In his letter to the church in Philippi Paul writes:
'I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.' (Phil 1:3-6)
The reality of the feelings which prompted Paul to write this passage struck me deeply this September in a way I will not forget for a very long time.
From communism to Christ
The event was a student conference held prior to the International Christian Medical and Dental Association's (ICMDA) European Congress in Hungary. This conference took place in Balatonaliga, a small town on the shores of Lake Balaton, in what was the old Communist Party holiday camp. Unfortunately due to the nature of ideologies of its previous occupants the town could not be found on any map of the region printed before 1991. This proved a slight cause for concern to those of us who were not experienced travellers especially as my Hungarian is somewhat non-existent. But armed with friends who were more than willing to have a go at the language (thanks Fiona) we set off on the two hour trip from Budapest to Balatonaliga. (Budapest bears a striking resemblance to London; people, metro and architecture. I am not sure who built their Houses of Parliament first!)
We arrived at Balatonaliga station sooner than we thought (as was evident in our somewhat hurried exit from the train), and set off in search of our elusive destination. Divine intervention was at work as before we could get lost we were met by an angel disguised as one of the Hungarian organising committee. He led us to the camp which was to be our base for the next few days.
As we settled in and as people arrived I began to feel a tangible sense of God's presence and love in that place. It was something I had not felt for a long time and although many of the faces were new to me it was as if they were relatives and friends I had not seen for a very long time. It was to be a truly amazing few days.
To give you a feel for the size of the conference there were 120 students who had travelled from 15 countries ranging from Albania to Romania and from Slovakia to Norway. 10 students represented the UK; four came from London, three from Nottingham, two from Bristol and one from Manchester. CMF UK doctors Monty Barker, George Chalmers, Chris Savile, Andrew Fergusson and Peter Saunders all gave of their wisdom and experience in a number of fields ranging from psychiatry to alternative medicine. Peter Saunders gave three Bible readings based on Paul's letter to the Philippians reminding us that 'to live is Christ'. (Phil 1:21)
Christianity that costs
When I look back on my time in Hungary I remember many things, the faithful and challenging teaching, the interesting and informative seminars, the imaginative and colourful food (especially the Hungarian coffee!?); however, the one thing which I will treasure for ever was the people. The majority of students at the conference were from Eastern European countries, places where until the early part of this decade believers were unable to freely express their love for Jesus Christ. Just imagine if on your way into your CMF meeting you see a man at the door with a clip board whose job is to take down the name of every person entering or leaving that room. Your name is duly noted. The next day you arrive at the hospital to find that your locker has been emptied and your place at medical school has been taken because you attended the CMF meeting. Similarly imagine you are back in the sixth form and are filling in your UCAS form. You send it off and eagerly await the reply. Two weeks later you receive a letter stating that due to your refusal to join the Pioneer group (a youth organisation run by the Communist Party in Hungary prior to 1991) there are no places available to you in any medical school. I heard both of these stories from students at the conference. Their commitment to the gospel was staggering. Their obvious joy and their desire to see the good news spread within their countries often against fierce opposition (both political and religious) was very, very humbling to me as a western Christian. It made me reflect on our own home situation in the UK and on the unlimited freedom we have to proclaim Jesus crucified, limited only by our own apathy. I was not the only student from the UK who was moved by what we saw in our brothers and sisters. Emma Barrett, a medical student from Manchester, came to the conference and in response writes:
'In less affluent countries, and more importantly in areas where Christianity has been illegal in the past and involved real risk, defiance and secrecy, students today are living refreshingly different lives for Christ. Christians are coming together expectant of God, setting up meetings, joining in because they are moved in their hearts to praise the Lord. We in the UK are victims of complacency, self-satisfaction and apathy. Surely it would be better for us to do nothing than just to go to a church or go to a CMF meeting out of habit or guilt. So often we are missing out on the vital ingredient, a dynamic relationship with God and an outworking of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives. Do you burn that your colleagues should know and love the Lord Jesus? Do you freely love your brothers and sisters in Christ and bear with them? Well praise God, this kind of attitude is contagious and I found myself uplifted and encouraged by my experiences in Hungary.'
Passion for prayer
The students at Balatonaliga were real examples of people living lives for Christ with no compromise. This kind of attitude was infectious, as was the sense of fellowship and unity of vision amongst all assembled. One student from the UK remarked to me on the last day that having been to this conference, he could really imagine what the early church would have been like. People joined together united by love and a common vision to 'go and make disciples of all nations'.(Mt 28:19) I shall never forget the example of these Eastern European brothers and sisters. I encourage you to keep praying for all international students; Prayer is our lifeline to God and is our most powerful weapon against the Devil. The strength and success of all of the emerging groups in Eastern Europe is based on faithful and persistent prayer. If you want to get in contact with any of the groups abroad contact Peter Saunders at the CMF office. Let's see you in Durban in July 1998! The final word belongs to Emma;
'We can't expect things to happen in the UK, to be being built up and for our friends to be attracted to Christianity, if we are not prepared to put aside our personal preferences and roll up or sleeves and get down to praying together as Christian medical students. Hungary has given me the desire to challenge all of you out there to get serious and committed to your Christian lives, just like our friends abroad are, in order that we might see what great things the Lord can do!'