Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Thirteen: Loneliness and an American President

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My fianceé’s birthday was early in July and I decided to call her. I not only hoped to surprise her but also figured I could use the support of hearing her voice. I even rehearsed what I would say before I called.

At that time, called internationally took special arrangements. When the time came, my heart pounded as I heard the phone ringing.

“Hello?”

It was her mother. Tricia was at work. My heart sank. I felt like screaming. I spoke with for a minute and then got cut off.

I waited until 12:30am, which was 5:30pm her time. This time she was home. I forgot all the things I wanted to tell her, so I just babbled. When she finally spoke, I could tell something was wrong. She spent half the conversation yelling at me to speak up and the other half trying to keep everyone in the background quiet.

It was not the surprise I hope it would be. In fact, I felt worse after the call. She was struggling back home while I was feeling homesick. I started to blame God. Why would I be called to a place where we would both be miserable?

All the things I had experienced, the joys and triumphs of seeing God at work, were lost on me. I just wanted to be home. I had been away for nearly a month. Wasn’t that enough for God? I was depressed for the next few days.

July sixth was an important day for Latvia. Bill Clinton, President of the United States of America, was making the first visit of any president to a Baltic state. Raivis convinced me to go with him to see the President. We got up at 5am for the 6am train out of Cesvaine. Both of us slept the entire way down.

We met a friend of Raivis’ in Riga and made our way to the outdoor square where President Clinton was to make his speech to the nation. Security was tight. The entire old city was ringed with Latvian military. US Secret Service set up checkpoints with metal detectors, had snipers on roofs, and frogmen in the river running through the city. It certainly gave the impression we were about to witness history.

As with most official events, there were a lot speeches, but not must else. We soon got bored and left. We wandered around Riga and did a little shopping. We finally wandered over to the Baptist Union building where I met with Aigars.

He gave me a fax he received from Tricia. She sent it after the call because she felt bad about sounding so down. It was just the kind of letter I needed. In my loneliness I needed to know that I was missed just as much I missed her.

Looking back, it’s funny to think how President Clinton would be the catalyst to bring me out of my funk! God certainly has a funny sense of humour.

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Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Twelve: Language Barrier

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That Sunday Malcolm came to Madona to make arrangements for his move to the city in August. I was looking forward to the visit so I could actually speak to an Englishman and another missionary.

We had a great time that weekend. We laughed a lot as we shared together. Malcolm was easy going, with the rare ability to laugh at himself. He also had the gift of listening. He provided a safe place to vent my frustrations. He helped me regain some much needed perspective for ministry.

Malcolm’s visit also had an unintended consequence. It brought back my loneliness. As strange as it seemed, I missed the English language. Everywhere I went it became painfully obvious I was a foreigner.

I tried blocking out conversations around me. It didn’t help. I became paranoid that folks were talking about me. Every once in a while I’d hear someone say ‘Canada’ or ‘Tims’, followed with laughter. Raivis assured me it was nothing insulting, but it began to wear on my nerves.

I longed to understand everyone around me. Ever greater was my desire to be understood. The most glaring example of the language problem was my first sermon. I learned the lesson of the language barrier the hard way.

I preached from the book of Ecclesiastes on wisdom. I should have recognized a problem when I mentioned the scripture reading and Raivis gave me blank stare. He had never even heard of the word ‘Ecclesiastes’. I did not think to check what it might be in Latvian.

During the sermon I would occasionally glance at Malcolm. Most of the time he was laughing quietly to himself and shaking his head. He already knew what I was learning. I had asked Raivis to do the impossible, translate a sermon without any preparation. He did the best he could under the circumstances, but it was in vain.

When I finished, the whole congregation looked at me as if to ask, ‘What in the world was that?!’ I felt like crawling back to my seat. After church Raivis apologized, but it was hardly his fault.

Malcolm tried to insert some humour into the situation, but I was not in the mood. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Always go over your message with your translator before you embarrass yourself in front a group of people.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Eleven: Dreams and Needs

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One of the personal visions that Raivis had for his small town was for a Bible school. There was a large unfinished building at the end of his road which sat abandoned. It was started during the communist era but now sat empty.

There was no doubt there was a need for a Bible school in Latvia. The only Christian school in the country was a seminary in Latvia.

Raivis told me that the city administrators had offered to sell the building at a substantial discount. Even in it’s unfinished state, the building was impressive. He told everyone he could about his dream, and I was no exception. He even took me on a tour. I wasn’t sure what I could do to help, but I promised that would take pictures of the building and show to people back home.

One thing I could say for Christians in Latvia was that they were always looking forward. Some may call Raivis a dreamer, but dreamers are a blessing.

I didn’t write this to recruit people into helping Raivis achieve his goal. I wanted to show the great needs of the country. They needed places for Christian leaders to be trained. I commended Raivis for wanting to fill that need.

Unfortunately, there was only so much that a poor student like me could do. But it was up to people like me to catch the vision with the means to help. It was a daunting task. Those who have never seen cannot understand the depth of need.

I promised to help Raivis, but I was not very optimistic. I would never want to limit what God could do, but I wondered if the Church in North America would catch the vision. Yet I believe God is still greater.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Ten: Shameless Witness

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Two days after I spoke with the single mother, I had the chance to speak with the father about salvation. Throughout our time together he agreed with everything I showed him. When I was finished he said he understood. He knew that he was a sinner. Because of his sin he had a broken relationship with God. He even understood who Jesus was and how he died and rose again so that he might be reconciled with God.

Then he shared his doubt. He was not sure God existed in the first place. He believed that when we died there was no afterlife. Then he admitted that at times of great stress he cried out to God out of instinct. I tried to explain that this instinct showed there was a God. I pointed to a passage in Romans as proof.

He did not accept Christ, but admitted that he was searching. I don’t know if he will ever accept Christ, but I know now he can make a more informed decision. He can choose to accept or reject the truth. I pray he accepts Christ and lets God work in his life.

Raivis would continue to work with this man, and I hoped the Holy Spirit would draw him into a fellowship with Him.

As I shared the Gospel with folks around Biksēre, it was obvious the Holy Spirit was working. A small Bible started as a result of my efforts. While it was good to see these results, I understood that folks like Raivis were the real ministers. They loved and shared their lives with family and neighbours. It would be their responsibility to disciple them as followers of Jesus Christ.

After just a few days of working with Raivis and others, I became impressed with how they unashamedly lived their Christian witness. Over the years I have often been guilty of not sharing my relationship with Christ because I was afraid of being ridiculed. I was encouraged and challenged by those who lived out Paul’s words in Romans 10:11 ‘Anyone who trust in Him will never be put to shame.’

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Nine: What A Good Interpreter Can Do

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When Raivis returned home to Biksēre from the hospital, I was blessed for the first time with a good interpreter. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Raivis’ little brother and sister were at the camp along with their neighbour girl. Her brother wasn’t able to attend, but heard about the balloon dogs I made. He came over to our house hoping I’d make one for him.

An idea struck me. With Raivis interpreting, I could this as an opportunity to share the gospel. I took the empty balloon and explained how this like our life. We were empty. Blowing up the balloon, I said that when Jesus enters our lives, he fills us up. I twisted and form the balloon. But not only that, I explained, Jesus works with us to make something beautiful out of our lives.

When I finished my little demonstration, I told him about how Jesus loves us and died for us. I asked him if he would like to let Jesus into his heart. He said yes. We prayed and he accepted Jesus as his personal saviour.

It was the first time I ever had the privilege of introducing someone to Christ. The moment took my breath away. This seven year old boy met Jesus that day and I was blessed to participate in it. I believe that God’s Spirit will work in his life. I prayed that this boy would follow Christ and grow in his faith.

A few days later Raivis and I were invited to the home of a Christian woman to talk to her friend about God. What I learned afterward was that she’d just discovered she was pregnant and the father would not take responsibility for the baby. She was hurt and confused. If I’d known all that before hand, I’m certain to have lost my nerve. What could I possibly say to someone in such pain?

I went over the plan of salvation, telling her about how much God loved her and how He sent Jesus to willingly die to forgive her sins. When I was finished, she was speechless. She told me that what I said made sense and she didn’t know what to say.

She had never touched a Bible in her life. She learned that not only did this Bible describe her sin, but it also provided a way out. For the first time in her life she stood face to face with Jesus. With all her sin and guilt she looked at Jesus and saw love and forgiveness.

She accepted Jesus that night. A week later she brought a friend to hear about this Jesus who gave her peace.

We gave her a Bible of her own so she can grow as a follower of Jesus. Her life was not easy, but in Christ she had the strengthen and love to persevere.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Eight: Madona

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After camp I went to a home just outside the town of Madona. Raivis, the young man with the heart condition, was expected to come home from the hospital soon and I thought I was supposed to stay at his home in Biksēre. Unfortunately, we had a weird misunderstanding.

Raivis’ family and my interpreter Roberts were convinced I wanted to return to Riga, some three hours away. I thought they were trying to get rid of me and tried to persuade them to let me stay. We had a tense few hours of miscommunication. It wasn’t until I phoned Aigars in Riga that the situation was cleared up.

He explained to both sides what each other was thinking and we were able to have a good laugh about the whole thing. It was a great relief, but it proved that my lack of knowledge of the Latvian language was a big problem. Needless to say, when Raivis returned home, I’m not sure who was happier to see him, me or his family.

The church at Madona was quite small. I was told most of the members were away for the Summer. As a result, there were no youth to be seen. Raivis was a twenty year old seminary student who hoped to work with the youth of his church. I figured my role would be to help him organize for the Fall.

The church community was an interesting blend of people. One of the families also lived in Biksēre. Edgars was a young man who worked as a carpenter under the old communist regime. He was injured on the job, and ever since had to work as a security guard. Along with his wife and two daughters, they were sincere followers of Christ and eager to grow in their faith.

I also met a twenty-three year old single mother of a three year old little girl. Tamara’s husband left her for another woman. She struggled to support the two of them by baking out of her home. Her little girl slept in the living room because they can’t support a better place to live.

Tamara’s hunger for God’s word was strong. Every time we met she had more questions about the Bible. Her daughter was bright and loved to run around and play after church.

The most striking of the the members of the Madona church was Ivars. He was a young blind man who was married with three boys. He lost his sight after two separate accidents as a mechanic. Since then he and his family had been forced to live on an accident pension. To supplement his meagre income he was learning to make pottery. Theirs was a life of struggle.

What all three of these families had in common was their deep need. Yet from those needs they recognized their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Their stories were common among the church of Madona. In their humility they turned to Jesus Christ, who offered them so much more that what they knew. As one Latvian missionary noted, “they acknowledge the grace of God because they feel as though everything they receive is something they do not deserve.”

They truly were the poor in spirit. They knew full well the spiritual bankruptcy of their lives. As a consequence, they appreciated the fullness of Jesus’ love and grace. Far from perfect, they hungered to grow in knowledge and faith. As long as they remembered where they came from, and who brought them our of spiritual bondage, I was convinced they’d be a powerful witness in their communities.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Seven: Roughing It

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Sunday arrived and I departed for the city of Madona. I was to spend the next three weeks working with the youth of the church in this city. The first Sunday to Wednesday I was sent to a children’s camp. These were very important days. I am a city person. I enjoy all the benefits of urban life: a bed, toilets, warmth. At camp I had none of these. From my first evening I knew this would be one of those character building times.

To make matters worse, the person who was supposed to act as my interpreter in fact knew very little English. It’s remarkable how alone you can feel among a camp full of children and counsellors when you cannot communicate.

By Monday night I was at my lowest point. Doubts crept into my thoughts. What on earth was I doing here? How could I make a difference when I couldn’t even speak with anyone? I’d been away from home for a week and homesickness was starting to take hold. It rained all that day so I was also cold and wet. I felt like crying all night.

I knew I was called to this country. I also knew I was going to be here for a while. I prayed that God would strengthen me. The verse in Hebrews 10:23 brought great comfort. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.” If God wants me here, I thought, then He has to help me be an enduring witness.

Thank God, He did.

I started to notice something special about these kids. They ranged in age from five to sixteen. When they had free time, and they had a lot of it, they played together. They had the most wonderful games where everyone was included. What’s more, they didn’t fight! They shared with each other.

They invited the strange Canadian to play along. I was shown the rules, and before I knew it, I was accepted in their group. It was a tremendous encouragement.

One day they gave me time to speak to the group. I brought two big bags of long balloons, so I taught them how to make balloon dogs. They’d never seen such things. Balloon dogs were everywhere. Some of the older youth got creative and made their own animals. I was asked to make a cat and an elephant. It required a lot of improvisation. By the end of my time I even made a bee.

The most memorable part of the camp came on the last night. Some of the youth gathered up the courage to share their knowledge of English. They knew the language better than my translator. They helped me learn a little more Latvian, too.

They asked me about Canada, my testimony, my fianceé and why I came to Latvia. We sang songs and shared together. The language barrier fell and we had an incredible time together. When camp ended, I was sorry to leave.

God brought me a long was from Sunday night. He knew what I needed and gave so much more that I could have imagined. All I had to do was give up the comforts of home. I thanked God for giving the opportunity to be part of their lives of those three short days. I received so much more than I gave them. I just hoped that through my life they got a small glimpse of Jesus.