As many of you know, to me writing a newsletter is like climbing a mountain – I get there in the end but it’s a hard slog! This is partly due to the fact that when I look back over the past months I feel that all I have been doing is sitting down with leaders, listening to their stories, talking, laughing and drinking lots of coffee…. very meaningful to them, as they keep telling me, but not a lot to write about! That said, I feel enormously privileged to still be able to do what I believe the Lord called me to do so many years ago. Below is a little snapshot of the wonderful brothers and sisters I have sat down with in Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia and the USA since I last wrote.
The churches in Siberia working with Vitaly
Following their Arctic winter the churches are very active during their summer months, sending out evangelistic teams to visit small towns and villages throughout the region. This resulted in a new church being planted in the town of Posevnaya, south of Novosibirsk. They also organised a number of holiday camps for young people in the city of Novosibirsk. Having a strong leadership team in Novosibirsk has also enabled Vitaly and Nadia to spend considerable time this summer in Odessa, Ukraine, planting a church. A small group from Novosibirsk, whom I know well, have relocated to be part of the new church plant – a distance of 2801 miles. In July I was able to spend two weeks with Vitaly and Nadia and the young church. What a joy!! Odessa is a strategic city on the Black Sea coast and was much larger than I expected, with a population of over one million people. Although it is narrow, it stretches out for miles along the Black Sea coast. Building a relational community is therefore quite a challenge, especially as many people have to rely on public transport.
The meetings were precious. I love new beginnings and it took me back to the time when I first met Vitaly 20 years ago in Novosibirsk. Then there were just a handful of people and it is truly amazing to realise what the Lord has done, not only in that city but in the region, with nearly 2000 in the Novosibirsk church alone. For several days Vitaly and I drove round to find a suitable place for the new church to meet as the large apartment room where they had started was definitely too small. We finally found an excellent venue, centrally positioned and right opposite a tram stop.
The church in Novosibirsk also financed the purchase of a sizeable plot of land which includes a derelict building. This will be turned into a drug rehabilitation centre, modelled on the successful one in Novosibirsk. It was encouraging to see how a team from Siberia had driven over (a 5 day journey) to start the restoration work.
In October I travelled to see Ludo Kara in Nitra, Slovakia. As you know, I always encourage leaders in churches to find part-time or full-time employment if possible. There are several reasons behind this: to have a better idea of the issues their congregation faces in the ‘real world’, to recognize the workplace as an important mission field and to minimize the financial burden of their support by the church. I have observed that many full-time leaders are so busy with church they don’t know anyone to share the gospel with so this also gives them the opportunity of making non-Christian friends.
Although over-qualified with two MA degrees (Agricultural Engineering and Theology), Ludo got a job as a prison officer through Boris, the leader of the church in Levice who was already working there. Boris shared with me how Ludo was much loved by the prisoners who had nicknamed him ‘little father’ for his pastoral heart. Ludo said he simply applies the principles of the kingdom of God to his work. Ludo has since been promoted and now lectures at the training college for all prison officers in Slovakia – which just happens to be in his home city of Nitra! He also regularly has great conversations with the Director, a 7th Day Adventist. You may remember that Ludo has a very musical family – his five children continue to excel and are now all playing professionally in different orchestras.
On the Sunday I was blessed to meet with the three churches who work with Ludo for a wonderful meal of goulash and fellowship. They are maintaining their focus on family, relationships and the organic nature of His Kingdom. However, they are obviously feeling the effects of having a large ‘faith church’ 60 miles away, which is preaching a popular gospel.
During the late summer, a group of leaders from the different churches I work with and I spent some time together – no teaching on the agenda, just lots of discussion time till the early hours, relaxing, swimming in a lake and generally letting our hair down. We intend to do this a couple of times a year as it really strengthens our relationship together.
It is particularly encouraging to see the progress being made in the church of Szczecin – every visit I notice new people! They have a real concern for the marginalized of their society and have organised an effective feeding program for people living on the street. Helen Stainsby does a remarkable job leading another team working among the drug addicts in the city. Their passion for the lost is expressed every week through “Street Church” – which is simply taking the church out onto the street – so much to be thankful for. See their Facebook page for more photos: https://www.facebook.com/KosciolUlicznySzczecin?fref=ts
A few days ago I enjoyed another short but very busy visit to Szczecin. Jacek Matlakiewicz, my good friend who leads the Torun church, also drove up to meet me and I was really blessed to hear about his recent business trip to China with his wife Alina. They had been able to meet up again with Xulin and Jinmei, two young Chinese business graduates who had both been on a 6 month placement in his company. During this time they had both started their journey with Jesus. It was a tremendous encouragement to Jacek and Alina to find that they had grown in their faith and are now very active in their own church.
Praise the Lord for Facetime and Skype, this enables me to stay in regular contact with everyone. It turns my study into a conference room. All my friends are just only a click away.
In my last newsletter I suggested several books and I understand from the comments received that it was appreciated.
Tom Wright has now published yet another book called: ‘How God became King’ (2012).
In his typically well thought through and challenging way, he brings together the themes of Kingdom and Cross in a culture which still pushes them apart. With the background of the Old Testament and Jewish history, what Wright delivers is not just theologically refreshing in its holistic nature but incredibly practical. Highly recommended!
‘The Kingdom Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited’
(2012) by Scot McKnight is an excellent book to read in conjunction with Tom Wright’s book
Finally, a treasure of a book is ‘Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes’ by Kenneth E. Bailey (2008).
“From a childhood in Egypt to a career working within the Middle East, Dr. Bailey has established himself as the premier cultural interpreter of the life of Jesus. Using insights from cultural anthropology and skilled exegesis, suddenly the Gospels come alive as the Middle Eastern stories that they are. Long after other scholars’ books are forgotten, Bailey’s work will continue to be a timeless resource into the world of Jesus.”
Have a look at this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjrG22mSRs8&feature=related
To finish, I would like to share with you some thoughts on the 15 Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120 to 134), which I have been re-reading and meditating on recently. They were traditionally sung at the Passover meal, and I have been trying to visualise Jesus singing before making the journey to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30). Before that they may have been chanted by the Israelites as they came out of captivity in Babylon and journeyed towards Jerusalem. Babylon means ‘confusion’ and Jerusalem means ‘possession of peace’. We may ourselves be on a journey out of the captivity of religious confusion or the confusion in our own hearts to a place where we can experience God’s peace so that we begin to understand God’s will and purpose.
Journeying through the songs can teach us a lot: to see God in things present (Ps. 120), to learn where to get our answers and recognise God’s objectives (121,122), to learn how to wait (123) and to have our fortunes restored (126), to learn to let the Lord build the House (127), and to learn to embrace suffering (129), humility (131) and unity with our brothers and sisters (133).
The Lord will not change this world for us but He will change us in this world and produce in us a spirituality that will become a catalyst of change to the world around us. His pleasure is to teach and help us in the midst of the challenges and circumstances we find ourselves in.
Let me say again, I am so grateful for your partnership in the Gospel. Thank you so much for your prayers and financial support, without which I would find it impossible to do this work. I pray that you will experience the joy of His presence as you give yourself to whatever He has called you to do.
With best wishes for a wonderful Christmas!
Love and grace,