Angry. Sad. Grateful. Compassion.
These are some of the emotions and feelings expressed by many of the precious little children that watched our video about the Roma at this week's VBS.
Hundreds of children came through our classroom this week to see and hear about our work among the Roma in Albania. They learned about what a missionary does, who the Roma are, where Albania is, and how they could help... in a tangible way.
One child said that when he grows up he is coming to Albania to start a new school. Another said that he wants to bring cars to Albania so that the Roma can get around town. One girl said that she is going to bring new homes to Albania. And, another boy said that he is going to stop complaining when his parents ask him to do chores. Yet another girl said she doesn't want any more toys because the Roma kids don't have any.
From the mouths of babes.
The name of our project at this week's VBS was Hapa Dollapa. Albanian for open the closet. A kid's game in Albania much like hide n' seek. But, this was also the name that we chose for a pantry that we are establishing for our tiny Roma community we work in. A closet that will contain food, medicine, diapers, clothes, blankets, wood for heating, and other basic necessities that the Roma lack but need on a daily basis.
For many of the children at VBS, it was the first time they saw poverty. And, it spurred them to action. Over $4000 was raised this week. I was told that many children simply brought in their allowance with pockets full of loose change. One boy said that all he had was a quarter. And one girl joyfully proclaimed she brought $10 million dollars!
No matter how much or how little was brought in by each child, it was seeing their hearts and the joy on their faces that was humbling to see.
Jesus had a special liking to children. And, it is obvious why. He said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)
So, thank you for allowing us to see a little glimpse of the kingdom of heaven this week... through the precious mouths of babes.
It's hard to believe we hit our 3-year anniversary here in Albania this month. A lot has happened in these first three years, some good, some bad, but all as God had intended. We have already learned and experienced so much in this small span of time that would otherwise have taken us a lifetime to know.
We've learned a second language and a second culture (and still learning). What its like to live as a foreigner in a strange land. We have learned that our kids are more easily adaptable and content than their parents.
We've seen live cows, lambs, and chickens slaughtered for food before our very eyes (that was different). We have experienced the taste of Turkish coffee, raki, sufflaqe, and qofte and found them to be quite delectable. But, we are often reminded how we miss the familiar tastes (and smells) of an American cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake.
We have relished the beauty of Albania's majestic snow-capped mountains. And, have floated in the turquoise blue water of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
We learned that flexibility has taken on a whole new different meaning. And, that daily calendar plans really don't work much here. Spontaneity is the norm.
We learned that we needed to make our home our refuge rather than the always open door policy we originally came here with. We know what its like to be shivering cold and miserably hot... living in an uninsulated home. And, we now know what its like to go months with a broken plumbing system and daily power outages.
We've seen what community really looks like and participate in the daily lives of our neighbors. We have made some good friends (both foreign and domestic) that we cherish and will likely never forget.
We have heard the wailing and cries of new widows. But, we have also seen great joy and beauty at the marriages of newly wedded brides and grooms.
We've learned that missions is not all warm and fuzzy. That discipling can be very messy, unorganized, and takes a lot of time. And, that there is really no one right way to do it.
We have seen injustices, corruption, violence, neglect, abuse, and discrimination. And, it is horrifying. We've seen the ravages of communism and a nation who is now struggling to find its identity in a free democracy.
We have learned what living in poverty looks like up close and very personal. We've seen little Roma children with distended bellies, rummaging through trash, and eating food scraps from dumpsters. We've seen, felt, and experienced the very real hurts, pains, and anguish of those we are serving. Seeing Roma mothers who can't afford to care for their children and hand them over to a children's home. We have seen what hopelessness and despair looks like. Watching men without work wasting away their lives on alcohol, drugs, or gambling.
We've seen that God changes us, our views, our priorities in life, and how He can easily change our direction. And, knowing how vital it is to yield to the Spirit and rely on God because we genuinely and truly need Him to get us through each day.
And, even though life can be challenging living and working in Albania, we still seem to love it here. Somehow through these first few years we have never felt forgotten or abandoned. We are affirmed each day by God and by the encouragement and faithfulness of those that support us.
This is where God needs us at this moment in time. It's not always delightful. But, we are in awe at how God is working in the lives of those who don't even know they are being touched by the very hand of God. And, that is a cool sight to behold. And, we want to see more.
It is our desire to see people rescued, redeemed, renewed, and entirely transformed in Christ. And, it is this that motivates us and keeps us in this great race.
Thank you for these first three years. We wouldn't have changed the story. These are three years we would never take back.
And now, we eagerly await to see how God will write the next three years...
There is a passage in the Bible that REALLY scares me.
For years it has raised a bit of fear and worry from within. The text is haunting and I know many of my friends who say the same thing. It has been the subject of great debate, theological equations, and has questioned if whether or not we are truly "once saved and always saved".
But, most recently I had a revelation of sorts that has dispelled these fears and conundrums. Call it an epiphany. Intuition. Or insight from the Holy Spirit. But, whatever it is, it has since affirmed what I should have already known about God.
Here is the spooky passage in question:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
For years I thought to myself, there is no assurance, no matter what I say, do, or how I live my life that I will enter into the kingdom of heaven. That I can be professing with my mouth, proclaiming Christ to the ends of the earth, making disciples, planting churches, serving the least of these, caring for the sick, the poor, the destitute and still not make it through the pearly gates of Heaven when the time comes. I can spend hours praying, reading my Bible, memorizing verses, going to seminary, and preaching dynamic sermons, and still be turned away. I can be a Billy Graham or a Mother Theresa and still not be recognized by my Savior. Ouch! That hurts.
What then can we ever say or do that will appease the Judge?
The first part of this passage tells us that there will be people, assuming most will be Christian, coming before King Jesus informing Him that they have proclaimed His name, given lip-service, and perhaps said some really cool things about Jesus. The second part of this passage describes a people coming before King Jesus pleading their case about how much they have done for His kingdom: prophesying, driving out demons, healing... and who knows what else. Perhaps these same Christians with good intentions have studied their Bibles, know their theology, helped rebuild homes for the poor, given a hot meal to the needy, volunteered at the orphanage, and given thousands of dollars to charity.
Super Christians with a capital "S" embroidered upon their chests.
Surely, these Christians who have proclaimed the name of Christ and have done many great things in His name will be counted among those with whom Christ will say, "Well done thy good and faithful servants". Surely, many crowns will be awaiting to be placed upon their heads while a great multitude of angels sing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. A glorious day that many believers look forward to.
A day when Jesus says to them:
"Away from me, you evildoers!"
((sound of a record scratching))
Wrong line. Can you say that again, please?
"Away from me, you evildoers!"
Wait a minute.
You mean to tell me that we can say and do many things in the name of Jesus and still not be guaranteed eternal life in the kingdom of heaven? There's got to be something we're missing here.
There is a small snippet from this passage that we often overlook and pass off as a smug remark from Jesus. It's subtle. Easily overlooked. Read into something else. But, it is KEY. It is the ANSWER. It is this:
"I never knew you."
Let those words sink in. Read it very slowly.
I... NEVER... KNEW... YOU.
I'm reminded of the father who goes off to work everyday at 5am every morning and doesn't come home until after dark. He's a hard worker and has climbed up the corporate ladder. Making a six-digit figure income. He provides for his family. Always food on the table. They have a nice house with a pool. Two cars. The kids have all the latest and cool toys. He serves at church and plays a mean round of golf.
But, his wife and kids don't know him. They don't see him. He's aloof. Too busy. Catching up on work over the weekends. Playing golf with his buddies on Saturdays. Serving at the church on Sundays. Emotionally distant. Doesn't know that his son aced his spelling test on Tuesday or that his daughter scored a goal at the soccer game on Saturday. Unaware that his wife cries each day in the bathroom with the door closed because she is alone. Or, that his kids simply long for his warm embrace complete with the scruffy whiskers and scent of his cologne.
I... NEVER... KNEW... YOU.
Likewise, we can be great sayers and doers of Jesus and still not know Him. Jesus wants to know you. He doesn't want to know how many souls you are saving or how many Scripture verses you are memorizing. He wants to know you. He doesn't care that you wrote the most beautiful hymn or penned the most poetic prose. He wants to know you. If Jesus could only take one thing with Him, it wouldn't be the Bible, a cathedral, or church building, Calvin's Institutes, or Matthew Henry's Commentary Series. It would be YOU. He wants to know YOU more than anything else.
So, the question for you is...
Do YOU know Him?
I mean REALLY know Him. Not the gospel story. Not that He was born in Bethlehem. Or, that he fed 5,000 people. Or, what He said in Matthew 24. Or, the precise understanding of His crucifixion. But, do you REALLY know Him? Do you know Him in a way that is different from the way you know your spouse, your best friend, or sibling? In many ways its indescribable. But I know it involves this: unconditional love, complete trust, and unwavering faith.
Do YOU know Him?
Do you know Him in such a way that at any given moment of the day, you can knock on His door and share anything with Him, the good, the bad, and the ugly? After all, He does have an open-door policy. Do you know Him in such a way that you actually long to be in His presence the moment you awake, and then walk with Him every moment of your day? Being with Him not just during your morning devotional or prayer time. But, when you are sitting on the toilet, taking a shower, doing chores, walking through the store, laying down, hiking a nature trail, playing checkers, or making love to your wife. After all, God can be found in the beauty and joys of life. But, He can also be found in the mundane and ordinary.
Do YOU know Him?
Knowing Him involves placing your past, your hurts, your wounds, your scars, your weaknesses, your anger, your despair, your expectations, your bitterness, your control at the foot of the cross and saying, "I am yours". He says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest". The abuse you endured as a kid, the taunting from bullies, the secret sin that nobody knows about, your prejudices, the broken relationships, the physical and emotional pain, your regrets, your deepest fears, even your doubts about Him... go ahead... place it at the cross. Then, let Jesus speak into your life. After all, He is the lover of your soul. Praise Him when you are awake and allow your soul to praise Him while you are asleep. Glorify Him. And, like a child proud of his Daddy, show Him off to others... through His creation, your words and actions, and your love to others.
Do YOU know Him?
To know Him involves participating in His life and His kingdom. To experience in His suffering, the mocking of others, feeling different, being rejected by your family and friends. Experiencing His pain, His death, His burial, and resurrection. Dying to yourself, being reborn, becoming more like Him. Living vicariously through Him with reckless abandon. Feeling, experiencing, and knowing the power, life, and love of Jesus. The Apostle Paul said it best:
"I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead."
But, more than anything else remember this: Jesus wants to know you. But, do you know Him?
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.
Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the doctrine of reconciliation. I don’t pretend to fully understand it, but as I have read several key passages throughout Scripture pertaining to this doctrine, I have attempted to piece it all together as I see it. I think this doctrine is very important for every believer to understand. Because, as Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 we have all been tasked with the “ministry of reconciliation”. That is, telling others about what Christ accomplished on the cross, namely reconciling the world unto God.
Reconciliation means, “having made peace between two conflicting parties; ending an estrangement”. Reconciliation requires two or more parties at which enmity or conflict exists between them. In 1978, in what is known as the Camp David Accords, then President Jimmy Carter was instrumental in negotiating a peace agreement between the countries of Israel and Egypt. And, in 1979 leaders from these two countries signed the peace treaty known as The Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, effectually ending years of conflict between these two countries. The two countries were thus reconciled.
There is another conflict between two parties far greater than what Israel and Egypt once encountered. This conflict, or separation, occurred between man and God. It first started thousands of years ago in the Garden of Eden in which sin first entered into the world as a result of man’s disobedience towards God. In other words, man was the offending party and therefore death began its reign. This separation and estrangement continued on for thousands of years. To be clear God never separated himself from man. Instead, man separated himself from God. But, God took the initiative towards reconciliation.
Beginning with Abraham, God set out on a plan towards reconciliation which culminated in one single and momentous day on some obscure hill in Jerusalem. Upon this hill known as Golgotha is where God’s one and only Son was crucified and died on a cross, becoming the sacrificial offering for all of man’s sins. Essentially erasing all of man's sins and making a clean slate. This satisfied what was needed to not only atone for all of man’s sins, but reconciled all men to God. In other words, God did His part in taking the necessary step involved in bringing back together what was a broken relationship.
However, there are two parties involved, and since God has already done His part in reconciling man to Himself, now man must respond in kind by reconciling himself to God. This can only be accomplished by accepting God’s free gift of salvation, God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Any man who accepts this gift becomes fully reconciled to God resulting in a redeemed and eternal life as originally intended when God created Adam in the Garden of Eden. However, if a person chooses to reject Christ, he is not fully reconciled to God and will continue to spend all of eternity separated from God, both here on earth now and life thereafter.
"If reconciliation is God’s chief business, it is ours—between man and God, between man and himself, and between man and man." (E. Stanley Jones)
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.
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.