A visit to Hungary to celebrate the birthday of Charles Wesley

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Personal Reflection

by Kurt Burger, Commissioner –

Commissioner Kurt Burger (right) participates in services marking the birth of John Wesley.

After 400 years of the Romans, 150 years of the Ottomans and 45 years of the Soviets, you will be the first who’s welcome to stay longer.

Welcome words on a sign in the airport, gratefully accepted by one who arrives in Hungary for the first time. One quickly notices traces of 45 years of Communist neglect, something that will take a generation or more to erase.

The person who brought us to Budapest, though long dead, has nothing to do with the Romans, Ottomans, or Soviets—it’s Charles Wesley (1707-1788), on his 300th birthday, December 18. Ironically, of all countries and places, a small group of Hungarian Christians (mostly Methodists) invited The Salvation Army to participate in Wesley’s birthday celebration, a life that keeps on singing and blessing—9,000 poems, 27,000 stanzas, 180,000 lines.

Charles Wesley, the 18th of 19 children (11 survived), along with his brother John, demonstrated early strong artistic and intellectual abilities. Becoming an Anglican priest, he ministered briefly in the United States, an unsuccessful venture. But it paved the way for his “spiritual enlightenment.”

“By degrees the Spirit of God chased away the darkness in my unbelief. I found myself convinced…I saw that by faith I stood” (Journal entry of May 21, 1738).

Three hundred years later I found myself listening to this man’s powerful songs. In the midst of Communist neglect, surrounded by Christians who still live in the glow of practicing their faith openly, the sound of the music, the power of his words and the story of his amazing life created a mixture of spiritual uplift, intellectual depth and emotional satisfaction. Thank you, Charles! May your influence outlast the Romans, Ottomans and Russians combined, and beyond.

Reality, however, was quick to make a comeback. “This is the only place I feel safe,” said the almost toothless mother of three through our interpreter. (Almost toothless, not because of decay—they were beaten out of her mouth!) The domestic violence shelter run by the Army is a marvel of performing miracles with next to nothing. In a run-down building, way too small for the need, women and their children live in small, cramped quarters. A building inspector in the United States would shut us down immediately. But it’s winter, cold, with no viable alternatives in sight.

This problem didn’t exist until about 10 years ago; remember, social problems didn’t exist in a “workers’ paradise!” When “paradise” turned out to be a house of cards and collapsed, no one was prepared. Domestic violence, homelessness and alcoholism quickly mushroomed into huge problems.

Among those who best understand this is one of the corps officers in Budapest, which has five corps and four institutions. The son of an officer, he battled alcoholism almost all his adult life. When the Communists outlawed The Salvation Army, his father, a corps officer, was forced underground; life became extremely hard. As a young adult, conflicted about Christianity and Communism, he began to drink hard with devastating results. After the collapse of Communism, some old (pre-communism) and new Salvationists began to minister to him and he accepted Christ. His officership, unfortunately, is all too short; for health reasons he has to retire this year after opening two corps and leading many people to Christ.

On the flight back to Switzerland, I think of him and all the other courageous officers and Salvationists, and I hear again the congregation celebrating Charles Wesley’s birthday, singing with strong conviction and noticeable happiness one of his hymns:

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, should’st die for me?

Western officers Commissioners Kurt and Alicia Burger are territorial leaders for Switzerland, Austria and Hungary.

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