Birthday in Budimpešti

“But for all our fears we are not alone. Our trouble is that we think of ourselves as being alone. Let us correct the error by thinking of ourselves as standing by the bank of a full flowing river; then let us think of that river as being none else but God Himself. We glance to our left and see the river coming full out of our past; we look to the right and see it flowing on into our future. But we see also that it is flowing through our present. And in our today it is the same as it was in our yesterday, not less than, nor different from, but the very same river, one unbroken continuum, undiminished, active and strong as it moves sovereignly on into our tomorrow.” — A.W. Tozer, God’s Pursuit of Man

Last week in Budapest, as I sat in a room full of fellow STINTers to Eastern Europe, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed at the work the Lord is doing throughout our region. I listened as the speaker, John, a Cru staff member working in the regional headquarters in Budapest, used Tozer’s analogy to explain how God is moving.

“God’s work is flowing now,” he said, encouraging us to not simply focus on the future, but also to open our eyes to what the Lord is doing now.

I’ve said this before, but STINT can be discouraging at times, especially when you don’t see instant results. And to be honest, I can really let discouragement get me down. It takes a toll on my attitude and can make me think that there’s no hope.

But I’m thankful that God doesn’t allow me to remain in this state of mind. And STINT Weekend in Budapest was just another way that the Lord reminded me that our labor is not in vain and that ALL of God’s promises will come to fruition. Not just some of His promises. But ALL of them. I was reminded of God’s goodness and His desire for Jesus to be glorified throughout the whole earth. I was reminded of the Gospel and my need to depend fully on the Spirit, otherwise I can’t do anything. And I was reminded of God’s love, not only for the world, but also for me, His child.

What a privilege it was to hear stories about life-change and how the Gospel is spreading in Montenegro, Bosnia, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. We were also able to share needs with each other and spend time praying together.

It’s amazing to think that just 20+ years ago, in my lifetime, most of these countries were closed to missionaries and the Gospel. But since the fall of Communism, we’ve watched as the Lord has opened door after door to allow for His life-giving and life-changing message. Just with Campus Crusade for Christ International, we have campus ministries in nearly 100 cities! And we’re praying for another 100 cities to have student-led movements by 2020. We know that the Lord can make this happen.

Even just in the last few years, since we began the partnership in Slovenia, we’ve seen God raise up students to help lead the movement here. We’ve watched as the Gospel has captured the hearts of young people and how God has used these 18-22-year-olds to reach their friends and families.

While the conference was incredibly encouraging, I also just had a lot of fun exploring Budapest! (Not to mention, I got to celebrate my 24th birthday!)

Budapest — or Budimpešti in Slovene — is a beautiful capital city beside the Danube River, with charming castles and glorious Austro-Hungarian architecture. The city bustles all day, but becomes magical at night, especially around Christmas. Bright lights illuminate the most beautiful of buildings — the Opera House, Parliament, and other government buildings — as well as the vibrant and classic Christmas markets in the city center.

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The narrow streets are aligned with stalls of mulled wine and cider, sausages, roasted and sugar-coated almonds, chimney cakes (large cylindrical cinnamon rolls), candies, chocolates, and handcrafted pottery and ornaments. Shoppers, families, couples, and friends happily stroll around the stalls. There’s an air of excitement in anticipation of Christmas.

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And I was even more excited, not just for Christmas and a chance to explore a new city, but also to celebrate my birthday with my team, complete with a gingerbread latte (soy and decaf) at Starbucks on Friday and a day full of dietary cheating on Saturday. (I didn’t go overboard, or make myself sick, but I did indulge a little.)

The best part was dessert, though, at Alexandra Bookcafé, a café located in a former French department store. I felt like I was dining with royals in Paris, just by the elaborate décor. And the desserts were divine — coconut hot chocolate and chocolate cake with fluffy chocolate and vanilla mousse filling. I savored every minute.

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Let’s just say that it was marvelous to feel normal for 24 hours, not concentrating on my restrictions, but enjoying freedom.

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And the next day, I got to relax and detox at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, a popular destination for tourists and nationals alike. The 100-year-old baths have 15 indoor pools, 3 outdoor pools, and 10 sauna and steam chambers. Don’t worry, everyone was clothed.

After an afternoon of hot-tubbing, the STINT teams gathered together for a traditional goulash dinner, singing Christmas carols, and just spending time with each other before we all left Budapest.

I’m so thankful to have been able to spend my birthday and the weekend being encouraged, not just in ministry, but also in the little things, like chocolate cake.

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The Fight for Joy: A Turning Point

On December 31 every year, I love looking back over the last year and reflecting on what God had done and major events that occurred. But this year was different. As midnight approached, I stood and watched a crowd of 2,000 college students at Cru’s annual Christmas Conference in Indianapolis worship in the New Year (pictured below). I realized at this point that I hadn’t done my normal reflection. And, to be honest, I didn’t want to.

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I didn’t want to think about all the changes that happened, the pain of major transitions and trials, walking through circumstances and situations that I never asked to walk through, the lack of joy I experienced throughout the year, or even just that a lot of what happened didn’t go the way I expected or wanted it to go. Throughout the past year, and probably longer than that, I’ve found myself on a roller coaster, most of the time being on the losing side of the fight for joy.

In a nutshell, in the last year, I finished a thesis, graduated (pictured below), went to Europe, visited countless doctors in order to seek healing for years of exhaustion and a barely functioning body, raised support to spend a year in fulltime ministry, watched most of my closest friends move from Athens and start new lives elsewhere, celebrated the marriages of three of my best friends, started an internship with Cru, and walked through a lot of confusion, disappointment, failure, and hurt from the past and the present.

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(For the sake of this blog, I forced myself to look back on the past year. I’m thankful God pushed me out of my stubbornness to do it, because I know it’s good for me. And through looking back, I’ve also been able to see how He’s worked.)

But I’m so thankful that the Lord, in His kindness and grace, didn’t leave me in that state. A turning point really came in October when my friend/roommate/coworker/boss/etc. asked me how my fight for joy was going. And then opened the floodgates of my tear ducts. The truth was I wasn’t fighting for joy. I was stuck in a wilderness of hopelessness, thinking that things would never change. That I would never change. I couldn’t see what God could possibly be doing with my heart or how any of what He was doing could be good for me.

As the tears streamed, my friend reminded me of simple truths. Truths that I knew but wasn’t believing. Along with Scripture, these words still ring in my head:

“The Lord shows His kindness and grace by refining your heart.”

“In His kindness, He doesn’t leave you as you are. The Lord cares too much to leave you unchanged.”

“We don’t get to choose how we glorify God, but we can choose whether we walk through it faithfully.”

“We need to praise and thank God in all circumstances.”

“My life is not my own.”

“God works all things for the good of those who love Him.”

“Sanctification is a privilege, not a punishment.”

“God wants to take you from slavery to sin and your own heart to the freedom that He’s already given you in Christ.”

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Seeing joy in Christ has been the theme of the last few months for me. I’ve noticed the theme in conferences I’ve attended, Scripture and articles I’ve read, songs I’ve listened to, and in the lives of the girls I disciple on campus. And God is putting these words constantly into practice.

Since October, the fight has become harder, but these truths and the promises of God are sinking deeper. It’s amazing how God uses circumstances and situations to show me my brokenness and need for a Savior. But God doesn’t stop there, He shows us that He has already overcome our brokenness and sin, and that we have freedom and victory only through His blood and the Gospel.

So, what’s my New Years resolution? To fight for the joy that God has already provided for me. To pray constantly that the Lord would open my eyes to see His kindness and grace in all circumstances, not just the ones that go the way I want them to go. To walk through my circumstances with thanksgiving and trust that God will not leave me unchanged. That I would see and experience the Gospel. That my heart and actions would glorify my Savior.

And I desire the same for you. In my next series of posts, I invite you to walk with me through my continuing fight for joy and the simple truths God has taught me in the last few months. I guarantee that the fight is not easy, but God wants us to experience the joy and the freedom that is in Him.

For today, I leave you with the words of Psalm 51:7-12.

“Cleanse me with hyssop,and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit,to sustain me.”

Freedom constrained by tradition (2/6/2011)

Many countries around the world have “religious freedom,” yet that freedom does not have the same definition as it does in the United States.

The North African country of Morocco is one example.

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy in which King Mohammed VI is the head of both government and religion. The Moroccan Constitution says the country is an Islamic state that also grants the right for citizens to worship freely.

“The margin of religious freedom in Morocco is narrow. People cannot choose their religions,” says Mohsine El Ahmadi, professor of sociology at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech.

“Since you are born a Muslim, you must remain a Muslim,” continues El Ahmadi in reference to the culture of Morocco. “You cannot change your religious affiliation. If you do, you have to keep it secret.”

Citizens are entitled to their own opinions; however, the law prevents anyone from shaking the faith of the majority or proselytizing — sharing personal beliefs. According to El Ahmadi, the Constitution of Morocco is ambiguous and the Islamic Law [Sharia], which also plays a major role in the government, has many interpretations.

That same ambiguity causes problems for Christians within the country, says El Ahmadi. “There is no constraint on Christians coming or living in Morocco. But for Moroccans who converted to Christianity, they cannot show their new religion publicly.”

Conversion from Islam and proselytizing are frowned upon in Morocco for cultural, political and religious reasons.

One expatriate, who will be called Casey for security purposes, was in Morocco during the waves of foreign worker deportation in early 2010. Though Casey’s Moroccan friends knew he/she was a Christian, they said Casey was crazy for his/her beliefs and that Casey should seek professional help.

“It’s an honor and shame-based society,” says Casey. “So if your family finds out [that you convert to Christianity], then you’re shaming your family. And that is one of the worst things you can do.”

For that reason, continues Casey, Moroccans will tell you that there are no Moroccan Christians. “They are 100 percent convinced that there are none. The locals themselves would not admit that there are Christians because that would be shameful to their country and for Islam.”

Jean Luc Blanc, a French pastor with DEFAP, an evangelical missions service based in France, was the pastor of the Evangelical Church in Morocco from 2001 to 2010. Blanc agrees that much of the “persecution” against Christians in the country occurs within families and friendships.

“For Moroccans, and for all Muslims, it’s natural to be a Muslim,” says Blanc. “So when you are a Muslim, your nature is how [Allah] wants you to be. So how do you change? To change, for them, would mean to do something against nature. That’s why it’s difficult to change your religion once you are Muslim.”

According to Blanc, there are underlying historical and political reasons. He says that the government of Morocco wants to keep the peace and stability of the citizens within the country, namely between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Therefore, laws of proselytizing and conversion apply to all religions, not just Christianity.

Proselytizing is a fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity. Many surahs (verses) in the Sharia say that religion is a personal matter that only concerns the believer and his god, says El Ahmadi. The Bible tells Christians to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. Because of this difference, there is a need to prevent clashes between religions, says Blanc.

While some, like Blanc and El Ahmadi, say that religious persecution is virtually non-existent in Morocco, International Christian Concern and the U.S. government tell it differently. In fact, at least five missions organizations or ministers would not speak of the state of Christianity in Morocco because of possible repercussions.

In 2010, more than 100 foreign workers, including Americans, were deported from Morocco without due process of law. The Moroccan government said it did not violate its laws, but the U.S. government stepped in. In a statement by Representative Frank Wolf at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) Hearing on Human Rights and Religious Freedom in June 2010, the U.S. threatened to withhold $697.5 million in funding from Morocco for not abiding by principles of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an aid organization that provides grants to countries to help reduce poverty and build economic growth.

Immediately after the deportations, many Christians in Morocco went underground for fear of backlash from the Moroccan government, says Aidan Clay, ICC regional manager for the Middle East. Since then, the foreign press and foreign governments have pressured the Moroccan government to halt the deportations.

“To this day, the US government tries to keep a close eye on it,” says Clay. And though Christians still keep a low profile, many worship services have started again.

While the U.S. government is monitoring the situation for American and foreign missionaries, it has been reluctant to step in on behalf of Moroccan Christians because it is a “religious issue,” says Logan Maurer, ICC regional manager for Southeast Asia.

Maurer says there have been numerous incidents concerning the Moroccan government tracking or following Moroccan Christians. One example is Rachid, a native of Morocco who was forced to leave the country after the Moroccan government interrogated and threatened him.

In his testimony at the TLHRC hearing, Rachid said, “What forced me out are still the realities Christians and other non-Muslims must face every day. The fact is, religious freedom in Morocco simply does not exist. The West is presented with a façade that is now exposed. However, Morocco will continue to ensure that all other religions are hidden, suppressed and eliminated.”

The future of Christianity in Morocco is uncertain, particularly because of the recent unrest in the North African region. Maurer says that the uprisings and protests could cause positive or negative effects for Moroccan Christians.

“It’s both an opportunity or a crisis, because it may come about that Christians have more freedom, but it may come out as the opposite.”

(Originally published here for UPIU, Feb. 6, 2011; Abridged version published here for International Christian Concern and Persecution.org, Feb. 11, 2011 )