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 fourth of an eleven-part series that is one answer to these questions.)
Reinhold had traveled before under the strictures of communist and other coercive governments, he told me, and it was never possible for Americans to figure out what behavior would or would not build binding ties to our Baptist brethren nor what behavior would incur the wrath of the oppressors. “Just make sure you are listening to God.”
Having escaped the clutches of fear, and having laughed my way back to expectancy, I was ready for whatever came next. But there are no common categories into which I can plug the evening that was to be. We arrived over two hours late for worship but Reinhold, knowing how much we were dependent on God, would not be hurried. It was time to pray. A celebrated evangelist in our group called us to prayer and led us to all the spiritual spaces that, it would turn out, we needed to explore. From these “prayers on the bus” I grew to understand what community prayer could be, when the people of God acknowledge how utterly we need God. We were all in this together and we were lifted closer and closer to God. This happened every day, often more than once, prior to meeting up with a new group of Baptists. And it was irrelevant who was praying. It was never about skill; it was always about need. After prayer, long and strong, we were ushered into the basement of a church in Arad, Romania.
Set before us was a banquet fit, by Romanian standards, for the wealthy. Across the table was a young Baptist couple, Titi and Ligia Bulzan. He was an architect, whenever the communists let him build anything, and youth pastor of his church. She was an English teacher. Casually, thinking this indeed was to be a vital and informative aspect of our trip, I asked Titi, “When will we have free time to visit the Baptists of Romania in their homes? Quickly Titi’s eyes darted towards his wife and she nodded slightly and he said, “Meet us at the front door of the church as soon as possible after worship.” “Cool,” I said to myself, far too naive to have any idea what I had just set in motion.
Dinner took a long time, the courses of our meal were varied and delicious, but finally it was time for church. We were utterly unprepared for what was waiting for us up the back staircase and around a corner and through the back door of the church; jaw-dropping, eye-popping, heart-pounding, knee rattling, tear-jerking astonishment. The sanctuary was jammed, pressed-down and running over, with hundreds of children and youth and a thousand or more men and women of all ages. The aisles were crammed full of worshippers and dozens of heads were thrust through the windows. And everyone was quiet, as if we were arriving for evening prayers in a monastery. They had been waiting for hours, longing to see us, to see me. How strange! What circumstances in the lives of these folks could possibly motivate such a longing? I caught the eye of a teenage boy standing just a few feet from me; I detected a tear falling from that eye. I returned the expression in kind.
The service was an emotional blur. Tears, laughter, awe, joy, inspiration, more tears and more joy and more inspiration. A grand orchestra played. With no other place to sit, a couple of cute boys sat on the floor under the tubas for more than four hours. Three preachers proclaimed the word. Worship was dotted with ritual welcomes, “I bring you greetings from Dr. Denton Lotz, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. He wants you to know that you are one in Christ with Baptists all over the world.” This was anything but a perfunctory greeting. Words like these were a life line for Baptists who could, at any moment, hear the terrorizing secret police knock on their front door. On Monday morning some participants in Sunday’s worship would in fact be rounded up and detained at headquarters. The secret police didn’t want to know anything. After all they were themselves scattered through the crowd. They only wanted to intimidate, keep these Christians off balance and malleable. This being the case, what happened next was even more startling. The service ended. We were quickly surrounded by Romanians seeking a personal touch from America. I had pockets full of fish and cross pins, Bible pencils and book marks. As I think about this now, it may well have been the only time in my life that I had to deal with all the blessings and curses of celebrity. “Exciting” barely begins to describe the pleasure of sharing tokens of love and being appreciated by as many people as I could greet in Christ’s name. But soon enough it was time to board the bus and find our hotel. Not me, and not my roommate, Ryan, whom I cornered and talked into a late evening foray into a residential neighborhood near the church.
We found Titi and Ligia already on the move and not looking at us. Titi whispered, “Follow us but not too close.” Ryan threw a glance at me that complained, “What have you gotten me into?” I shrugged an unspoken answer, “How am I supposed to know?”
It was not far to their home. We walked along a wall that ran an entire city block until Titi and Ligia stopped and unlocked a door within the wall that opened into a small antique living room. We entered and sat. I don’t know how to fully describe what happened. How do I pass on to you the personal warmth and the shocking revelations and the emergent blessings? Somewhere in the next two hours I began to understand a few of the complex and confusing facets of Baptist life in Romania. I was filled with deep sorrow as I heard for the first time gut wrenching stories of betrayal that explain why Baptist leaders in Romania don’t trust and often even hate one another. At one instant in our introduction to each other’s worlds, it hit me square in the face the risk Titi and Ligia were taking to entertain us in their home. Indeed, Titi was called in twice that week for questioning while Ligia stayed home to panic. Yet, the other side of this equation is that I began a life-changing friendship with two of the most faithful and loving Christians I have ever known. And I, and later my church, had a life-saving impact on their entire family and ministry.
Of course, the next day our leader was forced again to call me on the carpet—he didn’t even bother with my roommate; everyone knew who the trouble maker was—to let me know what our communist guide thought about my late night rambling. Reinhold also mentioned that I needed to keep the welfare of our entire group in mind. If I was out of control the communists could and would pull more tightly the strings that were keeping the entire mission team constricted to a restraining agenda. Given the logic of this risk, it is intriguing that Reinhold did not seem too worried. He had said what his position required him to say and then, moving on quickly, he added, “And, oh,” as if none of this had even happened, “Are you ready to preach on I Peter at Timisoara this morning.” I was ready, even though this opportunity was so unlikely!
I had asked Titi the innocent question, “When will we have free time to visit the Baptists of Romania in their homes?” But it turned out to be the right question, even though I had only “stumbled” upon it. Some of the best questions originate with God and are then passed on by our voices.
Titi Bulzan could have easily dodged my question simply by answering the literal inquiry. He could have said, “You will have to ask your group leader or your guide,” or “You won’t have any free time because the communists will keep you tied up in knots to keep you away from the people.” Those answers would be true but they would also avoid the meaning of the question. I believe that Titi and Ligia had given this innocent question their thought and prayer. They must have decided that face to face encounters with Baptists from around the world were worth the risk, despite the fact that their three precious little ones were asleep in the next room with grandma. One way I honor their daring, even audacity, is to remember Titi and Ligia whenever God calls upon me to be courageous.
(To be continued next week.)