10. Faded red and gold threads
Bulgaria has had a national identity since the fifth century. However, it has rarely been truly independent. Following World War II, Bulgaria became a Soviet satellite with a government subservient to Moscow. Bulgaria's communist regime kowtowed so much to the Kremlin that it was labeled "Little Russia."
One of Bulgaria's most highly acclaimed novels is called Under the Yoke. It was written in 1894, long before communism came to power. Nonetheless, that title symbolizes well life under communism and how these people continue to struggle with its awful legacy.
In communism's repressive atmosphere, Christians were singled out. Church property was confiscated. The government had to approve the selection of all priests/pastors and church officials. For four decades there were continual assaults on believers. Persecution killed some with others winding up in prison. The Bible was banned. Christian literature became so scarce that believers copied Bibles and other Christian literature by hand. The campaign of misinformation against Protestants continued past communism's fall. Even today, rumors and untruths color the average Bulgarian's image of evangelical Christianity. As a result, there's still plenty of red thread running through the Bulgarian tapestry.
The reality of that came home to the volunteers in Bulgaria one spring afternoon. One day a couple of the volunteers set out for their weekly visits to elderly people. They took a few groceries to each home. They also spent time talking, reading Scripture and praying with these isolated elderly people. Carrying sacks of food, the American volunteers blended in with Bulgarians rushing along toting their own plastic shopping bags. A wiry little Bulgarian lady went with Miles and Todd. They worked their way around Sofia by trolley and on foot. They had met her at the Methodist church. Because she spoke English, they had asked her to help them as a translator.
The lady's hair was gray, but her step was quick and firm. She explained that her father had been a Congregationalist minister when the communists took over. As the young Americans talked with her that afternoon, they chose their words carefully. The lady seemed very conscious of people around them on the trolley and on the sidewalk. It was as though she was afraid of being overheard.
"Did the government make life hard for your father?" they asked her at one point.
"Yes," she said, hesitating, "that's why he got sick and died."
Team members recalled their walks through Bulgaria's equivalent of Red Square in Moscow. Standing at one end of that large open space was an imposing several-story building. During the communist era, a huge red star atop a spire marked this as Party Headquarters.
Bulgaria's communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, fell from power the same week the Berlin Wall opened. A helicopter showed up and lifted off the huge red star, leaving a broken spire. In that tumultuous autumn of 1989, angry crowds tried to set fire to the building. At the deserted headquarters, masonry walls around the boarded up windows are smoke stained.
Across the square is a large mausoleum. Inside are the refrigerated remains of Georgi Dimitrov, the founder of Bulgaria's communist party. After Dimitrov's death in 1949, this Bulgarian version of Lenin's tomb went up in a matter of days. Graffiti appeared all over it after the 1989 upheaval. Though the graffiti has been cleaned off, Dimitrov's tomb is no longer a focal point for proclaiming communism's glories.
As it turned out, the hard-liner Zhivkov was very corrupt. After his removal, a court convicted the 83-year-old ex-dictator of lavishing $24 million of public funds on himself, his family and favored aides. Though sentenced to seven years imprisonment, Zhivkov did not go to jail. Instead, he lived under house arrest at his granddaughter's villa.
Gold-colored cobble stones pave the square where Zhivkov presided over triumphal May Day parades. Those cobble stones are not a bright or shiny yellow. The gold is a very dull color. That makes it a good symbol of what happened to communism and its promises of a Utopia just around the corner. The Bulgarians and other eastern Europeans were told that their countries would be transformed into Workers' Paradises. They just needed to make enough sacrifices and it would happen. That Utopia never arrived.
Some parallels can be drawn between communism's promises and the Christian promises about heaven. For one thing, the Apostle John described a street in the New Jerusalem as being paved with gold (Rev. 21:21). There is a big difference in those two visions of the future. Unlike the Christian hope, the promise of a communist Utopia has faded even more than that street's gold cobblestones.
Not long after the first Nazarene volunteers arrived, they made friends with a small band of believers in northern Bulgaria. The believers are from farming families in a town called Montana. The volunteers began visiting that little group regularly, often on Sundays. One of the believers owned an old car. After a service on one of those trips, the American volunteers piled into that little automobile. It was more than full, but it wasn't very far to the train station.
As the car started down the hill, its cassette player came alive with an English song. A repeated phrase caught the Americans' attention. It was: "If you build with a crooked cornerstone, how are you going to make it stand?"
That song never made the top gospel hits in the U.S. Its words, however, rang hauntingly true that day. They graphically hint at what happened under a government built on communism's defective political, philosophical and religious foundations.
Let's go back to that city square with Dimitrov's tomb and the communist headquarters building. In the heady, revolutionary fall of 1989, someone got into the top story of Party headquarters. They put yellow paint on the mullions of a corner window. To anyone looking up from the square, it looked like a gold cross. Those mullions have now been repainted white. However, when that gold cross overlooked that square, it silently shouted the only answer that could satisfy the Bulgarians' deepest yearnings.
Another unfortunate thing for the Bulgarian tapestry was the arrival of some American "health and wealth" evangelists after the fall of communism. These evangelists initially attracted large crowds. They pressured audiences into giving generous offerings. They counted as "converts" people who really didn't know to what they were responding. Glowing reports went back to the U.S. as the preachers moved on. All they left in Bulgaria was the truncated hope of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. Such shallow, though high-powered evangelism only winds up fueling a reaction against American "cults."
In their brief passage through Bulgaria, the health and wealth preachers did contribute something to the tapestry. However, they probably would be horrified to know that all they gave it were faded gold strands strikingly similar to those of communism's false hopes. . . . [ continue reading ]
Discarded threads in the tapestry
|So we know the Gospel thread arrived long ago in Bulgaria. Tragically, in this century, it has come close to being unraveled from the Bulgarian tapestry. All through the last half of the twentieth century, demonic forces tried hard to yank it out and discard it. . . . [ read more ]|