Be Careful What You Pray For
© Copyright 2019 by Carl Winderl
“Be Careful What You Pray For –
In high school, and in college especially, I got myself into all kinds of scrapes – bad, bad situations, near-impossible fixes, such tight spots, ones that would’ve tried even Houdini’s celebrated escape artistry.
I was not such a bad kid, at heart though. I was, afterall, a Christian, albeit of the plainclothes variety, circa the mid-60’s to the early-70’s. Not like those born-again fanatics today, finger-pointing heavenward after every 3-point shot, double off the wall, pass caught for a 1st down, ad nauseum.
No, back then I was more of a closet Christian, more mindful of keeping my light ‘hidden under a bushel’ – Yes!
Fortunately, in the tradition of my Protestant denomination – the Nazarene branch of John Wesley’s tree – we had a tailor-made mantra for life’s hard-to-get-out spots.
With my back up against any wall, I knew I could rely on this tried & true prayer: “oh, Lord, please – Dear God, if you’ll get me out of this one – I promise, I’ll do anything – I’ll even be a missionary! Just get me out this jam – I pray, Please.”
That was the basic ‘get out of jail’ prayer, which could be invoked and intoned whenever required to squirm out of one of life’s little bothersome straight jackets. Of course, the prayer could be varied, modified, and adapted to suit the severity, necessity, or proximity of whatever approaching doom.
Fox example, in high school, junior year, at the end of an important basketball game with our cross-county rival, MacArthur High, I committed a really stupid totally useless and unnecessary foul that sent one of their forwards, a kid named Jenkins, to the freethrow line for a 1-and-1: with eight seconds on the clock, score tied. And we were playing on their court, so that was to his advantage, not mine.
Before his freethrows, our coach had called a timeout, supposedly to “ice” him. Yeah, old Coach Morris, he was ahead of his coaching time in many ways, as usual, trying to “ice” our opponents at critical junctures in a close game, long before NFL coaches used it as a glacée du jour.
During the timeout, I avoided any tongue-lashing for the errors of my way. That’d come in the locker room after the game, whatever the outcome. Even so, I had to endure his withering glare.
When we broke from the huddle, the other starting guard with me, Bill Brooks, sidled over to me as we headed to our places on either side of the freethrow lane.
“Man, Windy – coach’s gonna masticate your glu-te-us, whether or not Jenkins makes either a these shots. No matter what – win or lose, man.”
Those were Brooks’ actual word choices, from his SAT lexicon. Not mine, then, although “lexicon’s” from mine now.
I doubt however any of those words were ever in Coach Morris’. At least never in my presence.
I merely nodded my assent to Brooks.
I was much too focused on which ‘escape hatch’ prayer to use from my rolodex of ‘get out of jail’ prayers. I mean, Catholics don’t have that many more “fit for any occasion” prayers than we Protestants. We just don’t have the saintly venerables to address them to that they have.
So, standing, in my place, along the lane, pretty close to Jenkins, ready to box him out, as the referee readied to hand him the ball, I quickly referenced my top three prayer choices. First, “God if you really exist – I mean ‘really’ exist – prove it by making Jenkins miss the first one.” Second, “if I’m going to make it to heaven after I die, – don’t let him make either one.”
And the third – well, things always come in threes with God, starting with the Trinity, and for anyone who’s even skimmed the Divine Comedy, Dante’s work is lousy with ‘threes.’ So, my third choice obviously was the “I’ll even be a missionary” prayer.
Anyway, Jenkins swished both free-throws, we lost the game, and Brooks proved very prophetic – Coach Morris in the locker room lit into my backside with a ferocity that would have made many a stevedore blush.
That wasn’t all the bad news for that night.
By the way though, on the bus ride back home Brooks tried to console me saying, “Windy – without your 26 points tonight, man, we’d’ve never even been in the game at the end. So, screw Coach Morris.” Yeah, I had been the high scorer on the court that night.
Not that any of that mattered to Coach Morris.
That then was the bad news for that night.
I’d like to think I could take credit for inventing the “get out of jail”/“fire escape” prayers, but my travel-agent grandmother, who sent me on numerous guilt trips over my growing-up years, would not let me.
Bible scholars would be quick to put me in my place by referring to Abraham & Isaac’s plight in Genesis, the 1st book in the Bible.
God told Abraham He wanted him to sacrifice his firstborn son as a burnt offering to Him.
Far-fetched as it seemed, Abraham was “not one to reason why” – his but to “do and let his only begotten son die” a painful sacrificial death.
To cut to the chase, on Mount Moriah, future site of the Temple in Jerusalem, just he and Isaac, trussed up with rope and lying flat on a stack of wood atop an altar built of stones, awaited his father’s death blow with a knife and then the burning of his flesh.
I’m thinking though if I could access olde Abe’s stream-of-consciousness at that critical moment – knife raised, blade edge flashing in the sun, flames in a vessel ready to fire up the wood – I might hear something like this, “Oh, Lord, please – God, if you’ll just get me out of this jam – just this once, please – I’ll produce offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand which is by the seashore. In fact, I’ll even be a missionary to the Promised Land.”
Of course, God let him off the hook, provided a nearby ram in a thicket to offer as a burnt offering to God, truly a sweet-smelling sacrifice.
“Holy Smoke, Batman!”
It should be obvious by now, painfully so no doubt, that I was a kid raised on both the Bible and DC Comics.
So, I know a Super-Hero when I see one, read about one, meet one.
If anyone wants to know how Jesus saved the world, just take a stroll through the 4 Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.
The good news for me, that night, was I didn’t have to become a missionary, at least not right away. No, not until much, much later in life.
The “idea” then was to offer to be one.
I know, I know, I should have left off that tasty little tidbit until the last page, but as a favor to my readership I’m saving them having to read any more of this piece than necessary.
Now all readers know the outcome – can stop here, – and go do something more meaningful.
So, no O. Henry (a.k.a., William Sydney Porter) “Surprise! Ending” here.
And it’s not because I don’t know how to write or end a proper story. Afterall, I did earn a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from New York University and led a rather successful and fruitful career as a University Writing Professor before accepting an early-retirement buyout package and embarked on a new career – as a missionary.
Which is where I am now, in Zagreb, Croatia.
Obviously then, I must have indeed prayed – certainly more than once (many times, really) – my bargaining prayer with God to have ended up here, now, in the former Yugoslavia.
Yes, actually many many times.
A lot in high school, even more in college, not quite so many in grad school, fewer before marriage, and fewer and fewer in adulthood as I lived less on the edge, until my kids started their own prayer ministry – and I did try to stand by them to model, augment, and complement their efforts.
I probably should, before going much farther, stop to ‘set the stage’ for how missionaries were portrayed and viewed by my church in my growing-up years, otherwise why would I find such a ‘plight’ so frightening.
I don’t think I even really thought of them like James Michener categorized them in his blockbuster Hawaii. But we did have some pretty crazy pictures in our heads of dyed-in-the-wool (literally) missionaries, a la Albert Schweitzer, David Livingstone, even Father Damien on that little itty-bitty island of Molokai.
Our denomination though, not be outdone, had Helen Temple and Harmon F. Schmelzenbach as Nazarene missionary prototypes for the Missionary Hall of Fame in the Skies.
She was a career (i.e., pretty much a ‘lifer’) missionary in Papua, New Guinea, and he founded a mission station in Pigg’s Peak, Swaziland, for his immediate family and three successive generations.
And how did we find out about these mission-minded folks living (and sometimes dying) on those far-flung foreign mission fields carrying out Christ’s “Great Commission” to take His Message of Love to the farthestmost corners of the world?
Yea, even unto the ends of the earth . . .
Well, the Nazarene Church published a monthly missionary magazine, The Other Sheep, edited for almost two decades by Helen Temple herself, after she survived her stint in Papua.
Every Nazarene household faithfully (how else) subscribed to Temple’s propaganda, that is, as initially begun by Pope Pius IV, himself, with the Congregatio de Propagande Fide.
And every local Nazarene Church itself worth its “salt” – and “light” – held a Monthly Missionary Meeting on the last Wednesday of the month. I also grew up involuntarily reading the mandatory six missionary books a year published by the Nazarene Publishing House penned of course by current and former Nazarene missionaries. In addition, twice a year each church celebrated a missionary banquet, convened usually on a Friday or Saturday night, at which a “real live” missionary, home on furlough for a year, would testify to the trials and travails of the missionary life, complete often with slides and dangerous-looking tribal artifacts and bizarre clothing.
The more exotic, sometimes terrifying, and always sacrificial beyond belief their hair-raising and harrowing stories, the larger for sure would be their “Love Offering” from the missionary society members taken at the end of the evening.
Also, twice yearly we had the Alabaster Offering, when all the congregants marched around the church singing olde-time missionary songs, like “Into the Word, and onto the World,” dutifully carrying our coin-filled cardboard alabaster boxes. Think miniature shoeboxes with a slot on top and sealed with an embossed sticker in the emblazoned image of a flame encircled by “Church of the Nazarene.”
After a lap around the sanctuary, we broke the seal and dumped the coins into a miniature cardboard replica prototypical missionary church, artfully positioned on the communion table.
No wonder then with this year-long saturation of missional danger, dread, and deprivations I lived in a state of fear and avoidance of such a perilous existence.
For certain then, none of their stories seemed glamorous to me as a teenager and college student, which of course stoked the fires burning bright in my mind: confirming why I would never be so desperate as to ever want to be a missionary – if only to atone for some heinous hellbound egregious Commandment-breaking sin I’d stupidly fallen prey to.
Thus, the heaviness of my gamble with God that I would give up any hope of a normal life against that of a hardscrabble, sorrow-laden, sufferin’-succotash, joy-deprived life of a missionary. If only He’d just get me off the hook this one last time ever – I promise.
I am reminded at this point of Ogden Nash’s poem, “Prayer at the End of a Rope,” sort of a secular ‘get out of jail’ prayer poem, which I used once a semester in nearly every creative writing class I taught so that those enduring my tutelage would see that we Nazarenes weren’t the only ones trying to weasel out of our sins from “the hands of an angry God.”
For example, in college, sophomore fall semester, after I’d dawdled around all term mostly attending classes, occasionally turning in assignments (much of the time ‘on time’), and usually studying ‘some’ for tests, in chapel on the day of the test, if I had the text or my notes with me. And sometimes at breakfast in the student caf if the test was before chapel.
However, at the end of that semester I faced final exam week with a D+ in one class and a D- in another before I was to take the all-important finals.
Yeah, hard to believe, I know, that someone who earlier bragged about earning a Ph.D. from NYU could have been such a slacker student during the fall semester of his “wise fool” year.
Believe it. I was.
The real problem though, as Holden Caufield might interject, “if you want to know the truth,” was that I cared far too much, way too much about my p.p.g. then – than my G.P.A.
At risk was my eligibility for the spring semester, when the all-important Conference, District, and Post-Season Tournaments would take place.
I so needed an industrial strength Missionary Prayer to maintain my eligibility.
In those days, at the end of the freshman year, an athlete needed only a measly 1.75 G.P.A. to maintain eligibility for the fall semester. Oh, I had so easily surpassed that, with a 1.85!
But a first-semester sophomore needed a minimum of 1.90. Easy-peasy. I thought. Nope. Not with all C’s in my other classes guaranteed, because my D+ and D-, if left standing, would drop me below the Mendoza Line. Yikes.
I’d then be forced for the spring semester to not dress for the games, but would be relegated to sit at the very end of the bench, in street clothes, with a clipboard charting game stats. I was a starting guard, for crying out loud – I could not endure the ignominy of all that. (Yes, my GRE word, even then.)
At least I had matured enough at that point in time and space as a 19-year-old not to treat God as my personal butler. Oh no. Neither was He my man-servant – and of course, nor yet was I His.
I saw us more then as, well, business partners. I mean I had elected on my own to attend a Christian college on a full-ride basketball scholarship, eschewing similar offers from a few state universities and several private colleges, back home in the south. Of course, the gentle and anxiety-inducing pressure by both my Protestant and my Catholic grandmothers facilitated the business arrangement God and I had.
The outcome? That too should be obvious. As I said before, I’m a missionary now, full-fledged one for the Church of the Nazarene, along with my wife. (Not sure what prayers hers were though – I’m guessing they had something to do with me when we were dating.)
We are stationed here in Zagreb fully engaged and involved in a variety of Compassionate ministries, serving in Christ’s place to the down-trodden of the world. Here to be His hands and feet to the widows, orphans, homeless, to those lonely, ill, depressed, isolated, many of whom are strangers in a strange land.
Oh, yes, by the way, I did maintain my eligibility. I finally started to do my part and actually studied the day before each of those exams – and did well enough to earn a B+ in the D+ class and a C+ in the D- one.
More importantly, I ended up praying fewer of those ‘bargain’ prayers and studied more, so much more that my senior year I carried a 4.0 G.P.A., which resulted no doubt in helping me get into graduate school at the University of Chicago to earn my M.A.
And in a backhanded, backdoor sort of way, my prayer had been answered, I guess, but was too immature, naïve, and inured by the roteness of the prayer to be aware that what I wanted to happen had happened. Plus, I suppose I was also partially blind to the fact that because I’d done at least a little on my part, God had chipped in a little on His.
Not quite yet a lesson learned though.
Because, during the next semester, when I was fully eligible – if you really want to know the truth: I was awfully pretty full of myself.
Things were going well on court, I was finally showing up more often and better at performing in the classroom, but importantly I was head-over-heels crazy about a girl in our class, and she was too about me.
Or so I thought, she was.
More precisely, as one of my former world lit. students assessed: Agamemnon’s dilemma – his head swoll so much his eyes closed shut.
That was me too then.
Turns out she was far wiser in the spring of our sophomore year while I was far foolishier.
The last week of the season, just as the post-season’s stars were starting to align themselves in my favor, she dumped me.
Royally, unceremoniously – and with no “tag backs.”
To say I was floored’s an understatement. I was basemented.
“The End” was dramatic and drastic. I think she said, “drop dead.” Those might not have been her exact words, but that was what I heard. Anyway, it had the same effect.
Although I lacked the same money and sheer animal magnetism that F. Scott Fitzgerald himself had likewise lacked and lamented, I figured I possessed enough apparent “wherewithal” to have been dating one of the “catches” on campus. We were an item – and had been for a couple months.
Then came the crash, echoing off my brain pan like it was October, 1929. And, man, was I depressed.
At first I tried all my personal charm, buttercup lines, wrongfully assumed savoir faire, and top-drawer persuasive moves. But she must have been a distant relative to Hawthorne’s “man of adamant.”
Next, I realized that just as some folks are culpable for living beyond their means, I had been “loving” way beyond mine.
I told her if she took me back I’d crawl across campus to her dorm on my belly or would knee my way across the quadrangle begging her to reconsider; I’d even yap at the moon like a dog or bay at it like a hound.
But she wouldn’t. And didn’t.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t at all like God or Jesus, world-famous for Their pockets full of second chances.
Oh, we were in the same academic class, as sophomores, but we weren’t in the same social class. Her social strata was stratospheric, to my earthboundedness.
I thought my athleticism and prowess on the court had drawn her to me. Wrong. Unfortunately we were those two magnetized puppy dogs – one black and one white – and we could not, would not attract each other any more.
But, I was not deterred. Desperate to a fault, I pulled out all the stops, would go full bore: hadn’t my litany of fire-escape prayers the previous semester pulled me through? Wasn’t she worth chancing a life as a missionary drudge for?
Wasn’t I eligible for the current semester?! Wasn’t that proof enough.
So, as I understood it then a “fire-escape” prayer was one that I was trading possible missionary status for being absent during roll call in hell after death. I think I got the idea for that from a pastor in Florida during my growing up years who preached from the pulpit that he had himself listed in the Yellow Pages not under ‘Churches’ but under ‘Insurance Salesman.’ Specifically listed as one who sold “Fire Insurance.” I thought that was pretty clever.
So, I hijacked his metaphor and added it to my Prayer Arsenal.
To get to the point, nothing at all worked with her.
I was not going to be in the running for Comeback Player of the Semester.
Oh, I tried.
I trotted out my very best A-Level, #1, Top Shelf fire-escape prayers – ones echoing mightily of Jonathan Edwards.
Yes, I offered myself in them as the spider dangled over the very fires of hell in the hands of an angry God.
I was more than willing to suffer as a loathsome insect held over the flames, abhorrent in the eyes of a wrathfully provoked God. Worthy only of naught else but to be cast into the brimstone-lined pit.
It helped that in my Intro. to Lit. class that term, our professor had assigned Edward’s sermon-essay of the same name, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Thus, its homespun imagery so pertinent and effective in 18th Century Puritan New England seemed altogether fitting and proper to my then current love-gone-everso-wrong plight.
But nothing moved her.
In fact, contrary to popular opinion, as a member in good standing in a Protestor denomination, I realized that the mindless over-and-over-and-over again-ness of rote prayers did not in any way trivialize nor minimize the “efficacy of prayer.” My invocations were in no way weakened by my desperate repetitions.
Oh, if only she could have realized I was offering myself up on the altar of missionary-hood. That would have proved my love for her.
I mean there I was for days on end, whenever alone in my dorm room, down on my knees growing callouses on them, as if I were a good Catholic kneeing my way on la Via de La Croce, ascending the very stony steps Christ Himself had trod on His Way to Golgotha – the place of the Skull. Duh-duh-duh.
I think in that same Lit. class I’d first learned about hyperbole.
For sure I was not about to let a band of Catholic pentitents outdo me: one of the modern-day Protestors.
Still, I remained royally dumped.
So she moved on all right, to some senior guy more in her realm, probably the 3rd Sphere of the Paradiso, while I languished just outside of Danté’s Ante-Room to hell.
I was so left behind, so far out of her orbit.
After all that, here I am now, a missionary anyway.
But God in His truly Omniscient Infinite Wisdom knew she and I would have been candidates for a marriage made in hell, to paraphrase that bastion of insight into interpersonal relationships, Oscar Wilde.
He, God, knew eventually and eternally we’d be so much better off partnered elsewhere with someone else.
Little did I know, then, little would I have cared to listen, then, if someone – anyone, especially my roommate and teammate Jerry Crossman for crying out loud! – if he’d tried to point out what God was doing.
He was simply preparing and positioning me to be ready “someday” for my most feared and dreaded future existence: as a missionary.
And some people still say God has no sense of humor.
Well, I have come to recognize, understand, and know that He Is the God of Supreme Irony.
Back then I just couldn’t and wouldn’t accept: ‘tis so much better to live & learn, than to deny & despair.
In between then and now, after my trials and successes at the U of C and NYU but before my assignment here in Zagreb, I found myself in a sort of pre-missionary assignment, as an English/Writing Professor at a Nazarene college in Boston, signing on for the princely sum of $7,000. That annual salary prepared me, now I know, for the regal sums doled out for missionaries.
It took me a full decade in that service capacity to crack a five-figure salary, i.e., $10,000 a year – more preparation for my current position. So, yeah, I was in training then in that respect already. I just wasn’t fully aware of it yet.
Nonetheless, I learned along the way you can’t out-give God, for no one ever went to bed hungry in our house, nor did we ever lack for shelter, clothing, warmth, safety, happiness, or love.
It helped too I think because during the journey I learned to be God’s man-servant.
Yes, along the Way, also, as in, I suppose, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” I learned that just as there is a Peace Corps assignment there can also be a Posh Corps placement.
The son of one of my colleagues at the Nazarene university where I last taught joined the Peace Corps after graduation. We were all excited for him, as was he, until he found out his posting: Azerbaijan. Like just about everyone else I knew, I too had to look that one up.
Worse than that, he was posted to Qaracuxur, an easy plane-ride, then a puddle-jumper fly-in, next a non-commercial train ride, two different broken-down bus rides, and finally a hitched ride in a poultry truck. That was typical Peace Crops travelling he discovered. On his mandated yearly 3-week vacation to Bangkok, he realized his colleagues posted in Thailand were in the Posh Corps, and he was not.
For me, here in Zagreb now, I’ve come to realize not all mission assignments in world areas need be only and entirely suffering in abject sorrow and deprivation. Sometimes, all of life’s necessities can be easily met on certain mission fields, but the emotional, social, cultural, and spiritual needs can be much more dire than material ones.
Oh, I can all too clearly and sadly remember a number of times when God most definitely did not answer my most powerful series of bargain basement missionary avoidance prayers – and still, I ended up a missionary
So, sometimes a missionary, like me, can find himself in the “in between” land. Like here in Croatia.
Specifically, I’m currently in my second-year of missionarying in Zagreb, at a modest mission station started, established, and maintained under the auspices of the Church of the Nazarene.
(By the way, I’ve always felt a little sheepish – which is an entirely appropriate metaphor, I suppose, for someone who claims to be religious – when I tell people I work for the Church of THE Nazarene. I mean, that’s Jesus’ main moniker in the New Testament – and it seems a little bit to me that maybe aren’t we Nazarenes being just a teeny tiny presumptuous to claim that we’re the only ones working for Him? Should I mention it also makes me feel a little squeamish. At least we’re not like those Church of Christ folks. If you want to know the truth on this one too, I think at times I’d feel a lot more comfortable saying I’m a member of Hazel Motes’ church.)
But I digress.
My wife, Ronda, and I are only two of a rather well-staffed mission team of thirteen. Dave and Betsy Scott are the Mission Directors, with two children, J.J. & Emma; Dave’s parents Pete & Amy are also on staff with Ronda and me. Emiel & Liel serve as Arab pastors; Donya & Shayan pastor our Persian congregants; Dahlia & Robi head up the Croatian pastoring; and Cherub is a Canadian all-purpose servant with a heart of gold. She entirely lives up to the angelic nature of her name.
Funny thing – I don’t see any of us fitting into those stereotypical cartoon-version missionaries I used to see as a kid: sketched out in black & white in publications like the New Yorker.
Picture this: immersed waist up in a huge black pot appear three missionary types of indeterminate gender, tied in ropes shoulder high, replete with pith helmets and black horn-rimmed glasses, in obvious torment from a stew of frog toes, dogs’ tongues, newts’ eyes, bats’ wool, the usual ingredients for a hell-broth. All the while the locals, dance around them juggling spears and with bones jangling from their noses, chanting something like, “double, double toil and trouble – fire burn and caldron bubble.” At least that’s what came to my mind then.
No wonder my “fire escape” prayers were laden with desperate pleas to never have to be called to the mission field – only as a last resort.
Although not rife with boiling cauldrons nor harassed by the local population, we missionaries are not without minor hardships nor occasional challenges. In reality, in everybody’s life a little rain must fall. Evenly too on both the just and the unjust. To coin a phrase.
For example, our church location is a very non-traditional structure. We currently meet in a former bakery – a pekarnica, in the local parlance – on the ground floor of a several story apartment building, a typical Zagreb “high” rise.
I think that’s pretty cool, since Jesus is the Bread of Life.
And our space is used seven days a week, not just on Sunday when we hold services at 4 p.m. for our Arab-speaking congregation and at 6:15 for our international service, when there’s simultaneous translation into Farsi and Arabic from the English spoken by one of the pastors.
On any given Sabbath Celebration our worshippers can number between 40 and 90; we have had as many as 115, for Easter, but only 25 during a rare recent snowy weekend.
Who are they and where do they come from though?
Locally those in our congregation and ministry community are mostly refugees, immigrants, asylees, and Roma (‘gypsy’ – but that’s not “pc” anymore). Our ministry community is largely a diaspora of displaced persons, augmented hugely from the Syrian refugee crises back in 2014 when the floodgates were opened into Croatia. But a trickle still continues.
Throughout the week, these folks utilize our worship space 3, 4, even 5 times a day for a variety of activities: Monday Movie Night, Tuesday Creativity Night; Wednesday evening Arab women’s Bible study; Friday evening youth activities; and all week long Bible studies, yoga and cooking classes, prayer meetings – all in a variety of languages.
But one of our most important ministries is language classes in English, Arabic, Farsi, and Croatian of course.
From early morning til late in the evening the doors are wide open for anyone to stop by to greet, meet, and eat. Our simple entry room’s a hangout for complimentary coffee, tea, snacks – and lots of conversation. In numerous languages again.
Most of our congregants live or have lived in a government settlement center like Hotel Purin, closest to our church located in Preko, a Zagreb pregrada (suburb). Don’t think ‘fancy’ hotel: think Holiday Inn from 50 or 60 ago years that’s never been updated and populated mostly by transients. It’s not a pretty sight, but the government does a pretty good job maintaining the ‘essence’ of the place.
It’s safe, the grounds, the building, and all the floors are ‘secured’ by locked doors, gates, and checkpoints accessible only by residents. Curfew is 11 p.m. and easy egress is available at dawn. A police car’s always parked near the main entrance.
Residents pay no rent, and are provided 2 meals a day, breakfast and dinner, no charge; they are given 100 euros per month for incidentals and free passes on all bus, tram, and local train lines.
In the meantime, they are processed, background checked, given medical and dental care, provided with social and legal services until they appear in court, often up to two years when they are granted temporary resident status or are given 30 days to leave the country on their own.
Or else they will be deported to their country of origin.
All in all though, the process is fair and equitable. Even if the ending is sometimes not the desired one.
During their process our mission team attempts to support, encourage, lift up often in prayer and ministry their “living” while they await the government’s determination.
For those granted temporary resident status they are next installed in a 5-year permanent resident process, and during that time are given a rent-free apartment of their choosing for 1 year, job training and/or placement, free language classes in Croatian, and a visa.
Not a bad gig afterall for those who stick with the program.
Personally I consider myself a missionary minion, here to help in any way, at any time, with any one who might need some kind of help from me.
As probably the “senior” member of the mission team (a euphemism if there ever was one – for “oldest”), basically I do whatever it takes to make the pressure-packed lives of the mission directors and other longer-term missionaries lives easier. I try to offer moral support and other intangibles for the rest of the ‘team,’ and one of my oft-used daily expressions is merely: “I am happy to be a help.” (Or, stretan sam što mogu pomoći.)
Primarily, I’m usually teaching some kind of English conversation or writing class; tutoring and mentoring those in their formal coursework toward earning their local minister’s license. I also teach a couple of classes in that ordinational track – an academic skills class and an English essay-writing course.
But nothing’s beneath me – afterall, I Am a missionary – also to clean toilets, wash up plates, cups, and saucers, purchase the snacks, drinks, and paper products, vacuum our little sanctuary, set up chairs and tables, take them down after the service, pick things up, drop them off, broom the sidewalks and pick up the trash around our storefront, or just stand around and talk.
For example, last Easter Ronda and I volunteered to clean up, ready, and set up the worship space for our combined service at 5 p.m., followed by a potluck buffet with dishes from, literally, “around the world.”
We arrived at 8 a.m. to start the ‘shift.’ Around noon we decided to run get a bite to eat (we had inadvertently locked ourselves out of our apartment and wouldn’t be able to re-enter it until 11 that night when we’d finally contacted a locksmith – that’s a whole ‘nother piece some other time), but what to our wondering eyes should appear was that the entire country of Croatia had shut down for Easter. Nothing was open. No restaurants, no fast food joints, no coffee shops, nor grocery stores. Nothing. Only gas stations.
So, we found an open one and settled for Road Trip Food for our Easter Dinner. It was memorable (and deserving too of its own piece later).
At the Easter Service we entered the worship space to see the usual arrangement of chairs, pulpit, musical instruments, flat screen, pc laptop, and, of course, the four-foot wooden Cross atop its usual table in the far corner.
But It was different. Instead of bare brown rough-hewn wood, It was covered in beige rubber bands, entirely from top-to-bottom, side-to-side. And at the base of It were three silver platters with heaps of multi-colored flowers on them.
All of the blossoms were cut like boutineires.
There for the close of the service, after Christ’s Resurrection had been proclaimed: “Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen indeed!!”
And after the benediction was invoked and the doxology sung, Pastor Dave invited everyone who wanted to – to proceed to the flower platters, select a flower, and place it on the Cross, slipping it on through a rubber band.
He said, “not everyone has to – only if you want to.”
Well, all 100+ of us wanted to, patiently waited in line, and carefully slipped one of the multi-hued blooms in place. Even the children participated.
And when all had selected and placed a blossom of their choice – oh what a grand, majestic, and Glorious Sight!
Never have I seen a more beautiful Cross.
And never had I ever seen a more symbolic and triumphant symbolic Cross. The emblem that signifies Christ’s newly Risen Life was transformed – festooned with spring flowers chosen by each congregant who had experienced new life in a new land – and many were expressing a new life in Christ.
Those flowers were ephemeral, would last maybe only a few days, but so many believers that morning had embraced a new Life that would last an Eternity.
Here’s an Easter Clincher though: the next day, Monday, the day after Easter – the whole country, except for gas stations, of course, was still shut down.
“Holy Sanctuary, Batman.”
And while I’m at it, the entire country also shuts down again for All Saints’ Day, November 1st, and August 15th – to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, into Heaven.
What are folks in the U.S. doing on those two days in particular – and the day after Easter, I ponder.
Back to my specific duties, I am on call to serve as a driver to help our congregants with local errands, for doctor and dentist appointments; grocery, school, post office, bank, government office visits; even pick-ups and drop-offs for church services and activities, especially from locations not easily accessed by the tram or bus lines.
When Ronda and I were back home for a month or so for the Christmas Holy-Days and New Year’s to keep connected with our kids and their kids and our friends in San Diego, we were repeatedly asked, “what’s your typical day like, being a missionary.”
First, let me say, at our mission station, for us: there are no typical days.
Second, I usually follow that up with: “No 2 Days Alike,” as if coined by the “hoodie” himself, Bill Belichcick, probably the G.O.A.T. of Sloganeers.
But it is the truth; and “it is what it is,” to quote both Belichick and Saint John Paul II.
Oh, just this too: Belichick’s family line is from Croatia. So, not a digression.
And who are the people I help?
Mostly those hoping to arrive at the Land of Promise, the one flowing with milk and honey – and to live off the fat of the land, as Lenny himself daily dreamed.
But that’s when the heart-rending takes place. Daily. I hear stories face-to-face that I used to read about or see in some visual medium.
For example, Mahile and Puria arrived in Croatia from Iran some three-plus years ago.
They’d escaped under the cover of darkness the persecution of a death warrant because they’d had the temerity to convert from Islam to Christianity.
This thirty-something, university-educated married couple fled their homeland, leaving behind their jobs in the IT world, and Puria, the husband, abandoned his part-time role as a percussionist in a jazz band.
Circuitously, they found themselves on a boat at night, part of a flotilla of three, crossing the Mediterranean for a port of call in northern Greece. They were two of sixty-five or seventy passengers on a small boat more suited for forty, as were the other two similarly cramped and overladen vessels.
In the darkness of midnight on a moonless night a storm arose; the swells overwhelmed then swamped the lead boat just ahead of theirs, sinking it, and casting the desperate refugees into the water. Their WW II era life jackets after only ten minutes in the water became death jackets as they absorbed the sea water, pulling the wearers beneath the waves.
When Mahile recounts the terror of those desperate cries and pleas for help, her tears are salty remembrances of those overwhelmed by the stormy swells.
And Puria chimes in with their heightened fears that their hopelessly overloaded boat would sink next.
Mahile’s tears course all the more when she relates their guilt at not being able to offer any help to rescue anyone – especially the children – to lift into their overladen vessel.
Because the majority of our congregation is comprised of refugees, immigrants, asylees, and Roma, Puria & Mahile’s odyssey is fraught with death-defying anxiety experienced by so very many of their Christian brothers and sisters in our little church community.
From Iraq. Who successfully escaped.
Especially as a former military policeman. And he so looks the part.
He had been living at Hotel Porin for almost two years when I first met him.
At church, one Sunday evening, six feet tall, ram-rod straight, but a few inches shorter than me. Even so he commanded attention with his bearing, and from his stature.
He exuded presence.
He sported a perfectly round shaved head, with an impeccable black goatee, and piercing black eyes to match. Maybe thirty years old.
All he lacked was a bare overhead light bulb, dangling over a table in a cramped interrogation room.
Still, the younger Arab men in our congregation stood around him, enthralled by his “attitude,” an aura in abundance, hovering as if moths to a candle.
That first Sunday evening he touted a bright-white t-shirt with only four words on it in huge block black letters on two lines: TWO WORDS. ONE FINGER.
For several Sunday evenings in a row he wore that same shirt.
Then about four months later a massive transformation occurred.
After weeks and weeks of Bible studies, from his own Arabic Bible, English & Croatian language classes with our ministry team, workshops on the history of the Church of the Nazarene and the Methodist tradition in general, countless coffee sessions with Emiel, our Arab pastor, and who knows how many numerous numerous hours of prayer on behalf of him, Talal converted.
From Islam to Christianity.
The change, overnight, was transformational. Everyone knew “something” had happened.
He became a puppy dog. Those dark black eyes swam in tears and melted the hearts of all who knew him and met him for the first time.
Jesus can have that effect on people. Still.
Emiel, as might be intuited, is a magnet. His smile is electric and can light any room.
So, no wonder then that Ibrahim had heard of him from his Muslim friends and wanted to meet Emiel.
Similar to Talal, Ibrahim had fallen into Emiel’s circle of friendship and influence.
Then one night, either in a dream or as an apparition, Jesus appeared to him and said: “Ibrahim! It is time to convert! Come – and follow me!”
Of course, within two days he did just that, and in several weeks, as a matter of course, in our tradition, he was baptized.
In Ibrahim’s Middle Eastern Tradition, he and his countryfolk heartily believe dreams, appearances, and apparitions, so to the Western way of thinking what might seem strange is what they take very very seriously.
This was to be no run-of-the-mill baptism. Ibrahim and his family had escaped Syria – especially from all the death and destruction around them from the three warring factions there. He decided he did not want to be the next “Last Man in Aleppo.”
In fact, Ibrahim was an Imam, even in Croatia, but had not become affiliated with a mosque.
Another reason this would be no run-of-the-mill baptism is that he – and his wife and their university-age son and daughter, who converted in the wake of his conversion – would also be baptized by immersion.
That is, bodily submerged in a baptismal font.
When Ibrahim’s face broke the surface of the water, the sparkle in his eyes was radiant. Light from Sonshine.
To witness the event, at least thirty or forty folks who’d never attended any of our services came to see the former Imam baptized.
“Holy Water, Batman!”
Thus, Nazarenes, in the tradition of Baptizing, pretty much journey in the middle of the road. Far off in left field would be the Dunkers of Yore (circa early early 18th century Pennsylvania) with their three submersions – or “dunks,” thus their appellation – and over in right field would be the “pour-ers” (Menonites) and the “sprinklers” (Methodists & Lutherans).
Ah, Baptism. Good enough for Jesus in the Jordan River. And good enough for Ibrahim and Talal. And for everyone else forevermore. No wonder then it’s such a sacred symbolic rite.
But Talal’s baptism was one for the books.
As he stepped into the baptismal font, with Pastor Dave just on the outside of the immersion pool, he whispered to Dave, “Don’t pull me up.”
Nonplussed and following Talal’s last words, he submerged him in the water, then gently released his hands from him. And after a longer than usual time under water, Talal’s bald head broke the surface: his skin was glistening, his eyes were beaming, and his face was aglow.
The man was fully changed.
Unlike Mahile, Puria, Talal, and Ibrahim, not all of our congregants are refugees, immigrants, or asylees; we do have our share of Croatians as well.
For example, Isabella, a thirty-something woman who actually radiates her name.
But her presence and appearance is far from typical.
She was horribly burned and disfigured in a fire, that left her with one arm missing to the elbow and the other a stump at mid-forearm.
Her face and neck bear the horrific scars from flames out of control. Much of her nose, chin, mouth, and cheeks have been reconstructed, and no eye-lashes nor eye-brows survived – but her eyes are what attract and hold me.
When I talk to her and hold her forearm in my right hand and she presses it into mine, to linger there, in a very funky, get-down Eastern European hand-shake, I gaze into her bluer than blue eyes, limpid pools, of seeming clarity and purity, no doubt filled from the springs of God’s Love.
Once when she held my gaze, and with her stump nestled in the palm of my hand she shared, “Carl – I have heavy hurt in my heart – but here in Hub I feel something I need.”
And when I walked away from her, my eyes were the ones welling with water.
I thought to say, but didn’t, maybe I didn’t need to, “At the Hub, Isabella, I’m not sure you’ll find something – but Someone.”
Even though her English is halting and my Croatian stumbling, we still can communicate.
Through our eyes.
Unlike Isabella, both our Arab and Persian pastors and their wives escaped under similar death-defying circumstances from Egypt, Syria, and Iran.
All also because of their conversions from Islam to Christianity.
Among these folks, the scores of our congregants and their family, friends, and peers who nearly all dodged the perils of so many near-death experiences for their faith – I get to “minister” to them, as a missionary.
I’ve thought more than once too bad I wasn’t around during their journeys so that I could have offered from my rolodex of ‘get out of jail’ prayers one or two handy-dandy comfort clauses to aid them in their hours of distress.
I’m hoping none of them will have to read this piece. Or find it in translation sometime.
To be honest, and to always reveal the truth, as always, connected to this salient point is: what’s my easiest job of all being here on this life or death mission-field?
Simple, just showing up, as Woody Allen once surmised.
Really. A couple months after Ronda and I first arrived here to serve, Emiel, our Arab pastor, called me aside for a ‘little’ conversation.
He and his wife had fled Egypt several years ago during the then slaughter of Coptic Christians. He had in fact received several death threats, in writing, because he pastored a Christian church specifically for converts from Islam.
After the fourth ominous warning, he and his wife fled, again under the cover of darkness, eventually making their way to Zagreb, and first off to Hotel Purin, for almost two years.
During that ‘little’ conversation after our Sunday evening services, Emiel related to me, “Carl – all you must do is walk in the door to minister here. When you talk, listen, stand among us here – your missionary work starts.”
I remember feeling a little confused, at first, by his words, like I wasn’t following him.
He went on. “We are touched you and Ronda came to live, worship, work, – serve us. You are American – from California! We all wish to live there!
“And you – professor, and writer – but you choose to be here, with us. Always, you are with us. All week, not just Sundays.”
I was starting to catch his drift, feeling appropriately sheepish.
“Carl, -- you could be anywhere, America – anywhere. But you choose here – you struggle with us, you make a new life too in different place with different people. You do so much, just standing here.”
I like to think I simply shrugged, as Emiel said all of that. At least I hope I did in my customary Will Rogers “aw shucks” sort of way.
But I do let come to mind, wondering, even pondering upon all those “get out of jail” prayers I murmured – there must have been some kind of cumulative effect. To get me here. And keep me here.
For what I feared and dreaded most certainly has come true – but in such a very different reality that I could not then have envisioned.
Daily, not just on Sunday, I get to mingle, hang out with, share a meal, offer a ride to, laugh over an inane American movie together, accept a half-eaten, soggy cracker from a 2-year-old, get hugged by a bent over, half-crippled black-scarfed little old lady half my height, or just sit in a group and sing a song with 6 different verses each in a different language, with people around me from Syria, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Balochistan, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, the Ukraine, Bosnia, Kosovo, and of course Croatia, et al.
Yes, the realization of Christ’s Great Commission has so unexpectedly happened, but in such a wonder-full Way: the ends of the earth have come to me.
So, I am put in the mind of another mantra particular again to my denominational roots.
Over and over I heard, more as an admonition or a caution, from the pulpit, in Bible studies, and of course in Sunday School, this adage:
“Be careful what you pray for – you just might get it.”
And I did.
Man. Isn’t God just about the Coolest Deity. Ever.
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