Europe: In Review

We started off well in the communication department–posting pictures, sending updates via e-mail and blogs. But as the summer progressed it seemed like we had less and less time to post updates, and the second half of our time in Europe goes pretty much unmentioned on these pages.

So, here’s a stab at recapping the whole 9 1/2 weeks in just a few paragraphs:

First, it was a great summer.
We got to experience God working around us, through us, in us. We saw several people saved. We planted a lot of seeds. We distributed tens of thousands of gospel tracts. We met a lot of missionaries, national pastors, and other Christians from all over the globe–all part of that church that Christ promised to build in Matthew 18. We got to partner with many of these people and their ministries to reach the lost in ways they otherwise could only imagine. (In Europe, an American choir giving a free concert can easily draw dozens, maybe hundreds of people who otherwise would never darken the door of a church.) We got to see a lot of things–God’s creation and the creativity of mankind, made in the image of God. We learned a lot. We had a lot of opportunities to minister. We stayed with many wonderful hosts. We even picked up a little German.

Pentecost Weekend in Switzerland
We started out in Switzerland, where we participated in a Bible Conference celebrating Pentecost. Over there, Pentecost is a national holiday, believe it or not. Most people don’t know much about it, but the Christians often have conferences or special meetings, taking advantage of the day(s) off work. We were at the Arche, a swiss missionhaus (sort of like a Cristian hotel, only different) in Ebnat Kappel Switzerland.  I got to preach 3 of the messages, and we (the whole team, the choir) sang in 6 or 7 services, nearly using up all the songs we knew in German!

Germany & Slovokia
From Switzerland we went to Germany, where we spent the next several weeks. About the time we felt we were finally getting the German pronunciation down, we went to the Czech Republic and then Slovokia and had to start over with Slovak! In case you were wondering, Slovak is much harder to sing than German. Most words sound kind of like this: “tzchzvktd” Ok, so that might be a little bit of a stretch, but some words really did have all consonants!

The Gypsies
It was in Slovakia that we ministered to part of a gypsy village. Gypsies the world over are known as unreachable people, but this particular village is especially so. The missionaries, the Waites and the Stevens, had been patiently ministering to them for many years, but their work was ill-rewarded by the people. Aside from the obvious problems like pick-pocketing (leave all your belongings at home when visiting a gypsy camp!) and other thievery, they would return to their cars to find dung smeared under the door handles, and drive away while rocks were being thrown at them, that sort of thing.
They said that a few weeks before we arrived they’d taken two brand new soccer balls to hold an activity with the kids. They laid out a field, put half the kids at one end, half at the other, and put the balls in the middle. The object was the run to the middle and kick the ball to the other side or something like that, but when the whistle blew, the kids mobbed the balls, and the first two to get there grabbed them up and ran for the woods! When they didn’t come back, it was clear that the game was over, and the balls were gone for good.
Shortly before we arrived they were again working with the kids when some of the teenagers showed up and things quickly got out of hand. The missionaries headed for the cars with some difficulty, and as they were trying to leave a group of teenagers surrounded the car and smashed a large rock through the back window. They escaped, and… two days later, returned. The parents were shocked. “You came back! We thought you would never return after our children broke your window.”
I think the whole team was impacted by their love and persistence in ministering to these people who are often so unlovable.
Well, that was all background. It was deemed too dangerous to give a concert in the village, so the missionaries took two vans to the village and invited people to come to the church in town for our concert. Following a gospel message, the missionary gave an invitation, and amidst gentle mocking, jeering, and general opposition, one man stood up resolutely, walked forward, and after speaking with one of the men for several minutes, trusted Christ! The missionary gave another invitation. Another man stepped forward. Another invitation. Still jeering. Another man steps forward. And again. Four men trusted Christ. Four men have a new eternal destiny. Four men know God personally, through Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for sin. And not just any men, but four gypsy men. The unreachable, unlovable gypsies. We serve an awesome God. And one day, we’ll sing the story of redemption together with those men, all in the same language, in heaven forever.

And they sung a new song, saying, “Thou art worthy… for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

Every people. Even the gypsies.

Italy and Austria
We ministered in Italy and Austria as well. We found Italy to be significantly different from German. This was especially evident as I preached. The Germans, as a general rule, are very stoic. You can preach the most moving text in the Bible and they will sit there and stare at you as if they had hearts of stone. I don’t think that was it–they didn’t have hearts of stone, as was evident from talking to them personally, but from the pulpit it sure looked that way.

Jon and Sharon
When we got to Italy, anything that could possibly have an emotional effect, did. Following one outdoor concert I spoke briefly on hope–the hope that Believers have that the world can only wish for. Not a “I hope I win the lottery” kind of hope, but a “confident expectation” kind of hope. Hope the way the Bible uses the word. Hope in God and His Word. The kind of hope that perseveres even in the face of great trial or difficulty.

I don’t share a lot of personal illustrations when I speak, but I did want to illustrate this “confident expectation” that is rooted in God’s word, and one of the best examples of that that I have seen personally is the way my family responded to a trial some 18 years ago.

I was 7, and it was December. My brother and sister were some 800 miles away at Bob Jones University, but it was time for Christmas break and we were looking forward to seeing them soon. They left early in the morning on December 14th. I was excited. My big brother and sister were coming home!

Sometime toward the middle of the morning my pastor arrived at our house. I was still in bed. This was unusual, I thought. Why would he be here? I remember my mom coming in to see if I wanted to make breakfast for Pastor’s wife. I think I made her an egg. I couldn’t figure out why they were there.

The phone kept ringing, and pastor was answering. That didn’t make sense either. My parents were concerned, but it didn’t seem like anything too serious. It never entered my 7-year-old brain that it was something about Jon and Sharon.

Eventually, pastor asked if he could talk to me alone. I was certain I was in big trouble. Pastor came all the way here, spent a lot of time on the phone, and now wants to talk to me alone. What had I done? Fortunately, I was reading a book, and could pretend to not hear him.

I remember the book well. The cover had been long gone, ripped off probably before I had ever gotten it, perhaps at a garage sale or left behind in one of my parents’ apartments. I remember moving my eyes over the same paragraph again and again, not really reading, but trying to pretend that I was, my mind racing to figure out what was wrong. I think Pastor must have spoken to me 3 or 4 times before it became obvious that I couldn’t ignore him forever.
We went into my room, sat down on the bed, and he told me that my brother and sister weren’t coming home for Christmas. They were in heaven, he told me. There had been a terrible car accident just a few hours from Greenville. The driver, my brother, and my sister were all dead. Then pastor said that my mom and dad were in the living room, and that I should go give them a hug. I got up and wandered into the living room, almost in a trance. I really didn’t know what to think or do.

I saw my parents. They were crying. I think I crawled into my mom’s lap and cried with her. This wasn’t in the plans. Jon was supposed to come home and teach me how to solder wires together. Sharon was supposed to come home and play the piano, and maybe teach me to play something more than “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” which she had taught me before she left.

But now they weren’t coming home. Ever. Not to West Stephenson Street, anyway.
I don’t really remember what life was like before that. I remember them, of course, and I remember key events like Christmases and a few birthdays, maybe, and doing something special with Jon or Sharon, but I don’t remember everyday stuff, like what meals were like, or if we ever memorized verses together as a family.
But I know that following this event, my Dad went to the Word. A lot. He memorized it. He made me memorize it, which I hated at the time. We memorized as a family after breakfast each morning. When the newspapers sought comment about this seeming tragedy, Dad told them that God was in control, and he quoted Scripture. Their headstone says, “Whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 8:14).

Even in the face of immense pain and loss, the Word of God gave us hope. Confident expectation. Confidence that God was in control, that He knew what He was doing, that He is God, all the time, that we would see Jon and Sharon again, that they were in a better place. We knew this because each of them had placed their faith in Jesus Christ long before they died. They were trusting in the Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to pay for their sins. They knew God, and had a personal relationship with Him. So we knew that for them “to be absent from the body [was] to be present with the Lord.”

We had hope.

That was a long parenthetical, btw. It probably should have been a post all by itself,  but that’s my testimony of how God used the death of my siblings to engender unshakable confidence in God and His Word at a very early age.
And I shared some of this (though not in nearly so much detail) as part of this particular message. And by the time I was one or two sentences in, and it was obvious where the story was going, all the people in the audience were suddenly dabbing at their eyes. It wasn’t long before my interpreter had streams running down his face. With the probable exception of the other team members, my eyes were the only dry ones in the place. Which made things kind of awkward, since this story was about the loss of my brother and sister, and I should have been more affected than they were. But, that’s Italy, and that’s Italians. They’re very emotive over there, very expressive.

It was strange to see such visible responses after preaching for weeks in Germany, where you can pour your heart out and the people stare at you unblinkingly no matter what you say or do.

Fontonafredda, Italy
One of my favorite concerts of the summer was with an American missionary in Italy by the name of Rob Kraus. He had unusual vision for reaching his community. When he hired a plumber to re-do the church’s bathroom, it wasn’t just to re-do the churches bathroom. It wasn’t just a matter of picking the cheapest guy from the yellow pages, leaving the door unlocked, and telling him to go to it. No, this was an opportunity to develop a relationship, to be able to minister more effectively.

And, although I’m sure he liked the ice cream (called Gelato) at a vendor near the church, he went there for more than Gelato. He went to speak to the owner, to make friends with him as the man would serve him his ice cream.
Likewise with the grocer, and the men’s community choir that he joined, and so on and so forth.

Then he explained that he’d been planning for our visit for about 2 years.  “Up until now, these people are all acquaintances,” he said.  “They’re just business relationships. But if I can give them a gift–if I can give them an evening of music, and maybe a CD of your choir as they leave, now I’ve got something more than that.”
He was planning his next year of outreach around the 60-minute concert we gave. He had beautiful invitations printed up long before we arrived, and it seemed like he had invited half the town. (And, significantly, it seemed like he KNEW half the town, which made the inviting a lot more effective.)

He’d secured a public concert hall, a converted Roman Catholic church, actually, for the concert, so as to not intimidate people by having it at his Bible church. The hall was full. I suppose there were 200 or 300 people there, many of which had likely never heard the gospel before. They called for an encore, one of the few we gave all summer. (Normally, since they were billed as sacred concerts, folks didn’t applaud, but this was Italy, where not applauding good music would be almost anathema, and applaud they did.) For the encore, we sang a magnificent arrangement of How Great Thou Art — perhaps my favorite song of the summer, complete with brass, tenor solo, and congregational refrain at the end with the choir singing parts above them. It’s powerful. And everyone knows it, even in Italy, even non-Church goers, it seems. They loved it. In fact, they asked for (and received) another encore. Ok, so it wasn’t “one of my favorite concerts.” It was my favorite concert. Not because they cheered and liked it, but because we had an opportunity to clearly and powerfully communicate the gospel to hundreds of people who needed to hear it. We had the best news they could ever hear, and we had a beautiful vehicle for communicating it, and the way had been so wonderfully prepared before us, and it just seemed like everything was just right.

As at all of our concerts, every person received a clear message of the gospel in printed form as they left. Many of us were able to engage folks in conversations. And, unlike most of our concerts, Rob’s church purchased hundreds of our CDs in advance, and gave them out, free, to everyone who wanted one. He also offered to send another via mail if they wanted to leave their name and address. Then, later, he sent a second CD along with a letter and an invitation to the church.

It was great to see how God was using the gifts and availability of a man willing to leave America and invest a lot of time and money in building relationships with people, all for the purpose of giving them the best news they could ever here, the gospl of Jesus Christ.

I could keep going for a long time, but this post is already unmanageably long, so I’d better wrap it up. As I said, God gave us a great summer, and we thank Him for it.

Next Year?
I don’t know yet. We’d love to go back with the team again in 2009, but we’ll have to see how the Lord leads us. It’s hard to take 9 weeks out of the year and just drop everything. And that’s not counting all the time spent before we leave, several hours a week for months, learning the music and the languages and so on. It’s expensive, too. But all of that is immaterial if God wants us to return. So, we’re looking forward to seeing what He has for us, whether that be here or there or somewhere else.

January 2009 Update
As you can see from our about page, we’ve decided to return with the team in 2009. We’re currently busy with rehearsals (2 hours/week), learning music in 5 languages, preparing media presentations for various purposes, holding deputation services in and around Greenville, and helping out with team-related projects however we can. We’re excited about being back on the field soon! Check back here in a few days for links to several videos that will explain the ministry of the MMT.

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