A Week in Albania
A VISIT TO ALBANIA
My wife Anne and I returned on Monday from Albania where I was speaking at a conference. A week in Albania seemed a very long time. It’s a wonderful, tragic, beautiful, confusing country. Perhaps the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. The astonishing blue of the Adriatic sea, the towering mountains, the rivers and lakes, clear as crystal…there are times when you catch your breath in awe. But oh, the mess. A giant demolition site – broken roads, rusted bridges, crumbling concrete bunkers, piles of rubble everywhere. Hardly a building standing intact. Did it all just fall apart, ruined by the ravages of time and neglect? Or was it destroyed in an insanity of wanton destruction? Both, I guess. Yes, that cafe, that power station were ripped apart in the troubles of ’97. But long before that, the roads must have been left to crumble, the pylons left to rust. Fifty years of Communist rule left the country poverty-stricken and backward. Six months of anarchy in ’97 destroyed virtually all that was left.
We spent two days in Berat. An awesome setting, ringed by the mountains. It was an industrial town. Fifty-five thousand people live there. Our host points out the factories where once 8,000 people worked. Today nobody works. Nothing, we’re told, is manufactured in Albania. "What do they do now?" we ask. "They sell bananas at the side of the road" is the answer. Or they run cafes where you can buy spaghetti bolognese or a dish of chips. I look for some distinctively Albanian food and can’t find it.
We visited the orphanage in Berat. We push our way through narrow alleys, up a cobbled track, past piles of mouldering rubbish and enter a nondescript building. While we are there the lights go out, leaving us in darkness – another power cut. There are ten children in the home – four lads, six girls abandoned by their parents. We watch them eat their evening meal: a plate of spaghetti. The staff have done wonders in making the home attractive. Bright pictures on the walls, colourful bedspreads, stuffed toys. Gifts from the UK have provided a new fitted kitchen. But in the winter, the damp still creeps through the building and leaves the children shivering with cold.
Aurel and Migena are a remarkable couple. She’s the director of the home, he’s the administrator. He’s thirty-ish, she’s a little younger. They’ve been married a year. We joke with them. "Married a year and you’ve got ten children already..". He took us up to see the castle which looks down on the town. Five hundred people still live in the castle area – there are forty-two churches built into its walls. In the centre of the castle stands an empty shell of a building. It too was once a church. Then in the communist era it became a showpiece restaurant where foreign presidents were entertained. Now it stands desolate. The frames have gone from the windows; the wooden panels have been ripped from the ceiling; the electric cables from the walls. Even the huge ovens in what was the kitchen have been torn apart. But why? It was all destroyed in the troubles of ’97 when the nation went mad and every man and child armed himself against his neighbour. "But who was fighting against whom?" we ask. "Everyone" he answers. No identifiable armies or parties. Just an orgy of killing and destruction in which everything that could be destroyed was destroyed. During those months the children from the orphanage had to be dispersed. Aurel asked each of the workers from the orphanage to care for one. Each day he walked through empty streets past mutilated and burned corpses, visiting each child in turn, taking wages to the helpers. Nobody has offered him or the children counselling, or compensated him for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Anne and I read together daily from the "One Year Bible". Our set chapters while we were in Albania were from Isaiah – the prophecies against the nations in chapters 13 to 25. Again and again, there seemed an eerie appropriateness about Isaiah’s words from 2,800 years ago. We looked at the deserted fields and factories and read Isaiah 19: the Lord’s judgements against Egypt.. "Those who work with combed flax will despair, the weavers of fine linen will lose hope. The workers in cloth will be dejected, and all the wage earners will be sick at heart.."
We read Isaiah 15 – the exile of Moab and thought of the Kosovar refugees who queued two years ago at the border crossings into Albania. My heart cries out over Moab, her fugitives flee as far as Zoar… Like fluttering birds pushed from the nest, so are the women of Moab at the fords of the Arnon… Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you; be their shelter from the destroyer.."
God’s judgements against nations are real and terrible.
We were in the hotel in Saranda when news broke of the events in New York and Washington. We became aware of a group of excited Albanians gathered round the television set in the bar. As we watched events unfold over the next few days, we found Isaiah speaking for us again… "Oh, the raging of many nations – they rage like the raging sea! Oh, the uproar of the peoples – they roar like the roaring of great waters.." "Like whirlwinds sweeping through the southland, an invader comes from the desert, from a land of terror.. At this my body is racked with pain, pangs seize me like those of a woman in labour. I am staggered by what I hear, I am bewildered by what I see. My heart falters.." "I said, ‘Woe to me! The treacherous betray! With treachery the treacherous betray! Terror and pit and snare await you, O people of the earth..’ "
Today the rebuilding has begun across Albania. After thirty miles of roads no better than cart-tracks, suddenly you will find yourself travelling on a broad motorway for ten miles. Along the water front of Saranda where we got off the ferry, new hotels and apartment blocks are being built. It’s to be the tourist gateway into Albania. We stayed in a very smart, comfortable hotel and watched Greek TV in our air-conditioned room. They’re not used to Western ways. Breakfast was a hard-boiled egg on a plate, a slice of cheese and a cup of warm milk. But once they understood our signals, the coffee was excellent.
Gjirokaster, where we spent the Lord’s Day, is the most wealthy town in Albania – there you will find restaurants and fast-food places as attractive as anything in Manchester. They’ve been built in the last three years. There are goods in the shops if you have money to buy them. There’s an air of confidence and hope.
Even in Berat there are new buildings rising. They are mostly concrete shells, with maybe one floor complete, waiting for funding before they can progress. Where does the money come from? Some from the EC, we are told. Some from mafia leaders who make fortunes outside Albania and send the money back, planning to return one day. And of course, Pepsi and Coca-Cola are leading the commercial revival.
Friends who visited Albania a year ago say that it’s amazing how quickly Albania is being rebuilt. "It’s miraculous". But the greater miracle is to see God rebuilding his church among the ruins left by atheistic communism. It was the boast of the communist leaders that in a generation they had eradicated religion from the life of the Albanian people. Yet through it all, God kept alive a handful of believers to be the seed of a future harvest. When communism fell in 1991, there were still two or three believers left from all who had been converted before the last missionary left in 1940. Again, we read Isaiah’s words about the remnant: "Yet some gleanings will remain, as when an olive tree is beaten, leaving two or three olives on the topmost branches.."
And today those two or three have been multiplied a thousand fold. There are gospel churches in all the major towns of Albania. We looked out from the castle across Berat and asked Aurel how many true believers – adult believers – lived in that city. Perhaps a hundred and twenty-five, he answered. He believes the children in the orphanage have all been saved. I hope he is right. They are happy children who pray in private as well as around the meal table. I felt the tears prick in my eyes when they sang for us "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.. He’s Got You and Me in His Hands.. "
I had the privilege of preaching to twenty-five or so earnest Albanians at our conference in Saranda – mostly young church-leaders and their wives. Many of them had extraordinary testimonies of what Christ has done for them. The very fact that such a conference could be held is an amazing demonstration of the power of the kingdom. Enver Hoxha’s regime is buried in the concrete rubble of the Albania he tried to build. Christ’s kingdom stands unbroken and unbreakable.
This conference was strategic. These are first generation believers – none of them of more than ten years standing. They’re conscious that they are pioneers. The foundations that are laid now will shape the future of Christianity in Albania for generations to come. It was largely Trevor Baker’s vision that a conference should be held to introduce them to expository preaching and Reformed doctrine. The conference was sponsored by the Albanian Evangelical Mission for whom Trevor works. Shaun Thompson, pastor from Gjirokaster chaired it. He has charm, zeal and eloquence. I spoke five times with Migena as my interpreter. The first address was a survey of Acts 1, then four addresses on Acts 2. These were big themes: the transition from old covenant to new; the role of the apostles; the significance of Pentecost and the gift of tongues; the primacy of preaching and the message the apostles preached; the formation and pattern of the first gospel church in Jerusalem.
And they listened. So much of it was new to them. I prefaced the first address with a plea for consecutive Bible exposition. That itself was a mind-blowing idea for most of them. They have never heard a book of the Bible expounded. And then, the thought that there are no apostles today! The Bible is complete and sufficient? Albanian Christianity has been shaped by the Charismatic movement. They all know men who claim to be apostles and speak of their own authority. In every discussion session we returned to that issue. "But what about the authority of the Spirit?" "What about new revelations?" And slowly it began to dawn on them. If God has spoken once for all in Scripture, we need no new apostles, no new revelations. The work of the Spirit now is to move us to believe and understand and obey his once-for-all revelation in Scripture.
That is the watershed issue for Christians in Albania as it is in so many places. God willing, some will look back on this conference as the point at which they first realised that they can build on an immoveable foundation.
I had met my fellow speaker once or twice before but very briefly. Ian Harrison pastors a church in Stoke-on-Trent. He’s thirty-ish, quietly spoken, warm and gracious. And he’s a fine preacher. He spoke three times on true worship. The fear of God in worship. The love of God in worship. The place of our emotions in worship. These were moving, powerful addresses which touched my heart. The themes were familiar to me but Ian dealt with them in fresh ways, turning to passages that I hadn’t anticipated. Again, folk were gripped. So much was new to them. It would have been worth travelling to Albania just to get to know Ian and hear those sermons.
We sang with missionary friends on our last night in Albania. "So be it Lord! Thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away; Thy kingdom stands and grows for ever, till all thy creatures own thy sway". And I meditated on Isaiah’s words: "The oppressor will come to an end, and destruction will cease; the aggressor will vanish from the land. In love, a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it – one from the house of David – one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness".
Stephen Rees, Pastor, Grace Baptist Church Stockport
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