Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Faces on Money--2 Leva

Bulgarian 2 Leva bills (worth about $1.20 at today’s rate) are in the process of gradually being replaced by the 2 Leva coin, but both are still very common in Bulgaria.  Both contain a picture of Paisii Hilendarski.  Hilendarski was born in 1722, and is considered the father of the Bulgarian renaissance.

The Bulgarian 2 Leva coin

My western readers might be a bit confused at this point.  We think of the renaissance as occurring between the 14th and 17th centuries, so how could a Bulgarian from the 18th century not only be considered a renaissance area man, but the father of the renaissance?  To understand this we have to look farther back in Bulgarian history.

The Bulgarian 2 Leva Bill

In the 1300’s, when the renaissance was in its infancy in Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire began expanding from what is now modern day Turkey into Europe.  Bulgaria stood in its way.  Over the course of several decades Bulgaria was conquered and absorbed by the Ottomans.

As most of Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and grew in knowledge and culture, Bulgaria was enslaved.  They became servants of the Ottoman sultans.  Their dark ages were just beginning.

Fast-forward hundreds of years and Paisii Hilendarski came on the scene.  He spent much of his early adult life in the Hilendar Monastery.  Here he grew in education and in freedom of thought.

He traveled around Bulgaria seeking to raise funds for the monastery, and found that most of his fellow Bulgarians were living in desperate conditions and were apathetic toward their situation.  They had been beat down and come to accept their lives of servitude.  Paisii decided to reignite the Bulgarian spirit by writing a history book.  It took a long time for him to research Bulgarian history as the centuries of Ottoman rule had damaged or destroyed much historical evidence, but after years of toil he finally finished his work.  During his research he also found evidence and documentation about the life of Ivan of Rilla (see the previous post on the 1 Leva note to find out more about him).

His work awakened the Bulgarian spirit.  It would still be over 100 years before Bulgaria would regain freedom again, but the seed had been sown.  Knowledge and history served to stir up a national spirit that would eventually lead to freedom and the rise of the new Bulgarian nation.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Faces on Money--1 Lev

Almost anywhere you go in the world you will see somebody’s face on the money you use.  Usually it is the face of someone important.  The US notes have presidents (with the exception of the 10 and 100 denominations), and the British and Canadian notes have Elizabeth (as do several other countries of which she is queen).  Whoever the people are on the currency you use, they are usually significant and valued by the people of that nation in some way.  Thus, I thought it would be good to go through the people on the Bulgarian currency to tell you how they are important to the country.

I’ll start with 1 Lev.

The term “Lev” is Bulgarian for lion, so the Bulgarians technically buy and sell by trading lions.  The plural is “Leva,” so while it is good to have 1 Lev in your pocket, it is better to have lots of Leva.

The one Lev bank note is very rare.  Technically they are still legal tender, but in my 7 years of living in Bulgaria I have never seen one.  Today you are much more likely to see 1 Lev coins, which are worth about 60 US cents at todays exchange rate. Whichever on you have though, a 1 Lev coin or 1 Lev note will have on it a picture of Sveti Ivan Rilski or St. John of Rila in English.

The illusive 1 Lev banknote
The common 1 Lev coin

John of Rila was born in 876 in a village that is now part of modern day Sofia.  A story is told of him as a young orphan boy working as a cowherd carrying a calf across a river by walking on the water.  For most of his adult life he lived as a godly hermit.  People started coming to the cave he lived in to become monks.  Eventually they established a church and a monastery.  Today the Rila Monastery stands in his honor, and is one of the most beautiful and sought after tourist attractions in Bulgaria.

Rila Monastery on the side of Rila Mountain (August 2017)

Late in life he wrote A Testament to Disciples, which is considered one of the finest pieces of literature in Old Bulgarian.

He continued to work in ministry leading the monks until his death on August 18, 946.

Though gone for over a thousand years, Bulgaria remembers him and has given him a place of honor on the 1 Lev coin.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Correcting the Evils of History

This past week I had a conversation about history with some friends.  We often have the tendency to look at history in terms of black and white.  We see some people groups as evil and others as good.  Yet in my amateur study of history, it seems the situation is often not that complex.  It is not a matter of some people groups being mostly good and some being mostly evil.  It is a matter of all people being evil.

It is easy to look at the evils of our ancestors and feel bad about them.  It is even easier to look at the evils committed to our ancestors and feel like victims.  Yet all of our ancestors engaged in evil acts.  None of them were good.

A significant portion of my ancestry is from Scandinavia.  Today Scandinavians are largely thought of as a peaceful people.  Yet this was not always the case.  Scandinavians were once vicious Vikings that would travel around committing atrocities to others.  They were fierce courageous warriors, but they were also terrible evil people.

A 12th century painting of Danish Vikings invading England.

When I brought this point up in my conversation, I was asked, “What changed to cause Scandinavian culture to shift from such a violent culture to the peaceful one we see today?”

The simple answer is that Scandinavians became Christians.  Missionaries took the Gospel north, and the Vikings came to know Jesus.  The Gospel radically changed the culture in a positive way, and as a result the people of Northern Europe no longer fear invasions of large marauding Norsemen.

I want to make the world a better place, because I love people and I love the world.  Some have urged me that the way to change the world is through political activism.  Yet what government program has ever changed the hearts of men?

If the world is to be changed, our hard hearts must change first.  Only God can do that.

"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God."  (Ezekiel 36:26-28)

This is the solution.  Let Jesus change your hard hearts into hearts of flesh.  All of us are evil.  All of our ancestors were evil as well.  It was a heart issue for them and it is for you today as well.

“Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only Love can do that.”  -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“God is Love.” (I John 4:8)

Let future generations look back on us and say that we were a people changed by love.

Let our history be different.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Adventures in Viticulture

Viticulture is the science, production, and study of grapes.  Over the past two years I have had an annual day of engaging in viticulture.  I travel out to my wife’s hometown of Kostenets and trim the branches of the large vines that form a canopy over the yard of Sasha’s childhood home.

Dave cutting the vines.

It is a lot of work.  I stand on a ladder or on the wall where the firewood is stored and trim branches off the vines with wire cutters.  The entire task takes about two hours.

The thing that I find hardest about the annual pruning is not the cutting, or climbing, or even moving the ladder around the yard.  The hardest part is the decision making.  I have to decide what branches I want to cut to a medium length, what branches I want to cut to a short length, and what branches I cut off all together.

After last years trimming, I talked to our neighbor Metodi.  He gave me tips on how to trim the vines.  I employed his strategy this year.

Most of the branches need to be cut off.  This is so that the vine is not putting unnecessary energy into keeping unproductive branches alive.

Some of the branches would be cut very short.  Metodi recommended leaving just two buds on each branch.  If just one bud remained there would be a lot of leaves but no fruit.  If more than two or three buds remained there would be lots of fruit, but it would be poor quality.

Some of the branches are kept at a medium length as “mother branches.”  These vines will continue to spread making new branches.  These are also trimmed but not nearly as much.  Very few branches become mother branches.
The vine before pruning

The vine after pruning

As I trimmed the branches, I thought of all the pruning I have had to do in my life over the past year.  As with the vines in Kostenets, I had to cut off many branches completely.  There were many things in my life and ministry that were taking unnecessary energy and keeping me from being as fruitful as I could be.  I had to make some tough decisions to cut off certain branches.  It is always sad to abandon something into which we have invested significant time and energy, but sometimes it is for the best.

Other things were kept, but cut back significantly.  In doing so, they actually become more fruitful.  Others step in to pick up what I left behind and projects, ministries, and lives become more than they would otherwise be had I continued to fully invest in them.

Then there are the branches I invest in deeply.  These “mother branches” are where I will invest most of my energy this year.

Deciding which “branches” to cut has become something I do on a regular basis.  Sometimes deciding to cut a branch is easy.  Just as dry unfruitful withered branches are the first to be cut off the vine, there are obvious things in my life that are no longer worth investing time and energy into.  They are just draining and need to go.

However others branches make for tougher decisions.  Perhaps a branch looks withered but just needs more time to bear fruit.  Perhaps a branch could be fruitful if only given one more season.  Perhaps cutting a branch will prove to be an unpopular decision.  Perhaps leaving a branch will be seen as foolish.   Keeping lots of branches can give the illusion of a healthy plant, but lots of leaves does not mean lots of fruit.

Yet they are my branches to cut, and they must be cut.  I only have so much time and energy, and if I spread myself too thin I will accomplish nothing.  Ultimately, the decision as to what to prune and what to keep in my life is up to me.  I pray that I will chose wisely.  Yet even if I make mistakes as I prune, the good news is that the vine is very forgiving and things grow back.

Seasons of pruning are necessary.  They can be difficult, but they are good.

I thank God for giving me the time to prune, and pray for wisdom as I do so.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

European Presidency

The European Union is a group of nations in Europe that have joined together for mutual benefit.  The countries enjoy free trade amongst themselves.  Many of them have open borders to other EU countries, and a significant number even use the same currency (the Euro).  Bulgaria, along with our neighbor to the north Romania, joined the union on January 1, 2007.  We do not currently enjoy open borders with other EU countries, but we do enjoy many benefits from being in the Union.  For example, my wife and daughters can travel to any EU country without so much as a stamp in their passport.  They could even live and work in these countries with great ease.

Being in the Union also has another advantage.  The EU presidency of the Council of the EU rotates every 6 months.  If you are in the EU, eventually your country will host the presidency.  Hosting the presidency gives your country a chance to promote agenda items that your country values.  Currently, Bulgaria is hosting the presidency!

Most Bulgarians hardly notice that the presidency is here.  Those in Sofia might notice a bit more as there are occasionally more police guarding certain routes for diplomatic envoys to work their way through town, but largely life goes on uninterrupted.  The biggest change I have noticed around town is the presence of more flags.  The EU has 28 member states at the moment.  (Britain is working on leaving the Union, but as it currently stands they are still in.)  There are a few displays of all 28 flags along with the EU flag itself flying around the capital.

EU member states' flags

What will hosting the presidential council mean long term for Bulgaria?  Probably nothing too dramatic.  Still, it is great to have our time in the spotlight of European politics.