Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Six: Dead Weight

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With no other option, I made the best of the situation. I wandered the streets of Old Riga for hours on end. I wandered through shops and visiting historic landmarks. I took pictures of statues.

Instead of serving the Lord in missions, I was a tourist. The only adventures I had involved shopping. Most stores opened at ten in the morning and would close by six. The challenge was to figure out the currency without being too conspicuously foreign. It didn’t work. Fortunately, most people were patient. I don’t believe any took advantage of me, not that I would’ve known the difference.

When I wasn’t seeing the city, I spent time in the Baptist Union Building. On the top floor was the first Christian radio station in Latvia. I went up and asked for tour. The secretary gave me a short tour, but I got the distinct impression folks didn’t really want me there.

I wandered over to meet the President of the Youth Association. I figured it was a reasonable plan considering I was in the country to work with youth. It turned out to be more difficult that I thought. John’s Day, Latvia’s national holiday, was the following week. The entire youth office was busy arranging a Christian youth camp in celebration of the holiday.

At this point I got the distinct impression I was in the way. I was more like dead weight and a nuisance than anything else. To add to my growing self-pity, I was went to a youth rally the following Saturday night. Afterwards there was an informal café. Again, I tried to speak with the President of the Youth Association. Again, I was brushed aside. It took nearly two hours, but I finally found some people who would spend the time to talk.

I tried not to take things personally. In their defence, my timing was not very good. Then again, it seemed like they’d already adopted a ‘busy ministry’ mentality. So many North American Christians believe that an effective minister is a busy minister. There’s an expectation that ministers must meet and plan and organize and preach and do a thousand other things just to be effective. A lot of minister buy into that mentality, too.

Jesus didn’t act this way. Many times it is recorded that Jesus took the time to minister to individuals. Remember Nicodemus, the woman at the well and the man born blind. In the case of the sick woman (Mark 5:25-34), Jesus ministered to her in the middle of a demanding crowd. Jesus discipled twelve, not twelve thousand.

It’s not that large youth groups are bad. The minister’s main priority is to disciple others that they might disciple others. Ministers cannot be effective if they’re tired and worn out. The image of the ‘weary minister’ seems to be a banner of honour. I disagreed.

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Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Five: Day One

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On my first full day in Latvia, Aigars arranged for a young student named Egils to take me on a tour of old Riga. The skyline of the seven spires was striking. I had never seen buildings four hundred years old, especially since the country I lived in was a quarter the age of these majestic old structures.

Communism had not been kind, and many of the buildings were in virtual ruins, shells of their former glory. One such building, St. Peter’s Cathedral, was burned during the Second World War. Inside were pictures chronicling the fire and the aftermath. For the first time in my life I came face to face with a war beaten city.

Out of all this history was a country aspiring for the future. I saw the old soviet statues and learned about the resentment the native Latvians held for their oppressors. The tour felt like a walk through a city on the cusp of a bright new world.

When we were finished, I was exhausted. We walked for hours, but I appreciated Egils taking me around his city. As I later learned, that was my complete education of the city. The rest of the time I was expected to venture out by myself.

I was now in a foreign country with no grasp of the language, with the expectation of taking care of myself. I knew of one American style fast-food restaurant, so I was confident I could at least eat. Beyond that, I was also on the cusp of something bright and new.

And frightening.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Four: The Arrival

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Whenever I come to a new situation, I like to enter it with optimism. Because my last images of home were not entirely joyous, I felt it was even more important to start off on the right foot.

My flights had been uneventful, so I arrived in Latvia quite relaxed and ready to work. Then I was reminded of the first rule of missions: be flexible.

I met a man named Aigars at the airport. He welcomed me to Riga and told me I was not going to be spending my entire trip in Leipaja as expected. I was now going to spend my first three weeks in a town called Madona, in the interior of the country.

I could handle that, I thought. Aigars then explained that Raivis, my contact in Madona, was sick in the hospital with an undiagnosed heart condition. My mind started to wander. While they were treating Raivis, I’d be spending down time in Riga.

Trying to see the bright side, I though, ‘Great. Now I could get adjusted.’ This would give me the opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of this historic city. I hoped to meet people who would help me acclimate to the language and the culture. I could even go shopping.

The reality was far from what I imagined.

I was taken to the seminary dorms of the Baptist Union building. This would be my first home for the next few days. On a quick tour of the facilities, I noticed two things. First, there were no showers. That wasn’t a big deal. I could wash in the kitchen sink, the only sink available.

The other problem was much more nerve wracking. The toilet looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned since the Second World War. The porcelain bowl I stared at was not even closed to a shade of white. I wondered if cleaning it was even possible. There was no way I was using that toilet.

The first order of business, then, was to find a clean toilet. I repeated these words over and over in my mind. ‘Just be adaptable.’

On the upside, my room was very comfortable. Getting over my jet lag was going to be easy.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Three: Blow It All Up

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Three weeks before my trip I got a call. It was from the head of the mission organization sending me to Latvia.

“Things have changed,” he said.

He explained that the orphanage disbanded. The family running it gave up that ministry, leaving the orphanage without leadership.

“Normally in this situation we’d cancel the trip,” explained the head of the organization, “but since you’re so close to going, we’ll send you anyway.”

My head started swimming. “What will I be doing?” I asked.

There was a sigh on the other end. “I don’t know. You’ll have to find out when you get there. We’re trying to arrange something now.”

It was like taking the first drop in a roller coaster. How could this happen? Was it going to be like this the entire trip? All the preparation I made seemed utterly useless. My brain froze. I didn’t know what to do.

For the first time since this journey began, my supporters seemed to waver. Some wondered if I would be safe. Others made weak hearted attempts to offer comfort. Despite their reassurances that God was in control, it seemed like the exact opposite.

At the same time, my future in-laws brought up the idea that our wedding should be postponed. Since she was finishing her last year of school, it was up to me to support us. Since I was getting a stipend for my time in Latvia, precious months of saving were lost.

A couple of days before my flight, I received another call from the head of the mission organization with an update. I would be spending my entire trip at a town called Leipaja, on the Baltic coast, where I would work with a pastor planting a church.

In a fog of doubt, I struggled to wrap my head around the events leading up to this trip. The pressure was intense. It was so strong, my fiancée broke out into tears when she brought me to the airport. It was a sudden shift in her unwavering support.

I can honestly say that if I could have at that point canceled my trip for her sake, I would have. She didn’t know it at the time, but as I left her I also cried. It felt like entering a storm that would last the next two months.

Faith in the Chaos- Chapter Two: Orientation

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Formal orientation consisted of two trips. The first was to the Missionary Learning Center outside Richmond, Virginia. It was there I was given specific instruction in serving as a short-term missionary.

One rule particularly stood out. Be a blessing to full-time missionaries living in the field. It’s important to encourage them in their work. Don’t complain. What ever I might experience on the field is temporary. For full-time missionaries, it is their entire lives.

It became important not to make my missions trip about myself. Consider others. I was an outsider, a burden. Somehow I was expected to turn that burden into a blessing.

While at the Learning Center, news came through about a dramatic change in the situation for one team heading to Rwanda. The genocide in Rwanda broke out that very weekend. Terror shivered down our spines as we learned of horrible atrocities spreading across the land. The team preparing to go spent the week in stunned silence as they learned they would be heading to a neighbouring country to receive refugees. It was a harsh reminder that we were serving a world deeply scarred by sin.

The second trip was to National Student Week in Lake Louise, Alberta. At the time, I was feeling especially sorry for myself. In the weeks between my two orientation trips, a significant problem arose. I needed to pay my share of the rent while I was away. Five hundred dollars is a reasonable amount, but for a university student, it might have been a million.

With that weighing heavily on my mind, I spent a week in one of the most beautiful places on earth, staring at the ground. I couldn’t be convinced to at the turquoise waters of the lake or the vast glacier which rolled between to vast mountain peaks.

What I saw was gravel. I wouldn’t look up to view the splendours of God’s creation when He was being so unfair. How could be lead me this far only to leave me homeless? My friends tried to cheer me up, but I insisted on wallowing in misery.

One evening, we drove to the community centre for evening worship. Crawling out of the backseat of the car, a friend said, “Look at that sunset!”

In defiance, I glared at the gravel parking lot instead. A glint caught my eye as I walked. The thought crossed my mind, go back and look, it might be a gold chain. Turning around, I found a gold coloured chain in the dust. I started asking about it, but it didn’t belong to anyone.

My friends immediately jumped to the conclusion God miraculously provided for my needs. I wasn’t buying it.

After the conference, a group of us drove through the mountains to Vancouver. Once there, they insisted I take it to a jeweller for appraisal. I reluctantly consented. When I did, the jeweller examined it under a magnifying lens. He weighed it. My group was crackling with energy.

Finally, the jeweller spoke. “It’s nine karat Italian gold.”

“What’s it worth?” a friend asked.

“Nine hundred dollars,” replied the jeweller.

The group erupted in cheers. Tears welled up in my eyes. If felt silly. God provided.

Faith in the Chaos- A Missionary Memoir Journal

In 1994 I served as a short-term missionary in the Eastern European country of Latvia. I kept a journal of my experiences through that Summer.

I’ve tried not to alter the text except to correct grammar or to prove context. I feel it’s important to protect the raw experiences of the trip.

Without a doubt, this was one of the greatest times of spiritual growth I have ever had. I hope these serve as an encouragement to others as they pursue God’s will for their lives.

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Chapter 1. The Announcement

“I think he phoned to let you know you’re accepted. I’m minty-nine percent sure that’s why he called,” said my college roommate.

“Oh,” I replied.

The word dropped out like a lead weight. I was accepted. The first question that entered my head was, ‘What have you got your self into?” A missions trip was one thing. I went to Minnesota two years earlier. A missions trip to Latvia was completely different.

Joy did not overflow from my heart. Try shock. Fear. Perhaps terror. I knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime, but at that moment it sure didn’t feel like one.

I’d prayed for God to lead. I’d even prayed that He’d let me go. That still didn’t prepare me for the sudden reality that I’d be traveling to a former Soviet Republic. I was expected to work with a youth group at the largest Baptist church in Latvia. They had one thousand members. My entire church had forty-five.

Add to the fact that I would also be living and working in an orphanage. The full weight of doubt hit me at once. What if my relationships back home suffer? I was engaged to be married. What if the Latvian people don’t accept me? What if I don’t like them? What if I fail?

I was dizzy from all the uncertainty. It was wonderful that God opened this door, but how am I supposed to follow through? God knows I don’t have the faith of Abraham or the courage of Paul. Aren’t those the types of people God calls to trips like this?

As I began to spread the news and prepare for the long trek ahead, hope and excitement grew. The joy others felt made me feel better.

My fiancée was a blessing beyond belief. She was the one who convinced me to apply for the trip. When I was accepted, she showed a prayer life that would continue to support us through decades of marriage. Her excitement did more to calm my nervous heart than the support of everyone else combined.

When my pastor heard the good news, he was absolutely jubilant. Many times he told me how he wished to go in my place. He reminded me that I ought to thank God for the privilege. Over the next few months he took it upon himself to provide personal tutelage in sharing the Gospel.

The lessons he gave were some of the most important of my entire life.

Each week he walked me through Scriptures which would prove invaluable in introducing folks to the transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. For a man who spent so many years as an evangelist, Pastor Bullis wanted to ensure I would know the joy to witnessing others enter the glory of God.