Friday, June 29, 2007

Departure (BBB Part Thirteen)

As we began to think about what to do once our two-year mission term was over, we sensed no clear direction from God. At first, feeling the great weight of all the stressors that we had dealt with, we thought that we might take a break from mission service. I thought that we might return to seminary and I might work on a Doctor of Ministry degree for a couple of years, after which we would return to the mission field. After a little more time, prayer, and thought, I remembered a spiritual principle that I had once read (and which I still believe): When you are seeking God’s will on what to do next, and you receive no answer, keep doing what you are currently doing!

We knew that we had been called into missionary service, but we did not sense any clear direction about what to do next. So, we decided that God most likely wanted us to continue serving as missionaries. With that in mind, we began the process of applying to return to the field as long-term “career” missionaries. The next question, of course, was where to go? We looked at several possibilities, including Belgrade, Serbia, and even a city in Poland. But soon, we were directed to consider a third possibility.

When we had been in missionary training, we had become friends with another young couple who were on their way to Moscow. We kept in touch with them while we were in Prague. A few months after we transferred to Tuzla, we were delighted to find out that our friends were also transferring to Bosnia—to the nearby city of Banja Luka. Unlike Tuzla, which was in the predominantly Muslim part of Bosnia, Banja Luka was in the Serb-controlled part. We kept in close touch with our friends, visiting them when we could, and hosting them on other occasions. They constantly told us of the spiritual openness of the people of Banja Luka. They were able to lead many people to make professions of faith, and they even baptized a few. Still, these new converts were unwilling to actually join the tiny Baptist church in Banja Luka—they remained loyal to the Orthodox Church.

By this time, our mission board had several short-term personnel in Banja Luka, but no career missionaries. As we considered the possibility of living and working there, we realized that although we knew and loved people from all three of the ethnic groups in Bosnia, we felt the closest bond with the Serbs. They did seem, in general, the most interested in the Gospel. However, we were concerned with how the Orthodox hierarchy might react to our presence in Banja Luka. We had heard horror stories (most of which turned out to be greatly exaggerated) about anti-evangelical statements made and actions taken by Orthodox clergy throughout the Serb lands, and the idea of working as evangelical missionaries in that environment was a little intimidating.

However, after I had a meeting with the pastor of the Orthodox parish in Tuzla, my concerns were allayed. He assured me that although there were some uneducated, fanatical nationalists among the clergy (mainly in the eastern part of the country), most were decent people. I resolved right there that my goal would not be to try and persuade pious, Orthodox believers to leave the Church, but rather to reach people who were not involved in church. Indeed, this was the practice of all of all our personnel.

So, we decided to “re-up,” becoming career missionaries who would minister among the Serbs in Banja Luka. God was definitely behind our decision to work with the Serbs, as future events would show…

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ministry in Tuzla (BBB Part Twelve)

The living conditions were not the only difficulty that we faced in Tuzla. We also faced challenges in our ministry. One source of opposition that we faced was, ironically, the Tuzla Baptist church itself. When we agreed to move to Tuzla, we were told that our evangelistic ministry would be twofold. First, we would support the existing Baptist church, which was largely self-functioning, except that they did not have a regular preacher. I quickly became their main preacher. Even when they had someone else preaching (always another missionary, some local and some from out of town), I led the singing and played guitar.

The members of the church were enthusiastic and sincere in their beliefs, but the couple who were the two main lay leaders were not easy to work with. They had suffered persecution during the war and were still struggling with the aftereffects. The husband, a Serb, had at one time been seized by a group of masked Muslim militiamen, taken with several other Serbs several miles outside of town, and told that the whole group was to be “executed.” Miraculously, he and several others were later released, with no explanation. Not long after we began working with them, we found that we had inadvertently offended them in several ways, by doing things such as not inviting them to our house within a week or so of our arrival. It took us a while to realize that Bosnian people are extremely hospitable and constantly have friends and relatives over. To not invite someone over when meeting them is a great insult. When we tried to explain that we did not mean anything by our slights, they did not believe us. Soon, we were told that we were no longer welcome to visit their church. Thankfully, after several months, they forgave us, and I was soon preaching there again.

The second major part of our ministry was to lead several loosely connected home Bible studies that had been formed before we came and to guide them toward becoming house (really apartment) churches. This went well, except that the groups never really grew, and finding lay leaders proved nearly impossible. This ministry was also a source of contention between us and the Baptist church, for two main reasons. First the Baptist church did not believe that there should be any other churches in town (and actually, they were probably right!). Second, there was some bad blood between members of the church and members of the Bible studies that went back well into the war and even beyond.

We also encountered problems with Muslim fundamentalists. At one evangelistic program that I and several of my colleagues (some other missionaries came to join us soon after we arrived) conducted, a group of young Muslims sat through the program until the very end. At that time, they fanned out across the room, whipped out their Korans, and began preaching to the crowd. Almost no one stayed to listen, but the few who did debated with the preachers. Thankfully, there was no violence. On another occasion, we thought there might be, but time does not permit the telling of that story.

Although there were plenty of difficulties during our time in Tuzla, there were also many joyful experiences. We forged strong bonds of friendships with both missionaries and nationals. We saw the faith of many Bosnian Christians strengthened, and we even saw a few embrace the faith for the first time. One of the most exciting and enjoyable ministries we had was my baseball ministry. Once while jogging, a young man came up to me and asked in English, “Do you know the rules to baseball?” “Of course!” I replied, “It’s my favorite sport!” As we jogged together, he explained that a group of U. S. soldiers had once come into town with some baseball equipment and taught him and some of his friends to play. They had not returned, and since that time, he was looking for someone to help him and his “team” learn to play better.

I eagerly accepted this invitation and soon I was teaching and playing baseball with a dozen or so boys aged 15-18. With the help of some other soldiers and some churches in the U. S., I was also able to donate much more equipment to them. I helped them with their English skills. Most importantly, I was able to share my faith with them, and two made professions of faith. The baseball players were constantly in our home, eating brownies and other goodies that Jennifer made, watching American movies with us, and discussing Christianity. As long as I live, I will never forget those young men and the great times we had together.

Soon, our two-year term drew to a close. In the months prior to our departure date, we began thinking, praying, and seeking God’s direction. Where would we go next, and what would we do? Check back soon to find out…

Monday, June 18, 2007

Life in Tuzla (BBB Part Eleven)

At about five o’clock our first morning in Tuzla, we awoke to hear a loud, wailing sound coming from somewhere in the distance. After shaking off our sleepy stupor, and remembering where we were and what we were doing there, we tried to figure out what it was that had so rudely awakened us after only five hours of sleep. We finally figured out that it was the sound of the muezzin (crier) of a mosque, calling faithful Muslims to prayer. We later determined that this mosque was across the highway from us, only about 300 or so yards away. Eventually, we would become accustomed to the muezzin’s cry, and it no longer woke us.

Another trademark sound of the city soon greeted us. Later in the day, as we were finishing lunch, a faint roaring sound began to approach. The sound grew increasingly loud until it became deafening and the entire house shook. When we looked out the window to see what the source of the noise was, we were greeted by the sight of a column of U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers, on their way back to the American military base that was only a few miles from our house. “Well,” we said to each other, “At least they are OUR guys!”

As the roar of the armored column faded into the distance, we experienced a third sound that we would hear often over the next year: Clippity clop, clippity clop, clippity clop. A glance out the window revealed this to be a ubiquitous feature of Tuzla: a horse-drawn cart. After all this, Jennifer and I asked each other, “What kind of place is this? What have we done?” We had truly come to a land of contrasts: Mercedes Benzes, tanks, and horse-drawn carts. Great mansions and totally burned-out and leveled houses. Cell phones and land lines that didn’t work. People filled with hate, others filled with joy due to their relationship with Christ, and everything in between.

At first we felt fortunate, because at least we had water around the clock. People who lived in the city limits and who had city water only had it from about 4 PM to about 8 AM due to the damage that the war had inflicted on the water system. They had to keep their bathtubs filled with water for the "down" times. The house we were renting, however, was just outside of town, and our water came from an underground spring. This was great—until the summer, when the hot, dry weather cause the spring to start drying up. By July, the water coming out of our taps little more than a trickle, and we had to start getting most of our water from an outdoor spring. Showers were impossible. If we wanted a hot bath, we had to fill up a kettle with water from the bottles we kept it in, heat it on our stove, and pour it in the tub. For the first time in my life, I understood the meaning of the phrase “drawing a bath!”

Even when the weather cooled and we again had water flowing through our pipes, the color of the water varied from rust to whitish to (rarely) clear. Even the locals marveled at the poor quality of our water. Once a Bosnian friend of ours turned on the tap and filled up a glass with water. It looked more like milk. He said to us, “What is this, some kind of joke?!?” We assured him that it wasn’t and that this is how our water was most of the time. We tried using a filter, but it would get clogged up after only a few hours of use. So, we gave up and eventually went back to getting our drinking water from the outdoor spring. We certainly learned never to take water for granted any more.

Another hardship we faced was dealing with the Tuzla Baptist Church, whose leaders were, to use the popular phrase, “a piece of work.” First we were in good relations with them and attended regularly. Then we got kicked out. Later, we were invited back. Also, there are the Muslim fundamentalists who came after us a couple of times. But more on that next time, when I write about our ministry...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Crossing (BBB Part Ten)

The trip to Bosnia took two days. The first 30 hours or so were uneventful. But soon after we crossed the Croatian border the van’s battery light came on. We decided that we had better not stop, lest the car not start again. Unfortunately, however, Audrey became carsick, and we finally had to stop at a roadside gas station. Sure enough, the van would not start again. While we were trying to figure out what to do, a group of men came up to the van. They seemed to want to help, but none of them knew any English.

At that time, I only spoke about 20 words of Serbo-Croatian, but this was 20 words more than anyone else in our group knew. So, I was quickly elected spokesman of our traveling band. Not surprisingly, I had no idea what the men were saying, nor could I explain our situation to them. One of the men finally indicated that we should open the hood. We did so, and he examined the engine compartment. He looked at me and said “Mo-tor! Ka-poot!” THIS I understood clearly! Fortunately, he meant “battery,” not “motor,” but in any case, we appeared to be stuck. There was no way to get a new battery, because it was late Saturday night, we were in the middle of nowhere, and everything was closed (there are no 24-hour Wal-Marts in Croatia!).

Finally, the men decided to give us a push-start. This worked nicely, and we were soon on our way again. As long as we didn’t stop again, we would be in great shape! Unfortunately for us, another stop was inevitable. To enter Bosnia, we had to cross a river, and all the bridges across the river had been destroyed during the war. We would have to take a ferry, and we had heard that sometimes one had to wait in line for an hour or more just to get to the ferry.

After two more tense hours of driving, we finally made it to the line for the ferry. The van died about three times while we were waiting, but fortunately, we were able to push-start it each time. Finally, we drove onto the ferry. Can you guess what happened next? If you said “the van died,” you are correct! It took about twenty minutes to get across the river. Our plan was to push-start it once more right before we reached the Bosnian side. This plan was complicated by two factors: first, the ferry was jam-packed with cars, and second, the road leading away from the “dock” went up a steep incline.

Once we were across the river, we were unable to push-start the van. I tried to see if we could get some help from the ferry operators, but they had no interest in this. Instead, they just loaded up the ferry from the Bosnian side, and we got to ride backwards across the river to Croatia again. We were starting to wonder if we would EVER get off the ferry!

After we arrived back on the Croatian side and the cars headed for Croatia were all off, I noticed that the first car in line was a white Jeep Cherokee with “UN” marked on the side. I thought, “If the driver works for the UN, surely he speaks English, and maybe he will help us!” As he drove onto the ferry, I frantically waved my arms and tried to signal him to pull in right in front of us. He complied and then got out of his car.

In perfect English, he asked me, “So, where are you going?” “Tuzla,” I replied. “Really?!?” he replied, “That is where I live! So, what will you be doing there?” “Missionary work,” I replied somewhat cautiously. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “I am the pastor of the evangelical church in Tuzla.” While we talked some more, he produced a piece of rope, which he used to tie our van to his jeep. Then, when we reached the other side, this Good Samaritan towed us into Bosnia. Jennifer and I believed then, and still believe today, that God sent this man to help us. If not, it was an awfully strange coincidence!

After we reached the other side, he offered to tow us all the way to Tuzla, a trip of about 50 miles, but which would take an hour and a half, due to the various NATO checkpoints along the away. We called our colleague in Tuzla who was waiting on us, and he immediately set out to come meet us with an extra battery and escort us back to Tuzla. We thanked our rescuer profusely and told him goodbye. When our colleague arrived, we slowly and carefully followed him the rest of the way to Tuzla. At about midnight, we finally arrived. It was my twenty-ninth birthday. Our adventure was over. Or, to be more accurate, it was just beginning…