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.