Janet and I are off again, this time to Europe. We’re in Budapest, Hungary, where we’re touring for a few days before I speak at a Youth For Christ conference for staff from Europe and North Africa. My first job was with Campus Life Magazine, then a part of Youth For Christ, and I know some of these folks from way back. They tend to be overworked and underpaid, and I’d like to encourage them. Europe and North Africa are probably the toughest places in the world to try to minister.
We’ve been in Budapest three days now, and this has been a good trip for the two of us. Janet feels the loss of living in a city much more keenly than I do, and comes alive as we wander from coffee bar to restaurant to coffee bar (the caffeine may be one main reason). When I arrived here, I learned I had left the plug to connect my computer AC pack in an airport lounge. That involved an hour-and-a-half wild goose chase, including navigating the trolley and bus system, and trying to communicate about computers in non-Hungarian. Finally, I got one. After going to bed early, I got up at 3:30 and didn’t know what else to do, so I went jogging on glistening cobblestone streets lit by gas lamps. It was magical, and even more so when the sun came up. Our hotel is on Castle Hill overlooking old Budapest and the Danube River, and I used a whole roll of film recording the sunrise. Budapest is often compared to Prague, Czech Republic. The people here have a tradition of being conquered: by Attila the Hun, the Mongols, the Muslims, the Nazis, the Russians. They love their freedom and independence now. A museum we hope to tour tomorrow, the House of Terror, records their history with both Nazis and Soviets.
Weather is unseasonably warm, and there’s no snow to be found anywhere. That’s been great for walking around, which is what we mostly do when touring. Yesterday was music day—appropriate since our hotel is a few doors down from where Beethoven stayed when he came to Budapest, and just across the river from where Liszt played the organ and entertained Robert and Clara Schumann. It being Sunday, we went to high mass at a church just down from our hotel. It had a large choir and full orchestra and, unlike most churches in Europe, was virtually full of worshipers. It was good to see people here taking their faith seriously, although there were very few people under 60 in the audience. That evening we went to see Walkyrie, a Wagner opera at the State Opera House, and I couldn’t help making a comparison. Both church and opera were conducted in a foreign language in a large and elaborate building; both had a lot of rituals the secrets of which were hidden to outsiders; both involved costumed leaders who did all the action, and both were enjoyed by a very aging population. In other words, neither opera nor church over here are “user-friendly,” and it shows.
Janet and I are enjoying our time together here. It’s easy for us both to get caught up in the busyness of life, entertaining visitors, keeping on top of mail and faxes, etc., and missing out on the relaxed time that our relationship needs. We’ve learned to add on a few days like these onto our international trips, which often seem more hectic than life at home. A very good idea.
We would like prayer for this trip, but also we’d like prayer for a book on prayer that I’m writing. I spent the month of December getting the project underway, and it went well. I’ve never felt more free in writing. I have a hectic travel schedule this winter and spring, and will be resuming the book in February, traveling in March, then back to writing in April. I have a lot to say, and ask your prayer for concentration and focus. I’ve been interviewing a lot of people, and find that very few people have a fulfilling prayer life. I’m no expert, by any means, but in the process of researching, I’ve learned a lot. I pray that I’ll have the ability and sensitivity to communicate well: offering not guilt (too many people feel that about their prayer life) but insight and practical help.
Twice now I’ve holed up in a Colorado mountain condo for a month at a stretch. The writing act is so painful. No matter what else I do—speak before large crowds, climb scary mountains, ski down scarier mountains—I remind myself, “Yes, but it’s not as hard as writing.” That statement applies to everything in the world, I think, except perhaps life-threatening illnesses and service in Iraq.
Anyway, writing is very difficult, and writing on something as plowed-over and hard-to-grab as prayer is especially difficult. And yet this part has gone well for me. I usually work until at least 10 pm every day, focusing all day on one stream of thought, producing about ten pages each day. Often I take a couple of hours out in the afternoon to reconnect with the planet. In the mountains, that’s easy: I can ski bumps for two hours and rattle my brain, or go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing or ice-skating. I haven’t struggled as much with my “voice” in this book, which has been a great gift. I just get up and start writing. I’ve felt the freedom to say exactly what I think.
When I come home on a Friday, after being gone for a week, I feel like Braveheart or some warrior returning from the battle. I’m drained. Janet has been wonderful at recognizing that, responding, and not making me feel guilty about the things that went neglected in my absence. Of course, she’s handled phone calls, faxes, and the like all during that period.
As always, we came away with more encouragement and inspiration than we contributed. Besides the Youth For Christ staff conference in Hungary, I spoke at a castle in Austria affiliated with IFES, the international version of InterVarsity. Both venues had people from Eastern Europe, and we heard some amazing stories.
After the fall of Communism, economies collapsed. One young man we met, from Ukraine, started selling newspapers in the afternoon after school, for both his parents lost their jobs. He was very proud when, after two weeks, he had earned enough money to bring a loaf of bread to his family, to keep them from starving.
Most of those we met from Ukraine, Latvia, and such countries were raised by atheists, and converted as teenagers. Sergey, for instance, converted when he was 12. He would tell his parents he was going to the outhouse (no indoor bathrooms, of course) and climb over the fence to pray with his Christian neighbors. Faith was truly a subversive act. Sergey now heads up a national prayer ministry, which links thousands of Eastern Europeans by email. Peter, from Hungary, would help Westerners smuggle in Bibles in black plastic bags, which his parents would surreptitiously distribute. Oleg, from Moldova, says that Protestants recently voted for communists in the last election because the church has become so complacent; they want to restore the purity that the church had when it was suffering.
One day in Budapest we visited the House of Terror, a controversial, state-of-the-art museum which documents the sad 20th-century history of Hungary, which was caught between Nazi and Soviet powers. The people here have a tradition of being conquered: by Attila the Hun, the Mongols, the Muslims, and then the Nazis and the Russians. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Then, when the Russian army advanced, the Hungarians fled West to try to reach American troops. The museum occupies the site of the Nazi SS forces and also the Russian KGB. Dungeons and torture rooms are preserved intact, and the listening machines and propaganda characteristic of totalitarianism are carefully displayed.
After a fractious election in the U.S., and unremitting bad news from Iraq, it was good to be reminded that some people in the world really do value freedom and democracy. I watched John Kerry’s concession speech in which he said the great thing about our country is that the next morning after the election, we’re all still Americans. After spending several hours in the House of Terror, that lesson sank in deep.
The Youth For Christ conference included staff from Egypt, Cyprus, and Lebanon as well as Europe, which made for some lively discussion. In Europe, the threat of Islam is, in some ways, more intense than in the U.S., because European countries have a large Muslim minority, as well as a history of conflict and conquest.
Schloss Mittersill, the castle in Austria, offers short-term theological education to Europeans, and even has a degree program certified by the University of South Africa. Carl Armerding, brother of Hudson Armerding (former president of Wheaton College) heads up the academic program, and they have an impressive staff. I read recently that 1.2 billion Christians in the world are led by pastors who have less than two weeks (yes, weeks) of Bible or theological training. Places like the Schloss are trying to meet that need, and their community of multi-national staff seem dedicated and form a true community. Every mountain in Austria has a cross atop it, the tallest building in every village is a church, and you see shrines by the side of the road. Yet church attendance there, as in most of Europe, is less than 10 percent of the population.
We had one day of skiing in Austria (Colorado snow is better, Austrian food is better), one day of cross-country on impeccably groomed trails, and on our last night heard a Mozart concert in the chapel of an old castle. Ah, Europe. You can’t beat it.Copyright © 2005 by Philip Yancey