KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–“We weep with the weeping,” Gustaw Cieslar, president of the Baptist Union of Poland, stated in an e-mail to Baptist Press April 12.
Cieslar answered several questions from BP in the wake of the April 10 airplane crash that claimed the lives of Poland’s president and numerous high-ranking officials in one of the greatest losses of national leadership in modern history.
“In all our churches we are praying for the families who suffer the most and for the leadership of our country,” Cieslar, who ministers through churches in Gdansk, Krakow, Warsaw and Szczecin, wrote. (Cieslar’s comments appear in full later in this story.)
Two Southern Baptist seminary leaders were in Poland at the time of the tragedy: R. Philip Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., and Jerry A. Johnson, the seminary’s academic dean.
Johnson told Baptist Press April 12 the Polish people are “not only grieving but also thinking about the sudden nature of death. In a country that is well over 90 percent Roman Catholic, most lack assurance of their destiny at death. In contrast, Baptists can speak of an assurance that comes by faith alone in Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose again for our justification and salvation.”
“This is an enormous loss for the people of Poland,” Roberts said in a Baptist Press story April 12. “Many of the leaders killed in the crash were instrumental in the Solidarity movement. They were the spear point for bringing liberty and democracy to the country.
“There are many in the country asking the question, ‘Why?'” Roberts continued. “For the Christians here, there is a great chance to step up and help the people work through their grief and suffering. Now is a time to help them in answering some of life’s toughest questions, including the ones about eternity that often surface when events such as this occur.”
Johnson, preaching Sunday, April 11, to a Baptist congregation in Sopot, the hometown of Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, who was not on the ill-fated plane, spoke from Revelation 1:18 in exhorting the worshippers “to look to Jesus as ‘the Living One’ in time of trouble, who says, ‘I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.'”
Johnson subsequently had an opportunity to speak with two Polish women about the brevity of life and of spending eternity with Jesus. “Pray for Agata and Agnes,” he asked of Southern Baptists.
“Southern Baptists should also pray that God will use our Polish brothers and sisters to reach their country with the message of Jesus at this strategic time,” Johnson added.
Cieslar, the president of the Baptist Union of Poland who also served as president of the Warsaw Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years, shared the following reflections in response to questions posed by Baptist Press:
BP: What are some of the questions that people seem to be asking of God in these circumstances?
Cieslar: It is very sad and tragic time for our nation. In all our churches we are praying for the families who suffer the most, and for the leadership of our country.
People seem to be in a shock. Questions about God are surely asked, and people are more sensitive to the Gospel. They are, however, more focused on learning about “earthly” causes of the accident (technical difficulties, failure to observe procedures). Transcendent issues would be secondary. God seems to be far off to them, if He is at all.
BP: What answers can Baptists and other evangelicals provide to neighbors and friends who may be asking why God allowed this to happen?
Cieslar: These are difficult questions, time will show this. The tragedy happened close to the place where 70 years ago over 20,000 Poles were killed, a very symbolic place [the Katyn forest in western Russia, where Soviet secret police perpetrated the massacre of a broad segment of Polish society at the time].
We are at a stage when the wound [from the April 10 crash] is still very fresh and we need to be very sensitive about giving our answers and interpretations. We weep with the weeping.
BP: Are these answers the same, or different in some way, from what Catholic clergy would tell people?
Cieslar: Catholic clergy are talking about God’s mercy. Poles are very religious and they try to find hope in rituals in the churches, which are probably more important to them than searching to find the truth in God’s Word. Without the Word of God it is difficult to find Him personally through Jesus. Without it, a few weeks after this tragedy people will return to the same pattern of life.
Catholics would adapt to a rather humanistic view [of the tragedy]. They might name them martyrs. They seek comfort in praying for the souls of the dead.
BP: Have you had a conversation with someone who needed reassurance, and what did you tell them?
Cieslar: We point to Christ who is the sovereign, whose Kingdom was not shaken by this accident, and that even this accident had a place in His plan.
BP: Were any of those killed Baptists or evangelical believers?
Cieslar: No, there was not Baptist among them. Only a Lutheran pastor, Adam Pilch, who was serving as an army chaplain and pastor of a church in Warsaw. I know him and his family personally. We were born in the same town in the south of Poland and finished the same schools, though he was about 10 years younger than me.
BP: Did you know any of the officials who were killed, and were they friendly to Baptists and evangelicals?
Cieslar: Yes. I was attending every year an ecumenical prayer meeting at the presidential palace. The president and his wife [Lech and Maria Kaczynski] were always present. There was a time for conversation. The president’s chaplain was very friendly to all of us; [the chaplain’s] uncle was a member of First Baptist Church in Warsaw.
BP: What are the joys and challenges of being a Baptist or an evangelical in Poland?
The evangelicals count less than 100,000 (among them are Baptists who count about 5,000 members — and 10,000 including children and seekers) in the country of 38 million. To be in minority is always a challenge. But we do believe that we have some doors open for witness. We try to be faithful to God’s Word and not be ashamed of His name. Please do pray that our fellow citizens will turn to His Word for truth and guidance.
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press; T. Patrick Hudson is director of communications at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.