Last Thursday I returned from an eleven-day trip to Eastern Europe. The main purpose of my trip was to attend the wedding of my brother, Tim, and his lovely bride, Anetta. But I also had a second purpose, to visit with the Rice Family, our missionaries to Slovakia.
It was a magnificent trip, one whose memories will stay with me for a lifetime. And so, having finally cleared all the jetlagged fog from my brain, I’d like to share some reflections:
Some Serious Reflections:
- There is a wide sweep of history in Europe that you just can’t get in America. I love America and am proud to be a citizen. I think our story is unique in human history. But, let’s be honest here. We have nothing in our country quite like the history in Europe. Thousand-year old castles, historic, beautiful, ancient churches. Identity rooted in thousands of years of history. I loved walking down the city streets in places like Krakow and Budapest and Bratislavia and taking in the old buildings, the historic architecture, and the camera-ready shots at every intersection. I thoroughly enjoyed walking the town square of Krakow, touring the vast and beautiful city of Budapest, and climbing Bratislavia’s Navi Most bridge and viewing Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria.
- Europe is different than the Europe we envision as Americans. Granted, I’m not suddenly Rick Steves. I visited three European capitals out of many. But . . . in American we typically disparage Europe as old, indebted, liberal, sensual, pacififist–whatever. Some of those lablels might be true, but the caricature didn’t quite fit. At least where I was, I found thriving cities and people with the same wants and needs and desires as Americans. For one thing, at least where I was, there was no hatred for Americans. There was appreciation. And I found that the people who live in Europe seem to want the same things all humans long for: peace, prosperity, a good job, a stable family.
- In Poland, where I spent the majority of my time, there is a certain rootedness in faith and family. Poland has only enjoyed freedom and independence since 1989. For most of the 20th Century, they were victims of two equally evil regimes that swept across Europe: Naziism and Communism. Both Hitler and Stalin committed unspeakable evils against the good Polish people. It was only until 1989 that they threw off the chains of tyranny, birthed by the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walensa and championed by Pope John Paul and Ronald Reagan. Poland was just one of many dominoes that fell across Europe, ultimately leading to the downfall of Communism. But unlike some other previously communist countries, Poland has handled its freedom well, boasting one of the most robust economies. Even in the current Europe crisis, Poland’s economy is ticking right along. Much of the credit is given to the embrace of free-market principles, but you can also point to Poland’s strong culture of family and faith. As an evangelical, I have significant theological differences with Catholicism, but I can’t help but admire how the Catholic Church has held Poland together. It does reaffirm the idea that culture matters in a country. There is an admirable ethic among the Poles that values hard work, strong families, and faith. You see it in the communities that are held together generation upon generation.
- You can’t underestimate the evil of both Nazism and Communism. Both Hungary and Slovakia were helpless countries battered by both Hitler and Stalin. We unfortunately didn’t have time to tour Auschwitz or the Schindler Museum in Krakow, but I was able to tour the House of Terror in Budapest. This building was first a central station for the Nazi’s as they arrested, tortured, and killed many Hungarian Jews. Over 600,000 Jews were killed from Hungary alone. This was a house of terror, a place were the apex of evil was carried out on innocent people. The tour included video testimonies of survivors and relics saved from that era. When the Soviets “liberated” Hungary from the Nazi’s, they ironically used this same building as a station to carry out very similar acts. The Soviets were no liberators. Though ideological opposites, they were just as brutal to the Hungarians, indiscriminately killing, displacing, and pillaging. The Soviets preached the beauty of the state, a sort of sameness that killed individualism. People were cogs in their wheel, disposable and lifeless. This soul-less, lifeless style of government ravaged much of Europe for many decades. It was a sober reminder of the danger of absolute power, totalitarian leadership, and an “ends-justifies-the-means” approach. As an American, it gave me a great sense of pride to know that we helped liberate Europe from the Nazis and we hastened the fall of communism. In downtown Budapest, there is a tribute to Ronald Reagan, thanking him for his tireless work in defeating communism.
- There is something interesting about being an evangelical in Europe. In America, it’s still pretty acceptable to be an evangelical. Christians are kind of “cool” here. We have bumper stickers and t-shirts, and other such stuff. We almost have a “cultural” evangelicalism. In Europe, no such thing exists. Evangelicals are rare and the Church is pretty small. But in a way, there is a greater sense of mission and purpose for those who serve there. There is none of the cultural baggage of American evangelicalism. And I sense that pastors and missionaries have a more clarified purpose: preach the Word, love their neighbors, build the church
- God gave me a great love for Europe. The last few years I’ve prayed that God would give me a love for a particular mission field. I believe that love is now for Europe, especially Eastern Europe. These countries, finally finding freedom and independence from years of oppression and tyranny, now have an opportunity to rise. I’m thrilled to see countries like Hungary and Poland doing well. But I also think there is a great opportunity for gospel penetration here. I sense that the younger generations might be open to biblical Christianity. I have no way of knowing that, other than just getting that sense. Many evangelicals like to point to Europe as spiritually “dead” or unreachable. But in talking to missionaries over there, I sense that there is a great opportunity for revival in Eastern Europe. I pray for this. With their infrastructure, perhaps the big cities in Europe could be hubs for gospel proclamation. I hope churches sieze the day and “flood the zone” with missionaries, church planters, and others.
Some Lighter Reflections:
- I liked the food of Europe. I purposely only ate one American thing while in Europe: a “McFarm” from McDonalds. It was an interesting sausage sandwich. But mostly I ate the local fair and loved it. Seems meat and potatoes are a staple here. I’m not sure why, but I like it. As a bonus, must of the meat is breaded and fried. I guess it’s okay because in Europe you walk a lot, so it sort of balances out the carbs and calories.I also love the coffee and tea of Europe. I love outdoor cafes
- Europe definitely has the best airports. These are the airports I passed through: Helsinki, Finland, Budapest, Hungary, Krakow, Poland, Warsaw, Poland, Vienna, Austria. I was impressed at how nice each of these airports were. They were clean, the people were friendly, and there was great restaurants. Each of them also had special play areas for kids. I’ve never seen that in a U.S. Airport. Also, there seemed to be less of a hustle/rush aspect in Europe. But maybe that was just me.
- Two luxuries I really missed from the States: Air conditioning and ice. I’m sitting now in my basement office, loving the ice-cold air-conditioning. In Europe, there is little A/C. It don’t think it’s because people can’t afford it, it’s just that A/C doesn’t seem as important to them as us. Also, it’s hard to find ice for your drinks. So call me a spoiled American, but I like those two luxuries.
- I rarely used my cell-phone, but when I did it was clearer than here in the states. Go figure, but the one call I had to make home was at 11:30 at night in downtown Krakow to Lake County, IL. And I had perfectly clear reception. (It also cost me $10-ouch!).
- There is wifi nearly everywhere in Europe, even on city streets. I liked this. I was able to check email, etc with my iPhone.