The European Leadership Forum (ELF) is something that I have been to several times. I have usually found it encouraging and helpful. It is a gathering of some 700 church leaders mainly from throughout Europe – although there is a significant American presence as well (especially amongst the organisers and the volunteer staff who run it) . It has been a great place for Solas to meet with people and to share the work we are doing – so this year we decided to send a full team. David Harnett (admin), Phil Dickson (intern), Al Smith (media), Tom Courtney (Europe Director) and yours truly as a speaker/seminar leader are the team.
Tom Courtney and I set of at 8am for Edinburgh airport with suitcases that we feared would be overweight because each of the Solas participants is taking their share of 500 Solas magazines and a similar number of leaflets and books. Edinburgh airport, after its revamp, is now the most efficient airport I have been in – we sped through customs and security, even though it was very busy. Our first flight was to Amsterdam with KLM – as always the Dutch staff were civil, efficient and helpful (United take note!). Even though we only had a 40 minute changeover in Amsterdam and had to go from one end of that massive airport to the other, we made our connecting flight to Krakow. I was sure they could not have got our luggage in that time, but I was wrong – it duly turned up on the conveyor belt.
Both the plane to Amsterdam and the one to Krakow were populated by noisy groups. The former by a hen party of Glaswegians hens (complete with the obligatory pink sashes) who sounded as though they were speaking Dutch. The words sounded vaguely familiar and some of them I even recognised but I couldn’t make sense of what they were saying. The second flight was dominated by a group of Dutch men – who like the Scots, are hardly the most shy and retiring of peoples! When I got off at Krakow I made a mistake and trod on a young Polish womans toe – I mumbled an apology which she clearly did not hear and she accosted my on the bus to the terminal and gave me a row. She was quite right.
We then went to our host church – a small congregation with a clearly vibrant witness, where we heard Adam Broughton of Kirkcaldy speak with a translator for two sessions – which made it a long night. At the end we got some food – some fabulous herring on a piece of bread, fruit sticks with grape, banana and oranges (a combination that worked really well) and above all, that Polish speciality – sausages! One young man boasted to me of how even the Germans acknowledge that Polish sausage is the best in the world!
We are here because I had met some Polish pastors in Scotland and they asked us to come and speak at their conference. We couldn’t really do so but given that we were coming to ELF anyway we agreed to speak tomorrow and then go on to ELF a day late. I am now in my (our) room in the church, a creche that doubles as a guest room, traffic roaring past the window. I love doing these things but I much prefer being in my own bed – and I am already homesick for Annabel and EJ…I find it difficult to go a day without speaking to them. Perhaps also sharing a room with Tom makes me more homesick!
The time on the plane was not wasted – I finished reading The Handbook for Young Atheists and continued to write my review (watch this space). It was quite sad and depressing. But nothing compared to what I felt as we were driven to our destination by Yannick, a Polish lily grower. We are very close to Auschwitz – and driving through the woods and the greenery really gets to me. In fact a black wave of depression came over me. The evil is beyond comprehension. The thought cannot but strike you – Lord how could you allow this? There are not many alternatives. According to the philosophy of the Young Atheists Handbook, humans just did this ourselves -and ultimately the blackness cannot matter. Atoms we are, and to atoms we shall return. I suppose it is logically possible that there is a God who is cruel and capricious or there is a God who is cruel and capricious and does not care. Or that there is a God who cares but he cannot do anything about it and therefore is useless. And then I saw a crucifix at the side of the road and I realised that there is a better alternative. There is a God who does care and who has dome something – the cross speaks of a horror even worse than Auschwitz and a hope that is great enough even to overcome that Blackness. There is a bigger picture – slaughter, sin, death and disease on a massive scale throughout the world, every year – not just during the Second World War. But the cross also speaks of a far greater Light – it is an atonement for sin, a cure for pain, a door to a world where there will be no more sin,suffering and sickness. Ultimately the atheist has no solution for Auschwitz. The Christian on the other hand comes through the darkest pain and the deepest blackness and is able to say – ‘there is good news – even for young atheists”. And with that thought I head to bed….