He looked like a young Hungarian Bob Dylan, complete with frizzy hair, crooked teeth, pasty face, and those beady eyes. I had traveled many miles for this moment, and yet it was something I never expected. The Missions Director had informed me that God told her I was supposed to go on a trip with a team of young musicians and vocalists that were traveling to Budapest, Hungary for the purpose of partnering with an evangelical ministry located there. Often during the days leading up to the journey I doubted she and I listened to the same God as I could see no reason or purpose for me going. I was at least twenty years older than anyone else on the team and to hear me sing is to hear a cat’s mating screech. And most importantly, I never ever approach people about Christianity. Where exactly did I fit into this scenario!! And yet here I found myself in the middle of a foreign city park talking with a young man who was the spitting image of the hippie songster with the prophetic voice.
We had gone to this particular park because it was a popular gathering place for young people. The team band was performing their version of U2’s “One Love” and those on the team who were not currently performing were milling around talking with the locals in the park. I looked around and finding a bench to sit on I remember insisting to God that if I was supposed to talk to someone they would have to be personally delivered to the bench. I wasn’t about to embarrass myself by approaching one of these young Hungarians who I was certain had no interest in talking to an old American lady. I had no more than uttered my prayer of conditions than the young man appeared and sat next to me on the bench.
I said hello to him and off on a tirade he went. He spoke English clearly and his first few sentences were woven so tightly in profanity that I had to will myself to stay seated. I’ve heard and participated in quite of bit of cussing in my life but I did not think it was actually possible to use the “f” word that many times in a sentence and still actually communicate a message. When he saw that he had not scared me away with his abusive language he snarled at me as he called me a “Christian”. The way he said it made the word sound even more disgusting than the cuss words he had been spewing. He bitterly informed me that Hungary didn’t need me or my fellow travelers to come over to his country to sing pretty songs or to try to fix them with our formulaic agenda. His devotion to his country was evident as he lamented that his people had real problems which called for real solutions. Oh boy. Was it only a few seconds ago that I had prayed that flippant prayer about God delivering me someone to talk to? Now I prayed fervently for God to give me some sort of guidance with this young man. I sensed anything I said would be wrong, yet his persistent stare demanded a response. I rather lamely told him that we hadn’t come to fix anything but to share what we knew of God’s love. Was that even true? Hadn’t we come over thinking that we were bringing the light of Jesus to the darkness of the rest of the world? Hadn’t we come with the answer to their problems? I knew even as I was saying it that it was wrong but I was certain at the moment there was not a correct response. No words of mine were as important as what he needed to say.
I guess there was something safe in the way I simply sat there, for he began to spill out his life troubles and the troubles of his country. He couldn’t be more than nineteen but he had been on quite a journey of drugs and alcohol and mayhem and poverty. As he got deeper into his story he told me he never prayed, hadn’t in years, but that every day he asked God to help him be sober. His honesty and vulnerability before God was startling. Puzzled, I asked him if he realized that when he talked to God he was…praying. He looked shocked and quickly informed me that to pray was to recite the formal written prayers while kneeling in the Cathedral close by, the one he pointed to in disgust. The Cathedral and religion he gave up on long ago. He was truly astonished to think it might be possible to pray any other way or to consider he might actually have more of a relationship with God than he knew. We talked for about thirty minutes and by the time he left, much to my surprise, he actually let me pray for him. No, it wasn’t a sinner’s prayer, he didn’t make any sort of faith declaration, and there was no joyous thank you Jesus moment. He simply let me touch the top of his frizzy head and pray for him to know that God loves him in the midst of all the uncertainty. I have no idea if this brief encounter had any lasting impression on his life. I only know that it has continued to impact mine and for that I am truly grateful.
There were many lessons I would learn on that adventure in Budapest. I would learn the country of Hungary bears a turbulent and weary history of being conquered repeatedly. I would learn that by the time the Nazi regime came to Hungary the evil was so completely ramped up that there were more Jews killed there in a shorter amount of time than anywhere else during the Holocaust. I would learn, with pain, that the Church, which is called to reflect the love of the One in whose name it was established, in trying to survive, turned a blind eye to much of the persecution. I would learn that during the Communist terror years trust deteriorated between even family members as all were afraid of the torture. I would learn that, through it all, the people of Hungary were and still are a resilient, yet maybe wearily so, beautiful people who love their country with heart and courage. I would learn why Simon had every reason to doubt, yet lived in belief in spite of those doubts.
I also learned things about myself, things I am still processing almost seven years later. Many lessons but none more significant than those learned from the young wild eyed prophet, Simon, who, in his authenticity, forced me to consider the honesty of my own relationship with God and how that might be reflected through my life. I learned that I am not called to defend God. God needs no help from me in that department. In fact, I can’t find anywhere in Scripture where Jesus commands us to defend him. Follow him. Yes. Do as he does. Yes. Love God and love our neighbor (which includes all “others”). Yes. Make disciples of this way of loving and baptize in the name of this Love. Yes. But nowhere do I find the command to defend. Of course Simon taught me how utterly useless it would be to try to do so. I learned there is a better way to show Christ and (to my surprise and delight) to see Christ in others. A way that begins with being fully open to opportunity without the need to control it. A way that requires me to be present in the presence of another. I learned how important it is to take the cares of others seriously and treat them with respect without trying to “fix” them. I learned that I absolutely cannot assume I know the way that will bring light into another’s darkness. I learned that listening in the love of Christ speaks much louder than preaching ever could.
As I look over these lessons I realize that I have not learned them yet. But, thankfully, I am learning. Here’s to Simon!
Something to chew on…