A Long Recovery
Though the war that devastated Bosnia in the 90’s may seem a distant memory to many of us from the United States, especially as so many pressing current conflicts around the globe dominate our minds, the damage is still apparent here and the recovery, economic and otherwise, is still not complete. (If you need a little refresher on the 1425 day-long Siege of Sarajevo in particular, you can look here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Sarajevo) It was particularly striking to walk around the downtown area, with its strikingly beautiful hills on either side, and to see how vulnerable this made Sarajevo to snipers who filled those hills. Driving into the mountains, we saw several bombed houses that have never been rebuilt. Our hosts here told us that in the years right after the war, optimism about the country’s prospects for recovery was high. Sadly, the global downturn and other forces kept that recovery from occurring as hoped. Today, unemployment nationwide is over 25%, and glum pessimism is one of the cultural forces that can weigh down all who live here.
A Challenging Mission Field
Student ministry looks very different here than in the United States, or even than almost anywhere else in Europe. You may know that Bosnia is a strongly Muslim nation. Though practices may differ quite a bit from Islam as it is practiced in the Middle East, loyalty to it runs deep here. In the US, campus ministries are often shaped around a lively and large weekly gathering; that is not even on the horizon for the staff workers here. Instead, they have worked hard to create English clubs, and even Spanish and German clubs which have a strong reputation for excellence at the universities. These clubs form platforms for relational ministry in the coffee shops that abound in Bosnia, where staff and the relatively few believing students seek to love students and share their faith in winsome ways.
Our invitation was to join the eight staff who give their creativity, love, and energy so faithfully to this ministry, as they gathered (with their six adorable small children) for their national staff retreat. It was truly a joy to be with them for five days in a mountain cabin. It was also a challenge, as rain prevented us from leaving said cabin much, and a virus or ‘something in the water’ meant that most of the adults and children had at least a day of tummy troubles working their way out in one direction or the other… Rich and I included. I was disappointed to have to back out of a teaching session on Robert Clinton’s material on Finishing Well that I had been eager to teach, but grateful that Rich had a salient similar session in his back pocket.
We were amazed at the ways the parents, their own bodies depleted, poured out love on their kids, who were frankly not in top form themselves. The non-parents on the team gave themselves to that endeavor servant-heartedly as well. Rich and I have been stretched to give ourselves in this area, both at the Family Camp in Latvia and here. We have always said that we were better parents once our kids turned about four, but both settings have abounded in children under four, and it has been a surprisingly delightful aspect of our journey to be called upon to be part of the team that is needed for a child to thrive (or survive) on a retreat.
We also were asked to share with the Bosnian parents informally about how raising children while in ministry went for us. While our setting was not nearly as challenging, we did face being far from grandparents—the biggest challenge articulated by these parents. On that point we could only offer our empathy, but on the question of how kids do when raised in a ministry context we had several hopeful stories. We think our two have turned out quite well, though we are of course biased…
I have been blessed with a gifted spiritual director who is also a therapist and an artist (see http://www.lynnefarrow.com/ for some of her amazing artwork and reflections on life). I first met her at a youth ministry retreat, where she gave us the startling directive to take a perfectly good clay pot, place it in a paper bag, and smash it with a hammer. (We were mercifully given the option of breaking it ‘a little or a lot’ as seemed best to us.) We then were invited to stare at the pieces spread out on a paper plate and ‘see what emerged.’ Do you want to attempt to rebuild it, with some glue? Or does it seem more fitting to create something entirely new, a mosaic out of the brokenness? As we worked she peppered us with questions, and eventually most of us identified an area of brokenness within or without that we needed to mourn, let go of, or maybe celebrate the substantial restoration that had taken place. I was deeply moved by this exercise and, reflecting on the brokenness in Bosnia’s history, sensed that it could be meaningful for the staff team here. It was a bit of a risk, and indeed there was some resistance as we began, mostly in the form of questions: “What does the pot represent? What does the hammer represent? Are you saying God is smashing us?” I encouraged them to let that emerge, and as we shared around couches at the end, it was clear that God had used the exercise to probe hearts, letting pain surface and speaking to them about his desire to bring healing and to be with them in the toughest places of their lives.
In addition to pot-smashing and parenting discussions, we enjoyed offering sessions on viewing Leadership as a Doctor’s Prescription rather than a Job Description, three soaks in Romans 8, a session on telling the stories of Scripture well, and one on navigating transitions and learning from failure. We also led the team through the Ignatian process of Examen each evening by candlelight. In and around their more practical planning sessions, we brought what we could to refresh and encourage a team that is giving their all to love Bosnians in Jesus’ name. Despite the ‘light and momentary afflictions’ of illness, we come away profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be with them. We head next to Romania, where Rich is the speaker for an all-church retreat and where we will connect in various ways with the IFES movement there. Thank you as always for your prayers for stamina as we continue the journey.