Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Waiting to Exhale, Eastern Europe Style

I spent some time in Catherine the Great's backyard a few days ago. After aimlessly roaming the masterfully landscaped gardens, my trek brought me to a Monetesque bridge overlooking the serene lake island, whose distant shore was sprinkled with colorful architectural wonders. The July air in St. Petersburg was dry and cool, and I took a breath which I desired never to exhale. There was a dull ache in my soul to remain in this moment forever. Catherine's winter palace lay just beyond the massive Roman aqueduct to my right. If I could simply make my residence there and retire to spend the rest of my days in idyllic bliss, all would be well. I wondered, (in typical Western capitalistic fashion), if I were to invest everything I own and spent the rest of my life in its pursuit, if something like this could ever be truly mine.

In order to understand the depth of my desire to remain in this particular moment, one might be helped to know that the previous ten days I had spent among the less majestic parts of Russia. After the demise of a regime whose greatest triumph had been to squelch belief in God and replace His statutes and daily bread with statues and millions dead, the Russian people were left with no anchor in present storms or hope for future shores. No Heavenly Father, no Big Brother, only orphans, widows, and alcoholics.

The cityscapes are a testament to the layers of tragic history upon which this strange nation is built. In Pskov, we see the triumphant Trinity Cathedral "protected" by a crumbling Medieval wall, surrounded by miles of soviet-era ghettoes (because everyone should be equally miserable), covered by a thick layer of MTV consumerism and saturated in alcohol. It was layer upon layer of influences, hidden within one another like their matryoshka nesting dolls. I was afraid that the more one exposed the deeper layers, the smaller they would be, until finally nothing remained upon which to build a life. Despite its 20 daily hours of sunlight, this was the darkest place I had ever been.
There are, of course, many somewhat redeeming pockets. One is the Pskov United Methodist Church, the joy of whose members stands in stark contrast to the blank despair seen on most faces. But the absent steeple on their new church building is a testimony to the broken spirits of a people persecuted by the secular and sacred alike. They are viewed as a disturbance by the government and a cult by the Orthodox Church. They therefore do not wish to stand out, but rather desire to worship in peace. However it seems in their attempt to guard their light from the howling Siberian wind, they've hidden it under a bushel (no!).

The towering temples of the Orthodox church remind one of Russia's famous Faberge eggs. They are intricately decorated and wrought with iconic symbolism, but ultimately they are empty shells, the life inside of which has long since passed away. In this way, Russia's godlessness is a classier version of the South's: everyone is baptised, there's a church on every corner, but the Kingdom is under seige and the people have neglected to mount up arms. I was told that when the medieval Russians would be under attack, they would burn their houses and seek refuge inside the cathedrals safely guarded behind kremlin walls. It seems this is a deeply engrained defensive tradition. Across the board, the Russian churches seem to have forgotten what it's like to be on the offensive in the war against darkness.

I was somewhat frustrated with the Lord for not sending me somewhere more glamourous like India or Africa, where at least I'd be meeting needs and would return home with pictures similar to Brad and Angelina's. Everyone waits with baited breath to hear the stories of team members who gave up the shirts on their backs to starving one-legged orphans and preached the gospel to thousands of eager pagans, forever changing the course of history for an unreached village.

But in post-Christian Eastern Europe, it seems everyone is quite comfortable with a perpetual state of desperation. "Why are you here?" seemed to be the unspoken question from the natives. "I have no idea," would have been the reply. There was no work to do. We weren't allowed to hold the orphans and the church had no vision for evangelism or discipleship. Why were we here? We were constantly either berated at bus stops or seen as a novelty to the natives.

So that breath of fresh air toward the end of this journey in the shadow of a palace and overlooking a luscious landscape was something I had no desire to release. But God spoke to me in that moment. "Exhale. Go back to the fields. This palace is not big enough, these lands not wide enough for my sons and daughters. Unless your rest is in Me, you will never truly rest. You have been a foreigner in this place, but you are a citizen of the Greater Kingdom. Do not settle for this pitiful oasis. Let the desperation of this country's situation remain a reality in your heart and continue to ache for these people until I come and make all things new. Seek first My Kingdom's reign among this falling empire. You are right to think that you can do nothing for them. I will bind the broken hearts and I will restore the years the locusts destroyed. My Word is Truth: the harvest is plenty whether you you ever in this life see its fruit or not. Take up My yoke; come and do My work."

Suddenly I was very grateful to be anywhere at all.

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