The Land of the Eagles 5

Zef translating as I speak at the conference in Durres

Because this week is exam week at the university, my session with the students has been cancelled. However I have had an opportunity to consider other issues here.

On Monday Zef took me to see his brother, Kastrioti, who lives in the old family home in a village some distance to the north of Tirana. He has been in poor health, having had serious heart surgery some years ago in Greece. This was financially difficult for the family. More recently his wife is seriously ill at home, and Kastrioti has himself had an accident where his back has been hurt, and his arm broken. This however merely exacerbates the general situation. Zef also has five sisters. However, as they are generally very poor, they depend on him to help them all financially. This is generally true in the country with those in work expected to help the extended family. This also is the reason that many are encouraged to leave the country, and send the money home.

Yesterday (Tuesday) Zef was busy at home translating a book for publication in Albanian (The Disciplines of a Godly Man), but in the afternoon we returned to Durres to meet again with Sokol and Arvid, and this time we were joined by Berti, a pastor from Lushnja. All four were in Bible College together and meet up regularly.

Berti has an interesting history. During the Communist era he was an army officer, responsible for trying to block radio signals from the West being broadcast here. In this work he came accross Christian bradcasts from Monte Carlo, and used to listen regularly to them. Although he didn’t become a believer atvthatvtime, when Communism fell he was ready to welcome Christians and put his faith in Christ. (His story has been written in a book – God’s Secret Listener).
I was asked many questions about the situation at home, and I also was interested to know how they saw the future in Albania. There is much hope that the European Union will help the economy, but if that doesn’t happen then the Government will look to Turkey. Zef thinks that would be disastrous for the Christians here.

The conference audience listening carefully

One of the issues which came up was that of financial support. There is a danger that people here think all those who come from the West have plenty of resources, and should be helping more. One of the reasons I am able to work so well with Zef is that he understands my own situation, and although he has many needs, he never asks for financial help. He is simply grateful (as are others here) that I come to encourage and help as the opportunity arises.

Today I will return home, but with much to be thankful for again in the Land of the Eagles.

The Land of the Eagles 4

Zef’s discipleship group (see post 1)

On Sunday, after breakfast, we returned to Tirana, where I was to preach at Immanuel Church where Zef is an elder. It was good again to greet people that I’ve begun to know over the years. We were welcomed by Altin, another elder, who read from John 15. We were then led in a time of singing by three, one playing a keyboard and the other two helping to lead the singing.

The hymns or songs were a mixture of ones which I recognised as translations from the English, and others that were new songs in Albanian. It is good that they are creating their own tradition and not depending only on the new songs coming from the West. After five songs Altin asked the congregation for matters for prayer and this was followed by an open time of prayer. Then I was welcomed and invited to come to preach, with Zef translating. Zef, who is mainly responsible for preachung, has been following a series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, so I went instead to Paul’s prayer in the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. I encouraged them, as Paul had done with the first century Christians, to look up from their problems to see the glory of their inheritance in Christ, and put their trust in the power which raised Jesus from the dead to bring them to that glory. It is a warm and receptive congregation and always a joy to be with them.

Following the service Altin, Zef and their families took me to a restaurant for a meal. This is a large restaurant, in the centre of Tirana, situated below a large casino! They like to be discerning about their food, and it did not disappoint. However the great thing for me was being able to talk with Altin, and two things in particular struck me as we talked.

Firstly, he was grateful for my continued faithfulness to the situation. He talked of how people came full of enthusiasm for a while, but then moved on to other places that seemed more attractive. It was not that he did not want those other places to be blessed, but my continuing to return and not forget them was a real encouragement. This surely is something we need to think about in our age of wanting instant results, or exciting news. Whether we think of supporting churches and missions in other lands, or people within our own community, how much better to be “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs‬ ‭18:24‬ ‭

The second matter we discussed was the new translation of the Bible into Albanian. Altin leads the Bible society in Albania, and this has been his major project for a number of years. The old translation was based on the Vulgate, and in a language which was difficult to read. Zef, together with two others, had been responsible for translating the New Testament which was published a number of yrars ago. Since then there has been a team working on the Old Testament. This is the first time that they will have a Bible translated from the original languages. The process is nearing completion, with a revision of the New Testament going on. This time next year it should be with the printers. So Altin’s major project for the coming year is finding the 150,000 euros needed to fund the printing of enough Bibles to supply the need. I was left wondering whether there was a way I could help with the project.

The Land of the Eagles 3

The participants in the Durres Conference

This is the substance of the message I gave in the conference for young professionals based on Nehemiah, esp chapters 1,2

We are all here because we want to make a difference. We want our lives to count for something, and we want to achieve in our work. Howeverwe are also Christians in this conference, so we want ou achievements to be in accordance with God’s will. We want to do things in His way. So I’d like us to think of Nehemiah – one of the great leaders of Israel. He was an exile, born far away from his own country, serving in the court of Artaxerxes in Susan.

Jerusalem in trouble
The book of Nehemiah begins with him receiving news that things were in a bad way in Jerusalem. 140 years before Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army had conquered Judah and Jerusalem, and in a series of events the people had been taken into exile and the city left in ruins. When the Babylonian empire fell, Cyrus, the new king, gave a commandment that Jerusalem and the temple should be rebuilt. Ezra and some others returned from exile to rebuilb tge temple. However, some locals had complained, and Artaxerxes 13 years before we meet Nehemiah had ordered that the work stop.
Jerusalem therefore remined in ruins, and without defensive walls the place was open to gangs and foreigners of all sorts to come. It was nkt a safe place to be and civil disorder was the way of the place.
Nehemiah felt this burden on his heart, and he would be the instrument of change. But how did he go about it?

1. He prayed
He did not panic. He did not rush into things. He turned to God and prayed. We learn that he prayed from the time he heard the news (the month of Chislef) till the month of Nisan, with fasting and tears. This would be a period of four or five months of seriously seeking God. Now this is a real challenge to us. When we face ch
Lenges we may complain, we may rush in, and often if we do pray, it is very short and we give up easily. But it was not so with Nehemiah.
I wonder how he prayed to God. He might have begun by asking God why doesn’t He do something? Then he might ask God, why won’t he get the people in Jerusalem to do something. Then he might move on to ask God – Send someone to Jerusalem to do something. Eventually, however, he got to the point where he had to ask God What domyou want me to do?”
This is why he becme such an instrument of change. He got to that place in prayer where he could listen to God and do as he was told.

2. He planned
How did he go about persuading Artaxerxes to let him go to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall? He could have rushed in to tell the king that he must do something. However we know that this king was not someone to be trifled with. Whilst we know that Nehemiah had a position of trust and privelege in the court, he was still only a slave. From the book of Esther we know that any who entered the presence of the King without permission was worthy of death.
On the ithernhand, he might have said to the king: Your predecessor ordered that Jerusalem be rebuilt, but when some people complained thirteen years ago you decided without listening to the other side of the argument that the work should stop. However this would not have got on the right side of this cruel potentate.
He decided on another course, which was still a risk, but one worth taking. One day he entered the court of the king with a sad face. This was just not done at the time, and could have landed him in trouble. But because of his faithful service, the king asked him what was wrong? “And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” ‭‭(Nehemiah‬ ‭2:2‬ ‭)

His answer is nothing if not diplomatic. “I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”” (Nehemiah‬ ‭2:3‬ ) He’s got the king onside and sympathising. When he is asked how long he needs to be away to get this sorted, he’s got a ready answered. He has planned well. He even asks for the necessary letters of authority so that he may receive the supplies needed for the task in hand.

It has been said: Aim for nothing and you will surely hit it. When God lays something on our heart we need to be practical people, thinking through what needs to be done.
A well though out idea will always be more readily accepted than merely wishful thinking.

3. He put into action
A well known proverb states that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” How many times can we look back and say that we had a good idea, and even a good plan, but we didn’t follow it through. Nehemiah took the next step. He went to Jerusalem, and when he got there he took his time to look at the task, and then he went to work.
Firstly he gathered the Jews. He couldn’t do the work alone, so he gets everybody together and inspires them with the story of how he managed to get the authority to do the work. He gathers a team together. Then they set to, and he refuses to let the enemies distract him or the workers. He sets everything in order, and within less than two months ghe task which looked impossible is completed. Jerusalem is safe, and the people can live in peace.

This may seem an u likely story – even unrealistic in our day. And yet, there are many stories of people following the same pattern. We could think of Wiberforce and the Clapham Sect. Or closer to our time, my friend Michal, who is a pastor in the Czech Republic. He and his church wondered how they could do good to the town where they live. One of the major problems there was the gambling machines that were everywhere in the town. They prayed, gathered information and lobbied, and before long the local government banned the machines. They saw such an improvement in the economy and wellbeing of the people that now the ,ayor meets with Michal reguLarly to ask advice.

How will we see Albania (or your cities and towns wherever you live) change?
So many people are leaving the country to seek a better life in the West. There is no guarantee of a better life. Morally we are bankrupt in the West. You may get a better life financially, but it will not necessarily be better for you. Will you pray that God would do something? Would you pray that God would send people to do the work? Or will you pray that you yourself will become instruments for change?

The Land of the Eagles 2

The Albanian Flag

Albania is a land with so many influences. The Albanian flag has a two headed eagle – one head facing east and the other facing west. This harks back to the Byzantine empire with the two wings, one looking to Europe, and the other to the east. It is also a place where north meets south so that within a stone’s throw of each other you will find a huge Mosque, a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and a Roman Catholic Cathedral. (Mother Teresa is greatlybadmired here, and you find her image everywhere.)
There is also the Communist atheistic legacy, so that the country is a real mixture of beliefs.

Politically there is a long lecagy of corruption in high places, although the government seems to be trying to deal with this. A number of high judgs who refused to investigate corruptio have been removed, and some officials and members of parliament are now being investigated. This change may partly be due to the desire of the government to join the EU, and thir hope is that this will happen in 2015, with a great influx of financial help. However the general public are still pretty cynical about the situation, and about anybody in a position of power.

Friday was a quiet day of reading and preparation for me. Zef had work to do, so I did not see him until 4.00, when he came with his family to pick me up to travel to Durres. There is a conference here for young professionals – those who used to be part of the Christian Unions at university and have no entered the workplace.

The idea of the conference is to help them think hrough how to be good workers and leaders in society. There are talks on video which they watch, from the Global Leadreship Summit (From Illow Creek) in the US. These talks arent directly Christian, but rather look at certain aspects of work and leadership. However follwing the dvd there comes a time of discussion where issues are dealt with.

On Saturday morning I gave a talk on Nehemiah, looking at how he became someone who effected change in Jerusalem. This went down well, and quite a few have come to speak to me afterwards for advice.

Among those here are doctors, those working in finance, Computer consultants and even a film maker, as well as Christian pastors and workers. One I was happy to meet is Geni, a pastor in Memalja who is supported by Ebenezer curch in Bangor. His wife, Niki, works for the student movemens BSKSH in Girocaster.

Durres is a beautiful place on the sea shore, and we are staying in a hotel next to the beach. Apparently this is the city where Titus was martyred and there are some Roman ruins in the area. As I write the sun is shining, and a number of those on the conference are having a game of volleyball on the beach. The conference finishes tomorrow morning after breakfast, when We will return to Tirana, and I will be preaching in Immanuel church.

The Land of the Eagles

The statue of Skandebeg in Tirana

I’ve returned to Albania to help my firend Zef Nicolla, the general secretary of the IFES movement in the Country (BSKHS). This is my fifth time in “the land of the eagles” as we might translate Shqiperia which is the name the Albanians have for their own country. It’s always a joy and a challenge to be here.

I arrived on Wednesday, having left home at 2.30 in the morning to get to Manchester airport. I was met at Tirana airport by Zef, who as always was enthusiastic and glad to welcome me. He left me at Qendra Stefan – the hotel where I usually stay in Tirana – where I was able to grab half an hour’s sleep before going for a walk into the centre of the city. The city changes every time I come, with much work done recently to renew parts of the centre. This is a plan to try to draw investment and businesses into the area.

At 5.30 I went to Immanuel church, the building which is owned by the church where Zef is an elder. Here Zef was leading an English class. This would have no direct spiritual content, but a way for the church to make contact with people as many Albanians want to learn English. He had not told the class that I would be there, but wanted me to engage them in conversation. (Had they known some would not have come be ause they were not confident to speak English with a fluent speaker.) Following this class Zef left me to return to the hotel as he had another meeting, and I was tired after the journey.

On Thursday Zef came to the hotel by about 9.30 to arrange the day’s plan. There is a restaurant at Qendra Stefan where many come to meet and discuss. The hotel and restaurant are run by Christians and used to train workers so that they may gain work elsewhere. It’s a place where quite a few Christians meet up, especially Americans who are in the country.

Zef had much work to do, but wanted me to lead two meetings later on in the day, so he went work at home, as his wife was ill in bed, while I prepared in the hotel. At 3.00 he returned to take me to the medical school in Tirana. Here a group of Christian students were meeting in a house owned by American Medics who come regularly to teach and do missions here. When we arrived the students were discussing a case study as revision for the exams. It is exam time here, so Zef was not sure if any would be here. Five were there, and I led them for an hour to look at the first chapter of 1 Peter. The challenge to keep focused on our inheritance in the midst of trials, and remember the price paid for our redemption was the reason for choosing this chapter. They will face much pressure from many directions in their work, with great moral decisions before them. Their continued witness will be a huge testimony here.

Follwing this, we moved on to another part of the city where I met with a discipleship group which Zef has begun. Nine young men, mostly students, have covenanted to meet weekly with Zef to think through what it means to be a disciple of Christ. This is a three year programme, and it was a joy to meetbwith them. There was a time of sharing, and then I was given 30 minutes to talk about how to study the Bible. Whilst I was speaking theybtucked into the pizzas which had been brought into the session. It was a very practical session, and at the end of my time there, the questions began. They were great questions, which lasted another half hour, but probably the most challenging was one ragrding the book of Revelation. I ended up giving them a ten minute overview of the book, avoiding the dispensatiolism which is so prominent here.

Following this session, I was taken to meet Zef, who had left earlier because two men wanted to see him. We met and went for a meal together. The two are part of a relatively new churchplant in Durres, a city not too far from Tirana, where it is said that Titus was martyred. I had met both men before. Arvid is the leader of the church, having moved there to work part time for BSKSH. I’ve met him before when I’ve come to speak to students here. The other man, Sokol, has joined Arvid to help him. I met Sokol in 2013, when I preached in his church. At that time the church had experienced a contentious split, which was as a consequence of some from the US who had started the church and then left the place in disarray. That church has now closed, and Sokol is helping Arvid.

One of the questions Arvid asked me was if I preach from only the Bible. I was not sure why he asked this, but he explained that he understood that there was much preaching which was little more than telling interesting stories. I assured him that I was not one of those preachers!

Albania 2016

Zefjan Nicolla

Zefjan Nicolla

I have recently been to Albania once again. The trip went well, with much to encourage me. This time I was accompanied by a friend, Dewi Tudur, who is a pastor in Talsarnau, and it was great to have someone to share in the experience. We flew on Tuesday from Manchester via Istanbul to Tirana, where we were met by my contact, Zefjan Nicolla. Continue reading

On to Košice

It was good to see Heledd (my daughter) waiting for me on the platform when I arrived after a three and a half hour journey from Budapest. We went on the local transport to the flat where she has lived since she moved here four and a half years ago. No meetings had been arranged for the first two days here, so it was a good time to relax, talk and get some preparation done. The weather has not been kind to me on this trip, with much rain. So we did not go to see the mountains, but it was good to have time together. Continue reading

Budapest

Ungarn, Budapest, Burghügel und Burg. Stadtansicht

My visit to Budapest came following an invitation from Lazslo a local pastor. We had met at the European Leadership Forum last year, and as a consequence he was anxious that I could meet up with some people who are trying to reach out to the Gay community in Budapest.

Last Friday I was met at the airport by Lazslo, and in the evening was taken to meet Andraš – one of the leaders of the Christians for Gays group. Andras then took me to a lcal restaurant, where we met with two others: Valentin, who is also a member of this group, and J, who is an active Lesbian, and believes that following Jesus does not meen that she has to turn her back on the active same sex lifestyle. She seemed to have much trauma in her background, and very much on her guard at the beginning of our conversation. We had a pretty intense couple of hours of conversation, which I pray will help her as she works out what it means to follow Jesus.

I was staying with Andras and his family for the first two nights. They are a lovely couple, with one son and are looking fr ways to serve the Lord. vicky, his wife, works in a foundation set up by Laszlo’s church to help those who escape from human trafficking.

On Saturday, after a morning of sightseeing in pouring rain, I worked innthe afternoon, preparing for a meeting in the evening. This was an open meeting where I was to speak on the subject: “Is God anti-gay?”  This meeting was in downtown Budapest, at the top of a building covered in graffiti. Outside our room was a bar, and the place was obviously frequented by many of the young in the city. I was told that they did not know who would come – maybe no-one, or maybe there would be many. The meeting had been advertised on Facebook, and many of the local LGBT groups had been contacted. So we were all a bit aprehensive. As it was about 20 people were there, and they were a mixture of Christians who were supportive and others who were obviously coming from a different perspective.

I spoke for about 45 minutes via a translator, and then we had an open session of questions and answers and debate. My focus was on how we view our own identity. I used the story of Jesus meeting the woman by the well in John 4 to show how he led her to look for a deeper relationship through him to satisfy her longings. Things seemed to go well, and Andras was grateful that the evening was peaceful, with everybody repsectful of each other. Lazslo said that he felt the meeting had been significant in many ways. Firstly it was the first time they had tried anything like this, and it was a great boost to their confidence. Secondly, the fact that peole had felt safe to question openly and debate with open hearts and minds meant that there was something t build on in these people’s lives. Thirdly, he felt that bridges were being built which would be fruitful in time to come.

On Sunday morning I was speaking in Lazso’s church – a five year old church plant which they call Golgota. Here was a group of people of various ages, but a significant portion were young families. We began wirh five hymns/songs led by a worship group. I recognised a couple of the songs as translations from the English, but others were Hungarian hymns, both traditinal and new. I must admit that I struggled with linking the pronounciatiin with the words up on the screen! Hungarian does seem a difficult language!

The children then went out and I spoke (again via a translator) to the issue of how the church can be clear on our understanding of what the Bible teaches about sexual relationships, and also open and welcoming towards those who are different. I looked at the story of Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee, and asked them whether we often give the message of the pharisees to those outside. People listened intently, and at the end many seemed to be affected by the message. Many came to seek help and advice afterwards. Many families had been affected by this issue. I had applied the message very much in terms of the homosexual issue, but some also saw how they could apply my teaching to other relationships. There were many tears shed, and Lazlo was encouraged that God was at work in many hearts.

The rest of the day was spent with Lazslo, his wife Kerry and their four children. An intended meeting for church leaders for the afternoon could not be arranged because of Sunday commitments. So the following morning I was up early to catch the 6.30 train to Košice to spend some days with Heledd, my daughter.

European Leadership Forum 5

Michael Oh, Executive Director of the Lausanne Movement

Michael Oh, Executive Director of the Lausanne Movement

The last full day at the Forum arrived and breakfast time I was mentoring two workers from a church in Budapest. They were facing problems originating in the legacy left by the previous pastor. So often we are not good in preparing for our successors. We got so involved in our discussion that we were late arriving in our final Bible Reading. We were just in time to hear Ajith Fernando giving his final address, this time looking at Nehemia Chapter 5. Continue reading