Kay & I arrived home on Tuesday evening October 14 at 6:00 after a hectic several days of travel and sightseeing in Eastern & Southern Europe. It was a great time to unwind after a very rewarding but grueling teaching schedule. As I noted in my last update this year I had more fun teaching my class than I have had to date. This had to do with the level of the involvement of the students, the quality of my translator, and I think with the fact that now, with a history at the College I am more of a known quantity.
My translator, Petia Zlatarov, the Academic Dean of The Theological College commented that I was more approachable than many of the visiting professors there who merely want to conve y their own views to the students, rather than understand where the students are and try to communicate with them in a way that speaks to their context, culture and specific situation.
As I said in the last update, the past two years have brought profound change in Bulgaria, but not for the better. When communism fell the hearts of the people were open and looking for something to fill the void left by 40 years of totalitarian repression. What followed were several years of incredible growth of the Protestant (particularly Pentecostal church). During the past couple of years times have become tough economically. Inflation is running at about 30%. In a country where the average worker earns between $200 and $300/month this is economically and emotionally devastating. Bulgaria has joined the EU. While this should prove a long-term economic benefit to the country, the immediate result is economic shambles. As a result the people of the country have lost hope. They see nothing but bleakness and grinding poverty. The economic security they enjoyed(?) under communism is gone. There is no safety net, no matter how small. What has replaced hope is cynicism and the narcissism of personal gratification: unrestrained sexual indulgence, drugs and alcohol-"Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die."
By and large the working age ethnic Bulgarians have left for western Europe (where pay and job opportunities are better) and what remains (painting in broad brush strokes here) are the elderly (about 50% of the population) who have no pension or visible means of support and no support network with their children having abandoned them for the jobs in the prosperous EU, and the Gypsy/Roma people who are illiterate and unskilled and despised. There is virtually no middle class.
This sense of despair and hopelessness is affecting the Christians as well. The local church pastored by our friend Jimmy (one of the theological rising stars of Eastern Europe) has shrunk from about a vibrant 150-200 2½ years ago to about 30 today. Several of the theological faculties (i.e. Bible Colleges ) this year reported no new students! The pastors in my class reported that many of the men in their churches have given up hope and turned drinking to ease the pain of life, which in turn makes the financial woes worse.
Despite the present appearances and cynicism, Dinko Zlatarov, our good friend and President of The Theological College and director of Care for All Ministries, sees the future of Bulgaria with the Gypsy/Roma people. He sees them as the lynchpin to the country's future. You may remember that the first Gypsy college graduates in Bulgaria's history have come out of the Theological College in Stara Zagora where I have taught for these past three years. God has worked in Bulgaria and will continue to work, whether obviously and in visibly mighty ways as He did in the years following the fall of communism, or more subtly when hope is at low ebb.
On a more positive note we experience God's glory and creative beauty all around us as we drove through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, northern Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, finally ending in the capital of Czech Republic, Prague (in 6 days). The fall colors glowed and the majestic Alps were as dramatic as we had heard. The small villages and countryside gave a distinct flavor to each country.
Our trip ended up in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. This is one city that still maintains its medieval and Renaissance glory-it of all the major cities of Europe was never bombed. As an historical theologian, I love the beauty and glory of the medieval and Renaissance periods. In California, we do archaeology on anything a century old. In Europe anything that young is barely out of its infancy! (Someone once commented that what the US lacks in depth of history it makes up for in vastness of territory-in three days we visited nine countries and on the fourth made it to our destination 10th, unless you live in New England that is difficult in the USA to even visit 10 states in four days!)
While in Prague, we stayed at the International Baptist Theological Seminary. The seminary occupies the complex that was the Czech command center and headquarters for the Nazi army during WWII-talk about redeeming space! The seminary purchased the complex and has occupied it since 1949. While there I had a chance to talk with Dr. Parush Paruchev the academic Dean of the Seminary and Petia's advisor. Parush earned his Ph.D. in Mathmatics while the Communists were still in power in Bulgaria. After the fall of Communism he moved to California where God found him. He did a Ph.D. at Fuller Seminary and joined the faculty of the International Baptist Theological Seminary. He shared about the difficulty in Europe of having Americans or Brits getting positions in educational institutions recognized as legitimate by the governments. In the US, accreditation is private, whether it be through regional accrediting associations (e.g. Western Association of Schools and Colleges) or through professional accrediting associations (e.g. ATS- the Associations of Theological Schools) while in Europe accreditation is public through the Ministry of Education of each country. To the Europeans the US system as well as the British smacks of an "old boy network" that does not do rigorous quality assurance (having seen from the inside the workings of our system I have to admit that this fear/criticism is not unfounded). Add to this the fact that numerous (particularly fundamentalist and evangelical) American Colleges and Grad schools lack any American accreditation and yet their graduates claim to hold a valid Ph.D. makes a US degree even more suspect in the European eyes. It is here that IBTS steps into the gap. As the only nationally licensed/accredited/recognized evangelical seminary in Europe they are able to train leaders that will be readily recognized as qualified to teach in the University system there.
Your gifts made the trip possible, and God's grace was extended to us through your prayers as Jim taught, as we ministered with students and friends and as we traveled.
Thank you and blessings upon you for your interest in our ministry.
Preparing leaders worldwide for the next generation
Jim & ( Kay)
I am off to Guam on October 31 for 17 days where I will be teaching Introduction to Theology (yes, the students will have to buy the Survivor's Guide to Theology, no, I won't make a lot of $$ by requiring it-about enough for two Starbucks' lattes if I am lucky) at the brand new seminary sponsored by Pacific Islands Bible College. This time I will be teaching in English, the temperature is supposed to be a nearly constant 85o with 85% humidity. While the student body represents countries from all over the Pacific Rim the culture is Microneasan which is very laid back. Please pray for the students, in a conversation with the dean last night he told me that they are still coming to grips with the demands of grad school-it is not just an extension of B.A. work but about two notches higher.
Pleas pray for my health (despite the great time we had in Europe I am worn out from the trip and have come down with a nasty cold.) and communicating cross-culturally so the students will understand the concepts being communicated, not just the words.
Bulgaria Update #2
It was a grueling time but I have now finished up teaching the class in Introduction to Theology. What follows are a few preliminary observations. This is the third trip to Bulgaria. It still is unnerving to be dropped into a culture where I cannot read the alphabet. (It takes me about five or six days to get my mind shifted enough to sound out the words.) My Bulgarian vocabulary is still extremely small, although I am told that my pronunciation of the handful of words that I know is good (you never can tell—they may just be being polite!).
In many ways this class was the most fun and interesting I have taught here over the past three years. With about 2/3 of the class being active pastors we engaged in much more give-and-take discussions getting in depth into theological issues that they face on a day to day basis. I mentioned in the last update that we had the question of predestination and free-will raised. This issue is as predictable as the day is long. Students always gravitate to this issue which has been a conundrum for theologians for centuries. Usually answers fall off the tightrope onto the side of free-will (understood in the sense of the ancient Pelagian heresy that says we are absolutely free to choose God and be saved accompanied by the assumption that we can change our mind and reject God and lose our salvation) or on the side of determinism (which is usually articulated in such a way as to reduce our status to that of marionettes on a string that do not choose at all). Both sides’ answers have to explain away biblical material that does not agree with their presuppositions, and neither does it well.
The next day as we were discussing Lutheranism, we got deeply involved in a discussion of the nature of sin and righteousness; the dangers of self-righteousness, and the issues of forgiveness and acceptance before God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, as opposed to being accepted because of our own righteousness. This issue is more subtle than the predestination-freewill controversy, but more directly related to how we live our lives as Christians—do we live in fear that God will reject us if we sin, that he will not hear our prayers until we confess? Or are we unconditionally accepted before God and admit freely our sins/imperfections because we are in Christ and don't have to hide.
The Bulgarian Protestant church comes from a history of an extremely conservative and legalistic perspective which breeds a lack of honesty about oneself and struggles in relationship to others. It is more important to look spiritual or holy than to be spiritual or holy. In other words, we live in dishonesty before man [and God?] (Hmm: Sounds familiar doesn't it?!).
We have been going to Bulgaria for three years now. In the past three years we have seen many changes. Some very positive, leaders are being trained. The Church in the Gypsy community continues to grow in spiritual maturity, in numbers and in world view. There are now a handful of Gypsy leaders that are college graduates and are pursuing graduate degrees. This was an unimaginable possibility a decade ago.
On the other hand the heady days of easy evangelism are over. There is a cultural hopelessness that has infected the culture and the church. While forty years of communism did not extinguish the deeply rooted Eastern Orthodoxy of the country, the culture as a whole has lost it sense of direction and its moral base. The void that existed at the fall of communism has turned become cynicism without hope. This cynicism is even infiltrating the church as the economic situation of the people has grown increasingly desperate over the past year with prices rising over 30% with no increase in wages.
One of my students this year Assen Mitkov is a pastor in a Turkish Gypsy community and is getting ready to move to Turkey to do church planting among the Turkish Gypsy people. This is an extremely dangerous ministry. Although Turkey is a constitutionally free nation, as one moves away from the area of Istanbul, Christians are under tremendous persecution by conservative Muslims and there have been numerous martyrs. He is leaving for his first trip on the November first. Please pray for his safety and for the Lord’s work in Turkey.
Bulgaria Report #1
It is early Thursday morning (about 1:40 A.M.) I have been teaching for two days now although I am still fighting the jet-lag. After class today I came back to the room and laid down to rest at about 5:00 p.m. I awakened about an hour ago and thought that this would be a good time to jot down some thoughts about the trip so far.
Kay dropped me off at SFO at about 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. It took about 45 minutes to navigate through the line, check my luggage and get my boarding pass. Going through security I was flagged to have my CPAP machine (for my sleep apnea) checked (this is a regular occurrence-anything that might contain a bomb raises red flags in these days of heightened security.)
Then it was off to get a bite of lunch before the flight. As I was eating my sandwich a young Swedish engineer asked to sit at my table-all the tables were occupied and I was the only one sitting alone. When he found out I was a theologian he started describing the condition of the State Lutheran Church in Sweden noting that most Swedes are church members but only attend for baptisms, weddings and funerals. I told him how without a state church, American churches have far more involvement since there is no cultural expectation for them to belong to a church and the state does not pay the ministers. While we didn't get around to the gospel he thought that our approach that starts with individual faith was far superior to the deadness of the State System still prevalent in much of Europe.
After a long flight from San Francisco, I disembarked at Frankfurt and found my way to Terminal B via an airport shuttle train. Then it was through security again. This time it was about a twenty minute wait. Beside me in line was a Chinese woman with her husband and friends all from San Francisco on their way to Istanbul to take a cruise around the Greek Isles and end up in Venice. We stood in line together. She asked me why I was going to Bulgaria. I told her that I am a seminary professor and was going to teach a class on introduction to Theology. She immediately asked me if I had read the book The Shack. I told her that I had and was having my students at Tozer Seminary read it and write a critique. She indicated that she had read it as had several of her friends-with varying reactions. Some loved it, others particularly a couple of Roman Catholic friends hated it. That sparked a fairly lengthy conversation about God and what we should take away from the book. (see my discussion of issues surrounding The Shack @ http://www.sacredsaga.org/jims-blog/2008/8/2/visiting-the-shack.html )
I had 4 hours before the flight to Sofia-the Frankfurt airport is not passenger friendly! I had to hunt for a place to sit down. They wouldn't let me in the gate area until about 45 minutes before the flight.
There was one more security check to get into the gate area-this time they tested my external hard drive for explosives-I have never had that happen before. The two hour flight to Sofia was a rest.
I was met by our friends Pavel and Evgania as I came out of customs. We hopped in the car and headed out for Stara Zagora-about 150 miles East.
About half way there we stopped at McDonalds for dinner-Pavel's favorite. I was standing waiting for my hamburger and all of a sudden I realized I was standing beside Margie Brown, friend from the Bay Area that is a missionary in Stara Zagora! They were on the way back from taking her parents to the airport.
We started back on the road and I fell asleep. All of a sudden I was jolted awake by a loud clunking sound. Pavel had hit something dark in the road. We spent about 15 or 20 minutes determining that the car was safe to drive. Then we limped the rest of the way at about 50 KPH.
I have finished my second day of teaching today (Wednesday). I have a good group-about one third of the students have been in my classes before. About 2/3 are Gypsy pastors who have had little training. We covered background material yesterday and started looking at theological traditions today. Somehow the question of predestination, freewill and eternal security always comes up even when it is not on the agenda. This was raised by one of the young pastors yesterday. We will address it in some detail today as we look at Calvinism and Wesleyan-Arminianism.