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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Scandinavian and European Impressions

Scandinavian and European Impressions
My wife, Kathi, and I recently returned from a trip that took us from London, England to Saint Petersburg, Russia.  It included the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, as well as the former captive nations of Estonia and Poland.  As it turns out, during the course of the trip I read Charles Colson’s powerful book, The Christian in Today’s Culture, which was a nice complement to the trip itself, as I shall explain.

My general impression of Europe is like stepping back in time.  The cars are small, the bicycles are many, the health care is poor, the economy is strangled by regulations and taxes, and the people are secular.  About 2% of the citizens attend church regularly, if at all. 

London, UK
.  Kathi and I traveled to London earlier this year for the first time.  We were both impressed by the compactness of the city and the ability to get around easily by walking or via the tube.  We like London.  It was a pleasure to run a couple of miles in Hyde Park early in the morning, and it was a special thrill to visit Westminster Abbey and see the final resting place of William Wilberforce, as well as that of so many famous political and literary leaders.  The Abbey itself was spectacular, but as in the other monarchies, their Kings and Queens’ relationship with God and the Church was odd, at best.  In the same room you might find the final resting place of a Queen who had arranged for the beheading of another monarch, who was her sister or first cousin.

The tour of Churchill’s wartime cabinet room was a real treat.  What courage and tenacity Churchill had even in the darkest of days!  He was undoubtedly a great wartime leader, but he didn’t enter politics as a member of the Conservative party.  He began his service as an MP, as a radical and in fact, authored and/or supported many of the social welfare programs with which the UK is still saddled today. 

Copenhagen, Denmark
.  Copenhagen is a beautiful, somewhat quaint, breezy city with a proud past.  Everything is costly in Denmark (as it is throughout Scandinavia and Eastern Europe).  Everyone, it seems, rides a bicycle.  I took a picture in one of the city squares that must have contained 500 or more bicycles.  Kathi and I had dinner in our hotel and we shared a Greek salad and a plate of meatballs and pasta, along with three glasses of their most inexpensive wine.  The bill was more than $60 US.  They have restored much of the old part of the city and their pedestrian-only mall takes you from the center of the city to a lovely, restored waterfront area.
Stockholm, Sweden
.  Stockholm, the home of Albert Nobel, is another beautiful city with lots of water, wonderful old architecture, and churches that serve primarily as museums.  We visited a museum which contains a recovered and restored 17th century war ship, the Vasa.  If you like maritime museums, you will love this one.  Like the rest of Scandinavia, Sweden is very focused on outdoor activities.  We visited the hall where the Nobel dinner is held.  All the Nobel prizes are awarded in Stockholm except for the so-called peace prize (which has been awarded to dictators like Gorbechev and terrorists like Arafat, along with folks like Jimmy Carter) which is awarded in Oslo, Norway.
Helsinki, Finland
.  Helsinki is one of the most beautiful cities we visited.  Surrounded by water, this lovely city is known for its Lutheran cathedral, but the Catholic cathedral is equally beautiful.  We purchased fried Salmon in the open air market for lunch along with a local beer.  This was one of our favorite cities.
Saint Petersburg, Russia
.  We took an exhausting two day and rain filled tour of this old Russian city which included the Hermitage, the Winter and Summer Palaces of Peter the Great, as well as numerous churches including the “Church of Spilt Blood” (the official name is the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ).  This church was built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.  It was closed in the 1930s by the Communists and was not reopened again until 1997.  During that entire period it was covered up and surrounded by scaffolding and used as a warehouse.  This was absolutely my favorite church of our entire trip.  While other churches had beautiful stained glass and wonderful icons, this church had stunning mosaics portraying Biblical events and people.

But not all is beautiful and charming about St. Petersburg.  There are rows and rows of ugly, concrete buildings built by the Soviets.  Many of these are next to modern buildings built after the Soviet era.  Our tour guide was a very intelligent and interesting person who had grown up under the Soviet regime.  Her English was very good, but her words were guarded, as if she was still being very careful not to say anything that could get her into trouble with the government.  She was also the master of the understatement.  My two favorites were, “A number of people were not so happy living under the Soviet government.”  And, as she was showing us the two-headed eagle emblem of Russia, “This is our current emblem, although for a period of time we had another emblem.”

Clearly Russia is still not an open society where its citizens feel free to criticize their government.  Nor is the economy strong since the government still runs and controls all major business ventures, especially oil production and refining.  And apparently the government has deep ties into the Russian Mafia, a dangerous and powerful force.  Nevertheless, the new Russia has potential and, as a result of limited freedom, including a limited free market, times are better than they were previously.  The streets are full of cars owned by a growing middle class.  The old Russians, like the old Estonians and the old Poles, still fear change and cling to the elusive “security” of government doing everything for (and to) them.  Not until that generation is gone is there any real hope that Russia will become a strong, market driven economy that will eradicate the devastation of Soviet socialism.

Tallinn, Estonia
.  We only had a few hours in Tallinn, Estonia, but found it to be a lovely and charming city.  We were, however, warned in advance, that Estonians strongly dislike Russia and Russians, so we avoided that topic.  They had an “Occupation Museum” which I would have loved to visit, but unfortunately, there just was not time.  Encouragingly, there were numerous new office buildings in Tallinn and the flowers were beautiful.
Gdansk, Poland
.  Our cruise ship actually docked at Gdynia and we took a bus ride of about an hour to Gdansk.  In some ways, Poland was the most depressing area we visited, but in other ways I found it to be inspiring.  A young man, who appeared to be in his mid twenties, was our tour guide and he did an excellent job.  He said that he was “embarrassed” by the graffiti that was everywhere and indeed it was everywhere.  Neither Gdynia nor Gdansk are beautiful cities or centers of culture.  They are industrial cities based on ship building.  And, of course, Gdansk is the home of Solidarity, the shipbuilding trade union that was led by Lech Wałęsa.  Wałęsa went on to serve as the President of the Republic of Poland after helping to bring down the Communist puppet regime. 

Our guide told us that he was only five years old when the battle by Solidarity against the Soviet Communist bosses took place.  He credits Solidarity and Pope John Paul II (formerly the Polish Priest Karol Józef Wojtyła) with bringing the repressive puppet government down.  He noted that at one point 10 million (out of a total population of 30 million) Poles belonged to Solidarity. 

After a nice tour of the Gdansk Old Town (where the office of Lech Walesa is located) we traveled to the Solidarity Museum, a very small museum with a powerful message about tyranny and how the Polish people overcame the repressive Communist state with incredible courage, determination and perseverance.  It was very inspiring. 

Our guide also pointed out apartment complexes created by the Soviets that have a seven foot ceiling and are of a postage stamp size.  Poland, like other former Soviet satellites, suffers because it has no capital funds to start enterprises or new private ventures, but they have been very innovative.  When asked about highways, our guide said that it was virtually impossible to drive from Gdansk to Kraków before the fall of Communism (if you had a car and if you had permission from the government).  Today, however, they have freeways that were built and are privately owned on which you can travel by paying tolls.  An all day trip from Gdansk to Kraków has been converted to a trip of just a few hours. 

When our guide was asked about health care, he said this, “We have government health care.  When you get sick and need a doctor, it takes about six months for an appointment.  If you then need surgery, it’s another six months to a year.  If you are 65 years of age or older, no health care is provided at all since you are no longer contributing anything to society.”

Our guide summed up the situation in Poland this way.  “We have come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go.”  He’s right, but it appears they are on the right track.
Oslo, Norway
.  This was our last stop and Kathi’s favorite city.  Oslo is very clean, very pretty, and with very friendly people.  Located on a fiord, Oslo is surrounded by water and there were many power and sail boats.  We visited a museum with a restored Viking boat and then took a walk around the city and up to the palace.  It was perhaps the best weather day of the trip.
Now, how does this tie into Colson’s book?  He tells the story of the Vandals, Visigoths, Sueves, and Alans Germanic tribes overrunning the Roman Empire.  As Colson puts it, “The entire substructure of Roman civilization was destroyed, to be replaced by small kingdoms ruled by illiterate, barbaric warrior-kings.”  Colson then goes on, “As the shadow of the Dark Ages fell over Western Europe, who emerged from the rubble?  Who rebuilt Western civilization?  The Christian Church.”
Colson then describes the story of sixteen year old Patricius who in A.D. 401 was seized by an Irish raiding party, eventually escaped, and then returned as a missionary to Ireland.  “Into this bloodthirsty culture St. Patrick brought the Christian message of love and forgiveness and established monasteries throughout the land.  The monastic movement in Ireland began to revolutionize the world, replacing the old values of a warrior society with the new values of Christianity.  Within St. Patrick’s lifetime, warriors cast aside their swords of battle, intertribal warfare decreased markedly, and the slave trade ended.  A culture of battle and brute power was transformed…  A culture of illiteracy and ignorance became a culture of learning.  …eventually a flood of missionaries from Ireland fanned out across Scotland, England, and the European continent.”
“…this astonishing feat was accomplished again and again throughout the Dark Ages.  From the north, Vikings repeatedly swooped down on the coasts or sailed deep inland on the rivers to loot and destroy, murdering people, ruining fields, plundering wealth, and burning cities across Europe.  But each time, Christianity showed its unquenchable, supernatural power of spiritual regeneration.”

“…one of the most exciting chapters in the history of the Christian church is the transformation of the barbarians from bloodthirsty warriors into peace-loving farmers, determined to live by the work of their own hands instead of by theft and plunder.  As the barbarians were converted and the destructive invasions ceased, European society began to flourish.”
Our trip to the Baltic region convinced me that the time is ripe for spiritual renewal in Europe.  When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and other nations followed by translating the Bible into their native tongues, God provided the Gutenberg Press as a means of printing the Bible for mass distribution.

Today, all citizens of the countries we visited speak English.  They are taught it in school and use it for business as the common language of Europe.  They need it for the Internet and for American software and computer games.  Now that God has put this universal means of communication before us, as he did the Gutenberg press for Luther and the other great Reformers, we can and must use it to spread the Good News of Jesus.  After all, how can materialism or utopianism answer the great questions of life?  Why am I here?  What’s the meaning of life?  Where did I come from?  What is my purpose in life?  Is life itself important?  Only Christianity has clear answers to those questions, answers that bring peace, joy, and the meaning we all seek. 

Europe came from barbarians and as society gets farther away from God and the comfort faith in Him brings, the more society continues down the path to the chaos from which it came.  Now is the time for spiritual renewal in Europe and across the world.

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