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The Scars of Communism  

Recently, I returned from a ten day trip to the Balkans area of Central Europe.  This is a region that was firmly in the iron grip of Communism for decades.  Walking the streets of Bulgaria and Romania, I was hit hard with a sad reality.  

We Americans continue to underestimate the lingering effects of Stalinism and overestimate the success of post-Communist Europe.   We view Communism like a physical house of brick and mortar that was toppled by the wrecking ball of geopolitical change.  We assume the whole nasty mess was scooped into a dumpster and hauled away. The truth is, Communism is much more like a poisonous thorny weed whose tendons have quietly grown back after the main plant was whacked off in the late 80s.  Those remnant thorns continue to scratch and draw blood.  

Take a walk down the streets of Bucharest or Sofia or Kiev, and the lifeless gray Soviet style concrete apartment buildings are everywhere. While you're out walking, note all the faces of the people you pass by: an expression that falls somewhere between stern and scowl.

Then there's the work ethic—or lack thereof.   A shopkeeper at a tiny stationary shop was visibly irritated when I politely asked to take a closer look at a notepad.  Under communism, she was paid her fixed wages whether she worked or not.  So why be bothered with customer service?

Indeed, the scars of Communism are deep and depressing.  Call them wounds not yet healed—like a suspicious cancer.

Lessons for followers of Christ?  Let me suggest two.

Let's preserve the remnants of godly culture that still remain in America.  Remember—Christ called us to be salt and light.  Preserving is at the top of our job description.

But as we go out and minister in “post-communist countries, let's not be naive about the real state of affairs.  The scars of Communism are still visible.  And its thorns are still drawing blood.

Uncommon Warmth  

“Excuse me,” she said.  “Do you have a couple minutes to talk about human rights?”

She was standing there on the sidewalk in downtown Chicago, and I walked by at my brisk heart-healthy pace expressing a “no thank you.”

Then I looked at my watch and noticed I really DID have the time.  So I walked back and talked to her. 

The girl was in her early twenties and cradled a clipboard in her arms.  Unseasonably chilly wind blew our hair as she attempted to gain my sympathy for a bill in support of human rights.  Turns out, it was about extending legal rights for homosexuals. 

She was polite...reasonable...not edgy.  And I was determined I was NOT going to be a fist-clenching angry evangelical.  Yet clearly we stood on opposite shores, an ocean of moral truth churning between us. 

I gently unfolded my opposition to the expansion of any rights for people who choose to engage in homosexual activity.  As I did so, I was conscious of a desire to be kind to her.  Admittedly, I also struggled to succinctly define my position. 

We continued to talk.  Continued to disagree.  But continued to be civil. 

When the conversation kind of paused...and I knew I really did need to move on in order to make my train, I said to the girl, “You know what—you've been very gracious.  I want you to know you're an excellent representative of your organization.  Really.”  She beamed and said something kind in return.

Two Scripture passages come to mind.

Colossians 4:6 Let your speech at all times be gracious (pleasant and winsome), seasoned [as it were] with salt, [so that you may never be at a loss] to know how you ought to answer anyone [who puts a question to you].

Proverbs 25:15 By long forbearance and calmness of spirit a judge or ruler is persuaded, and soft speech breaks down the most bone-like resistance.

On that windy June day, there were probably no ideological battles won. No hearts convinced.  But I trust Jesus was honored by my feeble attempts.  And gently hope that on an unseasonably chilly afternoon...an uncommon warmth marked the conversation of two who agreed to disagree.

Where's Jesus?  

You've heard of “Where's Waldo?”  It's the kids book series featuring oversized pages crammed with hundreds of tiny people.  Hidden somewhere among them is the red and white striped image of Waldo.  Your job, of course, is to find him.

But today, I'm not asking “Where's Waldo?”  Instead, I'm wondering “Where's Jesus?”

Let me explain.

Increasingly, as I look at church outreach events and ministries, I wonder what they're reaching out with.  The gospel--the simple saving message of Jesus--sometimes appears to be so far beneath the surface, it would take a deep sea diver to retrieve it. 

We're big on reaching out with social programs (which a previous generation of Christians rather overlooked).  Yet I suspect we've swung the pendulum too hard to the other extreme. 

Have we unwittingly disconnected our goodness from our God…our meals, from our message?  Are we so busy handing out food, we've forgotten that an appetite for God is the appetite that matters most?

I fear that in many cases, we have convinced ourselves that--quote--doing good things for God is good enough.  But making disciples—as Jesus commanded us to do—inevitably involves words.  Jesus never healed for the sake of healing—but always for the sake of a soul.  There was almost always a conversation.

No doubt there are countless churches doing a wonderful job of balance here, and I don't wish to paint with too broad a brush. And- please understand--I am not saying we should STOP doing soup kitchens and food pantries and Celebrate Recovery.  Let me repeat myself in the vain hope of avoiding a flood of hostile email.  I believe that followers of Jesus SHOULD be engaged in feeding the hungry and digging wells and a host of other social programs. 

Yet there must be balance.  Eventually there must be gospel words…not just gospel activity. When we reach out in this way we will be loving in word AND deed.  Then…the “Where's Waldo” problem will disappear—and Jesus will be clearly seen.

Losing Letters  

Their entire species is being threatened.  With each passing day, their numbers dwindle.  Yet few seem to notice--and even fewer care.

I'm not talking about a spotted three horned owl. Rather, it's something much more mundane.  So ordinary its passing is off the radar screen of general concern. 

Letters. Old fashioned, hand-written letters are a species in deep decline.  And in case you're wondering, that's not just a sentimental feeling. Ask the United States Post Office, where decline in letter volume (ie. revenue) is creating a major case of mail box blues. 

No secret as to why. Email and texting and inexpensive cell phones have all but taken over. Why wait three days for your message to get delivered when you can send it in three seconds?

Nobody's a bigger fan of email or texting than me--for whom these are almost an addiction.   Yet....I worry what they're doing to old fashioned romance.

Today's couples text and email almost exclusively.  Meaning...twenty or thirty years from now, there'll be very few love letters to open up and re-read.  Few cards to linger over.

Sure you can archive digital communication, but honestly--who bothers?  Besides, where's the romantic buzz from printing out a sanitized looking message on white paper?

The analogue feel of card stock, or crinkled paper and good ol' ink is a sensory experience for which there is no digital equivalent.

So how will emerging generations satisfy their appetite for reliving their romance?  Stare at images of antique phone screens?  Or is nostalgia itself soon to be extinguished...or morphed into a cold digital formula?

It all just makes me increasingly grateful that when God decided to send us His ultimate love letter, He didn't send us a text or email us an attachment with cute little animated graphics.  Instead, He wrote us a Book.   High tech is efficient.  But high touch it is not.

An Open Letter to Street Beggars  

An Open Letter to Street Beggars, pan handlers and what would be labeled in a less politically correct age as...bums. 

Please know that I hear you and see you every time I walk downtown.  See your handwritten cardboard signs, your coffee cups hungry for coins.  And like most followers of Jesus, I struggle in knowing how to respond.

So here's the deal I'm making—it's admittedly something of a compromise.  If you ask me for food, I will buy some—as long as it is in my power.  You have my commitment to doing what I can to alleviate your hunger.   I will likely NOT give you money to buy food—because I have seen the abuse this scenario invites.  I have no appetite for fake appetite—and I'm deeply opposed to buying your next beer or your next joint.   But if possible, I will give you physical food.

Can I be honest with you, Mr. or Ms. Street Person?  It irritates me when I see your deception and uncover the phony nature of some of your signs.  You know who you are—this month telling me you need $34 to pay for blood pressure medicine...next month $85 to—quote—“keep your place.”  And it just about makes me want to spit when I see some of you eating lunch at pricey places inside the train station.  I know, I know.  “Don't judge.”  Maybe someone donated the food—or gave you the money for those nice lunches.  It's not fair to jump to too many conclusions.   Nor is it fair to point out your inconsistencies while ignoring my own.

As I carefully weigh the stewardship of giving you a dollar or two or five...how I could wish the same sense of rigid accountability was a grid through which every dollar of mine is run.   Alas, I am usually happy to spend a twenty on myself without a thought...while agonizing over whether to give you a lousy buck.  

So as you can see, I am, at points, decidedly uncomfortable with the path I have chosen. 

Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you.”  I just wish BEING with the poor was less uncomfortable.  But maybe that was Jesus’ intent in the first place.

Thanks for wading through this letter.

See you...out on the street.

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Jon GaugerJon Gauger

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