Thursday, August 02, 2007

obicham te

Bulgaria

The cafeteria was mostly deserted, as it should be half an hour after dinner ended. Just three people remained, sat at a table by the door.

'Its like' said the first American 'Bulgaria went to sleep in the 1300s, and woke up just before the first world war'
'wow' said the second American
'man...thats crazy' said the Englishman.

There are few places bleaker to be an evangelical in mainland Europe than Bulgaria. Now there's a brave statement, but for many reasons, some of which we'll go into, some of which we won't, i think its true. It's not the case in all of south east Europe either. Tim, the first american above, pastors a church in Shvistov in north Bulgaria. From his house he can look in Romania, where the frontier missionaries are being pulled out, because, well, it's not frontier mission in Romania any more. It sure is in Bulgaria.

We've already seen a reason for that. In the 1300s having spent a couple of generations as one of the most powerful Kingdoms in Europe, Bulgaria was overrun by the Ottoman empire, and subjected to Serfdom. It stayed that way for the best part of five hundred years. We can't imagine what that does to a national psyche. For five hundred years while the rest of europe pushed forward technologically, fought boundary defining wars and state defining civil wars, built empires and formed alliances, Bulgaria was nothing more than a large slave camp for the Ottomans. No one helped them, no one stood up to the Ottomans, until the 1870s when armies from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Finland helped them to free themselves. Then seventy years later the communists turned up and that was that until the early nineties. Bulgaria is a country with a gaping hole in it's history, and that has an effect. And then of course there's the suffocating influence of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to whom 86% of Bulgarians claim allegance. Couple this with a mistrust of outsiders and Protestants are viewed as a cult. Orthodoxy is the one true church, Catholics are just about ok, and then there's JWs, Mormons and Protestants, the weird cults.

The biggest result of this, probably, is that Bulgarians, on the whole, do not believe in, and are not interested in outside help. And you can see straight away the consequences that has for the Gospel. It is a country that struggles to trust, as indeed you or i would, if we found out after the communists left that the reason my dad was killed in the sixties was that my next door neighbour had informed on him. My next door neighbour still lives there. Again, the implications for the Gospel and for evangelism there are huge. An interesting side effect of this is that while watching Superman Returns, most of the Bulgarians there agreed that Lex Luther was the hero. Superman was a curio, and oddity to be disregarded. But Lex was the man, he built himself and empire with his brains, on his own. Thats what the Bulgarians there respected.

We don't know what it's like to live in the west any more than a fish knows what it's like to be wet. If something happens in England, it's world news more or less. If the Prime Minister and President of Bulgaria got blown up tomorrow would we even know? Certainly almost no one outside Bulgaria would care. Which leaves the country in a suspicious, insular, self dependant state, which makes mission hard. Really hard. But i love it there. So much i can almost taste it. Nowhere is the contrast, the collision, between old and new more stark than in the centre of Sofia. There, on the lawn of the former communist part headquarters fly the flags of the member states of NATO. And that neatly sums it up.

People

Joining the small British team in BG were a team of ten from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, and a team and eleven from the Free Will Baptist Church of American who came from all over the south, places like Missouri, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. Places that have always seemed incredibly exotic to me, it was great to meet people from there.

It was such a blessing to meet Craig, the IFES working in Bulgaria, and the already mentioned Tim, both from America, who's lives both said 'God doesn't care about the American dream, and neither do i'. Both of them inspired me, both of them challenged me. Both of them made me want to be like them. I'm thankful for Ben, from UoP. He was like me only a couple of steps ahead. When we had the conversation with Tim he would be asking the questions i was getting towards, and ask them in a much more thoughtful way. I'm deeply thankful for another post dinner conversation we had together that was among the highlights of the trip. Ben was a top bloke and a good friend. We even got sick on the Black Sea together (and boy did we get sick, i've never before felt that my insides were climbing up my stomach, but hey we can say that we've had a pirate ship fight on the black sea and then watched the sun set into the hills behind Varna...even if we did feel like we were dying in the half an hour in between!). Given a couple more weeks i felt he could have been one for the inappropriate theological joke, surely the seal of any good friendship. And there was Someone Else as well. But this, as you'll appreciate is clearly not the place. I am in the excting but tough situation of trusting Christ and not having a clue. Which is hard.

God

I think God taught me two major lessons in BG. Here they are.

1) I really want to be a missionary. I really want it to be in Bulgaria. Put the words 'student' 'pioneer' and 'mission' together and i'm there. But God taught me a glimpse of what this would be like on the camp. Before i probably had a slightly idealised view of missionary life, but less so now. Am i prepared, God asked, to give up everything for the Gospel? To give up my family, and my friends, more or less all my close human relationships, all the benefits that come from living in the west, my chance to work a good job with good money, my chance to ever feel comfortable and at home? am i prepared to give up the little things? English radio, the view from my parents back garden, food i like, all for the Gospel. When i went to BG i thought i was. When i got there i was seriously homesick and realised that i wasn't. Now i think i am. Now what i want most in the world is to be back there. And i pray this isn't just an emotional response. It feels different. Am i prepared to learn a tough language with an alien alphabet, to put ten years in the bank before i can expect to get anywhere, to be regarded as a member of an odd western cult? I so want to be. I think something inside of me changed or broke during my time there. Drew said it was like i'd divorced my country, i keep calling her England, rather than home. I want to keep this feeling, this focus on BG with all my heart.

2) I was made for a relationship with God. I love really love the guys i emt out there, and saying goodbye was so hard, and it reminded me that i wasn't made for relationships that will break or end, i was made for one that will be perfect, and forever, and eternal...my relationship with God the Father through the Son. It was good, if painful, to remember that.

and thats Bulgaria, my heart is still there. I hope i'm there as well soon. Please pray for me, that i would learn what God is teaching me. I've shed tears over what God is teaching me...but the missionary life, thats the life for me. I want to put my hands and face agains the granite and push, and heave with all my might, while i have might, for Jesus in Bulgaria.

2 comments:

Michael Mayers said...

Hey Ed,

A really cool and encouraging post, if I may say so! And if I'm allowed to without sounding patronising, I was quite moved by your sense of real compassion for the people of Bulgaria.

I don't know about you, but it's at times like this that I think about Jesus, leaving the splendour and luxury of heaven to come to smelly, painful, violent, sinful earth (and not the most luxurious part of it, by any means) for undeserving humanity. I'm as inclined as the next person (at least) to wallow in western, middle- class complacency, but when I think about Jesus I can't escape the feeling that that's not ultimately where it's at. Of course the rich need the Gospel as much as the poor and vulnerable, but given Jesus' situation when he was on Earth, and those of so many of his early disciples, I can't help feeling we're missing something with our middle-class dominated churches (often), our middle class ways of doing things and our reluctance to get our hands dirty or move out of our comfort zone.

So I guess what I'm saying is, I'm glad God seems to be calling you to serve Him in a potentially less than comfortable situation in Bulgaria. I pray that He would show you more and more what's really important in life, that He would cause You to grow in Him and that You would be a bright light on a lampstand, reflecting His glory.

I do also admire your 'divorce' from the UK too (we don't, after all, have any real home in this world), even if I can't imagine sharing it to be honest. I think I've always felt called to be 'uncomfortable' in the UK- and let's be honest, there are plenty of places and situations a complacent middle-class boy like me can do that! Although, having said that, Sally mutters occasionally about orphanage/ development stuff in Romania, so you never know, that RUCU Balkans reunion might be on yet!

Sorry for the long ramble (you know you've missed me!).

(International) Michael.

FloydTheBarber said...

so god to hear from you brother. Thank you for your encouragement and your prayers...please do keep praying, because my heart is hard and it's flame goes out quickly.
I've never thought about the example of Jesus before, but thats so helpful, thank you. And of course the english middle classes need the Gospel, and it's great that you want to tell them it...the UK is 'the ends of the earth' to a 1st century palestinian after all.

That said, a Balkans RUCU reunion sounds cool!