Bulgaria Team 2018 (Grace Hill Church)

Day 1 – Arrival in Bulgaria

The flight left Dulles at 6:30 PM on Monday. We landed in Frankfort at 8 AM local time. It was 2 AM EDT. After a 1:50 minute layover we were on our way to Sofia, Bulgaria. We arrived at Sofia at 1 PM local time, 5 AM EDT time. While the flights were great none of us got much sleep. We were running on the adrenaline of our excitement about the adventure we were about to experience.

We were greeted by Owen Paun our friend and fellow member of Grace Hill Church. We went straight to a mall and had lunch.

Esperanza and I last had dinner with Owen at the National Harbor little more than a month ago. We traveled with Nick Jones, one of our pastors at Grace Hill and Kim McCullough, the wife of our teaching pastor, Allan and Nathaniel Collinsworth, a fellow Grace Hill member.

In Bulgaria, the accoutrements of modern capitalism are everywhere, McDonald’s, Shell gas stations with convenience stores, etc. In many ways, it feels just like America save the Cyrillic alphabet of the Bulgarian language on the signs, yet all of this was surrounded by a certain coldness, the haunting remnants of the bygone communist era. Soviet-style buildings to house the masses that were just plain cement buildings lacking as much in character as they once did glasnost. The locals look western in dress and appearance and while basically friendly are mostly stoic and reserved, going about their daily lives.

However, one neighbor at the house where we are staying stopped over and was enormously friendly. He came to welcome us and brought a bottle of a chilled liqueur that he made himself. They call it Rakia. He gave us the phone numbers of his household and we were instructed that if we needed anything at all to call. That was a tremendous lesson in hospitality. We’ve been having a discussion as a church about our need to live out the gospel by showing hospitality. It’s almost as if God said, “ok let me show you what Allan was talking about in his sermon on Sunday.”

Owen and Nansi arrived later in the evening and we made sandwiches and had a delicious salad that Nansi made. It is a traditional Bulgarian salad they call Shopska. We had not seen Nansi since April. We talked with great excitement to be together again as we laughed and sipped Rakia. Owen would intersperse the conversation with local history lessons and complaints about Bulgarian bureaucracy. We were all exhausted from the trip and finally retired for the evening.

Day 2 – Bible League and Rila Monastery

Today Owen and Nansi arrived to join us for breakfast and take us to the headquarters of the Bible League. They are housed in a beautiful building in the mountains that overlooks the city of Sofia, the current capital of Bulgaria. We were met there by the founders of the Bible League. Nicolai who is the Director was our host. He was incredibly hospitable and kind and we all became instantly bonded to Nicky, as we called him. The Bible League began in the mid-nineties printing and distributing Bibles in Bulgaria, now they mostly focus on training and supporting church planters in Bulgaria and the Balkan States.

Rila Monastery

Nicolai drove us in a van high into the mountains to the historic Rila Monastery. The mountains and countryside are stunningly beautiful with a mix of trees and foliage, streams and running brooks. There are multiple types of pines that are similar to North America and the Aspens remind me of Colorado. There are large fields of sunflowers but now they are mostly wilted due to the drought and the end of their season. One could imagine what a tapestry they would be in full bloom.

The Monastery was amazing. It was started in 847. Nearly 1,200 years ago! Most of Christianity in Bulgaria is rooted in the ancient Orthodox Church. Nicolai tells us that evangelicalism here must be approached carefully. The saying goes “when you make clay pots from the ashes of your ancestors, you must take greater care of them.” The meaning is that Christianity has been rooted and taught here for centuries and we must understand that we are not introducing it to the culture for the first time. Rather we have the opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to the gospel that may take it beyond the ancient cultural understanding to one where a person can actually experience the risen Christ. The thought of “make a friend, be a friend and bring your friend to Christ” came to mind. Perhaps that is what evangelicalism is really about.

We returned back to the Bible League and by late afternoon the views from the roof balcony were fabulous! Owen asked me to pray for Nicky and the Bible League ministry. We all gave Nicky a big hug and bid farewell until the Lord shall cross our paths again. Perhaps in the US or Canada later in the Fall.

We drove back to the house we are staying at and stopped along the way to buy an assortment of Bulgarian meats and Nansi prepared some Shopska again. Then we had dinner together. More laughter and sharing stories before we got on the subject of TV programs and movies. We wrestled with how much we like movies where the bad guys get “justice” but that in reality it is mostly vengeance and not justice that is happening and how do we square that with what the gospel calls us to do. It was a healthy and spirited discussion. Owen and Nansi went home as we have a long day tomorrow. Nick prayed for us and we retired to bed.

The Cave of Saint Ivan Rilski

St. Ivan Rilski spent more than 7 years of his life; is located only 3-4km away from the Rila Monastery.

Ivan Rilski was born in the village of Skrino in 876 and was a shepherd until his 25th birthday. After the death of his parents, he gave away all of his material possessions and entered a monastery where his religious journey began.

According to legend, Saint Ivan of Rila was known to have performed a multitude of miracles in order to help the people. These miracles brought him undesired fame as he tried to live the life of a hermit and avoid contact with others. With his growing number of followers, many young believers and supporters set up camps around his cave, seeking a blessing from him. This led the way to the creation of the Rila Monastery, which is considered to be the foremost monastery in Bulgaria.

The first thing you see as you approach the cave is a little This was the first monastery built by the disciples of the monk.

Inside the cave is barely any light. At the end of the tiny cave of Ivan Rilski, you can see a thin ray of light. It comes from a narrow, two-meter tunnel ending on top of the cave.

There is a holy spring. In Bulgarian the word for holy springs is “ayazmo” and it is believed that this water never stops, nor freezes even when it is extremely cold.

(Got the info online)

Day 3 – Orthodoxy, Plovdiv, and Kirkovo

Owen and Nansi came again for breakfast. We packed for a two-day excursion. We went to the oldest Orthodox Church in downtown Sofia. As we entered the Church they were beginning a service. The elaborate detail to the liturgy with incense and music with an ancient style chant mysteriously beckons one to worship. Nick observed that the artwork points to Christ. Kim said she was moved by the reverence of it. There were multiple clergy involved using an ancient language that even Nansi did not know. There were no seats or pews.

Everyone was standing and the regular worshipers would bow repeatedly making the sign of the cross but differently than in the Catholic tradition. The thumb, forefinger and middle finger together symbolizing the trinity while the other two fingers together symbolize the dual nature of Christ. In doing the sign of the cross they begin on the forehead sweeping to the right shoulder, then touching the heart and then the left shoulder. Some did this repeatedly perhaps in adoration but I had the sense it was more out of a desperate need for mercy, sadly being unaware that what they seek they already have. Others even more desperate seek mercy by praying and kissing icons of past saints whom they believe led a more exemplary life and are now closer to God so that they might intercede on their behalf. I found myself praying that they would find the scriptures where they could read Paul’s letter to Timothy. There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5.

We left the Church and made a two-hour journey to Plovdiv the former Capital of Bulgaria. What a fabulous town! This will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019! We would love to come back for that. We had lunch with Paschal, a 27-year-old Missionary from Nigeria. We walked through downtown Plovdiv and came upon an Orthodox Church and sitting outside was a priest. We engaged him asking questions about Orthodox theology and comparing scripture. It was a fascinating conversation. We continued walking coming upon an ancient Roman amphitheater that had been discovered only 15 years ago. It was constructed in the 3rd century and had been buried for centuries! How amazing! Again we continued walking, purchasing souvenirs and finally some gelato. We then hit the road again back up into the mountains to the region of Kardzhali. More beautiful and scenic areas on a winding road on the way through the Bulgarian countryside. It was hot in Plovdiv but much cooler in the mountains. We arrived at the town of Gorno Kirkovo where we met with Hari and Penka, local Christian leaders and had a short meeting with the Mayor. It is a Pomak Village, meaning they are a
Bulgarian Muslims, at least by culture. They are remnants of the Ottoman invasion and occupation.

The Christians here are teaching art classes to the poor Muslim children. We were able to see the drawings that the kids did earlier before our arrival based on the lesson of the day. The Mayor and his wife were very receptive to us. They were most hospitable, giving us fresh baked bread and candy. After leaving the Mayor’s office, we arrived at our hotel which is about 8 km from the border of Greece so it is a popular stopping point for travelers from Serbia, Romania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria heading to vacation in Greece. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant outside. We had a wonderful time of fellowship over dinner and learned more from Owen & Nansi about the struggles, the difficulties and challenges as well as the vision for the future for their ministry in Bulgaria. Nick prayed a very powerful prayer over Owen and Nansi. All were tired after a long day with lots of driving so we all retired for the evening.

Day 4 – Bulgarians and Islam

We woke to a beautiful sunrise over the mountains, the air was fresh and cool like a California morning. We had breakfast outside on the terrace of the hotel’s restaurant. As we were leaving, the proprietor took a group photo of us in front of the hotel so we would post it on Facebook. Social media is alive and well in Bulgaria.

From there we drove to Kardzhali (pronounced Kerjali). We met at the church pastored by Hari and Penka. They are both artists and their work, mostly oil paintings, are featured and sold worldwide. We listened intently as Hari and Penka shared their heart for the lost and hurting in this predominantly Muslim area.  The stories were heartbreaking.  We were both mesmerized by their vision and commitment and deeply moved.

Owen asked me to pray for them and their ministry as closed our meeting. I must say, I felt passionate and emotionally stirred as I prayed and could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in that place.

We all left with a desire in our hearts to partner with Hari and Penka through prayer and support. We then went downtown to their art studio and were awed by their work. Some of us even purchased some of their work. While we were there we began to hear the Muslim call to prayer from the nearby Mosque. It can seem like this region is a God-forsaken place and yet we know in our hearts that God loves these people and wants them to hear the good news.

We all went to lunch and then it was time to leave.

We began another 2-3 hour journey to the Maxi Hotel and Spa in Velingrad. This is our break and time to relax after 5 intense days. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more beautiful, we arrived at another mountain region that is as stunning as any I have seen in Colorado, Oregon or Northern California.

The Maxi is quite an elegant hotel & spa and we feel sort of guilty getting to stay in such a fancy place but our host family has relatives who run the hotel and the rooms were no more expensive than regular hotels. What a nice gift after a somewhat grueling schedule. We’ve spent approximately 10-12 hours on the road the last three days.

We had some free time to swim and go into the various pools and jacuzzi’s and then we all met for dinner outside having a wonderful conversation until late in the evening. We were able to go to sleep knowing that we did not have to leave until 12 Noon the following day. Ah, sleep…

Day 5 – Velingrad and The Village

Saturday morning, our Sabbath day. We slept a little longer and I think everyone woke refreshed and renewed. Nansi’s mom, Daniela (Dani) and her husband, Petco brought the kids, Calvin & Oliver to join us at the hotel.

We were all able to have breakfast together. They had a nice buffet spread.

Afterwards, we got to relax. Nick and I had a ping-pong contest and we got to swim and use the various jacuzzies and Turkish baths. We checked out at 12 Noon and made the journey back to Owen & Nansi’s Home. During all the trips we rode in two cars. The guys in one car and the gals in the other. In the guys’ car, we had some great discussions about scripture, world religions, geopolitics and Owen would pose some terrific ice-breaker questions that would stir some great debates and deep discussions. The women did not share their discussion points. We think they talked mostly about us! 😂 😂 😂 😂

We took a hike in the woods near Owen & Nansi’s home and marveled at God’s creation and then had a nice dinner in their yard. The weather was beautiful as well as the sunset. We had some great conversation and laughter and talked about what we could do to support the mission here. We then returned to our quarters. Our Sabbath day was over. Nick, Kim, Esperanza and I talked late into the night about questions for Owen & Nansi and strategies and next steps going forward. We were so excited we had to force ourselves to go to sleep. Just before retiring, Nathaniel noticed that his quarters in the basement (he called it the dungeon) had flooded. He moved upstairs. (Out of the flooded dungeon).

Day 6 – Church, Kostinbrod, and Sofia

Sunday morning came quickly. Dogs were barking pretty early. The neighbor came over and said that we needed to turn off the sprinkler because we were flooding her basement. The problem was we couldn’t figure out how to shut it down. Owen arrived and we were able to get the caretaker to shut it down. This was apparently the cause of flooding in the basement in our house and the neighbors.

We then headed to Church in Kostinbrod.

This was a beautiful experience. There is something spiritually powerful when worshipping in a language you do not speak or understand. It is amazing how the Holy Spirit can move in you and you know it can be nothing else but Him because you do not know the words only that something is stirring deep within.

Nansi (and sometimes Owen) was able to translate the sermon.

After the service was finished the Pastor recognized us and invited us up front. First, he prayed for us and then the congregation stood and they all prayed for us. It was very powerful and emotional to experience. They all came to us to thank us. Some had tears as they thanked us, shaking our hands and giving us hugs. It was incredibly encouraging for us to realize what is possible when people find Jesus. It is amazing the bond that believers have in Him. People of every tribe and tongue without the commonality of culture can dwell together with love because of our unity in Christ, Jesus. It is truly a wonderful thing to experience. Slava na Boga! Glory to God!

From there we left to experience Sofia. We went to the Central Park of Sofia. We were able to observe a monument to the “host of saints be added the names of clerics and laymen….killed during the reign of communist terror.” It looked a lot like the Viet Nam memorial in Washington.

Then we had lunch downtown.

Afterwards, we experienced a small Church building that was constructed in the 3rd Century. The more we experience these Eastern Orthodox churches the more we realize how aberrant the theology and thus how lost this nation is. Eastern Orthodox is basically the State religion and informs the people that they are Christian but is strictly cultural and not transformative.

We were able to see the only place in Europe where a Mosque, a Church and a Synagogue are equidistant. We took the Sofia metro which is quite modern and fast.

From there we returned to Owen and Nansi’s house for another relaxing evening with dinner outside. The evening was filled with laughter and great conversation. We did begin developing a more specific strategy to go back to the US and inspire others in our Church and other Churches to understand the great need to gather resources and people to come to Bulgaria to bring the gospel to a people steeped in centuries of oppression. They are desperate for the good news of Jesus Christ.

We returned home for our last night in Bulgaria. We wound up staying up late talking again.

Slava na Boga! Glory to God!

Day 7 – Bankya

There was a certain melancholy feeling as we prepared to depart. We are ready to come home. Our work for this trip is complete. There is a lot on our hearts to contemplate. It feels like we’ve been here for a month. There is a clear sense that there is much to do and our work here is just beginning. We spoke to Alan Sunday night (afternoon in the US) and he was very encouraging to us and praised us for the work done. We are trusting God to use the vision He has given us to inspire others so that we may accumulate the resources and people to support Owen and Nansi and bring the Good News to Bulgaria.

Owen and Nansi arrived to take us to the town of Bankya. Our last trip together before heading home. It was a nice, quaint town. We had crepes and cappuccino. The crepes were unbelievable! Calvin and Oliver had a blast playing at the little playground. All the time, Owen was educating us more and more and we talked about more ideas and possibilities for ministry in Bulgaria.

As we were ready to leave, one of the cars wouldn’t start. We tried jumper cables but to no avail. Finally, Sugar Daddy Nick (he had the cash) jumped in and fired her up! We’re thinking he’s tight with the Lord, being a Pastor and all. 😇

After stopping to buy some Shopska we went back to our house to have lunch before leaving for the airport. Our team Chef, Nathaniel made some awesome Bulgarian scramble! Kim helped. But that dude can cook! It was the 2nd time on the trip that he cooked for us. We got to play with Calvin and Oliver and get hugs and kisses before we left. They are such sweet boys.

Finally, it was time to go to the airport.