WAR ZONE

…we live in a war zone. There will be casualties

I have written in past days about my first experiences in Bosnia Herzegovina not very long after the cessation of open war. I use the term open war because the hatred and the racial and societal issues still divide the country and corruption stops any real forward progress in defeating the enemy.

It is difficult to describe a war zone. The buildings that once were homes, businesses, churches are just bombed out shells, with no life save the foraging insects and vermin that root among the remains looking for what else they can devour.

A hand painted sign reading welcome to Sarajevo covered in shrapnel caused pock-marks
Iconic Sarajevo sign 1995

Where people still reside, apartment buildings have shell holes that allow in the winter wind and the outside is pock-marked, the results of shrapnel tearing apart at the structure trying to weaken it.

There is a stark analogy between the physical war zone I witnessed in Sarajevo and remote areas of the countryside and the spiritual battles we face today. In Bosnia, no place was left untouched. Specific places had horrific stories of hate-driven carnage and we see the same in the battles Satan wages upon our world. I have felt the darkness of Satan’s demonic power more in Bosnia than anywhere else I have traveled but, it is only because there the mask of civilization was ripped away, and Satan’s plans were open for anyone to see. In the rest of our world, often, we keep the mask of civility and Satan’s attacks are, perhaps, not unseen, but unnoticed  by an uncaring society too wrapped in their own pain and secular drives to respond.

In the Bible we read, Satan is a roaring lion, prowling around seeing whom he may devour, just like the vermin crawling among the carnage of Bosnia’s war. Paul tells us our war is not against flesh and blood but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)

A fierce looking lion crouched as if to pounce surrounded by a black background with the words Our Adversary the Devil

God has permitted Satan to have dominion over the world until the time He finishes it and brings Satan to destruction and all who believe in Christ are His forever in peace. God waits, not because He is cruel but because He is patient and loving. Peter explains it, writing that God is “not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”(2 Peter 3:9)

Until then, as one writer put it, “Satan’s attack means that we all are vulnerable to sickness, betrayal, financial meltdown, relational loss, emotional despair and other hardships… bad things happen to good people… we live in a war zone. There will be casualties.” (Rooted, Mariners Church 2011 p 85)

In our spiritual battles, there will be homes empty, just shells remaining where once there were families. There will be businesses and churches gone, only the few, scattered remains from a bombing by sin and failure. Where people still reside, there will be shell holes letting in the cold winter wind, chilling the soul and hardening the heart; the explosive remains of  damaged relationships, lost trust and horrific sin. The lives of those struggling to survive are pock-marked by the shrapnel of sin which has left its mark upon them.

There is hope.

The damage of war can be overcome and what was once uninhabitable shells of homes and broken down lives can come to life again like spring after a hard winter. The refreshing breeze of peace and love that comes only from Jesus Christ through His victory over death and sin.  When it coms to spiritual battles, as the ‘Rooted’ book spells out, “And (the Lord) wins. Every. Single. Time.” (p 85)

Someone once wrote how, in the darkest of places, a single candle burns brightest. I saw such a candle in Bosnia. It came in the form of a simple, unpretentious man who loved His Lord and loved every single person God sent his way in a very dark place. The flame of his candle lit many small candles which will burn for generations when the Spirit moves to set those candles within His lampstand.

A completely dark black frame with one bright flame from a candle visible in the darkness

John writes, “We know that we are children of God and that the world is under the control of the evil one.” That is disconcerting to say the least. But in context, we find hope. The verse just before this one reads, “We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God (that’s Jesus)keeps him (that’s you if you truly believe)and the evil one (that’s Satan) does not touch him. Jesus told us we would have trouble in this world, but the Good News is that Jesus has overcome the world! He said so! Jesus doesn’t lie. Satan’s attacks will be all around us, but as believers, saved by grace through faith, even if we die because of a sinful world’s sickness, we are safe, secure, in heaven forever with Him.   

We live in a war zone. Live under the banner of the victor. Take heed to what He teaches about daily survival and keep a long-view, looking toward the completion of all things under Christ.

Who Knows?

Central & Eastern Europe I have been wanting to write this particular story for quite some time. This is an amazing story, to which I cannot do full justice because it began a lustrum, at least, before I met this amazing man and will probably carry on long after I have the ability to write intelligently. (Yes, I know some argue that even now my faculties are slipping just a bit! I appreciate the reminder!) I have my first book due to be published by year’s end and in it I quote, Brad Collins. I list him as a Canadian Hockey Coach but that is just the tip of the ice (hockey ice that is). The quote I use in the book is very short and I have used it here as the title of this piece. Whenever confronted by one of life’s major questions, Brad would turn to look at me, usually as he was driving the van…  because while in Bosnia we seldom slowed down for more than a chance for coffee and then it was ‘on the road again’ and Brad would simply shrug his shoulders and say, “Who knows?”

Brad was not being flippant  as if the question was not worth pondering; but more that he had become resigned to the fact that for most of the major issues in the world, he had not been consulted by God as to how he, Brad, might handle them. Therefore,  Brad was more than content to allow God to take care of whatever it was.  Also, it was less of a question than it was a reminder as to Who it was that really KNOWS!

Brad first entered Bosnia during the war between the Serbians and the Bosniacs in the 1990’s. The plight of the refugees, particularly the children, touched him deeply and he knew then that God would return him to Bosnia to work with these children. And work he did! Beginning with a few used hockey sticks and even less money; he began putting up flyers around Ilizda and soon some boys began to watch this odd game that involved knocking a puck around with a stick and slamming it hard into the net to score a goal. That was something they had never seen and a sport they had not yet mastered. The growth was slow but over the years the Lord blessed the ministry and the Bosnia Herzegovina Sports Foundation sent young men to play in the International Floor Hockey Championships and Brad and his senior players were hosted on Hockey Night in Canada The teams were visited by John Vanbiesbruck in Sarajevo, and the NHL Players Association provided them with equipment and training the likes of which they had never seen. Tough love was what welded the hearts of these mostly Muslim, but some Serbian, boys to Brad’s and over the years through tough times and good; the boys became men and they taught a new generation of young players and not just in one city but in three. I would guess that easily a thousand kids have been touched by ‘Coach’ and he was touched by every one of them.

Not very long ago, God provided an amazing help-mate for Brad. Bethany, his wife came alongside and has been an inspiration and  breath of fresh air to the musty old locker rooms normally the site of much of Brad’s life lessons! Bethany  can now work with the girls and those who like music, love to sing and play musical instruments. It took a host who just kept inviting and a blizzard that kept her from fleeing; but it truly was God that brought she and Brad together.

Some tough days are ahead for Coach as he is back in Canada now, waiting in a hospital in St. John’s New Brunswick for a triple by-pass involving the major vessels of his heart. He has another serious blockage in his carotid artery as well. I expect to be with Brad and Bethany in a few days and I know, without a doubt, if I would look at Brad and ask him what he thinks the outcome will be, he would say, “Who knows?” He really is saying that he knows Who knows and that is quite alright with him. As long as God has charge of every detail, there will not be a single detail missed.

I’m going to challenge Brad with a video I saw just recently. It is a hockey goal I want Brad to master while he is recovering from his cardiac surgery. A young boy standing on the far side of a pond with a hockey stick and a puck… the pond is not frozen, in fact it is the middle of summer. He slaps that puck and it goes skimming across the pond, up the bank on the far side and striaght into the net that he has set up! I know Brad will have to practice it quite a bit so, just to make it tougher, I’m only going to give him one puck. If it sinks while he’s practicing, he’ll just have to go get it!

There are few men on this earth that I consider very dear friends and brothers. Brad is one of those I cherish the most. Join me in saying some prayers for Coach and for his bride, Bethany as they go through this week together. How quickly will Brad be able to send that puck across the pond and into the net after this tough surgery… Who knows?

Brad and Bethany

Brad & Bethany

The Other Side of the Cup

MINISTRY MINUTE: When there’s only a minute for ministry

Rev. Ross Riggs

The ebb and flow of the patrons follows the clock around as the hour hand again strains toward twelve as if it will take every ounce of effort to get over that hump and back down again. I have the neither the time or nor the money to lounge in a U.S. coffee shop for any length of time. In Bosnia it is a part of the daily existence because it is there that a ‘time out’ is called from the rush of the day to catch our breath and resettle our minds. I think that perhaps if Jesus were ministering in Bosnia in 2012, as He did in the land of Israel in the first century, instead of the wilderness, He would have headed to a coffee shop to find His time away from the pressures of ministry.

In the U.S. it is a not an escape from reality but a plunging headlong into the work-a-day world of dozens of entrepreneurs who perhaps have home-based businesses and need a place to meet clients. It is the world of the movers and shakers (or their wannabe’s) that fear the ears of the office and decide to meet their protégés in the bustling atmosphere where classical music sets the back drop for the harried business calls and the deals yet to be sealed.

It may be my cynical side creeping out but I suspect that just as Jesus may have used a coffee shop in Bosnia to escape for a few moments respite; in the U.S. it would have been Judas who sealed his deal with the devil in a coffee shop. To all my readers who cannot wait to grab their customized cup and hit their local bean roaster, I may have committed a sin worthy of anathema in the religion of the coffee drinkers’ world.

I am actually old enough to have visited a ‘coffee shop’ near our college campus in the days when self-designed poets plied their trade on all who would, yes, snap their fingers in approval. I didn’t stay long, I must confess. Even today, I snap my fingers usually only to scold my dog or shoo the chickens toward their roost.

This day I find myself back in a coffee shop. No poets agonizing the long dead ears of the masters but in a ‘modern’ shop where latte’s and iced-coffees reign and classical music sets my nerves on edge as it incessantly seems to be playing the same song over and over, at least to my ears. The client I was to meet has failed to appear and I suspect has either lost his way or his nerve. Either way, I am given time to reflect on the bustle around me, the hurried un-hurriedness of those who seek a diversion from what lies outside those doors but who have in effect carried the reality of the outside in and the line between the two is barely noticeable save for the squeak of the door as it opens and closes.

I find myself wishing I were sitting along the bustling streets of Sarajevo, quietly lost in the world of a ‘real’ coffee shop. Even though the healthy drive to prohibit smoking in any place where there is air has not yet, and may never, hit Sarajevo; still the din of the Sarajevo coffee shop is so much more peaceful than the repressed quiet of the American shop. And we haven’t even begun to address the issue of the coffee!

I know that if I truly had my ‘druthers’ I would be out in a beautiful country-side setting, along the foothills of a Rocky Mountain range, leaning against a tree, coffee cup in hand. My horse would be grazing quietly nearby and the only chore left to do is to settle on what to cook over the fire for dinner before unrolling the bedroll for a night under the stars. The coffee would not be any more of an exotic blend than what those out west call ‘cowboy coffee’ and the only music playing would be that of nature. As I consider the options, Jesus always chose the wilderness and I think I understand why.

Enough of that, with my client over thirty minutes late, it is time to get back up in the saddle and head back into reality.

Bosnia Bound

In 2003 an entire set of coincidences (those are miracles in which God chooses to remain anonymous), I found myself for the first time in Sarajevo Bosnia. I fell in love with the ministry there, with our M on the field and the boys with whom he works. God has at a minimum tripled the number of individuals (now including females) with whom our ministry team (that is Brad and his dog Bela for now) are serving.

I have continued to return regularly, now fulfilling a role with ABWE as the ‘team leader’ of team Bosnia which also includes the New Hope Baptist Church in Tuzla that is in part supported by some folks through ABWE and through other sources as well; and now with the church in Zenica, pastored by a Brazilian ‘M’ with TEAM International. In both Zenica and Tuzla there are orphanages with which the ministries are doing outreach.

We have a family on pre-field trying to raise support to go to Bosnia. They  are the Wilson’s, Rob, Sally and Brent. Also, visiting Bosnia for the first time this January was Bethny Kent of Omaha Nebraska.

You may have heard recently of the record snow fall in Bosnia and across the Balkans. I am providing a link here to Brad’s January/February Prayer Letter. In it are several photos, notice the one of Brad shoveling snow. See the tire behind him? There is a full size van (orange) attached to that tire. Can you find the van?

Please pray for Brad and the work there. Pray fr Pastors Zeljko to God will direct his every path; for Pastor Walter that God will protect him from the evil one. Pray, too, for the Wilson’s to receive the help and direction they need; for Bethany as she contemplates coming to Bosnia to join the team there.  PLEASE pray for all the boys, those mentioned expressly and for those whose names were not mentioned, there are over 150 of them. Now, too, pray specifically for the girls being touched by the outreach and for women all across Bosnia to hear and respond to the gospel.

To reach Brad’s prayer letter and see the amazing pictures, go to: www.riggs.abwe.org/Bosnia

Bible Study at Brad's during power outage