Conntecting the Dots

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another travel day….back on the train again. We spent about three hours rattling down the tracks toward Warsaw, capital of Poland. Along the tracks approaching the city I saw homes barely bigger than a shoebox, looking broken and abandoned. Apparently these are homes where city dwellers come for weekends. They plant vegetable gardens on these wee plots of land. One Polish university student told us, “These vegetables must taste like iron!”

The moment our train pulled into the downtown station, our contact was there to meet us. She flagged a taxi and we headed for the home where we’d stay for the next three nights. It was 5:15 p.m. – rush hour. Ha! Who came up with that expression? It was anything but a rush; we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for more than an hour.

Immediately outside the station stood the Palace of Culture – the largest, fanciest structure I’ve ever seen. Our escort told us that it was built by the Russians after WWII, as a “gift” to the people of Poland. Its height and breadth intentionally stood to remind the Polish people of the Russians’ dominance. Even today, it towers over all other buildings in the downtown core. Its presence stirs mixed emotions among the city’s citizens. Some hate it because it reminds them of Communist rule. These folks want to raze it and build something else in its place. Others argue that it’s a piece of their history and needs to remain as a monument to what’s taken place in the past.

I’m realizing more and more that I need to read about the history of this country. There’s so much to learn. If I’m going to truly understand the needs and thinking of these precious people, I have to gain a better understanding of where they’ve come from.

Monday, March 10 — Morning

I wake early this morning knowing this is the day my father’s life will be celebrated, and that I am not able to participate. How does one begin to process these emotions? There’s no easy answer. No answer that satisfies once for all. One thing was for sure – I refuse to sit alone and feel sorry for myself. Rather, I know God had planted me in Poland with several IM sisters for a reason beyond my comprehension, and regardless of the sad circumstances, this is a day that He had made. I choose to rejoice and be glad in it.

As a believer, I have every reason to celebrate and be glad. If my faith in Jesus Christ is true, then it’s only my dad’s earthly shell being lowered into a grave today. Because Jesus died and rose again, Dad is walking those golden streets and singing like he’s never sung before. That knowledge brings me a peace I cannot deny amidst the grief. Tears spring to my eyes at the mere thought of my family back home, gathering around the graveside this morning. I would desperately love to be with them and the multitude of relatives and friends who will attend the memorial service later in the day, but that’s not to be. I’ll spend the day with my IM family instead, thankful that I’m not alone during this time.

Later….

I’m grateful for Skype. Gene and I talked via typing for nearly an hour before anyone stirred in the house where I’m staying now. He told me that God protected him, our kids, and grandbaby Anna last night when the car in which they were driving hit black ice, slid into a concrete barrier on the roadside, and made three complete spins before coming to a stop. Protection on icy winter roads – another reason to celebrate.

I’m grateful for my IM sisters. Bozena (our hostess), Iwona, Diane, Janna, and I visited a modern shopping mall this morning, picked up a few groceries, and went for lunch to a little restaurant that specializes in perogies. I’ve visited Chinese restaurants in which friends order several different dishes and share them. That’s what we did here: meat and cheese perogies, meat only perogies, blueberry perogies, lazy perogies, and the list went on. Add a bowl of beet borscht, and the meal was complete. Then off we went, walking down the main street of Kelice toward Janna’s home.

It was on along this walk that I realized God had given this day to me as a gift. In the midst of my sorrow, He gave me laughter. Wholesome, hearty laughter. At first I wondered if laughing today would be an affront to my family. But then I realized that He was using it to carry me through difficult time. It wasn’t disrespectful to those grieving back in Canada. It was a dose of divine medicine. “Laughter does good like a medicine.”

Here’s one example. Until this point, my PIN number hadn’t worked in a cash machine. When I saw a machine on the outside wall of a corner bank, I decided to try again. Diane leaned in close to protect my privacy. I entered the four digits only to be rejected again as invalid. “Okay, then,” I said. “I have only one other number that might be a possibility.” I entered those four digits and presto! The machine sprang into action. Without giving it a thought, I blurted out something that resembled a loud “Yahoo!” In retrospect, it probably sounded like something a Las Vegas gambler might have hollered if he hit the jackpot.

Diane burst into fits of laughter. Her response sent me into fits of laughter, too. We turned from the machine to see Iwona walk away, pretending not to know us. Passersby gawked with puzzled expressions on their faces as we nearly doubled over. We weren’t meaning to be culturally inept, honestly, but for whatever reason, we simply couldn’t help ourselves. Yes, laughter works good like a medicine.

When we returned to the house later that evening, I’d hoped to watch my dad’s funeral on Skype. Gene and our son had tried to hook up a video camera to a laptop but their efforts didn’t work. Disappointment brought tears to my eyes again, but Diane and I redeemed the situation by spending time in prayer as my family gathered for the memorial service.

Wow – what an emotional journey. I’m so thankful for God’s presence and for His presents – my IM friends. This day was a remarkable gift.

Sunday, March 9

Bless Iwona’s heart – she showed up at the hostel this morning with smoked cheese and ham to put on our bread for breakfast. “I must care for the strangers in our land,” she said again. “God says so.” She’s doing a good job!

This morning we caught a train to Keilce where several other IM coworkers live. God has a way of sending angels to make sure we get to where we need to be. At the Cracow train station, we climbed three flights of stairs, dragging our luggage behind us, to reach the platform for our train. We’d just reached the platform when an announcement came over the loudspeaker saying that, for today only, this particular train would leave from a different platform. Thank goodness Iwona spoke Polish and understood the announcement. Diane and I would have missed it completely. So we raced (if that’s possible with tons of luggage) down the three flights of stairs and up another three flights. I was exhausted!

Just as we reached the train’s stairs, a man saw us struggling with our bags and stepped up to help. He grabbed our suitcases, climbed aboard the train, and placed them overhead in our compartment. “This is how I earn a living,” he said, so Iwona paid him and gave him a tract and a Bible. Another evidence of God’s caring for us as we travel.

Iwona and Diane on train. Note the tulips!

In a few hours we’ll head to another women’s meeting. And again, we trust the Lord to bless the women through us. I’m trusting Him to accomplish great things again. Tonight is the family visitation at the funeral home and I’m not there. “God, please don’t let this sacrifice be for naught.”

Saturday, March 8

What a day this turned out to be! The room filled with women of all ages – from mothers with nursing babies to little grannies. Iwona was delighted to see an elderly woman with whom she’d shared Christ a few days ago – a lady who’d given up hope for living. When I got up to speak, I felt as though the women weren’t sure what to expect. They’d come out of curiosity about the theme – “Fearless and Free” – but unsure about me as a North American woman bringing the message and about the message itself. I felt a little unsure, too, speaking through a translator to these women who live in a different culture and wondering about the relevance of my message to the specific needs in their lives.

It didn’t take long to see that the theme was the right one. When I listed various fears that women struggle with and then asked for a show of hands from those who could relate, many hands went up. As the women looked around the room, an expression of surprise went up. It seemed they were pleasantly surprised to see that they weren’t the only ones struggling in this way.

It also didn’t take long to see that the message about facing the storms in our lives was exactly what some needed to hear. Several women had tears running down their cheeks. There was a 15-minute break between session one and two, and during that time a couple of women came to speak with me. One spoke broken English. She handed me a handwritten note, also in broken English, that said, “I in storm for eight years. Divorce. Husband abuse my children.” She turned her back to the women behind her and her eyes filled with tears. She allowed me to give her a big hug and then pray for her. A woman with a broken heart – “God, please embrace her and be her refuge. Be her help in this time of trouble.”

By the time we reached the end of the third session, I knew the women felt comfortable. I presented the Gospel message and invited them to pray with me if they wanted to place their saving faith in Christ. I also asked them to take a piece of blank paper and write out the pain and shame from their past, and to give it to the Lord once for all by ripping it up. Within a couple of minutes, the sound of tearing paper could be heard across the room. What a joy to know that the Lord was working in their hearts. “Thank You, God, for beginning this good work in their lives. Please bring it to perfection. Amen.”

After the conference, Diane and I enjoyed dinner with three IM gals. What a joy to get to know them better. I pray that over time, as I get to know them better, I might bring encouragement to them in their ministries. And after dinner, Iwona took us to see a massive cathedral – it was an amazing structure. How does one describe it? I wish I could post a picture but taking photos was not allowed. Statues of the saints, gold filigree, intricate handpainted design on the ceiling, stained glass windows. Amazing architecture.

People were kneeling and praying. There was an attitude of reverence and quiet and yet, one can’t help but think of the human tradition on which their religion is based. It’s not about relationship. There was no joy on the people’s faces. “Lord, draw them to Yourself. Shine Your light into their hearts.”

And then Iwona took us to yet another restaurant for hot chocolate (thick, like drinking a melted dark chocolate candy bar) and fresh lemon torte. Oh my. There’s no way I can lose weight on this trip! After that, she said, “Come! I’ll show you where Copernicus went to university.” So off we went, down a narrow cobblestone street, to the very door through which Copernicus entered to study.

By the time we reached the hostel, Diane and I were so tired that we could hardly stand up. But that’s when heart-to-heart woman-talk began. She shared with me the details of losing her 26-year-old son to a brain aneurysm 11 years ago. Now I know why she’s responsible for missionary care. Her heart is so tender and caring. I’m in good hands at this time.

Friday, March 7

The sun beamed into Diane’s kitchen this morning, its smile promising balmy weather for our train ride to Poland later in the day. We were washing breakfast dishes when Karla, one of our Canadian IM partners, showed up for coffee. Ah – sweet fellowship with this dear woman who has spent the majority of her life ministering in Europe. She drove us to the train station, and our speaking tour began.

Diane, Karla, and myself at Kosice, Slovakia train station. Poland – here we come!

Nearly six hours passed as we trained our way through Slovakia and into Poland. Rolling hills, plowed fields, cathedral steeples, and red-roofed homes dotted the countryside. I felt like I was a part of the set for “The Sound of Music.” Julie Andrews and the von Trapp family singers could have waltzed over a hill and I wouldn’t have been surprised.

This trip was a God-given gift. I needed this time to rest and reflect about the circumstances surrounding my being here while my family’s in Canada planning my father’s funeral. The quiet enabled me to write something to Dad’s honor that my husband can read at the service.

Iwona, a Polish IM coworker, was waiting for us when our train arrived in Cracow. What a sweetheart. She flagged a taxi, took us to a hostel where we’d stay for the next two nights, and then unpacked the supper she’d prepared for us – Polish goulash and bread. “I must care for the strangers in our land,” she said. “God says so.” Then we walked about eight city blocks to the church building where women were busy preparing for tomorrow’s conference. They’d expected about 60 women to attend, but 110 have registered! I believe God is up to something big. There’s a huge sacrifice involved in this trip, and I believe with my whole heart that God will honor it with a wonderful eternal harvest.

Another IM coworker, Carol, joined Diane, Iwona, and me for a short walk to a favorite dessert restaurant. “You must try something here,” said Iwona. “There are many wonderful treats from which to choose.” She was right. How these European women can stay thin and trim is beyond me. Vanilla and strawberry ice cream doused topped with fresh strawberries and sauce, and smothered in real whipped cream – how’s that for bedtime snack?

By the time Diane and I walked to the hostel, we were very ready for bed. We prayed for the women who will come to the conference tomorrow and for my family and their needs, and then fell asleep.

Thursday, March 6

I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God…..remember that Gaither goldie? Those lyrics describe how I feel right now. Yesterday afternoon my friend and fellow International Messenger, Diane, spent more than four hours riding a train from Slovakia to Hungary where she met me at the Budapest station. She threw her arms around me and gave me a huge hug. “It’s been a bad day,” she said, having received the news already about my dad’s death. Her eyes brimmed with tears. This woman, responsible for IM missionary care, is a God-given gift to me for such a time as this.

We had enough time to eat supper at Burger King before boarding the train for the ride back to Kosice, Slovakia. “Tell me about your dad,” she said. “What was he like before he got sick?” Bless her heart for listening as I told of Dad’s strong work ethic, of his many surgeries, of his attitude of gratitude no matter what. Bless her for listening with empathy, her eyes filling with tears when my voice cracked and chin quivered. I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God and for the gift of caring sisters.

Thanks to a wonderful overseas phone plan, I was able to contact family members after we arrived at Diane’s home. It was good to speak with my mother and to hear of the funeral plans being made so far away. Oh, I wish I could be part of that, but it’s not to be. It was after 1 a.m. when I finally fell into bed, exhausted and wondering how I could get through the next 10 days.

When I woke this morning, I felt like I’d been run over by a train – a combination of lack of sleep, jet lag, and emotional overload, I think. So I gave myself permission to stay in bed and rest until 8:30. When I finally got up, I discovered gifts from my Christian family – emails that had come during the night. Words of encouragement, sympathy e-cards, prayers written on my behalf. Each one ministered to me in a unique way, and the tears began to flow. I feel like I’m on an emotional journey that I don’t want to take, but one that, prayerfully, will result in God’s purposes being accomplished.

Several weeks ago, Diane and I decided to leave this day as a day of rest. There was no way of knowing how much this would be needed. Another divinely-arranged detail. Tomorrow we’ll catch a train and travel to Cracow, Poland. And then the real work begins. Saturday’s conference had originally expected 60 women, but so far 110 have registered. As I think about doing three sessions with these precious women, I can only think of one thing: “In my weakness He is strong.”

March 2-3, 2008

Budapest, here I come! The day began when I rolled out of bed at 4:00 a.m. and headed for the Vancouver airport an hour later. My first flight was 4 ½ hours to Toronto, and after a mere 90-minute wait there, I boarded the next flight. This one took eight hours to reach Vienna.

The sun began to rise as we reached Ireland. It was an amazing sight – the entire horizon looked like it was on fire. By far the most breath-taking sunrise I’ve ever seen.

When I boarded in Toronto, there was no room for carry-on bags in the overhead compartments. The flight attendant took my bag, said she’d check it into the cargo hold, and I could pick it up in Budapest with my other suitcases. I felt a little uneasy about it, and for good reason. It didn’t show up in Budapest. My digital camera, my notes for all my speaking sessions, my toiletries…..gone. So, I filed a lost luggage claim at the Budapest airport, whispered a prayer for the bag’s safe return, and met the person who’d come to pick me up and take me to the SHARE conference.

On the way, I saw a park filled with statues of Communist leaders. These statues were salvaged from around Budapest after the wall fell in the late 80s. Now people pay to walk through the park and see them. I would have taken a picture for you, but the camera was in the lost bag. Sigh.

You haven’t lived until you’re the passenger in a car flying down a four-lane highway at 80-85 mph as the driver eats a hamburger. Combine that experience with jetlag, and you’ve got the makings for a few grey hairs.

Wednesday, March 5

I woke this morning with a thankful heart that my missing suitcase arrived last night! Now I have the notes for this morning’s session on praying Scripture.

When I went to the dining room for breakfast, the president of SHARE and his wife invited me to sit at their table. In the middle of breakfast, the conference organizer’s husband walked up to me with his cell phone in his hand. “It’s your husband,” he said, and handed me the phone.

I knew immediately what this meant. I could scarcely here Gene above the din in the dining room, but I caught him say, “Your dad passed away thirty minutes ago.” It wasn’t unexpected, but the news still carried a blow. I was so thankful that this couple had asked me to sit with them – they immediately offered their support and prayers, and she shed a few tears with me. Within the next hour, the word began to spread about my dad’s passing and people began offering their condolences. I was given the option of not teaching my workshop, but the only other choice would be sitting alone somewhere and feeling low. So, I chose to teach and it turned out okay. At the end, one man said that he wanted to pray for me, and that’s when the tears started to flow again.

I’m so thankful for the time I was able to spend with my dad two weeks ago, when he was still lucid. I was able to tell him that I love him, and he answered, “I love you, too.” I know he’s in heaven – at one point he said that he could see Jesus and it was beautiful “there.” I believe he’s walking and dancing in the Savior’s presence, his body whole again after being paralyzed by strokes eight years ago.

And now – I must process the fact that I’m here and my family is there during this time of grief. I’m on a journey for which I have no compass but the Lord to guide me one step at a time. My loss is great, my pain very real. I want to embrace my mom and other family members but can’t. “This doesn’t feel fair, God. You could have taken him while I was home so I could be a part of what’s happening there now. Why did You wait until two days after I left?”

This afternoon I’ll travel by train to Slovakia with an IM friend, Diane. Her specialty is missionary care. That’s good timing.

Tuesday, March 4

This conference has about 400 people from nearly 20 countries. The emphasis is on equipping parents to educate their children overseas. The program is like an oasis for these folks as they rekindle friendships with the friends they see only once a year. Blessings on them!

As I sat in the back of the morning’s chapel service, my heart was overwhelmed by the commitment to missions demonstrated here. Some of these folks have been on the mission field for a couple of decades, others for just a few years. All of them know what it means to sacrifice time with their parents and family back home. All of them know what it means to sacrifice financially. My heart just wants to bless them for doing what they do, and I want to help equip them more or just provide a listening ear and sympathetic shoulder.

Tuesday, September 18 (continued)

Gypsy pastor and his wife – Laco and Anna
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Gypsy church
Later in the day, Karla drove us to an unforgettable site. Several familiar concrete apartment blocks stood alone, segregated from the rest of the city. Unlike the other blocks, however, there was no playground for the children. Instead, an abandoned car drew the kids and teens like a magnet. Its doors were ripped off, its windows were smashed out, and a teenage boy was hammering on the dashboard while his buddies looked on. Garbage lay in heaps around the place, and many of the buildings’ windows were shattered. This is where approximately 6,500 gypsies live, sometimes two or three families shoved into one small apartment. Considered society outcasts, no one wants them nearby. The government built a school on the property so they can attend classes with their own kind, and then it put a swimming pool there so they’ll not frequent the city pools. The unemployment rate is 99 per cent, there’s no hot water, no heat in the buildings….not a pretty sight.

The good news is – there’s a church on the property, a fruit of IM ministry. Here we spent 1 ½ hours with a gypsy man who came to know Christ about ten years ago. He’s now a pastor among his people. He shared his testimony with us, telling us how Christ delivered him from alcohol and gambling addictions. His desire is to see his people come to know Jesus as Savior so they, too, can be set free and experience healing in their lives. Now there are two women’s discipleship meetings, a children’s outreach, a teen program, a men’s discipleship meeting, and two church services each week on site. As we spoke, we could hear music – guitars and accordians – down the hall. The midweek service had begun, and the people sang with great enthusiasm. Little kids ran in and out of the building, curious teens stopped by to check things out, and the singing continued.

What a privilege to witness this body of believers worshipping the Lord. Their circumstances are less than desirable, to put it nicely, but their hearts are intent on following Christ. They are our brothers and sisters in the Lord and need our prayers for steadfastness in their faith. Brad estimates that there are 500,000 gypsies in Slovakia; perhaps 500 are believers. The Bible has not yet been translated into their language.

As we ended our meeting, the pastor prayed for the work and for us (how humbling is that??). We prayed for him and for his family, and for the Lord to send more workers to help them carry the load. Karla translated so we could understand each other’s words. His wife shook my hand and kissed me on both cheeks, and I felt blessed beyond belief.