War and Awakening
Lidere, like so many villages deep in the Latvian countryside, was a small
collection of wooden houses, log cabins, and two-story barns. Further
out one found orchards, plowed fields, and groves of pine and birch trees.
Lidere stood approximately 20 km (12 miles) from our house in Druviena.
The time was summer, 1917. World War I dragged wearily into its fourth
year, but still, names like Wilson and Petain, Verdun and the Balkans,
were only words to Latvians. What we knew in our bones was deep hurt from
generations of oppression, by Poles, Swedes, Germans, and especially Russians.
What we knew was loss and grief. After three years of war, there was not
a family that had not lost a son, a husband, a father, a friend. We were
desperate for peace. We were ready for a miracle.
The village of Lidere was home to a score of Baptists, officially members
of the Riga Matthew Street Church, nearly a day away by rail..Only a major
ceremony of baptism or marriage justified such a trip, if it could be
afforded. Of course, if people can’t come to religion, religion
will usually come to them, at least in peacetime. The Riga mother church
had, before the war, sent ministers to conduct services in Lidere on a
regular basis—I would later perform a similar service, traveling
from Riga to Zilupe and back and sleeping on railway station benches on
Sunday night. However, now the front lines cut off Lidere from Riga, and
the mother church had suspended any help or contact with the remote congregation
until better political times.
The Lidere Baptists felt scattered, alone, perhaps even abandoned by the
God whom they had vowed to serve. Baptists tended to isolate themselves
in any case, and in return the peasantry called them names and made up
stories of secret, filthy deeds under cover of darkness. Especiallyduring
the war, feelings ran high in the population. Any excuse was good enough
to vent rage. For example, even before the days of the Revival, our father
Karlis, a Lutheran in good standing, was singled out as the “Bible
Stallion.” The Lutheran Church, rigid and institutionalized after
hundreds of years of tenured power, was of little help to the Lidere Baptists.
It turned a blind eye to the local populace’s stream of ridicule
and gossip. So the small band of Baptists had no official status, temple,
or minister. Outsiders, the easy target of resentments and prejudice floating
free among the population, they needed to renew their spiritual commitment.
They needed solace, and that could clearly come only from God Himself.
A carpenter and housebuilder by the name of Janis Skraba rose to the challenge.
With no formal training or degrees, not an ordained minister nor part
of the church establishment, Skraba was an unlikely spiritual leader.
But he did offer his spacious house for meetings, and the Baptists wasted
no time accepting the offer. Skraba’s house quickly became a lively
place of community among equals, a place of laughter, song, and the deep
experience of prayer.
Released from the bonds of official dogma, the Baptists went on to push
the boundaries of spiritual experience. They committed themselves to a
week of prayer and fasting at Skraba’s house. I must mention that
this happened in the middle of summer, hay-making season. Latvian summer
lasts a few precious weeks at best, and as long as weather permits, farmers
work twenty-hour days making hay for winter feed. The neighbors shook
their heads: the Baptists were off praying instead! Winter, not summer,
is the time to find religion! The Baptists expect God to mow the meadow
and angels to dry the hay and store it in the hayloft. They’ve lost
their minds from too much Bible reading. But by mid-week, continuous rain
made the hay too soggy to work. Rumors now followed another line: The
Baptists made it rain. They sold their souls to the Evil One.
Meanwhile, the group continued to pray and fast and to thank the Lord
for the rain which gave them permission, so to speak, to seek His guidance.
Over and over, for hours on end, they sang the popular hymn:
“Showers of blessings
Showers of blessings we need.
Mercy drops ‘round us are falling,
But for showers we plead.”
By week’s end, in a session of profound prayer, one by one they
received their request in startling abundance. God Himself spoke through
the mouths of the people. The light of Spirit filled them with unbounded
joy. Love beyond human understanding replaced their fear and desolation.
They were indeed drenched in a shower of blessings!
Although they did not know it then, this was only the first flame of Spirit.
Like wildfire, it would soon ignite tens of thousands through the Latvian
countryside and eventually reach the churches of Riga itself. When the
skies cleared, the transformed peasants fanned out onto the fields and
went about haymaking with unparalleled energy. They filled their barns
way ahead of the neighbors. Looking through the green lenses of envy and
isolation, the population now whispered that supernatural powers, not
necessarily benign, had cleared the skies and finished the harvest for
Joy begs to be shared. Skraba’s group contacted the Lutheran pastor,
who again was of no help. He merely mouthed tired dogma: God bestowed
direct spiritual experience on some people some time in a distant past,
certainly not now, and not on a ragtag band of illiterate peasants! Having
been dismissed so archly by the Lutheran clergy, they set their sights
on the Riga Baptist Church, where hopefully they could tell of the spiritual
richness of that unforgettable week. However, German troops were hunkered
down in their trenches on one bank of the Jugla River, Russians on the
other, making impossible a trip to Riga.
The group was again pushed to their one choice, to ask for divine guidance.
In prayer, Janis Skraba received another vision. The group should be patient
and wait. They would be making the trip to Riga in the winter, in three
horse-drawn sleds. Skraba saw three horses pulling sleds through the snow,
one brown, another black, and the third dappled black and white. The dream
mapped out a route, first to the mother church on Matthew Street, then
to the Golgotha Church on Hospitalu iela.
They discussed the dream at length. Someone sensibly pointed out that
the front stood between them and Riga. Moreover, they owned brown horses
and black horses, but nobody had a dappled black and white horse. Surely
Spirit was off this time. Meanwhile, harvest time ended, and snow blanketed
the rolling Latvian countryside. The Russian army collapsed and retreated
east, and the German army occupied the whole of the Baltics, including
the Vidzeme region where the group lived. When the road to Riga opened,
they hastened to embark on the long-postponed visit to the mother church.
The Skraba group made the trip in three sleds, pulled by three horses.
One horse was black, another brown. The third horse that showed up at
Skraba’s house on that morning, on loan for the trip, was a dappled
black and white horse. Reaching the city two days later, they visited
Pastor Janis Inkis at the Matthew Street Church. Fortunately, Inkis exceeded
their wildest expectations. He prayed with them, listened to the story
with tears, and would eventually join the Revival and become one of its
Their next stop was the Golgotha Church. Pastor Aboltins, too, was deeply
moved and prayed to share the group’s loving energy. He encouraged
them to continue their direct contact with God and offered the support
of his church. The group had never been to Hospitalu iela and the Golgotha
Church, but they needed not ask for directions. They literally arrived
with Godspeed. The route had been clearly shown them in the vision, so
long ago it seemed but a dream.
Skraba’s group in no time swelled to more than one hundred members.
They soon founded their own church, the Revival Baptist Church. Even before
they became an established congregation, though, they had to share the
news of what they had seen and felt. Groups from that movement made their
way on horse-drawn carts around a 60-mile triangle in central Latvia,
between the towns of Lidere, Velena, and Gatarta. They were not sophisticated
evangelists. They were simple people who told their story with genuine
emotion and tears in their eyes. On their way to Velena they would come
rest their horses at our farm. Why our farm? It was conveniently located,
and Father had by now joined the movement. By his authority as one of
the Tellers at the Tirzieshu Brethren Assembly, he invited the Baptists
to speak to our family, as well as any neighbor who cared to join in.
In our despair following the loss of our father, we welcomed any source
of comfort, so we embraced the Revival with the innocence of newborn babes.
Today we have a name for the phenomena that started in 1917. They are
called “charismatic gifts,” a word found in the Bible in Corinthians
I, Chapters 12 and 14. But to us these were completely new and unexpected
happenings. Our mistake was to accept anything that took place as coming
directly from God. We did not know how to discriminate God’s Word
from that of man, to separate wheat from chaff. We thought that those
who had received spiritual gifts of prophecy, visions, and speaking in
tongues, had a direct line to God, and that anything they said was Gospel.
Eventually disturbing and misleading phenomena surfaced in our meetings,
as the group tried to elicit the supernatural to reinforce its faith.
One current of thought out of the Skraba group was that the day of salvation
had ended and that after 1922 no one would be able to accept Christ or
be saved. Whoever was willing to listen was urged to flee from the approaching
Antichrist rule on earth. Brazil was chosen as the safe haven for the
Bride of Christ, the Bride being, as a group, those who believed with
all sincerity. This choice was based on the book of Revelation, Chapter
12, though other currents of thought played a part, especially a popular
book by Austrian Stefan Zweig, who called Brazil “Land of the Future.”*
I must say that the chaff held nuggets of real grain. Several of the revelations
later proved correct. I especially remember a vision received by Janis
Skraba, during the group’s visit to Velena church. We were all deep
in prayer when Skraba began to speak. A map of Latvia unfolded before
his eyes. A hand covered the map and pushed the Red Terror to the east,
setting the country free. Along with this hopeful message, Skraba also
received word that the protective hand would last only a season, and then
the Terror would return. True to the vision, Latvia was free for a sweet
two decades after the signing, in 1920, of the Treaty of Riga. In 1939,
the Baltic States were forced to ask for Soviet “protection”
from the Nazis, and less than a year later, Communist Russia’s tanks
rolled in again. God had indeed withdrawn His protective hand.
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