Bībeles Diena

Thanks to Ilona Rasa-Trupa, the children and youth programme which The Salvation Army runs in Latvia is, in my humble opinion, absolutely superb.  It seems that no sooner has one activity finished than Ilona has planned the next one.  She could have been forgiven for taking a relaxing pause at the end of a busy summer programme when she had run camps, bike rides, supported corps and centres with their children’s holiday clubs, and supported the Musical which I’ve recently written about.  Instead, this autumn saw her organising a Bible Day for children which was held at Skangaļi, a Salvation Army centre in the east of Latvia.

Some time before the event the Bible subjects to be studied were sent out for the children to get prepared.  This year the theme was about animals in the Bible, and amongst the animals featured were a donkey – Balaam’s ass, and a lion – Daniel in the lions’ den. I’m pretty ignorant about what and how they studied their Bible animals, but I do know that on a couple of occasions recently I have been to corps and centres where they have said that the children were busy preparing for the competition.

I arrived in time for lunch on the day of the competition, and the dining room was full of children and their ‘skolotāji'(teachers) who had taught them and were supporting them. Part of the competition had already taken place, but after lunch we reconvened, and in imaginative and creative ways the children were quizzed on the Bible subjects they had been set.  Around the walls of the gymnasium where we were meeting were pictures drawn by the various teams, projects that they were required to complete in readiness for the day. It seemed that generous amounts of sweets were being given out as rewards for correct answers, but these were saved up and counted at the end, presumably to see which team had got the most!  I was amused at the end of the contest to see one girl sitting meticulously dividing her team’s haul of sweets between each of the team’s members!

In the end, everyone was a winner, and each participant was presented with a Diploma and a book about animals. The teachers were each presented with a prize, photos were taken, and a great time was had by all. The Bible Day is over for another year.

So what’s next? I was in Ilona’s office today and remarked on the Latvian translation of Max Lucado’s beautiful book for children ‘You are Mine’ open on her desk. ‘I’m thinking of using this as the theme of the Christmas programme for the children’, she said

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Cast your bread on the water….

‘Cast your bread on the water and it will come back soggy’, is my rather irreverent version of Ecclesiastes 11:1 as translated in the King James’ Bible and more recently in the English Standard Version. The proper version is:

‘Cast your bread upon the waters,
    for you will find it after many days.’

I confess to being rather disappointed to find that in some other translations of this verse, this lovely metaphor is excluded and replaced with a translation which possibly more closely reflects the meaning, but is much more prosaic in its language.

I’m a great believer in the sentiment of this verse. Sometimes it’s true that we do things or say things without any idea what effect they are ultimately going to have, or if,  indeed, they will have any effect at all. Then there are those rare moments, when the bread does come back ‘soggy’, or, to use the proper version, we ‘find it after many days.’ They confirm the promise ‘that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless’. (1 Corinthians 15:58 – New Living Translation).  If you are anything like me, by the time the bread returns, you’ve often forgotten that you cast it on the waters in the first place!

I had one such experience this past week.  Out of the blue I received an email from a retired medical doctor who attended a Salvation Army corps/church in the area in which  I worked before my first ‘retirement’.  He lived in the Buckinghamshire area near the network of canals that can be found in that part of the world.  The Salvation Army had been asked if they could help the local ecumenical workplace ministry team in establishing a ministry along the waterways.  It had come to light that there was a lot of need amongst some of the people who lived there, and they were looking for volunteers to undertake a voluntary chaplaincy role to offer help and support to them. I asked the doctor if he might be willing to consider helping out. This proposal offered the interesting prospect of  The Salvation Army returning to a ministry it had had on those same waterways some years before, and later we discovered, to our delight, that there was a sign which the then barge owners would put on their barges which indicated that The Salvation Army would we welcomed on board.  But I digress.  My doctor colleague accepted my invitation to be part of the ministry and has been involved in that ministry for the past seven years.

He wrote to tell me how the work on the waterways  has developed, and it made quite awesome reading! The team of chaplains is now 40 strong, and the Canals and Rivers Trust have appointed a welfare officer too. He reported that when they started some of the people along the waterways were struggling with life and so the chaplains have often supported them in gaining access to the medical care and  benefits they need and helped them also access food from the food banks should they require it.

Incredibly, when they began, the professional watermen told them that on that particular stretch of the waterways there were a number of suicides in any one year, but now this number has  drastically diminished.

The doctor finished by saying what tremendous support the team have from the boaters and professional watermen, and he says, ‘….it has been an amazing journey and still is. God always takes us where he wants us, and it is there on the towpath that he meets those in need.’

I can’t help thinking that the crumbs I cast on the water have been returned as several large loaves of bread….oh, and by the way, it had not escaped my attention that the metaphor was particularly apposite considering it referred to ministry on water!

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I was at the airport awaiting the arrival of some friends from the UK who were coming to lead a conference. The waiting area was full of people with their eyes fixed on the exit ready to greet friends and relatives. I love to play the speculative game of trying to work out and imagine the ‘back story’ to each of the people who are waiting with me. It is a game that is made a bit more interesting and maybe even easier here in Latvia because of the tradition  of welcoming people with flowers.  A huge bunch of red roses, for example, seems to indicate that some kind of romantic tryst is about to take place.  On this occasion, my attention was drawn to a gentleman carrying a bunch of iris, and a small boy who was with him, carrying a smaller bunch of  gerbera.  The imaginary story I wove around these two was that the man was father of the little boy and that they were waiting for wife and mummy to return.  The little boy, about two years’ old, fascinated and amused me.  He was clearly impatient for his mother to arrive, was running here and there, waving his flowers around, stabbing the air with them, and at some point even sweeping the floor with them! He was captivating, and I found myself hoping that my friends would not come through until I had discovered whether my imaginary story was at all accurate.  Then they arrived. Mother and small daughter (I hadn’t guessed the daughter bit!) who, it seemed, had been visiting in the UK during the half-term holidays.  The little boy rushed into his Mummy’s arms offering his rather bedraggled bunch of flowers, and Daddy scooped up his little girl and gave her a huge hug…..then they faded off into the crowds still chattering and cuddling each other.

As I watched the father and little son, I thought about the power of example and influence.  That little boy was learning early, that the done thing (even if you are a man!!) when you meet someone in Latvia  is to greet them with flowers. Like father, like son – even though the father’s flowers possibly reached their destination in slightly better shape than the son’s! What a lovely custom to be passing on to the next generation.

My friends, Ann and Richard Borrett, then came through and my attention turned to showing them hospitality English style, without flowers, I’m afraid.

Later on, after my friends had gone home, I realised that the father and son had, inadvertently, provided a metaphor for what Ann and Richard spoke about at the day they spent with the leaders of The Salvation Army in Latvia.  They spoke about the power of influence, and challenged this group of Christian leaders about the  importance of their influence. Words from the Bible came to me as I watched the father and son at the airport, words from the Apostle Paul. In a way they link these two experiences, for  they indicate how essential Paul felt his influence was in his ministry.

‘Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.’ Philippians 4:9 (NIV)


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A tale of two cities – the pictures

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A tale of two cities

I have to confess that sometimes I do not realise how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy such varied experiences as I do here in Latvia.  Such was the case the other day.  I woke up and groaned inwardly at the prospect of a very long day and was less than enthusiastic about getting out of bed to face it!  Later, however, reflecting on all that had happened I felt slightly chastened.

It was a day of complete contrasts. I had received an invitation from the President of Latvia to attend a meeting dedicated to the celebration of Orphan Day.  Resplendent, therefore, in my best bib and tucker, I headed off to the House of the Blackheads which currently houses the Chancery of the President of Latvia.  This is a really iconic building in Old Riga which was first built in the 14th century but was rebuilt in the 1990’s.  From the outside it is both impressive and beautiful.

With my official invitation, complete with coat of arms on it, at the ready, I presented my ID to the security men on the door and was eventually ushered into the splendid reception room where it was clear that the guests of honour for the event were a large number of parents and their adopted children.  We rose to greet the President and his wife, and he and other dignitaries started the proceedings by giving speeches to mark Orphan Day. The event ended with activities for the children themselves, and we adults  were delighted to be entertained by them.

As soon as the event ended I hurried back to the office to get ready to go to another engagement in the nearby city of Jelgava. This city is also home to some beautiful buildings, chief amongst them a stunning  palace built in the 18th century. However, my destination was not this palace, now part of the University of Latvia, but somewhere much more modest in the middle of an area of residential flats. We parked up, and got out into the darkness and found our way to a  door into a small meeting place, where I was greeted warmly.  I was in Jelgava to celebrate with them the first anniversary of the re-commencement of The Salvation Army in that place.  I say re-commencement, because Jelgava is the place where the Army first started in Latvia in the 1920’s, so in many ways the Army has now ‘come home’.

The small room was full of people who had come for the celebration, including some from The Salvation Army in Bauska who had come to support. It was lovely to see  people who have now become part of the team that work there under Helena, the volunteer who runs the place, and such a joy to be able to worship with the people there. At the end of the evening each person was given a food parcel as they left, and a great time of fellowship and worship had been enjoyed by all.

Returning home that evening, I reflected once again on all the opportunities I would have missed had I not come to Latvia.  It had turned out to be ‘one amazing day’!

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May Music 2 – the pictures

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May Music – 2

At the end of May the other major musical event which took place was the visit of a Salvation Army choir from Staines in the UK. 51 (or 52, I lost count!) of them made the journey over to Latvia. It was a  visit which was a long time in the planning, but it went off pretty much without a hitch. The weather was kind to us and showed Latvia off in a really good light.

We worked them really hard! They arrived in time for lunch on Friday, after which they were whisked off to conduct an open-air concert in the middle of Riga. Everyone was then hastily loaded onto the coach and  we travelled west to a town called Saldus where the Army has only recently started to work. The concert was held in a beautiful new auditorium at the Music College in Saldus with fantastic acoustics.  The Director of the School was brilliant, so enthusiastic, and it was he that made the customary presentation of flowers to the Leader, Samantha, at the end of the concert. A special chair had been decorated for one of the songsters who had a birthday, and after the concert the birthday was celebrated in Latvian style with cake and flowers.  It was a long day!

Saturday there were a few brief minutes to do a bit of sightseeing before going to the corps (church) we call Riga 2 where the songsters presented a concert and joined in the worship with the people there, many of whom have fallen on hard times. On Saturday evening a concert was held in St Peter’s Church, now a cultural centre.  It is a medieval church and first mention of it can be found from documents dating from the 13th century.  You can well imagine how atmospheric such a building is! This is also a tourist destination, and, completely unplanned and unexpected, during the concert people came in and out at the back of the church and listened to the music. One of the highlights of the evening was the songsters singing in Latvian along with two young Latvian salvationist soloists, a hauntingly beautiful song about the various regions of this beautiful country.

On Sunday half the group went to Liepa in the east of Latvia and half went to Bauska, situated to the south of Riga near the border with Lithuania. This enabled the songsters to get to know more personally some of the Latvian salvationists. New friendships were made. I notice, for example  that one of the Staines’ songsters still sports as his Facebook picture, a picture of himself and Jānis, who, with his wife, run the corps (church) at Liepa!

I’ve given a broad brush stroke of the visit partly because the visit has already been widely reported elsewhere on social media, and partly because there are other impressions from the visit I want to share.

In a different way from the investment described in ‘May Music 1’, investment would still be a word that I’d use to describe this event.

There was obviously an investment financially.  The visit was only possible because the members of Staines songsters were willing to pay personally for the costs involved in the visit. This was such a lovely gift to us here in Latvia.  Their visit gave us the opportunity to publicise the work of the Army here and, more importantly, share the Gospel message with people we would not otherwise reach.

There was an investment of energy and time. Simon, the organiser of the event, made a special trip to Latvia early in the year to meet the team here and to size up the place! Sharing a meal with him and the team here, and discussing the possibilities for the programme,  will remain for me a lovely memory, as will witnessing how moved Simon was by some of the things he saw and people he met on that visit. As arrangements progressed the meticulous work of the team here, twinned with their counterparts in Staines, was impressive.

There was an investment of good will. I think this was the thing that impressed me most about the visit. I loved the attitude that the songsters had.  They came determined to gain as much as they could from the experience, to make the most of what they saw, to receive everything provided with grace and good humour, even when some things did not turn out quite as planned.  And they came determined to give the very best that they could – and that best was exceedingly good.  They sang their little hearts out, and excelled in a land where good choral singing is highly prized.

I’m not quite sure how to describe this next investment, but maybe it can best be described as an investment in the family of God. There is a very specific fellowship shared by Salvationists around the world, which comes from the experience they share of the grace and forgiveness of God made possible through Jesus. In other words, it arises from the knowledge that they belong to the family of God. It means that, however different life experience and the cultural expression of the Army might be, there is a common cause and sense of belonging which binds people together. I can’t really speak for them, but I think that the part of the visit that touched Staines songsters more than anything else, was the visits they made on the Sunday, sharing with Latvian salvationists, hearing their stories, getting to know them, and joining in worship with them – experiencing the sense of belonging to the family of God in a very special way.

It was a huge investment – and both at Staines and in Latvia  we are looking seriously now at what the return on that investment will be.  We both hope that the special relationship that has been formed will find expression in future mutual cooperation.

Well, belatedly Staines songsters, thank you for coming – and to God be the glory!



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