I was born at the tail end of the civil rights movement in America. In fact, I was born the very same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was mercilessly assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. I don’t remember much about this period of time in the U.S. But, what I do remember is seeing old black and white footage of African Americans getting sprayed by fire hoses, beaten, and attacked by police canines at public demonstrations. I remember seeing films of African Americans being blocked from entering into public schools and having to dine and use the restroom in separate areas from white people. This is a period of time in America’s history that is foreign to me. And, quite honestly I have never experienced or seen racial discrimination with my own eyes. This is mainly due in part to the fact that I have always lived in affluent, mid to upper-class, white America. What I do know about racial discrimination and the injustice of it all is only from what I have learned in history text books.
But, I am glad the civil rights movement has come and gone. It has given me an opportunity to look back and see how America dealt with the issues of segregation, discrimination, and oppression. To reflect back and see where America succeeded and where it has faltered so as not to repeat the same mistakes again. I think there is much to learn from America both the good and the bad. And, while it’s not the perfect model and there is certainly still more work to do, I applaud America in how it has dealt with these issues and its treatment of minorities. Although I am not a political person, I was glad to see America finally elect its first African American president in 2008. A symbol, I believe, that we have indeed overcome much in the way of how we treat all people equally in America.
In 2009, my family and I were called to full time missions to live and serve among the Roma, commonly referred to as Gypsies, of Albania. Specifically, the Roma who live and work in the vast urban sprawl of Albania’s capital and largest city, Tirana. Like African Americans in the US, the Roma are a minority and in most part an impoverished people group. Most live in shacks (called baraks) on the outer fringes of society often located near rivers or trash heaps. They live together in small clusters of shacks with little or no water and electricity. They live off of a meager income by rummaging through dumpsters looking for metals and plastics. Most of the women survive by begging on the streets with their small children in tow. If they are fortunate enough, some Roma will setup a stand or cart on the side of the road or in public markets selling cheap goods such as used shoes, clothing, and old merchandise. They are essentially pushed out of society and left to fend for themselves, often having to pay bribes to work and stay out of trouble from the corrupt police.
Yes, discrimination, segregation, and oppression still exists. And, I've seen it with my own eyes here in Albania. It’s not as blatant or in your face as 1960s America. There are no signs that say Roma must use a different toilet from white Albanians. No police dogs are chasing them down. And, water is a valuable commodity so there are certainly no fire hoses spraying down innocent Roma men and women on the streets of Tirana. But, they are indeed pushed to the outer edges of society. Nobody really wants to hire a Roma man or woman to work. Most Roma children and teens are bullied both by students and their teachers at school. As a result, most Roma drop out of school and are illiterate. Most landlords won’t allow a Roma family to live in their apartment buildings or houses. They are often “shooed” away or looked upon suspiciously if they are seen hanging around neighborhoods or cafes too often. And, when Roma hop onto a public bus, you can be assured everyone is on guard. We ourselves get strange looks from white Albanians when we are seen with the Roma. I have had several white Albanians tell me not to hang out with the Roma, they are dangerous. One Albanian once told me that I will likely get murdered, beheaded, and all of my belongings stolen from me if I hang out with the Roma long enough.
The similarities of racial discrimination and oppression between 1960s America and today's Roma of Albania are eerily similar. A Roma woman looks upon what was once her home.
Yes, discrimination, segregation, and oppression still exists. And, there is no greater visual of this than what happened most recently to a large Roma community on the west side of Tirana, Albania last week. On August 7th, a Roma community consisting of about 40 Roma families were illegally forced from their homes to make way for a new business development. On this day, the developer and its workers came into their community and bulldozed all of their homes along with their personal belongings that remained inside of them. Most of their belongings, what little they had, is now totally lost or ruined. What makes this more tragic, is that the Albanian police and government have not intervened. Silence. The developers have essentially been given free license to destroy this community of Roma, with no consequences. And now, the Roma have nowhere to go. They are now literally living in a trash heap that was once their own homes. At night, sleeping at a nearby river’s edge that worms its way through the city. Roma families watching their homes being destroyed.
Sadly, instances like this are nothing new to Albania. Almost three years ago another Roma community was forced from their homes at a nearby train station. This time their houses were burned and there were several injuries. All was lost. And, today this same Roma community are now living on an obscure lot of land at a trash heap on the edge of a river barely surviving and making ends meet.
I want to be fair. The Albanian government is helping. But, here is what it looks like: There is a small housing complex available to the Roma. It is located on the outskirts of Tirana… far away in the hills of an outlying area… with no electricity and no water. In an area where the locals do not want them and where many Roma have already been threatened with knives and at gunpoint. A place where the Roma do not have access to the city’s dumpsters to look for metals and plastics. A place too far for Roma women to walk with their small children into to town to beg or wash windshields. So, I humbly ask… is the government really helping? Or, are they just conveniently pushing them out?
Cast aside. Pushed out. Not wanted. A nuisance. Roma man wallowing in the remains of his home.
What is the answer? How can this and other injustices of the Roma be resolved? I wish I had a solid pat answer. I don’t. But, what I do know is that Scripture is very clear about the way in which we as believers of the risen Christ should be treating the poor, to act justly and love mercy. When people look at us, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus. We are to embody Him by doing what He did and what He continues to do through us: namely to declare, using both words and deeds that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords who is bringing in a kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace. And, we need to do this where Jesus did it, among the blind, the lame, the sick and outcast, and the poor. For His glory God has chosen to reveal His kingdom in the place where the world, in all of its pride, would least expect it, among the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised. And, among the Roma.
I am hopeful there will be resolution. But, in order for that to happen we as believers need to rise up to this occasion and be the light and the salt of the earth that Jesus told us to be. We need to pull together as one Body, our gifts, talents, and resources that God has given to us and help make right what is clearly a wrong. So, I ask you fellow Christian… how is God calling you to help? How can you be a part of not only helping with this situation, but with the plight of all the Roma in Albania? A people who are cast aside to the outer fringes of society, often living in squalor with no hope in sight. Please pray and act. And together, let us watch God do amazing wonders of His kingdom for the Roma of Albania.
As I write this I hear the Muslim call to prayer out our front window. Five times a day we hear the Muezzin call out from atop the minaret at the mosque just 400 meters from our home. It’s always a stark reminder why we are here. Today is the 27th day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In Albania it is called Ramazan. And, many Albanians observe and recognize this festive and somber time of the year. Most Albanians identify themselves as Muslim from a heritage that stems from living under the tutelage of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire for 500 years. Therefore, Ramazan is more of a tradition here rather than a strict religious observance.
For Albanian Muslims, their day starts very early during Ramazan. Roma (Gypsy) men and children come out into the streets beating their drums at 3am in the morning. This is to wake everyone up so they can rise and eat before the fast begins at sunrise. Then, when sunrise begins, Albanian Muslims refrain from eating and drinking for most of the day. Muslims fast for two reasons during this time: to be near the poor, and to become closer to Allah. As the sun begins to set, Roma Gypsies will take to the streets once again with drums in their hands to remind Muslims that their fast is over. It is during this time that Albanian Muslims will gather their families together to feast and celebrate. This time of gathering and feasting is called Iftar. Iftar is also a good opportunity for the Roma to collect alms, as Muslims usually give out leke (Albanian currency) to the poor.
Several days from now will mark the end of Ramazan. The last day of this holy month is called Eid. Eid is perhaps the most important day of this holy month. Muslims from all around the world gather in unity to pray at their local mosques. They do not fast during this day and partake in as many acts of charity that they can. During this day is when the Roma go throughout the city with their drums and flutes collecting more alms from observant Muslims. Eid in Albania is called Bajram and is actually a national holiday where most places will be closed for the day.
Because we work primarily with Roma Gypsies, Ramazan has been a good opportunity to share with them about the Good News of Jesus Christ. Reminding them Jesus came to give good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) and to give life and life abundantly (John 10:10). Ironically, in a couple more months Albanian Muslims will celebrate what is called the greater Eid (Kurban Bajrami) which recognizes the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac before God intervened with a sacrificial lamb. What a perfect illustration of the ultimate lamb who was sacrificed for all of us in order that we may live, including for our Muslim neighbors who know Him not (Romans 5:8).
Please pray for the Roma of Albania and that they will see the true sacrificial Lamb of God through this holy season.
In missions, there is a lot of discussion about reaching the unreached peoples of the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Depending on what source you read, there are anywhere between 5,000-7,000 unreached people groups around the world. This amounts to roughly 2.7 billion people. There is an area where most of these people call home. In global missions, this area is commonly referred to as the 10/40 window (located between 10 and 40 degrees latitude north of the equator) which is comprised of northern Africa, the Middle East, and most of Asia. Many missions sending agencies focus on sending their missionaries to these areas of the world. These countries are typically dangerous to Westerners, especially to those who are preaching the Gospel where some can be kicked out of the country, imprisoned, and in some cases face execution. There is a large need for Christian workers to go to these hard to reach places and introduce the abundant life of Jesus Christ into these people's lives for the first time… offering them salvation, hope, and joy that comes through having faith in King Jesus.
But, what about the billions of people around the world that do not fall into the 10/40 window? There are many countries in the world that are considered "reached". But, many of these countries have such a low population of believers of Christ that they are really no different than some unreached countries. In many of these countries that have been reached, generations have since passed and now we have a new segment of society of either unreached people groups or devout atheists. For example, here in the country of Albania where we serve it is considered a "reached" country. But, the percentage of born-again, truly transformed believers of Christ is nearly infinitesimal (less than 1%). Right out the front door of our house there are hundreds of people in our neighborhood who have never heard the Gospel before. But many of their parents or other family members have seen the Jesus Film many years ago. When Communism fell in 1992, missionaries from the West flocked to Albania eager to introduce millions of Albanians to the Gospel of Christ for the first time. This, after being closed off to the West for 40+ years. Every village in Albania had been essentially reached. There was even an influx of thousands of newly professed believers of Christ. And, Albania was figuratively checked off the "unreached" list by many missions sending agencies. As a result, many of these missionaries left, with little or no follow up. Many churches that were planted early on have since died out. And now we are once again back to square one, a country with a very small population of believers and with a large segment of society whose generation today have never heard the Gospel.
And, of course there are countries that have long ago been considered Christian countries, once beacons of light to other countries around the world sending thousands of missionaries to the darker recesses of the world. Most of these "Christian" countries exist in central and northern Europe, but also including North and South America. However, in these countries we are now actually seeing a reversal of people coming to faith, where the Christian population is actually declining and many are leaving the Christian faith and the church they once grew up in. Many have become disenfranchised with traditional “Churchianity” and are embracing alternative religions or no faith at all. For the first time last year in America, Protestantism was no longer the dominant religious faith, being outnumbered by a combination of other faiths or no faith at all. As a result, missionaries from other countries like South Korea and Nigeria are actually sending Christian missionaries to the US and Canada, introducing Americans to Christ and involved in new church planting efforts around the country. And in Europe, in countries like The Netherlands and Germany, churches are now being converted into mosques, museums, and market places. And, some of the highest populations of atheism are no longer found in Communist countries, but in places like Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France, and The Netherlands.
So, what do we do with all of this? What do we do with the declining population of those who profess a faith in Christ? What do we do with the increasing population of atheism? Well, global missions should truly remain global, not confined to a certain segment of the world's population; encompassing the entire globe, not just a focus on the "unreached" people groups of the world. I propose we open the window a bit more. Let's not limit it to the 10/40 window. Let's open it up 20 degrees more to include the former "Christianized" countries of the world such as Europe and North America. The way I see it, if we don't open the window, we will be calling America and Europe "unreached" countries 25-30 years from now. And, I mean that literally; where generations will have passed, and newer and younger generations will have never heard the Good News of Christ.
This leads me to another question. How do we reach those who are already reached? How do we reach out to those who have indeed heard the Gospel before but for whatever reason have chosen to reject its message? My guess, and I’m not claiming absolute certainty on this, is that many of these “reached” people are hearing a form of Christianity that is both westernized and institutionalized. A form of Christianity that finds it basis from an Enlightenment-era form of reasoning, focusing more on morality, debate, the afterlife, and following a list of do’s and do nots. And, I don’t believe this is the same Gospel message that Christ taught. People need to see love in action. Not only do they need to hear it through proclamation, but it needs to be modeled and demonstrated through our lives and our actions. They don’t only want to hear what you have to say unless they truly know you care about them… now. People want to know how can a belief in Christ possibly benefit and change their life now, here, while on earth. One of my favorite quotes that I think best encapsulates the paradox of abundant life now and life after death is this:
“Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.” (Shane Claiborne)
We need Christians to not only mobilize around the world to distant and far off countries, but to remain in their own cities, towns, and villages. We need Christians to share the Gospel through both word and deed in their communities. And, I don't mean the stale, institutionalized form of Christianity to be propagated. I mean, the get-in-the-trenches, get-your-hands-dirty form of missions. Where we no longer focus on rules and morality, but focus on helping others, loving the least of these, and bridging the gap between the haves and have nots. We need to stop obsessing over immorality and obsess with loving others no matter who they are. And, I’m willing to bet this will require leaving the comforts of our own environment and our own biased socio-political ideologies. We need to bring the Light to the darkness and not expect the darkness to be the Light before we bring it.
A couple of examples come to mind of what it looks like to bring the Light of Jesus Christ to people through both word and deed:
I am reminded of my friend Don who lives and works among a shunned people group called the Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies. He has relied solely on faith to open a workshop in the slums of Tirane, Albania, enabling local Roma and Albanian men with new works skills and an opportunity to provide a better income for their families. At the same time, he spends time investing in the spiritual lives of these men through sharing the Gospel and conducting small Bible studies in his home or workshop.
I am reminded of Pastor Jeony who also lives and works near the slums in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He has helped facilitate a school program that enables children and their parents to receive an education and job skills, allowing them to leave their lives working in the disease-infested city trash dump. This educational program doesn’t go without hearing and learning about Christ. Each morning the children gather at the school to sing praises of worship to Jesus and learn more about God through the reading of Scripture.
Closer to home I am reminded of Shane who essentially moved from the comforts of his middle to upper class background and decided to live among the homeless of Philadelphia. This led him to start a new community revitalization project in what many would consider a gang-infested, drug-laden, and impoverished neighborhood. He, along with several others helped restore what was dismissed as hopeless, into a newly revitalized beautiful community where the homeless now live and thrive. All of this was accomplished alongside the teaching about God’s love, grace, and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith in action. This is how I believe we reach the reached with the Gospel message. There is certainly a place for the public proclamation of the Gospel, especially in unreached countries. But, in places where the Gospel is already being promulgated in churches, on TV, the radio, and bookstores; love in action is where people will truly see who Jesus is. And, this is what I believe the new wave of missions is to look like. Incarnational and holistic approach to ministry. Bringing justice where there is injustice. Enabling the poor to leave poverty. Reaching out to the disenfranchised, the unloved, and the oppressed. Helping men, women, and children see themselves for who they are, loved by God. Restoring them into the people that God intentionally desires them to be… created in His image, reconciled, rescued, and redeemed. Not for just the life after we die. But, for the life here and now. Making all things new. And, bringing God’s kingdom onto earth just as it is in Heaven.
On this beautiful day here in Tirane, on the 1st day of the year , I reflect back on the year 2012 with great rejoicing and contemplation. As Frank Sinatra once sang, "It Was a Very Good Year". Looking back, it was indeed a very good year. It was a year where we witnessed a huge move of God right here in our Roma community. Earlier in the year, we saw seven young men (Erjon, Ilir, Indrit, Rildi, Xani, Masarjo, and Ledio) profess a new faith in Jesus Christ. These guys were later baptized and to this day consistently attend our Bible study each week in our home. Some of these guys have even brought visitors with them as they are understanding what it means to go out and make disciples of others. During the summer, we saw three neighbors come into a new relationship with Jesus Christ. One of these believers, Nazifi, whose wife Bona was already a believer, has been very excited about his new faith and is eager to see a community of believers grow in his neighborhood. In November, our friend Bushi, who lives amongst the Roma on the river also professed a new faith in Christ. His wife, Ejla, already a believer, is our househelper who comes to our home four days a week to not only work for an income, but spend one-on-one time being discipled by Marcella. Our teammates Don and Krystal who live about 5 minutes from our home have also seen a handful of men, women, and children come into a new relationship with Jesus this past year. Perhaps the most exciting thing to see is this new community of believers come together and worship as one body. Led by our team leaders, Dave and his wife Julee, this past year we have had a handful of gatherings hosted at our home and at our neighbor Nazifi's house. Each time there has been a sizable gathering of worship, fellowship, and learning as we come together to give honor and praise to our King. These are some exciting times and all of us look forward to seeing what God will continue to do in our community this year.
Compared to more "rougher" places to live, Albania is a relatively easy place to live. But, it can also be at times very difficult especially living in an impoverished community. As a family, God has sustained us and carried us through this year where we had to rely on Him and His grace day-by-day. Although in most part there were many highs this year, there were also some lows worth noting. For example, we experienced the coldest and wettest winter on record in Albania's history last year. As a result of these record freezing temps, our water pipes froze and bursted, leaving us without water for several days. Many days we often experienced complete power outages, leaving us without electricity (and heat) for many hours and sometimes up to a day. We experienced a few problems with our vehicle this year, getting into a few major fender benders (none of which were our fault), and dealing with mechanical problems. Our car is just shy of 10 years old, and we hope it will last several more years here. But, it definitely has taken a beating since being here in Albania. As one friend recently told me, "it has become Albanianized!" The engine light always remains on and it has enough rattles, shakes, and noises to make Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sound like a smooth Cadillac.
These lows were certainly offset by many highs. In March, we attended a mandatory team conference in Croatia. This was a wonderful time for our family to reconnect with our team and also spend time visiting a beautiful and unique country. In the summer, we traveled back to the US to reconnect with our family, friends, and supporters for 7 weeks. This was also an opportunity for Morgan to receive a checkup by her neurologist for her Myotonia Congenita. The good news is that she is doing very well and it hasn't progressed much. We also found out her medicine is readily available here in Albania. In September, Coleman and I visited Istanbul for a week, where we got to spend quality one-on-one, father-son, time together. This was a crucial year for Coleman since he officially became a teen for the first time. In October, we spent a few days in Vlore, where we also got to visit some neighboring villages and cities to see the many beautiful sites Albania has to offer.
This year was the year for visitors for us. We had two staff members from our home sending church (121 Community Church) come visit us to offer encouragement, see how we're doing, and to see where we serve. For the first time we finally got to meet our Pioneer's Area Leader from Bosnia, Jim Baumgardner. He spent a week with us, teaching a church-planting conference, spent much time getting to know each other, and planning and praying about the future direction of our time here in Albania. We also received two wonderful ladies from our home sending church who spent a week with us. They got to experience what life is like here and observe the wonderful ministries God already has us involved in. Finally, Marcella's mother and sister recently stayed with us for a week, where our kids spent much quality time with them. They also came bearing many Christmas gifts that we were able to enjoy this season, giving us a small taste of home.
As I sit here and enjoy the sounds of our kids playing together, I am reminded about how adaptable kids are. Perhaps even more so than us adults. Our kids have transitioned extremely well to Albania, where they each have acquired many close friends. We give many praises to the school they attend at GDQ. Without GDQ and the wonderful staff, I'm not convinced our kid's transition would have been as smooth. They each have a few close friends that they often spend time with. I am particularly struck by how close Coleman has become with his fellow classmates, all of which are missionary kids, and how naturally they have all bonded. I see great joy in Coleman's demeanor whenever he is with them. Likewise, both Morgan and Drayton also love their close friends and the thought of any of them leaving for whatever reason saddens them. Each of our kids have one or two local Albanian/Roma friends they have likened to as well. We are very grateful for God's provision in this area of our lives.
Marcella and I had a good year. Health wise, it seems Marcella has acquired some significant allergies by living here. And, I have borderline high blood pressure that I need to be careful with. But, overall our health is fine. We remain united and supportive of one another, eager to see what God will do with us as a married couple, as parents, and diciplers. We already see great opportunities to minister to other parents and married couples here. We each continue in our full time language studies and hope to begin transitioning a bit more into ministry by this summer. Not sure what that will look like quite yet, but are continuing to yield to God's leading on that. Our primary mission is simple... to make disciples and help form a church that is self sustaining and duplicatable. Getting there is what is challenging, but we can only rely on God and His purpose to make that happen.
Looking ahead, over the next 5-6 months I will be praying, planning, networking, and strategizing toward a direction that I feel God is leading me in. I don't want to get into any details yet since at this point it is only a vision. But, let's just say it has to do with something that will offer a long term solution to help the Roma come out of poverty. If God is behind it, then I am certain it will come to fruition. As things move along and come together I will share this with you in greater detail. In the meantime, please be praying for discernment and wisdom as I begin moving in this direction.
Finally, we hope 2013 will be a better year than 2012 for many of you. I know of several people who were laid off and are suffering economic hardship... I am confident God will provide. I also know of several who are going through trials of cancer and other illnesses... I pray God will truly heal you. Furthermore, I am grieved by certain events that occurred in my home country last year. Violence and anger has seemingly permeated our land. I hope more lives will be spared both in the womb and outside of the womb. I hope Americans will become more united. And, I hope the church in America will become more involved. There is no greater time than now for the church in America to become more engaged with society. Making change not through legislation or petty politics, but by getting into the trenches of society. Getting their hands and knees dirty, meeting people where they are and effecting their lives in such a way that people truly want to know more about this man of peace we call Jesus.
This past weekend marked our one year anniversary here in Albania. It seems like it was just yesterday when we stepped off the plane at Rinas Airport and were picked up by our teammates. Now, it's already been a year and my how time flies when you're having fun. As we look back over this past year it's neat to see how God has worked in and through our lives. Here is an opportunity to reflect on some of these things and project where we think God may be leading us in future ministry here in Albania.
Shortly after we moved into our home in June, Greg had established many new relationships with teen boys in our neighborhood. After several months it seemed a new ministry was developing right in our own backyard. With limited language abilities, we asked a local youth pastor to come speak at our house each week about matters relating to faith. He agreed, and a new ministry was formed called, The Loft. Six months later this ministry is still going strong where we see 10-20 young men show up at our home each week to hear a message from the Bible. Greg will continue to invest his time and energy into this ministry, but also feels led to begin branching out to 20-30 year old Roma men in our neighborhood. However, language learning will continue to be his primary focus at this time while at the same time continuing to develop new relationships.
Marcella’s main job at this time is language, but as time allows, she has been able to explore and participate in various ministries. In October, Marcella was approached to consider helping (very part-time) at the ABC Healthcare Center, a local Christian medical clinic and training center. Even though it is only 5 hours per week, she has thoroughly enjoyed supporting the administrative staff, including participating in the interview process of a new Executive Director. She continues to work at ABC and supporting their new Director these few hours per week. As her heart’s true focus is still the Roma, she sees many ways for her ministry with the Roma to connect with the ABC ministry. In addition, Marcella has been prayerful about finding skills to teach the Roma women in her neighborhood and will likely begin implementing these opportunities over the next few months.
As a family it seems everyone has adapted really well. Two or three times a week we ask our kids where their "Happy Meters" are and almost always they are near the 10 mark. All three kids enjoy going to school at GDQ and each have their own group of best friends. They seem to really enjoy living here. Drayton loves to play soccer and has become really good at it. Morgan loves her best friend Anita and often has sleepovers. And, Coleman loves a new group called The Bridge for missionary kids. As a family, we have had several opportunities to take breaks and travel to various places in and around Albania. We have also welcomed several visitors from the States, including Marcella's Mom, sister, and two leaders from our home sending church. We often receive care packages from friends and family back home, always full of goodies that we can't buy here. Please keep sending those Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tarts and Oreo Cookies. They seem to go fast.
Last but not least, we thank you to all of those who invest in our lives and our ministry here in Albania. These include those who support us financially, prayerfully, and tangibly. We are truly blessed to have a wonderful support team back home. We truly couldn't do this without you.
Pink Floyd made an album about it. The Chinese built the greatest one ever. And, Ronald Reagan once told Gorbachev to tear one down. What is it? The wall. This wall is also a figurative term often used for when a missionary is temporarily halted from their normal day-to-day life and finds themselves wrestling with thoughts, doubts, and emotion. Most missionaries find themselves hitting this wall by the time they come upon their one year anniversary of being on the field. A couple of wise missionary friends of mine warned me about this wall and I wasn't convinced we'd ever hit it. Lo and behold, they we're right. Just one month shy of our one year anniversary of being here in Albania, both Marcella and I found ourselves face-to-face with... the wall.
This wall isn't the same for everyone. But, here is what our wall looked like to us? Several weeks ago we had two car accidents, one of which was a hit and run. Two weeks ago, due to a hard freeze our water pipes bursted, resulting in no water and costly repairs. And, just this past week the flu made its way through our home, putting several of us out of commission for several days. All of this of course while living in a home that is nearly as freezing cold inside as it is outside. Repairing the home, while dealing with the flu, and having to cook and care for the family while meeting the demands of normal day-to-day life and ministry can do enough to a person's psyche to make one go stir crazy. The wall.
I would be lying if I didn't say I wanted to be back home in Texas with my friends and family this past week. Oh, how I longed for just one night to be in a warm home with central heating, a place to kick my shoes off, and kick back to watch the NFL playoffs on TV while sipping on an ice cold beer and order Domino's Pizza for the family. I would be lying if I didn't ask myself once, "What am I doing here in Albania?" Nor, did I hesitate to hear a voice casting doubt into my mind, "You're really not needed here, Greg." The wall.
But, something amazing transpired the other night that seemed to propel me over this obtrusive wall and see the other side. On Wednesday afternoon at our weekly youth event, The Loft, I saw five teens (Erjon, Masario, Sabi, Andii, and Indrit) come to our home with huge smiles of joy on their faces. I also saw two youth leaders (Egli and Diti) who seemed to be having a blast kicking the soccer ball around in our courtyard. Later that same night I had coffee with five Albanian men (Sinan, Mandi, Bashkim, Soni, and Doni) at a local cafe and engaged in a fun game of dominoes with them. The evening was capped off with a hot tea and raki at an Albanian man's home (Mandi) who was eager for me to meet his family. This was the same man who I had hired to fix our broken water pipes. I was able to be a blessing to this man by providing a source of income for him to help provide for his own family while at the same time he fulfilled a need for us.
Do these people need me? No. But, they need Jesus. And, without us being here, I'm not convinced they would have the opportunity to see Him. Although I'm not the best example at being a Christian, it is my hope that through my life, both the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the sad days, the happy days, the days I am sick, the days that I am healthy, the days that I am tired, and the days I am full of energy, that they will someday see Jesus. And, this makes all the difference in the world to me. Seeing the joy on these men's faces this week gave me the full assurance that I needed to know that this is indeed where I, and my family, are needed. And, this wall... yes, there is a wall and there may be more ahead, can be overcome by reminding myself that my joy is not found in external things, but only in Christ Jesus... the source of true joy.
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" (Philippians 4:4)
Thousands of Muslims pray in Skanderbeg Square. (Tirane, Albania)
Today marks the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. Here in Tirane, the mood was set at sunup with the call to prayer emanating from the tall spires of neighboring mosques. Many of the poor walked the city streets banging their drums reminding Muslims to give alms to those less fortunate. In light of this holy month of Ramadan, I spent some time in reflection and prayer for our Muslim friends. It is my hope that God will pierce through spiritual strongholds and reveal himself to many Muslims throughout Albania and the rest of the globe during this time of fasting and prayer.
As Christians, I think it is important we understand what Muslims believe. Not to discredit or criticize them. But, to gently and lovingly show them the truth found only in Jesus Christ. We should also refrain from demonizing and mischaracterizing Muslims. Remember, Muslims are not our enemy... Satan is. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
To gain a better understanding of what Muslims believe, David Souther from EvanTell ministries posted a great article on the Evangelism.net
website today that I want to share with you. It's entitled, "Christianity and Islam: A Sharp Contrast". The article touches upon the foundational tenets of the Muslim faith and shows some of the differences between Islam and Christianity. Ramadan has officially started in the United States, and because of that during the next two weeks we will be writing about sharing the gospel with our Muslim neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Along with today’s post, we’ll discuss some pointers to keep in mind when sharing Christ with Muslims and give our review of the book The Gospel for Muslims. To begin an effective dialog with people, it is important to understand their point of view. Here are six main beliefs of Islam and how they contrast with Christianity: 1. There is one God. According to Islam, God does not exist in three persons, therefore, there is no trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Also, God cannot have a Son and cannot become a man, therefore, Jesus was not divine. 2. God created angels. Islam teaches that one sits on one’s right shoulder recording good deeds; another sits on one’s left shoulder recording the bad deeds. On judgment day, these records are opened and on the basis of them the person is rewarded or punished. 3. God appointed a prophet for every age. This line starts with Adam and ends with Muhammad. Jesus is viewed as only a prophet. Muhammad is the last and greatest of the prophets, the “Seal of the Prophets.” His words have final authority. 4. Holy Books. Muslims believe that every prophet was given a holy book by God. Muhammad believed each book was pre-existent and sent down to each prophet as needed. The Quran supersedes all previous scriptures. 5. The Day of Judgment. God will judge the world on the “Day of Doom.” Everyone’s good deeds will be weighed on a balance scale against his bad deeds. Paradise awaits those whose good deeds outweigh his bad deeds. A fiery hell awaits those whose bad deeds outweigh their good deeds. 6. Duties of Islam a. The Confession of the Creed (Shahadah) - “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” b. Ritual Prayer (Salat) – This occurs 5 times a day. c. Giving of Alms (Zakat) – Giving a portion of your income to the poor or to religious causes. d. Keeping the 30 Day Fast (Sawm) – You may not eat from sunrise to sunset during the lunar month of Ramadan. e. Going on the Pilgrimage (Hajj) – Once in his lifetime, the pilgrim is to travel to Mecca and perform various other duties while there. As you can see, Islam is in sharp contrast to the gospel of the Bible because it teaches that Jesus is not divine, did not die on the cross, and that no one can die for anyone else’s sin. In Islam, the answer to sin is good works. In Christianity, the answer is Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. As you can see, Jesus Christ is the main issue that divides Islam and Christianity." Adapted from the book Healing the Broken Family of Abraham: New Life for Muslims
It may be hard to tell from this picture, but this little girl probably hasn’t been bathed in several weeks. Her name is Angjila, and God has been placing a heavy conviction upon my heart for her. I first met Angjila on my way to a local café. While on my bike I simply said hello to her in passing. That’s all it seemed to take for her to realize that someone actually acknowledged her. Her eyes lit up, and with a big smile on her face she hopped over to a nearby garden (kopesht) and picked a flower to give to me. I thanked her and said Mirupafshim (goodbye)! Over the next few weeks I periodically saw Angjila around our neighborhood, all dirtied up with matted hair, tattered clothing, and with a big smile on her face she would always say hello to me. Inevitably she would find another flower at a nearby garden to give to me. When we moved into our new home, every day she would bang on our front door with a few more flowers to hand off to me. I would place them in a small vase on our patio table and she nodded with approval. She loves to play in our courtyard, ride the bikes, play ball, and have meaningful conversation. But, over time she began to be more demanding and always insisted we let her in. Many times, she let herself in without our permission or knowledge. On several occasions we caught her fiddling with the door jack in the back of our courtyard and she let herself in. On another occasion we caught her on Drayton’s bike riding around in our courtyard unaware to us. Finally, we had to firmly but lovingly tell her to go away. We told her she is only welcome back if she knocks, and we answer the door to allow her to come in; a basic value and principle. One day, she came by banging on the door and I had to turn her away due to another engagement at the time. She went away with a very sad countenance upon her face. I peered my head out the door and watched her walk away with her shoulders slumped down. Sadly, I watched as an older girl passed by and flicked her on the head. Before I could get myself to the two girls, the older girl and Angjila had gone their separate ways. Time and time again Angjila bangs on our door insisting to get in. She would beg and plead. Finally, I asked her why she wants in so badly. Ride bikes? No. Play with our cat? No. Play ball? No. Then why? I just want to be here.
It finally dawned on me that maybe she wants in so badly because our house is a safe place for her. Here she is treated well. She is talked to, played with, given something to drink, a snack, and a place to just sit and talk. It is obvious to me she is neglected and possibly abused, physically or sexually. One day I found her wandering the neighborhood only in her underwear, with dirt on her face, and hair matted up. She still looked happy, but I wondered how much abuse this little girl goes through. I hope I’m wrong. I hope she is not abused and only neglected. I know that sounds odd. The thought of this little precious girl being abused just kills me inside. Angers me. Not having a bath or something to eat… well we can deal with that much easier. But, abuse! How do we best deal with this situation if in fact she is abused? We don’t want to falsely incriminate her parents. For now, the best thing we can do is to let her in as many times as possible. Talk to her, get to know her, play with her, and love upon her just as Jesus would. She is seven years old and has never stepped foot into a school. Today, I helped her count to twenty in Albanian. I showed her the Albanian alphabet. And, I told her about Zoti (God) and His son, Jesuzi and how much He loves her and cares for her. Then, I gave her some free time to simply draw whatever she wants. And, guess what she spent thirty minutes meticulously drawing? Flowers in a kopesht.
Please pray for Angjila. Please pray for wisdom and discernment. Please pray that we die to our selfish ways and remain available to her… always. Please pray that she is delivered from any and all neglect and abuse. Please pray that somehow, someway, through all the darkness, that she will see the Light of Jesus Christ.
This is the drawing that Angjila finished tonight. Flowers in a garden.
For all of my life I have lived in middle to upper class white suburbia America. Most of my friends were white with a few African-American, Asian, and Hispanic buddies along the way. Rarely, did I ever encounter any discrimination or hostility because of the color of my skin or my nationality. I heard many stories growing up about how black people were treated poorly throughout American history. And, sadly I have observed this same dislike towards Hispanics even today. I can’t say that I have ever been discriminated against. Nor have I intentionally discriminated against others. But, I know there were likely some instances when I may have thought to myself that I was better than someone because they were a different color than me, or lived in a different socio-economic status than I. But, I was never vocal about these thoughts and kept them to myself.
Being in Albania has given me a small glimpse of what many minorities face in America. When I walk past a group of Albanians I can feel the stares behind my back. Their whispers to one another speak volumes. Sometimes young Albanians will gawk at us and loudly jeer, “Hey Americano!” On several occasions we were charged more for an item simply because we’re American. Even though the color of our skin is very similar to Albanians, our family sticks out by the way we look. It is obvious we are either American or Northern European. We are truly minorities here. Everywhere we go, we barely understand what is said. Some Albanians get discouraged with us when we try to understand what they are saying. Traffic signs look foreign and if we make a wrong turn or unintentionally get in the way, we are scoffed at as crazy foreigners. Don’t get me wrong. In general, Albanians are very warm and friendly people. And, it’s not everyday we experience these unfriendly encounters. But, these encounters give me a reminder of what many people face in America. Whether it be the young Hispanic family just arriving in America for the first time; or, whether it be the 70-year old African-American who has faced discrimination his entire life. I am thankful that I have been spared the humiliation of derision and discrimination all of my life. And, although I don’t always enjoy it, I am thankful for God’s gentle reminders that discrimination still exists and nobody is immune to it. It’s real, it’s here, and many injustices are bred from it. There is nothing more I can say to this, except that we must emulate Jesus and take up the cause of those who are treated less than us: the poor, the weak, orphans, widows, and social outcasts. Jesus was there for them and so should we.
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)
As I was meditating on Jesus' parable of the vine and the branches the other day, I was suddenly struck with the notion that we have grapevine in our very own back porch... a lot of it. How cool would it be to go out and see the amazing network of vine, branches, and grapes that grow out there. Perhaps Jesus' parable will truly come to life. Here's a lesson from our very own backyard.
This is where the vine takes root. This is the foundation from which the vine starts to grow. Once the vine takes root it is firmly planted in the soil and cannot be uprooted.
Over time, the vine begins to grow upward towards the sky where it will receive its nourishment from the sun and the rain. It will also be shielded from animals and critters below who might damage the branches or try and steal the fruit for themselves.
Once the vine reaches a certain height it begins to grow branches from which the grape clusters begin to grow. Little buds of small premature grapes begin to form around mid-May.
When a branch doesn't bear fruit, it is pruned back and still given a chance to sprout new clusters of grapes. Sometimes oversized leaves will choke out the branches and prevent them from bearing fruit. Occasionally, a branch dies altogether due to disease, bugs, or broken from the vine and is then cut off and thrown away.
When a branch finally receives the appropriate amount of sun and water, it begins to bear much fruit. A healthy branch that remains firmly connected to the vine will bear more clusters of grapes than others.