Last Week I was in Serbia. I was invited to participate with the Bible Camp, that was organized by West Balkan Partnership, that is by the Bible Societies in the Balkans. Before I commence with the Photographic Journey of the week, I’d like to thank WBP, all the organizers, Matjaž Črnivec (General Secretary of the Bible Society of Slovenia) for inviting me and to our Lord Jesus for the amazing, awe-inspiring week. You see, there used to be many conflicts between the peoples, traditions, churches and cultures in the Balkans. Wars used to be fought over small differences of opinion. And if you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard a multitude of reasons for the supremacy of your christian tradition, and for the heretical nature of the traditions of the other denominations. I say this because this last week people there were from various countries in the Balkans (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, …) and from various denominations (Catholics, Evangelicals, Methodist, Orthodox, other Protestant, …) and not once was there any anger, hatred, bigotry, bitterness or any of the vices among us. Despite our different backgrounds we were indeed one in Christ.
By saying this I don’t mean, that there were no discussions on the differences, because there were. But they were always framed around trying to understand, not around trying to impose. So let me give an example. With the guys from the Orthodox tradition we were talking about the Holy Communion. It was quite interesting when they asked the question of what do we, protestants believe on the topic of whether Christ is there in the bread and wine is spiritually blood, as their (and Catholic) tradition teaches in their doctrine of transubstantiation. I’ve encountered these kinds of questions before and I think it’s a wrong question. So I did not answer the question in the typical protestant way (since most protestants don’t believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation), but rather in a different way. The way that the question is framed it looks on the collective organization instead of on individuals and I believe that by looking at a group-think one denies individual responsibility and individual faith. And so the answer I gave was something in the lines of this: “it’s not about what protestants believe. I know it’s important to you but my question to you is, how does God see your faith in acting in accordance with what you believe and the power of the sacred in that act? Or better yet, what is the object of your faith? Is it Jesus or is it a thing (bread, wine)? If you then take the bread and wine with the object of your faith being Jesus, not the act or the material substance on its own, what’s the big deal? Is it acting in faith or is it the ritual, in this case, what is more important? Since there is, to my knowledge, no moral difference between the two ways of acting in faith, I see no problem with either way, granted the object of your faith is Jesus. ”
I should do a more extensive post on these topics on my other blog sometime. Anyhow, here are the photos.
I’ll start with the Journey there. We took a big van. I was supposed to drive it too, but going down to Serbia only Matjaž and Boštjan drove the van (I drove it back for some time, but about more of that later). We stopped once, or maybe twice. I have no clue how long it took us, but Croatia went by super fast. Serbia was a different story since the roads were either in a worse condition or the speed limit was 50 km/h most of the time and sometimes 80 km/h; with many cops around stopping people. Luckily we were never stopped. Boštjan drove quite well.
In the afternoon we arrived to the Monastery of st. Nikolai, which is situated at the foot of the Sokolske mountains. On the peak of the closest one, from the last photo in the previous set, once stood a formidable castle Soko Grad, which is the only one that had stood untouched by the Turks. I don’t know why the castle is no more, but on its ruins now stands a huge cross, which signifies the importance of Christianity in this area.
The very next morning Matjaž and I chose to wake up early to hike up the mountain. I think we started at around 6.30. It was a beautiful fresh morning, not too cold though. First we made a wrong turn and ended up at the small waterfall nearby. It was still a beautiful sight. Alas, we turned around and took another route. We soon found a small shrine with the first commandment from the Decalogue and as we continued found another and another.
The last one was not fully on top but just before the once huge entry gates of the Soko Grad Castle. There was also what seemed an abandoned house, a water fountain and some wooden barracks. I ought not forget the strange sight of a phone-box in the wilderness. We continued up the hill on the ancient cobbled road, that lead through the castle gates up to the peak with the cross. Of course the path is safe with some metal stairs and railings just under the peak.
But the view. The view from the top was breathtaking. One one side you could see the mist rising from the Drina river and the Bosnian mountains beyond. On the right you could see the tiny village on top of the other side of the mountain range, with farmers already working. It was so picturesque. With flocks of birds, presumably pigeons, freely flying around in the nature, the likes of which I have not seen in Slovenian wilderness before, and the tiny old village as a backdrop, it really felt like I was transferred back 100 or 200 years ago, as if ti were on an old painting. It really was gorgeous. And then I realized that I stood on the top of the mountain where there were ruins of a castle all around, built on top of a jaw-dropping cliff-side. Those people really were crazy.
Up on the mountain Matjaž and I prayed and read a Psalm. It’s always nice to start the day with the scripture. Especially since going up the mountain meant missing the first morning prayer in the orthodox church in the monastery.
Going back down I took some photos I had forgotten to take earlier, and used my 50mm f1.7 Minolta MD lens (earlier I just took photos mostly with the 15-50mm Sony stock lens). The views were due to the change of light different but still amazing and looking at them, I hope you agree with me, that they truly were.
Every day in the morning we had Taize prayer as well, but with the exception of the last day I completely forgot to take a photo of that. I was so transfixed with the beauty of Taize-style prayer in the songs, with this type of worship, that I had completely forgotten about everything else around me.
After Taize and some break we had Bible Teaching, which you can take as a lecture, as a sermon or what-have you. The message of this week revolved around Jesus in the Gospels. Basically, through the entire week and all the messages we explored, what Jesus means for every single one of us here and now. And equally the dangers of established orthodoxies of “faith” which can very swiftly take one away from the experience with God. One of the messages for example revolved around the Prodigal Son parable, where we often forget about the meaning of Father and His heart in the matter, and how we often forget about the older son, who we often, as Christians, embody in orthodoxies. We often also talked about how Jesus really was a builder of a kingdom different from these of the world. Here I don’t mean merely how we are to serve, instead of being above and let us be served (which rulers today, and ever, demand). Here I mean, what N.T. Wright suggests as well, that to follow Christ means radically following Him not only as my Saviour, but as my Lord and ultimately King.
The continuation of Tuesday resulted in a short hike to the waterfall with Boštjan, Eva, Janja and Nastja. You guys are awesome. I really enjoyed spending the time with you.
Somehow this week I was at the right place at the right time all along, since I got to see places I might not have seen otherwise. Thus Matjaž invited me to go see a monastery several kilometers away with a few other people, among which were also two really funny guys, Damir from the Croatian Bible Society and Petko from Macedonian Bible Society (I think). I had a blast chatting with them in the car. Anyhow. I can’t recall the name of this monastery we went to that day. It was one of the many monasteries in Serbia today, which are growing and this one was being remodeled. You see, Orhodox church doesn’t require celibacy for most positions in the Church hierarchy and thus the movement is growing in Serbia, unlike catholic Europe which is either stagnating or even declining, partly due to celibacy as a requirement for priests.
At that monastery we also met this interesting man of God. It was an interesting experience, the old man was, almost surreal, like he was taken from one of those old Dostoevsky novels. Matjaž and I talked with him for quite a while. Sometimes it was difficult to understand his Serbian, but overall I understood him. Such a simple old raggedy man. A lovely experience, I must say. You could see his humility a mile away. When the brothers of the monastery gave us some food, he did not want to eat. He said that we’re a gift to them and thus it is for us to eat the gift from God that they had with them. My prayers are with him, and he said that he will continue to pray for peace between people of the Balkans and for us individually.
As we were going back to st. Nikolai of Serbia, we briefly stopped in a town for some groceries, and then went back. I seems that when we were gone people were playing sports. That’s fine, I’m not into sports that much. I preferred the sightseeing anyways.
The next day was more relaxed. I didn’t go sightseeing, but instead I got to hang out with my fellow christian brothers and sisters. We got to learn about Culture and languages a lot. If I remember correctly, Eva was trying to learn Macedonian. She might say, that she’s a slow learner, but I think she learns quite fast. Besides… everyone has a different way of learning languages. I may prefer just hearing it and then trying to put it into practice, which I did throughout the week with Serbo-Croatian and I think I did moderately well, or at least well enough that I was able to communicate mostly in Serbo-Croatian and just a little bit of English. Language wise it indeed was a strange week for me, because more than three quarters of what I was saying was in Serbo-Croatian and then some English and just a tiny bit of Slovene.
Aforementioned morning (and evening) prayers of the monastery orthodox church were quite nice and a good way to start the day. I didn’t understand everything, since the speech was very fast, but I did catch that it was, I believe, two Psalms and The Lord’s Prayer, among other things.
Thursday was set for rafting. I’m sure that people enjoyed it, as they said themselves (although reportedly it wasn’t really rafting, since they sat in the boat instead of on the sides of the boat). I wasn’t very excited for rafting (had it been like the rafting I knew from Slovenia, which gives me cramps in legs) and I was positively surprised when Matjaž said I could go with Petko, Damjan, and one of the local priests on a tour of two more monasteries. We actually expected to go see one monastery of the Holy Trinity, but when we came to the mountain where it was supposed to be, there turned out to be two monasteries of the same name, at least that’s what it seemed on the signs pointing to the monasteries on the road. The fist one we went to see was from 16th. Century with somewhat baroque feel to it, and in truth didn’t really look that orthodox, at least not in paintings. Maybe that’s because I’m used to seeing Icons in Byzantine style, and not later ones. Actually even the Priest who was with us and a Professor a few days before that, sometimes complain about the “incorrectness” of the baroque influence and other stylistic deviations. It seems that one must be quite exact in the making of the Icons, because every single thing is there for a reason and every color has a meaning behind it; one shouldn’t play with that too much lest the meaning might be lost or even worse. it might be misinterpreted.
The other Monastery we went to see had a church from 1500’s but if I understood the sister correctly, the place can go back into 12th or 13th century. Alas, a very impressive place. Unfortunately they did not allow me to use my camera inside. So there’s only one photo taken from the entrance gates. I must say, however that the sister’s hospitality was beyond me. They brought us monastery made sweets from strawberries, some really delicious sweet liqueur and biscuits. I bought a honey-wax handmade candle and monastery-made honey and on top of it all we were gifted with 1l of their handcrafted wine each. Thank you sisters.
On the way back we stopped to get some home-made Rakia. I wish I had more money left to buy more than just one bottle, since it was a really good one. You won’t hear me say that often, since I generally don’t like strong liqueur such as that, but this one really is good. Alas, I at least have one bottle in my cabinet now. Then we slowly headed back. I mean slowly, because we naturally had to stop for some food. I think it was either the first or the second time I ate lamb meat. It was delicious though. And cheap. It cost us ¼ or even less of what it would have cost us back here in Slovenia. Heading back the GPS took us astray (or something) and we took a tad of a detour, but nonetheless it was a fun and picturesque trip. Besides, with Damir and Petko in the car it’s always fun. We went through so many different subjects, I can’t even remember all of them: from theology, to free-markets, argumentative ethics, politics, war, linguistics, translation, back to theology, bible, philosophy, etc. It seems to me, that Petko was somewhat impressed by the wealth of things we got to be able to talk on, in Serbo-Croatian mind you.
The road took us around 3 hours in each direction, I think, so I thought that when we got back, we would miss the “presentations”. You see, every small group (not by countries) had to make a presentation either on something from the week, thoughts, a skit or anything worth presenting. We had our Nastja in the group. She’s an avid dancer. That at the end resulted in our group having to dance. We didn’t miss the presentations, but we were late enough to have missed the time to do some practice. Therefore I had no clue what dances they’ll have in the skit. “Oh well,” I thought. The first group did a good intro into one of the big messages from the week, the Prodigal Son parody. Our group then seamlessly continued that with the balkan dances (assuming that the party of the prodigal son returning continued). Some of us aren’t really talented for dancing and I hope that didn’t show too much. Then again, we had fun. The rest continued with the theme of the party and the last group ended with a “be happy” with all that God gives statements through an ingenious song.
The last full day, Friday, was a more relaxed one. this time I took the liberty to take some photos of the morning Taizei worship. We then took photos (the full group photo of everyone was taken by another photographer who was also videographer for the event and I do not yet have that photo on my disposal. The afternoon, as usual was unstructured. our girls decided to try some fishing. I didn’t know that for some it was their first time fishing and I still feel bad for not paying attention to that. “I’m sorry, Eva”. I could have taken the photo of Eva fishing, but completely forgot. I guess I was waiting for her to catch the fish. But not everyone did. Neža and Janja caught a few small ones though.
After Lunch we went back up to the Cross on the mountain ruins. We had some really good chats and reflections on following Christ, on the topics of what is Mercy and Grace, on relationships, on radical nature of Christ and how that can be seen in us humans, etc. Just before the ruin gates we saw a herd of sheep this time. That was new. Just like that, out in the open. Up by the cross we stopped again and just simply stood there in awe of everything we saw around us. We talked some more. And we read a Psalm to center us on our God who saved us. He is good. And he is Big. And He makes everything beautiful.
Since it was still unstructured time, and most of those around like sports, I joined them in volleyball. I’m not terribly fond of sports, but I tried my best. It’s about hanging out anyways, right? Then some more lads popped around and I got to take photos again. Some of them, and some of the landscape around us. The golden hour approached and I needed to take this last opportunity to make some photos of the surroundings. Those last five in this following set were taken by Matjaž, who wanted to take some photos on the other side of the “pond”.
The dinner was good, but it was really funny to see Matjaž drink coke. Well, I did drink it too, a little bit, but I don’t pretend to never drink it, just very very rarely. Maybe thrice or so a year. Oh well. His digestion system apparently needed it. After dinner I caught the Taizei set before it was filled with people. But considering the fact that it was the last night of the week for many (some had left earlier that day) Nastja and some other girls managed to convince the rest to make a Dance night. I will say it was fun to watch. Nah, I tried it too, but still, my legs did not obey. I also learned that so called “slovene national music” isn’t really slovenian, but an austrian import from the 19th century. So I guess I’ll be on a lookout to try to find our own musical heritage in the future. I digress. The evening was indeed fun.
Finally, and perhaps sadly, the last day came. We left Serbia the last. Just like we came first, I guess we had to leave last. This time, in order to avoid traffic jams at the border, we went through Bosnia. And traffic jam we indeed avoided. Damir called us from the Border between Serbia and Croatia on the highway saying that he had already been waiting for 4 hours and perhaps he would have to wait two more. We were already in Croatia at that point, and he left earlier than we did. The last part of the trip I was the driver. Driving a big 9-seater van is quite a responsibility and it’s been a while since the last time I drove one. But I think I did fine. Due to an accident on the Zagreb highway Matjaž used his phone as GPS to lead me through the suburbs of Zagreb and then back to the Highway, which we also exited just before the end to avoid another traffic jam at the Slovene border, which we also did avid.
Now writing this, and remembering it all, I must say I miss everyone I met there. I miss even my fellow Slovenes. And I miss the spirit of unity in Christ which was there despite all the other differences. I love the fact that Jesus united us in prayer, in songs, in worship and in experiencing the new. I love the fact that we were able to see each other as brothers and sisters and not just “the other”. Praise God for this. And I pray that we be able to spread that among our fellow christians and non-christians alike now when we’re back in the world, in the sometimes unfortunate reality. I pray that WBP manages to find ways to make this kind of Bible Camp happen again next year. And I hope some from our Church in Radovljica can join us as well.
Until at least this Thursday (at the time of writing this) I’m so very glad and thankful for having met you and for having spent one of the most hopeful weeks of this year with you: Eva, Nastja, Janja, Boštjan, Neža and of course Matjaž.
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