by Richard Smith
In the summer of 1998 one of my brightest Czech students, Petra, wrote my family from England about an important milestone in her spiritual odyssey.
In the summer of 1998 one of my brightest Czech students, Petra, wrote my family from England about an important milestone in her spiritual odyssey:
The other day I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in the center of London and saw a great painting there called "The Light of the World." I sat in front of it and prayed that God shows me the way to Him and that He encourages me to work hard on finding that Light. I wanted the answer to where the problem is, why am I stuck at one place not being able to move and not wanting to do anything about it?
Petra’s long journey to this decisive moment—and beyond— demonstrates God’s patient working in the life of a young woman who grew up in the shadows of communism in one of the most atheistic nations on earth. Her story reveals how God used teaching and testimony to communicate the Gospel, despite her very secular heritage.
Petra’s testimony is a case study in academic missions. Her story demonstrates how the intellectual challenge of the Gospel, plus the God-given pastoral love of a teacher, incarnates the Christian message. It also demonstrates the power of the lectern and the way in which God can weave the lives of the student and teacher together for the growth of God’s Kingdom.
What follows is a chronicle of our interaction with Petra in and out of the classroom, told mostly in her words and from her point of view, followed by three lessons learned.
In August of 1995 I moved to the Czech Republic with my wife and our two teenage daughters under the auspices of the International Institute for Christian Studies. I served at the only private college in the country at that time and taught a number of courses, including Comparative Religions, the Bible as Literature and Business Ethics. We spent countless hours with our students. We held movie discussions, hosted dinners and parties, and took some students to church.
We have no special memories of Petra the first or second semesters. She was quiet and did not express her thoughts, nor did my family socialize with her at the time. Still, God was at work. She confessed later she had been struggling to sort out her values and priorities, having just emerged from a destructive lifestyle.
A statement in an early response paper from my Comparative Religions class reflects her view of religion at the time:
Each of the religions has its own ‘holy book’ or its own system of rules, but all of the rules, in my opinion, lead to the same point and are practiced for the same reason. There always is the longing for reaching salvation and living a good life.
Petra, like many others in the Czech Republic, manifested an incipient spirituality, even a vague closet theism, coupled with a strong antipathy to organizations in general and to the institutional church in particular. As one of Petra’s classmates put it, many people in the Czech Republic are "believers without religion." This outlook was evidenced by Petra:
For me, at first there is religion as an institution . .. but from my point of view a human being is born into this world to live his/her OWN life according to what he/she feels is right and not according to rules set up by a certain religion…. Then, there is religion as a set of beliefs. I do believe there is a God. I do believe he/she is inside of us, is loving and good and that he/she presents moral standards we should follow… We communicate with him/her through our hearts.
In the spring semester 1996 I taught Christianity in Western Civilization and Petra enrolled. Again, I have no distinct memories of her and we did not spend a lot of time together. By June, Petra joined students and friends for a going-away party before we returned to America for the summer. To our surprise she was very friendly and offered an embrace on parting. A few weeks later she sent a letter describing how a member of our team, teaching from a Christian worldview, impacted her class. Here are two excerpts:
He cares a lot about us. He comes to his lectures always prepared. His lessons are always interesting from the beginning to the end. He always asks a lot of questions and tries to encourage students to participate. That is something to which Czech students are not used to at all…. He showed us a whole new world, a new way of learning which is fun.
He managed to attract many of us and we all became very interested in religion and other philosophical themes, which is very surprising and unusual for a Central European country…In my childhood I have never heard a word about religion or God. We were always taught only the materialist point of view. He showed us the other side of the story.
In the fall I taught Comparative Religions again and the Bible as Literature; Petra took the latter. I recall how deeply enthralled and challenged she was by the Bible, as were many others. My wife and I began to spend a lot of time together with her socially, and by the spring semester of 1997 our personal relationship had become quite close. She participated in movie discussions in our home and she was an observer of our marriage and family.
During the spring semester, in a response paper dealing with Sartre, she wrote:
I realize it is only up to me what kind of life I will live, where I will go and how fast I will get there. I am my absolute master and I need to follow the path of action and courage.
Shortly thereafter, to our shock and dismay my wife discovered she had breast cancer and we returned to the States for treatment. While struggling with the meaning of our suffering and the interruption of our ministry, this poignant exchange occurred between my wife and Petra:
Petra: I did receive the latest message about her pathology report. To say the truth, the more I think about things the more I am upset and the less I understand. I tend to have these revolutionary thoughts-getting really mad at everyone and everything (Him especially [God]) and constantly asking why. It makes me so sad you are so far away. Love you both, Petra. PS: I have been longing to say this ("love you both") for a long time and I did not know if I could do it. Now I know.
My Wife: You are right—sometimes it is very difficult to understand why certain things happen in life. Although life here on earth has many blessings, it can also be quite painful. Some things I do know are true, though, and they give me strength and courage for the dark times. The God I believe in is good. He loves me; He is with me; He is for me (on my side—not working against me). He will not allow bad things that happen in my life, like this cancer, to ultimately result in evil-he will use them for good. That is a promise that he makes to his children. The temptation when things like this happen is to believe that God is not good or that he is cruel and unjust. The things that we suffer in this life, if we are his children, are really a gift. Sometimes it takes us a while to unwrap this present and truly appreciate it. Of course, it is a comfort to know that, some day, when I die (I am not saying that it will be soon!), I will be with Him in heaven-not because I am good but because He was good enough to send his son, Jesus, whose death and resurrection make it possible.
The next month in an assignment entitled, "What is your world view and why?" Petra wrote the following amazing words:
I was sitting in a bus and the thought came to me, all of a sudden I realized that what I have believed in so far can easily be only a "nice, best-fitting," and easiest way of living. I realized that this is what it is called to be deceived, to have a blind heart without the knowledge of true reality…. This was a very profound moment in my life and since then I keep asking myself which way shall I go now.
To say the truth, I am very scared and I do not feel safe anymore without my "bubble" in which I used to hide. I keep thinking about the Christian God, about the Bible and about all the things I learned about Christianity. I am losing the ability to argue against it and I am trying to imagine what my life will be like from now on.
I know that if I allow this to go further I will have to face the moment when I have only two possible choices. If I accept the Christian God, my life will be shaken and it will change. But, I do not know if I can do it. I think about God and try not to think about God. I feel very defensive and confused… There are two Petra’s inside of me now… two extremes fighting within me and I know I must find an answer to it.
When I returned to Prague in June to pack up for our final return home, I had several pointed, evangelistic conversations with Petra. She came to my daughter’s high school graduation, the first time she ever attended anything like a church service. She was very moved and quite afraid. The ceremony was a powerful demonstration (in word and deed) of the Gospel. She told me, quite frankly, that she could not sing the hymn, "It Is Well with My Soul," because it did not reflect her spiritual state at the time.
We then began a series of interchanges by email with Petra. On one occasion she inquired:
How do humans attain salvation? … Ivana [her boss] was asking about the sexual life outside marriage, so I explained to her what the Bible says about that. By the way, I recognize some of the questions she is asking.
I taught at the college in January of 1998 and we talked several times. Petra took a course with an associate, who also challenged her thinking. To her surprise and consternation she found herself accepting and defending the Christian worldview. In February Petra told us:
I started to read Luke with the help of the Study Bible which you gave me for my birthday. When I read it I feel I want to read it all and if possibly at once and I also feel very peaceful. I want to find out more about God and Jesus Christ. (Do not want to go to church yet though.) But I feel I am changing. It may be slow but it is happening.
How easy it is to [be] born in [to] a Christian family and to be exposed to faith from childhood as opposed to other people who must be looking for it on their own in the middle of the postmodern society.
She also encouraged our ministry by declaring:
When I said I feel you are my spiritual father, I meant you taught me things I needed to know to begin to think about things more. (I know you will speak about the Real Father in your next note.)
In March she announced:
It is a great day here in Prague today. It is wonderful weather and I am in a very special mood. I decided that everything I will do today will be to celebrate Jesus Christ. (Isn’t it funny?) So, on my way to work I gave money to a beggar in the metro, which I never do and I smiled at everyone (which I do not do anymore even though I know it is nice).
In May, however, I received this blunt self-assessment from Petra regarding her spiritual state:
When you asked me if I do some thinking and if I undergo some progress …I do not do a lot of thinking. It is not that I forget. It is also not that I do not care. Something is missing.
I even think I have a close relationship with Him, but still it does not seem to be enough. So I feel guilty when I think of it.
In June I sent her a copy of her earlier, revealing comments from her worldview essay of one year ago (quoted earlier) and sought her response. She then openly described her spiritual inertia in this way:
Nothing changed, not for the better, but also not for the worse. I am not forgetting about God and please, do not worry about that-how could I ever forget God? I cannot really explain what I feel and what I think about the stage where I am right now. I think about God and I pray. It is a part of my daily life. I am honestly thankful for what I have and what I get and I think I feel humble. I realize He is present in my life. I can feel it every day. I do not read the Bible and do not go to church. I am not thinking about making decisions. I live with it like this and not that I would be the most happy person, I know this is not all and I know this is not the end, but (get ready), it is good enough for me for now … I am still not moving anywhere and it does not scare me.
When I do not read your questions I think I could live like this for the rest of my life. Sometimes I get reminded-and then I have all of these unpleasant feelings like when I read your letter … I can write no more now, I have to think about what I wrote. You see, again, you made me think. Sometimes it is not very pleasant, but I am glad I can rely on you in this. You will never give me my peace. (I hope you understand I mean it in a positive way.)
In July, we rejoiced to receive this exciting email from England, where Petra was visiting. At St. Paul’s Cathedral she noticed the sign underneath the painting, "The Light of the World," which reads: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and speak with him and he will with Me." In a flash of epiphany she realized what to do.
I kept reading it again and again and again, and all of a sudden it struck me. I realized that there is the answer to the problem in that one sentence-that that is the voice of God which speaks to me in that writing. I must not only hear the voice, I shall also open the door to him, that is what I have to do. Not that I did not know it before, but it felt like I was spoken to. It felt like God wanted to give me the answer to my questions.
I walked out of there moved and positive that it was the Word for me. I think about it and I pray. It feels like a very inner treasureable experience, almost like I should not really talk about it. Just keep it in me. But I wanted you to know.
Petra finally embraced Christ in the spring of 2000. She also began to work for our team and became the first enrollee in our new Christian Studies Program (primarily for non-Christians). She enthusiastically described her transformation this way:
I said my first prayer tonight at our Bible study and thanked God for revealing himself to me. I feel that I am loved greatly by him. I also prayed that he gives me wisdom to see what steps I should take in terms of my relationship with [her live-in boyfriend] and my future studies. I felt today that God is being so gracious, loving and giving. I do not deserve it. I am very thankful for being able to feel and understand God’s presence in my life through all of you. I would like to get to know him who loves me so much and to serve him, and I understand that is what you are helping me with. I pray that the team helps many other people to open the door to God and I will try to do my best to help to work on that.
Petra attended our mission conference that summer in America. She was finally able to sing with joy "It Is Well with My Soul" and commented later, "When it came to the first opening session during which we worshiped and praised God and sang hymns, it took me about two minutes to realize that ‘I was home and with my people.’"
GROWTH AND ENCOURAGEMENT
Petra continues in her university studies and attends various Bible studies. She visits churches, but has not become a member of a particular congregation.
My wife, now four years after the initial diagnosis of breast cancer, has suffered a relapse and we have returned to America for treatment once again. In the midst of pain and turmoil Petra consoled us when she wrote:
It is difficult to say something, which would help you, but I want you to know that we all love you dearly and we will always try to help you and support you. I will pray that God would help you both. He loves you and He is with you all the time, even in difficult situations. You two are my best friends. I know, you taught me, that God will take care of you both. He wants just your best. You are his children.
Petra’s odyssey is both unique and universal. Unique because it is very personal and honest. Universal because her story reflects the intense struggle of peoples in rapid, chaotic transition from socialism to capitalism and from modernism to postmodernism. Petra’s spiritual journey provides a window into the psyche and worldview of many thinking, young people in Central and Eastern Europe. It also beckons us to strategic missions to the university, to the classroom, to the world of ideas and to the future leaders of the region.
Petra acquired a context in which to understand Christian themes and symbols. She is one of a circle of students who have taken four to six courses from Christian professors. In the very secular and jaundiced Czech setting, where traditional missionary methods are often discounted or ineffective, Christian professors whose personal and public behavior are consistent with their fundamental beliefs can gain a hearing in the university.
My wife and I rediscovered that suffering conveys a powerful missiological message. Because of the sacrifices we and our associates make, we demonstrate our commitment to and love for our students, but most importantly, we model Christ. This was made clear to me at the time my wife was first diagnosed with cancer when a student told us:
You perhaps struggle now. And by living your worldview you and your wife hopefully will get through this time luckily. In this way you lead the way to show us how this world view is really lived in life, which is very important and contributing to us, students.
Richard Smith is affiliated with the International Institute for Christian Studies. He taught courses and served as the interim president for a private college in Prague and has a Ph.D. in Apologetics from Westminister Theological Seminary.
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