It is a journey that many of you will never take. The bone crushing hours, the erratic driving, the diversity of languages and cultures become a challenge for the average tourist. All of this adventure meshes together in a wonderful array that is the Balkan Peninsula. On 10 November, 2014, we set out for a 8 day trek across the Eastern European part of our Central Europe Field. Follow us on twitter, on the Central Europe Field Facebook page, and here on the Across Cultures blog. Discover the beauty of the Balkans through our lens. Favorite us. Follow us. Pray with us. Join us. We are Balkan Beautiful.
I saw Lazarus do a HAPPY stride like Pharell Williams last night in front of a One World television while the World Cup captivated a room full of strangers. I saw him eat a bar of dark chocolate with a bowl full of fruit this morning. He was Asian.
I think I am starting to like this hostel world.
I like the Polish girl at the desk with her friendly, Polish-accented English. I like the unpolished, anything but plush, earthy, this is the real world reality of an apartment turned home for sojourners on the cheap.
I like the community that becomes a part of the momentary fiber of who and what we share at the core. We are people. Not nationalities, or adverts, or styles, or occupations, or them or us. We are people. People who need a place to sleep, a place to shower, some practical food.
Individualism severs that main artery to community. It does. It breathes into reality an insulated cocoon of comfort. Cultures with higher levels of individualism necessitate broader personal space. And personal space breeds a disconnect from others.
The hostel community forces you out of that bubble – shared bathrooms, shower facilities, sleeping quarters – they attack that individual, comfortable, sterile bubble. Germs. Activity. Plans. They all become somehow more visible, tangible, real.
Can I say that I think our North American churches may suffer from the disconnect of living here in these margins where most of the world breathes?
Our places of worship can easily become bubbles. We are comfortable there : safe, sanitized, proper, like a Hilton hotel. But most of the world is spending the night in One World. Quite honestly, the majority of the world spent the night on the street, selling herself, raped, used, abused, starving, begging for mercy.
And this is not a post to create guilt for prosperity.
This is a post that invites us to step into the world. Incarnationally. It means living in the world, with the world, becoming side by side sojourners : Entering into the mystery of a God who entered into our One World. The bubbles have to be burst. The choice to intentionally live where the germs, and the bathrooms, and the borders are shared is the Jesus way.
Last night, I said this One World was stretchy for me. It is. Truth : I didn’t book this place for my family. Someone else did.
And I did not write the new Wesleyan Freedom statement that talks to church folks about the reality of humans in chains. Someone else wrote that thing.
But, our family has spent a significant amount of our lives crisscrossing Central Europe in a VW Sharan, in all-night buses, in trains, living with people, experiencing their stories … enough to know that if ever we needed a Church that moved to the margins, it is now.
Want to hear something? This world seems so big, right? We think that our lives are disconnected, insulated, safe.
We met Lazarus last night right here in One World watching the World Cup. He was cheering for USA. Turns out Lazarus graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University last year. He and his brother are touring Europe before he goes to grad school. And, Lazarus, this Lazarus, well he can’t hear Jesus calling him yet. I guess he probably hears him, he just doesn’t want to listen. But, it seems like God knows where One World is.
Or a God who bursts bubbles to do a happy dance?
Praying for Lazarus now.
Just when we thought that missioning was all fairytale adventures and warm fuzzy feelings, reality reminds us that there is another side. The character of this breaking-in kingdom, this good story, this freedom tale is humility. But, like most worthwhile things, it comes with a price. Humility is not free, you see.
This reality cuts, it burns, it refines by bringing humility out of weakness. My friend, this being humbled is painful. Not at all like the triumphant tales of Saint George slaying the dragon. One of the hardest things about being a missionary is coming to terms with how incapable we really are and having the world witness that truth.
And, so, you come into a culture that is not your own with intentions to bless, to work, to teach, to rescue because that is your calling. Along the way, you discover that you skipped a vital step, spoke the language incorrectly, missed a cultural cue. Made a mistake. Maybe big. Maybe small.
Suddenly, Lazarus has stopped dancing. In the middle of a beat, right before the apex of the jig, he just turns his head and looks at you with disappointment rolling through his eyes.
‘Live missioning’ you say? I just want to crawl into a hole somewhere and hide.
The brutal truth, if you want it, is that the people you are called to serve with are, well, people too. Even Believers have baggage. The people that you have grown to love can sometimes hurt you. And, sometimes you hurt them. It is the underbelly of ministry. The tale of which we seldom speak. The side that stinks. The reality that drives fairytale seeking servants to pack up and go home.
The truth disturbs, for it is where the dreams of heroes end and the hard, bare bones, ‘grit my teeth through the tears’ begins. This humbling is not easy. This ‘live missioning’ looks nothing like I expected.
We took classes and learned formulas. We studied how to be culturally sensitive learners: the theology of wholistic, humanizing hospitality. But, humility; beautiful, life giving humility comes through pain. Can you still serve a baba (granny) who just called you fat? Can you serve a brother who chastises your attempts to speak his language? Do you have the broken strength of will to serve though you burn with embarrassment?
Throughout the story of the Gospels, this is what draws me to Jesus. This humble servanthood makes me dwell in deep depths because Deity sheds his royal robes and puts on the chains of skin. He limits himself, separates himself, and enters a stinking stable; helpless, naked, dependent, poor. Humility, it seems, costs something regardless of who you are.
Today, I post from Chishenau, Moldova. A spot on the continent of Europe where every kind of vulnerable lives. The addicted. The trafficked. The impoverished. The marginalized. The helpless and the homeless and the hope-less. We are all here.
And, I have a choice. Be discouraged. Be angry. Be bitter. Be stubborn. Be difficult. Or be humbled.
The greatest agent of change that our world will ever know? He was born, not from a place of power, not in a king’s palace, but in a stable, chained to stinking skin. Vulnerable. Like us.
You see, we thought we came to save the world but learned that it is a God-job. We read books to determine excellent missiology but found our self-centered reflections staring back through the mirror. We imagined that God would use us but discovered that He really wanted to transform us. How do you spin that story from newsletters and pulpits and blogs where a $3 donation can save one helpless human? Who wants to hear that today, the missionary’s soul had to gulp a breath of kingdom air to make it through the day?
This is not the stuff of fairytale hero-missionaries. This is not even the stuff of suffering missionary servanthood. This is simply the Gospel exhaling today on a stinking pin-prick of a planet, google-mapped to a pixelized Moldova where a missionary sits on a bench spinning a story.
Until we learn that the broken, victimized, prostituted, addicted, dependent, victims AND victimizers is WE not THEM, God can do very little with us or for us or through us because the story that we tell the world is a myth, at best.
This freedom story out of Egypt, across a desert, through a sea is our story, not just theirs. The sitting in the darkness with blood dripping from the doorway while the death angel passes is our story not only theirs. This vulnerability. It is a WE story.
How much pain do chains of skin bring a king?
How much brokenness can a Jesus-man carry on his back?
So, this is the un-fairytale that we live. Skin does not get prettied up and dance away the night at a ball. Skin takes a look at the rotting flesh, the jaggedy edges of sin, the oozing welts of tightly wound grave clothes, and exhales one final, desperate kingdom-coming breath.
‘LAZARUS come forth.’ And, the dead man does a jig by a bonfire do celebration. His death and his new life, they are born out of pain; vulnerability.
We live out of a core of shared recognition that we are all vulnerable.
We live by remembering our slavery.
We live remembering
Or we die in a fairytale of our own creation.
It is 1:30 AM and our bus stops at a petrol station somewhere between Romania and Moldova. The bus is sticky, smothering hot, the bathroom does not work and the seats are cramped. Really cramped. The ‘I can’t sleep but I’m desperate to,’ kind of cramped. The roads swirly zig zag like a scene from your favorite fairytales. Only this does not feel like a fairytale.
When we pull into the station, 13 TNU students, 2 professors, a passel of Sunbergs, and some Central Europeans tumble into the fresh air.
We almost missed the little boy trying to board the bus. While everybody else is seeking fresh air, he was working his way into the stale innards. Hoping for what? And, I watched Curtis and Jay stand guard at the door, good-naturedly but firmly blocking his entrance. I heard that they gave him the last of our chicken salad sandwiches and chips. Maybe tonight he will sleep with a full belly.
My mother’s heart wonders how a 13 year old finds himself counting stars in a midnight sky. Where is his mom? How long since he ate? Where does he sleep?
Quite frankly, he is one of the forgotten. The chances are slim that Compassionate Ministry donations will ever reach his reality. And for a missionary who believes that the kingdom is breaking in today, who believes that we carry the very image of God to a desperate world to fill their needs today, I am stuck. I am at a loss for words and answers. Because, if the kingdom is more than chicken salad sandwiches, and I believe that it is, I fail to connect the kingdom dots tonight.
But, I do believe. I believe in the power of an ancient prayer that goes something like this :
Our Father who is in heaven.
Glory to your name.
Let your kingdom come.
Let your will be done both on earth and in heaven.
And fill our needs today.
Forgive us and help us to forgive those that harm us.
Don’t let us be tempted beyond our endurance but deliver us from every evil.
For it is your kingdom, your power and your glory.
Let it be so.
Somehow, when my heart recites that precious creed, not only with my world in mind, but also with that of a little boy at a bus stop, there is new meaning – new depths.
I don’t have very many answers here in the black night of Eastern Romania. I don’t have a theology that explains how chicken salad brings a kingdom. But, I have a faith that says the kingdom came tonight in the life of a little man whose hope was tied up in a midnight snack.
As our big bus pulled away, I glanced back at the boy and I think I caught a glimpse of Lazarus.
He was dancing.
Tonight, the world shares our doorstep. Argentina, France, the Czek Republic, Bulgaria, Romania – they sing and dance and for a moment forget that wars rage, and people die, and bills plague. They have come to watch the World play futball on a tiny screen on a big planet, but this corner of Razgrad has lost its electricity, so, the guitars come out by candlelight, and cultures that exhale music begin to communicate.
The melodies are sometimes off key, it’s passionately eclectic, impromptu and sung in this Bulgarian outdoor cafe that has suddenly gone dark. But, somewhere in the midst of all that is worldly here, a part of me wonders if this isn’t somehow closer to the nights that Jesus spent on this planet than we think.
I know how that could sound, but I am not questioning God’s holiness. Nor am I suggesting that we compromise ethically. There is absolutely no doubt that Jesus led a holy life, a righteous life, a life without sin. We are called to that life.
But, our letter says that He also ate with tax collectors, sat and talked with women, spent time with friends, cooked fish. I dare to voice that the Rabi of Nazareth would have been at ease here in unplugged Razgrad. And, I dare to ask, ‘Are we?’ Are we at ease with a missiology that leads us to be here too?
What if our Sunday havens and our Christian radio, and our weekly Bible studies and our Christian fellowship – none of them bad and all of them good, in balance – are out of balance? What if they create a threshold that we rarely dare to cross? What if?
This Jesus of ours was not the tame, weak, pale shadow of a man that our version of Christianity sometimes makes him out to be.
His hands were calloused, his arms were strong, and he was likable, personable. I imagine that he was quick to laugh. I believe I would have wanted to sit with him on the edge of the sea with a coffee and a conversation. His muscles would have rippled from manual labor, his eyes squinting into the sun. The Jesus-moments we see are part campfires and unplugged guitars and starry nights of impromptu conversations with not-yet kingdom dwellers.
I look around at this generation sauntering with us on this journey through Central Europe and believe that they understand, actually, they long for, an unplugged Jesus experience. They desperately want to be a church that is IN the world; available, interactive, fish-frying, approachable, mobile, passionately Rabi-like.
Do you ever wonder what would happen if we let Lazarus dance?
If the electricity that powers our programs and our Sunday morning schedules was suddenly Razgrad-dark, would we be more open, more available, to stand by Jesus and call our friend back across the doorstep of that ugly, cold grave?
As our travels move us through the week, we spend an evening in a Turkish Roma (Gypsy) village and I am again overwhelmed by the belief that Jesus would have felt right at home in the midst of this music, and color, and raw living. There is room for honest questions and conversations here.
Then our Bulgaria wanderings lead us beyond our comfort zones into a room in an ancient mosque, where an Imam leader takes time to talk to us about Islam and to serve us Turkish tea. We have this amazing opportunity because Pastor Nikolay has intentionally developed a relationship of mutual respect with this man. And, just for a moment, I think that I can feel the cold stones of a Samaritan well as I sip my Turkish tea.
We move on to The Open Door, where we see the kingdom literally breaking in, and my soul does a Lazarus dance because the jagged threshold between the US and the THEM has miraculously been breached. Here, in the most unexpected of places, the Rabi-presence is profoundly visible. Humbly, Josh takes a guitar and he begins to play while Mary Magdalene sings her new song. We cry. All of us cry when Lazarus dances.
And, I can’t help it but imagine that Lazarus danced because he glimpsed what we cannot. He saw the new kingdom has no doors, has no walls, it just has people. People that are unplugged from our national identities, unplugged from ethnic prejudices and dehumanizing cycles, unplugged from religious wars and slavery, exhaling, and breathing a new kind of air. A kingdom air.
Sometimes, in Roma villages, and Muslim mosques, and squeezed in-between Mary Magdalene, and squinting across the Black Sea, and by candlelight in Razgrad, my feet start to twitch and a giggle bubbles through. Like The Rabi just whispered a funny one-liner. And just for a precious moment, I understand, really understand why Lazarus danced.
In Bulgaria, I have witnessed beauty come to life out of the most unexpected places. The Nazarene pastor at the Razgrad Evangelical church, Pastor Nicolai, shared with us a friendship he has with the Muslim priest in Razgrad. They both have two completely different positions and yet they still cherish each other’s friendship. We were able to visit the mosque and hear about the Muslim faith and look into the life of another minority in the Bulgaria culture. We were welcomed with hot tea, sweets, and warm, heart-felt welcomes. I was completely disarmed by the love and hospitality the Muslims showed. My misconceptions of the Muslim faith were obliterated and I was able to see a group of people who also loved an almighty God and shared a passion for the Bulgarian people and the world. It was beautiful! Another people group minority that we met in Bulgaria were the Roma people. We were given the opportunity to hear their personal life accounts at the Nazarene church in Bulgaria and received insight to their history and the discrimination and oppression their culture received over the last hundreds and thousands of years into the modern day today. It was heart wrenching… But to hear the redemption that Christ brought into their lives… A perfect example of God bringing lives out of the ashes and showing them the beauty he has created! When we visited the Roma village, the people had little, but they shared everything they had. We were able to sing and dance in praise together and we learned that the church present in the village was actually the second church that had been formed there! The village sent their grown children to Germany to plant a second church. Families split for the good of the gospel.. Amazing.. They were and are willing to be apart to love those who have no hope! The good news is being spread by the humble and oppressed.The gospel they carry is so pure in love and compassion for the worlds lost and weary. I could go on and on about all that The Lord is doing. However, I want to leave you with a question. Where do YOU see the beauty The Lord has brought up out of the ashes? We’re on our way to Romania now and I’m very excited to see what the Lord has been doing through the church there. Thank you for all the prayers and support! I look forward to sharing more accounts with you when I blog again and when I get home :) Until then, grace and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.
I am tucked away in the kitchen of the Budapest Blessings Church while the rain falls on this parched land and the family sleeps on mattresses in the church turned hostel..
After driving 8 hours on Saturday, we slipped into Sighisoara sheets well after midnight. We made the challenging but traditional Sunberg family hike up the Citadel stairs before bed where the sign above the climb says that the these steps date back to the 7th century. Sometimes, you just have to do a thing before you sleep.
Yesterday, after worship, we ditched our van and hopped a train to Bucharest..
And, this morning, the rain is falling for the neighbor’s grape vine that is soaking in the life-giving water. That is how I feel about the Balkans, like a grape vine gulping the beauty of a culture.
Simi and Betty meet us at the train station with the van parked on the sidewalk, because you haven’t really lived until you drive on a sidewalk in Eastern Europe. And I watched Josh Skinner, who is an honorary Sunberg for the next couple of weeks, and our 4 girls break out into wide grins of delight – coming home always brings a smile. Driving on sidewalks, swerving and jostling traffic, quiet trains, and little personal space – it’s an Eastern Europe thing. It’s a beautiful thing.
Every culture has something of value to offer our God-shaped void. A piece of Jesus that we just cannot catch from our ethno-centric perspective. We need each other to broaden, deepen, sharpen our image of a Deity who bleeds real blood for his creation.
Let the rain fall on this parched land so that Lazarus can dance.
With time removing us from the winds of history, that statement means almost nothing to us, but it should. Its truth informs how we live in this world where the rain falls on us all. God has a missionary heart. The God who created us, created a way to us – the carpenter built a stairway.
And, here we are in the middle of Eastern Europe, trying to climb a stairway in the middle of the night.
So, as you prepare to take this journey with Trevecca Nazarene University over the next 12 days in Eastern Europe, it is important that you know:
Life is raw here. The breathtakingly beautiful is mixed right in with the achingly awful. Turkish toilets (yes, squatty potties) are just as much of a reality as the heartwarming Sighisoara hospitality of Maria and her husband, who waited up for our late arrival, housed us, smothered us in kisses though we were strangers, and fed us huge homemade breakfasts with fresh eggs from their clucking hens.
The boys playing futball (soccer) in the street outside the church last night mimic their World Cup heroes but their eyes have already seen more than ours could endure in a lifetime of sleeps. I can hear one of them screaming in this early hour.
Here from our mainstream perspective, it’s almost impossible to understand why a trafficked girl goes back to the life. But, sometimes they do. When you believe that you are worthless, and somebody offers you money to do a thing, skin just becomes skin – the grave clothes, they are just skin.
Little did we know that grave clothes don’t come off so easily. This becoming like Jesus is harder, much harder than we ever imagined. Finding the kingdom is complicated.
So, the Saviour sends us out to be his Image: to be the breathing, living, loving, icon (fleshly representation) of Christ to our generation.
And Lazarus dances. He dances because the kingdom comes today. He dances because Deity bleeds for a Church without walls made of people that look a lot like screaming kids, and prostitutes, and haggardy drunks, and lonely souls … In grave clothes.
The rain has stopped, the kids on their mattresses are stirring, the coffee is cold, a city ambulance has its siren going : Our world is awake and waiting for Lazarus to tear off his grave clothes and speak of a kingdom coming.
Sometimes, you have to do a thing before you sleep.
What about you? Will you dance with Lazarus in this parched land?