other night I joined the boys by the fire they had made but today I don’t. They have been doing this almost daily it seems, dragging pieces of wood and styrofoam and dilapidated furniture up from the dumpster to feed the orange flames. The fires get big, almost dangerously so, and when I say as much, they say, “Oh Jenna, up in Dallas we do this every night, and it’s much bigger.”
I walk back into the climbing gym, the place I have come to serve in. Children are running and climbing and yelling and laughing in a wildly joyful, just barely controlled kind of chaos. This little gym is what brought me to this country in the first place; it’s what keeps me here for the time being; it’s what invites and demands growth in my own life; it’s what shows me new views of this world and the people I share it with.
“What happens when people open their hearts?” writes Haruki Murakami. “They get better.”
Children break your heart wide open. I think this is how God works too. He opens and opens and opens our hearts, sometimes to the point of pain. Sometimes it is easy and enjoyable, sometimes very hard and uncomfortable, but it always makes us better.
Especially now, during this time of Advent where we wait on the Lord, I am feeling this deeply. A large part of my work is bearing witness to the childhoods that are lived out in this valley, and this is both a great privilege and a kind of burden. Sometimes I laugh and laugh for joy and I am overcome by the beauty of it all. Other times I cry and light candles and sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” because I can think of nothing else to do.
This time of year, the light is breathtaking.
The darkness too, in a different kind of way.
But oh, that light. It soothes and it warms. Sometimes it is like the distant glow on the mountains that looks too perfect to be real. Sometimes it is a hot flame that is both beautiful and terrifying. Sometimes it is that first single star that cuts bright through the cold night air. Wherever it comes from, it always reaches us if we are willing to open our eyes to it. It spills through the cracks in our broken hearts. It makes us better.