Sunday, October 30, 2016

Believing and Belonging, Part 7: Giving Yourself to God (Sunday, October 30, 2016)

This morning, I would like to focus our attention on one paragraph of our Church Covenant: Paragraph 6:

We will work together to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church, by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.
In order to properly understand what these words mean, I’d like to draw your attention to one verse in 2 Corinthians 8. It happens that, in the mid-50’s AD, there was a famine in places where Jesus had preached. The apostle Paul called on the Gentile churches in what is now Turkey to give to the needs of the Christians living in Palestine. In chapters eight and nine of 2 Corinthians, he calls on them to participate in this offering as they had promised. He reminds them of what the Macedonian churches had done in verses 3–5:
For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
Now this is not the passage I am going to use this morning for our consideration. I just want to draw your attention to the last verse I read: “They gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.”

I’d like to think that the words of our church covenant are a reflection of these words. The first sentence is about giving ourselves to God through our participation in the life and ministry of a local church; the second sentence is about our financial contribution to the work of the gospel. Both are important but they must go in that order: We give ourselves, then we give our resources.
So this morning I would like us to ask: “What does it mean to give ourselves first to the Lord? Why is it that the subject of “faithful giving” cannot be simply about giving money to God’s work? How do we give ourselves to God?”

We can gain some insight into that by looking at Jesus’ teaching in Luke chapter 14. This is on page 874 and I’d like you to look at it with me:
25Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Let’s pray: Our gracious and holy God: Thank you for carrying us safely through this last week and bringing us again to worship you this morning. When Jesus looked at the people of Galilee, he saw that “they were like sheep without a shepherd;” and, as a result, we are told that “he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6.34). We find ourselves in the same condition in this barren world through which we are making our pilgrimage. So please, Lord, teach us through your word by your Spirit today. May we find ourselves sitting at your feet and hearing your voice as we look into your sacred word. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We talk a lot at Grace about “discipleship.” This word simply means to be a learner or a pupil of Jesus. The idea is that the whole purpose of a local church is to be a place where people become well-instructed and devoted followers of Jesus Christ—we develop a growing grasp of his teachings; and that understanding is accompanied by a serious desire to put them into practice in our daily lives.

This passage is about discipleship—the section heading in my Bible is, “The Cost of Discipleship.” This is the essence of what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus asserts that the cost of following him is so high…
  •          That even your closest family members, whom you love, must become a distant second in comparison to him;
  •          That it means accepting any burden and carrying any load in life that he gives you;
  •          That, like a man building a tower, you had better assess carefully whether you have the resources to complete what you set out to do, or people will call you a quitter;
  •          That, like a king who stirs up conflict with another king, you should first assess whether you can win, otherwise you’ll be called a loser.
  •          In fact, he draws a simple, concise conclusion — v 33: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

This is quite an astounding demand and the context in which Jesus made it is even more disquieting. “Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned to them and said…” (v 25). This violates the usual strategy of Jesus in the gospels. Most of Jesus calls to discipleship were given to his closest followers in the context of their training by them. But this time, he turns to the crowds and he makes crystal clear to everyone what his message is really about — from little children, to casual listeners, to the religious opposition, to the most ardent believer present. He rolls back the curtains and says, “Let me give you a panoramic view of what I am all about —my object is to gain your exclusive devotion. If you become my follower, I will ask you to give up your agenda in life, whatever plans you have for yourself, whatever dreams you harbor about your greatest hopes, and I will expect you to accept my agenda for your life instead.”

That is a breathtaking requirement. The breadth of Jesus’ demand should sober you, even stun you.
Jesus calls you to give yourself to him. This means that you and I must say: Everything I am and everything I have is from God and I am simply the manager of it. This is the reality the gospel demands: Every resource I have been given in life—my mind, my temperament, my abilities, my liabilities and all that I gain by using those things, whether money, or relationships, or responsibilities… all of that is from God ultimately. He gives them to me to use for him during this short stay on the earth. Being his follower means to acknowledge NOW that all I am and have is from God: Therefore, I am going to manage what I have been given in order to honor God and maximize my impact for the gospel.

Now, what would it be like for you to choose, from the heart, to live by this conviction and its cor­responding resolution? What would need to happen for you to feel that this demand is, in fact, a gracious invitation from the Lord of the universe to do what is in your best interest? For you to realize, as Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he can­not lose.”

For that to happen, there are three things that you will need to do:
  •           You must, first, have the relationship that Jesus extends to you.
  •           Then, you must understand the commitment that Jesus asks.
  •           Lastly, you must make the choices that Jesus directs.

Let’s think about these together.

First, in order to respond to Jesus’ words here from the heart you need to first have the relationship that Jesus extends to you. Now I mean two things by this:

First, giving yourself to God is different from receiving eternal life. Receiving eternal life happens when we come to understand that we can do nothing to earn God’s favor. Because of our sin, we are guilty and lost and completely unable to change that condition—no amount of church attendance, Bible reading, being good, or giving money will ever make up for the fact that there is something dreadfully wrong with us, with our heart. When we realize that, we come to grasp the magnitude of our problem before God. The God who made us for himself, who is infinitely holy and created us to be holy as well must hate sin and reject sinners. But the gospel of Christ is that God sent his Son to live and die for us, in our place, so that when we trust him we are forgiven and cleansed and restored to God — by grace not by our own goodness or actions. Jesus says,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11.28–30).
And, second, giving yourself to God is something subsequent to receiving eternal life. Just as a child must have life before she lives life, you must be a Christian before you can live as a Christian. Jesus gracious invitation to receive the gift of eternal life must be received before we can begin to live out that life.

And it is only when we have the life of God — when we know that we are saved by grace and we belong to God — only then can we hear Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 14: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

First, you must have the relationship Jesus extends with his nail-pierced hands. Then, and only then, can you begin to understand the commitment that Jesus asks.

Now, in the passage it is evident that Jesus as asking for total commitment. To express the concept of total commitment he uses hyperbole — he overstates the requirements. He exaggerates! What, you say? Well, look at verse 26:
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
These words raise for us the impossibility of the request he is making. I have a natural love for my parents, for my wife, and even more for my children! That’s a built in response that the Bible affirms I should have! How can I hate them?

Well, obviously Jesus is speaking of a comparison — everything else in life, even the most important things, lose their importance in comparison to the devotion, the love, and the dedication we give to Jesus. He must come first.

And the last saying, verse 33:
"So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14.33)
How could I renounce all that I have? And, if I ever did, how could I guarantee that I wouldn’t find something the next day that I have and want to keep.

Again, this is an exaggeration: Everything in life belongs to him; he loans it to us for the short time of our lives. To renounce all that we have means to use it as though it were only loaned to us — to hold it like this [clenched fist turned down], so that I can let it go when it is demanded back.

The commitment Jesus is asking is worded so as to give us a taste of the magnitude of the request and the impossibility of fulfilling it in human terms.

Consider a person, man or woman, in their thirties and forties. Often, in those years you are going through the most intense period of responsibility you will ever face. You still have children at home and they are growing up. At the same time, you have aging parents and they may require care that is both time-consuming and heart-wrenching. And, at the same time, you may be at the point of entering into greater responsibility in your chosen profession — thirties and forties are times when people move up the company ladder or find themselves as leaders in their field. You often feel pulled in all directions at once. And, if your children do their job, you don’t find raising them to be as easy as you would like — they have this uncanny ability to not really care about your other responsibilities as they move toward developing their own attitudes and making their own way in life. It can get pretty hairy.

Now, consider your youngest child, the seven year old child. She comes home from school and feels the pressure of relationships with classmates some of whom aren’t so nice, the pressure of learning to read beyond the basics, and not having enough time to play after school because of piano lessons.
You want to say, “Okay kid, let me tell you what real pressure is!” Of course, you don’t if you’re a good parent because you know that she is handling the pressure she feels at a seven year old level, as she should. She doesn’t need to feel your pressure.

But the fact is, the demands of life are way beyond her ability to comprehend. What will be expected of her in life is the kind of devotion you are now being called upon to show in your job and your marriage and your parenting. What is required of you is even for you overwhelming at times.

And that’s what Jesus’ call to discipleship really means: It is a statement of the all-encompassing nature of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
  •          Can anyone do it perfectly? Only the Son of God!
  •          Is it realistic? Not humanly speaking!
  •          Is it what Jesus requires of us? Absolutely!

So, what it means to give ourselves to God is to follow Jesus Christ in discipleship. It means to give up our agenda in life in order to adopt his agenda for our lives.
          We need, first, to have the relationship with God that he calls us into through Jesus. That’s the starting point. Without that, discipleship is simply a list of things to do in order to try to make God happy and get him to accept you. Like putting the cart before the horse, the demands of discipleship by themselves provide no power. But when you have the favor or God and you know that he accepts you through Jesus Christ, then your obedience then your obedience is the gratitude of a well-loved child.
      And, second, we need to understand that the demands of discipleship are beyond human capacity and that they are the growing responsibilities of God’s children as we grow up to adulthood in faith and spiritual life. 

So, lastly, we must make the choices that Jesus directs us to make.

Let’s look one more time at the paragraph in our church covenant:
We will work together to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church, by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.
This isn’t meant to be a complete description of everything that discipleship demands. In fact, the whole church covenant isn’t a complete statement of that — the whole Bible is written to picture for us the life of discipleship. But this statement is meant to underscore what it means to give ourselves to God.

What this paragraph emphasizes is the context of discipleship. After all, if you want to list the ways in which you might give yourself to God, the list would be endless. But, the context in which we are called to live the life of discipleship is clear: the local church. The church is the family in which we are birthed to life and called to learn to live for God. And in that context we are called to participate in the activities of discipleship.

These words are not meant to say that everything in life must be focused on the local church and they are not meant to limit the way in which you live as a disciple. They are simply meant to express that your primary responsibility is to the family in which God has placed you. It is by participating in the life of the church that your life of discipleship is shaped, enhanced, and used. It is, according to the Bible, the primary place in which you give yourself to God.

Let’s step back for a minute and ask, “What is this church covenant all about?”

In essence, the whole point is about discipleship. In many ways, the days in which you and I are living are unique. I don’t use that word lightly because, generally speaking, I think people today think that they are somehow different than the common human clay that has preceded us on this planet. There is a lack of understanding today that our ancestors were no different than we are despite the fact that they didn’t experience our technological advancement.

But even though that is true, I want you to note that we are living in days in which the future of our country and of the Christian movement in the US is being determined. And if there is anything we Christians need to do it is to clarify the nature of true Christian discipleship.

I returned on Wednesday evening from the Balkans. I was with many people whom I have known and loved for many years. I didn’t plan this trip in order to escape the presidential election but, when I went, I was looking forward to some respite from the news for a few weeks. But everywhere I went — in Macedonia, in Kosovo, and in Albania; and everyone I met — missionaries from South America, from the Balkans, from the UK and from the United States… everyone asked me about the election and who I wanted to see win. And they weren’t shy about telling me what they thought should happen. And they said, “What happens to the US affects us.”

Our church covenant is not about the election. No, it’s about something much bigger than the election. It’s about you and I giving ourselves “first to the Lord and then by the will of God to” other people for the sake of the gospel of Christ. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip - Tetovo, Macedonia (Final Day)

Today G. & K, and I drove up into the mountains of the Albanian Alps and visited a Ski Lodge. I never thought I would find anything like this in Macedonia! There is a town full of chalets up in the mountains with magnificent ski hills.

We took a long walk to a beautiful resort - interestingly, there was an Orthodox Chapel on the grounds of the resort. G. said Albanians would never come to this resort or eat at the restaurant; it must be only for the Macedonians or Serbs to vacation. There were other hotels as well that would be more accommodating to Albanians.
On the way back down, we stopped and I took this panoramic picture of the city of Tetovo - 100,000 people "having no hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2.12).
In the evening, G. and I spent a couple of hours over coffee with F. (missionary from El Salvador) discussing the work of building relationships in the city and seeking to establish a foundation for the communication of the gospel. G. says that Kosovo was in the same state when he moved there in 2004 - now I just think of the 15-20 ardent Christians, especially the young men, that I met in the church in Gjilan.

I leave this beautiful country wanting to pray that God will do the same thing here in Macedonia.

Monday, October 24, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip - Gjilan, Kosovo

Saturday afternoon I spoke to the Young People's Meeting (high school and college). They are just starting the year and only a couple of teens were present in addition to five leaders who are all in their early twenties. The young couple whose wedding I attended in Gjilan on October 9 are volunteers - I didn't recognize the woman until she told me her name and I realized this was the bride. They were both pleased to see pictures that I took at the wedding, especially of some of the women dancing a traditional dance.

Lirik is from Gjilan, Kosovo; Christina is from Shkoder, Albania where she and her sister attended "The Brother's Church" as they call it here. That is a Christian Brethren Assembly in Shkoder, which is the kind of churches Laura and I came out of when we planted Grace. They met in some combined church events. I learned on Sunday that this is only the third time Christina has been at the church in Gjilan. Now that they are married and living in Gjilan, she is a member along with her husband.

The official name of the church that G. started in Gjilan is "Bashkesia Ungillore Dyert e Hapura" or Open Door Evangelical Fellowship - in Kosovo, they avoid the word Church since it is used for the Serbian Orthodox Church, the long-time "enemy" of the Kosovar Albanians. The building is close to where Paulin & Violeta live so I was there a number of times for various meetings.

Sunday morning I spoke to the church. There were about 40 people present - though this number included five missionaries with two children and five men who are a part of a drug rehab center that one of the missionaries runs in a nearby village. I was pleased to meet Hysen's brother, Eduard. I didn't know that he was in the rehab center but learned that G. helped him to go there.

Drugs has become a serious problem in the Balkans. Under Communism there were no illegal drugs; one was imprisoned for even being in a house in which drugs were found. The end of Communism has brought an end to that kind of A great deal of marijuana is grown in Albania and then smuggled into Kosovo and other Balkans countries. Heroin has followed and now there is quite a serious problem with it. The center accepts men with any kind of addiction and is unique at this point in the Balkans. The leader, Curt (from Switzerland), has influenced many of those in the program to come to faith in Christ.
This picture was taken before the church meeting started.

The rest of those in the meeting were from the church; not all are members, some are visiting or learning. There are a number of very strong young men in the church. Paulin (the pastor) has started a deacons group with eight young men. They are meeting twice each month for prayer and study and he is allowing them to help make certain decisions for the church. This seems quite well thought through and we should pray that it bears fruit.

Sunday evening I went out to dinner with Paulin & Violeta. I am so impressed with the maturity that I see in them now and their commitment to the men and women of the church.

Today, the Albanians have been meeting with the missionaries for continued discussion and reconciliation. I have been working on a number of things in preparation for my return to the US on Wednesday.

Friday, October 21, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip—Prishtina, Kosovo

Today, G. came to Gjilan and the Albanians (Paulin, Violeta, Geni, G.) were planning to have a series of meetings with the missionaries. Since I knew they would all be tied up in conversations today, I decided to go to Prishtina (the capitol, about one hour away) to visit Hysen (pronounced Hyoo’-sen — Hussein in Arabic) & Esmeralda Kanani. Esmeralda and Hysen are both from Gypsy families in Albania (Gypsies are officially the Roma people; Esmeralda & Hysen are from another people group, considered lower than the Roma, and found only in the Balkans, but also called Gypsies in popular culture). He has been on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (“Cru” in the US) for ten years and is the “campus director” at the University of Prishtina.

For those who have never heard me speak of Esmeralda, she grew up on Shkodër in extreme poverty; for a time, she lived in a cave on the mountain where Rozafa castle overlooks Shkodër. G.’s parents (Roza and Zef), who became believers through G. in 1993 met her when they were ministering to Gypsies in the city — something unheard of in Albanian culture. Her mother left her with two other children and moved to Italy. When her father died, he asked G.’s parents to adopt her. On my first trip to Shkodër in 1996, I met her when she was nine years old. Roza and Zef were at that time having trouble with her grandmother who was, I think, trying to get money from them to adopt her.

Eventually she was adopted and raised by G.’s parents. She moved with G., K., and Roza to Gjilan, Kosovo in 2004 (Zef died in 1997) where she finished high school and then attended the University of Prishtina.  I have never met a more gentle, loving soul in my life. Her life should be a Hollywood movie.

Hysen met me at the bus station and took me to the beginning of their staff meeting. There are seven staff at the University of Prishtina — he asked if I would lead a Bible Study with them. I met with them from 10:30a – 12:00p. Mostly I told them about my time on Campus Crusade Staff at Virginia Tech (1976–1978), about starting our church, meeting G. in 1991 in Athens, and the relationship of our church with G. and his workers.

Interestingly, I didn’t need a translator because they all spoke better English than Hysen & Esmeralda.

I asked them about their ministry and learned that there is only one Christian student involved in their ministry. They have about forty other students who are coming to various kinds of meetings during the week. In Kosovo, despite the fact that most people are nominally/culturally Muslim, there is little opposition to sharing their faith. However, for a student to make a decision to trust in Christ and follow him is very difficult. They cannot make “individual” decisions — rather, they have to consult their family for any change of that nature. Most are supported by “a rich uncle.” Usually, this is someone in the family, possibly outside the country, who provides for them while they are at the University. To change religions is not something that would be wise because they will most likely lose this support and then not be able to go to university. 

(With the Cru Staff Team at University of Prishtina)

I asked them how they maintain their encouragement in the face of so little fruit (in terms of conversions to Christ) from their work. They all spoke the importance of their staff team, of the encouragement of their church in the city. They told me about a village of 50 people in Kosovo where the men decided that they were sick of Islam and wanted to become Christians (they had met some Christians in Albania during the Kosovar crisis). So they contacted the pastor and asked him to come — all fifty people came to Christ. They are looking forward to moving of God’s Spirit among students like that!

So, I led them in a brief Bible Study from Psalm 25.14,
"The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant."
We discussed the importance of maintaining closeness to God and I spent time in prayer for them.
I went out to lunch with Esmeralda, Hysen, and Emet at a nice restaurant. Esmeralda told me that Laura and I gave her the first doll she ever owned when we came to Albania the second time (in the fall of 1996). She was still staying with her grandmother before she was adopted and Roza would only let her play with it when she was at her house.

In my life- and ministry-experience, Esmeralda is the greatest example of God’s sovereign grace — grace that reaches to the most unlikely places and people, lifts them up, grants them his life, and transforms them into something beautiful for his own glory. A gypsy girl, despised in her culture, made the daughter of the King of kings. Ephesians 2 says,
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (verses 4, 10)
The word translated workmanship is, in Greek, poēma (from which we get the word ‘poem’). It means a work of fine craftsmanship — a masterpiece. Esmeralda is God’s masterpiece which he displays to the host of heaven, both now and for eternity to come, as an example of his saving power.
For those from Grace Church who are reading this blog: Hysen was supported solely by Campus Crusade for Christ for the first five years and then he began to raise support. They supplemented his support until two years ago and now they are supported by donations to the organization (in the US). I found out today that they have only made it this year because of a $5,000 gift we gave them from the World Ministries Budget at the end of 2015 (we hadn’t given our entire missions budget in December, and the team chose to give some of the remainder to them).

It is my practice not to raise support at the church for outside missionaries — this is why I rarely talk about Church Expansion Albania (CEA) and the three families I am meeting with and mentoring on this trip to the Balkans. I am concerned that we learn as a congregation to first support our local ministry as a church before supporting other causes; we are just doing that. However, I will make a exception for this: If you have any interest in supporting Hysen and Esmeralda Kanani, you may go to the following website: and type Hysen Kanani in the search box. Their account is # 2812954 (I don’t think you need the account number to give). 
Added Note: Kosovars LOVE Bill Clinton because he bombed Serbia during the Kosovar crisis in 1999 (without asking Congress for permission, I might add). They have a stature of him on Bill Klinton Boulevard in the center of the city. I had my picture taken with him for your edification. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip — Gjilan, Kosovo

My trip with Edi from Shkodër to Gjilan on Tuesday was uneventful. It took about five hours through the Balkan Alps. A very good road (superior to Michigan roads) has been built in the last ten years which goes through the mountains and makes the trip quicker.

We arrived shortly before G. came from Tetevo. I realized that Edi wanted to come in order to be part of a discussion about how to handle the difficult relational sitation (see post from Tuesday, October 11). Since I knew they needed to have a long discussion, I encouraged them to speak in Albanian while I did some work and to include me if they wanted my input. That was helpful because they moved faster than trying to speak in English and I got some work done; a few times, they filled me in on discussion and asked for my input.

The problem is difficult and G. was preparing to meet with some parties about the relational difficulty — one at a time — on Wednesday. The discussion, however, lasted from 6:00 pm until after midnight. I ended up going home with Geni to sleep in a real bed (G. and Edi slept on couches), but I found out today that G., Paulin, and Edi  continued to talk until 1:30 am.

There is not much to report about today. Edi has a bad cold and is staying one more day. G. had his meetings and then returned to Tetovo. The day was mostly relationship building and discussions over endless “coffees” (basically a small cappuccino) about church life and ministry.

Tonight, however, I led a Men’s Bible Study in Paulin’s house. The church has three small groups with three leaders. This summer they all met together on Wednesday evenings. In September and October, they divided into Men’s and Women’s Groups, and beginning in November (and through next May) they’ll meet as small home groups.  

There were thirteen men at the group — mostly young (ages 19–32), unmarried men. The groom from the wedding was there. He acted as my translator, since he lived and worked for three months in Chicago to earn money to get married. About half the men are those who came to Christ through G. and Paulini during their respective leadership ministries here (G.: 2004–2011; Paulin: 2011–present). The others are those whom Geni led to Christ.

I was told to lead on any subject I wanted. I chose the words of Ephesians 4.25:
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
I talked about the context (vv 17–24) being the grace of true conversion with all of the internal changes the Holy Spirit makes to our natural darkness. It’s on that basis that verse 25 says, “Therefore….” It’s difficult to lead a discussion when you are in a situation in which everything must be translated. I asked some questions about examples of certain kinds of “lying” which is common in all cultures.

When I was done, it was uncomfortably silent for a minute… and then Geni spoke a little and a rousing discussion happened for about 25 more minutes. He was making specific applications to the kinds of dishonesty people experience in Kosovo. I couldn’t follow it all (except when Lirik translated) but I could tell that it was at some points funny and at others quite serious. I actually felt good about this because I knew I was adequate mostly to bring up a topic, explain it in its context, and make some general applications — it was necessary for someone to take it further. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip — Shkodër, Albania

The statue of Isa Boletini represents the city of Shkodër. He was the hero of 1912 who is credited with starting the rebellion against the Ottoman Empire that ended Turkish rule in the Balkans after 600 years. When we first came, in 1996, the van driver was instructed to drop us off at "Isa Boletini" which was near G.'s parent's home. We called him "John Wayne" for many years. 

In the 1980’s, Shkodër was also the place where the democratic movement which toppled Communism began. There is a wall with relief figures in the city center which represents that fact. They are proud of their antiquity, independence, and leadership.

The stature represents in so many ways the fierce independence of the people here. Those who become Christians and are publicly baptized and well-taught often become fervent and faithful disciples. Hence the name of the church: Kisha Nxënesit e Jezusit, "Disciples of Jesus Church."

The church today is smaller and stronger than when I was last here. There are about twenty-five members with their children. The worship meeting today had about twenty-two adults and their children. Some of those who have stopped coming in the last two years have stopped because the standards of discipleship were stressed in a way that made it less comfortable for them to come. There are five or six families — including both husband and wife with their children. The rest of single adults or married people whose spouse does not attend.

The meeting yesterday for worship was serious and worshipful. After an opening (by Serjani), there was about twenty-five minutes of singing and prayer, which included the offering; then a five-minute exhortation and introduction of Devin and me by Serjani (who is the only one to have been here when I first came in 1996) and then I preached for about 35 minutes with translation. After this, Edi prayed for us and for Grace Church, there were a few announcements (on PowerPoint!), and I closed with a blessing from Hebrews 13.20–21.
I saw some whom I have not seen thus far on the trip — Ridi (who has been struggling in his relationship with God and in his involvement in church), “the other Bardha” (meaning, the woman named Bardha who is different from Edi’s wife), and Lida.

What a privilege to have a relationship with people who have come to trust in Jesus and to love him and his people. They look to us at Grace Church as a source of great blessing and encouragement because they are such a small band of Christians in a large and active city that pays so little attention to them. 

(The picture did not include everyone who was at the meeting) 

This morning I met for coffee with Serjani. I met Serjani on my first visit in 1996 -- I remember the elders up being with some of the teenagers at the time at the castle outside Shkoder. We looked over the city and prayed and wept. 

Serjani (pronounced 'Sar-ee-an-ee") Mitku in 1996. 

And today, with his wife, Sara

Serjani had a good job for eleven years managing a large gas station, hotel, coffee bar on the road into the city. Yet he felt increasingly that he was required to do questionable things. Finally, toward the end of the 2015, he quit, not knowing what it would mean for his family. Yet today he can testify that God has provided and his pride in providing so well has been modified to appreciation that he can provide as he is able. 

At present some men in Michigan are working with him to consider a business venture that would provide jobs for people connected with the church and would provide a needed service in the city. He is working hard to gather all of the financial and architectural work necessary to have a full proposal for funding. 

I spent my time encouraging him in his personal spiritual life and his ministry in the church - he is the most mature and long-time believer in the church. 

After Serjani, I met for coffee with Edi Gjonaj (pronounced 'Joan-aye'), the pastor of the church. More and more I am impressed with his maturity and wisdom. Like me, he seems to take seriously the fact that Jesus command to "make disciples" is what our real work is about... and that it is hard, slow, intensive work. 

We were able to talk about how Grace Church and CEA and can best help them in the future. 

Edi & Bardha ('Bar-tha' - th as in 'that' not 'the')

All in all this has been a most fruitful trip. Sometimes I wonder if ministry trips, in which we bring five to seven people to Shkoder and help to lead a day-camp for students or adults, is worth the effort and cost. But he stressed to me how much help it is: It provides them with great encouragement to engage in the basic work of evangelism and discipleship and it provides them with contacts that they can follow up on for months after we leave. In fact, he said to today that there are four or five people in the church who would not be there if our teams had not come in 2014 and 2015. 

Tomorrow we leave at 10:00 am for Gjilan, Kosovo, about a six-hour trip. Edi plans to stay overnight to meet with Paulin & Geni. He stressed to me that I can be of encouragement to them in their difficulty with the missionaries. I feel inadequate to help much but I'm praying that God will use me to do that. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip — Shkodër, Albania

Our days have been filled with conversations and meetings. Most of them have built on the observations I made in the last update so there is not too much more to report.

On Thursday and Friday, we attended two of the small groups — one led by Edi and the other by Sam Goldsmith. The groups just picked up last week for the school year. Both were small but lively discussions. I can see some of the strengths and some of the needs for the small group ministry. Just like at Grace the biggest challenge is to multiply leaders. At this point (unlike at Grace) there are enough groups for the number of people connected to the church. But Edi leads two of them. I am planning to meet with Serjani tomorrow for coffee and want to challenge him to step up to leading the group that meets in his home (the one Sam leads now). Part of the need is for regular mentoring and it’s difficult to know exactly how that happens here.

Saturday morning there was a children’s meeting and a student’s meeting — Devin taught at the student’s meeting. Here are a couple of pictures from the day: 

Playing card game with the children - I think they were making up the rules as we went along because I kept losing. 

Devin face-painting. He was quite a hit.