Monday, October 26, 2015

Worship in Shchekino

On Saturday morning, we drove 120 miles south of Moscow to Tula, Russia. We visited three churches and looked over one site of a future church there, then spent the night in the town of Shohekino near Tula. Because Tula is a Russian arms manufacturing town, they are not welcoming to foreigners. In the past, when a team of Koreans or Americans went to Tula and stayed at a hotel, they were stopped, questioned and delayed just trying to check into the hotel. The seminary responded by buying a building and they turned it into a dormitory. We stayed there that night. 

The next morning, we toured to the homestead of Leo Tolstoy in the town of Yasnaya Polyana. When I say “we,” I mean Anef Zaparov, our Crimea-born Muslim-turned-Christian driver, Rosa Choi, who has been with the seminary almost from the beginning and has lived most of her life in Russia, and Jin So Cho, a 21 year-old trilingual translator who is also a student at the seminary. Rosa has given tours of Moscow, Tula and Yasnaya Polyanna many times. We walked and she talked and told the stories of the Tolstoy family. She is a walking encyclopedia of history. The place was huge. Apparently, Leo Tolstoy’s grandfather was a wealthy man. Leo was successful in his lifetime as well. The homestead has the grandfather’s home, Leo’s home, horse stables, a number storage buildings, a hand-dug lake, walking trails, apple orchards and a beautiful birch-lined driveway the house (pictured above). 

At the Presbyterian Church in Shohekino
From the Tolstoy place, we went to a Presbyterian Church in Shchekino. It’s a church of about 100 members and they were passionate about the Lord. The service began at 10:30 and the opening part of the service included welcome, blessing of the children, announcements, a call for stewardship, and three testimonials. Then the singing began. Six women with microphones began to sing. One sang and played the keyboard along with background tracks and another woman waved a flag with an image of a chain that was broken on it. For the second time on the trip, I experienced a powerful and divine moment. When the singing began, I didn’t know any of the tunes and couldn’t read a word of Russian on the screen to attempt to sing, but all around me were robust voices pouring out the hearts and souls in worship. It was one of those moments that there is no doubt there is a God and no doubt these people knew this God. What moved me was thinking that these people are my brothers and sisters, a topic I was about to preach about in the sermon. My eyes teared up and heart overflowed. It had happened the day before when we visited with pastors in a church in Tula. As we began to leave, one of the pastors, a pastor for small groups, spontaneously reached over an hugged me and spoke in English, “my brother.” I nearly wept right then. Russia is the historic enemy of America. A Russian Christian and an American Christian just embraced and called each other brother. Powerful. And he must have been reading my notes for the sermon. 

I knew in advance I was going to preach in one of the churches. When I was introduced, I stepped up to preach and began by telling them how powerful the singing was. I had at my side a woman who teaches English as my translator. Her name is Svetlana and she was excellent. I next handed out gifts from our church and the mayor, The Honorable Julie Bujalski and county commissioner, The Honorable Dave Eggers, both of whom go to our church. I spoke words of hospitality and welcome and, in the words Mayor Bujalski gave me before I left, “peace, love and sunshine.” They liked that. It was cold outside. 

She had no idea an American was going to be preaching.
It was the shirt she picked for the day. We are one in Christ. 
My sermon was from Galatians 3:26-29: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” I began by taking them through a long history of my childhood understanding the Soviet Union as the enemy and how our countries were still at odds politically in ideology and actions. And yet, here we were…in Russia…in church…worshipping the Lord…together…and we were not enemies. Indeed, I issued a challenged that we not only see each other as family with whom we have unity and a future together, but then I made it much more local. I am, after all, a guy who will go home to the other side of the planet in a few days. They must ask themselves where the wall of division is between themselves and another believer. Like the Berlin wall, they must tear down that wall. It may not have meant much to them to speak that message, but for this guy who grew up at the end of the Cold War in a military household and saw the fall of the Soviet Union and have heard the news about the recent rise in tensions, it meant so much to look these people in the eyes and call them true spiritual family. 

After church, they had a big meal with a special room set up for us, their pastor, and Svetlana and her husband. We talked about the church, life in Russia and life in America. We exchanged contact information, pul on our coats and left. It was a beautiful morning. 

On the way home to Moscow, we stopped to meet with Sasha Ivanchikov, one of my students during the week. He is a pastor in Tula. If you were at St. Andrews in Dunedin the Sunday I was gone, he was the tall Russia greeting the church and telling you he was glad I didn’t freeze. We also stopped to see one other church. 

All in all, it was a powerful weekend. I bonded with some new brothers and sisters. 

An Unusual Circus

I’m in my eight day in Moscow. It’s interesting that when the people here tell westerners the name of their city, they do not pronounce is like we do: Moss-cow. They say Moss-coe with a long o sound at the end. I’ve gotten used to saying it that way and I think it's going to stick with me.

Last Wednesday evening, one of the seminary students named Joseph, James Kim and I went to the a circus. It is called the "Great Moscow Circus on Vernadsky Avenue" and was built under the reign of Leonid Brezhnev as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, and opened its doors on April 30, 1971. I don’t think I had been to a circus in 25 years and still am not a fan of them, but this was definitely impressive. With 3,350 seats, I read it is the largest circus building in the world. That's it in the picture.

The government runs the circus. James said they once used it a as a distraction to the people. When I heard that and I thought of how the colosseums were once a distraction for the people of Rome. Only the circus is a lot more family-friendly. Sort of.

This particular show was unusual. The circus had a storyline woven through the performance. It’s hard to say exactly what that storyline was because there were long stretches of narrative and I got bits and pieces of it from Joseph whispering the translation into my ear. It was sort of an Alice in Wonderland meets Nightmare Before Christmas meets Sigmund Freud meets Barnum Bailey meet post-modernism. The usual circus things were there: trapeze artists, horse riders, clowns, lion tamers. In ways that I'm sure would have made a whole lot more sense if I understood the language, the story tied all those circus-y things together. Joseph explained after the show, “The main character was sentenced to die with her friends, was offered freedom just for her, chose to stay and defend her friends, was sent to be executed, did battle with the character of death and won. Then she woke up. It had all been a dream. The battle was all internal.” I got about…a third of that in real time. In the showdown with death, the character of death looked like a creature from the movie Alien. In the scene in which she was sentenced, the judge looked like Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show (a mostly bald, stringy-haired guy acting creepy). Overall, James and I had the same reaction, “When I kids were little they would have been scared to death in places of this show!” Still, many families were there and the kids were seemed pleased.

I will say that for production value and talent, we were all impressed. One guy had two people on his shoulders walking across a tight rope 50 feet in the air and jump up and down on the tight rope. Another jumped rope in the push up position with two people on his back . The acrobatics, animal trainers, showmanship, music, technology and acting were all impressive.

Clearly, with a 3,350 seat venue still in business after all these years, this is a major feature of Moscow entertainment and history. Like the ballet the night before, this show was another way the founder of the seminary helps guests get to know the city.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Seminary

I am teaching in a Presbyterian seminary in Russia and for Russians run by Koreans. This is actually an experience of three cultures - Russian, Korean and American.

Here’s the story.

A business man who was an elder in his Presbyterian Church founded the seminary. He goes by Elder Lee and the seminary began during a dramatic experience with the near death of his wife. While his wife was recovering from a stroke and unconscious, he remembered a vow he made to God in high school that in his lifetime he would reach 10,000 people for Christ. He had forgotten it. He became a successful entrepreneur as owner of a manufacturing company and forgotten his promise to God. In that moment, in that hospital room, it all came rushing back to him and he decided he would not wait a minute longer. He prayed and asked God where he had the best hope of reaching thousands of people for Christ. He realized Korea was not that place because it was a highly Christian nation. But not too far away was Russia. While his wife was in recovery, so the story goes, he bought an airline ticket to Moscow and began the journey that led to the establishment of a seminary.

Elder Lee realized that it was not enough to personally seek to reach 10,000 people for Christ. He needed a bigger strategy. A bigger dream. It occurred to him that 100 pastors reaching 100 people for Christ each would achieve his dream. That vision combined with entering Russia right after the restructuring of the nation and end of communism was a perfect combination in the early 1990s. Now, over 200 pastors have been trained and over 200 churches have launched. The goal is now bigger. Much bigger. He is now reaching for 600,000 people for Christ. The seminary continues to grow and expand and is now in the middle of a $1.5 million renovation.

The reason I’m here is because about ten years ago, they begin to realized that the Russians who were being trained perceived Presbyterian Christians to be only Koreans since Koreans ran this seminary. So they been to invite non-Korean scholars and pastors to come in for teaching weeks. Our church in Florida hired Pastor James Kim to coach with us on a church planting project and James has been coming here for years. He invited me to team-teach with him.  The seminary has teams come teach at least four times a year. One person told me ten teams will have been here by year-end.

Pastor James and I are teaching about 25 students for a weeklong seminar on leadership, communication, evangelism, discipleship and what pastors need to know about addiction ministry.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Goofy Tired

Today was a good day. But man, this jet lag is killing me.

Moscow is seven hours ahead of Florida time. I went to bed at 10:30 pm last night. At exactly 12:39 am, my body basically said, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING ASLEEP!! Don’t you know it’s only 5:30 pm in the afternoon?” No amount of reasoning that I had travelled and the local time was, in fact, 12:39 am would work. So I got up and worked for almost three hours. That meant that the rest of the day had moments of normal energy followed by moments of being nearly comatose. It wasn’t bad when teaching though. I was alert the whole time, mostly because I had students and a translator on my mind. As I write, it’s 11:15 pm and I’m not tired. I wonder what tomorrow will be like.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

I Am In Russia

On Sunday morning, I boarded a flight in Tampa and 18 hours later I landed Moscow, Russia.

I’m still marveling at the reality of where I am as I type. I am in Russia. That is a sentence I never dreamed I would ever say about myself. I am in RUSSIA. I am IN Russia. And I AM in Russia.  I am in a room at a seminary in the southeast and inner part of Moscow.

I was invited to teach for a week at a Presbyterian Seminary here. The story of how I came to be here has a classic start: I know a guy. The church I serve, St. Andrews, is in the process of receiving another church under our care. When the union is complete, the other church name will disappear and the church I serve will then have two church locations. We will be one church operating in two locations. We’ve never done this before, so we brought in a coach named James Kim to help coach us through the process. That coach is also a pastor from the Seattle area and he has been going to Russia almost annually since 1995. A month ago, the Brazilian pastor Pastor James normally team teaches with cancelled. James called me and invited me to go. I began to pray for discernment, spoke with Cile, asked the Session and other leaders to weigh-in and in a relatively short period of time went from not knowing about this seminary to being in country and teaching pastors-to-be here. Pastor Laurent Ramambason with whom I serve at St. Andrews told me when I received my doctorate, (with his beautiful Malagasy accent), “John, you did not get your doctorate just for St. Andrews. You are a doctor of the Church. Serve the larger Church.” With that in mind, I am here serving the larger Church.

First Impressions
I know a few people from Russia who are living in the United States. With the exception of those people, Russia has always been more of an abstraction. It has always felt like a distant place. It is literally distant from the United States, of course. I know that distance first-hand now. All 18 hours and seven time zones. Russia is also figuratively distant as well. It has always felt like a faceless, nameless place apart from the few faces you see in the news. I grew up at the end of the Cold War so Russia has been distant in the ways that political enemies are distant. All of that is changing.

My first impressions of Russia are formed from Moscow. I realize that trying to get an impression of this country by landing here is like trying to get an impression of America after one day in New York City. To narrow it further, I’ve only interacted with the students and leadership of the seminary. Having said that, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the people here are hospitable and open, even though the language barrier is a significant barrier. The people are also proud of their city and country, especially in the area of the arts. As expected, it is cold here even though several have reminded me, “It’s not even winter yet.” The nice thing is that the cold - at least this cold - doesn’t slow down the pace of the city. People are on-the-go. I ran outside this afternoon and being on the sidewalks in Moscow is like being on the sidewalks in New York City. There is a bustling urban vibe.  So all in all, the first impressions have been positive.

Swan Lake
One event helped shape that positive first impression. The night I arrived we went to the State Kremlin Palace theater to see the Kremlin Ballet company perform Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The venue itself has an interesting history. The State Kremlin Palace has origins that date back to the 15th century, but what we saw last night was completed in 1961. The palace was then used as a venue for important party, state, social and international events, and also as the famous Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR’s second stage and for large theatrical productions. Later, it would become as it is now: the other (the Bolshoi plus this one) world-class performing arts venue in Moscow.

Tired as I was, the show was dramatic, energetic and elegant. The dancing was beautiful and strong. I admit that the time change caused me to nod about four times in the slower first act, but by the second act the action was livelier. In Act 2, the evil Von Rothbart tricks Prince Siegfried, Odette (the Swan Princess) feels doomed, the Prince feels sorry and throws himself in a lake with Odette and.they both die, but are happy lovers in the afterlife. It was a beautiful night. Random note: the lead role of Odette was played by an American named Joy Womack.

I should say that Sasha, our driver last night, was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. He drove and talked non-stop. As fast as he would talk and point, Joseph, our translator last night along with a student named Jin So Kim, would explain it all to us. We stopped by the Moscow River, Red Square and in places where we could get a big picture view of the city.

The seminary is under extensive renovations, but they have arranged great accommodations for us. I’m staying in a suite with four bedrooms, a living room, bathroom and small kitchen with a four-seat dining room table. The founder of the seminary and his family stay in several of the rooms in this suite. One is unoccupied as best I can tell so far. This suite was part of the early renovation and is complete, so it is nice. The only thing not yet up and running is the steam heat for the radiators. We are using heaters that plug in to the wall. It is more than enough.

The food here has been outstanding and abundant. Two people cook for the founder, James and me. One of the cooks is a Russian woman named Valentina. The other is the founder’s daughter and I don’t remember her name.

It’s been a good day. Jet lag is for real, but that comes and goes. More later.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

American Sniper

I have yet to see the movie, but recently finished reading Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s account of his work of being a sniper in Iraq. He is credited with the highest number of confirmed kills in American history. The book was made into an award-winning box-office hit as a movie. The story also troubled many people. You may have seen the controversies surrounding this book, from film maker Michael Moore’s comments about snipers to many saying the story downplays the controversies that led to Chris Kyle being in Iraq in the first place to Muslim students petitioning to not have the movie shown on college campuses because of “misleading and negative stereotypes” about Muslims. 

Huff Post Books said of the book, "At times politically incorrect or even crude, Kyle's writing seems relentlessly honest. Kyle is not an intellectual, although the book will make readers think - about the enormous costs of war and what Iraq has meant for American soldiers and their families.” Patricia Cornwell of the New York Times Book Review said, "[My] favorite book of the year. Chris Kyle’s American Sniper is an amazingly detailed account of fighting in Iraq - a humanizing, brave story that’s extremely readable.” There are also negative reviews as well, such as one person who posted, "There's an awful lot of ego and chest thumping, a lot of times it's overt, and sometimes you can only see it between the lines. This of course is understandable as well. It's the nature of the beast, but one can only stand so many pages of it before it detracts from the rest of the story."

The book is an autobiography. When he prioritizes God-Country-Family in that order, even though most, including his wife, would choose a different ordering, it is his story. When he so energetically gives himself to his job that he pulls the trigger to end at least 150 lives, even though many are disturbed by this, it is his story. When he speaks on what he wished his senior military and political leaders should decide when it came to “rules of engagement” (ROE), even though most are glad the limitations in the ROE are in place, it is his story. This is an autobiography that tells a specific soldier's perspective on the human side of war and conflict. 

Kyle speaks honestly about his struggles. He speaks of the pain of losing friends in battle to injury or death, about his feeling responsible for some of those deaths, but most importantly and transparently, he speaks of his struggles as a husband and father. He was away from his family on so many deployments, it nearly cost him his marriage. His wife, Taya, even has sections she writes in the book to give readers her perspective. 

All will be challenged to think through the implications of any act of war. If we go to war, people will die and those deaths will be violent and bloody. Christians, in particular, are challenged to think through what levels of aggression and violence we are willing to support and under what circumstances if we think it will save lives or stop a bully. 

In the end, this book reminds me of the personal cost of patriotism, the harshness of war and the continued divisions between people groups. As someone raised in the military, I thought the book was true to the character of most soldiers and a story worth reading. No matter how you feel in general about the subject the book raises, read the book in order to speak for or against it from an informed perspective. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Through Gates of Splendor

One of the highly influential books in my early Christian life was the story of five American missionaries seeking in the 1950s to reach the Auca, now Waorani, tribe of eastern Ecuador in South America. The book is called Through Gates of Splendor and was written by Elizabeth Elliot, the wife of one of the missionaries. All five of the men were killed by the tribe with whom they were hoping to share the love of God in Jesus Christ. When the news of their story went public, their deaths changed lives around the world forever. Yesterday, I finished reading that book again for the first time in years and I’m just as inspired as I was when I first read it. 

Those five missionaries were all high achievers and would have excelled in any venture in life. They chose a life dedicated to sharing Christ with unreached people groups like the Aucas, a tribe with the worst reputation for violence. In excerpts from their diaries we get a glimpse of their driving passion. They were ready to live or die for Christ. No matter the outcome, whether they lived or died, Christ would get the honor and God’s will and God’s purposes would be accomplished. Elizabeth Elliot said, "I have one desire now - to live a life of reckless abandon for the Lord, putting all my energy and strength into it.” She and her husband, Jim, lived that way. Jim Elliot once said, "When the time comes to die, make sure that all you have to do is die!” That wisdom, the faith, that spiritual maturity inspires me. 

The title of the book is derived from the fourth stanza of the hymn “We Rest on Thee." This hymn was sung by the missionaries before the men left for “Operation Auca,” the trip to go face-to-face with the Waorani tribe that would kill them with lances. The lines read:
We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender.
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.
At its heart, this book raises questions every believe must answer:
Will I give my life for the sake of Christ Jesus? 
Am I willing to go where he sends me even if it is "unsafe” in the eyes of the world? 
Am I willing to give the Lord full control of my life? 
Am I willing to put God first in all things?