Have spent the last 4 days in Čakovec in northern Croatia (very near the borders with Hungary, Austria and Slovenia), here for another Langham Preaching Seminar (the left hand flag representing the region around Čakovec, the right being the national flag). The privilege of being involved in these events never ceases to amaze me. I know I’ve said that before, but it is no less sincere for that. It has been a relatively small conference – 35 folks here – but that is no bad thing. It has given the chance to get to know one another much better than one is normally able to. Particularly thrilling is the presence of a small contingent from Novi Sad in Serbia and a large group of 11 from Sarajevo in Bosnia. People from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia all gathering together to seek to become better preachers – yet another indicator of the cause of the gospel transcending national boundaries (a remarkable experience, if you know anything of what has happened in the Balkans over the last 20 year or so).
There was a funny side to the aftermath of the Balkans War (and there weren’t that many). Many foreign (and often Christian) agencies piled in intent on generally doing good and bringing about some sort of reconciliation between the various ethnic groups. The need for that was immense of course. But for those who were Christians already, their immediate reaction, on the opening of the borders, was to make contact with friends and relatives from the other side. One was describing how at one particular reunion between some Serb & Croatian Christians, the foreign reconciliation experts thought it was amazing – taking photographs of everyone hugging and laughing as though this was a great victory, when actually they’d never been divided in the first place. There is enough common ground at the foot of the cross for all. (This photographonthe right is from the Baptist Pastoral Centre in Čakovec, run by our hosts and conference organisers, Toma & Ksenija Magda – you can’t quite get it from the picture, but coming round from the right is a huge brick arm that embraces the gleaming cross outside the building. It makes a wonderful statement about the availability of forgiveness that is to be found there).
One objective of Langham conferences is to encourage small groups of preachers to meet regularly where they live. This provides mutual accountability and support – as well as a way of sharpening and improving the quality of preaching. Usually, everyone will either work up an outline on the same text, or each will present the outline of the next talk they are giving, and then this gets discussed. Now at the last Langham Croatia conference in February, the Bosnian group all went to a bar on the last night and over a beer, they resolved to meet regularly in this way, in Sarajevo and a couple of other places. 11 of the 12 returned for this conference, and testified to how helpful this had been for them, because they had been able to meet at least monthly. It was such an encouragement to hear about this, not least because they seemed to be guys with huge potential. Tomislav (second from the left in the photo) went from Croatia 11 years ago to Sarajevo to plant a church (when things were still really bad after the war) and this has grown. Slavko (in the middle) is a Bosnian who has also been a pastor in Sarajevo for a number of years. Of course each of the others has his story. But who knows what impact each will have in the years and decades to come.
It was poignant to be with them this week of all weeks, when talks over Kosovo have broken down – which may well have serious and terrible repercussions for Bosnia in particular and the whole region in general. For ethnic tensions are rising – a minute example of the reality of this was the way that vehicle number plates have to be ordered. For Croatia & Serbia, the number plate identifies which town you’re from. But you can’t do that on Bosnian cars – your town of origin would identify the driver’s religion and nationality immediately. So i do hope that these guys can make a difference in a small way, as the message of the cross that has united them to me and others, can reconcile the people they minister to, both to God and across the divisions which are tearing their country apart.
So it has got me wondering. Will people look back on that meeting in a Čakovec as those who know their Reformation history look back on the White Horse Inn in Cambridge where the English Reformation perhaps began, or the bar in Wittenberg where Luther went to drink ale with his friends Philip and Amsdorf? After Bosnia has suffered so much, it is good to dream and have hope. (I took this picture of a clocktower at sunset in Čakovec castle.)