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.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

It's What We Do

I have the privilege this week of attending the ReachGlobal Europe Conference in Slovenia.

Early in the week we had a slide show with pictures of ministry sent in from all over Europe.  One thing that stood out to me was how many pictures were nothing more than a group of people gathered in a living room or a coffee shop.  Yes there were pictures of schools and churches and camps, but most of the pictures were merely people in life together.

This should not be surprising.  Ministry is about people, and people are not projects.  If we truly care about those around us we are naturally going to spend time with them.  This is what we do.

Earlier in the week we talked about Jesus washing His disciples’ feet during the last supper.  He did this to show them the extent of His love for them.  The most influential ministry workers I have ever met are not those with the best programs or the most charismatic personalities or the greatest ability to preach or those who have the most meetings, they are the ones who love others the most.

This is who we are.  This is what we do.  We are ReachGlobal Europe, and we love others as Christ loves us.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Veliko Turnovo

We recently took a trip to Veliko Turnovo, the former capital of Bulgaria, to visit friends who live there.

Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Turnovo

Veliko Turnovo was home to a massive fortress that held out against the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of the Balkans for longer than most.  It was one of the last bastions of the old Bulgarian Empire before it was finally conquered.  Bulgaria would remain enslaved to the Ottomans for half a millennium.  As the renaissance would take Western Europe into a golden age of exploration, Bulgaria remained in chains until on March 3, 1878 they once again regained their freedom.

Now partially rebuilt, the Tsarevets Fortress looms on the cliffs over the modern city of Veliko Turnovo as a reminder of Bulgaria’s struggle for freedom.

Veronica, Alexis, and a friend exploring the ruins of Tsarevets

We took the girls there along with some friends who live in the city.  It was great to show them their heritage and remind them of a cry shouted in both Bulgaria and the U.S. in their fights for freedom.

Свобода или смърт!

Give me liberty or give me death.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Remembering Georgi

Georgi with his family.  (Sasha is the littlest one.)

A year ago today, Sasha’s dad passed away.
  The anniversary of a traumatic event is often a time of increased grief and stress for those who went through it.  In Bulgaria, it is traditional to commemorate the anniversary of the passing of a loved one.  Today we went to Sasha’s hometown to be with family and remember Sasha’s father.

We visited the grave early in the morning with the traditional bread, wine, water, and grain.  The bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ just like in church communion services.  The water symbolizes the water of baptism (a longstanding and ancient tradition by which Christians demonstrate faith in Jesus).  The grain represents the hope of resurrection.  These four elements in concert paint a complete picture of the Gospel.  We are saved through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This salvation comes to us by grace through faith, and it will lead to the bodily resurrection of all who believe.

After the visit to the grave, we had a meal with the family back at the house and spent the day together remembering Georgi.

At one point, I was siting on a chair doing a Sudoku out of the local newspaper.  I suddenly remembered how I would often sit doing Sudoku while Georgi sat on the next chair over reading the sports section.  I was blessed to get to know him, and we all continue to miss him dearly.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Not So the Wicked

Earlier this month, Sasha and I attended a conference in beautiful Croatia.  We visited the seaside city of Split and saw the massive palace of Emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian was Emperor of Rome in the late third and early fourth centuries.  He violently persecuted Christians in more extreme and terrible ways than any of his predecessors.    The ruins of his amphitheater, where many Christians would have been killed for sport, still stand in Split.

Yet now, centuries later, his empire has crumbled.  His palace still remains, but it has been converted into a city center.  Inside the great walls are little shops where tourists can buy souvenirs.  The upper levels of the walls have been converted to apartments.  People live in the palace of this evil man as if it is just another part of downtown Split, and right in the middle of the palace stands a large church.

Evil will not prosper.  All that evil people do will eventually come to ruin.  Even this great and terrible Roman emperor was eventually brought low and his palace turned into a place of commerce, dwelling, and worship.

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 
For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
Psalm 1:4-6

The wall of Diocletian's Palace in Split Croatia, now used for apartments and shops.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Knowing Good and Evil

As Sasha and I were walking in the park today she shared a thought with me that inspired this blog, so this one is from her.

Adam and Eve were put in a perfect and good world.  They were given one command, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

Why were they forbidden from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  Knowledge is, generally speaking, a good thing.  Knowing right from wrong is a good thing.  Why is it bad to know good and evil?
We have to remember that Adam and Eve did know what good was.  In fact, they knew it better than any of us do.  We live in a good world that has been corrupted by our evil.  They lived in an uncorrupted perfect and good world, and they were good people too.  We sometimes talk about people as if they are good.  We say things like, “He’s a good guy,” or “She’s a good kid.”  When someone once called Jesus “Good teacher,” He responded by saying, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.”  We ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” when in reality, bad things do not happen to good people.  They just happen to people who are not as bad as some others.
Adam and Eve knew good in a way that none of us ever has.  Remember that the tree was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  In disobeying God’s command they chose to commit an evil action.  Thus, they became aware not only of the existence of good, but of the harsh reality of evil.  They experienced first hand what it means to be aware of both good and evil, not only in theory, but in experience as well.  They gave up experiencing just good to willingly experience evil.
It is strange for us to think this way.  We who experience both good and evil on a daily basis have become so accustomed to it that we no longer think about it.  This is the world our first parents made, and it is a world we each continue to make every day in our words and deeds.  There is only one way out of it.  Just as Adam stepped out of a good world and brought us into an evil one, so the second Adam, Jesus, stepped into an evil world to bring us back to a good one.  All who believe in Him, His death for our sins, and His resurrection will one day go to this good world forever.

Salvation has come.  Someday the knowledge of evil will be but a theory perhaps reflected on in academic circles while the experience of true and uncorrupted good will exist for all.