Dr Joel Beeke’s experience in Riga Latvia
DR. JOEL BEEKE’S EXPERIENCE IN RIGA LATVIA
I would then literally talk to myself — “Focus on Jesus! Focus on Jesus!,” and would again feel God’s intervening grace.[In early January Dr Joel Beeke flew to Latvia to give a series of lectures and to preach. While he was In Riga he was attacked, robbed, gagged and bound. This is his account of that fearful incident.]
In these days, I have been made acutely aware that we live, move, and have our being in the Lord, both physically and spiritually. Thus I am doubly grateful for the opportunity to write you. Here is a summary of my itinerary so far.
I flew from Grand Rapids to Riga in Latvia via Toronto and Prague and the flights were all on time. I read mostly a textbook on the Reformation in preparation for my upcoming Reformation Church History class at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids. The chapters on the Reformation in Netherlands and in France I found to be particularly helpful and humbling. How profoundly both Reformed pastors and people suffered in these countries! Did you know that more than 500 people were martyred in the Netherlands between 1530 and 1555 for espousing Reformation convictions?
I tried to evangelize two Roman Catholic men sitting next to me, one on the flight over the ocean and the other from Prague to Riga. In both cases I had plenty of time and opportunity, but failed rather miserably. One man kept trying to persuade me that we thought alike — that we were both Christians, only that I went to the Lord through Jesus, and he went to the Lord through Jesus and the saints. “I prayed to St. Anthony, the patron saint for travel, for protection on this flight, and you prayed to Jesus, but there’s really no difference,” he said. He was rather frustrating to reason with, because every time I had him trapped theologically, such as when I proved to him that popes often contradicted each other, he would attempt to refute me by appealing to emotion. “But I’ve seen the pope,” he would say, “and when you see him, you can feel that God is in him.” He even said to me twice that the pope is “god,” but later backed down from that when I pressed him, changing his statement to, “The pope is like God.” We debated about saints, about Mary, about purgatory, about “grace alone” versus “grace and works,” about papal infallibility, about authority (Scripture alone or Scripture and tradition), etc. In the end, I offered to send him The Bible and Roman Catcholicism, published by Banner of Truth Trust, but he wouldn’t commit to reading it. The bottom line was this: He didn’t really care what was truth, but was faithful to Roman Catholicism because it made him feel good.
I faired little better with the second, and sadly, gave up sooner, and went back to studying. Looking back, I was probably too aggressive in both instances. I do believe, however, that we can all learn a lesson from these two men: Do we blindly believe certain religious convictions merely based on our feelings or do we root all our beliefs in Scripture? Are we more concerned with feeling good than with knowing truth? Do we adjust “truth” to what we wish, or are we adjusted by the truth?
I waited in vain for my luggage at the Riga airport. In fact, six days later, it still has not arrived. It contains over $1,000 of books for the Riga Reformed Theological Seminary (RRTS) as well as my personal clothing. Artis Clemins, the 27-year-old administrator of RRTS, picked me up at the airport. He is a soft-spoken young man of great talent. By age 23 he had risen quite high in management at Riga’s Coca-Cola plant, having dozens of employees under him, when the emptiness of his life began to plague him. He returned to school to study philosophy, and was converted through reading Augustine’s Confessions, one of the assigned texts in a philosophy course. He embraced the Reformed faith almost immediately, by the grace of God. With the help of a few organizations and some theologians and businessmen, RRTS was born within one year after his conversion.
RRTS has 35 students in all, at present. About half are studying for the ministry; the other half are taking courses largely for personal growth. Courses are taught by professors from various countries. The only staff consists of Artis and a young lady name Baiba, who assists him. The seminary is run by a local board of four ministers and businessmen, who
take an active role in its welfare.
Since RRTS’s conception three to four years ago, visiting professors have been housed in a third-floor apartment flat adjacent to the seminary. It’s a nice, clean apartment rented year-round for this purpose, and is less than a one-minute walk from the seminary. After a quick tour of the seminary classroom and library, Artis brought me to the apartment where I had opportunity to rest for an hour before lecturing on Tuesday evening.
I lectured from 6:00-9:00 p.m. on the Holy Spirit — His nature, importance, and work in the OT and NT eras — to two dozen students.
I was simultaneously translated via headphones into Latvian and Russian. The simultaneous translation works well because one can move along at full speed without having to wait for the translator.
After sleeping out, I took a long walk through the neighborhood of the seminary. I was assured that it was safe during the day but probably best not to walk alone at night, even though many people did and there hadn’t been much crime for some time in the area. Prior to Latvia’s independence in 1991, there was much more crime when the country was under Russian rule. The much-feared Russian mafia still is very active here, I was told, but they’re only interested in large money-making ventures.
After spending the afternoon studying for my lectures and for the Reformation course, I again lectured from 6:00-9:00 p.m., continuing the course on Soteriology (that is, the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer). My lectures dealt with the believer’s union with Christ, and I felt much liberty in delivering them. My soul was warmed by a sense of the Spirit’s work in my own soul as well. Close to 30 students were present — the most they’ve had thus far in a single class session, I was told.
To glorify our worthy God and to provide an accurate account, I will now write in some detail of what happened next. After answering all the students’ questions, I went to my apartment flat. (Artis had to leave before the lectures were over because he was looking after two overseas mission guests who came for a short visit.) I opened the door to my apartment, set my books down immediately, then turned to lock the door from the inside, when the door was suddenly flung open by two young men, who pushed their way in. I tried to resist them, and shouted for help, but one hit me in the face with his fist, then tackled me, covered my mouth, and held a knife menacingly above my head. They were both talking quite loudly to me in Latvian or Russian, but of course I couldn’t understand anything, except that they kept repeating, “Russian mafia! Russian mafia! Russian mafia!”
They then threw me on the couch. I gave them my wallet, hoping that would help. They appeared quite happy with the money and credit cards, but the knife didn’t come down. The one holding the knife above me then pointed to my watch and ring, motioning for them, asking, “Gold? Gold?” He then motioned to me to get down on the floor, and made me lay face down. The other man came from the bedroom with a sheet, and within seconds, they had the sheet cut up into long narrow strips. They wrapped one long strip tightly around my head and eyes several times, blindfolding me, then pulled my arms behind me roughly and tied my wrists together just as tightly with another long strip. With yet another two strips, they bound my ankles together as tightly as possible, tying eight to ten knots.
One man guarded me while his partner searched the apartment. My guard alternated from roughness and threats to leaving me alone for the next forty-five minutes while I lay there. Sometimes he would stand on me, other times he would put his boot on the center of my back and press down, but mostly he would use his knife — alternating from slapping it up against my face a few dozen times to pressing the point against my spine at different points. Nothing he did hurt me badly, but the constant threats made me feel like I was certainly about to be murdered any second.
I cannot put into words how the Lord helped me in those forty-five minutes. For many years now, I have a practice that whenever I feel physical pain, I try to discipline my mind to think of Christ’s pain. That is the best means I know to reduce one’s own pain. But this time it was as if the Lord simply gave it to me. Most of the time the Holy Spirit filled my mind with sweet meditations on the sufferings of Christ. Every time that knife poked at my spine and I expected the end a knife’s stroke away, God enabled me to meditate on the blood of Christ. When the knife pressed sore, I thought of Christ’s sword-pierced side. I was given to surrender all my sins and my soul to the blood of our precious Mediator with such freedom that I wanted to sing with joy. I thought of Paul and Silas singing in the inner prison. I received much comfort from the text that believers should count it all joy when they suffer for Jesus’ sake. Though I was acutely aware of my misery and unworthiness as I lay there, I was fully assured in my soul that my every sin was covered with the precious blood of Immanuel.
Only one other time in my life were the promises of God so richly unveiled to me. When God revealed Christ to me as my portion at the age of sixteen, promise after promise (Matt. 11:28; 1 Tim. 1:15, etc.) flowed into my soul. I have never experienced such an unbroken string of promises made sweet within from that day until now, as I lay under my assailant’s knife. I cannot repeat them all now, but the most comforting ones were those that spoke of assurance in Christ. The two most helpful were Job’s “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and Paul’s “I know in whom I have believed.” At this moment, I cannot even repeat those full texts accurately but in those long minutes these promises and others flowed through my soul like such a peaceful river that I could say with Simeon, “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
I was ready to die, and kept repeating, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” I thought of the joy of glory — of being with Christ and of never having to wrestle with sin anymore. I could surrender everything to the Lord — my dear wife and children, my congregation as a dear flock, the seminary and its staff. I felt grateful that Rev. VanderZwaag is in Grand Rapids as full-time pastor and that the Seminary is sufficiently organized that it could continue without me. My life’s work is done, I thought. On the way to Riga, I had called Mary from Toronto, and told her not to be alarmed but I felt that I needed to tell her something and to ask someone to do something for me if I were to die. That is unusual for me to do something like this, but Mary understood and took care of my request. Now, as I lay on the floor, I felt sure that this was the reason I had to make this request before I died.
Much of my life came back to me. It’s hard to explain. The only thing I can compare it to is when married couples sometimes have a short slide presentation of their past at receptions. The Lord took me with giant steps through my past. Everywhere I saw His faithfulness. Everywhere I saw grace. I could “amen” God’s ways in all. It was all sola gratia — grace alone.
But there were also other moments — moments when I feared, when I wanted to live. I thought of my wife as a widow, my children as fatherless. I knew God would take care of them, but for a few moments it was hard to let them go. In those moments, my unfinished work, my human relationships, my own comfort loomed large. I thank God these moments were infrequent — certainly no more than 10% of the time. In these moments, I felt just like Peter when he was sinking because he looked away from Jesus. As soon as I looked away from Jesus, numbness would travel up my hands to my elbows, my mouth would become incredibly dry, my right shoulder and left knee would ache. I would then literally talk to myself — “Focus on Jesus! Focus on Jesus!,” and would again feel God’s intervening grace.
It seemed like I lay there four hours; I learned later it was only forty-five minutes! One of the assailants searched through everything. I could hear him unzipping my suitcase, my new laptop computer, my winter coat pockets. He was dropping all kinds of things on the floor and didn’t seem to fear noise.
At one point, one of the men was in the kitchen. It sounded like he was stirring something. A minute later he turned me on my side, and put it to my lips. It felt so cold and so delicious. I immediately thought of the rich man in hell who didn’t receive a drop of water to cool his tongue. The very next moment, however, I thought, “He was mixing this; they’re killing me with poison.” I spit the liquid out on the floor, felt a slap across my face, and again the container was forced between my lips. I thought, “I had just better drink, even if it’s poison.”
The phone rang. Could God be sending someone to help? One assailant answered, said a few words, then left the apartment. Sometime later, the doorbell rang. Then I heard three voices in my room. Only later did I find out that they took the seminary key from my pocket, and stripped the seminary of its computers and valuable equipment. That’s why the whole attack took so long. Finally, someone gave me another drink. His hands didn’t seem so rough this time. Could it be that it was just water? Could it be that my life would be spared after all? Were my assailants showing some mercy?
After I drank, I was rolled onto my back. Suddenly, someone stuffed my mouth — down to my throat, with a heavy rag. I could hear and feel all the lights go out in the apartment. Suddenly, they were gone as quickly as they came. I lay there a few moments in the silence, thanking God I was alive. But then, I thought, “Artis isn’t picking me up until 11:00 tomorrow morning. Can I survive until that time?” My hands were nearly fully numb. How could I ever unloosen these knots?
Surprisingly, I was able to free one hand in five minutes. My heart pounded with hope. I ungagged myself in a moment, then worked on the headband. That was off in three minutes. My feet took the longest, but soon I was standing
up — alive! It was like a dream that was too good to be true.
I didn’t dare turn on the lights, or run down the three flights of stairs, or shout out the window, in case my assailants would return. After all, the door was now unlocked. And I couldn’t call anyone, as my phone only took incoming calls. So I just stood quietly for a few minutes, thanking the Lord.
Then I ran down the stairs and onto the street. I entered the first restaurant. The owner called the police who were only a few blocks away. It took them a long time to come. They took me to the station and tried to get my story but none of them understood English well enough. I was able to get across to them that I wanted to use their phone to call Artis and to call my wife but they told me that their phones couldn’t call to America and that their police station didn’t have a phone book for me to look up Artis’s number. Finally, they got someone from the main office of Riga who knew some English. When he heard that my credit cards were gone, he said that those cards had to be cancelled immediately.
Eight policeman went with me to the scene of the crime. Hundreds of pages of lecture notes were strewn across the living room and bedroom. Anything of monetary value was gone — even down to bathroom supplies and staple foods like bread. They filled my suitcase with everything they could haul away, took my computer and coat, and an antiquarian book, but left all my lecture notes as well as my passport and ticket.
We were able to reach Artis by phone through a policeman’s mobile phone. It was so good to see him and be able to converse in fluent English. I used his phone to contact Mary, whom the Lord also upheld wonderfully.
A fingerprint specialist spent 90 minutes trying to get some prints but concluded that both assailants were wearing gloves the entire time. The wonder of being alive became even more real.
I stayed with the police, filling out reports until 2:30 a.m. For some reason they filled out six different reports, all handwritten in Latvian. I had to sign my name sixteen times! Artis took me to the Radisson hotel (the hotel where John and Miekie Beeke were booked to come and stay in a few days), where I checked in at 3:00 a.m.
I called Mary again, then both of my brothers, and tried to get some sleep. But I kept reliving the attack and didn’t sleep a wink. Besides, the robbers even stole my sleeping pills that I use on foreign trips to adjust to the time zone changes!
At 10:00 a.m. I met Artis and a board member, Larry Stout, for breakfast. They were most sympathetic and we all grieved together over the events of the past twelve hours. For more than three years professors have been coming here from around the world, and they have never encountered any difficulties of this nature.
My faith was not as strong as the night before. I was exhausted. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, of which I have often read and heard people speak, was very real. No matter how hard I tried or prayed, I just kept reliving my experience — even while they were talking with me. I thought a great deal about people that go through abuses of even more terrible kinds in their youth. My sympathy has certainly been augmented for such people, as well as for persecuted Christians. I suffered little physical pain, and many of them suffer greatly every day.
Larry took me to the U.S. Embassy after breakfast, as they wanted to see me. The woman who interviewed me, Karen, was very kind and suggested that if she were me, she would probably return to the United States right away. Part of me wanted to do just that, but the other part of me said, “What about the work of the Lord here?” I was really torn. Karen let me call America. I again called Mary and my brother. Finally, by 12:30 p.m. my mind was made up to stay and do the Lord’s work.
The Embassy contacted the main police station in Latvia, and pressed the police to be active with this case. They also sent out a bulletin computer notice to Americans everywhere, alerting them to my experience and listing a variety of safety precautions.
Larry took me shopping to replace some of my lost items. By mid-afternoon, I wanted to teach again that night, but Artis and Larry were stressed out, and arrangements to move the lectures to the Radisson were still in process, so classes were canceled for the evening, and a Saturday class was added. I spent the evening studying and reading and was able to get more focused on the things of God again.
After a fairly good night’s sleep, I had breakfast with Chuck Kelly, president of a Christian organization called Bridgebuilders. He had heard about my experience and wanted to meet with me. We had a good talk. He also had connections for steep discounts at Radisson, both on hotel rooms and conference rooms. That was a Godsend for the seminary here, which relies on donations for its operations.
Artis picked me up at 1:30 to go to the airport. The joy of seeing Mary, and John and Miekie, walk towards us from the baggage claim area was unforgettable! What a gift loved ones are — especially Christian loved ones and friends!
I met with the police again, to identify one of the assailants. I cannot provide more details, but the police know who one of the assailants is. He was just released from prison two weeks ago, after spending seven years there for murdering his own brother. They’re hoping to catch him before I leave, so that I can identify him in person. That would apparently give them enough evidence to get him behind bars again before this happens to someone else. His motive for robbing me was apparently to get money for drugs.
In the evening I lectured for three hours at the Radisson on effectual calling and regeneration. They also asked me to give a short testimony of what I had experienced. I didn’t go into detail as I didn’t want to promote fear in the minds of the students when they return to their seminary setting in a few weeks.
Saturday morning I lectured for another three hours on conversion and repentance. Chuck Kelly gave John and Miekie and Mary and I a fascinating tour of Old Riga (dating from 1201) in the afternoon. He was a most helpful guide. We learned much about Latvia, the history of Riga, and the customs of the people. We went to the top of St. Peter’s dome cathedral, built in the fourteenth century, from which we could see a large section of Riga. We walked the old cobblestone streets, had dinner together, and fellowshipped.
Nearly one third of Latvia’s 2.5 million people live in Riga. Latvia, the central country of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), is situated in northeastern Europe, on the east coast of the Baltic Sea. The country is less than 25,000 square miles and the landscape consists largely of lowland plains and rolling hills. Latvia was founded in 1918 but was under occupation by the Soviet Union (1940-41, 1945-1991) or Nazi Germany (1941-45), for most of those years. Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Russian Orthodox churches are, in that order, the largest religious confessions here.
On Sunday morning I preached in the two largest Reformed churches in Riga. There are only five Reformed churches in Riga, all ranging from 30 to 150 members and all dating from after Latvia’s independence gained in 1991. So the Reformed movement here is very young. The pastors need much instruction and more pastors need to be trained if the movement is going to grow. These are two of the main purposes of why RRTS was started. Every class is videotaped for present pastors — some of whom can’t be present — and for future pastors who want theological training.
I preached first at the Riga Reformed Fellowship Bible Church (organized, 1992) — the only Reformed church in Riga that owns its own building. It is an old, beautiful building. I preached on Luke 22:31-32. Artis translated for me. We weren’t able to meet the pastor, Alvis Sauka, as he was in the hospital. Also, we didn’t have time to visit with the people afterward, as we immediately had to rush to the next church.
The second church, Riga Reformed Church (organized, 1998) consists almost entirely of young adults. No one of the congregation of 100 has yet reached the age of 30. The pastor, Ungars Gulbis, is eager to learn and receive training. He is attending all the sessions of my course. Artis is one of
his two elders.
I preached from Matthew 15:21-28. The pastor translated. I recognized several people in the congregation from my course — including the Latvian translator. Afterwards, we fellowshipped for a few hours with the pastor.
The rest of the day we spent fellowshipping and resting — often thinking of the Grand Rapids congregation, praying that Rev. VanderZwaag may have much freedom to bring law and gospel, and that our gracious God may apply it abundantly to your souls.
Today we are heading back to Old Riga for some sightseeing, then this evening I hope to lecture on faith and justification. In subsequent days, I hope to cover adoption, sanctification, assurance, perseverance, and glorification. Then we’ll be heading home via Prague, and look forward, God willing, to seeing our congregation on the coming Sabbath.
I wish to close with two applications:
First, are you ready to die? Our lives are tenuous and fragile. Any minute can be our last. You and I must always be ready to meet the Lord, whether young or old, safe, by Spirit-worked faith, in the blood of Christ. No other Savior will suffice.
Second, dear children, the great God we serve can protect you everywhere. He is mightier than Satan. Trust Him, both for your life and your soul. Seek Him early, while He is to be found.
Finally, Mary and I want to thank God’s people so much for all their prayers, love, and concern in the days that have gone by. Please continue to uphold us in prayer, thanking God for His wondrous sparing mercy, and pray also for RRTS, that the seminary may not be adversely affected by last week’s events but that God may cause it to grow and flourish, bringing good out of evil, and bringing my assailants to genuine repentance and conversion.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Warmly, with pastoral love,
Rev. Joel R. Beeke
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