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 second of an eleven-part series that is one answer to these questions.)
“Ken, I guarantee you, you will feel so much pain on this trip and you will pray so hard that you will never for an instant feel like you are a tourist. And I guarantee you, when you return home you will understand that you have saved the lives of your Baptist brothers and sisters living under communism.”
Among my significant others, there was no resistance to my accepting a call to a Preaching Mission behind the Iron Curtain. This was a surprise. My wife and I were tightly inter-dependent in parenting Stacey and to leave for two weeks would be asking a lot of her. The Deacons had, early in my ministry, made decisions that their priority was caring for people near to home instead of getting excited about world missions. My spiritual friends would expect me to weigh my motivations, including the extent of my self-serving enthusiasm—who wouldn’t want to travel on an adventure to Europe? I had a related doubt. I was suspicious. Maybe this preaching mission was not really a serious spiritual venture and mission. Maybe I was only needed as a warm body to fill the last seat on the bus. Who was I anyway? I did not come close to matching the credentials of almost everyone else in the delegation. Maybe we were not even a delegation, just a pack of sightseers venturing out to stare at the misery of Christians living under communist oppression.
Fortunately, when I opened up a bit to Reinhold Kerstan, the architect of this expedition, he was a bit harsh with me. He told me that most Baptists in America had no idea how much the Baptists of Eastern Europe depended on us for their survival. Reinhold instructed me that when he, as a representative of the Baptist World Alliance, wrote a letter to a Romanian Pastor that this distressed servant of the Lord would literally hold the communiqué to his heart and thank God for God’s protection. If he got through on the phone, the Romanian pastor would do anything to extend the call. Then Reinhold Kerstan added, “The Baptists of Eastern Europe need us and they need you. After you return from Hungary and Romania, you will find yourself searching, for the rest of your life, for ways to again be such a powerful witness for Christ.” That was good enough for me.
Reinhold knew about the pain and the prayers that were to come in Hungary and Romania but he did not mention the anguish and the petitions that would fill my days for the next three monthsof preparation and packing. What caused the pain? What was so frightening? I was privileged and energized simply by being included in this Preaching Mission. But I also had learned about myself, from past travels. There was a high probability that early on in the trip I would freak out. This seems to be the best way to put it, “freak out.” My malady would have something to do with jet lag and something to do with fear of failure and something to do with general anxiety and a lot to do with what is popularly called being “home-sick.” From mid-January to mid-April I often struggled with hesitations. I passed through them largely because my wife, church and spiritual friends were so positive. And then there was another factor–neurotic busyness. I eased my apprehension by being as organized as organized could be. In the strange and wonderful ways God works, this overanxious preparation would turn out to be one of my more uncommon and extraordinary contributions to our mission trip and a gift that has not yet stopped giving.
My friend, Bob Williams, the Executive Minister of American Baptists in New Hampshire, had been to Romania just a year before we went. I went to visit Bob hoping that his insights could be translated into my careful preparations. He gave me a list of his friends in Romania. He said I could trust these individuals–trust being a very big deal–that I was to greet in his name. Bob shared his experiences with various leaders as well as the kinds of conflicts that burdened Romanian Baptist life with all manner of peril. We spent most of our time thrashing out how a Baptist from North America could presume to be a relevant preacher to servants of Christ coping with obscured oppression. Bob’s thoughts here seemed inspired. I had this feeling of assurance during our conversation that God was guiding me through Bob. Overall, my hours with him seemed to turn the lights on for me, lights I would be able to shine in whatever darkness I encountered. Immediately thereafter I began writing three sermons on what I was convinced were God’s assigned themes.
In addition, I asked Bob what, if any, gifts I should bring to leave with the Baptists of Hungary and Romania. His answers steered me towards making, it turned out, very good choices. Bob believed, “You need as many small and symbolic items as you can afford and carry.” Years earlier I had begun wearing a small fish and cross pin on the lapel of a couple of the jackets I wore on Sundays. This symbol dates from the earliest Christian years. Persecuted and secretive Christians would draw a fish symbol in their food or in the dirt to announce their allegiance to Christ, but only to other believers. This symbol could be the perfect declaration of our mutual reliance on Jesus, so I sought a deal at the local Christian book store and procured 300 fish and cross pins. Not all of them got to Eastern Europe. When I shared at the next Deacon’s meeting that I would carry the fish and cross symbol to Hungary and Romania, my friend and Deacon, Dick, proposed that I also give the pins to prayer partners who would wear them each day I traveled amidst the known and unknown hazards faced daily by Christians under the sway of communism. To this day I can remember the relief and empowerment I felt from Dick’s suggestion. I would not be alone. By the way, when I returned home Dick had some worthy stories to tell of witnessing to others who inquired about his fish and cross pin.
Before I left for Eastern Europe, I got up to speed on the history of Hungary and Romania and current events in these countries. I continued seeing my counselor and talked with her about my ongoing struggle between fear and faith. Terrible stories about the persecution and torture of Christians arrived at my reading table. These stories doubled and redoubled my sober anticipation as to what was at stake. I found a source for Romanian Bibles, even though it was doubtful they would cross the border with us. Then there were hundreds of Bible pencils for the children. Our local newspaper provided me with some black and white film so I could create a front-page article for them. Worry coerced deep prayer.
Throughout this entire three months, I never got comfortable concerning this Preaching Mission. But time after time, person after person, answered prayer after guiding word, I was grasped by the significance of what I was about to do. This mission behind the Iron Curtain was of such great consequence that God was pulling out all the stops to get me ready and even from within my anxiety I was dazzled by the divine display. (To be continued next week.)