first things first

A blog about whatever crosses my mind, ordered by importance.

Men's Retreat in Albania

When I look back on my experience with Albania, starting from my first trip there in 2013 until now, I can’t help but be amazed at the way God has used this partnership to bring change not only in my life but in the lives of my friends. My key verse for my 2-year stint in Albania was Mark 10:29-30

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. Mark 10:29-30

This whole trip I felt again the truth of that verse. I went back to a place I consider my second home, and got to just hang out with all my friends over the past two years. I got to celebrate my housemate Pal’s engagement to his beautiful fiancee Ueda, I got to chill out and play Laser-Tag with my Albanian community group, and I got to have great coffee conversations with a lot of people. Tiring, yes. But so worth it.

I arrived Thursday evening, the 7th, and went to stay at Pal’s house. He and Albert met me at the airport when I arrived. It was so good to see both of them again. We took Joseph to the hotel and hung out for a little while in the hotel coffee shop just chatting. Then Pal and I went to his house, where I would be staying for the duration of the trip excluding the retreat. As soon as I had arrived I felt at home, just like I had never left.

Friday morning we woke up early and went to Mon Cheri, my favorite coffee shop. It had been a cold night, but Tako (Pal’s roommate) showed me a trick - he took an empty 2-liter coke bottle and filled it with hot water to warm up the bed. That totally works great when you don’t have central heating! At Mon Cheri I got my favorite Cappucino and hung out for a while, saying hi to the waitress there Albana. Apparently I was such a regular there that the waiters had been asking about me after I left!

I hung out and met with a couple people there until it was time to leave for the retreat. We loaded up in Pal’s van and drove out to Durres, where we checked in and I got to see all the guys I knew from church. There were 60+ men at this retreat of all ages. We all had dinner together before the first session. Me and the other Americans sat with the church elders - Ylli, Altin, Visi, and Gusti. We had a great conversation where we bonded over sharing our testimonies.

Men’s Retreat

The theme of the conference was “How to be a strong man”, based on 2 Corinthians 12. The purpose was to build up the concept of small groups in the minds of the Albanians, and prompt them to begin meeting together to share all aspects of their lives.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Altin spoke at the first session, talking about the importance of small groups and the ways that we wage war together. He shared that from the beginning of Cornerstone church’s 20 year history, small groups have always been a fundamental part of the church. He gave scriptural support for the need for and various activities of a small group, and really set up the rest of the conference well.

After his talk we got together in discussion groups and began to talk through what we had heard. My discussion group was a good mix of ages. The older guys tended to do more of the talking, while the really young guys just listened. We talked about what it means to war against the devil, and to war against our flesh. Most of the conversation stayed more general.

We hung out and played games after that well into the night. There was a lot of jenga, and uno going on. One of the older guys put on a concert for us, singing old songs from the city of Korça. At one point Ylli also got up and started singing - that was a really fun experience!

Saturday was the long day. We had two sessions in the morning, at the first one Wes shared his testimony and talked about the need for confession in small groups. It was very powerful for the Albanians because they are not the kind who will talk openly about sexual issues. One of the elders later told me that he was looking around kind of worried about how the younger guys would handle it, but they all seemed to be paying attention. The Lord definitely led us to have the right guys speaking.

My discussion group definitely seemed to be getting more interested in the discussions. There was a lot of talk in general about sexual issues and how prevalant it is even in Albania. I was trying to push the discussion more in the direction of personal accountability and needing to confess these things but it was a bit difficult to get people to move that direction.

After a short break Ylli came up for his turn to speak. He also talked about the need for small groups in fighting sexual temptation in particular. It was a very good talk that centered mostly on the danger of falling to temptation, and how we need to be wary of the deceitfulness of sin. It seemed more of the traditional way of coming at the question, i.e. based on danger and warnings to stay strong. It was good that Wes and Chris were able then to emphasize the grace side of the equation. I’m also very glad that Ylli was 100% on board with what we’re trying to accomplish - he had not been as heavily a part of the discussions but his talk fit right in with the theme.

We had lunch then and free time. There was a big storm brewing with lots of rain, but a group got together anyways to play soccer. We went to a covered soccer field and played for about an hour and a half. I even scored a goal! ( it was an own-goal :/ )

After dinner we had our final session. Chris Hyland got up to speak about his own testimony, and tied that in to how we are to respond to people who confess sin. He had an acronym - G.R.A.C.E.

  • G – Gratitude for the grace shown to you – Rom 5:8. Gal 2:20
  • R – Responding with mercy and kindness – Micah 6:8
  • A – Affirm who they are in Christ – Rom 8:31-38, Heb. 13:5, 1 Peter 1:3-4
  • C – Confirm/Confess (me too) – 2 Cor. 2:8, 1 Cor 13:4-7
  • E – Exhort – Bear one another’s burdens – Romans 12:15-16, Gal 6:2

Afterwards, we had the best discussion time of all the sessions in my group. The guys were really getting the concept of responding with love and compassion to those who confess, while still holding firm to conviction that they should do the right thing. We walked through a role play where I pretended to confess stealing from my boss, and I felt comforted when one of the guys said he would go with me to talk to my boss about it, and would help me if I lost my job for it.

I also shared a story that JP has told once at The Porch, this story really seemed to have an impact. JP was once conned out of something like $5,000. Later to his small group he confessed being really angry at the guy who conned him, to the point of sinning in his thoughts of what he’d do to the guy. After group he checked his bank balance to find that one of his group members had transferred him $5,000. He called the guy up and said he couldn’t accept it - and the guy responded that he would be offended if JP returned the money. He said, “it’s easy for me to give $5,000 so that my brother in Christ would not sin.” I asked the Albanians how much they would be willing to give so that their brother would not sin. One of the guys started saying, “Brother I’d give everything for you. I’d give my life for you. I just don’t have any money.” 😃

The next morning Matt gave a final summary of the conference, and a challenge to go live it out. Then we packed up and headed back to Tirana in time for church. Overall it was a great conference, above and beyond what we had expected. We heard great things from all the attendees and the leaders. I think we accomplished our goal of convincing them at least intellectually that small groups and being honest with each-other is worth the effort.

Back in Tirana in time for church

We arrived just in time to go to church, which I was really looking forward to since I hadn’t had a chance to sing worship songs in Albanian for about 4 months. I also got to say hi to all the ladies from my community group since they didn’t go to the men’s retreat. After church we went out for coffee at Mon Cheri and I spent my time bouncing between three different groups of friends. Definitely a great time.

Sunday evening we got to go out for dinner with my housemate Pal. We went to a really nice restaurant outside the city and just celebrated him and his engagement the whole night. This was a great time for me because I’ve been walking with him the past two years as he fought to trust God amidst a really difficult situation. He and his fiancee had wanted to get engaged as early as two years ago, but her family would not allow it because he is from the Catholic region of Albania and they are from the Muslim region. They fought for years through this issue, she was talking to them often and always getting the same response. It was a struggle for him to continue to wait, in order to honor her parents. Finally, just this fall, they relented and allowed them to get engaged! The Lord is good, and His timing is perfect. I am so happy for them and am really glad that we could celebrate this moment with him! They’ll get married in the summer probably 1 week after we finish with the summer projects. I intend to be there at his wedding.

Monday - coffee day

Monday I had several coffees scheduled to discuss Sotmëria, Digital Strategies, and just hang out with friends. I had a good coffee with Afrim and discussed the projects that we want to get done over the new year, and what we’d like to see going forward on the side of Digital Strategies. I’ll be continuing to put in regular work for them as much as I can.

In the evening we met the elders of Cornerstone church for dinner. We had a really great conversation and it seemed that they really appreciated the conference. We offered them Watermark’s community group materials. We’re happy to translate any of that if they would use it. We’ll follow up and see if they want to use some of that to help launch small groups. We also issued a challenge to the elders to lead out in the area of small groups and openness, to form a group themselves and to talk about it with the congregation. They said they plan to do so, and also invite their wives into the group. This is a great step!

Tuesday - more coffee

Tuesday I packed my day even fuller with coffees. From 10am until about 5pm I had coffees scheduled with various people, and then at 6 I went to meet up with my old community group (Qeliza) who were doing a fun hang out night. I really enjoyed getting coffee with them and catching up with everyone that I had missed so much while I’ve been gone. We hung out for a while and then went to play Laser Tag at the new place that just opened up in Tirana. It was really fun! Lauren Dean is too good at it, we need to figure out how to get around behind her to keep her from scoring too much!

After Laser Tag I went back to the hotel to meet up with Pal, who was bringing my stuff from his house. We chatted for a good long while with Gedis and Çeljeta as well, who had been hosting Wes at their house. Definitely miss Gedis too (he was my housemate the first year together with Pal). It’s tough to have really good friends on opposite sides of the world. But like I said at the start of this post, Mark 10:29-30 is true. In leaving my home, brothers, sisters, mother, father, etc; I’ve gained double. I don’t deserve the rich blessings that God has poured out on me in allowing me to have all these brothers and sisters. I just know that His grace, His mercy, His goodness is real. You only have to give up everything to experience it.