All posts by Don Stephens

I'm a musician, teacher, and sheepdog with a passion for the Kingdom of God. Currently I work with Youth With a Mission, traveling and teaching on Worldview and the Kingdom of God.

Jesus in a Cheese Sandwich

Last night my friend Ahmed came by for a guitar lesson. He’s one of the guys I met through the Boy’s Home, a tall, lanky twenty year old who speaks fluent English. “So”, he says, “You told me that God touched your life, and last night I was watching something on Bosnian TV about how God touches people’s lives.” It’s doubtful I used the term God “touched” me with my Muslim friend, but I wasn’t about to protest. It was too much of a welcome opening for talking about spiritual things.

As it turns out, the program featured a woman who saw the face of Jesus in a cheese sandwich, and was subsequently “changed.” At least that was Ahmed’s take on it. (And now she owns a prosperous cheese sandwich franchise. I’m not making this up.) I tried so hard not to laugh, but just couldn’t control it. Why, O God, do we Christians insist on flakiness and shooting ourselves in the foot every chance we get? The tragedy here is that apart from the few Bosnians who happen to know a missionary, almost the entire repertoire of what these people know of Protestant Christianity has been gleaned from TBN and their happy-clappy troop of televangelists. (Yes… Bosnia does have both TBN and MTV!)

In the end we had a wonderful conversation about the reality of Jesus, and the difference between Christianity’s God of love and relationship, and Allah, who’s great concern is that everyone will submit to his “religion.” I’m glad Ahmed brought the whole thing up. But my concern is for all those Bosnians who went to bed Saturday night thinking we Christians take this cheese-sandwich stuff seriously. It makes my job just a little more difficult than it already is.

On another more cheerful note, one of my dear Muslim friends blessed me the other day when I invited him to pray for our lunch. I’ve been sharing Christ with this young man for about eight years while patiently watching for signs that something may be getting through. But his prayer on Saturday went something like this: “Thank you Jesus for this food…. and for Don and for our friendship and all of your blessings. Please use this food to strengthen us in Your name, Amen.” Those words, for a Muslim, are huge. And my heart is encouraged.

Back in Sarajevo

I arrived home in Sarajevo late Saturday evening after an exhausting eighteen hour trip from Romania. But I’m very glad to be home.

Yesterday afternoon the Evangelical churches of Sarajevo sponsored a joint service together. (We do that several times per year. ) The congregation was smaller again, with probably about two hundred in attendance. But I came away hopeful for the first time in several years. A good chunk of our time was spent in prayer, beginning with partners, then in small groups, and finally with the whole church praying about such things as unity, leadership, evangelism, and strategy for reaching the nation.

One very sad note was added to the meeting when we prayed for the victims of the early morning fire in a downtown Sarajevo orphanage. I doubt it’ll get much coverage in the western media, but our last is that thirteen babies and infants have died with another ten or so hospitalized.

I wish I could understand why God would allow a tragedy like this to snuff out the lives of Sarajevo’s only innocent people. But along with the Virginia Tech massacre, and nearly two hundred civilians perishing in suicide bombings in one day in Iraq, I just can’t. So much of the world grieves me these days. I wish the tares were not growing alongside the kingdom that is here, and “not-yet.” But the promise remains strong in my heart that one day the Father of Jesus will remove from the good wheat all that offends.

Romanian Youth Group

Last night I had the extreme delight of sharing with a group fifteen teen-agers, peer-leaders in a local youth group. WOW! It was one of those experiences where I walked away shaking my head about how cool God is to let me be a part of all this. Of course I spoke about the Kingdom, and just as predictably it was a new subject for them. So they were soaking it all up like Handiwipes and asking afterwards about getting notes and attending the DTS classes for more. (How thirsty the hearts of young people for the Kingdom). Today’s class ended up with five “extra” Romanians, and we had a blast.

A Dose of Holy Spirit Encouragement

I’m having a blast here is Kratovo, Macedonia. We’ve got a class that includes (among others) four ex-addicts who “love much because they’ve been forgiven much.” Listening to the stories of how Jesus apprehended them for the Kingdom has been a delight to my heart. But I find their passion to grow in grace and to become history-makers is just as thrilling.

I’d had a few days last week of wrestling with the worth of all this traveling around and teaching about the Kingdom. But here in this little Macedonian village the Holy Spirit has given me a full-strength dose of encouragement. One local pastor pulled me aside yesterday to tell me how last year’s Kingdom teaching has been impacted his ministry in the local church. And to add the icing to an already sweet time, yesterday four of the students from last month’s school in Constanza Romania showed up here in Kratovo to sit in on class.

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(Above is a few of the students and friends). Thanks to all of you who are praying. God is faithful. I’ll do my best to keep the simple updates coming.

A Go At Simplicity

Been sick since returning from my travels to Romania and England last week. I was so anxious to be back in my own bed again, only now to be confined to my apartment around the clock. (It’s just a bad chest cold, and I think it’s finally turned a corner today).

It’s occurred to me that one of the things that keeps me from updating my website and blog more regularly is a gnarly bent towards perfectionism. I slave away for hours over a couple of paragraphs because I want them to be profound, well constructed snapshots of my life. The obvious problem here is that is my life is neither well-constructed, nor profound. Case in point: I began my trip by missing the one and only train from Sarajevo to Budapest, and finished it by missing my flight from England. (I went to the wrong airport!) So why pretend to have it together?

Busses, trains, and airports are not my friends. I just hate to travel these days. But students and young people are always the carrot at the end of the stick. Last night as I was pouring over travel plans for my next trip, (Leaving for Macedonia and Romania again this Sunday), I asked the Lord, “Is all this really worth it?” Really, it’s expensive, hazardous, and inconvenient. Why can’t I just spend my time loving people right here in Sarajevo? I didn’t hear any audible voice, but He reminded me of Leah, who came up to me after class in Romania. After completing a missions degree at a respected Christian college and serving for more than a year on the Romanian mission field, she said, “I just wanted to thank you for teaching us about the kingdom today. I’ve been thinking there must be more to all this than what I knew.” Or even my good buddy, Larry, back home. He says, “Well Don, if the kingdom is all that, then how come you seem to be the only person I know who’s preaching it?”

The Romanians captured my heart again with their warmth and affection. They have a gift of making everyone feel like a part of the family.

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England, on the other hand, takes your breath away with it’s beauty and style. Both countries reflect a unique aspect of God’s glory.

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The English school was my first chance to teach for a whole week on the kingdom. Typically I do three days on Biblical Worldview, and then spend two days developing the worldview of the Kingdom. It’s a good study in contrast between the death and destruction of (for instance) Communism, Postmodernism, and Islam, and the beauty and life of the Kingdom. But this time I had a whole week to develop the glories of the kingdom. Wasn’t sure, at first, if I’d have enough material. But by the week’s end I was wishing for more time.

So… today the sun is shining in Sarajevo, my cold is beginning to break, and I plan on getting out of this stinking apartment and meeting some friends in town for coffee.

Cynicism and Angels

Lately I’ve been looking for angels, the humanoid kind who sometimes pass by unnoticed on the street. It keeps me from becoming cynical after being serially ignored by store clerks, or walking the entire distance into town without so much as making eye-contact with a single person. So I look for angels. Yesterday they showed up in the form of ten-year old neighbors Adis and Amir, who raced down the street to practice their English on me. Just now it was the waiter at the Bill Gates Cafe who looked me in the eye, greeted me, and asked if I wanted “an Orangina like yesterday?” You probably have to live here to truely value these small angel-sightings.

Cynicism can be a temptation for me and a particularly un-Jesus-like trait. From my reading of the gospels, our Servant-King / Savior had a wonderful gift for optimism, hope and promise. His kingdom-eyes didn’t deny the darkness, but saw through it.

But there’s no denying I’m a product of brooding, pessimistic American Evangelicalism. Awhile back I had a conversation with an American friend who wanted to discredit the present / future kingdom of God on the grounds that the world was destined to become “more and more evil” until eventually Jesus would be oblidged to rapture us all out of the mess. We American Evangelicals have become practiced at gleefully asserting, “See there!? Wars! Earthquakes! Famine!! Surely it’s time for Jesus to return!!” But therein we miss the kingdom.

“Jesus told them another parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man sowed good seed in his field. One night, when everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. When the plants grew and the heads of grain began to form, then the weeds showed up. The man’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, it was good seed you sowed in your field; where did the weeds come from?’ ‘It was some enemy who did this,’ he answered. ‘Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?’ they asked him. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first,tie them in bundles and burn them, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Did you catch that? The rich, golden wheat of the Kingdom grows ALONGSIDE the tares. Of course there will be death, destruction and evil. Yet the promise remains that “the light will shine in the darkness”, ” nations will come to the glory”, “the tares will be removed from the WHEAT”, and “the kingdom will be established.”

First Post from Sarajevo

I returned to Sarajevo on February 7th after a humming three months in the States. It’s always amazing to me, when I’m in America, the opportunities God opens up for concerts, programs, and ministry. And this trip was no exception. It made me wonder if perhaps I ought to be taking my musical gifts more seriously. It certainly meant little rest at home, and a pace that kept me in constant motion.

But now I’m back in Bosnia, and the time for talking about these things has passed. My return was surprisingly smooth, with none of the despair and hopelessness that typically clobbers me before I’ve unpacked my suitcases. But this time was different. It’s not an external thing, as if Sarajevo has suddenly been hit with a surge of hope, but rather an internal posture of my own heart which seems to have found a deeper place of rest. There’s a new confidence in my spirit that God really can use me here. And it feels wonderfully good.

Recently I came across this quote that sums up something of what I’m seeing:

“The … work of the non-professional missionary is essentially to live his daily life in Christ, and therefore with a difference, and to be able to explain, or at least to state, the reason and cause of the difference to men who see it… His preaching is essentially private conversation, and has at the back of it facts, facts of a life which explain and illustrate and enforce his words… It is such missionary work, done consciously and deliberately, that the world needs today. Everybody, Christian and pagan alike, respects such work; and, when it is so done, men wonder, and inquire into the secret of a life which they instinctively admire and covet for themselves… The spirit which inspires love of others and efforts after their well-being, both in body and soul, they cannot but admire and covet–unless, indeed, seeing that it would reform their own lives, they dread and hate it, because they do not desire to be reformed. In either case, it works. (Roland Allen 1869-1947)

Bosnian friends appear to be doing well. Though most are still afraid of dreaming, I see them inching forward with provisional plans and trial hopes. My call, as I see it, is to resume my post of pointing out the realities of God’s kingdom and the unlimited potential of His dream .