Category: Pastor’s Pen

Broken dreams

It was (and still is) both scary and comforting to go through the lockdown experience during COVID-19. Scary to think what a small virus can do to the world as we know it, but also refreshing to experience the calm and quiet of a whole global world forced to take a break from the mad rush. It was good not to have the usual rush and were forced to reconsider the lie that we keep telling ourselves that we have to be busy all the time in order to find meaning in life. I also liked the fact that, at least in part, there was more appreciation for God’s creation as wild animals visited places they are not normally seen and cities were cleared of much of the smog caused by our demand for comfort.

It was like living in a dream world … well, almost!

But my dream world was quickly shattered by the usual (evil) realities, such as the wars in Syria and Yemen that were still happening (just pushed off the front pages by a tiny virus), while other diseases, bad politics (politicians!), corruption and global evils like poverty and hunger have not gone away. But perhaps the biggest bubble-burst reality was the rude awakening that racial harmony was very far from being experienced around the world, as highlighted by the senseless killing of an African American man and the consequent unrests, spreading around the USA and many parts of the world.

We live in a restless world. There is no lack of finding evidence of a world yearning for peace and harmony, but seem to always struggle to find it. Human organizations, talks, committees and all other efforts have failed to provide permanent peace.

And yet, we should not lose the dream of peace, rest and harmony. This is precisely why Jesus came, to mend a broken world, to revive our broken dreams. These dreams can only become reality if we truly believe in and follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, stepping into his footsteps by living as He did, striving not only to personally experience his peace, but also to become his “blessed are the peacemakers” in this world (Matthew 5:9).

May the Lord increase our peace as we seek to be instruments of peace for Him in His kingdom.

Lest we forget…

We’ve been in lockdown now since early March, with a slow opening up the economy and relaxing of the restrictions. While we were in the middle of it all, first quarantined for fourteen days and then severely restricted in terms of travel and shopping, it felt like an eternity of “sitting at home, doing nothing”. Not that I was doing nothing, but it felt weird to not being able to simply go somewhere, visit people, have church and so on.

At the end of May there is a kind-of lifting of the restrictions, as long as we still stay within the Slovak borders, of course. Joan and I have been going shopping a little bit more than a month ago, and I am struck at how life seems to get back to some form of normality, seen in how traffic patterns get back to jams, people shopping like crazy, visits to friends and family becoming more relaxed, and many other signs that we’re on the way to life as we used to know it.

And yet, something inside me is objecting! Humans easily forget, even despite the pictures we take, monuments we erects and entrances into our history books. I want to hold on to some of the lessons we learned during this time (and continue to learn). These include at least a more reflective life, taking time to enjoy quietness, learning to enjoy silence, getting away from the mad rush around us, appreciating regular contact with others by asking how they are coping (despite happening via Zoom, Whatsapp or social media) and many other things we should not forget as we get back into the routine of “normal” life. Maybe there should be a new normal for us as we “get out” of this time.

God knew that we easily forget and therefore instituted days and rituals or remembrance, such as Passover for the Jews and The Lord’s Supper for followers of Jesus Christ … all of this “lest we forget”. Make a note (physical or mental) of what you’ve learned to appreciate during this time, and make a point of remembering the lessons.

Corona and Freedom

We are currently in the middle of the strangest time I have ever experienced in my life on earth – and I’ve been around for a little while. A tiny virus, invisible to the naked eye, has shut down the world! The results of this (almost) world-wide lockdown have been varied, with both positive and negative responses. On the negative side we have seen more than the usual number of deaths around the world, people live in fear, we are limited by “social distancing”, and virtually every country’s economy is on its knees. We have yet to see the damage that has been done to businesses, income, wealth, travel and even health.

But there have also been, almost ironically, some positive spin-offs so far. The streets are quieter, very little rush-hour traffic, life is less rushed, we are forced to re-evaluate our priorities, families are spending more time together, there is much less pollution in cities, and a host of other things that may help us to hit the restart button to hopefully a “new normal” once this is all over.

I’ve been intrigued by the reaction to government measures around the world. There is, not unexpectedly, a whole range of responses, from simply accepting the lockdown to outrage that “our human right to freedom is being violated”. This made me think about the concept of freedom (read “human rights”), which certainly must be understood as coming with certain limitations. For example, my freedom does not allow me to take another person’s life. Our right to freedom is limited by our responsibility to behave in ethical and moral ways, respecting other people’s freedom too.

This is true in the spiritual realm as well. Recently we celebrated Easter, emphasizing that Jesus came to set us free – free from the guilt of sin, free from condemnation and free from legalism. But this kind of freedom is not a license to sin, as Paul reminds us we “were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh” (Galatians 5:13; see also 1 Peter 2:16). Christians are saved by God’s grace to experience the freedom that Christ brought and bought (“If the Son has set you free you shall be free indeed” John 8:36). But this very freedom is limited by grace, since our understanding of God’s grace compels us to stay away from the contamination of sin. Our freedom from the bondage of sin sets us free to love, serve and worship Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.

May this freedom-robbing-virus-time help us to fall more deeply in love with Jesus!

Giving and Gaining

I have enjoyed doing the short series of four sermons on the life of Hannah, which I called Life with Hannah, based on 1 Samuel 1 & 2. There are many lessons to learn from her story and experience and I don’t want to repeat the sermon series here! The one lesson I would like to focus on is how Hannah gave up much, but gained so much more. Hannah was willing to give up her precious son, Samuel, but gained so much more from it, not least the fact that this son became a major instrument for change in God’s plan for Israel.

As I reflect on the more than five years of ministry in Bratislava at our church, I am full of gratitude to the Lord and his people for allowing me this privilege. Being involved in the lives of (mostly) internationals have some real benefits, such as rubbing shoulders with and learning from other cultures, discovering family I didn’t know I had! Our church is a true “family away from home”.

Most of us would feel that we have gained much from being in Bratislava, meeting different people, being exposed to a “world out there” we didn’t know before. All of the interactions, people from other parts of the world, different food tastes, opportunities to travel to parts of the world I have only heard of – all of these are wonderful “gains”, privileges and gifts received from the Lord and his people.

But it is also true to say that these “gains” have come at the cost of “giving” – giving up what is familiar to us. For most of us, even those who left home elsewhere in Slovakia, it is a big sacrifice leaving what is familiar to us (language, home, culture, food, family) in exchange for being enriched by a different country, world, culture and foreigners.

The great benefit of belonging to a church like ours is that we can continue to worship the Lord, seek fellowship with other Christians and belong to our “family away from home”. Thank you for being part of this family and for being our family!

Looking back

The year 2020 has arrived! A New Year is always an opportunity for us to reflect on what the Lord has done for us in the past year, but also to look at where He may be leading us in the future. As we look back on the year 2019 there is much that our church can be grateful for. I can think of at least the following highlight, and it’s not a complete list.

  • Consistent Sunday attendance. Thank you to all who attend on a regular basis to make our Sunday worship times special. We even had a great first-time Easter Friday service.
  • Worship team participants. It is quite amazing that, despite the transient nature of our church, there are always people to make music and lead our times of worship in song, including our first-ever Christmas music choir and band! Thank you to the worship team members.
  • Leadership provided. The Church Council has again been helping, meeting, guiding and leading the church this past year. Over the past few years there has been great consistency regarding Council members. This is a good asset for a church like ours, providing much-needed stability in a changing environment. Thank you to leaders of different ministries.
  • Regular times of fellowship around meals. Monthly potlucks, Bible study meals every week, and also the very special times of eating (too much!) at Thanksgiving and Christmas. These are wonderful opportunities of fellowship and binding us together, as well as reaching out to others in our city.
  • Purchase of the church property. We are now a church that owns its own apartment to accommodate the pastor (current and future). This is truly a great blessing from the Lord, especially considering the fact that we had to rent apartments for many years, as well as receiving a major financial gift from the International Baptist Convention. The apartment will no doubt provide even more stability to our church as we go into the future. Once again, thank you to those who supported this decision, and especially to Pete and Vierka who spent many hours working on the legal side of things.

As we enter this New Year, may the Lord help us as we worship Him, fellowship with one another, being “family away from home” for many, and seek to reach more people for Him in our city and beyond. Let us attempt to do much more for the Lord in this year. May you have a blessed 2020!

Mary, did you know?

The Christmas story is not complete without reading about, remembering, portraying (often by children in plays) or simply marveling at the way God brought his Son into the world through a young woman from Nazareth named Mary. In some church traditions this has captured the imagination so much that there is more than simply respect, but some form of worship of Mary as the mother of Jesus, ascribing to her a kind-of mediatory role to have access to Jesus. Although in the church tradition that we represent we avoid doing so, it is worth sparing a moment to remember Mary’s role in God’s provision of salvation for sinners.

Despite the fact that many suggestions, traditions and stories of legendary value arose around Mary, we don’t know anything beyond what the Bible mentions about her. But let’s think about what we do know.

She was young, born and raised in a peasant’s family – not the kind of family of special standing in the 1st Century society. She lived in a male-dominated society – not many women in that world would make it into prominence or history books. She was a simple believer in God, willing to receive a message from God, committing to something she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. Her dreams of a “normal” life of getting engaged, marrying her future husband, living in her village, and raising a “normal” family … all of these were rudely interrupted by God, maybe even shattered by what she heard and (initially) experienced.

Yet, with absolute blind faith in the God whom she served from childhood, she put her trust and her future into His hands by simply saying “I am the servantof the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

The Christmas story requires more than remembering or retelling the birth of Jesus. It demands our adoration, worship and obedience to the One who was willing to be born as a human to identify with us, and to pay the penalty for our sins in order to offer us forgiveness. Mary sets an example of someone who was willing to allow God to interrupt her normal life in order to receive life as only God can give it – life to the full, abundant, joyful, meaningful, eternal.

If God chose Mary to be the mother of His Son born as a human, then God can choose us for any role He plans for us to have. And if Mary could say “yes” to God, then surely we can also commit to be available to serve the Almighty God who gave his only Son to bring us forgiveness. Let us therefore not only celebrate Christmas with trees, lights and gifts, but with obedience and worship!

Connections!

As people created in the image of God we crave fellowship, contact, conversation, staying updated on news from family and friends – the main reason why social media such as Facebook have become so popular and virtually a part of our everyday existence. In short, we all like to stay connected.

For any person who believes in God and who, through Jesus Christ, has a personal relationship with God, it is important to stay connected to God. We often refer to this as our relationship with God. It mainly happens through Bible reading, study of Scripture, prayer, listening to the Word proclaimed, asking God for guidance, depending on the Holy Spirit to guide us in all that we do. We refer to this as our vertical relationship.

But we also have a major need and obligation to stay connected horizontally. In other words, God created us with a need to relate to other human beings around us, such as our family members, friends, colleagues and fellow Christians. For those of us who are followers of Christ this happens primarily when we are part of a local church where we support one another, pray for each other, and encourage each other to remain connected with God. The key word in the previous sentence is “another”. It is amazing to note how many times the New Testament refers to the “one another” aspect of our faith! (See an interesting article on this aspect at http://www.smallgroupchurches.com/the-59-one-anothers-of-the-bible/)

I sometimes refer to our horizontal relationships as our “connections”. I have even used the term to refer to our children’s friends and (now) spouses! I don’t know whether they were always impressed with my reference, but these are the kind of relationships that keep us connected with our social world, our family and friends. In the past while we’ve had several visits in Bratislava from people we’ve known or worked with in the past, and it was good to catch up with some our past connections! It reminded me how important it is to build bridges while I can, to live in community, to give attention to these connections of mine. We have that opportunity here in Bratislava. Whether we are here for a short while or for a longer term, let us build relationships, connect with each other, let us make sure we are well-connected with others in our church. These connections may stand us in good stead in the future!

Crossing the barriers

Another church retreat (church weekend) has come and gone and all who attended agree that it was a good time of rest, fellowship and spiritual growth. The topic addressed by Dr Kevin Roy, Cross-cultural relationships, can hardly be more relevant in a church like ours where we represent between 16 and 20 different nationalities, bringing with us different cultures, languages and personalities! It was good to be challenged about our love for ALL people and how God desires for us to reach out to all nations in order to build the kind of Kingdom that He has planned from the beginning.

Although our church is not the only one in the world with many different cultures represented, it certainly is an exciting place to be. And it is not without its challenges either! Just think about the danger of being miss-understood, doing the “wrong” thing in another culture, the difficulty of cross-cultural communication (especially if you don’t speak the local language!), doing or saying something that may be offensive in another culture. If you add to the mix of cultures the fact that we also represent different personalities, gifts and preferences, then you almost have a recipe for disaster!

It is for this reason that it is important to follow the example of Jesus Christ who accepted with open arms everyone who came to him, did not discriminate against the untouchables in his community, and specifically crossed the dividing physical and social boundaries on many occasions. And His commandment to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) was no mistake – it’s been God’s plan all along and should not ignored by us.

It’s great to be in a church where we have a sort-of foretaste of heaven where all these different people from around the world come together to praise and worship God in unity. Let’s protect this unity and pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to bind us together with His love and acceptance. Let’s also pray for patience as we face the many challenges of being from very different backgrounds and yet desire to serve our Lord with love and acceptance of one another.

Life Cycles

The seasons of the year are a great reminder of the fact that life seems to happen in cycles – almost everything seems to go in cycles, including nature, flowers, farming, churches, growing up, families, global warming (?) and much more.

As we come to the end of Summer this year (will the heat waves ever end?!) and soon enter into Autumn, I am reminded of the reference by Jesus in John 12:24 to the fact that a new seed doesn’t grow unless it first dies – a clear reference to His own death in order to bring us life eternal, as well as the fact that the death of one person (Jesus himself) will result in life for many thousands more. What an amazing gift to us by our Lord Jesus Christ!

Our church seems to “suffer” from life cycles. I personally dread hearing from members that they are leaving. This often happens in the middle of the calendar year, about the time when schools are about to reopen for the next school year. While it is sad that people leave us, I’m also grateful for the opportunity our church has had to impact their lives. I trust that those moving on will take with them the blessings they received from us and become a blessing to other people and churches wherever they go.

But, just as cycles continue, new people arrive – most often also before the start of a new school year. And the process starts over again. Welcome to all who recently arrived and are joining us for worship and fellowship. May your experience in Bratislava and as part of our fellowship be a true blessing to you. Please allow us to help and bless you in every way that we can. And my advice to you? Make the most of your stay in Bratislava and Slovakia so that one day you’ll take many good memories with you when you leave.

Challenge & Blessing!

A few weeks ago I was going through our church’s database, updating some information, moving names from one list to another, making contact with people we have not seen for a while. Two things really stood out for me.

Firstly, I was concerned to see that we have names on our database of people who still live in our city or nearby, but we have not seen them for quite a while. On Sunday, 21 July, I focused on the fact that the Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people. This made me think that their gifts are no longer available to our church, but at the same time some other members who have the gift of encouragement may have the opportunity to reach out to these people to bring them “back into the fold”. If you have such a gift, please use it!

Secondly, I was amazed (almost shocked!) to see how many people have moved away from Bratislava over the four-and-a-half years that we have been here – over a 100 people have left, moved, or moved on somewhere else. Such is the nature of our international community! And soon we’ll (again!!) see more people moving away. Part of this is discouraging, like a never-ending battle to build the church. But part of it is also exciting if we think of just how many people have been impacted by our church’s ministry, fellowship, spiritual input and challenges. Most of these people probably have good memories of their time in Bratislava and as part of our fellowship. Their lives have been impacted and they can now continue to be a blessing to others wherever they travel and live in the world. In that sense, we really have family around the world. What a blessing!

Thank you to all who prayed and supported the purchase of the house in Vajnory. We are in the final stages of finishing the transfer, getting a kitchen installed, acquiring furniture and then moving in. As soon as we are settled in, you will be invited to come for a visit – hopefully by the latest the end of August.