Maureen Wise, compassionate missionary to Moldova, shares impressions on serving the Lord in Eastern Europe.
The initial buzz of conversation in the plane had quietened as passengers lapsed into reverie or sleep. I was returning from Moldova and, starved of news for the preceding months, I was devouring the contents of a Romanian newspaper I had been given when boarding.
My eyes fell on a cartoon. It was December 2006 and Romania was about to join the European Union. The cartoon depicted the President of Romania, European flag in hand, triumphantly looking westwards and running with all speed towards Europe.
The Republic of Moldova, although in reality geographically sharing a border with Romania, was, in the cartoon, separated from Romania. Its Communist President, Voronin, was looking wistfully eastwards towards Russia.
Tears dropped from the map of Moldova — tears of grief for its desperate plight — and under the Republic of Transnistria (a part of Moldova occupied by Russia’s powerful 14th Army), there were tears of blood.
The tears of blood commemorated those who had died in the civil war occasioned by Russia’s occupation of part of Moldova’s territory in 1991. There was no inscription for the cartoon. None was needed. The picture was a powerful one and captured vividly Moldova’s suffering and political isolation.
Part of me identified strongly with the plight of this country to which God had called me and whose people I had come to love. There was no doubt that the political and economic realities for Moldova at the time were harsh. It was the poorest country in Europe and was still reeling from the collapse of its economy, following the demise of the Soviet Union, of which it had been a part.
During the 1990s particularly, unemployment was colossally high as Moldova had lost its main export markets. Many older people had lost all their savings overnight when the currency changed from roubles to Moldovan lei. It was believed that the only ones who had escaped this huge economic disaster were those politicians who had prior knowledge of the change and had transferred their money in time.
My first visit to Moldova took place in the nineties. As I walked around the city of Chișinău, I remember being struck by the sight of people lining the central streets with some of their meagre possessions displayed on the ground in front of them, in the vain hope that someone would make a purchase.
Sometimes, I noticed, they would stand there all day in bitter weather. The city looked like a desolate industrial wasteland in those days. It was clearly in a ruinous state, with factories deserted and derelict.
My new Moldovan friends recounted stories of local people being attacked in the streets and their money stolen. Sometimes they were killed. Apartments were frequently broken into. The electricity went off at regular intervals. Alcoholism was clearly a significant problem. There was an indescribable bleakness everywhere.
Summer and winter
The Moldovan winter is hard and relentless and pleasant visions of glistening snow and sledges soon disappear in the midst of some of the grimmer realities of day-to-day life…
Summer months were much easier — days full of sunshine and warmth and fields crowded with huge sunflowers constantly turning their heads in the direction of the light.
Fruit and vegetables would be in plentiful supply and there were apricot, cherry and walnut trees everywhere. People worked very hard on the land during those brief summer months. Groups of workers would be seen, bent over the swiftly growing plants in the blazing sun, heads covered with scarves or handkerchiefs and faces reddened by prolonged exposure to the elements.
Brief periods of respite would see them sitting on the ground in a group, drinking from large containers and eating great hunks of bread. The vineyards would somehow recover quickly, even from the hardest of winters, as soon as the summer began in earnest and their shiny green foliage would fill the countryside.
Horses or donkeys could be seen pulling carts full of produce and passengers and usually struggling under the weight of their load. Villagers would paint their houses and their fences again, and bright blues and yellows and greens would greet you as you drove by.
Golden, onion-shaped cupolas on Orthodox churches would shine in the reflected sunlight and marked the landscape from afar. Geese would claim right of way in every track and would only with great reluctance and noisy protest move aside. Goats, even when tethered, would nonchalantly munch through everything in their immediate vicinity.
The village wells, usually elaborately decorated with religious symbols and ornate silver trellises, became busy talking-points for villagers as they drew water and filled pails and plastic containers.
Winter was another story. Those who have lived in such countries will know that there is a desperate drabness to those long winter months. By the end of winter I always had a strong feeling of sensory deprivation.
There was very little of beauty to look at, particularly in the numerous large housing estates. Tall, poorly constructed and already decaying blocks of flats were typical dwelling places for most people in the city…
The cold weather arrived early and it was not uncommon for it to snow at the beginning of November. Those living in blocks of flats would be subject to the vagaries of the central heating system controlled by the city council, and the heating would not usually be turned on until mid- or even late-November. By this time the whole city would be shivering.
Most people coped with the rigours of the cold stoically, but I always found this one of the more difficult features of life. To return to a bitterly cold flat from harsh winds and snow outside was far from easy. Sometimes, while preparing for teaching, I would be wrapped in a blanket in an attempt to keep warm. With what pleasure and thankfulness we greeted the day when the heating would finally be switched on!
Working life always started very early in the morning and quite often we would all be out of the house by 6.30am, facing icy cold and almost total darkness. Packs of stray dogs would be roaming around always looking desperately hungry, yet afraid if anyone approached them.
A fair distance of walking across frozen and uneven paths at last brought us to the trolleybus stop. Crowds of people, often wearing Soviet-style fur hats and their heaviest outdoor garb, would be gathered in the semi-darkness. Their breath could be seen against the very dim lights from the road.
The arrival of the trolleybus saw a full-scale disorderly rush as people tried to cram onto the steps of the vehicle and squeeze into every available space before the doors rattled shut.
The conductor had the most unenviable task of somehow pushing his or her way through the closely packed mass of passengers, in an often vain attempt to extract fares from those unwilling to pay. Vociferous arguments would erupt if any refused to pay. And so the transport heaved and swayed its tortuous way into town.
These were some of the practical privations. None of them was particularly gruelling and with time they became an ordinary and accepted part of my everyday life. But added to them were the challenges of living in a country where, to all appearances, bureaucracy and corruption reigned almost unrestrained.
With very few exceptions, officials were rude and obstructive, and there were interminable battles to be fought if you were in search of any official permission to take a certain step.
The only course was to take a deep breath, pray much, and then run the gauntlet of a host of officious individuals seemingly taking great delight in doing all within their power to obstruct your cause. These encounters could take hours and days and the end result would quite often be failure on your part to achieve your goal.
Together with this, along with the consciousness of the Lord being powerfully at work, there was the awareness of being in the most ferocious spiritual battle. It was as if the great enemy of souls was more frequently unmasked in Moldova than I had previously known, and there was a constant need to be vigilant and to use the full armour of God and to try to pray without ceasing.
One winter it felt as though we were confronting assault after assault in the spiritual realm, and at every step it was necessary to arm ourselves with the Word and with prayer. The Scriptures which told us that ‘for this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8) and that the Lord has ‘delivered us from the power of darkness’ (Colossians 1:13) were assurances to which we resorted frequently.
One night, unable to sleep, I wondered if I really would be able to cope with the rigours, spiritual and practical, of another such winter and if the Lord really would renew my strength.
As I did, a verse of Scripture came powerfully into my consciousness: ‘Neither will I offer … unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing’ (2 Samuel 24:24). And there was my answer! Why should I be in the least surprised if my Saviour, in his excellent and loving purposes, should ask of me service which I found personally costly?
He was the one who had experienced the pains of Golgotha for me, and had told me that my life was not my own, that I was bought with a price. I had been meditating in the previous months on the words of Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark: ‘For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ (Mark 8:35).
I reflected that this was what it meant to take up the cross daily to follow him. It involved a determination to go after him at all costs, a cost which certainly took little account of our fleshly instincts or natural desires.
Being in step with Jesus often meant being out of step with our friends with their plans and preoccupations, enduring hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. This was what it was to love a Redeemer who had sacrificed himself for me.
I once heard an illustration I have never forgotten. It was about a tree that would be needed as a beam in an ancient cathedral to support the roof, and the quality of the wood required for that purpose.
A young sapling would be planted with a small group of other young trees just above the tree line on a mountain. Over a long period of time the other trees would be removed one by one, until it alone was left to face the elements.
It would be exposed to the relentless winds and storms and blizzards of winter. The effect would be either to weaken the tree or to strengthen it for use in the cathedral.
The point of the illustration is perhaps obvious: God will sometimes so work in our lives that we are left without human support, in order that we may lean only upon him, and so be prepared for the work he has in store for us.
This extract is taken from the author’s book With God all things are possible, © Author, Bryntirion Press, 2014 (published in association
with EP Books); ISBN: 978–1–78397–053–7.