Dr. John Oakes is traveling and teaching in Poland, Denmark, Norway, Estonia and Latvia. A journal, as well as lessons will be posted here. Right now I am in Riga, Latvia.
Warsaw, Poland 8/23-8/25
This is my first visit to the wonderful country of Poland. We Americans tend to think of Poland as a former satellite of the Soviet Union, which it is, but this does not define Poland, which has a wonderful and deep history of its own, stretching back to its Christianization in the tenth century. It is the home of Nikolai Copernicus the great astronomer and Frederic Chopin, the great composer. When one visits Warsaw there is almost no evidence of the sad history of this country during and after World War II. This is a modern, thriving European capital. The city has been totally reconstructed, it is beautiful and it has a great night life and culture. Warsaw is a city of just over three million in a country of a little less than forty million. Poland is now part of the EU and its vibrant economy has drawn a great number of immigrants, especially from Ukraine and Belarus.
The church I am visiting was planted about seven years ago. There are a bit less than thirty members, plus a couple of house churches in Krakow and one other Polish city. The church has struggled somewhat to grow, as Poland is a combination of youth with little if any faith, and an older generation with a relatively weak commitment to the Roman Catholic Church. They are still trying to figure out how to reach out to a culture which is caught between worldviews. Ivan and Masha Liashenko are the leaders here. He is Russian and she is Ukrainian. The church was led by Curt and Patty Simmons for a few years, but they returned to the US recently.
Scene in old Warsaw
A group of six have come here all the way from Kiev, Ukraine as a kind of mission team to invite people to the presentations while I am here. I am so surprised at the commitment of these very young disciples of Jesus who gave up their vacation to come here to Poland in order to share the gospel. On Saturday I taught a public lecture on the questions of evil and suffering, which is an ideal topic for people in Poland. Most here do not know a lot about the Bible, but this is something that all people care about. The church spent much energy inviting Poles, but few came, which emphasizes how difficult it is for a largely Russian-speaking church to reach out to Poles. My translator is Diana and she does a great job. Afterward, I tour the old center of Warsaw with Ivan. Again, this is a beautiful city.
Campus group, Warsaw
Sunday I gave a lesson on Jesus in the Old Testament. There are about forty at the service, which is really good for a church of less than thirty. Several guests were at church. The service is in Russian, not Polish, as this is the first language of most here in the church in Warsaw. Ivan has preached in Polish and they are working toward creating a local, Polish culture in the church. There is no way to be really effective here unless they can be a Polish, not a Russian church. Please pray for the church here in Warsaw to see dozens of Poles won to Christ. The faith of the church here is really great, but I am sure they would appreciate your prayers. Also, if you would consider coming here for a few days of a few weeks in order to help the church to reach out to the Polish people, you would be very welcomed to this very friendly group of Christians.
In the afternoon I attend a free concert in a park of music by Chopin. He is the greatest composer and pianist in the history of Poland. So many enjoy bicycling, walking and spending time in the parks here. These are a very social people. In the evening I get a couple of hours with the campus group, trying to inspire their faith and answering their many question. What a wonderful visit to Warsaw.
Copenhagen, Denmark Aug. 26-28
The flight to Copenhagen is just one hour. I am met by Kristoffer Kamhoft. He and his wife Tania lead the group of about thirty in the church I am visiting here.
Copenhagen is a city of just over one million in a country of about six million. It is one of the most livable cities I have visited. There are wonderful parks and beautiful buildings everywhere. The food is great. There is hardly an ugly building here. Denmark is in some ways the perfect country. The people are prosperous. The government gives great support to the arts and education. Education at almost all levels is free or very inexpensive. There are virtually no homeless here and health care is nearly free. There is a great sense of history here. Denmark was a great world power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Famous Danes include the author Hans Christian Anderson, the astronomer Tycho Brahe, the physicist Neils Bohr and the philosopher and founder of existentialism Soren Kierkegaard. The Danish are fairly laid back, but they are also very polite and disciplined. Corruption is virtually unknown here. Denmark has also set an example to the world of being willing to take in refugees from war-torn parts of the world.
Little Mermaid Statue (The story is by Hans Christian Anderson)
The churches here are really beautiful. The problem is that they are only attended by a very small fraction of Danes. The official state-supported religion here is Lutheranism. People may attend on Christmas or Easter and may be married in the state church, but their religious involvement ends there, with very few exceptions. Most are agnostic or even atheist. This is the case throughout Scandinavia. This is a great tragedy as it was the Danes who began the Protestant effort to bring Christianity to all the world in the seventeenth century. There are some who predict that there will be more practicing Muslims in Denmark than practicing Christians within a generation. I believe this is overblown, but it does give cause for reflection.
The church I am visiting has been in Copenhagen for more than twenty years. After a brief spurt of very quick growth, the number has held more or less stead at about thirty for many years. This is of great concern to all the members here. Yet, in this unreligious country they are struggling to find the “formula” to reach larger numbers. There are many mature and faithful Christians in this group.
On Monday I had Bible studies with a couple of people and gave a presentation on the Problem of Pain and Suffering. English is so well known in this country that I am able to teach in English and translation is not needed at all. There were several guests. Due to the people being largely agnostic, Christian apologetics is key here.
On Tuesday I tour the city. Of course, I have to visit the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor. The architecture in the old city is incredible. We visit a butcher shop, with all of the sausages and interesting meats. Very Danish. In the evening I teach the teens on finding Jesus in the Old Testament. The teen group here is perhaps the most “happening” ministry in the church. They are very eager to learn. Wednesday, I toured the city with Krisoffer and Tania and spent some time with Bo, followed by a lesson for the teens and a midweek lesson on Freedom in Christ. The church is very enthusiastic. I will really miss my new friends.
What the church here can really use is for an older couple—probably empty nesters—to come here. By this I mean to move here to help the ministry to get moving again. It would also be helpful for a student to come here on the one year challenge, but the need for a mature couple to support the leaders is probably greater. The awesome thing about Denmark is that, believe it or not, everyone speaks English here. A couple from Canada or the UK or the US could fit right in here in this amazing country. I promise you that you would make a huge difference here, and it would be the Christian adventure of a lifetime.
Oslo, Norway Aug. 30-Sept 1
The flight to Oslo is only one hour. Norway and Denmark have much in common. In fact, Norway was part of Denmark, politically, for hundreds of years. The languages are similar. If a Dane speaks slowly enough, a Norwegian would understand him or her. Like Denmark, English is so well known here that they even sometimes speak to one another in English. Oslo is a city of 1.7 million in a country of 5.3 million. Norway is a very prosperous country with a strong socialist system that takes care of the people’s health care, university education and much more. Of course, the taxes are very high as well. The people are fairly shy and honesty is highly valued here. Corruption is virtually unknown and the crime rate is very low, despite the fact that Norway has set an example of taking many immigrants from some of the most troubled parts of the world. As in Denmark, there is an official church here, which is Lutheran, but the level of belief among the average Norwegian is very low indeed.
Teens in Oslo
The church here has about ninety members. They have recently gone through a leadership transition and it is not clear who will emerge as the leaders of the group, so there is some sense of insecurity here, as one can imagine. This is a relatively mature church, with many marrieds with teenage children. In fact, there have been many baptisms of teens lately and this group is doing really well, with a number studying the Bible and a good number of teen visitors not from the families of members. Doing campus ministry here as only students are allowed on campus and there are very few college students in the church here.
Thursday includes dinner with the temporary leaders, Levi and Marit Halvorsen. Dinner includes moose, which is a new one for me. They also eat reindeer and whale here. Not so sure about whale, but they tell me the reindeer stew is really great. On Friday I give a lesson on Evidence for Jesus for the teens. There were about twenty teens. The opportunity to share evidence for Jesus’ claims is really satisfying to me. On Saturday I taught for three hours to the church here on Finding Jesus in the Old Testament. About 50 were in attendance, including quite a few guests. The evening included a stroll along the waterfront to see the fortifications from the tenth century and to enjoy the night life in Oslo. The summer here is very pleasant, but winter comes early.
Sunday I teach a third class on Jesus in the Old Testament, followed by worship with the Oslo church. The song service is really inspiring. It helps that they have two professional guitarists, including my friend Ronny Ytrrius. I teach a lesson on Freedom in Christ. Many here seem to deal with feelings of being inadequate in their service to God, so this lesson is helpful. Church is followed by a potluck of traditional Norwegian food. As I leave Oslo, the need I see here is for others to pray for this group to find a new leader and to get back on track and to see the teen group blossom and begin the campus work again.
Tallinn, Estonia Sept 3-6
Tallinn is five hundred miles due East from Oslo. This is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, yet not many know about the treasure that is Tallinn. It is a city of a bit under half a million in a country with just under one and a half million inhabitants. Tallinn was spared much of the destruction of other cities in World War II, so there is quite a bit of the city from the late Middle Ages and from Renaissance Europe. Estonia is one of the three Baltic republics, along with Latvia and Lithuania. When I visited last, about eight years ago, the country was still struggling somewhat with its Soviet legacy. Now all three of the Baltic countries are part of the EU and have found their identity. They now look to the West, not to the East and Russia. Estonia has affinities with Finland in both language and culture. The stereotype of Finnish men being shy and a bit socially awkward applies here, and it is not an exaggeration. Yet the people are so gentle and easy to love.
Old City, Tallinn
The group of 140 disciples here is led by Kaido and Triin Leesman. The church is thriving, with growing teen, campus and young professional groups. They have three interns to help with the campus. Kaido is a force of nature, literally. Last year he set the world record for power lifters over forty years old at seven hundred pounds. He seems to me to be a spiritual power lifter as well, and Triin, though not so strong physically, is a spiritual powerhouse. Beautiful city, beautiful church, strong but wise leadership, what could be better?
On Tuesday I taught for the church from Hebrews 11 on Living by Faith. Over 100 attended, which is great since this is a special service. Afterward, I met with Reto Zingg, Mati Simm and Triin Leesman, who have started a teaching ministry here in Estonia. They are doing an important job and it is great to hang out with like-minded believers. On Wednesday AM I met with Max and his dad. Max is a twenty-year old student who is trying to come to grips with Christian faith as an intellectual guy. I think we made progress. In the evening I gave a class on deepening our understanding of God through studying the Scriptures. Thursday included some more appointments, as well as a couple of hours touring the old city of Tallinn. This is one of the most amazing old cities anywhere in the world, with a labyrinth of beautiful historical buildings, churches and wonderful architecture. Thursday evening I did a class on God and Science for the campus group. This was SO encouraging. There were more than fifty present, with perhaps twenty visitors. One young man told me that he was an atheist, but his atheism was really shaken by what he had heard. This group of young teens and campus students is very bold and doing a great job of reaching out to their friends.
As I leave Tallinn, I am thinking of how someone reading this report can help. To be honest, it is the sister churches in Riga, Tartu and Vilnius (Lithuania) which are in dire need of financial help and of having mature Christians come to help. The church in Tallinn is strong, has great leadership and is growing. What they could use is your prayers for their continued strength and perhaps to come here for a visit for fellowship and encouragement. I promise you will be encouraged if you can visit this beautiful city.
Riga, Latvia Sept. 6-8
The drive down to the border with Latvia from Tallinn with Reto Zingg and his wife is about two and one half hours. At the border, I am met by Otto Kunga and Sandhu Ieppur. Sandhu and his wife are leading the church of just under ninety in Riga, the capital of Latvia. The drive to Riga is another two hours, but we spend some time visiting a really wonderful medieval castle, built in the thirteenth century, when Christianity arrived in what was then called Livonia, but is now called Latvia.
Riga is a city of 650,000 in a country of just two million. This is a beautiful city, with a very charming old city, including architecture from the Middle Ages to modern times. There are wonderful wooden buildings and much of the wall of the old city is still in place. The country is similar in size and culture to Estonia, but the language is quite different. It is similar to Lithuanian, which I am told is related to some of the languages in India. Lithuania, with its capital Vilnius, is the third of the “Baltics.” Like Estonia, the people here are quite reserved. It is hard to get to know new people. They are resistant to outsiders coming here, which may be due in part to their having been treated so badly, first by the Russians, then by the Germans and then by the Russians again. The cost of living is low here and the country has begun to be prosperous economically, making it a very livable country. Almost everyone here speaks English. In fact, most speak Latvian, English, Russian and often even a fourth language.
Tension with the large proportion of Russians still here is a problem in Latvia. But the church I am visiting is unique in all the country in that they have both Latvians and Russians, not only in the same church, but being friendly toward one another. This is a great example to the country. The church here went through a long period of struggle, with some leadership problems. There are not many members in their twenties and thirties, but with the Iepurs coming here from Moldova to inspire and unite the church, they have begun to baptize people again. As is the case in Tallinn, it is the teen group which appears to be doing best, with many baptized and many coming.
On Friday I gave a talk on Freedom in Christ to about fifty. This lesson was mostly for the members. In the afternoon we had a lesson for the teens and campus on Evidence for Jesus. There were nearly thirty at the event, with probably twice as many visitors as members. This was really very encouraging. It is hard to get Latvians to ask questions, as they tend to be shy, but once we got started it was great. Before the meeting, I spent time with the two campus interns Adrian and Adriana (and yes, they are boyfriend and girlfriend!). The church here is just starting a campus group and is excited to have interns to make it happen. Adrian is from Moldova and Adriana is Latvian. It is great to see the church having vision for the campus. In the evening we had a talk for the adults on the Reliability of the Bible, with about fifty in attendance.
Sunday I taught on the Question of Suffering for the church. There were about 125 in church, which, with 86 members is really great. Things are looking up for this faithful group in Riga. Several of the members here, as well as Sandu tell me that what they could really use here is for an empty nester couple to move here to support the church. The younger group is doing well, but they need help to inspire the older group. Although Latvians are a bit fearful of outsiders, the one group they really like are Americans and Canadians. Please consider coming to the beautiful country of Latvia to help spread the gospel here. It would be the most amazing experience of your life.