Missions is messy, Part II

Day 10, July 26. Slavonski Brod, Croatia

Yes, missions is messy. Yesterday I talked about the messiness of culture, language, germs, heat, and accommodations. But there is more on this topic of messiness.

Take the case of Andy Warner, American missionary with Pioneers, who runs an internet cafe and computer game room as well as writing computer code in order to finance his ministry here and supplement his support.

Andy oversees the UNA festival in Slavonski Brod (locals call it “Brod”) and, believe me, there are a myriad of details involved in running that event. The team is made up of Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, Roma (gypsies), and Americans. Not only does this mix create linguistic problems and confusion, but the idiosyncrasies of each ethnic/political group are on display.
This strange ethno/linguistic/political mix requires Andy to adjust the running of the festival to the vagaries of the various understandings of how time works (punctual, a little late, or hours late?), issues of control (who’s in charge?), questions of being slighted (are we treating all groups equally?) and how do we all follow the same plan? In order to corral and control over 100 rambunctious children, the festival must be carefully planned and led. This requires preliminary training and orientation to get all of the team leaders on the same page. Imagine Andy’s frustration when some of the leaders (Americans) decided this training was optional and chose to not attend. To compound this problem, some who were supposed to be leading (Americans) didn’t show up at all. So much for Andy running a smooth operation.

Arrival at the festival began on a contentious note. A pastor from a different ethnic group had arrived before us and was already leading a large group of children in singing. This seemingly innocent start was actually very upsetting to Andy, who had very carefully planned how the event was to begin and when the children would learn the “UNA song”. (I later learned that this was not merely a matter of misunderstanding; rather this Croatian pastor, supported by a large, missions-minded American church, had issues of control and was making it clear that he would play by his own rules. I wonder how much his home church understands about what is going on in Croatia.) Before the festival began, Andy was already getting derailed, and I had to pray with Andy to get him back on track. As a goal- and task-oriented person who likes to lead events that are finely tuned, I fully commiserated with Andy’s frustration.

Later, after an intense afternoon at the festival, as we were preparing to head to an event that evening in a church where I would teach on the error of Jehovah’s Witnesses (“JWs”), I was trying to unlock the door to Andy’s shop to pick up the brochures that I had written and that had been printed specifically for these meetings. Surprise, surprise. The lock broke and we couldn’t get in. Nina was expecting a very important call from Holland that evening, but her cell phone was locked up in Andy’s shop. A corollary to the first principle (“Missions is messy”) is a second axiom: “When messes happen, pray and just move on.” So we prayed, and moved on to the meeting minus the brochures and Nina’s phone.

After a wonderful evening at the church where I taught on the error of Arianism (the JWs heresy), Andy brought us back to our guesthouse in his large bus-like van. Then he returned to the village with Roma passengers he had transported to the meeting. I learned the next morning that Andy’s van’s security system locked up in the village and he had to leave the van there overnight because it wouldn’t start. Andy was having a very bad day. I hope that, in his missionary training, someone had alerted him to the fact that missions is messy.

At the same time that I learned about Andy’s truck problems, I also heard that his phone had automatically reset itself and he had lost all of the phone numbers stored in it. Missionary training seldom includes a course called “What to do when your phone erases its directory in a foreign country in the middle of a very busy project 101”.

Nothing highlights cultural differences quite as much as perceptions of time. Americans are accustomed to things starting at the appointed time. Other cultures are more cavalier about punctuality and starting times. The Tuesday festival started 90 minutes after its announced starting time, but no one seemed phased by that (besides me, an American who is obsessive about doing things punctually).

On Wednesday I went to speak to a full church about the dangers of the JWs (more on that below). Though we were over an hour late in arriving, those who attended waited patiently as if this were normal. I think in America we would have all gone home to watch TV and lodged a protest at our embassy in the morning.

Finally, missions is messy because there is a smorgasbord of cults and false religions to wreak havoc on unsuspecting new believers. On Paul’s first missionary journey, he ministered to churches in the area of Galatia. No sooner had he left the Galatian region than “Judaizers” (devout Jews who believed one had to keep the law to be saved) arrived in Galatia to discredit Paul’s teaching of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.

This is precisely analogous to the presence of JWs in Roma villages. Their denial that Jesus is fully divine is an abominable heresy, and yet the JWs are having tremendous influence among the Roma. They are literally saturating the nearby Roma village with large numbers of workers who eagerly teach their false doctrine. Bob Hitching told me that the largest non-Muslim religious conference in Turkey was a JW conference that attracted 400 Turkish JWs at a time when it was estimated that there were only perhaps 10 true Christian believers in all of Turkey.

Roma and Croatian believers who were hungry for biblical truth showed up on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to pack two different church buildings to be taught the biblical truth about the deity of Christ. My curiosity makes me want to ask: Why are there hundreds of JW evangelists spewing forth their despicable lies about the Bible in Roma villages while there are so few true believers who are evangelizing and discipling the Roma in the basics of the Christian faith?

The Christian life, church life, ministry, and missions is messy. Nor are the messes restricted to Croatia or more backwards countries. I have been in fulltime ministry for over 40 years in the USA; it didn’t take me very long to become engulfed in the messiness of church life. There is surely an ugly enemy who hates the Good News and who has his fingerprints all over the junk that happens.

And yet the Gospel goes forward, God is glorified, people are saved, disciples are made, the church grows. All around the world. Amazing. Simply amazing.


Missions is messy, Part I

Day 9, July 25

Slavonski Brod, Croatia

If I have learned one thing in 4 decades of ministry, it is that ministry is messy. The church is messy, missions is messy, people are messy, and the world is messy. Of course, hovering over all of this mess is a God of order, power, and authority. But he has determined that the restoration of order to his Son’s universe be conducted in the midst of chaos, disorder, rebellion, germs, and misunderstanding.

Let me say right at the start that the people we have met in Croatia – long-term missionaries, short-termers, Croats, Serbs, various strains of Roma (we try to avoid the term “gypsies” since it is perceived as derogatory), Hungarians, Americans – all of these have been exceptionally gracious and generous. But if you think that such a mix of people and languages and cultures is easy to navigate, think again. Mike and Josh and I are in a constant state of bewilderment as to what language is being spoken, what ethnicity the speaker is, and what country he/she is from. The bare minimum for survival here is that you must speak at least two languages, and most move easily between 3-4 languages without missing a beat.

If I could possibly remember all of the messes that we have encountered in 3 short days in Croatia, I wouldn’t possibly have the time to regale the readers with the details. Of course, not all messes are bad, just messy and confusing and remarkable.

Take Jeannot and Juliana Randimbiarison (try pronouncing that!). This amazing couple is with Pioneers missions agency but have been seconded to the Roma Bible Union (RBU). They live in Budapest, Hungary. Juliana is a Hungarian who was born in Serbia who speaks Hungarian, English, and Croatian.

Juliana’s husband, Jeannot, is brown-skinned man and was born and raised in Madagascar. He speaks Malagasi (the language of Madagascar), French, English, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian (now separate languages), is learning Bayash (a Roma dialect), and knows enough Hungarian to survive in Hungary where he and Juliana live.

Jeannot started out studying pharmacy in Romanian before ending up in fulltime missions. He is an accomplished musician, who loves the Beatles (immediately endearing himself to Josh) and the Rolling Stones. He has written 4 children’s songs which have been translated from Croatian into Bayash. He wrote the UNA anthem and gave it a distinctive Bayash flair so that the Roma would embrace it as “their kind of music”.

Currently there are no adult Christian songs in Bayash but Jeannot is hoping to change that by convening a late-August music workshop to kick-start a movement of ethnic musicology that will hopefully result in Christian music that has Bayash lyrics and rhythm that can get any good Roma clapping and smiling.

Jeannot and Juliana have a daughter, Tina, who is in her second year of biblical studies at Columbia International University, Columbia, SC.

Then there are the bad messes that one finds in every culture. There is no shortage of these things when one strays from the orderly, germ-free, ecologically agreeable culture of the west to wend one’s way eastward.

For instance, finding a usable bathroom on the two hour drive from Zagreb to Slavonski Brod. This small problem got us started down the road to culture shock after several days in neat and tidy Germany. (I’m going to be kind and spare you the details of the port-a-pots we peeked into along the highway.)

While I am on this topic, may I confess that I am a germophobic shower freak who likes clean hands, clothes, sinks, toilets, bathtubs, dishes, silverware, and fresh air. Though Croatia in these categories is light years ahead of other countries that I have visited (e.g., India, Nepal, Viet Nam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jamaica), it is a step behind Germany and the USA.

The result of my hang-ups is something I really dislike about myself (true confessions). I spend much of my time on missions trips dreaming about my next shower, searching for a clean toilet seat, wondering who around me might have lice, and wishing I had brought some hand sanitizer along. I often feel like I’m the only westerner who has these thoughts as I observe other Americans diving headfirst into touching people, hugging children who live in a home with no water and no bathroom, sitting on the ground, sweating profusely without apparent discomfort, and having a seemingly magical ability to navigate public bathrooms without batting an eye.

When Mike and I checked into our guesthouse, my first comment to him was: “This guesthouse is good example of why it’s better not to bring Kathy (Mike’s mother) on missions trips.” His response was to say to Josh: “I’d love to see how Mom’s loathing of bed bugs would fit in with staying here.” Now don’t get me wrong! I have stayed in far worse places than the guesthouse where we are residing. It’s the nature of travel and missions trips. The guesthouse is perfectly suitable for our purposes here and I am grateful for those who arranged it for us. But I know very few American women who would unpack their suitcases in this place without a second thought about hygiene.

I’m just getting start on this messy theme and haven’t scratched the surface. But I must stop and use Lysol to scrub my laptop, then disinfect under my fingernails, and go shake the bedbugs out from my sheets. More messiness tomorrow….


We are cursed, we are cursed

Day 8, July 24. Slavonski Brod, Croatia

The American national anthem is often sung at sporting events and our hearts are filled with pride and gratitude at the greatness of our country as we sing this song together. “…And the star-spangled banner forever shall wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Or our throats may choke up a little as we sing “My country, ’tis of thee! Sweet land of liberty! Of thee I sing!”

Now imagine being a part of a culture where the national anthem goes like this: “We are cursed. We are cursed because one of our ancestors stole a nail from the cross of Jesus. No wonder we are cursed.” It’s difficult to comprehend the national psyche of a people whose identity is captured with such words, whose lore is rooted in the idea that one of your ancestors stole a nail from Jesus’ cross and that this loathsome act has forever blighted your ethnic identity.

If you were to overhear a group of people singing lyrics like these, you would undoubtedly be in a Bayash gypsy village, for these are lines taken directly from the Bayash “national anthem” .

Here is the Roma gypsy logic: “We have 90% unemployment. Alcoholism, poverty, and sadness prevail over our communities. No wonder others despise us. Of course we are cursed. Of course God is against us. God is not for us and he will use every opportunity to punish us.”

The Roma Bible Union (RBU), founded by Bob and Nancy Hitching, is coming into Bayash communities with a different message, the message of “Good News”. The RBU has created a ministry called “UNA”, an acronym that speaks of the positive qualities of oneness, unity, fellowship. The UNA symbol is the bee – the industrious insect that brings sweetness.

The Bayash people are characterized by three oppressive qualities: (1) Insecurity driven by fear. Fear & insecurity are everywhere. Everyone is afraid of the dark. Children are afraid of their parents, wives of their husbands, husbands fear people to whom they owe money. (2) Hopelessness. We have nothing to look forward to so we live “in the moment.” (3) Inevitability. Things will never change.

To counteract the “bad news” of this false national image, Bob and Nancy Hitching have created a UNA theme that runs through the ministry of the RBU. They are training UNA children to not believe the words of the anthem. A theme song has been written specifically for the UNA ministry. Here is the core of the UNA anthem written specifically for the Bayash: “God is for us, God is not against us.”

One facet of the UNA ministry is the UNA club. These clubs meet regularly in the villages and are for the children. UNA clubs are built on nine major activities:

(1) the banner under which the children run as their name is called out – for some, this may be the first time they have heard their name used in a positive context;

(2) music culturally appropriate to the Bayash with stirring lyrics;

(3) chanting of positive themes, like a pep rally. Imagine scores of little Bayash children animatedly shouting together, “God is for us, God is not against us!”

(4) a coloring book produced specifically for the Bayash – many gypsy children have never even held a crayon in their hands;

(5) a Bible story big book – the typical Bayash home has no books. The average Croatian child upon entering public school has had 800 “read-to” experiences, while most Bayash children have never had anyone ever read a story to them;

(6) a name tag to make them feel special and give them pride in who they are;

(7) a bright yellow T-shirt with the UNA name on it and a bumblebee image;

(8) fun games will be played;

(9) a prayer of blessing will be prayed over the children.

Yesterday we took a leisurely stroll through a Bayash village. Today we will participate in a UNA festival in that same village. Hordes of children, many of whom have been attending UNA clubs, will descend upon us in an open field. The atmosphere will be joyful, chaotic, frenetic, loud, sweaty, and redemptive. Bob describes this as “not trying to get everybody out of the village into heaven, but getting heaven into the village.”

To counteract the three negative themes of the Bayash culture (that I mentioned above), the UNA clubs and festivals are designed to clearly communicate three affirming messages: (1) That in knowing God and being reconciled to God through the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is safety and security; (2) That in a world of hopelessness, the Gospel of Jesus is a message of optimism; (3) The Gospel can change the world because God can change (a) our hearts, (b) our families, and (c) our villages.

Lives are slowly being transformed throughout Bayash villages in Croatia, Serbia, and Hungary. It is hard work and slow, but an RBU team is coming together and growing in numbers. Breakthroughs are occurring and momentum is picking up. Where once the spiritual darkness was impenetrable, now “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is God’s image” is shining (II Cor. 4:4). Now “the glorious gospel about a happy God” (I Tim. 1:11) is bringing joy, purity, brightness, and expectation to impoverished, despised Roma gypsy villages.


We crossed a cultural barrier yesterday…

Day 7, July 23. Slavonski Brod, Croatia.

We arrived safely in Zagreb, Croatia yesterday afternoon after a simple flight from Frankfurt, Germany. Leaving a very affluent, tidy, orderly, spiritually dark Germany for a far less affluent, less clean, more disorderly, and equally spiritually dark Croatia creates a bit of culture shock.

My old friend, Zlatko, greeted us at the Zagreb airport and drove us the roughly 2 hours to Slavonski Brod in eastern Croatia where we will reside until Friday morning. I had met Zlatko over 20 years ago on a previous trip to Eastern Europe with Bob Hitching. Zlatko kept Mike and Josh and me laughing during the entire 2-hour drive. To know Zlatko is to love him. He has served the Lord faithfully for all of these years. It’s an honor to be around people like him.

There is a stagnation in the Croatian church that is freely acknowledged by those who live here. But should this surprise us? In truth, spiritual torpor has descended upon most of the western world (the USA and Europe). The church in the west seems somewhat self-absorbed with our economic issues, and believers that I talk to seem either unaware or unconcerned with the fact that the church is generally in decline where we live while it is exploding in much of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and many parts of Asia. So my sense is that what we observe to be the case in Europe, though it looks different because the culture is very different, is fairly similar to the spiritual condition of my neighbors in the fairly affluent neighborhoods south and west of Baltimore, where Josh and Mike and I live.

But something is stirring among the Roma. (I will use the term “Roma” to refer to the gypsy peoples among whom the Roma Bible Union concentrates – www.romabible.com. Though we frequently label these particular gypsies as “Bayash gypsies”, that nomenclature doesn’t work well all of the time. I know. It’s confusing. Maybe as it starts to make more sense to me throughout the week, I can speak more intelligibly to you about who these Roma/Bayash/gypsies actually are.)

Before we came to our guesthouse last night, we spent about an hour with the Hitchings and their co-worker, Andy Warner (who works with Pioneers), in their hotel lobby (Bob is recovering from stomach surgery and needs to stay in a hotel in town for the week). There we received a brief orientation as to what the week will hold for us. It will be a full and busy 4 days for the 3 of us as we meet new people, hang out with the Roma Bible Union team of about 15 or so people, travel to various gypsy villages, attempt to overcome language problems, try to be available for whatever God has for us, make friends from all over, and listen and observe to learn what we can.

We are very committed to the principle that we CANNOT come to Croatia as the “Great American Hope” with our wealth, education, and peculiar advantage on the world stage. We are not here because we have something special to give to the Roma simply because we are Americans. We have already met German believers who put us to shame with their attempts to follow Jesus. Now we will meet eastern Europeans who live under even more difficult circumstances – they have far more to teach us than we could ever teach them.

One of the distinct reactions that I had as I listened to Bob last night was that something is happening among the Roma people. I hope to talk more about that after I visit some of their villages on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Also I want to share with you about our guesthouse and our living conditions as well as introduce you to the team of people who are laboring here for the Gospel.

I seriously want to communicate through these brief updates that the ministry here has been undertaken by fairly normal people who have intentionally determined to prioritize the penetration of an entire pagan sub-culture in eastern Europe for the sake of the Gospel. Like all of you homemaking, dishwashing, baby-diapering, gutter hanging, IT computering…geeks, and medical people, these laborers in Eastern Europe are essentially just like you. Though each one is uniquely gifted and loves God passionately, experts and spiritual giants are not doing this work.

You who read these updates also live in a somewhat pagan culture in North America. Do we only expect “mission” to happen in other places where the culture and language are different? Or do we have a passion for our own neighbors, co-workers, friends, and relatives? Do we see the place where God has placed us as an opportunity to cross cultural barriers to encounter people who need the Gospel as badly as any unwashed, economically deprived, poorly clothed, illiterate, underfed, miserable, abused, despised Roma gypsy who lives in a ramshackle hovel while engulfed in almost impenetrable spiritual darkness?


“What I do is me. For this I came.” – Gerard Manley Hopkins

Day 6, July 22. Worms, Germany

Today we catch a flight to Croatia where we will spend 5 days in challenging ministry, followed by a day in Budapest. From Budapest we fly home through Frankfurt, Germany, on July 28.

As I write these updates, I find my mind turning to you, the reader. This inclination is reinforced by the many and varied responses I receive from a number of the recipients. Some are mothers and homemakers, others are government employees, one is a flight attendant, a few are retired, some are in fulltime ministry, while others work in IT, the medical field, or radio. A true cross-section.

Two things tend to characterize these individuals: (1) a passion for Christ to be made known in all places at all times to all peoples; (2) frequent uncertainty that the daily tasks assigned to me have anything to do with fulfilling the Great Commission. And lest I appear to be exalting “the missionary” and the missionary role unduly, I want to say that I am aware of the crucial part each person plays in the big mosaic of world evangelism.

A young mother wrote me today in response to these updates. She said: “I am blessed to have this reminder as I wipe and spank butts, that our gracious God is at work in my little world and also among the nations.”

That is reality. How easy it is to forget that the changing of that diaper, the cooking of a meal, speaking to a customer or making a delivery or chatting with our neighbor is the vital role we are called to play in God’s cosmic plan.
When we are involved in the “dailyness” of life and going about the tasks God has called us to, some things just seem mundane, even meaningless.

Elisabeth Elliot had a way of putting the “menial” tasks in context: “”This job has been given to me to do. Therefore, it is a gift. Therefore, it is a privilege. Therefore, it is an offering I may make to God. Therefore, it is to be done gladly, if it is done for Him. Here, not somewhere else, I may learn God’s way. In this job, not in some other, God looks for faithfulness.” What a great perspective!

Do you believe today that the things on your agenda are the work of mission? That you have been called to do the tasks assigned to you today? Are you convinced that not even illness or affliction can prove to be an impediment to God carrying out his work through you?

I will close with the profound thought of John Henry Newman: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. Therefore, I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain.”

Go wash dishes and change diapers and fix computers to the glory of God!


So you want to be a missionary…

Day 5, July 21. Worms, Germany.

Mission life involves something called “crossing cultural barriers” and “contextualizing one’s life to a new culture.” To some, this may sound glamorous, since learning about a new culture can often seem fascinating in theory from a distance. However, the reality of actually relocating to live within a new culture can be confusing, frustrating, and challenging.

Today I offer some reflections today on “Ten things I did not know about Germany before I visited here.” This could also be titled “How you as an American would have to adjust if you decided to live permanently in Worms, Germany.” Note: Not everything I share below is true in every part of Germany. Just as the United States has regional cultural peculiarities, the same is true in Germany.

First, there are the ecological and environmental cultural differences. (While environmentalism is a good thing, the approach to environmentalism here and throughout the EU could be seen by a newcomer as bordering on obsession or religious passion.

1. Refrigerator temperatures are pre-set – you cannot control the temperature in the refrigerator that you purchase. If your milk is tepid, tough luck. Washing machine cycles are also pre-set. It takes almost 2 hours to do a load of laundry and there is nothing the consumer can do to shorten the cycle. The purpose is, of course, the protection of the environment by saving water and electricity.

2. Children in school are required to use every page in their spiral notebooks. It is not permissible to have a blank page even though the notebook was purchased by the student and belongs to the student. One of the Thomas children argued with her teacher to no avail that she always skips the first page in her notebooks. Fiercely independent Americans do not like to be told these kinds of things. Think of this the next time you throw away a piece of paper!

Second, interesting food practices:

3. You can buy beer at MacDonalds. If you buy the “Party Pack” of chicken at KFC, it comes with a keg of beer. Imagine Joe’s surprise when he took his kids (at the time ages 5, 8, 10, and 14) out for a fun family evening and decided to order the Party Pack. Packets of ketchup at MacDonalds cost 25 cents apiece – Germans do not generally put ketchup on anything so they view ketchup as a “non-essential”.

4. Germans occasionally celebrate “American Food Day” in grocery stores. Some “American foods” offered are ketchup and mayonnaise combined in a tube, pepper cookies, and corn on pizza. Why do they do this? Because this is the kind of food Germans believe that Americans like and eat regularly. (I remember seeing my false assumptions exposed when traveling in Asia. It was there that I discovered that I couldn’t order an egg roll or General Tso’s chicken. Chinese do not eat these things! They are found in Chinese restaurants in America, not in Asian Chinese restaurants.)

5. The mid-day meal (lunch in America) is the main meal of the day in Germany, and dinner (as we often call the evening meal in America) is a light meal in Germany with lunch meats, cheese, etc.

Bonus observation: The town of Worms has established a standard rate for a scoop of ice cream. Anyone who sells ice cream cannot charge more than the established rate. This is to ensure that all ice cream shops remain competitive with one another and that no one has to go out of business.

Finally, a few general cultural differences:

6. Social services has been known to take children from their parents with no discussion if there is a suspicion that the child is receiving corporal punishment. One father wondered why his daughter did not come home from school, only to discover that she had been taken by the government with no advance warning or opportunity for discussion.

7. All tradesmen dress by color – for example, garbage men all wear orange.

8. Germans believe that Americans don’t speak true English – they speak “American” English. British English is taught in the schools, but the influence of American culture makes kids want to speak American English.

9. German drivers are incredibly conscientious and courteous. Pedestrians and cyclists are deferred to under all circumstances. It seems like you would have to be trying on purpose to get hit if you are walking or on a bike. Pedestrians and cyclists in Worms, Germany, never jaywalk or walk or bike against the light.

10. Germans are very interested in and opinionated about American politics (what they know is primarily from international CNN). They overwhelmingly support the more liberal part of American politics. My experience is that most Americans are utterly disinterested in and uninformed about German politics.

Another bonus observation: All Germans are taxed a church tithe by the government, as opposed to tithing individually to the church or ministry of their choice. This tax/tithe goes to either the Protestant or Catholic church, depending on one’s preference. Germans who object to this because of conscience must file the necessary paperwork to be exempted from this procedure.

Some of these differences are just…well, different. Others seem odd. A few might prove irritating. When at home in the USA, I ride my bike a lot. I have a tendency to sometimes make up my own traffic rules, dart in and out of traffic, and cross against the light when there are no cars coming – it’s the American way! So riding a bike in Germany frustrates me with some of the restrictions as I conform to German traffic rules (though I must admit, it seems a lot safer).
Obviously, Germany is a western country with a culture that is nearer to American culture than, say, Indonesia or Papua New Guinea or China. Missionaries to many of those countries are called upon to alter their lifestyles in even more radical ways than the adaptations forced upon the Thomas’.

Adjusting to these kinds of changes (and a myriad of other cultural oddities) is the norm for most missionaries who decide to enter another culture. Such cultural adaptation is essential if one is to identify with a target audience and begin to build relationships for the sake of the Gospel. Taking a missions trip provides the opportunity to see firsthand some of the sacrifices made and the humility and grace that are required if one is to follow God’s call.


A heavy burden and a Word burning like a fire

Day 4, July 20 – Worms, Germany.

Hanging out with my sister and her family in Worms, Germany, is a powerful reminder of all that is involved for the Gospel to spread. As I previously indicated, Joe and Tammy Thomas and their family have been in Germany for 6 years, laboring diligently and faithfully to disciple Germans into the Christian faith.

My reading of missions history has made me aware that often the fulfillment of the Great Commission happens at an agonizingly slow pace, often with the participants making enormous sacrifices, and frequently with little evidence of success. We read of the great movements of God and may imagine that they happened with lightning speed in an exciting manner. We would like to believe that if we do all the right things and have enough faith, we will experience colossal breakthroughs in trying to reach others for Christ.

Joe and Tammy have a slightly different perspective. Their 6 years in Germany have produced some visible results, but the overall outcome of their efforts is still unknown. This work in progress demands that the Thomas family, like all who are on the front lines of the battle, walk by faith and persevere in doing what they feel called to do in spite of a lack of the kind of outcomes that they would prefer to see.

Calling. In 2006, with four children between the ages of 5 and 13, the Thomas’ moved from North Carolina to Germany. Germany is a post-Christian country occupied by native Deutsch mingled with massive numbers of immigrants from around the world. The gorgeous countryside, quaint villages, orderliness and efficiency, and economic power can easily mask the spiritual darkness and desperate need that is the Germany that God sees.

Lest I might think that taking the Gospel to a modern foreign country is glamorous and exciting, a visit to Worms has disabused me of any such false notion. Only Joe and Tammy know the full depth of disappointment, discouragement, and doubt that has assailed them in the past 6 years as they acclimated themselves to German culture, mastered the German language, cared for their family, fought financial battles, and initiated the task of building relationships with those whom God brings into their lives.

In spite of the hard road behind them and the difficulties that still lie ahead, Tammy now speaks of “being where God wants them”. I see their obvious gift of hospitality, their engaging friendliness, their adaptability to cultural quirks, their fluency in German, and their commitment to building relationships. The Thomas’ are in it “for the long haul”.

Listening to Joe and Tammy talk about their calling and vision, I am challenged again to be in it for the long haul, to run the marathon and not sprint, to look for the relationships that God gives me as opportunities for Kingdom advancement.

May all who are reading this take 90 seconds to contemplate the lyrics from a great Sara Groves song, When the Saints:

Lord I have a heavy burden of all I’ve seen and know
its more than I can handle
But your word is burning like a fire shut up in my bones
and I can’t let it go
And when I’m weary and overwrought
with so many battles left unfought

I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard
I hear their song of freedom rising to the stars
And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them

Lord it’s all that I can’t carry and cannot leave behind
it all can overwhelm me
but when I think of all who’ve gone before and lived the faithful life
their courage compels me
And when I’m weary and overwrought
with so many battles left unfought

I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard
I hear their song of freedom rising to the stars
I see the shepherd Moses in the Pharaoh’s court
I hear his call for freedom for the people of the Lord

And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
and when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them

I see the long quiet walk along the Underground Railroad
I see the slave awaken to the value of her soul

I see the young missionary and the angry spear
I see his family returning with no trace of fear

I see the long hard shadows of Calcutta nights
I see the sister standing by the dying man’s side

I see the young girl huddled on the brothel floor
I see the man with a passion come and kicking down that door

I see the man of sorrow and his long troubled road
I see the world on his shoulders and my easy load

And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
and when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
I want to be one of them
I want to be one of them



The DIet of Worms is Not a Weight Loss Method

July 18, from Worms, Germany

Almost 500 years ago, in 1517, Martin Luther posted his now-famous 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church. After reading the document, Pope Leo X declared: “Martin Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober.”
Three years later, in 1520, Leo X wrote of Luther: “The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy [God’s vineyard] and every wild beast feeds upon it,” to which Luther responded with his notorious Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist. Apparently religious debates were not as dignified and gracious 500 years ago as those conducted between G. K. Chesterton and his opponents or those involving Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens.

The next year, 1521, found Luther summoned by Emperor Charles V to stand before the Diet of Worms. There he was called upon to either defend or recant his written statements. Luther was said to be sweating and trembling at the end of this experience.
Though he was undoubtedly sober throughout this incident, one account says of him: “Arriving back in his lodging after his two-hour hearing, Luther downed in one gulp a can of Eimbeck beer that had been left for him there by a friend.” Interesting man living in an interesting time.

I believe that 2012 is a pretty fascinating time in history, as well. 491 years later, I find myself, as part of a 2-phase missions trip, spending about 5 days in the town made famous by this interesting man and fascinating event – the quaint city of Worms, Germany.
My purpose in visiting Worms, however, is driven primarily by my role as a missions mobilizer. I feel that it is important that I try to regularly visit various parts of the world to stay in touch with how the Gospel is spreading, to learn what the challenges are confronting the fulfillment of the Great Commission, and to understand how the world and missions is changing.
I am thinking this morning about the passing of the baton of the Christian faith over the centuries as I sit in my sister’s home in Worms. It is a far cry from 16th century Germany to the 21st century. Tammy and her husband, Joe, and their four children have spent almost six years in Germany in the shadow of Martin Luther, doing the work of discipleship. The Thomas family has embarked upon a grassroots, authentic, Kingdom-advancing ministry based in the city of one of Luther’s greatest moments on stage.
I can’t wait to share some over the next couple of days some of the great things that are going on in Worms.

Jerry Sandusky and the Bayash Gypsies: Thoughts on my upcoming trip to Europe

Question: What do Jerry Sandusky and the Bayash Gypsies of Eastern Europe have in common? Answer: They are both unequivocally despised.

This is the thought that came to me as I watched lawyers and media interacting after the jury returned a guilty verdict on Sandusky. (Before I’m accused of being soft on crime, let me say that I am outraged on behalf of the young men Jerry Sandusky abused, saddened by the destruction of their lives, and satisfied that justice has been served.) Nevertheless, I cannot escape a sense of grief for this man and for the shame and ruination he has brought to his own family.

This is why the media response to Sandusky’s conviction was so intriguing. I was immediately struck by the lack of humility and grief exhibited during this strategic moment. Like vultures, gleefully extolling the fall of another human being, they seemed to be gloating over Sandusky’s conviction. It could easily have been a macabre pep rally, only instead of cheering for the home team, there was vindictive delight over another’s fall.

As I watched, I wondered what these critics would be doing should their secrets be exposed for all to see. Though their indiscretions may not be illegal (unlike Sandusky’s which were clearly illegal), many of them would cringe if their misdeeds were publicly displayed. And frankly, I think there is little room for gloating if we understand the darkness of our own hearts.

Which brings me to the Bayash gypsies. Traditionally a despised people, gypsies are often viewed as the lowest strata of a society. But the Bayash, sometimes known as “the gypsies’ gypsy,” are a notch below the generic gypsy. Endemic to the typical Bayash village is alcoholism, incest, crime, poverty, and virtually every other societal ill.

Yes, the Bayash are despised. But by whom? By those fortunate enough to not have been born into alcoholism, incest, crime and poverty. And there is a line that connects Jerry Sandusky with the Bayash…and us. It’s a line of brokenness, judgment, grace, humility, mercy, and forgiveness. This line intersects the cross of Christ. Whether it’s a convicted pedophile or a despised ethnic group or Dave Shive, we are all desperate for the kindness displayed in Christ, in need of forgiveness, and hungry for mercy. And if we understand that, we can temper our scorn of others or pride in the face of their trouble with a sense of gratitude over what God has spared us from.

This month I will spend some time among two European groups: residents of the country of Germany, and the Bayash of Croatia. Joining me will be my son, Mike, and oldest grandson, Josh. In Germany, we will be surrounded by post-Christian affluence and nihilism as we explore with my sister and her husband how to plant the church in this dark place. And in Croatia we will be partners with Bob and Nancy Hitching who have pioneered the Roma Bible Union, a most authentic ministry among the most reviled. We will seek to serve them in any way we can.

Pray for us as we go. We are no better than wealthy Germans or hated Bayash, even as we are no better than Jerry Sandusky. Were it not for mercy obtained at the Cross and for the power of God’s grace, we would all be atheists or nihilists or pedophiles or alcoholics or victims of incest or perpetrators of abuse. Pray as we are surrounded by affluence and paganism on the one hand, and filth, odors, germs, mud, and wasted humans on the other hand, that we may be conduits of the love of Christ because God has been so gracious to wretches like us. – Dave Shive