It was a long trip, full of jarring contrasts, emotional highs and lows, wonder at viewing and touching things from before the time of Christ, joy of new friendships and of God’s intimate comfort, grieving and weeping with family. We were exhausted by the time we got home.
After preaching the day after we arrived in Stara Zagora and then squeezing what would normally have been seven days of teaching into five (Jim), and ministering interpersonally to women through personal counseling and teaching (Kay) we left Bulgaria. Driving with Bulgarian friends from Stara Zagora to Istanbul, Turkey and through Greece we were in for more culture shock than was comfortable at times. For one thing European driving etiquette is quite different from American (on a two-lane road you can pass at any time, expecting that on-coming traffic will move over onto the shoulder). Then there is the method of planning a trip and finding the location of our hotel…When we reached Istanbul (population 17 million) we drove into about the middle of the city on a beautiful 5-lanes-each-direction highway, then pulled over to ask some construction workers if they knew where this hotel was. The construction workers spoke only Turkish, our Bulgarian friends spoke Bulgarian and some English. Not much luck there. Next we pulled over at an accident scene to ask the policeman. The policeman knew what area of the city the address was, so that got us a little closer. Then we began stopping and asking cab drivers or people beside us on the street where this particular address was. After 8 or so such stops –voilá—we arrived at our hotel! It was Ramadan and the city was crowded. We went into the hotel and asked if they had two double rooms (no reservations). Amazingly they did have rooms available. And so it went for the entire trip. (This method of trip planning and getting directions drove Jim crazy!)
After settling into our rooms and having some dinner, the 4 of us, Stefko, Pavel, Jim and Kay set out on foot to see something of Istanbul. We ended up discovering The Grand Bazaar (established in 1461), the university (established in 1453) and Suleiman mosque. As the sun was setting, the call for prayer that marked the end of fasting for t he day came over the loudspeakers in the minarets of the 2000 mosques all over the city. What an eerie sound! Then the streets got very crowded as people came out to have their evening meal at a restaurant, at one of the tents set up by a mosque, or with friends on the street corner.
The reason we had come to Istanbul was to see Hagia Sofia. When we got to the gates on Monday morning, we found that it is closed on Mondays. Our plans for the week changed then and there. We would have to leave Istanbul Tuesday noon rather than first thing Tuesday morning. Pavel was carrying the professional video camera and got some great footage of the outside of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque (see picture above) just across the park. We had lunch at McDonalds, Pavel’s favorite place, and had a “McTurko.” We spent the afternoon absorbing the history of the city which dates back to Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor who founded the city just after AD 300 as the capitol of his empire, and who actively supported Christianity by the building of Christian churches to replace those destroyed in the persecution of Diocletian (303-311).
Hagia Sofia opened at 9:00 and we were there. The church was built in only 5 years (AD 532-537) and served as the center of Eastern Christianity and the largest Christian church in the world for 1000 years. So magnificent was it when it was completed that the Emperor Justinian exclaimed “Solomon I have outdone thee!” The beauty of the Cathedral was so great that it was directly responsible for the conversion of the Russians to Christianity in the 10th century. The account sent back by the Russian Prince Vladimir’s emissaries of the worship at Hagia Sofia reads:
The Greeks led us to the buildings where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty and we are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men and their ceremonies are fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.
Then in AD 1453 the Turks invaded Constantinople, renamed the city Istanbul and turned the church into a mosque. Interestingly we learned that the architecture of the great Muslim mosques is derived from that of Hagia Sofia—The Church of the Holy Wisdom.
(Jim, Pavel & Stefko at Starbucks, Thess.) ------>
Driving down the coast of Greece along the Aegean Sea with miles of olive orchards, vineyards and cotton fields, the countryside reminded us of southern California. In Thessaloniki we got some general directions from the hotel, boarded a bus for the center of town and started walking. We found a church built in the 300’s surrounded by modern 10-story apartment buildings, an arch from Roman times and an old orthodox church with beautiful intricately carved wood furniture.
Then we were off to Athens…another 5 or 6 hours in the car, watching the road signs for Philipi, Korinth and other familiar sounding places go by. In the countryside it was easy to image the apostle Paul walking from his ship up the hills to these cities. In the huge city of Athens it was a little harder. There we saw the marketplace where Paul had walked and the thoroughfare lined with the pedestals on which the idols of gods had been placed every few meters. This street was built in such a way that you were facing the acropolis (with the temples of Athena and other gods – 6th century BC) as you walked up the street. At the end of the road is the Areopagus a huge rock out cropping (overlooking the marketplace and in the shadow of the acropolis) where Paul spoke with the philosophers about the altar to the “unknown god” in Acts 17. We sat on the rock for awhile taking it all in. Pavel got lots of good footage for the college and is now hard at work putting it all together.
We flew to Dallas the next day and were met at the airport by Kay’s brother and sister-in-law. Many tears were shed the next couple of days as we talked of Kelsey (their 16 yr old daughter who had been killed in a car crash the previous week, see picture at left) and comforted each other. Please pray especially for Preston (21) and Mitchell (19), Kelsey’s two older brothers as they struggle with the loss of their little sister.
Our time was fruitful, rewarding and challenging. We saw more of the Bulgarian church and its vigor—God is working there in a marvelous way in very difficult circumstances. We got a glimpse of God’s work in breaking down racial prejudice between the Bulgarians and the Gypsy (Roma) people incarnated in the birth of Raina & Gopi’s daughter (see picture below). When we were there a year and a half ago Raina was still hesitant to marry Gopi (a Roma) because of her family’s opposition. About a year ago they married anyway and while Raina’s parents had not spoken to Gopi since the wedding, on the day of the birth of her granddaughter Raina’s mother actually called Gopi on the phone.
The level of dedication of those at the school and associated ministries is phenomenal. They labor as unto the Lord on salaries averaging less than $200/month, while their currency has been devalued by more than 1/3 over the past year. Jakup, one of my students from last year has finished his B.A. and is ministering full time in the church where I preached in Parvomay. He plans to enter the University in Sofia for further training in the fall. The students were engaged and eager—and sorry that the class couldn’t go even longer! (even though they had to learn through a translator). For a professor this reaction from students is close to heaven.
Dinko, the college president wants us to come every year. And in light of the relationships that we are developing there we would love to do this.
For me (Jim), attention now turns to getting ready to go to Singapore early next year. I have been asked to teach a seminar on the Relationship between Theology and Science. This topic has been one of special interest to me for several years. I will be immersing myself in the topic for the next three months and condensing the material into concentrated form to give some fresh perspectives on a topic that has generated more heat than light and has been a stumbling block to many Christians for decades.
Well, our trip to Bulgaria has turned out to be quite different than we were expecting. After we got here we found out that we were leaving for Istanbul on Sunday (rather than Tuesday) and that our trip thru Greece would be more extensive than previously indicated. But more on that later.
Jim’s class has gone very well. The students were all very diligent and really enjoyed the class. Some of them travel quite a distance to the college so on the first day they all decided to go 8 hours a day per class and just go for 5 days instead of 6. So they all put their noses to the grindstone and got through the material in a more intensive way than planned. Jim was exhausted each day by the time 5:00 came around. He would take a rest for a couple of hours then we would go to dinner with some friends from the college.
On Wednesday this week as Jim was taking his rest after class, Kay opened her email to check it for the day. There was an email from her Mom in Texas bearing the devastating news that Kelsey, Kay’s 16 yr old niece had been killed in an auto accident. She had died just 3 hours before we got the email. Needless to say, Jim did not get his rest. He set up Skype on the computer and we called family and emailed our sons with the news of their cousin. We were interrupted when some friends from the College arrived to take us to dinner. The next two hours were utterly surreal. We were out with friends at a restaurant halfway around the world from home. Getting to know them better, while the same time, somewhere living in this twilight zone of unreality, our hearts were in Texas with Kay’s brother and his family.
The next day Kay shared with Jim’s Bulgarian class what had happened, they all gathered around Kay, put their hands on her and with tears streaming down their faces poured their hearts out to God for her brother and his whole family. Even though we could not understand a word they were praying, we could understand their hearts and the Father they were praying to.
Kay had been studying Psalm 23 all week, preparing a devotional for a young mothers group on Saturday. How just like our Father to minister to our own hearts before we minister to others! She had a wonderful time with 9 young mothers this morning, talking and sharing about families and learning from Psalm 23 what a wonderful Shepherd we have that comforts, gently corrects and provides for us, and how we can then pass that on to our children. The hostess of the group pulled out a beautiful hand tooled leather Bible and told me the story that it had been in her family for several generations. Her father and grandfather had hidden it during the communist domination, and had to be very careful about pulling it out to read. Now they are so thankful that they can read it freely. It is a treasure for their family.
Tomorrow we leave for Istanbul and Greece. The college here decided to make full use of the trip (two friends from the college are going with us, to guide and drive). They will be doing some videography for a promotional project for the college. We will be providing most of the funds for the trip, through your generous gifts. This will be a great help to the college and will help them in their fund raising efforts. So once again, our plans give way to the better plans of our Father!!
Thank you all again for your prayers and your support of God’s work in Bulgaria.
Jim & Kay
Thank you all for your prayers. Our trip here went well without any delays (we had seats together one on the aisle on each flight!). Our luggage and ourselves arrived in Sofia on the same plane. Our friends Stefko and Pavel were there to greet us, stuff all the suitcases and large box into the car, and drive us the 3 hours to Stara Zagora. So about 25 hours after we left our home in San Leandro, CA we arrived safe and sound in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria. We were sooooo happy to stretch out on a bed and sleep Saturday night!
Sunday morning bright and early we were picked up by Jakup (a student of Jim’s the last time we were here). He took us to his town, to his pastor’s house for breakfast. The pastor’s daughter speaks English so she translated for us and for Jim when he preached. The breakfast was a welcome change from airline food. Walking to church we could hear the people already gathered singing praises to God. Having grown up on the mission field one of Kay’s favorite things on this earth is hearing people of different languages praising God together. A pastor from Germany was also there with a group that had been helping to build a new church building in a nearby town. He spoke for a few minutes in German with a translator into Bulgarian. Then Jim spoke in English (with a translator into Bulgarian) on sin and grace using Genesis 3. He did not know if he was supposed to give a full blown sermon or just a short exhortation, but he ended up giving a sermon, which in our country would have been a regular length sermon. The pastor got up and said, “Well these theologians, they think a lot and preach very short.” So the pastor then reiterated Jim’s sermon with his own commentary. After some more singing and testimonies from several people in the church and prayer, church was over and we shook hands with every person saying “God bless you” in Bulgarian. The German pastor, his translator, the deacon, the assistant pastor (Jakup), the pastor’s family and we all walked back to the pastor’s home for lunch. It was a delicious feast of typical Bulgarian food: beginning with a shopska salad (fresh tomatoes cucumbers a little onion and grated mild cheese, with vinegar & oil dressing), then grilled chicken, sausages, boiled potatoes, roasted p-nuts and almonds and fresh grapes. The conversation was wonderful in three different languages, then we all prayed together in our own languages. The bond in Christ was strong even though our understanding of each other’s words was weak.
Monday, Jim began his class at 9:00 since it was orientation day (regular start time is 8:30am). There are 12-15 students in the class and they are eager learners. Jim is enjoying the teaching. The translation is going OK, although not as smoothly as last time. They have class from 8:30am to noonish, then break for an hour lunch, then go again from 1:30ish to 4:30pm.
All our lunches and dinners are with people that work here at the college. We are humbled by their compassion for their fellow countrymen and the ministries that they have with orphans, elderly people, gypsy children, overseeing 90 churches in this region, some of them going to several churches to preach each week. The need for well trained pastors is great. What an honor that we can have a small part.
John 3:16 in Bulgarian
Building the Kingdom together with you, Jim & Kay