It’s hard to believe how much there is to write about in this newsletter! It seems that this has been a month for traveling, establishing relationships, and becoming a part of the life of the church. Although it’s been stressful at times, I think these past weeks have been very important to helping me understand a little better the people among whom I live and how I need to adapt my thinking so that I can communicate more effectively. Plus, I’ve been exposed to countless things that have refined my own faith. God has taught me so many valuable lessons, and I’m very grateful for each one.
The period after my last newsletter began with a week in the city of Odessa. The week was quite relaxing, and there was a lot of time for reading and—just as importantly—sleeping. I enjoyed spending time with my fellow travelers: Chris Lovingood and Lena Morozova and Bogdan Andriychenko, two members of the Nivky church who both graduated last year from International Christian University. Bogdan now works with Chris as the project coordinator for the renovation at the new UEC. Lena is an information assistant at the British Council here in Kyiv.
The weekend after returning from Odessa, I attended the Pan-Ukraine Women’s Conference at the same retreat center where LST had Friends Camp at the end of June. The women’s conference was hosted partly by Nivky Church and was coordinated by Darla Johnson, who, along with her husband and four daughters, was a missionary in Kyiv for eight years. Women came from all over Ukraine to be a part of this annual event, and there were around 200 present to examine the theme: “Setting and Executing our Priorities: Logic vs. Faith.” The speakers for the conference included Darla Johnson; Elaine Johnson, an American from Louisiana who was traveling overseas for the first time; “Aunt” Raya, a very loving member of Nivky Church; and yours truly. I learned on Tuesday before the conference on Friday that I had been asked to take part, but, fortunately, I was asked to speak on something I had already given a lot of thought: logic and reason in the Christian life. The main point of my talk was that the Bible instructs believers to continue using their minds after they become Christians, and that the Spirit helps believers to understand the will of God for their lives. I think this is an especially important lesson to emphasize here, because in the post-Communist age a lot of people think that faith is for the weak or the stupid, and that people only believe in Jesus because they don’t have the intellectual ability to conduct their lives without him.
One thing I will always remember about this meeting of Christian women is the singing. A group of students from Nivky Church led the corporate worship, and every woman in the auditorium sang full-force, each one contributing the grace notes and harmonies that she had learned in her home congregation somewhere else in Ukraine. I was so very thankful that I had learned to read Russian well enough that I could sing, too! The night before I was to give my talk, I was sitting in my room putting on the finishing touches, and I heard uninhibited, full-harmony singing coming from outside. A group had gathered in the front of the retreat center to sing together, one of my favorite pastimes. The ladies were singing the Russian versions of a lot of songs that I know in English—including “The Old Rugged Cross”—and I had to stop what I was doing and just listen to the spontaneous praise. It was wonderful.
The weekend after the women’s conference, I went to the city of Cherkasy for another conference, this one designed for university-age small group leaders at Nivky Church. Chris coordinated the conference and gave most of the lectures himself. Although I was asked to give two lectures on the topic of Christian poetics, I can say without a doubt that my role in Cherkasy was mostly as a listener and learner. The focus text for the conference was the book of Revelation, specifically 1:5b:
“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.”
We examined the seven letters to the churches in the first part of the book, learned about the history of the early church, and discussed current major theories about the end times and Jesus’ return. The topics that were especially interesting to me, however, were the ones that were drawn as tangents out of the verse quoted above. For example, one lecture focused on the section of the verse “[he] has made us to be a kingdom.” During this lecture, Chris talked about what it means to reign with God as his children, both after Jesus returns and in our present lives. Another interesting topic for me came out of the section “[he] has freed us from our sins;” this discussion focused on ‘the healing of memories,’ a spiritual process that teaches a person how to receive and grant forgiveness by acknowledging the effects of sin in his or her life. I also gained a lot of insight from the sessions on priesthood, specifically the priesthood of all believers, and from the emphasis on worship. I am very grateful for all the lessons I learned during this time, because I now have innumerable new ideas to explore.
As for my active participation in the conference, I gave two informal lectures on yet another issue tangent to Revelation: art. The book of Revelation itself is filled with images of the wonderful artistry of Heaven, and, as we read starting even in Genesis, our God is a creative being, so this was a fitting topic for examination. The topic of the first lecture was “Toward a Christian Poetics.” I tried to develop a theoretical framework for the Christian’s understanding and appreciation of different forms of art and raised questions about how believers should define “good art,” whether it be painting, sculpture, dance, literature, or popular movies and music. I was particularly interested in one idea from my preparatory reading: that to participate in some form of art, either by enjoying or creating it, is to participate in the “subduing” of the Creation that God commanded Adam and Eve to begin in the Garden of Eden. During the second session, the group read three poems by William Butler Yeats, a highly acclaimed non-Christian poet, and tried to apply the principles we had discussed in the first session in order to discover what aspects, if any, of Yeats’ poetry could be beneficial for the Christian. Members of the audience had very different opinions of the value of Yeats, so this was an interesting and enlightening discussion.
In addition to the intellectual stimulation provided by the lectures, I experienced first-hand the thing that Cherkasy Conference is perhaps most remembered for: group living. For each of the four years since the beginning of Cherkasy Conference, it has taken place at the family home of one of the students at Nivky Church, Igor Ougilev. This year 25 students descended on this house with five bedrooms and two bathrooms, a very large house by Ukrainian standards, but rather interesting accommodation for such a large group of people. Everyone was given a mattress on the floor, a pillow, and a set of sheets; girls on the second floor, boys on the first. I slept in the “big room” with six other girls and have now discovered just how much my sleeping habits can be adapted when necessary. At some point during the week, every person at the conference was on a team responsible for cleaning the house, setting the table for a traditional Ukrainian lunch prepared by a hired cook, and fixing dinner for the entire group. Dinner was the time to celebrate the fact that in Revelation God has called people from “every tribe and language and nation;” every night the menu represented a different country. The cooking teams prepared calzones and pasta from Italy, white chili and burritos from Mexico, Chinese chicken stirfry, and African stew. I was on the German cooking team and helped to make Wienerschnitzel, potato salad, and was personally responsible for the German chocolate cake. I can safely say that we ate very well all week.
I also had three daily Russian lessons during mealtimes. Almost everyone at the conference spoke English, most of them very well, but I learned that the most effective way for me to get something I wanted at the table was to ask for it in Russian. This was a more complicated task than it might seem, because in Russian the endings of words change in the “give me” case. I now know several phrases useful at mealtimes: “Give me a spoon,” “Give me the sour cream,” “Give me a cup,” etc. Fortunately, everyone was understanding of my linguistic handicap; they even congratulated me when I used correct grammar.
I think the thing I most enjoyed about Cherkasy Conference was the time available in which to form relationships. I became a little closer to everyone there (how could it be avoided in such close quarters?!) and now understand better the group dynamic already in place among the student-age population of Nivky Church. I especially became better acquainted with a very kind fellow 2001 university graduate who had taken me to the doctor the week before. In Cherkasy, Nastya Tulmachova seemed to take it as her personal mission to make me feel included by translating songs and conversations for me; I designated her my ‘guardian angel’ for the week. I also enjoyed spending time cooking, playing cards, and talking with two second-year ICU students, Lena Zhyvova and Anya Zubkova. These girls both have delightful spirits and servant hearts, and I’m looking forward to knowing them even better through the small group of which the three of us are a part.
The high point of the entire conference occurred on the last day when Lena, Anya, Ira Maslennikova, and Natasha Anufrinchuk decided to be baptized. The entire group went together to one of the beaches on the Dnipro River, which flows through Cherkasy, and celebrated with them through song and prayer as they were born again in Christ. This event was really the culmination of everything we had been discussing in the sessions, participating in through worship, and learning about through the experience of living together in community. It was so powerful to see four people commit to following the triumphant Jesus of Revelation. Praise God for their decision, and please pray for their growth in Christ.
Almost immediately after returning from Cherkasy, I left Kyiv again to go to a village on the Black Sea in Crimea, traveling again with Lena Morozova. I am so grateful for this opportunity to see even more of the country of Ukraine and to really establish a friendship with a person for whom I have a lot of respect. Being away from the city also gave me time to read a few books, including more about spiritual healing and Dubliners by James Joyce, which I’ll be helping Chris teach at ICU in the fall semester.
Sandwiched between my goings and comings from Kyiv were several other important events that, for the sake of space, I won’t relate in much detail. First, I began meeting with the mother of two small children I wrote about in my last newsletter. We met a couple of times to read the Bible together and to pray for her family situation, and on our third meeting she was glowing because she had received an answer to the problem that was most worrying her. Please continue to pray that God will give her wisdom, grace, and strength—and protect her from disappointment. Secondly, I doubled the time I was spending with my Russian tutor during the weeks I was in the city. It is very difficult to try to learn so quickly, but fortunately my tutor understands my limitations and proclaims a break whenever I start to wilt. She has also discovered that I like plums and has served them regularly.
Also, Ken Kirby was in Kyiv briefly to deliver and explain the database he developed for the UEC library. The cataloging work will begin this week, as the UEC prepares to move from its temporary location to the newly renovated one. (For more information about all the exciting things that are happening with the UEC, please refer to www.uecenter.org and to Chris’s mission website at http://www.kyivmission.org.)
This last month has been full of so many different kinds of experiences, and I thank God for each one. I came to the realization as I was coming back from Cherkasy that the most challenging part of my work here is still to come. I think that the past three months of blessings and difficulties have been preparation for the university and LST follow-up work that will now begin, and I am waiting to see what God will do next. I want to put together a photo gallery somewhere on the UEC website and hope I’ll have a chance to do that soon; I’ll send an update when I have something together. Thank you, as always, for your prayers and messages of support. Please continue to pray for the work here, specifically for the success of the outreach programs and for my personal strength and flexibility. Grace and peace be with you.