Posts Tagged ‘Poland’

Ethnographic Study of Poland I

Ontology is the philosophical study of being – what exists, what does it mean to exist? Our study focused specifically on the existence of God, the spirit world, and life after death. We also asked some questions relating to the influence and authority of the church in the lives of Poles. In the paragraphs below, it would be helpful to remember that the total number of respondents was 11, although not everyone answered every question.

1. God

In 2008, the Polish Center for Public Opinion Research conducted a poll that indicated that 94% of Poles believe in God.[1] Earlier research done by the European Commission in 2005 showed 80% of Poles believe in God, with another 15% believing in some spirit or life force.[2]

Eurobarometer 2005 Belief in God

Eurobarometer 2005 Belief in God

Of the 10 people who responded to our question about God, one didn’t believe in God, and two weren’t sure if he existed. One of the seven who believed in God had nothing to say about his perception of God. However, seven people – including one of the ones who wasn’t sure he existed – had a description of God.

Of those seven, three thought of him as a person (including one of our afore-mentioned agnostics). The other four thought of God as a force, or energy. The personal terms included “Almighty” “merciful”, and “forgiving”. One young man sheepishly referred to God as a “kind old grandpa.” The ones who specifically described God as a force said that He is a powerful, positive energy for good. These respondents indicated that God works in people’s lives, that He gave a feeling of security, that He was the quintessence of knowledge – but yet, they did not see Him as a person.

As an aside, the fact that in English, in this section, I use a male, personal pronoun for God has no connection with how our respondents referred to God. In Polish, the word God is male and personal, but it’s a function of grammar that then requires the pronoun to also be male and personal, in the same way that in Polish “car” is male and requires a male pronoun, and “truck” is female and requires a female pronoun. Although it may be that the majority of Poles think of God as male – without it simply being a function of grammar – our respondents showed a surprisingly high incidence of thinking of God as non-personal.

2. Death

For many of our respondents, the issue of death seemed to be the one that most engaged an emotional response – and even influenced the rest of the conversation. One person – the atheist from above – said that death was purely biological, and the person ceased to exist. 10 of the respondents were not sure – calling death a big question mark – although they had a few ideas. Two young men said they tried to never think about death. One young man said the Moslem idea of death was better – going to heaven and having 40 virgins. Only one person stated what I would consider a Catholic view of death – that when we die, we go to purgatory, and then on to either heaven or hell. According to him, even an atheist would have a chance in purgatory. The most common idea was that after death, we live on, not as a soul, but as a force, or a ghost, in a different dimension. We remain able to see what happens here, and sometimes to influence it. Not a single respondent thought of life after death as a corporeal existence.

3. The Spirit World

The view of death is intertwined with the view of the spirit world. Three of the male respondents do not believe in ghosts, or in any kind of spirit. They also didn’t see their ancestors as having any influence over them, other than genetic, or perhaps as an example to follow. All of the female respondents, and two of the men, however, do believe in spirits. One person (our faithful Catholic from above) specifically mentioned the “Holy Spirit”, and several believed in good and evil spirits that can possess a person.

I was surprised at the stories that the questions about spirits and our ancestors prompted, however. Several respondents began to share how their dead mother or father had talked to them, intervened in their life, or rescued them from danger. Even one lady who said she didn’t believe in ghosts went on to share two stories of how her mother, after death, had rescued her. Three people used the idea of “guardian angel” and “dead parent” interchangeably.

The question of death, spirits, and ancestors is one that should be explored much further. With the importance of All Saint’s Day in the Polish calendar, and the important Catholic practices of prayers and masses for the dead, it is easy to see how significant this issue is for Poles – and we evangelicals focus our attention on attacking Catholic practice, rather than attempting to understand the functional worldview of those around us, and proclaiming the real hope of eternal life in a New Heaven and New Earth.

4. The Church

The Church was reviled, criticized and kicked to the curb by most respondents. And I emphasize – all of the respondents would consider themselves Catholic. It was not mentioned as a place of spiritual growth, nor were its leaders considered to be authorities – with the glaring exception of John Paul II, who made nearly everyone’s list of authority figures.

Church buildings were sometimes mentioned as sources for spiritual power – because of the opportunity they provided for a person to concentrate, pray, and notice the beauty of the décor. But church services and church leaders were not considered. The Roman Catholic Church as an organization was not described positively and priests were divided into two groups – those who had a real calling, and cared about people; and those who didn’t. Our faithful Catholic from above said the Church has authority in spiritual matters, but then said, “The Church has authority on Sunday. Only.”

As an observer, I would say that Poland is in a time of upheaval concerning the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in society. There is a media and popular backlash right now against church personalities and positions. This probably partially explains some of our respondents’ negativity. However, some of the issues are deep-seated and enduring. It is likely that the Church’s position will continue to weaken.

"Christianization of Poland on April 14, 966" by Jan Matejko

“Christianization of Poland on April 14, 966” by Jan Matejko

My wife and I moved to Poland in the spring of 1999 to help the evangelical church with church planting and leadership development. Of course, at first we focused on learning Polish, and trying to understand Polish culture and worldview. My second year in Poland, I audited theology classes at the Catholic University of Lublin, in an attempt to better understand the Polish worldview.

For the past fourteen years, therefore, we have been involved in participant observation, and yet sometimes our observations did not seem to match what we expected to see from Roman Catholics. Of course, some of our dissonance was as a result of our mistaken preconceptions about Catholicism, and yet much of it was because of a real difference between what the Church officially teaches, and the functional worldview of most Poles. Hence, I looked forward to this ethnographic project, as an attempt to better understand that functional worldview, and hopefully to gain some insight into better ways to communicate the good news of the Gospel, and especially to understand the epistemology of the average Pole.

I currently pastor a Baptist church in Lublin, Poland, and lead the WorldVenture Poland team, but I did not want to build an ethnography of evangelical Poles. I discussed the project with other evangelical pastors in our area, and with our team, and one of my team members, Bruce, in Lubin, was also interested in doing the ethnographic questionnaire among his English students. So, he met with 4 men, ages 18-38, and sent me the results of his conversations. I met with 6 people, 4 women and 2 men, ages 23-51. After preparing an English questionnaire for Bruce, I met with my friend, Radek, to correct my Polish questionnaire. As a result of our meeting, we redacted the questionnaire from 33 questions to 25, but Bruce continued to use the original. All of the participants in the research are Roman Catholic, although a few would not consider themselves faithful to or in agreement with the Church’s teaching.

I have already shared this project with my teammates and with workers from other organizations here in Poland. Hopefully, our ongoing conversation and research into the Polish worldview and our Christian witness can help us better proclaim the Good News.

  1. History and Demographics

Poland was founded in 966 A.D. when King Mieszko I was baptized into the Western Latin rite. This decision meant that Poland remained Roman Catholic when some of its southern and eastern neighbors went with the Eastern (Orthodox) Church. Being Roman Catholic also meant a focus toward Rome and the West, rather than toward Constantinople and the East. As a result, religious, cultural and political ties integrated Poland with its Western neighbors, Austria and the German states, as well as with Lithuania when it also chose Catholicism. The Union of Lublin, in 1569, created the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, a nation-state which for nearly two hundred years was among Europe’s largest countries.

Poland considered itself a bulwark against the Baltic pagans, the Orthodox Russians, and later, the Moslems from the east and south. The role of King Jan III Sobieski in the Battle of Vienna (1683) to turn back the Ottomans was crucial to stopping the Moslem advance into Europe. Poland was a relatively tolerant society, with large numbers of Jews, Orthodox, pagans and even Moslem Tatars holding positions of prominence. The Reformation also saw many converts to Protestantism, especially Calvinism. However, wars with Protestant Sweden, most notably “the Deluge” (1655-60), led to a marked change in Polish tolerance, including the banishment of the Arian Brothers (a sect similar to the Bohemian Brethren), and the death penalty for conversion from Catholicism.

The valiant defense of the monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa during the Swedish Deluge, and the legends surrounding the icon of the Black Madonna, housed in the monastery, greatly assisted in the process of counter-Reformation in Poland. Still today, nearly every high school student in Poland makes a walking pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa. Although Poland continued to be relatively tolerant – in comparison with most other European countries – the religious beliefs of its citizens were tied to their ethnicity. Russians – Orthodox, Germans – Protestant, Jews, Moslem Tatars – and Poles were Catholic, with very few exceptions.

The Divisions of Poland among the Great Powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria in the late 1700’s, its rebirth in 1918, and World War II, led to a Poland that is today much less diverse, both ethnically and religiously. Poland is 97% ethnically Polish,[1] and is 89% Roman Catholic, 9 % non-religious, 1% Orthodox, and 0.5% Jehovah’s Witness. Lutherans are 0.22%, and Evangelicals are about 0.14% of the population.[2] The Lutheran and Orthodox adherents usually have a German or Russian ethnic background, respectively, so the common expression “to be Polish is to be Catholic” usually rings true.

  1. Social Structures

Family remains very important in Polish society. As I conducted my survey, nearly every respondent mentioned their father or, more often, their mother, as an authority figure. Those who had lost a parent believed that their dead parent still took interest in their lives, and in a couple of cases, believed that the dead loved one had intervened to rescue them from some calamity. A mass migration began in 2005, when 5% of the population moved to Western European countries in search of work, and this has begun to lead to a more mobile society, but families still remain in close proximity. Every year, the holiday that sees the most travel is not Christmas, or Easter, but rather All Saints’ Day, when families return to their home areas, and visit the graves of their loved ones. As one of my friends described it, “in this way we can include our whole family, alive and dead, in All Saints’ Day.”

The cultural diagnosis report of 2009 states that respondents listed “successful marriage” as the top (56%) condition for happiness. This also indicates the high value that Poles place on family. Once interesting trend, however, is that “friends” has doubled in importance for happiness since 1992[3]. This helps explain why one of my interviewees, when asked about ancestors influencing us, said that other loved ones who have died, not just those related to him, still influence his life today, and that he asks them for advice. Family is very important, but there is a growing trend toward looking for the most important relationships outside of family.

Super Soaker – buy your own at Amazon 🙂

The defining element of the modern celebration of Śmigus-Dyngus is . . . the Super Soaker. Although the holiday is probably pre-Christian – so over 1000 years old – it has remained strong in Poland. In the 1400s, Catholic authorities tried to ban the practice, but with no luck. Evidently, it’s celebrated in Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary as well.

In Poland, Easter Sunday and Monday are holidays, with no school from Maundy Thursday through the Tuesday after Easter. Lent and the Holy Week are still important cultural icons in Catholic Poland, so from Carnival – just before Lent – through Easter Sunday, devout Poles don’t have much fun. They make up for it on Easter Monday, in a nation-wide water-soaking free-for-all. Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration, as a lot of smart people simply stay inside! Young people though, especially kids, really enjoy this holiday!

Śmigus-Dyngus actually combines two very old customs. Śmigus involved hitting one another with willow switches, and soaking one another with water. This evolved into using the “palms” left over from Palm Sunday, but the water soaking remained. Dyngus referred to yielding painted Easter eggs, in order to avoid getting switched or soaked more, in a kind of ancient “trick or treat” ritual.

I’ve never seen willow switches being used, although that custom might remain in rural Poland. Thankfully, because I think that would hurt! Nor have I experienced the “dyngus” portion, with the chance to buy relief from a soaking. Over time, the soaking practice has changed, as well. At one time, the men would soak the girls on Easter Monday, and the girls couldn’t carry out their revenge until Tuesday. My friends tell me that men would use this custom to show their interest in a particular young woman – a kind of “mating ritual.” Later, the women began soaking the men first – with the same intentions :). Of course, the practice always had fertility overtones – and you can probably imagine the possible outcomes of soaking one another with water – one of the reasons the Church tried to outlaw the practice. Of course, if you didn’t get drenched – that was worse than getting soaked, because it meant no one was interested in you!

Nowadays, it’s whoever can soak first. Our Canadian friends got drenched one year when their kids soaked them in bed first thing Easter Monday morning. The young men in our church conspired to invite the young ladies to meet them Easter Monday – then soaked them. Our kids, without our knowledge, sat on the windowsill of our bedroom one Easter Monday and soaked all the neighbors as they went in and out of our apartment building. (Not the best way to endear yourself to your neighbors). This led to one of our better language flubs, when Kaye was telling our friends what our kids did, and instead of saying they “soaked” the neighbors, she said they “licked them all over.” (oblać-oblizać, 2 little letters)

This year, we have nearly a foot of snow on the ground, and the temps are below freezing. Pretty sure no one will be soaking anyone outside, although I could see some snowball fights happening. Personally, I don’t intend to find out. Like most years – I’m staying inside.

Easter in Poland

Easter Palm from dried flowers

Easter Palm from dried flowers

The Easter celebrations in Poland really begin with Palm Sunday, when most Poles will take a “palm,” like the one on the right, to church to be blessed. These palms are usually made from cut, dried flowers, and are very pretty. You can buy some mass-produced ones now in the larger stores, but the best are made by little old ladies, who then claim a corner of a sidewalk downtown, or in front of a store, and sell them in the week before Palm Sunday. For the amount of work they put into them, they are amazingly inexpensive.

The palms are a Catholic custom, and I don’t know any evangelical churches that incorporate the custom into Palm Sunday worship. I would love to, but our Baptist Church has an allergic reaction to anything that looks Catholic!

Monday through Wednesday, there are regular masses in Catholic Churches – which of course is true of every day of the year – but more people do attend these daily masses than at other times of the year.

Maundy Thursday is especially important for Catholic priests – and we have a LOT in Lublin. There is a special Mass (Mass of the Chrism) just for priests in the Cathedral, where priests renew their vows and celebrate the Eucharist. Holy oils are also blessed during this Mass. Later, in all Catholic churches, there is a Mass that includes the symbol of foot-washing. Some very committed Catholics will fast from Thursday evening until Easter breakfast.

On Good Friday, people will begin preparing for Easter breakfast, especially painting Easter eggs.

A basket of painted Easter eggs

A basket of painted Easter eggs

Old Polish pagan beliefs said that eggs chased away bad luck. I would be curious to know if this is the root of the custom of painting Easter eggs in other countries as well. Many people, especially those with kids still home, will paint their own. Although just like the palms you can buy some mass-produced ones, the best ones are sold by the same little old ladies, who seem to have not moved from their sidewalk.

The faithful will prepare a grave for Christ at church, and many will take part in the Stations of the Cross processions. Each area of the city will have its own procession, with the most important one beginning at the Cathedral, and making its way through the Old Town. This procession is an “ecumenical” procession, involving representatives of other churches, including Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, and sometimes Pentecostal. It is based on the “Scriptural” Way of the Cross. After the Way of the Cross, a figure of Jesus will be laid in the grave, to await Easter Resurrection.

Some men will be chosen to guard the grave through Saturday, and during the day Saturday, many people will come visit the grave. When they visit, they will also bring Easter baskets to church to be blessed. These baskets are highly symbolic, with each element having some meaning connected to the death and Resurrection of Christ. However, basically, they are a wicker basket lined with a white cloth, containing some bread, kielbasa and ham, an egg, vinegar, salt and horseradish. In addition, there will be a little lamb, sometimes made of wood or plastic, but best if it’s made of bread or sugar. These baskets are blessed by a priest, and everything is ready for the Easter breakfast.

Easter Sunday begins with the Resurrection Mass at 6:00 am – another one of those great ideas that hasn’t caught on at our Baptist Church :). Easter then is a family day, and after Mass, begins with everyone sharing with one other some of the blessed eggs. Easter breakfast includes a malt soup – sometimes in a bread bowl, hard-boiled eggs, white kielbasa, cold cuts, horseradish, and a special cake called a Babka. (which is slang for little old lady – go figure).

Easter Monday has its own special tradition – old, pagan, and one of the greatest traditions in the world – but that’s for the next post.

Easter Monday in Poland

St. Vitus' Cathedral in Praguefrom wikipedia

St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague
from wikipedia

In Part I and II I looked at Matthew 7:13-27 as a beginning point for looking at “nominal” Christians, and in part III, a definition of a “secular” or nominal Christian. In this post, I will look a little more closely at “secular” Christianity in Europe.

In “Recognizing Secular Christians,” Voas and Day point out that, despite the rise of secularism, “many people remain interested in church weddings and funerals, Christmas services and local festivals. They believe in something out there, pay at least lip service to so-called Christian values (mostly concerning duties to others rather than duties to God), and may be willing to identify with a denomination.”[1] Most people in Europe can still specify their religious background, and, depending on the wording of the question, will choose some Christian affiliation. In fact, these nominal Christians comprise more than half the population in most European countries.[2]

With the waning of religious influence in Europe, though, religious identity has remained, but a religious worldview has disappeared. Usually, a Christian worldview has been replaced by a secular worldview. Many Europeans still believe in God, but He is now a much more distant God. Although most Europeans would still not define themselves as atheist or materialist, they have become “practical atheists and materialists.” Of course, once again, there is a wide range of belief across Europe. Western Europe, especially France, is frequently cited as equivalent to all of Europe, and non-Europeans picture a secular, godless society – a picture that is abominable to most Poles.

However, many Europeans continue to search for a spiritual element to their lives. As one young man, fed up with organized religion, put it recently, “I couldn’t stay in the church and remain a hypocrite, giving assent to things I didn’t believe in. But I couldn’t become an atheist, either. There had to be a third way.” 41% of Norwegians, 48% of French and 54% of Czechs claim to not believe in God, but only 10%, 19% and 20% of those respondents self-identified as “atheist,” respectively.[3] Although many European countries have a high percentage of people who do not believe in God, there remain others – e.g. Malta, Ireland, Poland and Italy – where the percentage of people who do not believe in God remains well below 10%.[4] Over half of EU citizens believe there is a God (52%), and another quarter (27%) believe there is some sort of spirit or life force. Only 18% declare that they don’t believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force[5]

So, although secularism is certainly on the rise, all across Europe, there remains a majority of Europeans for whom God has some importance. Even the Church, although perhaps limited to weddings, baptisms, and funerals, still functions as a part of their lives. In the light of Jesus’ words, though, some importance is not enough importance. In fact, the path where God has some importance seems to be the broad road to destruction, the crowded highway to hell. Religious leaders who don’t conscientiously warn their parishioners of the danger at the end of that road should take a close look at their sheepskin robes, and make sure the wolf pelt isn’t peeking through.

Of course, the words of Jesus are not reserved for a nominal Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox or Anglican. There was no brand name attached. In fact, Jesus indicates that some might even work miracles in His name – and yet never know Him. Such a description may even better fit some Evangelicals than the aforementioned denominations. And, in truth, what would be the point of converting a nominal Catholic into a nominal Evangelical? Jesus is expecting a radical life change, squeezing through the narrow gate, climbing the black (difficult) trail, building on the hearing and obeying of His commands – a life characterized by a living, intimate relationship with Him, not by affiliation with a denomination, mental assent to a set of beliefs and periodic church attendance.

In the next posts we will begin to look at strategies for life-transformation of nominal Christians. If you are in Europe, how would you describe the “nominal” Christian in your country?

[1]  Voas, David and Abby Day. 2010. Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from (3)

[2] Ibid. 11

[3] Greeley, Andrew. 2003. Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millenium. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. Quoted in Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns, by Phil Zuckerman. Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin, University of Cambridge Press, 2007

[4] Ibid.

[5] Special Eurobarometer Special Eurobarometer Wave 63.1 225 (June 2005) 9. Apr. 2010

In my town, Lublin, Poland, nearly all the places of worship are in the Christian tradition. Although there are 350,000 people in Lublin, non-Poles and non-Christians are a tiny minority. There is one Islamic Center, and four “dharmic” religion centers, but no mosque or Eastern temple. The only choice left is a Jewish synagogue. In 1939, Lublin had 42,000 Jews, more than 100 Jewish synagogues, a Jewish hospital and orphanage, and one of the most important Yeshivas. Lublin was a cultural and political capital for Eastern European Jews. However, the Nazi occupation saw most Lublin Jews exterminated, and all but one synagogue destroyed. That one synagogue ceased to function in the 1980’s, because less than 10 Jewish males could be found in the area. It remained possible to visit it as a tourist, but services were very rare.


Lublin Yeshiva

However, in 2005, the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was re-opened, and a synagogue was built inside, finished in 2007. (More about the synagogue here: Virtual Shtetl)I visited this synagogue, but I think it is impossible to simply visit this prayer room without being mindful of the Jewish history of Lublin, and the incredible suffering involved. The Yeshiva and synagogue are in a building built in the early 20th century that was “appropriated” by the Medical College of Lublin after World War II, and was not returned to the Jews until the beginning of this century.

Next to the synagogue are 3 rooms that show the history of the yeshiva and Jews in Lublin, with plans for a Museum of Hasidism. Although there are no pictures or other mementos of Jewish suffering in the main room of the synagogue itself, those rooms are only a few steps away.

Majdanek Concentration Camp

Majdanek Concentration Camp

In addition, just two blocks away is the “New” Jewish cemetery, where thousands of tombstones and graves were bulldozed, crushed into gravel, and used to pave the entry road to the Nazi death camp of Majdanek. So, a Jew could march across the tombstones, and perhaps bones, of his ancestors as he made his way to the gas chamber.

A short video tour of the synagogue can be found here: Virtual Shtetl video. This was my second visit to the synagogue, and this time I realized how similar the room was to a small Christian chapel. My first visit, I was struck by the differences, but this time the similarities seemed more striking. Of course, this is a new synagogue, so everything is freshly painted, the oak floors look brand new, and the bookshelves on the side of the room are still nearly empty.

There are 7 wooden benches on each side, facing the front. Each bench has a small book shelf and reading shelf in front of it. There are also fabric-covered wood strips near the floor, in front of each bench, where a kneeler would be in some Christian churches. These strips are evidently foot rests, however. There are four Corinthian style pillars on each side, painted green, supporting a balcony. The synagogue has a side entrance, and there were no special requirements to enter, at least for a tourist like myself.

Near the front, there were 2 center-facing benches on each side. I wondered who would sit here, but I noticed one picture from a special service in the synagogue that showed these benches turned to face the congregation, with what looked like VIPs in these front benches. There were also reading benches, with no seats against the front wall. These had indentations on the top front, the right size to hold writing utensils. There was another reading bench in the exact center of the room, facing the front, again with no seat.



There was a raised platform (called a Bema)  in the front center of the room , with another reading bench, no pen well. There was also a seating bench on this platform, far enough back from the reading bench that one would have to stand and approach it in order to read. The raised platform was surrounded by a cast iron railing to set it off from the rest of the room.

The front of the room is dominated by a tall raised platform with steps going up to a large locked wooden cabinet (the Ark). The cabinet is oak, decorated with the same Corinthian pillars, topped by 2 round pieces – that looked like overturned goblets. The top center of the cabinet has a wood and gold emblem of the 10 commandments, with a red and gold crown on top. There are lions or lambs facing the crowns on the tablets.

The walls have simple, normal Polish wall sconces with halogen bulbs, but one small menorah is on a shelf high on the front wall. A sign below the menorah said that it is a gift to the Jewish community in Lublin, in memory of 40,000 Lublin Jews killed in WW2. There is also a red electric bulb, made to look like an eternally burning flame on the front wall. There were also 2 Hebrew pages framed on each side of the large cabinet on the front wall. One thing seemed a little out of place – a small advertisement for a Polish flooring company attached to the base of the platform in the front of the room.

There was also a cast-iron container for donations – about one-fourth full, with almost all American dollar bills. (Only one Polish banknote) There was a reading or teaching room in the back, on the side. I found a number of books there, all in Hebrew and English (no Polish books). These books included some synagogue service manuals, and I looked through one of them. There were lots of responsive readings, similar to psalms, but with no Scripture references and I didn’t recognize any particular psalm. There was another room on the side, near the front, with pictures of rebuilding and reopening the yeshiva. There was also a sink in this room. I was not able to go up to the balcony

Women's Balcony

Women’s Balcony

(the section for women), but I could see some pages of text hanging on racks. There is also a large chandelier in the center of the room, with halogen bulbs, and floodlights around the top of the walls, pointed toward the high ceiling.

I was interested by the similarities with Christian churches – especially Catholic – and by the fact that there was almost no sign of being in Poland.

(All images from Wikipedia – I didn’t take any pictures)

I grew up in a conservative, Baptist pastor’s family, where it was assumed that once you reached a certain age – 8 or 9 – and had prayed a prayer of salvation, you would get baptized. My wife had a similar background, and we were baptized as children. We both attended Baptist colleges, and started ministry in Baptist churches, where many ideas related to baptism were simply taken for granted – immersion, after a profession of salvation, non-salvific in itself.

For the past fourteen years we have been ministering in Poland, 12 of those years in a Baptist church. Although the beliefs in the Baptist church about baptism remain the same, none of them are taken for granted. Poland is still 90% or so Catholic, and most people in our church have some kind of a Catholic background. In other words, most of them were baptized (sprinkled) as infants, and taught that that baptism saved them. So, deciding to get baptized (or re-baptized) as an adult is a truly life-changing decision. To be honest, I don’t think it usually is that life-changing in the American evangelical churches I’m familiar with. I would have to admit that it wasn’t for me – in fact, I barely remember my baptism.

Thankfully, being baptized doesn’t have quite the cost (death, imprisonment) that it does in many countries. However, it still can mean ostracism by family and friends, because the person has “left the faith.” This only adds to the weight of the decision to get baptized. One of the implications for me in ministry is that I don’t try to rush anyone into baptism. Some pastors here do. I don’t feel that I can in good conscience manipulate someone into a decision that may have significant consequences for them. Of course, I teach about baptism, encourage people to get baptized, and am over-joyed when they choose to do so.

One of the factors for me is the belief that baptism doesn’t save. Of course, not every evangelical would agree – that’s fine. But I want to make sure, if possible, that the candidate is not simply exchanging an evangelical salvation by works for their Catholic one.

It’s also interesting that here in Poland, the key point that people emphasize is baptism as an adult – or at least after a certain age. This seems more important than immersion, more important even than the discussion of the saving grace of baptism. In fact, there are people in our Baptist church that believe that baptism – at least in part – saves them (yeah, I know – not a Baptist doctrine – welcome to the reality of church.) But the idea of baptizing children is unthinkable. And they struggle every time an American missionary family asks if their children can be baptized!

Yesterday, I had the amazing privilege of baptizing four people. All four talked about how they wanted their baptism to be a public show of their “belonging to Christ.”  We heard four completely different stories of God drawing someone to Himself. M. was connected to our church since childhood, but didn’t come to Christ until his unbelieving, alcoholic father passed away. H. was also a part of our youth group, and prayed to accept Christ at an English camp.

Baptism 2011

Baptism 2011

K. experienced every kind of violence possible as a child. She tried drugs, alcohol and sex to fill the God-void in her life. Eventually, she tried to kill herself. Three times. But then she heard about the love and grace of God – and surrendered to Him.

A. grew up in a Catholic family, with parents – especially her dad – who read the Bible and prayed regularly. However, as an adult she began to understand that she was trying to do everything on her own to gain favor with God. She asked God to change her stone heart into a heart of flesh. And God did!

Thrilling stories of God working – and what a thrill to be able to help them along their journey. Days like yesterday make it fun to be a pastor!

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

Last time was 600 years ago – as pretty much everyone in the Western world has now heard many times. Popes don’t resign – how can the representative of Christ, who speaks on doctrine ex cathedra, who was chosen by the Holy Spirit through the cardinals, give up his office? One Polish blogger compared the Pope’s resignation to the denial of Christ by Peter, the “first pope.” The same blogger indicated that since the Pope is abdicating, this casts doubt on all of the claims that the Church makes about the Pope anyway.

Now, like many Western Protestants, I don’t mind at all that the Pope, who is 85, is stepping down. It makes sense, he’s earned it – if only by nature of the unbelievable stress it must be to be Pope – and the Pope’s abdication has absolutely no effect on my faith, or my perception of the Roman Catholic Church. But I live and minister in Poland, one of the last real bastions of the Church. The abdication of the Pope is topic number 1 the last few days. And this is in spite of a growing resentment among many Catholics towards the Church. I think most Poles have a positive image of Benedict XVI. The cynic may say the Church has done a good job “selling” his image, but in Poland, that would have been a pretty tough sell, without some very impressive quality to go along with the image. He replaced the greatest Pole in modern history, the savior of the Polish nation from communism, Karol Wojtyła. And Ratzinger is German! But Benedict XVI has been erudite, sincere, and seemed committed to cleaning up some of the problems in the Church. Sure, he probably hasn’t been as popular as John Paul II was, certainly not in Poland – but then, who could have been?

The question really is, of course – who’s next? Who will be the next “Vicar of Christ?” And what effect will he have on the Roman Catholic Church, or even the world at large? Already Polish commentators are writing about the potential changes in the Church, if only as a result of new bishops appointed. Benedict XVI worked hard to reintroduce academia and rationalism into the Church, to reinforce Catholicism as a viable, intellectual framework. Will the new Pope continue that trend?

Or will he usher in the end of the world? Many people understand the medieval prophecies of Nostradamus and Malachy to indicate that the last Pope, Petrus Romanus, will be black, and will usher in the end of the world. Before I quote my dad, and say “hogwash”, I think many Poles would see an African Pope as just about the end of the world. lists the betting odds for the new Pope. The current front runner is from Ghana. Hmm. Cool! End of the world, here we come! Now, on the one hand, I don’t really care who becomes the next Pope. I’m not Catholic, and I’m not planning on betting on the race. However, the next Pope will have an effect on Poles – Catholic and non – and I do care deeply about that. So, this might sound strange to my fellow evangelicals in Poland, but – I’m praying for this process. Praying that God would use the choice to bring people to Himself.

Oh – one last thing – maybe I am pulling for one candidate. Currently listed as 80 to 1 odds – I always did like an underdog. Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, famous for refusing to give John Kerry communion, because of Kerry’s stance on abortion. Burke comes from Richland Center, WI, and is my step-grandfather’s nephew. We saw each other only once, at Grandpa Theron’s funeral, when he was still bishop of LaCrosse.  But – wouldn’t it be cool to be related to the Pope??

Raymond Leo Burke

Raymond Leo Burke

Fun facts about Polish hospitals

Posted: February 26, 2013 in Lublin, Poland
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1. Bring your own toilet paper.

2. Bring your own fruit.

3. Bring your own water – you’ll get lots of tea, but water is a little less likely.

4. Bring your own towel, washcloth, toothbrush, etc. – you might be able to buy a few things, if the hospital has a little store, but don’t count on it.

5. Bring your own knife, fork, spoon, cup, and dish soap to wash them! (Thanks, Christie M., for the reminder)

6. Look forward to getting to know a few other people really, really well. Private rooms are uncommon.

7. Bring your medical records with you, and keep them with you.

8. Bring some money. Thankfully, bribing the doctors and nurses is less common than it used to be – but you’ll need to it to buy all the things you forgot to bring. Like toilet paper. And water.

9. Hope you enjoy pajamas and a robe (and slippers). That’s the required hospital fashion.

10. Don’t expect to get a lot of information. Poland is a high-context culture, you are expected to just “know” these things.

11. If you are having surgery, you are expected to provide your own blood for a possible transfusion. Or have someone donate in your place.,36001,11956036,Pacjent_przed_operacja_ma_zalatwic_krew__Szpitale_.html

12. Assuming you pay privately – which you do if you aren’t part of the national health service – expect to pay about 10% of what you would in the United States (this is the best fact of all!!) If you are in the EU health care system – most standard procedures are free.

Preaching in a Polish village

Yesterday, I visited Rudka, a village on the Ukrainian border, to preach in the Baptist church. I’ve preached here many times, but I thought I would describe the visit this time – to let you experience it along with me.

Rudka is about 80km from Lublin, and now, with some newly built highways, it takes about 80 min to drive. The drive is through mostly flat farmland, with long hills that provide the opportunity to look far across the countryside. As you pass Chelm, and near Rudka, the terrain becomes more swampy and forested. Rudka is right on the Bug River, the eastern border of Poland.

Catholic Church in Rudka

Catholic Church in Rudka


Baptist Church in Rudka

Baptist Church in Rudka


Rudka meeting room

Rudka meeting room

meeting room in Rudka

Rudka meeting room

The route from Lublin brings you right past the cute little brick Catholic church, and straight toward the Baptist church. The Baptist church was built in the 1980s, with money from America, and is quite a bit larger than the Catholic church – probably the only place in the country where this is true. During the winter, though, the Baptists meet in an old wooden schoolhouse next to the church. They moved this building onto the property about 10 years ago, and remodeled it into a small home. About 1/3 of the building is comprised of the meeting room, with a fireplace. Since the church only has about 25 members, the room is perfect for winter services. The auditorium in the church building isn’t heated, so until they were able to remodel the school, services in the winter were pretty miserable! Rudka struggles with a frequent problem in Poland for evangelical churches – the large building that Western money helped build has proven very difficult and expensive for the small church to maintain.

I arrived about 9:30 for the 10:00 am service. In our church in Lublin (a fairly large city), the music group is practicing by 9:00, and people start arriving for church by 9:30, mostly because of city bus schedules. In Rudka, however, the first person came at 9:50, an old lady who had walked about 2km. However, by a couple minutes past 10, everyone who was going to come had done so, and the service started. We sang choruses, the leader, Jacek, read a passage, and, as is traditional in our smaller Baptist churches in Poland, there was a time of prayer –when anyone and everyone who wants to prays, and a time for testimonies – again, open to anyone. I preached, and closed with another prayer time. We sang a couple more songs, announcements and offering (some things are completely cross-cultural!!), and wrapped up the service.

The congregation was a mix of old and young, although there were less than 20 people at the service. Most of the younger people had gone to Chelm to hear a former pastor speak.

Afterwards, we had lunch together. A few people had brought food to share. Not everyone stayed, but most did, and another couple came, after attending a service in Chelm, just to share lunch with us. Informal and relaxed, but a couple people did share testimonies again about God working in their lives. We ate and fellowship for another couple of hours, and I headed home.

The group in Rudka is definitely less time-conscious than we are in Lublin, or than most churches in America. This is probably a common difference between urban and rural settings. Also, although they always say how much they appreciate my coming, and my preaching, I think the high point of the day is lunch together afterwards. And I wholeheartedly agree, and I think it should be that way!! J It’s a small group, and they have squabbles just like any other group, but that family time together is at least as important as the sermon.

I would encourage you to remember Rudka in your prayers. Pray for Jacek and Bozena, Darek, Mariusz, and other leaders. Pray that they would be faithful in their witness – it’s harder in the village than it is in a city, where anonymity is the rule. Pray that they would be able to keep their relationships strong, even during times of conflict.