This is a sequel to my last post, in which I shared the long trip Norma and I made from southern Holland to Hungary, where we were scheduled to meet with a group of pastors from different parts of the country. I would be teaching for five days, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. We would be meeting in the apartment of a young Hungarian pastor and his wife. We had been told that we would need to park our van in a certain parking garage, where we would leave it each day. We would be met there by one of the pastors who would drive us to the apartment complex. Everyone would be arriving at different times, so we would not draw any attention to ourselves. We had also been told in advance how to dress, so we would not be easily identified as westerners. We were also fortunate to have the wife of the founder of Eastern European Bible Mission with us. Mona knew the couple who were allowing our group to meet in their apartment and had also visited Budapest many times. However, she did not speak Hungarian, so we would need an interpreter for my teaching sessions. However, when we arrived, after meeting our hosts and a few others who were already there, we were informed that the person who had been scheduled to be my interpreter, who had previously been used by EEBM as an interpreter for other visitors had become ill and was unable to be with us. Almost at the last moment they had found someone else to interpret, a retired school teacher who had been recommended, but they knew very little about her, except she was not a Christian. She was Jewish, but one who had also experienced persecution because of her faith, as well as her ethnicity, so they were assuming she could be trusted. She not only proved to be a competent interpreter, but became an active participant in our discussions, and by the week’s end had become a friend. I have often wondered what became of her. She had taken a risk by sharing in religious gatherings that were against the restrictions imposed by their communist oppressors. That situation lasted for forty years, until the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989.
The theme of our sessions was “THE KIND OF FAITH THAT PLEASES GOD” (Hebrews 11:6), and I probably learned more from them about that subject, especially that He remains steadfast in times of stress and distress, as well as faith that endures (two marks of the kind of faith that pleases God), than they learned from me. We Christians in the West have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ in other parts of the world who have paid a great price for their allegiance to Jesus Christ – for their steadfast faith under pressure in times of intense persecution. When we left our new friends in Budapest, the young pastor who had been our host put his strong arms around me, lifted me off the ground, kissed me on both cheeks, and said, “Don’t ever do anything in Hawaii that would embarrass Jesus! Tell everyone there that the followers of Jesus in Eastern Europe don’t have much, but we have Him, and that is enough!” I was the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu at the time, a supporting congregation of EEBM, and they knew I would be giving a report on our experience when we returned home to the islands.
To make a long story longer, Norma wondered if we would ever see Gabor Ivani again, for we might not get back to Hungary. In the “fullness of time” we were visiting seven Asian nations, visiting with missionaries and leaders of churches in those countries, including Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines where would be spending time with friends. Once again, I had the experience of preaching and teaching with interpreters. In Korea, I was privileged to preach at the largest Presbyterian Church in the world, with more than 60 thousand members (i.e. the mother church in Seoul, not including satellite congregations). The Sr. Pastor, a very dynamic preacher, was my interpreter. Following one of the five worship services, a Korean woman approached me who spoke very fluent English. I assume she meant it as a compliment, when she said, “You had a fine sermon this morning, but Dr. Pak’s was better!” I’m sure it was, since he was very dramatic and powerful in his delivery. I knew we had so much to learn from Korean Christians, but that Sunday I learned a simple lesson, how they keep preachers from the United States humble! I say that with tongue in cheek, for I have always desired true humility, without ever truly feeling humble (I guess that’s a good thing). Perhaps you have heard about the pastor whose congregation presented him with a badge for his humility, and then took it away from him when he wore it!
It was on that Asian tour that Norma and I attended the Second International Congress on World Evangelization in Manila. There were approximately twenty thousand official delegates in attendance from nations around the world. The daily meetings were held in a huge convention center, with earphones in the different sections, so those from different nations could hear the messages in their own language. One day during the morning session when Dr. John Stott, famous and beloved pastor, author, and Bible teacher from England, was teaching, we thought we recognized the language of a group sitting in front of us. We did not speak to them while Dr. Stott was teaching from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, emphasizing Paul’s eagerness to visit Rome and to also preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ there, saying: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for all who have faith” (i.e. for all who choose to believe in Christ crucified and risen – Romans 1:16) – a power far greater than the power of Rome; not the power to destroy, but the power to save; not the kind of power that hurts, but the kind of power that heals; not the kind of power that divides, but the kind of power that unites; not power that strikes fear into the hearts of people, but the power of a love that could be mocked, spat upon, rejected, and yet remain love, praying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When we did have the opportunity, we asked those sitting directly in front of us where they were from. When they replied, “Hungary,” we were so thrilled and excited, asking them if they knew Gabor Ivani. When they replied, “Yes, he is here with us,” we could not believe it! I wonder now why we were so surprised, for we had experienced so many GOD-INCIDENTS before. Gabor was not with them at that time, but they told us where he was staying. They told us he was at the same hotel where we were staying, so we were united with our friend from Budapest in Manila, of all places. What were the odds? Was that just a coincidence? Just “one of those things” that is hard to explain? Not for us, for we are confident it was another GOD-INCIDENT.
Then, when we returned to Hungary after the Berlin Wall came down, we were re-reunited with Gabor, his wife, and his parents once again. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that Gabor had been elected to Parliament following the revolution. He offered to take us on a guided tour of the fully restored Parliament building, which is one of the most beautiful buildings in Eastern Europe, overlooking the Danube. When we were ascending the grand staircase the next day, Gabor paused to introduce us to another member of Parliament who was descending, whispered in my ear: “Do you know who your tour guide is?” He was obviously surprised to see Gabor assuming such a lowly position (but he is truly a humble servant of the Lord). The man to whom we had been introduced was the Secretary of Transportation for the nation, and he told me, “Gabor was one of the brave leaders of the revolution, held in such high esteem by all who know him” – our brother in Christ, the courageous young pastor who had been our host on our first visit to Budapest, with whom we were surprisingly reunited in Manila, and was now our host once again, but then as a national hero in the eyes of his people. Why? Because he had publicly demonstrated at even greater personal risk than before, “the kind of faith that pleases God” – helping to overthrow in “the fullness of time” an oppressive communist regime that had persecuted Hungarian Christians for forty long years. How could anyone believe all this was no more than a “coincidence.” Those of you who have been reading my posts know full well what my wife and I believe. This was just one more amazing GOD-INCIDENT.
Today the churches of Eastern Europe are filled with joyful worshipers who remember the days of old. Now there are many new believers as well. The same is true in China, where churches are overrun with worshipers after years of persecution, beginning with the Chinese Revolution that swept Mao Zedong into power, when instantly all religious worship was banned, all foreign missionaries were expelled, and Christians were forced to go underground as in Eastern Europe. That lasted for thirty years, until churches were slowly allowed to reopen their doors, giving people freedom of worship once again, even allowing the printing and publication of Bibles thanks to the secret diplomatic negotiations initiated by former President Jimmy Carter. As a result, believers who had borrowed a tomb for awhile (just as our Lord had done), worshiping “underground” (a figure of speech – a metaphor used by the “suffering church), emerged and filled churches to overflowing. Today many churches are holding multiple services to accommodate worshipers. You don’t read about it in American newspaper, but the Christian faith has exploded in China since the 1980’s, and the same thing could happen in North Korea, where Christianity was the strongest before the communist revolution there. We know the ‘under-ground Church” there is also strong, giving us hope that more amazing GOD-INCIDENTS are in the future. We have “been born anew to this living hope through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:1). Thanks be to God!