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.