In 1986 when I was a senior in high school, a new movie was released all across theaters in America. This film portrayed a life that became the envy of just about every young man. It involved cool motorcycles, hot babes, and fast jets. If you haven’t already guessed, the movie was “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise and a relatively unknown actor at the time named Val Kilmer. After seeing this movie several times I knew this was the same life that I too wanted to live, especially if it got me fast motorcycles and Kelly McGillis. While some of my motives may have been naïve and driven by a high level of testosterone, I knew for certain that I wanted to see the world and receive my college education all the while defending this great country of ours. And, with the support and encouragement of my family and friends, I signed up for active duty service in the United States Air Force.
While I didn’t quite become the studly pilot portrayed in “Top Gun”, I did become an Air Force medic. I had received many decorations and awards during my tenure, shot expert marksman on both the M16 and .38, went through medical training school, and was well on my way to what seemed like a successful career in the Air Force. Most of my time serving in the Armed Forces was spent during times of relative peace. However, on August 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny nation of Kuwait. As a result, America revved up its military engines preparing and deploying thousands of its troops and readied its war machines in what was known as Desert Storm/Desert Shield. American patriotism skyrocketed and the war drums all across America were beating steadily. I, and thousands like me were ready to do combat and if necessary draw blood. In the middle of this huge operation, I was put on 24-hour standby while stationed at Fairchild AFB, WA. With my bags packed, immunization records updated, power-of-attorney and Will signed and notarized, I was ready to go… just waiting for the phone call from my commanding officer. Well, I did receive the phone call, but it wasn’t to give me the green light to go. Instead it was to notify me to stand down because the war had ended. Iraq had surrendered and pulled out of Kuwait. I was totally disappointed. After all, this was one of the main reasons why I signed up in the first place.
Six months later, in October of 1991 while on temporary duty assignment at Sheppard AFB, TX something happened to me that forever changed my life. I had a chance encounter with Jesus Christ. And, this jolted my world. As a result, I was drawn to my knees asking for forgiveness, repenting, and surrendering my life to Him. It was at this time that I promised I would forever serve and follow after Him. Over the next couple of years as I continued to be transformed while growing in my faith I began to think more about and understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ. By my first year of being a Christian I had read through the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation, seeing how God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation unfolded from start to finish.
It was during this time of growing, reading Scripture, and being discipled that I was first introduced to the non-violent ways of Jesus. I soon began to have difficulty reconciling violence and the use of guns, military service, and war with Scripture and the Jesus that I had come to know. I struggled with many passages like:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
Not only in time of war or combat, but in any other type of aggressive conflict our first and natural reaction to any offender who seeks to harm is to retaliate. How can I reconcile this with the words of Jesus who tells us to actually turn and offer our other cheek to them? As a soldier I could not do this since I was commanded to retaliate against any kind of aggression.
Furthermore, Jesus tells His disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
How could I as a soldier possibly love an enemy combatant with orders to shoot and kill him by my superiors? And, not only does Jesus tell me to love my enemies, but to pray for them. While at the same time Romans 12:14 tells me to actually “bless” my enemies. I can’t do this with the possibility that I may be ordered to capture or kill an enemy combatant by my commanding officers.
Many other verses I struggled with. For example:
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)
My weapon is not an M16 or .38. My weapon is not an AR-15 or 9mm. In fact, God tells me that none of my weapons are of this world. So, what am I doing practicing my shooting skills aiming to hit the silhouette of a human target at the gun range? No, as disciples of Christ our weapons are of divine origin, incapacitating our enemies not with bullets, but with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, the Word of God, and prayer. (Ephesians 6:14-18).
While there are countless more passages in Scripture defining the non-violent ways of the Christian, I’ll end with this one:
“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.” (Ephesians 6:12)
My beef isn’t with Saddam Hussein, Iraqi soldiers, Muslims, or any other flesh and blood people group. My beef is against Satan and his minions who corrupt people, cause others to stumble, and create the many injustices of this dark world. So, while I may have liked to get my hands around Saddam Hussein or any other evil dictator, the source of the problem lies in the spiritual realm. And, that is where my fight belongs.
After much prayer and wise counsel, I had finally come to the conclusion that I could no longer carry out my duties as an armed soldier in good conscience. Therefore, I made the decision to begin the process of ending my career in the military. I spoke with my First Sergeant and told him of my decision. After several lengthy conversations he recommended I begin filing for Conscientious Objector (OC) status for discharge. But, as "fate" would have it, by this time President George H. Bush Sr. began offering early out options to all active duty servicemen with no questions asked as a way of reducing our nation's military defense spending. I took that opportunity and received an honorable discharge after 6 years of active duty service in our nation’s Armed Forces.
Today, I am by definition a pacifist. I refuse to partake in anything that promotes, encourages, or supports violence or death. I refuse to own or use a gun. I refuse to be a part of our nation’s love obsession with guns and violence. I am pro-life… for life both in the womb and out of it. This includes supporting laws that seek a ban on abortion, tighter restrictions against guns, and overturning our nation’s death penalty laws. Neither do I support war. As a pacifist, the question is almost always raised by others, “What would you do to protect your family against a hostile entity?” Pacifism does not mean passivity. This does not mean that I would idly stand by doing nothing to save my family or any other person for that matter against an intruder. It means I would find the means of incapacitating an offender, or if needed, sacrifice my own life in order to save the life of another. This is what I believe it means to be a pacifist, and this is what I believe it means to be a disciple of Christ.
I know I am a minority. And, I do not expect other Christians to agree with me. In fact, more often than not, I am met with opposition, sometimes with hostility. And, that is okay. Because it only provides a better opportunity for me to be the peaceful witness that God has called all of us to be. Nevertheless, it is my hope that my brothers and sisters in Christ will someday understand the peaceful and non-violent ways of the King we worship. That someday they will fully understand what it means to serve the Prince of Peace with their peaceful actions and words of peace. And, that their only allegiance is not to a flag or country, but to the Lamb that was slain for them. That they will not ascribe to the powers of Caesar, usually exacting force or dominance over others. Instead, ascribing to the power under and servant life of the carpenter from Nazareth. I look forward to the day when there will be no more violence and bloodshed. When there will be no war and no death. A day when our Lord will reign on His throne on a new earth not by might and not by force, but by His peace and love that will transcend the world, to every tribe and every tongue and to all the nations, bowing and singing praises to our King Jesus.
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.
Albanian elders playing dominoes on the side of the street.
I was having a conversation with a group of buddies of mine the other day. And, we were all sharing some general observations we had made about Albanians. One of my friends chimed in and said Albanians seem discontent and unhappy. But, on the other hand, families remain together, kids seem joyful and playful, people gather together outside where there is a general sense of joy, happiness, and contentment. In fact, the remark was made that Albanians seem to be more content than many of us Americans do. So, we all agreed that Albanians are likely content, but have a feeling of hopelessness that has permeated their society here. A melancholic feeling of despair where things don't seem to be getting any better for them. You can just see it on their faces.
Many Albanians I have talked to share with me of their disapproval with their government, the economy, and overall living conditions. One Albanian told me while living under Communism he and his family at least had food on their table everyday. Now, they don't. While freedom is certainly valued here, it comes with a price. With a low income, minimal job opportunities, a poor economy, and a government that is reluctant to fully move forward, Albanians are indeed feeling hopeless. Sadly, many Albanians resort to gambling, drugs, and alcohol to medicate this feeling. While others work tirelessly 7 days a week, from sunup to sundown, trying to make ends meet. Many Albanians live on a loan-based system, borrowing money from their wealthier friends and then remaining indebted to them for the rest of their lives. Essentially becoming slaves. If the loans aren't paid back within a reasonable time, often serious repercussions are the result.
As Christians, even we struggle with discontentment at times. I know I do. It's a learned behavior to become content. Even the Apostle Paul had to learn to become content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:12). We know the answer is not found in government, economy, or money. The answer to hopelessness and despair is found in Christ. The only way I see it, is that Albanians need to be taught about hope. What hope? The hope found only in Jesus Christ. And, the only way they will know this is by us sharing it with them. The only problem is, there are only a couple of hundred missionaries here. But, there are several millions of Albanians. We need more Christians to come here and share with them the message of hope. The hope that there is something indeed better than this life. An abundant life. A life of hope that can begin now, and will span for all eternity within the presence of a loving and holy God.
"Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."
"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life."
(1 John 5:13)
Roma dancing at local celebration.
Local Roma burying their dead
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance."
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4)
Within just several days I have laid witness to many good and joyful things, while at the same time many sad and despairing things. On Sunday, Marcella and I were invited to a local Albanian home to join in the festivities of celebrating the birth of a newborn son. This same festivity also celebrated the birthday of a local Roma man who turned 30 years old. There was much joy and laughter, as we feasted on roasted lamb, potatoes, cabbage, and tasty red wine. There was also a live Roma band along with dancing as we all celebrated this wonderful gift of life.
Then, yesterday we received word that a local Roma man just down the street from us had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. I had just seen this man an hour before he died. He was only 48 years old. Roma mourn a bit differently than we Americans do. There was no invitation and everyone within the neighborhood showed up to pay their respects today at the mother's home. They were all dressed in black and many women were wailing and lamenting loudly in despair. Waves of people made their way to the buses and drove to the local cemetery to bury the dead man's body in a formal funeral ceremony. Within minutes the event was over and everyone made their way back home. The mood remained somber all throughout the day today.
Weeping. Laughing. Mourning. Dancing. Perhaps Solomon was on to something when he wrote this lovely and thought-provoking passage from Ecclesiastes. Life begins. Life ends. Life can be very short and brief. Life can be very long and eternal. It is indeed the circle of life. There is joy here, but there is also much despair. I pray for the Roma that they will someday see the Light of Jesus Christ shine ever so brightly upon this community and upon each of their faces. Will you please pray with me?