Monthly Archives: July 2011

In the beginning…

A group of five young men sit expectantly around a pool table in a dimly lit basement. Slowly, others trickle in, casually pulling up chairs. Some are nervous, some are curious, others are old friends.  The meeting starts informally, begun by one of the five men.  Everyone takes turns sharing something, whether it be a composed poem, a personal testimony, a Scripture, or even in one case in those early days, a Cinderella fairy tale.  There is no particular program since the five men have never attended  a Protestant service, but the spirit of God is so tangibly in the room that most people have tears in their eyes at one point or the other.  Such emotion proves to be too much for some who consequently never return.  For others, it is the beginning of a new life.

It was 1994— Croatia was in its last year of a horrific war and  people were grappling with how former neighbors and friends could manifest a level of cruelty to each other that transcended limits of human understanding.  The five young men each came from a unique and difficult family background, ranging from  Communist atheist to Muslim.  Their surprising and life-altering conversions caused some to label them crazy and others to be curious enough to begin coming to the basement pool-table meetings to ask questions and hear stories.

“We didn’t know anything but what we read in the Bible, ” K. told me.  “At some point, I did visit another Protestant meeting and realized that they sang before a message.  Since we had all been part of a kind of tough gang of guys,  the idea of singing was hard for us.  We thought it was kind of weak and vulnerable.”

As the movement progressed and grew, leaders from other Protestant churches in the area began to visit to see what was going on.  “They didn’t agree with some what what we were doing or some of our theology, ” K. said, “because remember, we had no training or exposure to other churches. However, they could not deny that God was doing something.”

Over the years, the church’s theology has morphed and changed, as they realized certain errors and needed points of correction. At one point, the church became extremely legalistic and tried to regulate specific measures in their congregants spiritual lives before realizing the dangers of too much leadership control.  The consequences of this period still lay heavily on the congregation, but the leadership continues to try to reflect to their congregants their own growth and gleaned wisdom.

“They have made lots of mistakes,” one Christian who does not attend the movement told me, “but it never seems to be from bad motives.  Rather, it is because they are so zealously intent on doing what God wants them to do, no matter what.”

This movement, called the Borongaj because of the neighborhood where it first started,  does not have an official name nor is it registered as an official church in Croatia (to register as a church, the church must be more than 50 years old and have at least 5000 members).  But for K. and the other leaders, this is not a concern.  “We feel like God’s purposes for our church are evangelism, bringing unity to the other churches, and holiness.”   And these goals do not seem to be merely esoteric.   Significantly, they have been instrumental in bringing greater unity to the other Protestant churches in the city, spearheading multi-church outreach events and services, and even at one point calling for repentance regarding the amount of disunity between churches. “Yes, there are many challenges,” K. said to me, grinning,  “but this is not cause for being depressed or giving up.”

For more on the Borongaj Movement, see also:  Fighting for Good?, Croatia is the Door to Europe,  and Out of the God Box

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On language learning

I used to scoff at people who turn up their vocal volume and speak  painfully slow when they talk to someone who has difficulty with English.  “That ignoramus,” I would think.  “Why does she think that getting louder and slower will miraculously allow comprehension?”

To the detriment of my smug judgement, the joke is really on me since that is EXACTLY what I need people to do when they are speaking Croatian to me.  And because most of the time they speak fast and in my estimation, too quietly, I find myself being hopelessly and obnoxiously American by sticking my ear toward them and saying, “HUH?” in a loud voice.

Language learning, for a monolingual American, is not for the faint of heart.  In fact, it can be considered a window into a person’s psyche, motivations, intent, and general personality.  For example, I have discovered that I have a serious problem with jealousy as I covet others’ language abilities.  This sounds somewhat ridiculous–I mean, isn’t coveting mainly about people’s houses, money, or fame?  And yet, as I see the trilingual and quadrilingual Europeans in my Croatian class quickly passing and surpassing my language abilities, I notice an unpleasant and sticky sensation slowly oozing its way through my heart.

I wanted to learn this language quickly.  I wanted people to marvel at how well I spoke, and to be impressed that I could hold a decent conversation.  “If God could heal someone’s drug addiction instantaneously without them going through the pain of daily cravings, couldn’t he instantaneously give me the ability to speak Croatian?” I’ve reasoned on a few occasions. “I mean really, it would make things much easier for everyone!”

I am now coming to terms with the fact that I am only an average language learner–learning Croatian will be neither quick nor easy, and it will require a lot of continuous hard work and prayer.  I’m also realizing that things are rarely “just a means to an end”.  On the one hand, I would perhaps accomplish more in accordance with my purposes for being here could I speed up the language learning.  On the other hand, having to go through this slow and arduous process is grinding out of me a certain kind of humility which is honestly quite difficult.  I’m not necessarily in control of how quickly I can understand someone, and even though every fiber of my being wants desperately to understand what that person is repeating to me over and over, I am forced to learn how to be humbly gracious and patient in my non-comprehension. I am coming to accept the fact that I take one step forward and two steps back, to be okay with depending on the kindness and patience of strangers when it takes four tries to say, “crkva” and then accidentally spitting on them in the process(pronounced    ts + rolling r + k+ va.  Most unfortunately,  this word means church, so I cannot get away from it!).

In other words, I am coming to the belief that learning a language in a foreign country is a kind of spiritual discipline.  I must choose to place myself at a child’s level, always a learner, always willing to be corrected,  and to be motivated by hope of growth instead of discouragement. It is this realization which is allowing me to compliment (although still somewhat grudgingly) my fellow classmates’ talent and amazing language acquisition skills.  I’m not the best, but being the best would not necessarily be the best thing for my spiritual state, and this I can now accept.