Celebrate With Me My Fiftieth Anniversary

My Fiftieth Anniversary (1971-2021)

This long weekend in September marks for me 50 years of an unusual love affair. Fifty years ago this weekend I moved away from home to go to university. During my first weeks on the University of Calgary campus I reveled in the anonymity that came with being one of ten thousand students. No one knew anything about me. I had a plastic ID card on which was my name, an ID number and a ridiculous picture of myself. The card opened doors to lots of things around me. I loved the fact that I never bumped into preconceived expectations of how I should dress, how I should talk about God, where I should hang out with new friends and what I could eat or drink with them in those places. I began to explore with anonymity my faith, identity and life’s purpose. 

I Fall in Love

On my first weekend in Calgary I wanted to meet new people. Someone told me about Foothills Alliance Church, just across from the university campus. It seemed like a logical place to start. I walked through the church doors on Sunday morning of the long weekend, September 1971. In a sense, I have never left, though my career has meant I’ve been absent for years at a time! Proximity to the university campus was not the only thing that explained the size of the vibrant young adult group at Foothills in those days. The welcome Pastor Gordon Fowler and his wife, Eleanor, extended to everyone who came through the doors and their encouragement to immediately get involved somewhere in the church made this congregation a welcoming place for students like me who were looking for a church home.

It was not hard to find places to belong. I was quickly absorbed into music teams, the College and Career group, and teaching Sunday School to grade five girls. I had never experienced a church body that expected more of me than just showing up. I had grown up sitting in the family pew, watching a group of men (and very few women) “doing church” for the rest of us who sat and watched. Suddenly I felt like someone would notice if I didn’t turn up. I began to believe I was an important part of this church that God was growing in northwest Calgary. I found myself falling desperately in love with church. I would sit on the front row of the choir (in those days churches had choirs) feeling my heart would burst because of the love I felt for this new family that had embraced me. I was there every time the church doors were open. It was a safe place. I was needed. I was loved unconditionally.

Even before graduating from university I was offered a job in Calgary, teaching French and music in middle school. Professional life agreed with me and I found myself rising in the ranks of the school board. I enjoyed the freedom that came with a good salary. I quickly repaid my student loans. Professional life also allowed me to commit to even more involvements in this church that had become my life. Yes, I was falling deeper and deeper in love with a beautiful body of faith-filled people.  

My Gifts Are Affirmed (March 1978)

Jump ahead to a Sunday morning in Spring 1978. Nearly seven years had passed. I will never forget arriving for church. The chairman of the elders, the men who led the church, met me at the front door and told me the elders wanted to speak with me after the service. My mind raced, a little bit anxious, trying to imagine why the church leaders might want to talk with me. As soon as the foyer of the church emptied that morning a group of men gathered around me. Their spokesman asked a pointed question: “We’re wondering if you plan to teach French the rest of your life?”  

His question caught me off guard, as he continued. “We’ve been watching you here in this church for seven years and we believe, Miriam, that God has clearly gifted you for ministry.  We think you should go to seminary and explore vocational ministry more intentionally.”   

I was shocked! Speechless! The man continued, suggesting that I think about leaving my teaching job and going to seminary. I’d just paid off my undergraduate student loans. Seminary would be expensive. I really didn’t want to go into debt again. But their suggestion came with a surprising offer: “The church will pay your seminary tuition. While you’re in seminary, if you discern that God has called you to a vocation of ministry, the investment we make in you will be an outright gift from the church. If you discern that God is not calling you to ministry, the investment we’ve made in you will simply be an interest-free loan.”

As I walked to my car that morning, I was laughing and crying at the same time. “They think I have gifts for ministry! The church wants to help me explore if God is calling me to serve him in some ministry vocation! They believe it so much, they’re willing to pay for me to go to seminary.”  

Several months later I packed up my things, moved to another city and became a student again, this time in a seminary (that’s a graduate school where people are trained for ministry). My love affair with the church moved to another level that day. The leaders had launched me on a pathway to ministry that led me to Romania and later into pastoral and academic work that continues to this day. This weekend marks fifty years in this relationship with Foothills. Their commitment to investing in people and helping them discern how their gifts might best be used is still strong, though happening in different ways today. 

This weekend I celebrate 50 years in this unusual relationship with a church that, in my lifetime, has done what the church should be doing. Allowing its people to exercise their gifts in the Body and nurturing and affirming as those gifts are used.  Through these years I have benefitted from the legacy of godly women and men who recognize the importance of passing insight and affirmation to the next generation.  I want to “hand it off” to the next generation in the remaining decades of my life, and in doing so, fulfill the purposes of God in my life.  Celebrate 50 years with me!

*This story is part of Chapter Five in my book, reGeneration: Stories of Resilient Faith in Communist Romania.  The book can be purchased through my website, here.

That’s So Cool!

I stopped by Willie and Betty Murray’s home in NW Calgary on Christmas Day to give them a copy of my newly-released book, reGeneration: Stories of Resilient Faith in Communist Romania. As I drove there, I rehearsed a little speech for my presentation of the book to Willie. I’ve given that speech many times. Every chance I get, I tell Willie that because of him I can tell this story. Long before his memory began to fade and his world became confused and befuddled by dimentia, I’ve thanked him many times for his impact on my life. As I stood in the doorway on Christmas Day, unable to go in because of COVID restrictions, I handed him the book and said, again, “Willie, in 1983 God used you to change the course of my life. I’ve come to thank you — and bring you a copy of my book.”

In the early 80s Willie and I served together on the pastoral staff of First Alliance Church in Calgary, he in a missions capacity and I as pastor of children and families. Willie and I shared a passion for the nations that my birth in China had ignited, but it was Willie’s influence that made that little fire burst into flame. As a student at the University of Calgary in the early 70s, instead of going every Friday night to the bar with my friends I sometimes found myself on my knees at an old-fashioned prayer meeting at Willie and Betty’s home, praying for suffering believers in places like Albania, Czechoslovakia and all the east bloc nations. It was Willie’s stories from Eastern Europe and his bold cries to God on behalf of suffering believers that opened my heart to God’s call to Communist Europe.

In June of 1982 Willie realized he had inadvertently double booked himself. He needed someone to take over a commitment he’d made to teach 20 short term mission participants in Hershey, Pennsylvania, all of them excited about a summer in communist Europe, smuggling bibles to believers, bringing encouragement to churches in fascinating places they’d never dreamed of visiting — Romania, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine. . . Because he was so late in asking me to replace him, he apologetically offered me notes he’d begun to collect for his daily lectures on topics like how to think as a Christian about Bible smuggling and an apologetic for ministry in contexts where, if the regime knew what we were doing they would not approve.*

It was a life changing week in Pennsylvania that summer. While there, I met Tom Lewis from Vienna, who shared the teaching with me all week. Tom came from the trenches, mesmerizing the young people with stories about men and women whose decision to follow Jesus meant they were fired from their jobs, they were followed relentlessly by the secret police, their food ration cards were cut, attempts were made on their lives,;some landed up in prison. The young people listened with rapt attention — and so did I.

During that week Tom Lewis told me about a group of educators who snuck into eastern bloc countries, right under the radar of the secret police, teaching a full-blown seminary curriculum to pastors who might otherwise not be trained. My heart told me, “I want to do that!” It was the conception of the stories I tell in the book I handed to Willie on Christmas. Day. His eyes looked past me, but his face lit up with some measure of distant recognition. Our love for Europe and for the persecuted church was a bond that even dimentia cannot totally erase. After I made my little, rehearsed, one-minute thank-you speech, Willie looked at the book in his hands and gazed intently at the cover. And I heard, quite distinctly, the words, “That’s so cool!”

And it is.

*Chapter 3 in the book, “Doing Ministry in Hard Places: Ethical Issues” had its beginnings in the rough notes Willie passed along to me when I took his place in Hershey, PA in the summer of 1982. His ideas were lived out in the experiences of twelve years behind the Iron Curtain, which is what the book is about. That’s so cool!

An Unusual Love Story

My book, reGeneration: Stories of Resilient Faith in Communist Romania, is written for the next generation of International Workers, those who will take the Good News to hard places in our world. It is also written for faithful men and women in local churches who support those who go by their prayers, encouragement and financial support. They join forces with those who will go to the nations.

In Chapter 5 (“Lambs Among Wolves: The Local Church and Mission”). I tell the story of how as a young adult I fell in love with a local church, Foothills Alliance Church in Calgary, AB. It was my first experience of the unusual relationship that can exist between a local body of believers and someone seeking to know God’s call – sort of a reenactment of Acts 13 – an unusual love story in which the elders of the church recognized my gifts for ministry, affirmed my growing sense of God’s call, and voiced their commitment to explore with me what God’s call might mean. Read the story of that morning in April 1978 when the elders asked to speak with me after church. They stood around me in the lobby, telling me they recognized God’s call on my life and were ready to stand with me if I was willing to take the next steps to prepare for ministry. And they did! Their legacy lives on in me and in others whom they have affirmed down through the years. The elders of this church named my book the “Legacy Project.”

Olive on a toothpick

31 years ago today (1989) I was in Romania, being taken under cover of darkness to the meeting place of a group of women students gathered to study the Bible in secret! As we settled into the back seat the driver turned and whispered, “Miriam, we just heard on Radio Free Europe that the Berlin Wall is coming down!” Shock filled the car! I leaned forward and asked, “Does that give you hope for Romania?” To which he responded, “It’s hard to have hope in this country!” On December 25th, barely 6 weeks later, Ceausescu was executed and Romania was free!

Just over one year ago I stood on Revolution Square in Bucharest where blood was shed. Courageous men and women fought for freedom! Some died! I stood and looked at what was supposed to be the centrepiece of the square, Memorial al Renașterii, the Memorial of Rebirth that honours the victims of the Romanian Revolution of 1989. I felt a sense of hopelessness as I looked at the monument that had been erected there to commemorate the 1989 losses—around one thousand lives. The monument features a twenty-five-metre-high pillar reaching to the sky, upon which is impaled a metal “crown.” Its name, Memorial of Rebirth, alludes to the hoped-for rebirth of Romania as a nation after the collapse of Ceausescu’s dictatorship. Described by some as a “potato skewered on a stake” or an “olive on a toothpick,” the controversial monument is now guarded around the clock because it is so often defaced with graffiti. In 2012, the bottom of the metal “crown” was defaced with a splash of bright red paint, so inaccessibly high on the pillar it has never been removed. Perhaps it speaks of blood shed in the name of the fight for freedom.

Remembrance Day tomorrow will be a time of great celebration and gratefulness here in Canada to honour those who gave their lives for the freedom we enjoy.

I’m also excited to announce that my book has gone to the typesetter. Keep your eyes open for announcement of my soon to go public website AND the arrival of my book “reGeneration: Stories of Resilient Faith in Communist Romania.”

One Year Ago

Originally posted on Facebook October 30, 2020.

One year ago In Romania!

I spoke briefly to a women’s conference organized by Vio Ticarat who is related to me in faith (2 Timothy 2:2) having been mentored by Ica Popa who was mentored by Nicoletta Mitra who was in one of our 1st Generation group in Oradea during the 80’s…. Vio has mentored hundreds of young women through groups that study Linda Dillow’s Creative Counterpart! Until this trip I’d never met the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation!

So if you’ve sown seeds don’t be discouraged! God’s Word will yield a bountiful harvest! Read my book, soon to be released — reGENERATION: Stories of Resilient Faith in Communist Romania (Word Alive Press).