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 seventh of an eleven-part series that is one answer to these questions.)
Titi is now safer than he has ever been. Having been our translator and having made many personal connections to the west, he would now be protected under the Baptist World Alliance umbrella.
I had never been on such a colossal airplane. Members of our group appeared to be sitting at vast distances from one another in randomly selected seats as we traveled west from Frankfort, Germany, to New York City. It seemed to me that we were also separating from each other spiritually and emotionally. I wondered if any of us had ever before been part of a group that had come together so deeply in prayer as we shared days full of unrelenting stress and profound purpose. I certainly had not. Now we were leaving each other and our mission. For the first three flight hours I wrote in my journal, recording especially all of the encounters with God in Hungary and Romania that I did not want to ever forget. Then I began writing about political conflicts I had observed among the Romanian Baptists and the confusing issue of whether or not it could be reasonably said that the Baptists had some semblance of religious freedom. And that led me to ruminating again about my new Romanian friends and the persecution they faced, some of it directly related to what we, I, had said and done. Suddenly I knew I needed to talk and see if a wise someone might help me dig my way out of troubling anxiety. I picked Brian, the president of a Southern Baptist College, because he never seemed to be afraid to contemplate the truth and because there was an empty seat beside him on the far side of the plane.
Brian welcomed the conversation and I began by telling him that I had been writing in my journal and found myself getting more and more preoccupied about Titi Bulzan and other friends who took risks to be transparently present to us in Hungary and Romania. Brian informed me of what he had learned in a couple of conversations with Romanian Baptists he trusted. He reported, “In ways we will never fully understand, Titi and others engineered their encounters with us just like the BWA carefully strategized all of our east-west meetings.” I was intensely relieved to possess this information. I also began reflecting on a previously difficult to practice spiritual truth: I discern my role and do my part and only my part. I am much less powerful than I sometimes think I am and God is much more powerful that I often give God credit for being. In the end I must obey scripture; “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” After some silence I asked Brian, “Is this the end of our mission to Hungary and Romania?”
He answered, “A half dozen Romanian leaders have all of my contact information. A couple of Romanians also gave me a variety of ways I might be able to contact them. A future that includes one of us remaining connected with any one of them is dubious at best, but who would have guessed what has already come to pass?”
My mission to Hungary and Romania did not end upon returning home. The interest for reports and stories in my church was skyscraper high. George Simpson, the editor of the national newspaper for Canadian Baptists, asked me to write a lead article for their journal that focused on what we learned about religious freedom in Communist countries. Our local paper in Littleton, Massachusetts, printed a two page article with many dramatic photographs. Other local churches invited me to speak and over the next year or so I made presentations to American Baptist Churches all over our state. I never tired of telling the stories, sharing my experiences of God, staying close to God as I pondered and prayed about what aspects of our preaching mission merited the attention of others. I always told the Christians I addressed, “The Baptists of Hungary and Romania are praying for you. As persecuted believers I believe that their prayers are powerful. These sisters and brothers in Christ, living under persecution, also appeal to you for your prayers for God’s intervention in their lives and countries. They depend on you for hope and for building a road towards freedom.”
My journey to Hungary and Romania, simply put, had no ending.
There is no way to underscore sufficiently the wonder, the miracle of what happened next. I experienced the phenomenon as if I were transported to heaven’s gate and was nearly blinded by the reflection of divine light flashing off golden streets. I realize that sounds like a flamboyant exaggeration. But you had to be there. You had to glimpse my soul when I remembered my Romanian friends in my prayers.
Two months can pass like no time at all when you are fully engaged in life. That’s how long it was from the day I returned home from Europe to a late and lazy afternoon in June 1982 when the phone rang and Titi and Ligia Bulzan were at the other end of the line. Titi’s words were so improbable that I literally translated them into something more plausible.
I asked, “Where in Romania does your sister live?”
“No,” Titi corrected me, “we are not at my sister’s house in Romania. We are in Newark, New Jersey, and we are about to board our plane to fly to my sister’s home in Oregon.”
“That’s not possible? How could that happen?” I protested.
Titi tried to quickly explain the inexplicable. “The Communists decided that they needed to get along better with me. So they gave Ligia and me permission to go see my sister. We had to come together so they could be certain we would return home for the sake of the children.” Then he concluded, “I have to go. But we will call back when we get to Oregon. I have a lot to tell you.”
I can still remember the sound, the texture, of his voice. It was like I had just heard that my best friend who had risen from the dead.
I got off the phone and cried and smiled ear to ear at the same time.
A day and a half later I was back on the phone with Titi. He and Ligia were traveling by faith, especially the faith that when they returned home they would not owe a faith-crippling debt to the communists. Others among Romanian Baptist has become suspected collaborators for accepting much smaller “privileges” from their oppressive government.
They had set out on their venture with severely inadequate resources. Ligia’s mother, who was taking care of the children back home, had given them her life savings for the trip, enough money for round trip tickets to the east coast of the United States. Titi’s sister had been able to fund only one way tickets to the west coast. They planned to stay with her about 6 days and could not return home for four more weeks. I did not yet own a computer but my mind was functioning like one and in a few seconds I had calculated how we would transform their four available weeks into ministry and how Titi and Ligia’s courage in beginning this journey would be transformed into celebration and opportunity to build the Kingdom of God. I told Titi that I had some work to do and would be calling him back within a few days.
Imagine that you are taking a walk on a hot summer day with your four year old daughter. You have a few dollars in your pocket and a wealth of love in your heart for your child. Suddenly she sees the ice cream store and shouts ever so sweetly, “Ice cream, Daddy, ice cream.” Without pause you turn into the ice cream store. So it was that I quickly and easily made a commitment to raise thousands of dollars and arrange travel, hospitality and speaking engagements across the country for Titi and Ligia. Their last ten days would be with my family and among the people of my church and our small town of Littleton, Massachusetts. Only a miracle could have brought them to our country and the God of signs and wonders would be certain to provide for all of their needs. God would also accomplish God’s not as yet revealed purpose for their presence among us.
Remember, most of the participants on our preaching mission to Romania were seminary and college presidents, denominational executives or pastors of large churches. It took about three days to contact a selection of these leaders, starting with Brian, who, I hoped, would be most open to receiving Titi’s ministry and most willing and able to help as sponsors of Titi and Ligia’s pilgrimage across America. In the final analysis everything came together easily. Titi preached and presented to audiences across the country, nothing contravened our plans and we raised about $2,000 more than we needed. This abundance was directed back to Romania to sustain the ministries of three pastors and churches.
My people at The First Baptist of Littleton, Massachusetts, as well as friends across the community, had heard many of my Romania stories, particularly as they were related to Titi Bulzan. He was something of a folk hero in my community. On their second evening in Littleton we had a festival. A local country band played lively music and we a feasted on Yankee pot roast and other country fare. I took more than a few minutes introducing my Romanian friends and then Titi earned their rapt attention with expressions of gratitude and stories of faith and heartfelt pleas for prayer for the Baptists, and everyone, living under communism. The Littleton newspaper once again covered this human interest story and headlined the Bulzan’s visit in their next issue. Then my family and Titi and Ligia went on vacation, an uncommon pleasure for folks fighting for survival in Eastern Europe. We already had reservations at a YMCA family camp on Sandy Island in Lake Winnepausake, New Hampshire. It was a perfect time and place to build friendships, especially between Titi and Ligia and my two year old daughter, Stacey. In fact, without Stacey I think the vacation would have been far more pain than joy for Ligia who was, by now, longing poignantly to return to her children.
There is a praise chorus that proclaims and repeats, “Our God reigns.” In a materialistic world where even religion is overrun by disbelief, how does one person’s experience that God reigns become a compelling witness to others? Such a witness most often begins with the faith-filled telling of a story. (To be continued next week.)