Saturday, December 29, 2007

God Uses the Inappropriate

Christmas Eve we went Native. Along with countless Mikepercs villagers, we braved the frigid air and snow flurries to attend the Szent Este (literally "Holy Night" or Christmas Eve) service at our village Hungarian Reformed Church.
As we approached the church building with its stately transylvanian-style steeple in the deep darkness of 5pm, older women served hot drinks to lines of villagers waiting to enter the church. Everyone greeted each other with hearty "Boldog Karacsonyt!" (Merry Christmas) and a jovial "Kellemes Uj Evet!" (Happy New Years) and we were pleased to see many village friends among the crowd which almost filled the church to brim.
I must admit I felt a certain apprehension as I entered the old church building. Although not terribly large, the sanctuary could only be described as cavernous as we darkened the dim doorway. This was THE Hungarian Reformed Church with a liturgy far more formal than anything I was used to. And to be a foreigner in such a setting made me all the more self-conscious of doing or saying something terribly inappropriate here, purely out of ignorance.
The Church was almost as cold inside as the wintry air was outside, as the old building had no heat. Gas heaters, like those you see at restaurants who used outdoor areas in the winter, worked tirelessly to pour some warmth into the old building, but all felt compelled to stay fully bundled in hats and coats for the duration of the service.
Although I could scarcely understand the words that were sung and spoken, I can attest that it was a lovely little service. But what caught me by surprise was neither the delicately carved canopy above the pastor's podium nor the austere pipe organ that echoed through the cavernous edifice. What struck me as both strange and awkward was when the hallowed instruments began ringing out an all too familiar tune: "So this is Christmas ... and what have you done ... another year over ... a new on just begun." Of course, the words were being sung in Hungarian, but the tune was unmistakable. My friend Christine, visiting from Texas, and I looked at each other and could not help but giggle a little.
Here in a formal, high church Hungarian service rang out the John Lennon's Happy Christmas song. It was strange and unexpected, some might say inappropriate, but it got me thinking about how God might view the things the masses so quickly deem inappropriate.
How inappropriate was it for Jesus, Son of God and King of Kings to be born among livestock? How inappropriate for the purest of the pure Jewish Messiah to speak to a Samaritan woman, especially that Samaritan woman -- and then bring her restoration? How inappropriate was it for Paul, a Jew among Jews, to go to the Gentiles?
Let's take it a step forward into our times. How inappropriate is it that a balding oriental man and his family (The Chuns) would reach out to Hungarian village kids through a sport like baseball?
The fact is that God so often uses the strange and obscure and even inappropriate things to work His good will.
So let the ancient sounding pipe organ ring out John Lennon's Happy Christmas and maybe the Mikepercs masses will see that the God of this hallowed old church did not die with the church founders hundreds of years ago. He was born in a stable, was around when that song was penned in 1971, remains alive today ready to touch lives in poignant ways.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's Dark Outside

"The people walking in Darkness have seen a great light;
On those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned"--Isaiah 9:2

It is dark outside. Not right this minute now. But this time of year in Eastern Hungary, it is dark alot. The sun rises around 7:30am and sets around 3:30 in the afternoon. And quite often the hours of daylight are obscured by the low lying greyness of winter. I never realized until this year how appropriate it is that we celebrate Christmas, the birth of our Savior, just after Winter Solstice-- the darkest day of the year.

Christ came into all that heaviness symbolized in this time of year -- into that valley of the darkest shadows and brought light. After Christmas, after the new light has dawned, the days become longer. It still may be a long time 'til summer, but the additional daylight of each passing day gives us all reason to hope.

But today it is still dark outside. And for our friends in Bosnia, that darkness has become tangible. The Mezgers are a delightful missionary couple living in Sarajevo with their two small sons. Living in the recovering war-torn area is no picnic, but having a vehicle to get around with the two kids made it bearable. Last week, their car was stolen with all its contents. Whoever did it was no amateur as it was locked up and in their garage. Somehow, even though the car is not even registered in their names, the culprit got their cellphone number. The thief called them demanding for $4000 for the return of the car.

The Mezgers have chosen not to negotiate with criminals, but that sends $13,000 (the price of the car) down the drain at a time when their support is already dropping dangerously low. Among the car's contents were countless valuable items including one stroller, two car seats, mp3 player, and mix tapes that the couple made for each other when they were falling in love.

It's a cold, demoralizing darkness. And into this darkness, Christ comes. I can sympathize with the Jews who wanted their Messiah to come in a chariot of fire -- a grand political leader who would right all the injustices of their times.

For the sake of the Mezgers, I want Christ to come as a Terminator-like slayer with Rambo-styled justice. Instead, he comes as a helpless infant brought into the world among the livestock. And if we lose sight of the big picture, we can't help but ask, where is God in this?

But the answer is clear. He is there. Right in the middle of the Mezger's demoralizing, debilitating darkness, He is there. He is in the midst of that shadow of death for those suffering the brutalest of losses this Christmas season. He comes, not violently like a flash of lightening, but gently like the dawn. He comes as an infant.

Many people continue walking in darkness all around us, and our own circumstances may make us feel like 3:30pm sunsets are our destiny for eternity. But take heart, and let this Christmas remind you that the light of eternity was born among man. It is a new dawn, because Christ has come.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Little Lower Than the Angels

It's Christmastime! Full fir trees laced in snowflakes and festively wrapped packages tied up with gilded bows. Every year at this time, we as Christians struggle to look past the fuzzy faced frivolity and glitter of commercialism to capture a fresh perspective on the birth of Christ.

My meditation this year comes from Hebrews 2:9: "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone."
The theologians call it "condescension" -- that He, through whom all things were called into being, would allow himself to take on this lower, created form, to die and help those who could never fully comprehend what he had done.

Christ shed His royal robes of strength and glory to take on the faded garment of mortal flesh and in doing so, submitted Himself to become like us, a little lower than the Angels. And perhaps the most amazing part is that in this unimaginable condescension, He never responded condescendingly toward us. Even when we spit on him, and reject Him, and dishonor Him with all our unappreciative ways. Even when we respond to Him as if He owes us a better life than we have now. Still, he does not act condescendingly toward us, only responds in love. So why is it so hard for us to condescend without being condescending?

Why is it so difficult to subject ourselves to the undesirables of this world and reach out in love, regardless of the way they respond toward our efforts?

This Christmas season I witnessed a very interesting act of condescension when beautifully handcrafted sweaters, mufflers, and hats were presented to a group of terribly impoverished people. In this village, many of the homes do not have running water and heat comes from the wood burning stove. It is a hard life, and those who donated the cold weather gear sought to bring warmth and comfort -- meeting the needs of these people by giving them their best.

When the gifts were presented, a few precious people glowed with appreciation. But the vast majority of the village took one look and turned their noses up in the air, mumbling, "csunya," that is, "ugly." They left, having rejected the gift.

I must admit, my personal reaction was to become condescending. "Well then, let them freeze this winter!" was the first thing to come to mind. But later I read this passage and recalled He who "was willing to become a little lower than the angels." How often have I responded to Christ's truly loving condescension, with the attitude that "God owes me..."(fill in the blank). God owes me happiness. God owes me success. God owes me kids (smart ones) or a husband (a handsome one). etc... etc...

To understand his condescension, we must start by understanding what God truly owes us. God owes me Hell. God owes me eternal damnation. God owes me misery in my own sin. But God condescends to me with His unconditional love, sacrifice, death and resurrection. It is only when we understand this reality that we can truly begin to understand grace.

So with this in mind, let's all try to respond to this holiday season -- not like spoiled children haranguing their Father with "I want this. I want that! Gi'me, Gi'me, Gi'me!" Instead, let's take a moment a remember who we are and who He is -- and what He really owes us.

And as we ornament our trees with silver tinsel and top them with illuminated Angels, let us remember He who "was made a little lower than the angels," and condescended to our level
and maybe it will help us to surrender our condescending attitudes toward others and be willing to condescend in love.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

So Where's the Magic?

I remember as a child when missionaries came and shared at church their lives seemed so exciting. What a life! To be a first hand witness to the work of God in people's life -- to witness the magic!

But real life on the mission field isn't like that. It can often be surprisingly similar to life in the states in many ways. Sometimes the mundane activities of our regular schedule grind into monotony and it is easy to lose sight of what is really happening all around us. Between taking the kids to school, baseball practice, and Bible studies, the hustle and bustle of daily life leaves us struggling to keep our heads above water. But just because we do not see it, don't think for a minute that magic is not there. God has designed life so that we are continually thrown into the lives of others. And as long as we allow ourselves to be involved in people's lives in His name, then there is magic.

It is not the sparkle of pixie dust or the wave of the glimmering wand, but rather the sparkle in a child's eye or the glimmer of his smile. And whether one lives in Hungary, Houston or HongKong, God has granted us the privilege of being a part of His magic in this suffering world. My good friend MacKenzie Rollins caught some of that magic last week when she photographed some of those who have become dear to us in our lives and ministry here in Hungary.
So take a look at these photos and maybe they will help you to see the magic again in the work of God all around you.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

No Longer Orphans

A small child wailed at the top of his lungs in the doctor's office waiting room. To tell you the truth I had hardly noticed it in the hustle and bustle of getting two kids and a husband ready for check ups. But then Niki, our seven year old whom we adopted from an orphanage in Miskolc, Hungary last year, brought it to my attention. "Mommy, I cried like that," she said as her big blue innocent eyes looked up at me. "I cried like that when my foster family left me in the orphanage."
Niki's foster family was the only family she ever knew. She lived with them from age 14 months to 4 years. She loved them and from all appearances they seem to have loved her too. But a series of circumstances made them unable to continue to care for the child and Niki ended up in the orphanage. That was perhaps the first moment Niki realized she was really an orphan.
Adoption is a miraculous thing -- how God can take a child not of your blood and graft them into your family so deeply that you cannot imagine your family ever existed without them. It is a beautiful thing, but the true beauty hides in the deepest places where sacrifice and commitment serve as foundation.
Before we adopted, I did my research and discovered that adoption is tough road to travel. I had witnessed the struggles of friends who had adopted and read lots about attachment disorders -- some of which have very violent natures.
Adoption, as much as it is miraculous and beautiful, is also terrifying. I learned of uncontrollable, manipulative children, some of whom would hurt others, start fires, physically harm themselves. And I often asked God, can I really do this?
It was then that I awakened to what it really means to be adopted into God's family. It is not just the superficial "happily ever after" story. God looked as us with all our reactive attachment disorders, and said "yes, I want them to be my children."
Sin has left all of us as orphans. And like Niki we've cried in the night at the injustice of what the sinful world has done to us. But our heavenly Father was waiting in the wings to adopt us with all our dysfunctions. Still we find ourselves reverting to orphanage behaviors, trying to manipulate others, or even manipulate God. Our attachment disorders lead us to cling to those who are not our true parents; we are ready to walk off with anyone and leave our loving Father behind. We make choices that harm his other children. Sometimes we are determined to ignore our Father's direction and bring destruction on ourselves.
And yet, He remains with us. He is not scared off by the ways we lash out and hurt Him. He is not ready to abandon us when we consciously choose to hurt his other children. He is a loving adoptive father who disciplines us in order to shepherd us into his Righteous Ways.
On November 15, we will celebrate one year with Niki. And it is my earnest prayer, that we can respond to all her hurts and dysfunctions with attitudes and correction that reflect the Heavenly Father's love.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Obedience vs. Doing More

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
Words and Music by Daniel L Schutte © 1981

I remember singing this song when I prepared to come to Hungary more than ten years ago. Then I was a single woman in my late twenties heading to Budapest to teach English in Hungarian high schools. I was excited and driven, ready to serve, ready to minister. The years that followed were indeed golden ones as I felt very much on the cutting edge of ministry with my students, my Bible study, the refugees and the orphans.

Now ten years later, I am living in a Hungarian village and in alot of ways I am more a missionary wife than a missionary. More a mom than a minister. I have learned that it is a difficult catharsis for women who held the role of missionary before they became wife and mother. And it has been difficult for me.

I had no trouble giving up alot of the American luxuries to come to Hungary -- a car, central airconditioning, comfortable salaries, TexMex food -- all paled in comparison to the rich simple life of ministry in Hungary.

But giving up the thrill of being in cutting edge ministry, that is hard. I can recite all the trite sayings about family being first and it is. That is the choice I have made -- to make my family my primary ministry and use the limited energy I now have for them. But I must admit I like being the one in there on the cutting edge. I miss it. Unfortunately, I forget, ministry is not about what it does for me, or even what I could be doing for others. It is about obedience.

Ministry is all about sacrifice. And I have come to understand that, for this season of my life, giving up that cutting edge role is my sacrifice. Strange, isn't it? That obedience to God would lead one serve Him less.

But maybe it is not really serving Him less. Because ministry is not a matter of doing more or less, but rather it is about doing what he has called us to do right now. It is about obedience. For this season that cutting edge role has to die for me. But as Christians we know death is not the end. Even a long, lost ministry can be resurrected in its proper time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Autumn and Death

Yesterday morning I awoke to find all the grass and flowers, all the beauty of summer, laced in ice. The vines and trees are turning gold and red and it's clear that Autumn has arrived in Hungary. I think it is beautiful. My husband, who grew up in Hawaii, finds it ugly and unpleasant. Fall means cold. Fall means death to the plants he has slaved over all summer.
I love the seasons -- even those that bring death to the plants, because without fall and winter, how could we experience springtime in the fullness of its glory. CS Lewis wrote to Sheldon VanAuken that things must die if we are experience resurrection. This makes me ponder what needs to die in me. Dying hurts. None of us likes it. Death is a product of sin. But God brings redemption, resurrection when we let die the things in our lives that need to die in us.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Gospel in Disney Packaging?

If only Christ came in Disney packaging ... Do you know what I mean? All Disney movies end with "... and they lived happily ever after" -- if not in explicit word, then certainly in concept. If only our acceptance of Christ came with some sort of guarantee that our life on this earth would be "happily ever after." But it doesn't. The cold, hard truth is that Christ gave us a very different guarantee: "In this life you will have tribulation..." (John 16:33)
During the summer we watched with great joy and awe as many of our Hungarian youth came to Christ. Last week, one of those kids ODed on tranquilizers after getting into some serious trouble at school. Last month, another who was living in a children's home, lost his brother in a knife fight outside a disco. That same week his mother died in hospital. The magnitude of human suffering all around us is staggering. And these few items just scratch the surface of the extraordinary hard knocks we see these new Christians facing.
Life is tough--so unjustly tough it seems at times. But Christ's guarantee did not end with his promise of tribulation. He goes on to say: "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." To be honest, I sometimes have a hard time keeping that perspective. I see the tribulation part all around me, but the overcoming part evades me. What's worse is that it seems to evade these young ones.
But maybe that's the whole point. Maybe we need to be in the place where overcoming tribulation seems unfathomable, because that's where genuine faith begins. If faith is truly the being sure of things hoped for and being certain of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), perhaps it is only in our times of tribulation (when we see no evidence of God anywhere near us) that we learn whether we truly have any faith at all. If we do have the faith to push through those tough times, I trust we'll find that although life is indeed tough, God is still good.
Maybe there is a Disney ending out there for all of us, but as Christians our "happily ever after" is guaranteed only in the hereafter, not in the here and now.

So You Want to Be a Missionary?

“So you want to be a missionary?” the stout Hungarian man from my church in Washington, D.C. commented almost sarcastically. “You’re going to tell all the Hungarians they need Jesus.” I stood in awkward silence. I knew he was a believer in Christ. What was his point in all this?

“You know what the Hungarians are going to say?” he asked. “They’ll say we’ve been Christian long before your country was ever discovered! We’ve been a Catholic nation since St. Stephen got the crown from the Pope a thousand years ago. And they’ll wonder who you think you are to tell them they need to be Christians.”

I stammered from side to side, trying to come up with a gracious way to leave, but Laszlo had not made his point yet and would not let me escape until he had.

“Trudy,” his demeanor now softened. “Take the time to earn the right to share your faith.”

That was ten years ago. Since then, I have taught English in Hungarian High Schools and colleges, gotten married, had one daughter while living in Turkey and adopted another from a Hungarian orphanage. Now, living in a Hungarian village near the Romanian border, Laszlo’s words often echo back in my mind as I have learned what it means to honor and respect people and their ways. We Americans tend to think we are the ones who have it all together, but such attitudes make us miss out on all there is to learn from those we meet along the way. I have been blessed by the Hungarians and as much as I long for my Hungarian friends to know Christ. I will never love them any less if they do not choose Him.