Questions from Readers
How do you know that God is Just Love?
Ken, how did this become heart instead of just head knowledge?
(What follows is the eleventh of an eleven-part series that is one answer to these questions.)
“The church is depending on you to get a message into the hearts of unbelievers. They will be very resistant. It’s up to you. You must succeed.” I sat there with tremors running through my body as I tried to hold back the tears and the agony of probable failure.
Nothing about the Bulzan’s home was as I remembered it. The door in the block long stone wall no longer was the main entrance to their home. Instead, Joan and I found ourselves in a courtyard where many people scurried about doing laundry, playing ball, or worrying anxiously about us. Titi, of course, had expectantly waited for our early morning train, but when we did not disembark he was fretful and paralyzed. However, after many warm and prolonged embraces and a few explanations, the worry vanished, a joyful reunion ensued, and we began to live into the purpose of our trip.
As I had first noticed, nothing about their home was the same. After Ligia’s mother died and they inherited the house, funds inherited from Titi’s side of the family were used to vastly upgrade their home, including a modern and well lighted living room and a grand piano that Titi played like a virtuoso. During the last years under communism clandestine Bible studies were held in this room, despite the fact that it looked out upon secret police headquarters. Their home also had some extra folks, helping with the work and playing with the children, who needed a helping hand during the economically desperate times that were the dark side of freedom.
Over lunch Titi alerted me that the church was gathering for worship that evening to prepare for the evangelistic services that would begin the following day. Only church members would be present today and I was to direct my preaching at encouraging them to bring guests to the special three day event and to be in prayer for its success. I had never before preached a sermon towards that end and there was nothing in the sermonic tool bag I had brought with me to Romania that was useful. How was I to pull off this motivational feat? Titi seemed to be taking it for granted that I knew exactly what to do. In fact he kept on telling me how much he was depending on me, how the future of his church was at stake. Titi was freaking me out. I did not have the heart, yet, to confront his overconfidence in me. But I did remember to remember, “Everything I have I do not need. Everything I need I do not have.”
Spontaneously, as the afternoon passed, I found myself asking, “Who in my Christian journey has motivated me to be someone new?” I remembered Professor James Ashbrook at the seminary who first challenged me to be honest about myself, to acknowledge my flaws before God and my classmates. My personal story guided me back to the Bible, to Jesus, and the way he motivated the disciples to become fishers of men. Unexpectedly, suddenly, I realized that I could tell elements of these stories to Titi’s congregation in order to motivate them for their evangelistic mission. “Get them to show up,” I would exclaim. “Only then can your friends be encouraged to consider Jesus.” Remembering how difficult it was to get my church members back home to invite friends to church, I thought I might add, “In the recent past being bold was dangerous. Now you are free to be daring. Use your freedom!” I wrote a few notes down and figured that speaking from my heart was the best I could do.
That evening after worship Titi made it clear that nothing much had happened. We had just dropped off the last church member who needed a ride and we were finally alone. I was incredulous and bruised when he insisted, “You are going to have to do better than that tomorrow.”
Just before we got to his house I told Titi to pull the car over to the curb. The tears flooded forth. When I was finally able to speak I told my dearest friend, “You can’t lay that burden on me. I am not responsible for the success of your church, not even for the success of the evangelistic services. For ten years you have been my faith instructor. Now you are acting like you have no faith at all.” That’s when I told Titi about our encounter with the angel at the railroad station in Samaria. That’s when I told him that God would provide what was needed for these evangelistic services. “Everything I have I do not need, everything I need I do not have. That is the same for you, Titi.” Then it came to me in a flash. “Samaria,” I reminded Titi and myself, “was a village in the Bible that Jesus visited. He was alone at the well with a woman from that village who was rejected and despised. But within a few minutes Jesus turned her into an evangelist. Who would have entrusted the Gospel to one such as her, to one such as me?”
I must have gotten through to Titi because he answered my plea only with silence, until he leaned over and gave me a hug. “God told me to ask you to return to Romania. God will give you what you need,” he affirmed me with word and emotion. Then I divulged to Titi that I needed his help. I need you to tell me everything you know about the particular populace that would be attending the evangelistic services. The most important insight he shared was that there would be many former communists who carried a terrible burden of guilt for the myriad of malevolent ways they had buttressed the dictatorial government. The citizens of my city are divided by decades of stored up distrust. “How can these people be one in Christ? God needs to save us.” Now I understood why so much was at stake and why Titi had been so afraid.
Early the next morning I told Titi I needed to use their computer. I had some writing to do. He cleared his children away from the PC and I went to work. Within a few hours I had written my way into the heart of the evangelistic undertaking that was ahead of us. The title of each sermon was the lead character in each of four Biblical stories, Nicodemus, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, Zacchaeus and The Persistent Widow.
That evening, the church was packed. The sermon was preached. A crowd of worshippers came forward for the altar call. Hundreds needed to be greeted at the back of the church. Handshakes and hugs and kisses abounded. A handsome guy with a stately beard approached me. I recognized him from the altar call at the end of the service. His name was Dorin. He spoke English. He said, “Thank you.” Then he pronounced, “I am Nicodemus.” My tears flowed. I could feel that something life changing was happening here. He added, “I came to Jesus in the dark of the night. I could not let anyone see me. I knew what they would think of me only as a former communist. I persecuted the church. Some of the people here tonight were my victims. I am Nicodemus. Thank you for telling my story.” More tears.
I was overwhelmed. For one sermon lasting 40 minutes I, apparently had been given the gift of evangelism.
When we returned home we sat at the table with a loaf of bread and a couple of bottles of coke and Titi and Ligia told me Dorin’s story. He was the conductor of the Arad Philharmonic Orchestra, a job he could not have held without being an ally of the communists. From his post he listened to much more than the instruments playing all around him. He listened also to the chatter and the political complaints and he spied on his friends and he sold his soul, he believed, to the darkness. Today, when he identified with the lead character in the evening’s sermon, Nicodemus, Dorin had discovered that he too could be born again.
The next evening the church was packed. The sermon was preached. An even larger crowd answered the altar call. Hundreds of worshippers needed to be greeted. A striking woman approached me. She spoke English. Her name was Corrine. I recognized her from the altar call. As if there was not a moment to lose she announced, “I am the Samaritan Woman at the Well.” Obviously there was something familiar about the sound of her salutation. “I am the Samaritan Woman at the Well.” “I am Niccodemus.” What is happening here?
Something was happening there. Dorin and Corrine, and many others, were not responding to my “inspired” preaching. They were taking action towards the transformation of their lives in reaction to a Biblical story. We came from different cultures and unique situations in life but we had the Biblical stories in common. All the sermons I brought with me from Columbus, Ohio to Arad, Romania, I did not need. I just needed the Biblical stories that had already been planted as seeds in the hearts of those who had not yet discerned how forgiven and beloved they are.
“I am the Samaritan Woman at the well.” I heard in Corrine’s announcement that for a second time I had been given the gift of evangelism.
In the car on the way home I learned Corrine’s story. She was a medical doctor, which required that she also be a communist. She was in love, with a man who had been as lost as she. She was as kind and gentle and generous as a person could be but the world judged and rejected her and negated their love. His name was Dorin. Joan and I spent many hours with then in the ensuing ten days of our Romanian pilgrimage. We became fast friends. We talked about the darkness and we conversed about the light. And a few months after we returned home they were both baptized and the church was full of their former communist friends who were curious or intrigued about what in the world could be happening to their comrades. A month or so later they were married in the church and Dorin became the church organist. Titi kept us informed about the maturing spiritual lives of these and other converts and celebrated with us the ways the evangelistic services had opened new vistas for the church. I returned home without the gift of evangelism and cannot think of a single time in the past 20 years when I have received and practiced this gift. But I have practiced, day by day, many times each day, the revelation heard on a railroad platform in Samaria, Romania; “Everything I have I do not need and everything I need I do not have.”
By the way, on our last day in Romania Joan and I took Corrine and Dorin out to lunch and then Dorin said he had something to share with us. We walked a few blocks and entered an aged and massive stone building through a back entrance. We walked through various halls until we found ourselves entering at the rear of a spacious and opulent auditorium. Corrine, Joan and I sat near the front and Dorin walked towards the stage. Unexpectedly the entire Arad Philharmonic Orchestra came on stage, took their seats and began to perform the complete repertoire of their Spring Concert which opened in just a couple of days. Dorin had scheduled a full dress rehearsal for an audience of three. This was an extravagant gift! I was reminded of the extravagance of God and how close to heaven can one get while still living on this earth.