Do you ever wonder why they call it “sightseeing”? It’s such a curiously redundant expression. If you were to tell me that you saw a sound or heard a vision, I would be all ears (so to speak). But if you simply want to tell me that you saw sights, I will simply congratulate you on having eyes.
So I did not go sightseeing today. I did, however, visit the historic Fara church in the middle of historic Poznań, where I saw the glories of the Baroque era in Poland and heard a tantalizing teaser of an organ concert.
I will not tell you much about the history of the church, because Wikipedia can do a better job of that. I will tell you that the organ (built by Friedrich Ladegast in 1876) is a beautiful specimen of German organbuilding, and I will simply leave you with a few pictures.
One fun note for pipe organ nerds: the Ladegast organ is one of a handful of instruments in its era and region that included uncommon “free reed” stops–basically, an amplified version of the sound that a harmonium or an accordion makes. The free reeds were not used during the concert today, but you can hear them here at approximately 0:46.
How many battles have been won by choirs singing in formation?
It is not a trick question. I know of at least one, and the story is told in 2 Chronicles 20.
And when [Jehoshaphat] had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say, ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.’ And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed.
2 Chronicles 20:21-22 (ESV)
The point of the story is, quite simply, that God fights for his people. He goes before them and routs the evil schemes of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And there is perhaps no more fitting activity for the people of God as they watch this great salvation than to sing.
This is one of the reasons why traveling in Europe and Asia with The Genevans was such a precious experience. As exhausting as a series of choral concerts can be, The Genevans were never doing the heavy lifting. A choir is a sign, pointing beyond itself (remember that I am studying semiotics this spring!), and the object to which the choir points is the music that moves hearts and the God that works through music.
Music is often at the forefront of revolutions and reformations. The music of Martin Luther spurred the momentum of the early Protestant Reformation, as did the Genevan Psalter commissioned by John Calvin in Switzerland a little later. As it turns out, the Genevan Psalter is still spearheading reformation in the church of Jesus Christ, and I got to witness a small part of that musical army in Poznań today.
The Ewangeliczny Zbór Reformowany w Poznaniu is a small, conservative Reformed congregation in the Grunwald district of Poznań, which is a (blustery but otherwise pleasant) half-hour walk from my apartment. Its members congregate in an unused Lutheran chapel in a cemetery-turned-park, and let me tell you what a refreshment it is to step out of the February chill into a tiny church with bundled-up congregants huddling together over coffee and tea to discuss the events of the week in front of two roaring woodstoves.
I heard a powerful sermon on Isaiah 58 which expounded upon the idea that worship and service are the Christian’s grateful response to what God has already done in Jesus Christ. I also witnessed a lively catechism class which discussed the similarities and differences between the Reformed and Roman Catholic views of baptism. And I was able to understand both, not because I have magically acquired Polish in three days, but because a gracious member who is also an English teacher sat next to me and whispered real-time translations of the sermon, songs, and lessons in my ear. That is Christian generosity in action, and it will not soon be forgotten.
My mental faculties were stretched to the utmost in pronouncing the Polish song texts, but (and here is one more argument for psalm-singing!) I was delighted to be able to understand the psalms as soon as I could match each number to the English text I knew. A group of Reformed people in Poland, including several members of this congregation, are currently engaged in producing a complete metrical psalter in Polish using the tunes of the Genevan Psalter. It is not the first time this has been done (one version dates back to the early days of the Reformation), but it will be the first complete psalter available in modern Polish.
A musical ensemble consisting of flute, violin, viola, guitar, and drums provided the congregation with creative, energetic, reverent, and singable accompaniment for the tunes. The ensemble, whose instrumentalists are mostly members of one extremely gifted musical family, also goes by the name Cithara Sanctorum and exists to provide exposure to the historic music of the Reformation to a new generation. Their musicianship is world-class.
Best of all, I spent the afternoon in this family’s home, feasting on roast goose, buckwheat, and pastries, listening cluelessly as a little girl read to me from the Polish translation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, enjoying and playing a wide variety of music, and discussing the things of the Lord.
It has been a day of physical and mental exhaustion but of spiritual refreshment beyond measure. The Lord has added this mercy to them all, that he has led me to the assembly of believers. Not only have we communicated in the universal language of music, we have also discovered that we are neighbors and friends in the advancing march of the kingdom of heaven.
The Poles tell me that my pronunciation is remarkably good (apparently better than that of J.R.R. Tolkien, who gave up on learning Polish after inventing three languages of his own), but I am afraid that my brain has room for only one language at a time, and I sometimes worry that if I go too far in my learning I will lose the ability to speak English at all. So if you have something to say to me, you may want to say it soon, before my only reply will be, “Przepraszam, nie rozumiem.”
When I first decided to study in Poland, my uncle told me about a YouTube channel called “Learn Polish in Three Minutes a Day.” It only provided the basics of conversation–“Good morning,” “Thank you,” and “Excuse me”–but it was enough to get me started on pronunciation. It also included two lessons on numbers in Polish, which I struggled through a little reluctantly.
I arrived in Poznań on Thursday afternoon. The flight from New York to Frankfurt was just over six hours long–almost an hour ahead of schedule–thanks to an incredibly strong tailwind of more than 200 km/h, as the pilot told us. The flight from Frankfurt to Poznań was similarly smooth, and the Poznań Airport is delightfully easy to navigate. If you come visit (and please do), fly from JFK to Poznań via Frankfurt or Munich. You will be pleasantly surprised at how manageable the trip is.
Today has been overwhelming enough to feel like a semester-long course on Polish language and culture, but it has also been a wonderful introduction to my temporary new home. In the last 24 hours I have opened a Polish bank account, visited three shopping malls, toured the offices of the Faculty of Enlgish, obtained an ID card, explored two churches and a museum of musical instruments, made several new acquaintances, and enjoyed three excellent Polish meals. A faculty member and friend of my home department at Duquesne has been a tremendous help in these adventures, and has generously supplied my room with an abundance of food and kitchenware to get started in Poland.
My lodging is humble, yet full of characteristic quirks that I think will produce many fond memories. In the bathroom, connected to the wall by a long white cord, is what appears to be a repurposed telephone handset, until you turn the water on and realize that it is the showerhead! The grandeur of the view from my window, overlooking one of the busiest intersections in Poznań, more than compensates for the smallness of the interior. It is a perfect location for studying and exploring an incredible city.
(As an aside, there are a delightful diversity of car horns, tram bells, and police sirens in Poland–far more than in the States. They mimic a wide range of musical instruments and intervals, so that if you listen to the combined noise of the traffic you begin to imagine that you can pick out strains of familiar tunes–Eine kleine Nachtmusik, “Here Comes the Bride,” “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” and so on . . .)
But, of course, you cannot get far in Poland without being able to speak a little Polish–and I soon became grateful for the tedious lessons on Polish numbers. At the bank, I needed to understand the loudspeaker as it announced, “Ticket number __, please come to window number __.” At Żabka, a convenience store much like 7-Eleven, I needed to understand the amount of money I owed. Even to get the room key at the front desk each time I enter my building, I have to state my room number. So, thanks to Polish in Three Minutes a Day, my first 24 hours in Poznań have been more or less a success. The numbers 0-10 are below, in case you want to try them yourself:
0 – zero
1 – jeden
2 – dwa
3 – trzy
4 – cztery
5 – pięć
6 – sześć
7 – siedem
8 – osiem
9 – dziewięć
10 – dziesięć
Ezra, the Old Testament priest, writes of his journey to Jerusalem with a group of returning Israelite exiles:
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
Like Ezra, I thank God for the protection and provision he has shown at each stage of this journey, from the Polish check-in counter attendant who bid me well in New York to the kindness of the faculty and staff who welcomed me to Poznań. Like Abraham’s servant, I can say, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has prospered my journey” (Genesis 24:56). In the last 24 hours alone I have been provided with far more than I could have asked for or imagined. Gratefully, I go on.
. . . is one of the most frequent questions I receive about my upcoming European travels. And it’s a fair question, even if the tone in which it is asked occasionally comes closer to incredulity than to mere curiosity. Poland? Really? Despite the country’s historical charm and architectural beauty, and my own personal connection of being quarter-Polish, Poland might seem a little off the beaten track of international destinations. According to recent data, about 75,000 international students per year come to Poland, compared to 400,000 in Germany and 350,000 in France. So why Poland?
Before I answer that question, you may be hung up on a more basic one: What? Poland? Yes, Poland. Quite briefly, I’ll be studying at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, through the end of June, and I am set to depart the USA in just over 24 hours. This semester abroad is coordinated through my Ph.D. program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and it is funded by the European Union. That’s what has allowed a miserly graduate student like myself to cobble together a few pennies and hop on a plane.
But the question remains: why Poland? A few reasons:
Semiotics. Adam Mickiewicz University boasts multiple scholars of international renown in the discipline of semiotics, the philosophical study of signs. This will be a valuable contribution to my developing understanding of the philosophy of communication.
The Psalms. A local Reformed pastor in Poznań is undertaking a project to set the Psalms to music in Polish, using the tunes of the Genevan Psalter. Of course this taps into my longstanding interests More on this exciting project later.
Dutch. You read that right. Adam Mickiewicz University is one of relatively few places in the world, outside the Netherlands, with an entire program devoted to the Dutch language. I’ll be learning Dutch not just because I’ve always wanted to, but also because it is the only foreign language coordinated through the English department at the university. Learning Dutch, in English, in Poland–if it sounds confusing, it is. But it’s an unusual and exciting opportunity.
Besides these reasons, Poland is a beautiful country with kind and friendly people, some of whom are related to me, and this program represents a chance to get to know a strangely familiar and familiarly strange corner of God’s world.
Poznań is a medium-size city in western Poland, about halfway between Berlin and Warsaw. I’ll be living in university housing, within easy walking distance of the city center and classes . . . and hopefully within walking distance of a few nice pipe organs as well . . .
I will use this site to post occasional photos and updates for family and friends who would like to follow along with my progress this spring. You may click the button at left to receive updates via email.
I thank God for all the encouragement I have already received–from Adam Mickiewicz University, from the Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University, from my family and church families, and from many dear friends, and I look forward to seeing what this spring has in store.