Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Traditions

Friday was the last day of school before the Christmas break.  As usual, both Sophia and Veronica's classes put on a Christmas performance.  Both performances were great (by their grade standard).

I was very impressed by Veronica's class.  The teacher arranged a presentation that explained very clearly the Bulgarian Christmas traditions.  She asked the children what we do on Christmas.  She asked what we eat, and why we have certain practices on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Years.  After discussing the specific Bulgarian customs, she moved on to the meaning of Christmas.  She talked about Jesus' birth, and why this is significant.  She talked about the wise men, and the star, and all the important elements of the Christmas story.

Of course, there were also the usual Christmas songs, and each of the children recited part of a poem.  I was very proud of Veronica who memorized three stanzas of Bulgarian poetry about snow.  The program finished with refreshments.

Sophie did a play with her class.  She was responsible for introducing the play in English, and she also had a line in Bulgarian.  It was a play about animals, and was also very cute.

Our girls have great teachers, and it shows as they advance in Bulgarian, Math, and other subjects.  Both teachers have done a great job integrating these two English speaking kids into the Bulgarian school system.

Veronica reciting her poem with her partners

Sophie in her class play

Alexis is still too little for School, but at least she got to watch!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Guests From Poland

On Friday, two of our closest friends and their two daughters arrived to spend Christmas and New Years with us.  It is a joy to have them here.  They are like family to us.

Of course, this means that Polish and Bulgarian are waging a war for the second language spot in my brain.  That's how it goes though.  Sasha doesn't have the dueling language problem.  English is like a first language to her now, so Polish sands unopposed in the second language spot.  As a result, her Polish far surpasses mine.  I am please that I still understand so much.  I have lost very little in my understanding.  I may have even gained some.  Speaking comes slowly, and it requires much more thought than Bulgarian.  But it is coming back to me.

Yesterday Paweł, my Polish friend, and I went out for burgers.  We both expressed how great it is to be together this Christmas.  We are not family, but her daughter refers to me as wojek (uncle).  They are like a brother and sister to me.

I have a dream team of three families that I would like to have join our team in Sofia.  Paweł and Ola are one of the three.  Of course it will be difficult to convince them to leave their jobs at the University in Szczecin, and move to Bulgaria but stranger things have happened.  We can always pray.

My only complaint about their visiting is that it is only for two weeks.  That's not long enough for friends such as these.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why Santa Doesn't Bring Presents

We have all heard the story of Santa, a fat mythical elf who brings presents to good boys and girls.  He watches our every move, and if we are good he will bring us toys.

Parents use the story of Santa as a means of controlling the behavior of their children.  They tell their kids that Santa is watching their every move whether they are asleep or awake, so they had better be good or else the mighty omniscient elf will not give them presents.  Some kids bought it and behaved well.  Other kids (like me) didn't believe in Santa but behaved well anyway for fear that their parents would use Santa as an excuse to not give them presents.  Regardless of which camp you fell into, the system did not work.  Santa never made anyone good.  He only made them act good.

As a child, I acted like a good boy, especially when my folks were watching, because I wanted presents.  I was not a good person.  I was, in fact, a greedy little brat who wanted toys more than coal and behaved well so that I would get presents.  My heart was rotten, but my behavior was good.

The same is true of kids around the world who behave well for the mighty elf.  They do so, not because they are actually good kids, but because they want something in return.  In reality, they are not good at all.  They are greedy little brats who are working the system to their benefit.

And perhaps that is why Santa doesn't bring presents.  The story goes that Santa brings present to the good boys and girls.  Perhaps Santa, years ago, looked past the behavior of the children and into their hearts.  He realized that his very existence merely created a mask of goodness over a heart of greed.  Actions do not make a person good any more than painting a tomb white on the outside makes it clean on the inside.  Perhaps Santa does not bring presents because there are no good boys and girls to be found.

Fortunately, Santa is merely a fun addition to Christmas and not the whole package.  The real meaning of Christmas brings us much greater hope than Santa ever could.

Jesus came to earth as a baby.  He would grow up and die for our sins, not because of anything we had done, but because he loves us.  He was not just another religious leader who would paint the outside of the grave with a fresh coat applied through the brush of good behavior.  He entered the tomb, cleaned it from the inside out, and emerged in victory.  He enters all who believe, removes the heart of greed and lust, and gives them a new heart.  He makes it so that good behavior is a reflection of the light inside rather than a cover for the darkness within.

The Present has come, but not because you deserve it.  You do not.  The Present came because God loved you enough to send his Son to Earth, into the heart of darkness, to bring a great light.

Will you accept your gift?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Dangers of Gray

If you are like me, you have often heard the old sayings about how we should not think in black and white terms.  In general I agree with this principle.  After all, there are a lot of areas in life where a clear right or wrong answer does not exist.  For example, if your work team is debating a strategy, there will often be more than one course of action you can take.  Leaders need to be willing to listen to their teammates and be flexible.  Ridged strategies often lead to failure, and people who will not flex on anything will find themselves facing harsh realities that could have been avoided.

That being said, there is often an overemphasis on avoiding black and white thinking in today’s postmodern world.  We do not live in a world of pure gray.  Black and white issues exist because right and wrong exist.  There are principles on which we must never compromise.

For example, murder is always wrong.  You might think, “Sure murder is wrong.  Who would ever think it is right?”  Yet even this principle is very quickly overlooked when it becomes convenient.  My home country of the United States allows the murder of thousands of innocent children every year through abortion.  Most Americans oppose this, yet they will not speak out against it.  It has not even been a major issue in a U.S. election for years.

Ok, so maybe we can agree on murder.  What about lying?  We can all agree lying is wrong right?  Yet most of us, me included, have justified a lie for one reason or another.  Most often it happens because the lie gets us out of some sticky situation.  We move from white to black because it is convenient.  Lies are not a gray area.

What about gossip?  Most people would say gossip is wrong.  But then they share concerns that Bob may be falling back into his alcohol addiction with someone who is not Bob.  Or they may present a prayer request to their friend for their sister-in-law who is in denial about her child’s learning disability.  All of a sudden gossip becomes ok if the alleged motives are good.  Gossip, even with good motives, destroys trust and kills relationships.

Perhaps at this point one might offer a counter argument by pointing to Jesus who seemed to be in almost continual conflict with the religious leaders of His time over the issue of observing the Sabbath.  One might argue that the Sabbath was instituted by God yet Jesus seemed to be ok with bending the rules on this.  If He could bend the rules, why can’t we?

My answer to this is to take a closer look at exactly what Jesus was speaking against.  He spoke against human rules and traditions made up to help preserve the Sabbath.  These rules and traditions were not commands of God.  When it comes to commandments of God, Jesus wants obedience.  In fact obedience to Jesus’ commandments is how we show we love Him (John 14:21).

Please note here, I am not saying that obedience to God is necessary for salvation.  Salvation is a gift from God that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In fact, if you are trying to earn your salvation, you have nothing to do with Jesus and have fallen away from His grace (Galatians 5:4).

However, though obedience to God is not necessary for salvation, it is none the less necessary.  In fact, obedience is even more important than worship.  This is a lesson that King Saul learned the hard way, and it cost him his crown (1 Samuel 15:22-23).

To sum up, on any man made rules or principles, black and white thinking can be a handicap.  However, when it comes to God’s commands gray thinking is the road to disaster.


“Compromise is a battle ground.”  -PFR

Thursday, December 5, 2013

An Afternoon Downtown

Yesterday I made a trip to the central post office downtown.  I had a package and 70 Christmas cards to send out to our supporters.  I went to the central post office because last year it took almost two months for some of our cards to reach their destination in America.  Sasha theorized that by forgoing our local post office they would arrive faster.

I entered the post office and went up to a window that looked like it sold boxes for the package I wanted to send.  They told me I would have to go over to the window in the corner to get a box.  Meanwhile, the worker at the counter went over to the other window and asked her co-worker to get a box for me.  She was quite polite.  Actually all of the central post office workers were quite polite.   The workers were, in fact, the nicest part of my visit to the post office.

After getting the box I explained that I needed stamps for 70 letters and postage for the package.  I was informed that I would have to go out of the building and around to the main entrance.  Apparently I had entered the building the wrong way, but this turned out to be fortunate as it landed me in the only place I saw to purchase a box.

I walked around the building to the main entrance.  I entered the great hall of service windows.  Now I knew from experience that I had to choose the right window to buy stamps, so I carefully walked around the room reading every sign.  None of them mentioned stamps, so I went to the cashier and asked where I could buy some.  She directed me out of the great hall of service windows across the corridor to what looked like a gift shop.  There a very polite lady sold me the needed stamps for the letters.  The package would, of course, have to be weighed back in the great hall of windows.

I took my stamps and applied one to each letter.  These were the old lick and stick stamps, so my tongue got quite the workout.  Now all I had to do was figure out the package.  The lady in the “gift shop” had told me to go to windows 32-37.  There was a short line of about 5 or 6 people waiting for these windows.  I waited with them.  When it was my turn I told the lady that I would like to send a package to Scotland.   She told me I had to go to window 42 for that.  I went to window 42 and waited my turn.  I approached the lady and explained again that I wanted to send a package to Scotland.  She asked what was in the package.  “Books,” I said.  “Just books?” she inquired.  “Yes.  Just two books,” I assured her.  She stamped the package and sent me back to windows 32-37.  When it got to my turn again, I finally was able to pay for and send the package.

All together I visited 6 windows, one desk, and interacted with 8 very polite workers to send one package and 70 letters.  That’s one worker for every 8.75 letters and 0.125 packages.  Bureaucratic efficiency at its finest.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Pressing On

For Christians seeking to reach their neighbors with the freedom and forgiveness that comes through a personal relationship with Jesus, life can often seem like a constant string of futility.  For years you struggle and hardly see any results.  You want to change people’s lives but nothing seems to happen.  You share the truth in love and face rejection.  Or perhaps the message is accepted but only in a shallow way that bears no fruit.  You look around you and see nothing but hard, rocky, and thorny soil.  You are overwhelmed.  You just have to press on in obedience to God and rely on Him.

Other times, you may see people coming to Christ, growing in Him, and going out to reach others in such a dynamic way that you can’t handle it.  You may have so many ministry opportunities that you are unable to handle them all.  You are overwhelmed.  You just have to press on in obedience to God and rely on Him.


We have been in both situations.  Most of our ministry has been in the former category, though currently it seems like we are getting more of the latter, and we praise the Lord for how He is working.  Yet no matter what the landscape looks like, we must share the message of salvation with others.  We just have to press on in obedience to God and rely on Him.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Bounty of Bucharest

Last weekend Sasha, Kenny, and I took a trip to Bucharest.  Some of our friends there knew about our ministry to refugees and collected blankets and clothes to send back with us.  We filled the back of our station wagon to capacity.  We had to leave four large bags of clothes behind in order to make room for Sasha in the back seat.   Our Romanian brothers and sisters showed great love for our refugee friends through their gifts.

Our involvement in ministry to the refugees has not been popular.  There have been hard feelings between our Bulgarian friends and our displaced friends.  One reason is that the refugees are seen as sapping up Bulgarian tax money.  There is a view that the refugees are mooching off the government.  While there certainly are people in the world who unfairly take advantage of government programs, I can say with certainty that the vast majority of the refugees are not among such a group.  If anyone thinks otherwise, I challenge them to live like a refugee for a month.

Whatever the reasons for the tensions, I want to be clear.  The refugees coming to Bulgaria need help.  As a child of God, I have a responsibility to help those in need.  Jesus gave His life to welcome me into heaven despite the fact that I am a wretched sinner who deserves nothing from God.  How can we as Christians not, in turn, welcome those in need?  Let me be clear on this point.  We do what we do for the refugees because of what the love of Jesus has done in us.

I should not be surprised that our ministry and others like it have been met with mixed reviews.  This was promised by Jesus:

“A servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching they will obey yours also.”  John 15:20

He also told us how to handle such situations:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man.”  Luke 6:22

And conversely:

“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”  Luke 6:26

We and our ministry partners all agree.  We will not back down.  We are going to continue to love our refugee friends as long as they are in our lives.


Please keep them in your prayers.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Refugee Situation

Over the past three months, we have been involved in refugee ministry.  Thousands of refugees from Syria have come to Bulgaria to escape the war in their home country.  Hundreds of them, along with refugees from several other countries, are in the refugee center in Sofia.

We, along with several partnering ministries, host a fellowship time once a week at a local church.  We provide a warm safe place, a meal, English practice, and a Bible study.  Every week more and more refugees come to our gathering.

This last week, we started hearing reports of violence at the refugee camp.  It really hit home when one of the women who attends our Bible study was attacked from behind.  Please pray for peace and protection for our refugee friends.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Annual Retreat

I'm going to spend much of this weekend on my own.  It is my annual retreat.  I'll be in a town about 45 minutes outside of Sofia reflecting on what God has done in and through me in the last year, and seeking His guidance for the coming year.

This is a spiritual exercise, but it is also an important part of my job.  As a ministry worker, I can do nothing apart from God.  It is important to spend time in prayer and reflection to make sure I'm living in obedience to Him and following His Spirit, not merely my own plans.

Please keep me in your prayers this weekend.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reflections on My Homes

I’m a single dad for the next 24 hours.  This morning Sasha and Alexis took the train to do some paperwork in the city of Kostenets (where her family lives).  I’m taking care of the older two girls tonight.  We will drive out to Kostenets tomorrow.

The girls are in school now, so I had the morning to get some legwork done.  I went downtown to the local Christian bookstore to look for some discipleship materials for some young men who want to learn more about their faith.  Afterward I stopped by my old language school.  The secretary at the school is a friend of ours.  I thought I would see how she is doing.  It was fortunate I stopped by.

As I popped into the office I saw a somewhat frustrated maintenance lady.  She helps out around the office keeping the place tidy and organized, but she is not the secretary and does not speak English.  She informed me that there was a man in one of the classrooms and she had no idea why he was there.  The secretary (our friend) was out sick, and the director had not come in yet.  She asked me to translate to find out what he needed.

The man was an Egyptian who wanted to learn Bulgarian.  He had come to pay his bill for the class that starts next week.  I informed him that he could wait for the director, but we were not sure when he would come.  The Egyptian man decided to come back later.

As we walked out together I told him what a good school it was.  He asked how long it took for me to learn Bulgarian.  I told him I was comfortable speaking after about a year, but I have improved quite a bit in the three years I have lived here.  I also told him I have a cheat in that I have Bulgarian family.  He told me he also has a Bulgarian wife.  He moved here with her from Egypt because of the conflict in his home country.  I told him I have been praying for Egypt.  He seemed to appreciate that.


As I headed toward the subway to go home, I thought about those first few months in Sofia almost three years ago.  Back then everything was new and unknown.  How things have changed.  I really feel at home here.  We are going back to the U.S. next year.  I am looking forward to it, but honestly the U.S. seems a bit foreign to me now.  I’ve spent most of the last decade outside of America.  Pop culture references that I hear from time to time don’t always make sense, and the U.S. news reports I read and hear sometimes make America sound like a very different country than the one I left.  Bulgaria has changed dramatically in the past three years.  I can only imagine America has too.  What will it look like to me next year?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Running the Race

On Sunday I ran the Sofia Half Marathon.  Don’t worry; this is not a boasting blog about how amazing I am for running a race that hundreds of thousands of people run every year.  I came in 288th out of 292, so I don’t exactly have a lot to boast about anyway.  There is a point to this blog post, but boasting is not it.

The half marathon course is essentially a large loop that we ran three times, so I got to see the same sites over and over again.  The first loop was exciting.  We started out at a fairly good pace.  We were full of energy from the healthy breakfasts we had eaten earlier that morning.  Things were looking good.  We cheered each other on and there were smiles on many faces.  The worst experience that first lap was when one of the guys running a water station blocked me from getting a drink.  (Not cool dude.)

The second lap was a bit harder.  The smiles faded, and gaps between runners increased.  I kept thinking to myself, the next time I pass this point will be my last time.  For some reason, that did not help much.

The final lap was the worst.  I was tired, but still had a long way to go.  I started to get discouraged.  Then off to the side I heard two voices yelling, “Dave Bliss from Minnesota!  Go!  Go!”  It was a couple of my American friends who came out to cheer on the runners.  Keep in mind, there were not a lot of fans watching us Sunday morning.  For most of the race, the only spectators I saw were the police who were keeping cars off the course.  To get encouragement like this during the final few kilometers was just what I needed to keep going.

I climbed the hill on the course for the final time, and rounded the half-way point of the loop, but I was losing steam.  My run had turned into a shuffle.  My body was running low on energy.  Every step felt like I was lifting a lead weight.  As I approached the stadium I saw my family and the family of my running partner cheering me on.  I gave them high fives, and I pushed on to the end.  I had run the course laid out for me.

After Sunday, I will never underestimate the importance of having people there to help you along.  Be it my running partner, my family and friends who cheered me on, or the woman who handed me a cup of Gatorade as I started the final lap, I could not have made it without them.

Like the course I ran, serving in ministry in a land I did not grow up in can be tiring.  Often times it can feel like we are running alone.  Sometimes those who are supposed to help callously hinder us (like the race volunteer who would not let me get a drink), but such people are a rarity and quickly get left behind.  It is the sense of being alone that makes this race the hardest.

But then just when I begin to wonder if it is worth it, and if I should go on, I get support from the sidelines.  Like the note I got from an elder at my sending church last month letting me know that he gets and reads my newsletters every time I send them and is praying for us; or the friend who sent us a gift last month because she believes in our work here.  Such people keep us going.


The race I ran on Sunday was nothing compared to the race Christians run every day.  Sometimes we stumble and fall.  Sometimes we are week and tired.  Sometimes we feel alone (though we never are).  We press on by the grace of God.  By His strength we will finish the race.


Sunday, September 29, 2013

Iron sharpens Iron

A while back I had a conversation with a soldier who had recently returned from a tour in a war torn country.  He explained to me what he went through while serving his country.  As a U.S. soldier he fought against terrorists who had poorer quality weapons and soldiers, and a much smaller army.  There was no way they could win, yet they fought against the American forces with such hatred.  Though they could not win, they could hurt.  Even small hurts put psychological stress on my soldier friend.  I do not truly understand it because I did not live it.  I have never been on that battlefield.

A while back I had another conversation with a man who works with a minority people group in Bulgaria.  I asked him how his ministry was going.  He was a bit awkward in his response, and I quickly caught the reason.  His work had recently faced major setbacks and he had to start over again after having invested a great deal of time and energy to little effect.  I reminded him that I too am a missionary.  I too have taken risks and started projects.  I too have worked with people on a spiritual level, and I too understand just how often projects fizzle and ministries need to be restarted.  I understand that at times like this we can feel like we have failed or wasted our time working in one area only to find the results less than satisfying.  I understand the attacks of our enemy.  I understand it because I have lived it.  I have been on that battlefield.  We cannot be defeated, but we can be hurt.

Just this weekend this same man gave me a call.  He explained that he was just calling to see how things are going.  We shared recent developments and prayer requests.  After our conversation I realized just how much I needed that call.


There is a reason soldiers do not fight alone.  We need people who understand what we are going through.  We need other soldiers on the battlefield with us.  We need a band of brothers.  We need each other in a life like this.  I am blessed to have a handful of such godly men in my life in Sofia.  We can share struggles, share successes, share strategies, build each other up, and make each other stronger in a way that is non-threatening and non-political.  Iron truly does sharpen iron.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Decade of Life

Ten years ago today was a very special day for our family.  I use the word family, though at the time Sasha and I were just a couple.  On Thursday, September 18, 2003 Sasha took a trip to the University of Minnesota hospital.  This was something she had done every week for the past 4 months.  On the odd numbered weeks she would stay overnight and endure 24 hours of chemotherapy.  On the even number weeks she had it easier with only two and a half hours of
chemo.  September 18th was, mercifully, an even numbered week.  It was also her last treatment.

The spring and summer of 2003 was a time that was very dark for Sasha and me.  She went through a torturous treatment fighting a very deadly and aggressive cancer that quickly weakened her body.  She was a young woman in her 20’s, but she could not even walk a few blocks.  Sasha has always had a high pain tolerance.  That summer I watched her go through terrible pain.  She hated it, but she took it.

Mercifully, I worked the early morning shift at my job most of the summer.  I started work at 5 am most days.  The half hour drive to work alone in the dark gave me plenty of time to vent my emotions in solitude.  (Big 24 year old men don’t cry unless they can’t be seen.)

Week after week we waited for the labs to come back.  Perhaps we were nearing the end of her treatment.  Perhaps this week we would see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Week after week we were disappointed as the tests showed the cancer remained in her body.  Finally her numbers got to where they needed to be, which meant she had 6 weeks of treatment to go.

Thursday, September 18th was a day I remember with much joy.  We left the hospital after that final treatment believing that the cancer had been defeated.  Subsequent tests revealed that her cancer had indeed been cured.  She was free, and now the healing could begin, first physically, than emotionally.

Sasha has shown her resilience over the years.  It was great to watch her recover over the following months.  I remember the crisp fall day when we were first able to walk the entire path in the woods near our house.  It had been a long time since we took that walk together.  She not only recovered from that terrible summer, but she has gone on to do so many great things in life since.

She lived in Poland for 4 years and learned her 4th language (5th if you count Koine Greek).  She gave birth to three very beautiful and very smart children, and she has been a wonderful mother to them.  She started and ran her own successful business.  And those are just a few of her accomplishments.

Every year we celebrate September 18th as “Survivors Day.”  This is the 10th Survivors Day.  I can’t imagine life without you my beautiful darling wife.

Sasha: 10 – Cancer: 0








Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Musala

Yesterday the Sofia team climbed Rila, the largest mountain on the Balkan Peninsula. We started out with a plan to take a ski lift to a spot about a 3 hour hike from Musala, the top of the mountain.  However we soon learned that particular ski lift was closed for maintenance for the next two days.  So we took the smaller sky lift that would drop us off 6 hours from the top.


This put a serious crimp in our plans.  We had planed to take the first lift ride up, casually walk to the top, take some pictures, and casually walk back down to catch the last lift back to our car.  Still, we had all day to get up and down again, and if for some reason we ran out of time, we could just go back having had a fun day on the mountain.

Though we were all smiles as our trip began, it was hard not to look at the peek so far away and wonder if we would make it.




The walk up was long.  It took us about 6 hours to get to the top.  It was worth every step.  The views were amazing.


My favorite part was a climb up a steep slope of rocks just after we passed the Musala Hut (a cabin where hikers can spend the night).  It was a hard climb, but when we reached the top we found a beautiful lake with Kenny sitting next to it (because he was so much faster than Sasha and me).



We had to stop every so often to check the map to make sure we were on the right path.  As the route became more rocky we had to count on the trail markings to find our way.  The higher we got the harder the trail became.



At the top of the mountain we reached ice lake.  The landscape was almost totally devoid of life.  The largest animal we saw was some sort of bird of pray (probably an eagle) that made a sound that sounded like a deer call.



After Ice Lake, we climbed what little was left of the mountain into the clouds.  After six hours of hiking we reached the top.


Sasha at the peek.
It took us 6 hours to get to the top, so we only had 3:20 to get back to the lift.  We went as quickly as we could.  We didn't make it, which meant another 40 minutes of walking to get to our car.  Every step of the way hurt.  A lot.  But it was worth it.

Before leaving the mountain we stopped to get a bite to eat.  We were tired, but happy.  It was a great day.






Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Extra Caution

You may have heard that the U.S. has closed several embassies around the world under the threat of terrorist attacks.  As someone who lives abroad, I keep a close eye on international tensions.  The embassy in Sofia was not on the list, so I was not concerned about Sasha's appointment there today.

It was to be a fairly simple visit.  She just needed a document notarized.  Sasha's sister was watching the kids, so I went with her.

We were a bit surprised at the added security at the embassy.  The Bulgarian border guard had an armored truck stationed outside.  Parking near the building was coned off.  There were more guards than usual, and they were positioned all around the embassy.  When we went to the door we had to talk to two different men before they would let either of us enter.  As I had no business there myself, I was not allowed to accompany Sasha inside even though I had my passport with me to show that I am a U.S. citizen.  I have been to the embassy many times.  This is the first time they ever refused to let me in.  While Sasha got here document notarized, I sat in the car and tried to look as little like a bad guy as possible.

The visit went well.  Sasha got her work done, and the embassy staff was very polite, as usual.  Passing through security was a bit more intense than previous visits.  They kept asking her if she had a weapon on her.  They also asked her to turn off her cell phone and were a bit concerned when the buttons on the phone stayed lit for a few seconds after the phone shut off.  Eventually they let here through, she did her business and left.

I'm glad the facility is secure, and hope it remains so.  G.I. Joe and G.I. Mitko seem to be doing their cooperative jobs well.

The U.S. Embassy in Sofia.  A little piece of home right in our neighborhood.

Monday, August 5, 2013

God's Provision

Thank you to all of you who prayed for our trip home.  The mechanic finished up our car the evening before our departure, and we were ready to roll right after breakfast the next morning.  We drove from Portoroz to Belgrade the first day and then from Belgrade home to Sofia the next day.  All in all the trip went well, and we made it home with about 9 liters of gas left in the tank.  Thank you for your prayers!

I have to admit, I was a bit concerned about this trip.  Our ministry fund tends to start running low this time of year and a drive across the Balkan Peninsula is not free.  I am very grateful to all our supporters who gave generously this month.  Without even asking, we had a bigger than expected month of donations including an extra gift from one of our regular supporting churches back in Minnesota.

Thank you to all of you on our prayer and financial support teams.  You came through for us this month.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Portoroz Update

The conference in Portoroz has been wonderful!  Once again ServeEurope has put on a great ReachGlobal conference.  Not only has the conference helped us refresh and refocus, but there have also been some personal celebrations.



The first personal celebration was Veronica's 7th birthday!  She is getting bigger and more beautiful every day.  It was very special to have another birthday at the sea with our second-born.



The second personal celebration was Sophia's baptism.  Yesterday Sophie publicly declared her faith in Jesus in front of our fellow ReachGlobal Europe staff.  It was a wonderful day for all of us.

Though the conference has been great, we barely made it here.  A kilometer away from the hotel our car overheated.  The radiator needs to be replaces, and the mechanic has ordered the appropriate parts from Germany.  Right now we are without a car and hoping the parts makes it in time to be installed before we have to leave Wednesday morning.  If it is not here, we will be stuck in Portoroz.  Please pray that the car will be ready for us to leave Wednesday morning.  We are thankful to God for getting us here safely, and we trust Him to get us home.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Off to Slovenia

Tomorrow morning we pack up the car and drive through four countries to a little city on the Aegean Sea for the ReachGlobal Europe Family Conference.  We will spend tomorrow night in Zagreb, Croatia and then continue on to beautiful Portoroz, Slovenia for a week of training, reflection, and refocusing with our fellow Europe Division staff.

Please pray for safe travels for us.  Please also pray for the ServeEurope staff and the visiting volunteers.  They have a big week in front of them, and we appreciate all they do for us during these conferences.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Bathhouse

Bulgaria is know for hot mineral springs.  You can find them all over the country.  One such location is in down-town Sofia where the natural hot springs were used to make a public bathhouse.  The old bath house is a regular stop on tours of the capital.  Though it is no longer in use, it is still a common location to find people relaxing and enjoying a relaxing rest by the fountain.  You can even give yourself a splash at the hot mineral spring outside the bath.  It's yet another beautiful place in our city.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Strange Recruiting Strategy

One of my jobs as Sofia City Team Leader is to make sure the team is properly equipped to fulfill our vision.  As it stands right now, our team is not properly equipped to do so.  We simply do not have enough team members.

The members we do have are quality folks.  There are three of us so far.  Each one of us brings skills, talents, and gifts to the table that augment and enhance the whole.  Both of my teammates have skills that I don’t have, and I have skills they don’t have.  Together we make a good team, but we need more members.  This is why recruiting is one of my key roles as team leader.

Kenny has been a blessing to the team since he joined in December.

Sasha, our resident Bulgarian, and my lovely wife.
Recruiting people for a ministry team is, in some ways, very similar to hiring someone for a job.  You want to be sure the people who join the team have the right skills, talents, training, and personality.  Not just anyone can join the Sofia team.  I have turned people down who would not be a good fit.  In other ways though, recruiting for ministry is quite different than merely hiring.

When someone expresses an interest in joining the Sofia team, I take it seriously.  I pray extensively for them and with them.  I pray that God would guide them to the right ministry location.  Sometimes they discover that God is leading them somewhere else, and when that happens, I am more than willing to let them go.  They are not mine to begin with.  I share facts and needs for the team, and I stay in regular contact with them until they make a decision.  I don’t do a hard sell trying to build a team.  I let God lead them, and I do everything I can to make sure they end up in their sweet spot even if that means they never join us in Sofia.

This can be a bit confusing for those who approach teams from a sports or business perspective.  Such recruiters will do anything to get strong members on their team.  They will give incentives and make promises.  They will do everything they can to make their team look attractive.  They don’t understand why anyone would let a qualified teammate go elsewhere.

When Sasha and I moved from Poland to Bulgaria our team leader gave us such a strong recommendation that some thought he was either lying or trying to get rid of us (or possibly both).  To some he sounded like a slick car salesman who was trying to offload a lemon.  I was told straight out that his recommendation for us was useless because it sounded too good.

In reality our former boss wanted us to stay.  His recommendation was legitimate and honest.  He thought we were good teammates and to this day he and his wife remain close friends.  Yet he was willing to let us go because he was more interested in making sure that we were serving where God wanted us than where he wanted us.  He was very invested in our lives, and his godly leadership continues to affect me to this day.  He released us because he was more interested in building the Kingdom than expanding an empire.

This is how I view potential team members.  The vast majority of people who have looked at Sofia as a place to serve have been more than qualified.  They have been mature, skilled, and godly men and women.  Yet only three of us are actually here.  I’m okay with that.  God is the King.  He chooses who will join us in Sofia.  Obedience to Him is more important than building a large ministry for Him.

I will continue to try to build the Sofia team because I believe it’s what God is calling me to do.  I will pray for anyone who enters the process, and I will continue to pray for them even if they don’t join us.  I trust that God will send us the right teammates in His time.

Perhaps He will send you.



Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Video Production

Last week we finished a project that has been over a year in the making.  With the help of David Stefan of Edit-Works and his wife Leah we created footage for a video on Sofia.  David and Leah are now back in Minnesota where David will edit the footage and create what we pray will be a life-changing production.

Thank you to all of you who prayed for us during the filming.  Things could not have gone smoother.  The experts we interviewed all provided great insights on Bulgaria, and the footage David filmed was amazing.  We hope to be able to share the final product with you in the fall.

Thank you to the Stefans and Edit-Works for putting so much into this project.  It was a joy to host them for two weeks, and we hope all our short-term teams are so pleasant to work with.

David and Leah during a filming session on Vitosha Mountain

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Protests Again

I've held out on writing about the protests in Bulgaria because I wanted to get people's thoughts on what is going on.  Let me catch you up on what has been happening in the streets of our beautiful country.

Over two weeks ago an alleged mob boss was appointed as head of a major law enforcement agency.  To put it in U.S. terms, imagine that a man being investigated for ties to organized crime suddenly was made the head of the FBI.  What would your reaction be?

Well the reaction of the people of Bulgaria has been heard loud and clear.  For the past 16 days thousands of people have marched on the streets of  Bulgaria's major cities.  Every night there is another protest in downtown Sofia  The government is not listening to the voice of the people.  It has become a battle of wills.  The people want the government (which was just recently elected) to step down.  The government refuses to comply with the will of the people and has placed itself above the people who put them in power.

The interesting thing about the protests is the seemingly unified face of Bulgaria.  I've gleaned several opinions from my Bulgarian sources.  The softest response to the situation that I have heard has been to say that the government did wrong in this case, but they have only been in power for two months.  "Give them time to make changes," they might say.  The anti-government response has been, "We will not give them time.  We have seen bully tactics like this from the government before."  No one is happy with what appears to be a link between the ruling Socialist party and organized crime.

It seems those most upset are those who most remember what it is like to live under a dictatorship.  Today I saw a sign that read, "Freedom or the U.S.S.R."  It is as if the Bulgarian people are saying, "Never again!."  Last night my own retired mother-in-law joined the protests.  She has no desire to give up her freedom.  She remembers what it was like without it.

As an outsider looking in, I have to wonder where this is going.  The government will not head the will of the people, and the people are not backing down.  I see three possibilities.  1) The government can relent and step down leading to a new round of elections.  2) The people can give in and accept that the government will do whatever it wants.  3) Things can get ugly.

For now it seems to be at a stand still, and I find myself praying for a peaceful solution every day.  Praise God that this conflict has yet to turn violent.  Pray that it remains peaceful.



Friday, May 24, 2013

Alphabet Day: How Bulgaria Learned the АБВ's

A statue of Cyril and Methodius in front of the National Library in Bulgaria that  bears their name.


Today is a national holiday in Bulgaria.  We celebrate the brothers Cyril and Methodius.  These brothers were born in the 9th century in Thessaloniki Greece.  If this city sounds familiar to you it may be because there are two books of the Bible named after it.  The apostle Paul started a church in Thessaloniki in the first century.  He spent about a year with them and then he left, yet the Thessalonians remained on his heart as you can read in the two letters he wrote to them.

Apparently the church in Thessaloniki thrived to the point where 800 years later two brothers felt its influence.  When I visited Thessaloniki back in 2010 I imagined these two brothers looking out at the mountains to the north and thinking about the people who lived there.  One day they would leave their home and travel north to share the Bible with the Balkan tribes.  They brought the more than just spiritual knowledge to what is now modern day Bulgaria.  They brought an alphabet.  That alphabet has changed a bit in the past 1,100 years, but it has retained the name of Cyril and today is called the Cyrillic alphabet.  It is used in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, and many other countries.

During the communist era there was a bit of historical revisionism on the part of the public school system.  Bulgarians were taught of the two brothers who invented the alphabet, but they were taught that these brothers were Bulgarian, not Greek missionaries to Bulgaria.  (The communist government did not like religion of any sort, and to attribute anything good to Christian missionaries was frowned upon.)  This may be partly true as it is believed that the brothers may have been partly of Balkan decent.  Yet they were likely no more Bulgarian than I am Swedish.  (I am a tiny bit of Swedish decent, which explains why I go to Ikea once a week.)  Despite the fall of communism over two decades ago, the belief that these two were Bulgarian remains popular today.

These brothers were great men who shaped the world in ways beyond what we can fathom.  Not one person in Bulgaria is untouched by their legacy.  They deserve a day to celebrate what they did not only for the people of Bulgaria, but much of eastern Europe and Asia as well.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Prayer in the Face of Tragedy

This week, a tornado tore through Oklahoma with devastating results.  As usually happens after such events, several celebrities posted statements stating that they are praying for the victims.  Other celebrities responded by mocking those who are praying stating that prayer does nothing.  The thought seems to be that if prayer worked tornadoes would not happen, nor would anything else bad.  Normally I pay little attention to the opinions of celebrities.  Just because someone can play the guitar well does not mean that he is qualified to speak on spiritual or political issues, and it would be quite foolish to trust the word of someone whose profession is to pretend to be someone they are not (like an actor).  However the sentiment against prayer deserves some evaluation as it is one that many people from all walks of life hold.

The argument goes something like this:
If prayer works, all prayers to a good God would always be answered with a good result.  All prayers are not answered as is evident by evil in the world.  Therefor prayer does not work (and likely there is no God).

There are two flaws in this argument.

The first flaw is the assumption is that God will always answer prayers when asked.  The undeniable fact that many prayers go unanswered is given as proof that prayer does not work, or at best seldom works.  This is the appliance version of God.  God is viewed similar to a toaster.  If I put bread in a toaster and return a few minutes later to find the bread unaltered, the assumption would be that the toaster is not working.  The logic goes like this, "I put bread in the toaster.  It does not turn to toast.  Therefor, the toaster does not work."  When applied to prayer, the logic looks like this, "I pray to a god.  The prayer is not answered.  Therefor, this god does not work."

The flaw in this argument is that gods are not toasters.  Deities, if they exist, have personality.  We should therefor apply the same rules to their decision making as we do to other people.  I may send a letter to the president, and he may or may not reply to my letter.  He may or may not act on it.  Yet for me to assume that the president does not exist or is not working because he does not answer my letter is foolishness.  He is a person with his own will.  He can do as he pleases and he may decide not to answer my letter.  In the case of the president he will almost certainly not answer my letter.  Who am I that he should hear my petition?  (This is also a question we must ask of any deity we pray to.  Why should any god listen to you?)

The second flaw is that a good god will always answer prayer with a good result.  One might argue, "I buy that gods are personal beings, yet if so they are either evil and will not answer prayers with good results, or are impotent and cannot answer prayers with good results.  Therefor why pray."

This argument makes two assumptions.  The first is that the praying party knows the difference between good and best.  A good god may well allow bad things to happen because he knows there are better results to be gained if he allows evil to happen.  God could override the free will of all living things.  This would eliminate evil.  It would also eliminate love as true love demands a choice.  God could also wipe out every evil person on earth and allow only the good people to remain.  Yet if he did this, would you be among those who God deems good enough to live?  Christianity shows God making great sacrifices for the sake of a greater good.  The greatest sacrifice was Himself.  One could argue, if God is good and all powerful, why did Jesus die?  Personally I'm glad that particular bad event happened because it led to my salvation and adoption as a son of God.

The second assumption is that a good god even hears your prayer.  Ask yourself, "Am I really a good person?  Am I good enough that a good god should even listen to me?  Am I even significant enough to this god?"  One reason a god may not answer your prayers is that he is not listening to your prayers.  You may not have his ear.

If you want to make sure God hears your prayers, I have both bad news and good news for you.  The bad news is that you are not good enough that God should hear you.  Neither am I.  Everyone on this planet is by nature a bad person.  If you don't believe me just look at the world around you.  How much evil do you see?  One may argue that the evil around us is the work of a few bad people, but the whole of humanity is mostly good.  If this were the case, the good humans would quickly undo the bad that the evil humans do.  Have you ever seen something wrong and done nothing to fix it?  You probably did today and didn't even realize it.  In that knowledge, can you still claim to be a good person?  The good news is that Jesus' death paid the penalty for the bad in you, so God no longer holds the evil things you have done against you.  More than that, He rose again so that through Him we can be adopted as children of God.  And being a child of God makes you significant enough to be heard by Him.

This offer of adoption as a child of God is available to all who believe.  But don't take my word for it.  Read John 1:12 "Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."  You can become his child too if you believe.  And then you will know that your prayers are heard by the Lord of the universe who will answer in the way that is best.  Why would you not want this?


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Election Results

Sunday was election day in Bulgaria.  The results are now in, and the result is . . . gridlock.

There were four winners in the election.  The GERB party took the most votes at just over 31%.  GERB is a moderate-conservative group.  Their name "GERB" is both an acronym and a word play.  "Gerb" is the Bulgarian word for "coat of arms."  This was the party that stepped down earlier this year under the pressure of nation wide protests.

The socialist (also know as the communist) party also took some seats with just over 27% of the overall vote.  The other two lesser parties were the "MRF" or "Movement for Rights and Freedom" party (sometimes referred to as the Turkish party because most of its members are from the ethnic Turkish minority of Bulgaria), and the nationalist "Ataka" party.  Both of these groups won less than 10% of the vote, but enough to win seats in parliament.

So what does all this mean?  As you probably notice, none of the groups scored a majority victory.  As such, no party can form a government unilaterally.  There are talks of a coalition between two parties to achieve a majority and get things done.  Right now it seems that a coalition between GERB and Ataka is the most likely.  For now the election has left a feeling of uncertainty.  There was no decisive victory, so there is no certainty as to the the direction of the country.

We shall see what happens.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

So You Want to Teach, Eh?

This morning I read Matthew 22 and 23.  In these chapters Jesus had a very heated confrontation with the first century religious leaders of Jerusalem.  What got me was what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30:

"And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'"

You see, the first century teachers did not view themselves with the harsh criticism that Jesus and the writers of The New Testament did.  They thought highly of themselves.  They did not realize that they were making the same mistakes their ancestors made.

Are we making the same mistakes?

Those of us who teach the Bible today need to be very careful not to copy our first century counterparts.  The first century teachers pushed very hard to do good things.  They told others to do them too. Jesus even said that what they taught should be listened to.  In Matthew 23:1-2 Jesus said, "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you."  But Jesus didn't stop there, "But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy cumbersome loads and put them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."

How easy it is to tell someone the right thing to do.  How difficult it is to do it ourselves.  What good is a teacher if he tells people to not lie, gossip, or slander; to love our neighbors and do good to those who do evil to us?  If the teacher does not follow his own teaching he is worse than useless?  Make no mistake my fellow teachers, we will be seen for what we are.  Let's not strain out others' gnats but swallow camels ourselves.  Let's not make the same mistakes our first century counterparts made.  Let's practice what we preach.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Election Season

Just a quick update today on the political situation in Bulgaria.  Some of you may remember the demonstrations earlier this year across the country that caused the government to resign.  Elections will be held on May 12th to elect a new government.  This means that election season is in full swing.  Every day I see adds on my Facebook news feed encouraging me to vote for one party or the other.  Of course I will not be voting.  Like most republican countries, Bulgarians tend to frown on non-citizens casting ballots.  I only wish my lack of citizenship had some power to prevent the daily advertisements.

I tend to stay out of local politics in Bulgaria.  I have my opinions to be sure.  Everyone has an opinion.  Yet, I always remember that I live in Bulgaria as a guest of the Bulgarian people.  It is their country to run.  I have no right to live here any more than a Canadian has a right to live in Texas.  Still, I can't help but be interested in the direction my host country will move in the next few weeks.

Please pray for wisdom for the Bulgarian people as they make an important decision about the direction of their beautiful country.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Szczecin

Tomorrow we go to Szczecin, Poland.  This beautiful city in Western Pomerania was our home for two years.  We have not been back since we moved in 2008.  It is much colder there than Sofia.  Winter has not left Northern Europe according to the news.  Yet we are very much looking forward to seeing several old friends.

Spring break in the snow?  Why not?  Good company makes every day warm.

Szczecin at night

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tsarevets

Let me tell you about one of my favorite structures in Bulgaria.  Tsarevets is a fortress on a hill in the former Bulgarian capital of Veliko Turnovo.  To enter the stronghold an invading army would have two choices.  Either they could cross the long and narrow bridge to attack the main gates, or they would have to scale the cliffs to attack the outer wall.  Either way would be very difficult and costly.

The stronghold did eventually fall.  On July 17, 1393 the Ottoman Empire succeeded in taking and burning the fortress.  This event marked the fall of the Bulgarian Empire, and for 500 years Bulgarians would suffer as slaves before regaining their freedom in the late 19th century.



The stronghold remains to this day, and an evening light show now tells the story of the fall of the fortress.  It is quit the sight.  I would recommend a visit to Tsarevets to anyone who has an interest in Bulgarian or Ottoman history.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

John Son of Thunder

Yesterday, Sasha and I saw a great performance of "Йоан Синът на Гърма" ("John Son of Thunder") at Theater Sofia.  It's the story of Jesus' close friend John.  It was very good.

From a technical aspect, the show was well put together.  The music was great, and the dancing was amazing.  There was significant artistic liberty taken in the story, but that didn't bother me as little is known about John's early life.  You have to make stuff up to write an interesting story about young John.  Besides, the world was represented as a train station, so it's not exactly like this was supposed to be a pure historical play.

There were many powerful songs and great moments in the play, but my favorite was at the end of the first act.  John and his friends had been waiting their whole lives for the Messiah to come and free them from Rome.  Additionally, John had been seeking the meaning of life since he was a boy.  John, his brother James, and friends Peter and Andrew were attending a synagogue service.  The synagogue leaders invite a man sitting in the back to come share a word from the scriptures.  The man stands up, comes forward, and reads, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  He then finished by saying, "Today, this scripture is fulfilled."

I know this story well.  The man reading was Jesus, and He had just announced that He was the Messiah.  But to see it from John's perspective, where this nobody stands up, reads a passage, then drops the bombshell that the prophecy is referring himself was powerful.  This was who John was waiting for and suddenly he was there.  What a powerful moment!

I really enjoyed the play.  It was well done and the message was a message of freedom from sin and death that can be found through the light of the world, Jesus.  I told Sasha afterward that if understanding that play was the only benefit I ever received from learning Bulgarian, it was worth it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Athens

This week, Sasha and I took a trip to Athens for a conference with the ReachGlobal Europe-South leaders.  While there we visited several amazing sights in Athens.


We started our sight seeing day at the parliament building.  This building was built in the early half of the 19th century which makes it one of the youngest sights we saw.  I was interested in seeing this building as it has been on the news quite a lot frequently (usually with protesters in front of it).


After seeing the parliament building we stumbled upon the Greek version of The White House.  This guy was very busy keeping the palace grounds safe.


A few blocks later we saw the Olympic Stadium.  This stadium was used for the ancient and modern Olympics.  It is also the ending point for the Athens marathon.




The next two sights were the temple of Zeus (top) and Hadrian's Arch.  These two ancient relics of a time long gone were impressive, but not nearly as impressive as what was to come.  (Look through the arch and you can see where we went next.)



We worked our way toward the Acropolis.  To get there, we walked through a very tiny path that almost felt like it was running through back yards and along the roofs of the good people of Greece.  It afforded a great view of the city though.


Acropolis means "Sky City."  This is a fitting name.  High above the city it can be seen from far away.  It takes quite a climb to get there, but it is worth it.  It was an ancient sight of worship that has been there for thousands of years.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.  This is but a portion of what we saw.  It truly was a city in the sky.







It was unlike anything I have ever seen before.



After seeing the Acropolis we climbed up nearby Mars Hill.  This ancient sight was where the local Roman approved Greek government convened during the time of the Roman Empire.  It was also the sight of Paul's famous sermon.  As we stood on on the hill a friend of ours read the message Paul delivered to the leaders of Rome nearly 2000 years ago.

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.  In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”


That is what he said, and this is what they all saw as he was speaking.


For years I thought of this passage as one of Paul's softer messages.  He certainly does show a great tolerance as he compares the Greek gods to the true God who made heaven and earth.  Yet there is still a very real element of confrontation as Paul speaks of God not living in temples built by human hands.  These words would have brought to mind the massive temple that was right in front of them.  "God overlooked such ignorance in the past but now he commands people everywhere to repent."  This sermon would have been hard for the learned men he was speaking to to hear.  It is interesting that this sermon is overwhelmingly used by theologians today as an example of making the Gospel more appealing to a specific audience.  It would appear that Paul had an intent to hit at the heart of the pagan worship of ancient Greece.

That was most of our sigh seeing day in Athens.  We ended the day with a sunset walk on the Aegean Sea.  It was a great day, and a great week.