11. Discarded threads

ebook: God's Bulgarian tapestry (part 11)

Bulgaria has a long Christian history. As the first Nazarene volunteers prepared to go in 1994, Hermann Gschwandtner sent them a photo. It showed the rugged red brick ruins of St. George's rotunda in central Sofia. That structure, according to archaeologists, was a fourth-century church building.

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.

"See those statues. That's Cyril and Methodius," Matt Robertson told a visitor from SNU one day as they rode by a library on a trolley. Then he added: "Sadly, no one even knows they were missionaries."

Cyril and Methodius were two brothers from Greece. Born about 800 years after Christ, they became businessmen. Sensing God's call, however, they abandoned their promising business careers to become missionaries. They went first to southern Russia. Eventually, they moved south to Bulgaria where they found people speaking an unwritten language.

These two brothers modified their own Greek alphabet to fit the sounds they heard the Bulgarians using. Then, they used this new alphabet to start translating Scripture. Their Cyrillic alphabet is still used today in Slavic-speaking countries like Bulgaria and Russia.

Because Cyril and his brother turned Bulgarian into a written language, their statues stand in front of that Sofia library. Bulgaria even has a national holiday honoring Cyril and Methodius. However, no one ever says they were Christian missionaries. The communists wanted to celebrate the brothers' gift of literacy while ignoring the greater gift the two gave Bulgaria: the written Word of God.

The communist leaders seriously erred in discarding the Christian threads of Bulgaria's past. By doing so, they created a moral vacuum. That vacuum was evident long before communism collapsed. Today, the signs of moral rottenness are everywhere. For instance, the thievery of auto parts is very common. Drivers parking their cars on the street routinely remove windshield wipers and lock them in the trunk. That keeps thieves from taking them.

One church building surviving communism's onslaught was the Alexander Nevski Memorial Church in central Sofia. That imposing Orthodox church is topped by twelve domes. Some of those domes are covered with copper that has weathered into a green patina; others sparkle with a bright gold leaf covering. The Orthodox worship services in that building will differ greatly from what evangelicals are used to. Orthodox theology differs in some respects from that of evangelical Christianity. For all Christians, however, that building proudly testifies that Christ's Church can outlast any political system. Sadly, today, this large structure attracts tourists better than it does worshipers. It did not become a focal point for spiritual revival when communism fell.

Why? Well, many Bulgarians say Orthodox leaders cooperated far too closely with the ruthless dictatorship. Some accuse the Orthodox church of betraying the common person during that time. As a result, Bulgaria turned its back on organized Christianity. Though tourists flock to see the gilt domes, the magnificent chandeliers, and the frescoes in Alexander Nevski church, few worshipers show up.

Hindering the re-emergence of historic Christian threads in the Bulgaria tapestry has been some other things. First, when communism fell, American cults and heretical movements invaded Eastern Europe. It has been hard for Eastern Europeans to understand that evangelicals are not bizarre cultists. Suspicions abound concerning any American religious worker in Bulgaria (particularly the young ones).

One day in early spring Todd Brant and Miles Zinn went to visit an elderly lady. They had been to her apartment the week before and had given her some groceries. She needed them. The month before, her heating bill had been more than her whole month's income. When they arrived this time, she startled them by handing back the sack they had given her. The groceries inside were untouched. With a trembling lip, she said her son told her to give it back. He surmised the Nazarenes were one of those "sects" against which the government-controlled television had warned.

Along with battling this negative image problem, Bulgarian evangelicals also contend with some Orthodox leaders' efforts to keep a monopoly on Christianity in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is supposedly democratic. Even so, many Orthodox leaders insist that there be only one Christian organization: the Orthodox Church. If they could, they would close Bulgaria's borders to believers belonging to any other church group. That stance, of course, reminds me of the old communist regime.

Indeed, that idea of keeping Bulgaria closed to other denominations comes not just from the Orthodox Church. It is fostered by Bulgaria's own communist past. Communist officials -- some of whom are back in positions of power -- think the government should closely regulate religious organizations. Such regulation and control would be easier if there is only one organization -- such as the Orthodox church with which to deal. Thus, the Orthodox longing for a religious monopoly on Bulgaria resonates well with those former communists.

Of course, Protestants are not new in Bulgaria. The first Bulgarian Protestant congregations began appearing in 1893. When World War II broke out, five Protestant denominations were already well established in Bulgaria. Then, in 1940, the Nazi-dominated government arrested all the Protestant leaders. By 1944, all those men were dead. Thus, before the communists took power, the Evil One tried to destroy key strands of Bulgaria's Christian community. In spite of such persecution, the tiny Protestant movement survived communism.

In contrast to the Orthodox Church, those original Protestant denominations have welcomed the Nazarene volunteers. For a short time, the Nazarene group held weekly services in a small Methodist chapel in Sofia. That unnerved government authorities. They did not understand the spiritual unity all born-again Christians feel regardless of denominational labels. The government saw the Nazarenes as a cult without official consent to conduct public meetings that had somehow managed to get permission to use a totally different cult's building. The Nazarenes and Methodists didn't see it quite that way. Nonetheless, the government called the Methodists on the carpet. So, to keep from causing problems for the Methodist church, other born-again believers quit using their building for activities.

One day, John Knight and I were hurrying along the street in Sofia. We passed a coffee shop. The weather was blustery and cold. So we decided to go inside where it was warm and get something hot to drink. To our delight, the waitress spoke quite a bit of English. Since we were her only customers, we struck up a conversation with her.

"I want to leave Bulgaria," she said. "There is no hope here."

We talked for a while. As we got ready to leave, we asked the waitress if she believed in God.

"Yes," she said, hesitantly and quietly.

She seemed afraid someone would overhear her. As we talked a bit more, it became sadly clear that this young lady's professed belief in God was giving her little reason for hope.

Over the past half-century, communism mangled and tore at the Christian thread in the Bulgarian tapestry. As a result, many Bulgarians seem unaware that vital Christianity can be authentically Bulgarian. Tragically, some believed the demonic lie that authentic Christianity would hurt the fabric of Bulgarian society. Today, this makes Bulgaria, according to many observers, among the globe's most difficult countries to evangelize. . . . [ continue reading ]

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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Some West Coast threads

Next chapterNot all the North American threads in the Bulgarian tapestry came from the U.S. heartland. Some come from the West Coast. . . . [ read more ]

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