The all mighty zone leader life. We've had so much stuff going on this week! Our new apartment was pretty empty of a lot of living essentials, so we had to go buy all that last Monday, plus we had to learn how to do these numbers report sheets being the zone leaders, so we didn't get much of a PDay. We're both new to being Zone Leader, and we didn't get any training that usually happens. So there's been a whole lot of stress, but what is life without that? Now it's calmed down a lot more.
This week was Orthodox Christmas! In Macedonia, Christmas is a couple weeks later because the Macedonian Orthodox Church follows the old Julian calendar (not our Gregorian calendar). In Macedonia there is a total of five days of Christmas related traditions that everyone tries to honor. A popular Christmas saying in Macedonian: “No matter where you are through the year, be home for Christmas.”
Christmas celebrations begin on the evening before Christmas Eve, Kolede, January 5th. Orthodox Christian children go from door to door singing Christmas carols and receiving fruits, nuts, and sweets from the people. Later in the evening, neighborhoods get together to build and light a bonfire outside, listen to traditional music and share food and drink. The Kolede bonfire is an ancient tradition celebrating the ancient Slavic sun god as he begins to grow in strength (as the days get longer).
At our place we saw people making big tepee-looking piles of wood, and then lighting them on fire. They had one right outside our new apartment, which we kept going out to look at. Suddenly, we got a call from our landlord, Zoran. "Hey, we see your light is on! Come down and get some food with us and meet the neighborhood." We can't refuse that offer, so we go down, Zoran greets us and introduces us to all of his friends. The whole neighborhood was there! It was very warm welcome. We talked to his son, Darko, for a while, who explained to use everything that was going on. They ushered us over to the food table, where they dished us up some Sarma (Rice and meat wrapped in pickled cabbage), rolls, fish, and a potato dish. I wasn't particularly hungry before the meal, and I definitely was not after eating. They also insisted on us taking glasses of Rakia (basically Macedonian vodka) and red wine, which we had to politely decline about 5 times before they realized we were being serious.
The next night was Christmas Eve (Badnik, 6th January). People look forward to the special Christmas family meal called 'posna' that traditionally contains no dairy, meat or animal products. Dishes might include nuts, fresh and dried fruits, baked cod or trout, bread, kidney bean soup, potato salad, Ajvar (red-pepper dip), Sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and spices) and pickled vegetables. The meal includes a coin bread or Christmas Cake that is baked with a metal coin in it. Whoever finds the coin in their piece of bread, will have a good fortune for the whole year. Christmas Eve is also when the traditional oak yule log, called a 'badnik', is brought into the house and is lit, representing the hope to have a long and healthy life, "with health strong as oak and with a life log as that of the oak."
January 7th is…Christmas Day and when people celebrate the holiday in a more religious manner, and usually go to a church service. Christmas is known as a time of forgiveness and tolerance. After going home, a Christmas candle is lit and everyone sings a Christmas hymn. Then there is a big dinner.
It was so awesome to see the hospitality of all the people here, and now we recognize a lot more people walking through our neighborhood. All in all, the people out in Aerodrom seem much kinder than those in the center of the city. Pretty much every person we try to talk to will have a pleasant conversation with us, at least until they read our name tag and see we're not from the Orthodox Church. A lot of people all over Macedonia think we're Jehovah Witnesses, which are not a very favored people here. I'm not sure what they did here, but they have an absolutely terrible image amongst the people here.
Right before Christmas we set off at 4am in the morning to get to Tirana by 10 for the mission leadership conference. The more I know President Weidmann, the more he impresses me. He talked about what we accomplished in the past year, and then started talking about goals for the future. He slammed us with a challenge to read the Book of Mormon in one month, from Jan 7 to Feb 7. The fastest I've read the entire book was 4 months, so this will for sure stretch me a bit! I'm already in 2 Nephi, and it's been so interesting reading it. There's so much action in it since I'm speeding through it, and there's a lot more themes that stick out. It's giving me such a boost in the wealth of information to think about each day.
President Weidmann also discussed the importance of people coming to church, and he gave us the goal of 2016 of getting 800 people in sacrament meeting as a mission. Right now we're at 650, so we've got to get about a 25% increase. I really like the goal, because in the past 2-3 years, about 200 people have been baptized a year in the mission, but sacrament attendance hasn't increased at all, which means about 200 people are either dropping off when they get baptized, or active members going less active, which is absolutely terrible. On our Skopje part, our new American family of 5 already hits that goal for us, but we're gonna get that number up even more! They have 3 young children, 6, 4 and 5 months. Both of the parents are returned missionaries. We now have 12 missionaries in Macedonia including the Nelsons.
After that 4 hour spiritual feast, we headed back with the Sister Training Leaders. It rained that entire day, and we drove about 9 hours, which was pretty perfect. But it melted all the snow, so I'm happy! We decided on the way back to stay the night in Prishtina, because that would eliminate about 4 hours of driving for us between that night and the next day, so we stayed the night at some of the elders' apartment there without having anything but our scriptures and our notes from the meeting, so I felt like a pretty biblical missionary right there. The zone training went really will the next day, which made Elder Chingas and I pretty happy. Everybody is really excited about the Book of Mormon challenge! Afterwards, we got to go to Camp Bonsteel, the American Base in Kosovo, to reward us a job well done :)
Some fun events this week is we tried to get some parking for the new apartment. We went to the parking office, and they kept not putting our request through because the lady that does it was taking a long holiday break. We were getting frustrated with that. When, 2 days ago, we were exploring a little bit, and we saw that across the street from our parking lot, there was a parking lot without any parking signs. We asked a few of the people passing through, and they said that it was free parking, and so was all the parking lots after our apartments. We were very happy to find that out! The free parking lot is also almost empty, while the paid one on our side of the street is absolutely packed. So thank you parking lady for not working! That saved us a lot of money.
Also, we get little temporary residence cards living in Macedonia, and every time we get moved apartments, we have to change the card to match our new address. So Elder Chingas and I are in the process of getting new cards. It's such a time consuming process for such a minor law, sometimes we don't tell the lawyers when we move. They started finding out, so they always tell us now if someone were to stop us and ask us for our ID card, it would say the wrong address, and we could get in big legal trouble. Which would be terrible, except that would never happen. Or so we thought.
We walked out of our apartment one day, and a police officer was staring very intently at our building. We bid him ado as we walked away, and he yelled at us to stop. Like any good person, we stopped, and he just said "Give me your ID cards." Both of our ID cards didn't match up with our apartment, I couldn't believe it was actually happening. We kept asking him why, and he just kept demanding it. He got real mad when he saw the addresses didn't match up, so then I said that if he has a problem, he can talk to our lawyers about it. By the way, we also found out that week that our law firm, Cakmakova Advocates, is the #1 firm in Macedonia. We're their 3rd biggest client, with the biggest client being the electrical company for Macedonia. After that, the cop just told us to get new cards, and let us go on our merry little way. It is nice to know some good lawyers.
On Sunday, I was blessed to give the talk. I think I've given at least 2 more talks here than any other missionary. My family at home knows how much I enjoy giving talks. I talked about the importance of church, similar to what was discussed at our MLC. I shared something I read from the New Testament institute textbook about the Pharisees. The Pharisees were very obedient people. They paid tithing. They read scriptures, and prayed every day, multiple times a day. They went to church to worship at every opportunity. Yet they were seen as a very perverse people in the eyes of Jesus. Why was that? They were so obedient to every law. The problem with the Pharisees was not what they did, but the reason for doing what they did. They did all those things to bring glory to themselves, not to God. They wanted to look good in front of their peers. They wanted to be esteemed as a knowledgeable people in their community. And that was all the difference. Reading that really opened my eyes, thinking about what my motivations are. If it's for anything other than for love of God or Jesus, then it's contempt in the sight of God. When we go to church, it has to be for that reason. And when we do go for that reason, that's when it'll have the biggest effect on us. The Sabbath Day was my worst commandment when I was back home, so I hope that I can really continue to work on that for when I get home, and making sure my motives are good.
Love you all. Happy Orthodox Christmas!!