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.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

History Lesson

As many people know, Bulgaria is a former communist country.  From 1945 to 1989 communism was forced upon it by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR).  It was part of the Communist Bloc.  However, it was never a part of the Soviet Union.  This is a common mistake made even by those of us who are old enough to remember the cold war.  Here is the difference.

This is a map of the countries that used to belong to the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union was created when the Red Army defeated the White Army, overthrew the Russian Emperor, and established a socialist dystopia.  After the fall of communism several areas of the former Empire/Union became independent nations.  Thus, there are several former communist nations that used to be a part of the Soviet Union.

However, Bulgaria was not one of those.  Bulgaria was part of a group of several nations that were placed under the control of the Soviet Union after World War II.  Like any good dystopia, the Soviet Union was eager to export their tyranny to their neighbors.  Those countries, along with the USSR made up the Communist Bloc seen below.

What is the difference?  Quite significant actually.  Think of it this way, Canada is part of the British Commonwealth.  However, it is not part of Great Britain.  Should Canada leave the Commonwealth it would not cause Great Britain to split into different countries.  In the same way, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, East Germany, and Albania were part of the Bloc, but they were not a part of the USSR.  It would have been theoretically possible for them to overthrow socialism and yet have had the USSR remain intact.  There is confusion because the time between freedom coming to Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Union happened so close together historically that they seem to be one in the same event.

In 1989 Eastern Europe did indeed receive independence from the Soviet Union.  However they were never a part of the USSR.  They were subjected to a puppet dictatorship under the control of the Soviet Union.  They were not the same country, and now, thanks to the freedom loving people of the world, they never will be.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Finishing the Reformation

500 years ago today the reformation began when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.  This was a turning point in world history.  One of the main thoughts of the reformation is the idea that scripture is the highest authority on spiritual matters, rather than any one person like the Pope.  Anyone can read and understand what the Bible teaches, arrive at conclusions from the teachings of scripture, and in turn teach others.  It is a very liberating idea.

The idea of following a person over following God’s teaching is something that has been a thorn in the side of Christianity since the beginning.  Paul addressed it himself in I Corinthians 3.  Some Christians were claiming to follow Paul, others claimed to follow a guy named Apollos.  This was causing divisions in the church.  Paul urged people to follow God.  He wanted us to understand that we are all on the same team and worship the same God.  Factions do not help.  Follow God and not men.

Yet, the desire to follow a person continued and in 1054 the church in Europe was split between East and West when the western church decided to follow the Pope and the eastern church refused.  This was what the reformation pushed back on over 500 years later, and out of the reformation came great thinkers and church leaders like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

Though the reformation moved in the right direction, these new church leaders (likely of no intent of their own) quickly became the leaders of new factions.  These factions remain today in the form of various denominations.

Yet this is not how it should be.  It is perfectly acceptable to cite great theologians when discussing theological issues, but if we truly believe that scripture alone is the highest authority on spiritual issues, and if we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers, then we must believe that all followers of Jesus have the authority to read and teach the Bible, baptize those who come to faith in Christ, and teach others spiritual truths about God in light of His scriptures.

This does not mean that we will never be in error, but it does mean that we can all call people out when we see error.  It means that even the greatest theologian with the most degrees and highest respect can be called into question by anyone when his teaching contradicts the Bible.  It also means that the lowest and least educated of us can read, understand, and apply scripture to his life without having to seek the guidance of a so called higher level Christian. (Though seeking wisdom from our fellow believers is highly recommended.)

This is what our work in Bulgaria is about.  We want to teach the Bible and teach others to teach it as well.  We want believers to be able to feed themselves through scripture.  It is one of our beliefs that anyone can lead a small group and in these small groups we can study God’s word together.

Let us celebrate the 500th anniversary of this great historical moment by finishing what the reformers started.  Let us empower everyone to read the Bible and know God personally.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Why I Love Cultures

It is common for people living in cultures foreign to them to at some point get a bit frustrated.  Things are not like they are used to, and this makes them uncomfortable.  Having spent most of my adult life living in a culture other than the one I grew up in, I have had my fare share of cultural discomfort, or as it is more commonly known, culture shock.

Yet, I love other cultures, and that love is one of the things that has helped me survive for so long away from my home culture.

I say I love cultures, but really it is the people who make up the cultures that I love.  In fact, it is my theology of people that has helped me make big steps in overcoming culture shock.  Allow me to explain.

As a Christian, I believe that God made people.  He made us in His own image, and He made us good.  However, we messed things up and became evil.  This doctrine is known as total depravity.  It is also the reason why culture shock exists.

You see, culture shock comes when we look at something in another culture and think, “That’s not how it should be.”  Total depravity comes into the picture here in two ways.  The first is that the host culture that is frustrating us is made up of evil people who do things in an imperfect and evil way.  The second is that we are evil and think that these other evil people need to do their imperfect things in our imperfect way.

Of course, it is difficult for us to see our own reflection.  We assume that all of the problems come from the host culture, and we blame them.  We get angry and frustrated that they are not like us.  We never seem to notice that in wishing that they would be more like us we are wishing them to be angry frustrated people.

If we left the story here, it would be depressing and hopeless, and we would only end up hating everyone in the world (even ourselves).  Yet God did not leave us this way.  He came into our world and experienced human culture.  He died for our sins and He redeemed all of humanity.  Everyone can be saved and redeemed.  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Joel 2:32)

When I see other cultures, I see the evil.  But I also see the people that God loves.  He came to redeem them, and in each of them there is much good to see.

Last month I visited Greece.  Today I am in Bulgaria.  Tomorrow I will be in Romania.  Each culture is made up of wonderful and flawed people, just like me.

Like me, they are people who do not deserve redemption.
Like me, they are people who do not deserve love.
Yet like me, they are people that Jesus died to save.

When we realize that every single person we ever meet is someone who Jesus came to redeem in the same way He redeemed me, it becomes very difficult to dislike him or his culture.

If we truly believe the good news of undeserved salvation by grace through faith, pride falls away.  Without pride, there is no ethnocentrism, and there is no culture shock.

In Jesus we realize that we are all loved by God even though we deserve wrath.  How can we then turn around and hate others for not being like us?

When we realize that everyone is loved by God, just like we are, it liberates us from our pride, frustration, anger, and hate; and it allows us to love other people and cultures.

Jesus is the cure for culture shock.
Jesus is the cure for ethnocentrism.
Jesus is the cure for racism.

At least He would be if we acted like we really believed.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Being Cared For

Brian and Diane Harris--Pastors to Missionaries

We first met the Harrises four years ago in Minneapolis when we were back in America.  We shared a meal at Split Rock Grill and got to know them a little bit.  They had just taken on the title of “pastors to missionaries.”

A year later, they visited us on the field for the first time.  We did not know them that well yet, but it was nice to have someone from our organization visit.  Our mission had just gone through a rough patch, and it was good to have someone formally visit to help us process what had happened thousands of miles away.

Last year they visited again.  At this point it was like having old friends come to visit.  We had met them a few times, and they were starting to get a feel for what life is like in Bulgaria.  They got to know some of our friends by name, and developed a deeper understanding of how to pray for us.  Being alone here in Sofia, their visit helped us feel better connected to our organization.

Highlights from the Harries second trip to Sofia

Last week they came for their third visit to Bulgaria.  It was something Sasha and I both looked forward to.  They have now been following our ministry for years.  They know the key players and our close friends.  They grieved with us at the loss of several friendships and informal partnerships over the past year as people moved away, and prayed with us as we look forward to the future.

For most of my adult life I have been in some sort of professional ministry.  For over a decade I have served in Europe away from the country I where I spent my childhood.  As such, my relationship to pastors is quite different than it may be for your average church attender in America.  Rather than pastors being people who minister to me, I am used to pastors being ministry partners that I work along side.  I am generally ok with this, but the down side of it is that now, after years of ministry, I find that there are times I need someone to turn to as a pastor, and such a person does not exist in my life.

This is the role the Harrises fill in the ReachGlobal Europe Division.  It is a blessing to have them come and sit and listen to us and invest in our lives.  I am very glad to work with an organization that values the emotional and spiritual health of its workers.  I am grateful to have the Harrises in our lives.