3: Crossing Over: From Freedom to Tyranny

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Questions from Readers

How do you know that God is Just Love? 
Ken, how did this become heart instead of just head knowledge?

(What follows is the third of an eleven-part series that is one answer to these questions.)

A prayer at the border: “Almighty God, protect our brothers and sisters in Romania from fear and persecution; keep us safe as we enter Romania knowing that whatever happens we are held in Your hands.  Amen”.

After our plane landed in Vienna, Austria, we boarded a bus to Budapest, Hungary, about 200 miles away, passed through the Iron Curtain, arrived in the Hungarian Capital and checked into our hotel.  Hungary, as I happened upon it, was “western” in appearance.  People dressed and acted like me.  I felt safe, relatively speaking.   Early the next morning Ellen and I went jogging.  We both wore shorts and the crowd looked at us like we were streaking their capital city.  Our guide later informed us (read, “gently threatened”) that we had trespassed upon their cultural mores, or was it political boundaries?  Our shorts were carefully stowed away. We spent a couple of days visiting with the Baptists of Hungary and I have some mildly deceptive photos  of myself and others from our mission team pretending we were helping to construct new churches. Youth choirs sang for us, pastors spoke to us of the freedom they had to worship and preach the gospel, and denominational executives and a seminary president thanked us for providing the subsidies they needed to travel to international Baptist assemblies.  After one evening service we gathered in a pastor’s home and I was asked to share a blessing before enjoying favorite Hungarian pastries.  I asked everyone to hold hands in a circle and cued the Americans to sing, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”  After the first couple of notes our hosts joined the chorus in Hungarian.  I shivered with delight that a song could reveal such unity.

Earlier in the day we toured central Budapest and came to a plaza dedicated, if my memory serves me right, to the unknown soldiers who had given their lives for the socialist revolution.  Was it naivety or stupidity that caused this comment to escape from my lips?  “Someday that statue may be replaced by one honoring the heroes of the 1956 Revolution?”  Our guide looked at me with a twist of hostility as he said, “Not in my lifetime.”  Our leader, Reinhold couldn’t hold back a snicker, though later that day he had to call me on the carpet.  He said, “Baptists make their own choices but you may decide to be more careful.”  It didn’t seem like he meant a word of it.  And, by the way, six years later, 1988, Hungary was well on its way to freedom.  (I hope our guide did not have to die for that to happen.)

 We spent one more day touring  the city, engulfed in architecture and history.  In the evening we divided into three groups in order to worship and preach at different churches.  The churches were beautiful and had very familiar worship styles and music.  Attendance was good, but the very best feature was a spiritual oneness we felt every time we were with the Hungarian Baptists.  All in all, there was nothing that scary about Hungary; nothing that I had the depth of vision to see, that is.

Early the next morning we would depart for Romania.  At our team meeting that night we began with prayer and Reinhold Kerstan set the tone for our venture with his intercessions.   “God of all nations and all peoples.  You have brought us safely this far as your pilgrims and servants.  When we cross the border don’t let us forget that you have gone before us and that you have many witnesses already in that country who will help God to watch over us.  God of generous love, we pray we will be open to everything the Romanian Baptists need to give us, including their faith and their joy, because they have learned what we may never have to learn—to live full of hope even under oppression.  God of potent force, convince us that you and we ourselves are never without power and that no matter who rattles their sabers around, ‘Thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever.’  Amen.”

Reinhold imparted a commanding prayer, but it made me uneasy—what was all this talk about needing protection?   I began feeling like I was being sucked into a dark pool and could not swim my way out.  It seemed like my latent fears about jumping into a communist swamp were about to consume me.  I did not sleep that night, and ended up hanging around in the hotel lobby until 3:00 A.M.  My internal night got blacker and blacker until all I wanted was to run away, fly away home.  But I endured until morning and got on the bus to Romania.  That’s when one of the most unlikely of experiences brought me halfway to heaven, close enough for light to shine into my darkness and for God’s healing to have its way.

For some reason that morning, the back of the bus was a powerful magnet to me and all the younger traveling companions and a few other progressive Baptists.  The Romanian border was still far away and there was plenty of time for laughter.  Laughter!?  Absolutely!  I don’t know how it began but six of us started carrying on a good bit more loudly than one might expect from Baptists on a preaching mission.  The wild jokes and exciting banter eased my fear and, at least for me personally, clearly seemed like one way God has to fulfill God’s promise to be with us in all circumstances.  A couple of hours passed and we were still exercising our funny bones.  Proper Baptists near the front of the bus began turning around and giving us disapproving stares.  But they didn’t say anything.  They made us laugh even more.  Uptight Baptists give giggling, snickering, chuckling, chortling, Baptists a lot to guffaw about.  We definitely got more irritating and more disturbing as each mile passed.  Until. . .

Reinhold Kerstan stood up and asked for our attention.  We gave it freely and readily.  He pronounced, “We are a couple of miles from the Romanian border and there are some things we need to seriously remember; no kidding around nor any laughter when the Romanian guards board our bus.”  The edgy Baptists stared at us again and yelled with their eyes, “We told you so.”  Our leader continued, “If your bag is chosen for inspection, do not say anything.  This is routine but do not give them cause to look deeper.  If your Bibles are taken, let them go.”  You know, Reinhold warned us to keep us safe and you’d think that I might have been drawn again into fear.  But our rousing festivities on the back of the bus had put fear behind me.  I was confident and even exuberant and a two-hour delay at the border could not sprout any anxiety.  This had been a unique experience of laughter transforming fear into hope and bringing the healing light of God into my darkness.  It would only take a few more hours before I understood why such an intervention was necessary.  That day, the day of our entry into the more visible world of communist coercion, I was separated from most of the group by rowdiness and later in the day, I was told, by careless courage.  (To be continued next week.)

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