Equipping Albanian Pastors with Grace and Truth: Getting to Know Rev. Genci Cesula

EquippingAlbania

This article (Equipping Albanian Counselors with Grace and Truth: Getting to Know Rev. Genci Cesula by Marie Notcheva) originally appeared on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website.

Introduction

Rev. Genci Cesula is the pastor of “Kisha e Hirit” (“Grace Church”) in Tirana, Albania. He has been instrumental in bringing biblical counseling to Albania and is one of several pastors in the country completing ACBC certification. Genci has established the Albanian branch of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, “Koalicioni i Këshillimit Biblik Shqiptar,” and in conjunction with the Board and ACBC Fellows he has organized several training conferences in Albania. He and his wife Arta have a daughter and two sons. The Biblical Counseling Coalition is pleased to introduce you to our friend and co-laborer for the gospel in Tirana.

BCC: Great to talk with you, Pastor Genci! I noticed from your Facebook profile that you and I are “moshatarë” – we were both born in 1971. Some of our readers may not be aware that Enver Hoxha’s regime completely outlawed all religion in Albania as of 1967. Can you describe a little of what it was like growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s as a boy, in a completely atheistic state?

Pastor Genci: During that time, people were told what to think, believe, and do. Everything was controlled by the State. You were not encouraged to think and do things on your own. We were taught in school that there was no God, and we could not question that. No one could talk about God. We were taught evolution as fact and no other alternatives. We were taught that the origin of religion was part of primitive man, but that man does not need religion anymore because science can explain all human fears. When I grew up, I never heard anything about God, the Bible, or any other religion. I knew nothing. My greatest fear was death. We were taught that life ended with death, which never made sense to me. I could not foresee how life could end to nothing. I would wake up at times terrified at the idea of death or losing people, and never seeing them again. The best remedy was not to think about these things, as there was no one to talk to. Life seemed empty and without hope.

BCC: When did you first hear the gospel and turn to Christ?

Pastor Genci: I heard the gospel in my second year of college. I was learning English, and one of my roommates asked if I wanted to go out and practice English with Americans. We went and discovered these were Campus Crusade for Christ [workers]. They were talking to people about the gospel through the “Four Spiritual Laws” and inviting people to hear more at student meetings. They did this for three days. At these meetings, a missionary spoke about Jesus Christ coming into the world. It was the spring of 1992, and it was the first time that I heard about God, the Bible, Jesus, and salvation. It was all new and fascinating to me. I received for the first time an English Bible, an Albanian New Testament, and a few other books. So I started reading about salvation. I would read the English Bible and the books, keeping a dictionary next to me for the words I did not understand. God had begun drawing me to Himself. What seemed hard for me was understanding sin. I understood salvation intellectually, but He had not yet reached my heart. In the summer of 1992, after talking again to some more short-term missionaries, God convicted me of my sinfulness and that the only hope for me was to repent and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. One night in June 1992, by God’s grace, I called upon Jesus’ Name and He saved and changed my life. Immediately I became part of a church and starting growing and serving the Lord with my life.

BCC: How and when did you decide to go into the ministry?

Pastor Genci: When I became a believer, the truth of the gospel was so powerful in my life that I believe God gave me a great desire to share it with others and help others grow in their faith. That desire continued to grow and became a conviction. When I was a student, I was involved in leading Bible studies and discipleship with an American Campus Crusade missionary. Also in my church, I was involved in discipleship, Bible studies, and preaching. As I began to see God using me in different areas in the church, I was only waiting for the moment when God would call me full-time.

After I finished college in 1994, I starting working as a salesperson. A year later, I married a girl I had known from college. She was also a believer, and God united us to serve the Him together. After two years working as a salesperson, we received an invitation to join a church-planting mission outside of Tirana. I served as team leader of the church-planting team with another missionary couple and as pastor, teaching and preaching every Sunday and Wednesday. It was a quite difficult place to minister because of a strong Muslim influence. At the same time, I was serving as Assistant Pastor at a new Tirana church I had started in 1997. We worked with the church plant from 1996-2001, but in 2001 I started working full-time as Assistant Pastor at Grace Church Tirana. In year 2008, I graduated from Southern Eastern Europe Theological Seminary receiving a Master of Divinity. In 2013, I was ordained as a pastor and officially became the Senior Pastor of Grace Church Tirana.

BCC: In the last several years, biblical counseling has grown significantly in Albania. I know that Blair and Sue Alvidrez were the first ACBC counselors to serve there and have helped with the training of new counselors. How did your training conferences in Albania take shape?

Pastor Genci: I believe biblical counseling in Albania is still in its beginning phase. The church in Albania has been exposed to Biblical counseling for the last 3-4 years. Before that, there has not been any serious effort except for pockets here and there. I was introduced to biblical counseling during my seminary years. This is the third year we have done a biblical counseling training conference. We travel to local churches in Albania when we are invited, but we do the training in Tirana. People come to our conference from churches all over Albania every year—more lay people than pastors, and more women than men.

We have offered a first and second level and invited ACBC speakers come to do the training. We have focused our training in two main cities in Albania—Korça and Tirana. Normally, we have had around 100 attendees. The training has been going well, and we have seen a desire for more. Last year we started a two-year module training for a number of lay leaders and pastors in Tirana and Korça. We’ve also traveled to a number of other cities introducing biblical counseling. We have visited Vlora, Elbasan, and Saranda. We hope to see many certified counselors, and when they began to transform their churches, we believe more leaders and pastors will want to be trained.

BCC: How is the idea of counseling, that is, by design, not secular but purely scriptural in nature, accepted by the people in Albania?

Pastor Genci: In general it has been accepted well. A number of churches with whom we work have really embraced it and made a great impact. In Albania, there is some influence of integrated counseling [the attempt to combine secular psychological theories and methods with Scripture], but we are trying to help pastors and leaders who are influenced by this “integrationist” counseling. In addition, the influence of secular counseling is powerful. We encounter Christian doctors who seem to believe that only medicine and psychology can help struggling people. So, part of our training is helping the church in Albania to understand and see the sufficiency of God’s Word and grace. I think we have a long way to go. The changed lives of people who receive counseling will be the proof.

BCC: Here in the United States, depression and marriage counseling account for the vast majority of counseling cases we see. Speaking generally, what would you say are the biggest issues biblical counselors encounter in Albania?

Pastor Genci: I believe we see the same thing here. The biggest issues are depression, marriage, and pornography. But depression is the most common. Yet I think the problem of pornography is bigger, but people are not used to coming and seeking counsel about this. The issue of shame is great, so that prevents people from coming for counseling. In addition, pornography is so accepted by the wider culture that it is not seen as sin; so people do not seek counseling until it has become very bad.

BCC: Thank you very much for your time! Please tell our readers how we can be praying specifically for the people of Albania, and the church there.

Pastor Genci: Please pray that we will see a good number of Albanian pastors and lay leaders in the next 2 -3 years trained as biblical counselors. Also pray that we will see the church offering counseling to unbelievers and use it as a tool to reach people with the gospel.

 

 

“Plugged In” Makes Top 15 Biblical Counseling Books of 2015 List

I was extremely happy and honored this week to make the list of “Top 15 Biblical Counseling Books of 2015”, published by Rpm Ministries. With other authors including Tim Keller, Kevin DeYoung and Paul Tripp, my little book was in very exalted company! See the full list and reviews here.

Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age, by Marie Notcheva, Pure Water Press

Plugged In

The Internet, like anything and everything that is of human origin, can be a blessing or a curse. In Plugged In, Marie Notcheva outlines how we can use the Internet as a blessing in evangelism and in biblical counseling. She addresses practical and profound issues like, “Is virtual counseling a good idea?” “Can we effectively disciple someone through the Internet?” “How do we share the gospel and encourage believers in cyber-space?” In answering these questions and many more, Notcheva demonstrates how to use technology wisely to God’s glory.

In other news this week, my article “A Grief Like No Other: When a Friend Loses a Child” was published in the Bulgarian Christian women’s magazine, “Списание Лия”. It makes me feel great knowing that my words are being read around the world, in multiple languages, and hopefully blessing someone!

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Amazing Grace: The William Wilberforce Story

wilberforce_large.jpgThe legacy of William Wilberforce is tied to his relationship with John Newton. John Newton, an ex-slave trader turned minister and abolitionist, wrote the lyrics for the hymn “Amazing Grace” and became Wilberforce’s spiritual counselor. He set his young protégé on the path of service to humanity. It was only after Wilberforce underwent what he later described as his “great change” or embrace of Christianity, that he became a reformer. Newton knew this to be true, and invoking the deliverance language of the Old Testament Book of Esther, told Wilberforce that it was “for such a time as this” that he had been placed in a position as a powerful Member of Parliament to secure the abolition of the slave trade. It was in the House of Commons, Newton stated, that Wilberforce could best serve God. – from the “Amazing Grace” website

I waited nearly a year after the release of “Amazing Grace” to watch it – that was back in 2008. This Bristol Bay Production is an extremely well-written and uplifting historical film about one of the greatest post-Reformation heroes in Church history.

Watch it. You’ll be glad you did, and you just might learn enough about British colonial history to impress people at cocktail parties.

The story follows the personal life and career of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a young Christian politician in 18th century England whose lifework was to get the slave trade abolished in Great Britain. He was also a philanthropist. From 131 Christians Everyone Should Know we get a more complete picture of the champion of social justice Wilberforce was: Wilberforce—dubbed “the prime minister of a cabinet of philanthropists”—was at one time active in support of 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society. He also supported sending missionaries to India – the more the better. My kind of guy. In 1785, when William was 26, he was born again and began to re-think his political career. He was a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons and a good friend of William Pitt, who became Great Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister at the age of 24.

In a touching scene early in the movie, Wilberforce is shown sprawled in the grass behind his country estate, quietly telling God, “I feel like I need to run away to spend time with you…I’d much rather just sit out here and contemplate a spider’s web [than work in politics] for hours!” When discovered a few minutes later by Richard the Butler, Wilberforce tries to articulate his dilemma, to which the brawny Scotsman blankly replies, “Ye’ve found God, then, Sir?” Still sitting in the grass in his leggings, Wilberforce admits, “More precisely, He’s found me. Do you know how bloody inconvenient that is, Richard?” After a brief philosophical chat, during which Richard reveals that he does more than just dust Wilberforce’s books, the two head inside where we find the dining area over-run with orphans and impoverished beggars whom William routinely feeds.

The inspiration behind Wilberforce’s driving passion was John Newton (Albert Finney), a minister who had once been captain of several slave ships. During a storm, Newton had cried out to God from the deck of his ship and promised to change his ways. He got out of the trade and became a minister so popular that passers-by would sit outside his church’s windows to hear his preaching, but this new life did not relieve him of the demons that haunted him from his past. We see Newton only briefly in the movie, a broken, reclusive man to whom Wilberforce goes for advice. He bemoans the “20,000 ghosts” who still haunt his dreams, and relays to William the horrors of the slave ships. (Before his death, Newton wrote his autobiography “Out of the Depths” which graphically exposes the slave trade.)

Newton wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”, which Wilberforce sang aggressively one night in a pub to snub a Duke who offered him his slave to settle a gambling debt. Wilberforce never gambled again, but rather made the acquaintance of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797), a former slave who later served a Quaker merchant and earned his own freedom. Played by French musician Youssou N’Dour, Equiano became a central figure in Britain’s abolitionist movement after he wrote his autobiography and began working to sway public opinion on slavery.

Several other historical abolitionists who encouraged and worked alongside Wilberforce were portrayed in the cast, including the somewhat social-anarchist Thomas Clarkson. In the movie, he and Wilberforce get into an argument over the impending French Revolution (which Clarkson supports), but Wilberforce admonishes him never to talk about revolt ever again in his hearing. Loyal to the crown until the end of his life, violence and social upheaval were abhorrent to the idealist Wilberforce, who preferred to reform society by appealing to its sense of conscience and decency.

As interesting and edifying as the movie was, I was a bit disappointed that the script didn’t focus more on Newton and his influence on Wilberforce. Rather than the many scenes of arguing and political discussion in the House of Commons, a scene or two of him preaching would have been interesting. We learn bits of his story from anguished comments he makes to Wilberforce, but none of his dramatic history is shown through flashbacks (although most of the film jumps between Wilberforce’s early career and his later, unsuccessful battles to gain the MPs’ support.) We never see Wilberforce or his wife Barbara going to church, although we know that they were devout evangelical Christians. The best line in the movie came towards the end of Rev. Newton’s life, when the now blind preacher tells Wilberforce two things he has learned: “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Saviour.”

The stress of constant travel, speaking and fighting 20 years unsuccessfully against slavery (upon which the British Empire was economically dependent) took a toll on Wilberforce, who developed colitis and a dependency on the opiate pain medicine. We see him fight victoriously through withdrawal with Barbara’s loving support. In the movie, Wilberforce’s wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) shows a lively interest in all things politics, especially the abolitionist cause; but the historical Spooner did not have the same interest in her husband’s career. The couple raised six children together.

Wilberforce continued to fight for abolition until, days before his death in 1833, he saw the institution of slavery abolished throughout the British colonies. This is a wonderful, uplifting movie about a true hero for Christ, and includes a video of Chris Tomlin performing the medley “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone”.

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Review of “Redeemed from the Pit” by Julie Ganschow

This review of my book, “Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders” was written by author and biblical counselor Julie Ganschow. It originally appeared on The Biblical Counseling Coalition website on January 29, 2014. 

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Redeemed from the Pit is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource.

In the Pit of Despair

As a biblical counselor and as a person who was once diagnosed with bulimorexia, I took on the challenge of reading Marie Notcheva’s book, Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders book for both personal and professional reasons. I have had a love/hate relationship with food all my life. Like Marie, I once struggled with binging and purging and I alternated those behaviors with starvation.

From the introduction to the end of the book, Marie makes it clear to the reader that eating disorders are not a physical disease from which a person recovers but a spiritual disease from which a person must repent.

Marie’s personal story is weaved throughout this great book. She gives vivid details of how her early years provided the perfect mental and emotional set up for the development of her eating disorder. The culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s that subjected women to consistent expectations of thinness and beauty fueled the fires of shame ignited by her family’s careless words about her weight and appearance. Her mother in particular (who appeared to struggle with her own food issues) was exceedingly fearful Marie would be overweight and suffer consequences to her health. She enrolled Marie in a toddler dance class to slim her down and restricted her access to sugar and starches.

At age 11, Marie began taking gymnastics. By 14, with gymnast Nadia Comaneci as her idol, she began a lifestyle of severe calorie restriction and over exercise. The highly competitive worlds of gymnastics and dance fueled her desire to become sylphlike. While she got the desired results through constant exercise and living on Slim-Fast and vegetables, the following year she determined to eat as much as she wanted, eliminating the food binge through vomiting.

In a very short amount of time, Marie’s binge/purge lifestyle was out of control. It was clear to everyone around her she needed help. Her health was in serious jeopardy. While referred to psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, they were unable to breach the concrete protecting her heart.

A Way Out

In her sophomore year at college, she joined Campus Crusade and put her faith in Christ. She continued her secret lifestyle while active in Cru, Bible study, and discipleship. A job abroad followed college and her slavery to bulimia remained an active part of everyday life. She also began to drink heavily as a way to medicate the constant guilt and shame she lived with.

Marriage and children did not expose or alter her bulimia, although her husband did express concern about her drinking.

Marie writes at length about the self-disgust she experienced. It caused her to question her salvation and consider herself a hypocrite. She felt hopeless and at times she feared God had rejected her. However, she had such a desire to return to Him that she continuously tried to turn away from her sin. In desperation, she met with a small group of Christian women who prayed over her. It was then that she began to find freedom from alcohol and bulimia.

From this point forward in the book, Marie develops the inward battle of change at the heart level. She describes her battle with overcoming her eating disorder both on the physical and spiritual level and does not shrink away from describing the difficulties she faced or her failures in overcoming the desire to binge and purge. She notes, “Overcoming an eating disorder requires our constant, active commitment to inward change” (7).

Living Free

She urges the reader to “be one who believes” in the power of the Gospel as the means to transform life from victimhood to victorious in Christ, rightly emphasizing the critical need for repentance in overcoming an eating disorder.

“Forgiven, cleansed, and given a new start, He expects you to get up off your knees and get started—walking in repentance” (6).

Marie carefully breaks down the numerous issues of the heart that a person with eating disorder behaviors must repent of to overcome this sin and live victoriously. There is an entire chapter devoted to the believers position in Christ, which is very important for a woman with an eating disorder to understand since so much of her thinking is performance oriented. Marie brings forth the truth about the role emotions play in how a person thinks about food. This is vital since those with unhealthy eating habits believe many lies about food.
Throughout the book, there are application steps that make use of charts and Scripture memorization. There is also an entire chapter on practical issues that a person with disordered eating faces. Marie highlights the refining benefits of a biblical counseling relationship and involvement in a local church.
This book is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource.
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The Humble King and His Blue-Collar Court

I wrote this article as a Christmas devotional in 2012. It originally appeared on “The Godly Woman” website.

by Marie Notcheva ©

king JesusIn the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

Even while there is no one more powerful and mighty than the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no one more humble. Philippians 2:6 makes this point well, reminding us that Jesus, although God Incarnate, did not consider His deity a “thing to be grasped”, but rather condescended to come to earth as a human…and to serve His own creatures. The gentle humbleness exhibited by our own Lord and Savior is an attribute we acknowledge and strive to emulate, but often take for granted. It can fail to “wow” us. But when you really think on some details of Christ’s incarnation and earthly ministry, the lengths He went to in His humiliation are just stunning. No; I’m not talking about the fact He washed Judas’ feet before dying a horrible death on the Cross, although those moments are the pinnacle of God’s redeeming love and should not be minimized by any means. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth, beyond the fact that His earthly parents were working-class folks and He was born in a stable, also reveal God’s heart for the lowly and despised things of this world.

Luke’s Gospel tells us of the shepherds out tending their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem, and the angels’ apparition to them heralding the Messiah’s birth. What would a Nativity scene be without these wavy-haired, blue-eyed, Anglo-Saxon shepherds, genuflecting at the manger? We have greatly romanticized the role of the shepherds. Their part in the Christmas story, as relaters of the angels’ Gospel message, was integral. Their role in society, however, was despised. In first-century Israel, shepherd were pretty far down on the highly-stratified class ranking. Ironically enough, the Temple’s economy was highly dependent upon shepherds, although they probably wouldn’t have been allowed as far as the Outer Courts. Every Passover, with up to a quarter of a million Jews streaming into the city, between 30,000 and 40,000 lambs were needed for the sacrifices. Someone had to raise those lambs. (The whole scenario reminds me of the illegal immigrant outcry of a few years ago – a local hotel manager was quoted anonymously as admitting, “Without illegals, we’d be using paper plates and plastic forks…the whole hospitality industry is dependent upon them.”)

During the post-exilic stage of Israel’s history, which gave rise to Rabbinical Judaism, Jewish society had become very class-conscious. At the top of the heap were the Sadducees, the wealthy, theologically-liberal controllers of the temple (and by extension, the economic center of Jewish life). As you all probably know, the high priesthood was a dynastic office within this class. Right under the Sadducees were the uber-conservative Pharisees, the guardians of the Torah and the academic, learned talmide hakhamim (‘students of the wise’). Intermarriage with commoners was so discouraged that marrying the daughter of a Pharisee was an exclusive status symbol.

These upper class intellectuals looked upon the unlearned, unwashed masses of Judaism with scorn and derision (as even a surface reading of the gospels reveals). They had a particular name for these lower classes of Jews: “am ha-aretz”, literally “people of the land”. This derisive term, somewhat analogous to our slur “red-neck”, was further used for two sub-categories of blue collar folk: the Ê¿am ha-aretz le-mitzvot, Jews disparaged for not scrupulously observing the commandments, and Ê¿am ha-aretz la-Torah, those stigmatized as ignoramuses for not having studied the Torah at all. It was into this latter category that shepherds fell…they were the “trailer trash” of Judea at the time of Christ. Jewish texts compared marriage to one of their daughters to “crossbreeding of grapevine with wild wine, which is “unseemly and disagreeable”. This is in stark contrast to shepherding during the earlier, Patriarchal period – when it was a somewhat prestigious vocation.

By the time of Christ, Jewish shepherds would have been excluded from “polite society” for their ceremonial uncleanness as much as their unimpressive pedigree. Think about it: Luke mentions that they were living out in the fields, and there were no portable showers in those days. If the Pharisees chided the Apostles for omitting the ceremonial hand-washing, imagine what they would have thought about dudes who bathed perhaps once a month?

These were the people to whom God first announced His Son’s birth — through angelic host, no less! “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

So here we have the Creator of the universe, God Incarnate from the foundation of the world, being born to a working-class mom, in a stable. The first people privileged with the “glad tidings” (read: really, really cool news) of the Savior’s arrival are some dirty, smelly dudes in a field. The religious establishment won’t give the time of day to these folks. They never go to Temple, and probably can’t read much Hebrew. Not many prospects in life, and not much chance of moving up in the world.

How exactly like God…to stoop down to the lowest, most disenfranchised and forgotten individuals, and say “I care! I love you! And I’ve got great news…you, too, can have peace with Me. My Son is ‘God with you’, and He’s here now. Go to Him!”