Takk

A picture from our travels in Iceland in front of a pretty waterfall the name of which has a bunch of letters and sounds cool but I'll never be able to pronounce.
A picture from our travels in Iceland in front of a pretty waterfall the name of which has a bunch of letters and sounds cool but I’ll never be able to pronounce.

I had an awkward encounter the other day with a kind lady behind the cash register. I was at a local store picking up a few necessities. We’d finished the transaction and she handed me the bag after which I smiled and, on instinct, uttered a word that sounds like “tock”.

She looked puzzled.

“Takk,” I repeated.

“Tick?” She asked.

I spoke louder. “TAAK!”

She appeared startled. I looked at her expectantly. She stared back at me. The folks behind me in line darted their eyes back and forth between us like they were watching a ping-pong match. Finally I realized my mistake and was somewhat embarrassed.

“Sorry,” I said. “I meant to say ‘thank you.’”

And with no further means of explanation, I turned and sprinted out of the store.

All this goes to say that we’ve arrived back in America safe and sound. Our plane touched down Thursday night. After sitting on the runway for nearly an hour while our pilot tried to figure out which gate we belonged at (“Sorry about the delay, Lufthansa seems to think they own the terminal these days”), nearly losing our customs slip (“that’s not really important is it?”), learning that immigration officers don’t have the best sense of humor (“what were you doing in Iceland?” “Well, I wasn’t getting a tan now was I?” “….”), we found our bags and met my family outside a crowded airport terminal. We were back home.

The first (and arguably only) Icelandic word I learned is “takk.” It means “thanks” or “thank you.” I learned this word years ago when it was released as the title of an album by one of my favorite bands, whose origin I would go on to learn was the small north Atlantic country I which would quickly absorb my fascination. They released the album on the heels of their first world tour, as a tribute to their country of origin, to the people who had launched them into their career. It’s a beautiful album, with a simple title and a pure message: “takk…thank you.”

The word is easy to say, flows smoothly off the tongue. Accompanied with smile and a nod, it communicates genuine appreciation, simple sincerity. Perhaps it’s because this word was introduced to me with the beauty of an album of music holding it up, or perhaps it was just the foreign nature of it, but I always found that it held a greater weight and significance than it’s English counterpart. And while in Iceland it’s the one word I could communicate easily and freely. I ended every encounter with a small nod and “takk”. It became instinctive for me, more so than saying “thank you”.

Which is why, when it comes to showing our gratitude for this trip, I think we’ll revert from English and embellish in one final Icelandic indulgence. I hope you don’t mind. Because there’s a few people to whom we wish to say “takk”.

To everyone who supported us and prayed for us before this trip, to those who gave financially to the fund that sent us over to Iceland, who encouraged us, and equipped us: takk. When we initially conceived the idea of taking this trip, we imagined it’d be difficult to raise support. We cannot tell you how grateful we are for the way in which numerous people rallied behind us. To all of you who supported us in prayers, letters, encouragement, finances and numerous other ways before our trip: takk.

To the people at Gordon-Conwell who educated us, the administration behind the Overseas Missions Practicum who provided for the class and infrastructure behind the program, and our professors and mentors on both sides of the pond: takk. Much thanks to Bill and Gunnar who hosted us in country and the endless efforts they put into providing a place for us to stay and the countless logistical efforts it took for us to even come and be with them during this time. Our time in country was not a walk in the park for them and we are incredibly grateful for their selfless service in shuffling us around, finding housing for us, and being our tour guides and translators while we were there. To everyone who providing for the logistics, infrastructure and education for this trip: takk.

To everyone who has supported, encouraged and prayed for us while we were on the trip, to those who sent an email, message or simply lifted us up daily while we were in Iceland… we are infinitely grateful to you as well. An email here, a message there, went a long way to encouraging us at just the right time. Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the power of prayer. This trip was not without it’s difficulties and prayers, through the grace of God, supported us in ways you can’t begin to imagine. For countless supporters who aided us and lifted us during this trip behind the scenes, for those of you loved us anonymously: takk.

To the people we’ve met on this trip, to the endless Icelanders whose gracious hearts, welcoming attitudes and loving spirits have permanently endeared us to you and your country, we are eternally gratefully. It’s incredible to think that six weeks ago we entered a new country alone and yet this past week we had to spend five days saying goodbye to a community we’d come to know and love. We realize that this didn’t happen just by letting people into our hearts but because others let us into theirs. And for the willingness to be open to complete strangers entering into your lives, we are very grateful. To our new friends, to those we met along the way, to the numerous people who opened up their houses and homes, bought us a cup of coffee, offered us a ride, gave us a place to stay, made us a meal, even gave us directions when we were lost, we cannot say it enough: takk.

Lastly, but of greatest importance, thanks be to God. Iceland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, filled with some of the most beautiful and wonderful people I’ve ever met. It is a place yearning for redemption, yes, but it is still a place that sings the praises of its Creator. We are infinitely grateful to and thankful for a Creator who did not abandon any of us to our own devices but actually chooses to utilize us in His redemptive work. And we’re thankful for the fact that He is a creative Creator, whose beauty is reflected in the diverse and brilliant landscape of Iceland. To Him first and foremost we give our infinite and foremost gratitude for allowing us to be part of His work in that country. And with grateful hearts we say, simply but sincerely: takk.

The past six weeks have been a memorable journey we’re not soon to forget. There’ve been ups and downs, sunsets and rainy days. Through it all, we’re grateful for the experience and thankful to everyone who supported us and provided a way for it to happen. We cannot say it enough nor is there a word in English or Icelandic that means it as sincerely as we do.

So we’ll just keep it simple and mean it from the bottom of our hearts:

 

 

 

takk.

 

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Iceland In Photos & Prose

I’m not much of a photographer and despite years of training there are not words that can adequately surmise our summer in Iceland. But I managed to snap a few photos during our time in the country. I’d like to share them now along with some words of others who carry a pen more eloquently than myself. Their wisdom has echoed in my heart while we’ve been in the country, a reminder to me of how experiencing a new place, a new culture and then attempting to do ministry in said location is always a humbling experience. I carry them with me as we leave today.

So here’s a summary of our time in Iceland, in the best way I know how:

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“Perhaps these thoughts of ours will never find an audience

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Perhaps the mistaken road will end in a mistake

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Perhaps the lamps we light one at a time

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will be blown out, one at a time

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Perhaps the candles of our lives will gutter out

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without lighting a fire to warm us.

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Perhaps when all the tears have been shed

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the earth will be more fertile

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Perhaps when we sing praises to the sun

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the sun will praise us in return

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Perhaps these heavy burdens

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will strengthen our philosophy

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Perhaps when we weep for those in misery

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we must be silent about miseries of our own

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Because of our irresistible sense of mission

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We have no choice.”

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(Shu Ting, Translated from Chinese by Carolyn Kizer)

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My time in Iceland has been informative, humbling, wonderful, educational, inspiring and memorable all at the same time. I hope I had as much as an impact on the people and country as they had on me. Perhaps I did, perhaps I didn’t. My hope for this is just a prayer on the wind of this beautiful place as we leave here today.

I’ll close with sharing the following music video from one of my favorite artists. I saw this video several years ago, when I’d just begun dreaming of coming to Iceland. As it turns out, it was filmed not far from where we spent most of our time while here. And we actually drove through several of these locations and visited some of the sights as you may recognize from one of the pictures above. The song beautifully sums up my time in the country more than I ever could:

“…and at once I knew I was not magnificent
High above the highway aisle
Jagged vacance, thick with ice
I could see for miles, miles, miles.”

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Bless Ísland, takk fyrir allt.
(Goodbye Iceland, thanks for everything)

Lights

Northern lights over Ísafjörður. Unfortunately not my photo since I didn't have my camera with me on this particular night. Photo credit goes to Robert Robertsson
Northern lights over Ísafjörður. Unfortunately not my photo since I didn’t have my camera with me on this particular night. Photo credit goes to Robert Robertsson

By some estimates, Iceland currently ranks one of the most atheistic countries in the world. This seems a bit strange for a country that was founded by Christians. Indeed, some of the first settlers on the island were hermits and monks from Europe. Catholicism was quickly adopted as the state church of the region, followed by Lutheranism with the advance of the Reformation. Even today, tiny communities in the middle of remote countryside feature prominent churches; the bell tower is often the first thing you can see when driving in from a distance. Inasmuch the Gospel message is not foreign to the country of Iceland. But unlike the rest of Europe and even America, Iceland has never seen a revival, never seen an uprising of the faith. Christianity has always been present, but it never seems to have taken a vibrant foothold in the country, never seems to have the brilliant flash and appeal it has held, at some point or another, for the rest of Western Christendom. Instead the Gospel message has slowly settled into a role as a relic, a historical anecdote, a quaint but irrelevant aspect of history. Its light no longer draws a second glance.

So between that and the fact Netflix is still unavailable here, it’s safe to say that Iceland is not quite a perfect country.

This past week we had some time off for R&R and took advantage of a good deal on plane tickets and flew to Ísafjörður, the most prominent city in the northwestern region of Iceland. Seeing as it is nestled between the towering mountains of a fjord, flying into Ísafjörður feels like riding a roller coaster that was designed by someone who only believed in the existence of 90 degree angles; I was grateful to return my feet to solid ground.

Since Ísafjörður is such a small town, hotels and guesthouses aren’t too cheap (which, goes to say, the author of this post may or may not have failed to look into booking one in advance). So we brought our tent along and found a spot in a campsite a couple miles outside of town. We spent our days hiking alongside waterfalls, playing cards by our campsite and exploring the town and local area with a fellow American we’d met on the plane who was kind enough to let us to accompany him on some drives he took in a rental car. At night, we’d walk into town and grab a bite to eat at the local grill then stroll back along the fjord as dusk was making its final stand atop the mountains.

It was during one such evening, on a particularly cold and crisp night, that we were walking back to our site and noticed something faint bridging the twilight sky above our heads. Spanning the expanse between the mountain peaks was a wisp of clouds with a greenish hue to them, like an alien spaceship had sprung a leak and crashed the next fjord over.

“What do you think it is?” my wife asked.

I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was a strange reflection from the sunset. Or perhaps we were just seeing things.

We returned to our campsite and prepared for bed. Because it was a tad bit cold, and my wife had been a jolly good sport with regards to my failure to book us a hotel, I’d agreed to stay up for a couple hours reading so that she could fall asleep under both of our sleeping bags for extra warmth. It was well past midnight at this point, and it was late enough in the summer to have pure darkness for a few hours especially in the northern part of the country. I’d just finished tucking my wife into the sleeping bags and stood up out of our tent when, for the second time that night, I noticed something green flash out of the corner of my eye. I turned, bracing myself for an alien abduction. But what I saw was ten times more breathtaking, a million times more brilliant.

For lo and behold, when I turned around my eyes beheld, not aliens, but the aurora borealis, the northern lights, dancing and swaying just above the mountain tops.

For a moment, I was speechless. I’ve dreamt of viewing the northern lights my entire life. I’ve lived places where they’ve been spotted on the rare occasion but never witnessed them myself. When we came to Iceland we knew it was known for these sightings but we were told the earliest they appeared was September. It was still mid-August and I never dreamt for a moment that we’d have a chance to see them before leaving. But there they were, undeniably, flashing before my very eyes.

After luring my wife from the tent we both stood staring at the lights for a few minutes before they danced into the darkness and were gone. With that, I helped my love back into bed and made my way to the campsite’s common kitchen area, a small heated hut, where I could stay warm and read until she had drifted into a comfortably cozy slumber.

When I reached the hut and was about to go inside, there was another flash, and looking north I saw another string of the aurora swirling from the night sky. It was even brighter than before, a vivid wall of green lines dancing across the horizon to some unheard song. I was mesmerized. I stood outside the door of the hut, my neck craned skyward, shivering almost uncontrollably but never once considering stepping inside; it was one of the most remarkable things I’d ever seen in my life.

The door opened and a slice of lamplight cut into the lawn interrupting the scene. A man stepped out and I turned to him and pointed to the lights.

“The northern lights!” I said. “Look! It’s the northern lights!”

The man turned and glanced at the lights, examining them the way a teacher might survey a student they’re about to flunk. Then he turned back with a shrug of his shoulders and said something that I couldn’t understand but recognized as French. I might remind the readers that I studied French for three years in college, enough to recognize it when someone rains it down upon my borealis parade. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I didn’t study the language enough to know how to say: “WHAT THE $#@! IS WRONG WITH YOU!?! ISN’T THIS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN?!” So I didn’t. Instead, I just watched, with my jaw on the ground, as the man walked by me and continued up the hill, glancing at his cell phone in the process, all while the aurora borealis continued to dance and flash right above him.

I’m frequently struck by the way in which familiarity slaughters beauty. For most of my life I’ve wanted to visit Iceland. When I first landed in the country I was spellbound by the view of mountains on the skyline just outside the city. Now, after just a few weeks of living here, I pass this vista with hardly a second glance. They’re just mountains after all. The same goes for most remarkable things in life: the first time when I saw the ocean as a child, I sat for hours in the sand, staring out across the water. Now that I live by the sea I hardly notice it. As a young man I wanted so desperately to be married I would have taken a bullet from anyone who stood in my way. Now working to strengthen my relationship with my wife is something I’m prone to view as a chore, a task on my to-do list rather than a blessing beyond compare.

And the Gospel message, the first time it is heard, is revolutionary, it is beautiful, mysterious and mesmerizing: like the aurora borealis dancing above the mountain peaks. But with familiarity inevitably comes a lack of appreciation. The more we hear the Gospel the more we are prone to see it as something to be reserved for holidays and eulogies, a message with little to no relevance for day-to-day life.

I spent the next few hours standing outside with my eyes turned to the sky watching the magical lights make their way across the heavens. In a little while I was joined by another Frenchman, this one with a greater appreciation for the beauty, who produced a camera and tri-pod and proceeded to capture pictures of the lights. We didn’t talk much, for lack of common language, but we did communicate via an occasional “Wow!” and “Oui, incroyable!” Few things will ever replace that night.

But one thing surpasses it without competition and that’s the message of the Gospel. It’s the story of the God of the universe who became human, lived, died and rose from the dead. The story is no mere relic; it is ten times more beautiful, mystical and profound than the aurora borealis in their finest hour. But the danger of familiarity, the problem of knowing and hearing this message is that I’ve begun to think I can comprehend it. And now the mystery is gone; the beauty has vanished. I am capable of regarding its appearance with little more than a shrug of my shoulders and a “meh”.

And at that point the Gospel is no longer profound to me, but it does not mean it is not real or beautiful. I have simply traded it for something else; I have exchanged the beauty of the aurora borealis for the artificial glare of my cell phone.

But the truth of the Gospel remains; the beauty of the aurora borealis exists whether or not we acknowledge them dancing across the mountaintops of the fjord. The reality and prevalence of our need for the Gospel, both in Iceland and across the entire world is real whether or not we acknowledge it. When alls said and done, that is a truth of which I can be sure. That is a reality upon which I can rest.

That and, for a country that doesn’t have Netflix, Iceland sure has some decent alternatives.