Thursday, May 31, 2007

Change of Scenery (BBB Part Nine)

The civil war in Bosnia ended in November of 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accord. At that time, the Bosnian state, which had formerly been one of the six republics that comprised Yugoslavia, was divided into two autonomous “entities”: the Muslim/Croat Federation and the Serb Republic. Scattered throughout Bosnia, particularly in the Federation, were a small number of national Baptists and other Evangelical Christians. Their leaders, with the help of the Croatian Baptist Union, had conducted humanitarian work throughout Bosnia during the war and had won a substantial number of converts. When the war ended, these leaders appealed to our mission agency to send some missionaries to help expand their work.

Needless to say, there was not a large number of people flocking to serve in war-torn Bosnia, which was only in a state of peace because of the 60,000 or so NATO troops stationed there. Eventually, however, four veteran missionary couples who had either just retired or were about to retire agreed to serve for six months until longer-term volunteers could be found. They began arriving in September of 1996. Part of their task was helping to continue the humanitarian work that had begun during the war. But their main task was to win converts and start Bible studies that would ultimately lead to churches. Two of the couples went to the northeastern town of Tuzla, which had not been damaged nearly as much as some parts of the country, such as Sarajevo.

By January of 1997, Jennifer’s and my frustration about the difficulty of living in Prague and the lack of direction in our ministry had reached its peak. In spite of this, we never had any thoughts of going anywhere else. We knew that things had to get better eventually, and that God would grant us the ability to carry out the ministry that He had called us to. We were just not aware that the ministry would be outside of the Czech Republic!

One day, while we were reading our mission agency’s monthly magazine, we came across an urgent appeal for more volunteers to go to Bosnia. The initial volunteers’ terms were almost up, and still no one had stepped forth to replace them. As I read the appeal, it happened again: The Lord seemed to speak to me in that mysterious, voiceless manner that I had experienced twice before. I felt like He was telling me in essence: YOU will be one of their replacements! I spoke to Jennifer about it, and she agreed that this was most likely the Lord’s will for us.

The next thing was to obtain permission to make this big move. We were serving a two-year term, and the policy of the mission board was that two-year volunteers do not move in the middle of their terms.

Around the first of February, I shared our desire with our supervisor and asked him, “Is it even possible for us to do this?” After speaking to his supervisor, he said, “It’s not only possible, we want and need you to go!” We were given a month to get ready and say our goodbyes. Then, on March 7, a missionary in Croatia arrived in the van that would carry us and our things to our new home. One of the first thing he said to us was, “Well, are you ready to go to Bosnia?”

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Prague (BBB Part Eight)

For about two years after I received my calling into international mission service, I kept my eyes open for a short-term trip that I could join with, so that I could get a small taste of what missionary service would be like. Nothing really seemed right until early 1995, when I learned about a local pastor who had been taking a group of people to the Czech Republic each year since the fall of communism. He was planning to take another group in May of that year, and he was looking for more people to go with the group. I prayed about this and talked to Jennifer, and soon I was convinced that going on the trip was the right thing to do. However, funding was a problem, since the trip was going to cost somewhere around $1500, and we had nowhere near that much money to spare. Thankfully, the missions committee at the church where Jennifer and I attended agreed to fund the trip in full—yet another answered prayer!

While in the Czech Republic, my group and I traveled around with a local Czech Baptist pastor, speaking about our faith in local churches, retirement homes, and even in several public school classrooms (can you imagine that?). Most of the people to whom we spoke were young and had lived their entire lives under a Communist regime which greatly persecuted all religious traditions. Many people in our audience were very interested in what we had to say. I was greatly impacted by the spiritual interest of the young people that we spoke to, as well as by the warm hospitality and friendliness of the Czech people.

During the trip, I met a Southern Baptist missionary who was the pastor of an English-language International Baptist Church in Prague, the capital city. As I told him about my desire to serve as a missionary in Eastern Europe, he became excited. He said, “I have been looking for someone to come here and help me try to reach the large international student population for quite some time. Would you like to come help me?” I told him I would think and pray about it, and that I still had a year of seminary to go. After thinking, praying, and discussing it for a couple of months, Jennifer and I decided that we would accept. When we called the missionary in Prague and told him, he was thrilled. He immediately wrote a job request for us and sent it to the central office of the mission board.

A year later, I graduated from seminary, and about six weeks after that, we were on a plane to Prague. Unfortunately (or so it seemed at the time), the missionary who invited us to Prague decided to resign due to health problems and to return to the U. S. He was only in Prague for about ten days after we arrived, barely enough time to get us oriented. About two weeks after our sponsors left, another missionary family came to take their place. They were veteran missionaries who had already served in two other countries, one for over ten years. They were a great help to us, but of course, they had no more knowledge of Prague or its international student population than we did. So, instead of having someone tell us what to do and how to do it, we were going to have to figure out how to do our assignment from scratch.

Our time in Prague was very difficult for all of us. Not only did we have to learn a new language and culture, but just doing what we had to do to live was a daily struggle. We had no car, and so we had to walk or take public transport (which is excellent in Prague) everywhere we went. We had to go to the grocery store every day, buying only what we could carry home. We lived in a small, one bedroom apartment. Audrey, who was five at the time, did not even have her own room--she had to sleep on a sleeper sofa in the living room! We had no phone line for the first month or so, and after we did get one, it only worked about half the time.

In addition to all this, we struggled with the climate. The summers were nice and mild, but the winters were brutal! During the winter, the temperature routinely dropped below zero. One morning, it was minus 23 degrees Celsius. We had double windows, with a space in between, where we kept our milk, so as to save space in our tiny refrigerator. One day, we pulled the milk out, and it was frozen, despite the fact that it was technically INSIDE our apartment! Also, the amount of daylight in the winter was depressingly small. At the peak of winter, the sun rose at about 8:30 and set at about 3:30. Needless to say, we had never experienced life like this before.

But the hardest thing of all, at least for me, was not having any clue at all how to do my job. I had gone from being a highly competent teacher and church planter to a total incompetent. Although I did undertake a few productive ministry tasks—teaching Sunday School, helping lead worship and preaching occasionally at our church, and leading a home Bible study for adults, I was plagued by the fact that I was not really doing what I had been brought to Prague to do. After several months of research and talking with other ministry groups in Prague, I finally did find a dorm full of international students, and I began planning outreach events for them. Still, our frustration over our lack of effectiveness made us very open to consider alternative service opportunities in other parts of the world. When one such opportunity finally did come, we were ready…

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Missions (BBB Part Seven)

At the time that I first sensed a calling toward vocational Christian ministry, I did not perceive that I was being called into any specific area of service. I just felt that God wanted me to go to seminary, study, and wait for further instruction. At first I just assumed that I was intended to pastor a church, which was the goal of the overwhelming number of students at the seminary. After my interim music position ended, I began applying to area churches that were in need of a pastor. After several months of not receiving any replies, one church finally contacted me. I preached before their church once and was even invited back for a second "tryout," but in the end they chose someone else. At that time, I sensed that God was telling me that He was not calling me to pastor at all, but to do something else.

One thing that I had NO interest in doing was serving as a foreign missionary. During the spring of my first year in seminary, the seminary held its annual Missions Conference, which was primarily a tool used by our denominational missions society for recruiting potential missionaries. There was a lot of hype and excitement about the conference. I decided to completely avoid it, so that I would not get caught up in a cloud of emotion, walk down the aisle, and sign myself and my family up for missions. After the conference was over, I thought to myself, "Whew! I dodged that bullet!"

But the "bullet" turned out to be more like a boomerang, wielded by none other than God Himself. It came back to hit me one day in the most unlikely of circumstances. One day I was sitting and reading a required textbook on Baptist History. I was reading a section about Baptist beginnings in Eastern Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. As I read about Western European missionaries spreading their faith in places such as Hungary, Romania, and Russia, I sensed that God was telling me, “This is what you are going to do.” Of course, God did not reveal to me that I was going to go there to become Orthodox. If he had, I probably wouldn’t have gone. I believe that God meets us where we are, and He rarely ever calls us to do something so radical that we just can’t (or better won’t) do it. Rather, He guides us down His path via baby steps.

(A miscellaneous note: God almost always uses books when calling me to follow Him in a new direction. I guess this is because I am such a “bookworm” [My daughter Audrey would say”nerd!”]. God obviously knows the best way to get my attention!)

Jennifer and I both struggled with this new calling, but in the end, we both felt peace about it. We spent the remaining two years of seminary preparing for a career as missionaries. We took an in-depth evangelism training course during my second and third years of seminary, and I even directed the course my third year. During my fourth year, we helped start a new church in south Fort Worth. We knew that we were supposed to go to Eastern Europe, but we had no idea to which country. So, I decided to try and find out by “scoping out” a country through a short-term mission trip.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Seminary (BBB Part Six)

In some ways, my seminary years were a very difficult time for us. Not only did Jennifer have to work full-time, with Audrey going into day care, but I also had little time to spend with my family. The first year was especially challenging. I attended classes all morning, worked all afternoon painting seminary-owned houses and apartments, and studied all evening. During my first semester, I served as the interim music director at a small country church 45 minutes from Fort Worth. Since the church had services both Sunday morning and evening, we had to spend the whole day there each Sunday. In January, the church hired a permanent music director, and my service there came to an end. This left us very short on funds, and I had to take on all the extra work I could. I spent nearly every weekend doing odd jobs: painting houses, cutting grass, doing custodial work, helping people move, and filling in for absent preachers and music directors.

These were lean times, but God brought us through it all. I remember one time when Jennifer and I were coming home from church in the one car we owned, trying to figure out how we were going to put food on the table the next day, because our checking account was empty. When we looked at our back door, we saw an envelope taped to the door with twenty dollars inside. Typed on the envelope was Philippians 4:19: “My God shall supply all of your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” This was exactly what we needed to make it to our next paycheck! And this was not a rare occurrence: mysterious checks and cash seemed to arrive with regular irregularity.

In the summer between my first and second years, I heard about a new Christian school that was about to open in a nearby town. I thought, “Well, I have no teaching credentials or experience, but I know an awful lot of Math and Science, so why not? I’ll apply.” I didn’t think I had any chance of getting hired. After I talked to the headmaster for about half an hour, he hired me on the spot. This meant a big pay increase, meaning that I had more time to spend with Jennifer and Audrey. Plus, the school’s unique schedule enabled me to teach only three days a week, so that I could take a full load of classes on the other two days. Each year, I was given an additional class to teach, resulting in still greater pay. Jennifer was even able to cut back to working part time after my first year of teaching. And, although I did not know it at the time, my experience of teaching Math and Science would pay off greatly in the future.

Other than the financial strain, seminary was a great time of learning for us all. I was able to immerse myself in my two new loves: Theology and Church History. I also was able to study Hebrew and Greek and other disciplines related to Christian ministry. Jennifer and I both participated in several in-depth Scripture and theological studies through our local church. Most significantly, I learned the importance of a daily time of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, habits that have stayed with me to this day. My study of the Scriptures had a side effect that I had not anticipated: it raised many questions about the meaning of certain passages, questions that my professors and pastors could never answer to my satisfaction. Little did I know it, but these questions would not be answered until many years later when I discovered Orthodoxy.

As is true in many, if not most, Evangelical seminaries, my Church History professor spent very little time on Orthodoxy. My first encounter with Orthodox theology occurred in the fall of 1993, when I took a course entitled “Missions in Eastern Europe.” The professor, a Romanian Baptist leader, had us watch a film on the basics of Orthodoxy. I remember writing a paper on the film, in which I stated that some of the teachings of Orthodoxy sounded okay, but others (such as the doctrine of theosis) were clearly unacceptable in my opinion. The professor also required us to read The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Sadly, I had no interest in reading this book, so I whipped through the whole thing in a weekend. As you can guess, I didn’t get much out of my reading. This would be the only Orthodox book I would read until 7 years later, when I again picked up the same book and read it, with a very different result…

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Calling (BBB Part Five)

For a month or so after Jennifer and I decided to respond to God’s call to attend seminary, I was filled with enthusiasm. I was excited to have a reason to escape the paper mill and start doing something I had grown to love—studying Church history and theology. I announced our decision before our whole church, and everyone there (especially our pastor) treated us like heroes.

But then I started looking at the financial ramifications of our decision. As an engineer, I was earning a comfortable living, so much so that Jennifer was able to stay home with our baby. But we realized that quitting my job would mean that we would both have to take near minimum wage jobs, because even though I had and engineering degree, I had almost no real engineering skills. Worse still, since I would only be able to work part time, Jennifer would have to work full time, and Audrey would have to go into day care.

Like a good mathematician, I started crunching numbers, estimating our expenses and our likely (meager) earnings. Fortunately, the seminary owned some apartments, and they rented them at a very low cost. I ordered a scale drawing of the floor plan of an apartment, and I actually drew the model on some graph paper, trying to see where we would fit our few worldly possessions. I remember saying to Jennifer, “there’s not even room for a desk chair in this tiny place! I will have to sit on the bed when I study!” It quickly became clear to us that we would have to sell about half of our furniture just to fit into the apartment.

Soon I realized that even with the low cost of living in a 700-square foot apartment, we would not even be able to earn enough to make ends meet. One evening, in tears, I said to Jennifer, “We can’t do this. There is just no way!” Thankfully, I married a woman of great faith, greater than my own. She said to me, “James, if God is calling us to go to seminary, don’t you think that He will provide for our needs?” I had to admit that she was right. So, the following fall, we loaded up a small moving van and headed for Fort Worth.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Growth (BBB Part Four)

I jumped into the activities of my newly adopted parish and faith with both feet. I immediately started attending Sunday School, worship on Sunday morning and evening, a college Bible study on Friday evenings (more on this later), and I even joined the college choir. Despite all my church activity, however, my spiritual growth was minimal. Sadly, no one at the church took me under his wing and mentored me in the spiritual life. And I was too young and spiritually immature to know to seek someone out. As a result, I lived a life that was almost exactly the same as the one that I had led before my conversion, with little or no evidence of the change that the Gospel can bring.

One of the church activities that I became involved with was a weekly Friday night Bible study series that was held in one of several church members’ homes. This study would draw anywhere between 50-100 college students each week. Best of all, the host fed us each week! At about the third study I attended, during the pre-study meal, I found myself at a table with three girls. The one across from me was a preacher’s daughter from Texarkana, Texas. She was a diminutive, soft-spoken and very attractive blond named Jennifer Tuckett. We quickly became friends, although I soon began dating another girl.

After a couple of months, however, that relationship fell apart, and I decided to call Jennifer and ask her if she would like to go out with me. To my delight, she agreed! Soon, we began to date regularly, and by the end of 1989, we were sure that we were in love. In September of the following year, we were married. Three months later, I graduated from college and accepted a position as an electrical engineer with International Paper in Georgetown, South Carolina. I was not excited about the prospect of working in a paper mill, much less one halfway around the country, but it was the only decent firm job offer that I had, and Jennifer and I felt that we had no other choice. Little did I know that God would use our experience in South Carolina to lead us down a path that we had not envisioned at all.

In the small town in South Carolina where we lived, there was little to do other than go to church. So, we did—every time it was open. Freed from the distractions of my college life, I finally began to grow spiritually. At the same time, however, I became increasingly dissatisfied with my job. I had actually lost all interest in Engineering during college and had seriously considered changing my major to History twice. But my father used a “carrot-and-stick” approach (heavy on the stick!) to persuade me to stay with engineering. Plus, I kept hearing from professors and fellow students that working in the “real world” was much more enjoyable than school. So, I had decided to stick it out.

Unfortunately, I found that working in the “real world” (or at least in my job) was no more enjoyable than school had been. After about nine months on the job, I decided to apply to some Masters’ degree programs in History. Jennifer and I and our new baby daughter Audrey would return to Texas, I would earn a Master’s and a PhD in History, and then I would get a job somewhere as a History professor

When I spoke to my pastor about my plans, he suggested that I consider working toward becoming a Church History professor in a Baptist seminary. I thought, “Why not? It’s worth a look!” and I sent off for a catalog from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. After receiving the catalog, I read through it and soon realized that to become a professor in seminary, I would first have to take a bunch of courses that I had little interest in, such as Greek, Hebrew, and Theology. I just wanted to study History! So, I filed the catalog away on the shelf, thinking I would never look at it again.

But God had other plans for me. One day in December of 1991 I was not feeling well, and so I stayed home from work. That afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, and all of a sudden, something (or someOne) directed my attention toward the seminary catalog that was still on my shelf. In an instant, I somehow knew that God wanted me to go to that seminary and study toward a career in full-time Christian ministry. My desire to begin a Master’s program in History (along with about $100 in application fees) was instantly gone. Although I heard no audible voice, I feel that this was God speaking to me, through my heart and my mind.

So, Jennifer and I began plans to return to Texas and for me to begin seminary. I began teaching Sunday School and even to preach when our pastor was absent. We were excited about returning to Texas, almost euphoric. That is, we were until the reality of what we were about to do hit home.