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  • Beth Lantinga

Daniel, the Bishop, and Forgiveness

Of all the stories from 2003, this one best reveals a quality that marked the men and women we interviewed, a spirit of forgiveness and trust in God's faithfulness. In none did I detect anger or residual bitterness. In this post Daniel Szabo describes two meetings with Bishop Tibor Bartha, the man most responsible for ending Daniel's official relationship with the Reformed church. It also reveals Daniel's constant reliance on God's loving care.

Many years after my seminary days, I had two opportunities to talk with Bishop Bartha, the one most responsible for my dismissal from the Debrecen Seminary. One visit occurred just before my first trip to North America. By the time of the second visit several years later, he was already in a wheelchair, shortly before his death. I’m grateful that God prepared me for these two meetings and for the connection with my past.

Two Bishops, Bartha front right, Peter front center

The First Visit

In 1976, twenty years after the seminary events, Bishop Bartha asked me what was new and what I wanted to tell him. It seems that many times he had expected me to knock on his door, but I had never written any letters or questions to anybody in those years. I thought that they would have known my opinions from the hundreds of pages I had written. If they had wanted to know something more, they could have sought me out. My behavior and my thinking had not changed. In fact, my opinions had become even stronger.

So I told Bishop Bartha that I was anticipating a long travel and did not know what God had in store for me. I had never been on an airplane before and had never gone such a long distance, but I had received an invitation from my brother who had become a pastor in Canada. Because I had worked hard and had gone through hard times, my hotel boss had given me permission to travel for this visit. I told the bishop that I didn’t want to leave before settling some questions between us. I told him that on my behalf there was no anger in me toward him; I had no bitterness.

As a student I had simply written what my conscience had dictated to me, and now I wanted to forgive him. I continued, “Now I come in person to you and want you to know that this is my will. I don’t want to take your time, but I just want to add one thing. It is not only with me that something can happen during the time of this trip. God is free to act with you too, Mr. Bishop. Maybe, by the time I come back, my friends will greet me and tell me that Bishop Bartha has already died, and they will invite me to make an honorary visit to your grave in the Debrecen congregation’s cemetery.”

He was quite stunned by the reminder that he also could die. It also shocked him that I could have such a pragmatic view, that after a year it might not be possible to meet with him. He said to me, “Do not run away. I have no anger; that was just my official behavior as a bishop. However, it is shocking that you have no hatred after all that happened with you because of me. What makes it possible for you to say this?” I told him that I had been given so many good and wonderful things from God in comparison to the things that I lost and had to suffer. “It’s as if I have become a millionaire. From this position it is not hard to say that I forgive you. And I am beyond those early interventions in my life and now find myself occupied in many fields of service. Within the hotel where I have been working, God also has given me many opportunities and possibilities for growth.” I told him that I would like to continue working not only in Hungary, but also in Transylvania and Transcarpathia. By this time, the hard interrogations and arrests that happened just after I was kicked out of the seminary were in the past.

Bartha asked me how it could be that I, who had been pushed out of the church, was strengthening and building it from the outside? I answered, “Dear Mr. Bishop, it is so relative who is inside and who is outside. When someone works according to the will of God, he is inside in spite of the fact that he was forced to remain outside of the official church for a lifetime. He has a place inside the church that is given from above, and there is no authority that can move him out of this position. The fact that for twenty years I was working in a hotel as a porter does not affect my standing within the church. On the other hand, if one acts according to his personal ideas or according to the will of the world, it does not matter whether he holds an official position within the church. He is still outside of the boundaries of the church. No human effort exists that can place that one within the church because within the church, everything is God’s. It is not up to humans to decide who is within the church and who is not.”

And he answered, “I ask you not to emigrate from Hungary because I can see that it would destroy all the good things that have been built in the past years by God through you. I also ask you not to make political statements, because I accepted by faith that all that I do exists in a political situation that is also given by God.” I told him that I would tell him my own personal opinion about the situation, but I was not willing to foul my own nest and carry tales abroad. Besides, I was sure that this world (of the church in Hungary) was already very well known in the circles where I was going to travel, much better than I could ever tell. People in North America surely had their own channels of information. I assured him that I was not going to emigrate. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation very well, but the part I told here is nearly word for word. Anyway, we said goodbye to each other, and I did not meet him again until much later when he was already in a wheelchair.


My second visit with Bartha began when a secretary called me to ask for a meeting. The visit took place in the Albert Schweitzer Elder Home in Budapest. By this time he was unable to come to greet me at the door, but his wife came and asked me to be respectful to her husband who was seriously ill. They must have thought that I was coming in my role as a head curator (a lay leadership position) to pour all my anger on them, but my heart was filled with a love that did not come from my nature. I entered the room where he was staying and saw a man who used to be a tall and strong, who used to move as a film actor, as if in slow motion, with gentleness, grace and nobility. His slow turning from the right to the left was well-choreographed. With huge rings on his finger, he seemed like a pope. Now when I entered the room, I found a small boy instead, and I wondered how a great man could become so small.

Then I remembered the small Russian soldiers, burned in tanks demolished on the streets of Budapest following the revolution. Their bodies were small; only their heads were the original size, the only part not baked small. The bishop’s body was like this. Yet I was surprised at how nice he looked. All the posturing was gone, the sense of power and pride, the distorted characteristics were all gone. I felt that he was on God’s operating table in God’s school, and I must not touch this process by telling how well I was standing in my head curator’s position. I felt sorrow, solidarity. Compassion and love filled my heart. I said, “O God, this is how you prepare man for the great meeting with you. In days and maybe hours, this man will stand in front of you.”

Then I recalled that this man had been an evangelizer, had founded schools, started mission institutions, and had worked in Transylvania as well as Transcarpathia. In fact, he had escaped being transported to Siberia because a member of his congregation, knowing that Bartha had only one lung, changed places with him and went to Siberia in his place. That man died there and never returned. This was how congregations saved their pastors in those days: one for another. All these facets of him passed in front of my eyes, and I recognized that he was standing in the doorway of heaven, ready to meet God face to face.

Suddenly I knew that I should give him some joy. I told him that I had recently visited Transylvania and described for him the congregation he had once served. I told him how nicely things were going there. I told him about the village and the renewal that was going well there. I told him good news about Transcarpathia as if I were talking to my own father, describing the details to him. At the end I told him that I would like him to pray with me. He seemed more relaxed, no longer afraid that I was there to pour my hatred over him. He could feel the changed atmosphere of the meeting, and I too was transformed by the presence of God there. Bartha told me that he would like to pray with my mouth and with our common heart because he was unable to speak clearly. He could hardly lift up his arms because of the stroke he had suffered. So I prayed as if I was together with my own parents, and then, as I was leaving the room, I bowed and gave these parting words, “May God bless and heal you.” But then he whispered, “Please come closer; I would like to hug you with my healthy arm.” I came near and he said, “Please come closer because I would like to kiss you.”

Some days later, I got a letter from him – surely he was dictating it to somebody – with the greeting, my dear son. He wrote me a nice letter. I felt that for me a history was restored and put in its rightful place. This story does not mean that we shouldn’t analyze this period, and it does not mean that I can forgive things that do not belong to my experience. I cannot forgive things that caused trouble for other individuals, the church, or the nation, but only what happened to me. Joy filled up my heart, and I understood how great God’s forgiveness can be in our lives. I think that we can only feel this if we behave similarly when we practice forgiveness.


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