I remember an abandoned church near Moscow;
The door ajar and the cupola shattered.
And, screening her child with her hand,
The Virgin Mother quietly mourning-
That the boy’s feet are bare,
And once again the cold is at hand
That it’s so terrible
To let one’s dark-eyed child
Walk off across the snow – forever- no one
To be crucified by this people, too…
Irina Ratushinskaya, Pencil Letter: poems
written from the Small Zone (Soviet prison) Oct 12 1983)
In the latest issue of Horizons, “PW Global Exchange to Eastern Europe,” March/April 2009, Deborah S. Burgess’ article “The Rebirth of the Church” reminded me, in her opening paragraph, of the above poem. Burgess writes:
An image comes to mind when someone asks about the situation of Christians in Russia today: an Orthodox church on a windswept plain in the Russian countryside, under a steely gray sky. The building is stripped down to the bricks, without cupolas or crosses, naked to the elements, and empty. It stands as a singular reminder that once there were Christians who gathered for worship in this place.” (37)
Burgess goes on to relate the story of the great persecution of Christians in Russia under the communists. She gives statistics to prove that the communists “were quite successful in rooting out Christianity in Russia.” Probably it could be better stated that the communists were successful in rooting out Christian organizations, church buildings and church resources. And here lies a puzzle raised by some of the material in this new issue.
How do those Christians in the West who focus more on social justice than Jesus’ redemptive life, death and resurrection relate to a Christian people whose lives have been devoted to preserving their faith in the midst of agonizing persecution?
And without doubt, their faith was preserved in underground churches and prisons. Their lives were kept steady by the prayers of others, even those in the West. “Believe me, it was often thus: / In solitary cells, on winter nights / A sudden sense of joy and warmth / And a resounding note of love. / And then, unsleeping, I would know / A- huddle by an icy wall: / Someone is thinking of me now, / Petitioning the Lord for me.” (Ratushinskaya)
That puzzle, of how a social justice-focused Christianity translates its experience of encounter with an oppressed but vibrant Christianity stands out in so many of these articles.
It stands out in Burgess’s article when she lists the problems faced by a newly awaking church. After writing about a shortage of Bibles, curriculum, priests and deacons, she writes, “No one had any experience in speaking about faith to the curious. The most current models for social outreach were from the early years of the twentieth century, before Communism.”
Burgess goes on to write about the positive social changes that are taking place because the local officials are recognizing the Church. She writes that “Pastors and priests are working hard to forge good relationships with local government officials.” And then she writes of all the social outreach the church is doing. But the reader never sees the Russian believer in her relationship with the Lord.
Not only is there need to translate from Russian and the various Eastern European languages to English, there is a need for a better translation of faith to faith. For instance, several authors speak of the lively services of the Romas, the Gypsies of Eastern Europe, without ever writing about what the Christian faith means to the Roma.
Although this is true of many articles, there are several where not only the social work of the Church shines, but also the work of Jesus Christ transforming lives shines.
This is true of the article written by Gary Payton, who is a PC(USA) mission coworker serving as a liaison to Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland. His article, “Journey to Carpath-Ukraine,” covers the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia, or, as Payton explains, the Kárpátaljai Református Egyház. He writes that this is mainly a Hungarian Church in the midst of a Ukrainian majority.
Writing of the women’s ministries in Carpath, Payton states, “The aims of the women’s ministry are Bible study, reaching out to bring new women to the Lord, visiting the sick, serving the poor and visiting children’s homes at Christmas.” (32) Writing of the Roma, Payton refers to Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship.
He writes of their support of the “growth of Christian community among the Roma in Carpath-Ukraine.” Going on, he also refers to the lively style of Roma worship which draws in other ethnic groups whose churches’ services are more traditional.
Under the sub-titles Education and Diaconia, Payton writes of the various social programs offered by the Reformed Church (KRE). Education is important for the Hungarians in this area where their ethnic culture and language is overshadowed by the Ukrainian culture and language. The Diaconia, according to Payton, is the term that covers the Church’s “social ministries of compassion.” This includes a food dispensary, where even the bread is made, “hundreds of loaves a week.” Other examples of the caring heart of the KRE are an elder care facility and a children’s care facility which is considered a model for all of the other children’s homes in the Ukraine.
In a different article, “‘Hello, This is Burkhard Speaking’ An interview with PC(USA) Regional Liaisons,” by Kathy Reeves, Payton summarizes the importance of the PC(USA)’s ministry with Christians in former communist nations. He states:
The churches in the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe were driven to their knees by communist leaders, yet they survived by faith and are now renewing themselves each in their own way. We have the opportunity to share our talents and experiences to ‘come alongside’ these brothers and sisters in Christ as they rebuild their faith communities. We are not present to ‘fix’ their problems, but we are called to accompany them on the journey, if invited. In doing so, we, too, are changed. Their stories of faithfulness and determination encourage us to seek to be faithful. We are transformed for having been partners together. (45)
The Horizons Bible Study Resources:
In this issue, as always, a Bible Study Resource intended to be used with the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study, Jubilee! Luke’s Gospel for the Poor, by Dale Lindsay Morgan, is offered. The extra resources are written by Beverly Phillips.1 Phillips has given Scripture references from the study and added comments and questions.
Looking at Luke 14:1, 7-24, Phillips explains that the Pharisee who gave a dinner party would have only invited “people of distinction, position and power.” Referring to Jesus’ teaching that those invited to a party should always take the lowest seats in case someone greater than they came, she asks the question:
Have you been at a dinner party or wedding banquet and thought you should have a place of greater honor or notice than you were given? Have you ever been at a dinner party or wedding banquet where you took a place not to be noticed and were asked to sit in a more prominent place? In either case, how did you feel?
This is a superficial way of approaching the text. E. Earle Ellis in the New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Luke points out that not only this story and the one about a banquet, but also the first story in the chapter, the story of the healing of the man with dropsy, are meant to be a single unit. And, in fact, the healing of the man in verses 2 through 6 sets the stage for the rest of the stories
As Ellis puts it, “The churchmen display a thoroughly false standard of values. Not only are they hard-hearted toward the sick man (sf.) but both guests (7) and host (12) are status-seekers and social climbers.” Ellis goes on to point out that at “the ‘last’ banquet God will be the host. There the ‘climbers’ of this age will be ‘abased’, and the humble –‘poor’ with those befriending them will be ‘exalted.’” My complaint here is that this is serious information; our experiences and our feelings should not be our focus but rather the word of God.
Not only is Jesus calling his disciples to humility, he is also explaining, with the banquet parable, that some will be too enamored with earthly projects to bother with his invitation to redemptive wholeness. But Christ’s grace compels the sinner into his grace. As Andrew Purves puts it, Jesus Christ is like the mother cat that grabs the kitten by the back of its neck and carries it where she wants.
Looking at the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke: 16: 19-31), Phillips asks questions that only have to do with the distinctions between rich and poor. But this story is about so much more. The conversation that the rich man, in hell, has with “Father Abraham” is the clue.
The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus, who is in Abraham’s bosom, to his brothers so they will repent and not come to the awful place where he is held. Abraham replies, “’If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” Jesus is speaking of himself and how those who do not believe the Old Testament promises about Christ will not believe even when he is resurrected.
As Ellis puts it, “Those who reject Moses’ witness to Jesus will not be persuaded by a ‘sign’. They will not be convinced even by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.”
In the final lessons Phillips makes comments and asks questions about Luke 18:9-14; 19:1-10. The first story is about the tax collector and the Pharisee who went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanks God for his own righteousness while the tax collector asks God to “be merciful” to him.
Interestingly the tax collector refers to himself as “the sinner,” making himself the unique sinner above other sinners. In the same way the Pharisee seems to consider himself the unique righteous man against all sinners. He, as he puts it, is not like other men.
Phillips’s question bypasses all of this. She uses Romans 12:3 and asks who the reader identifies with in the Luke text and then turns it all around by referring to one’s gifts. She asks “What is the difference between feeling humble about your gifts and feeling that those gifts are inferior to the gifts of others? She adds, “Could Paul have added, ‘Don’t you think too little of yourself’?”
But the story is not about gifts but about trusting in the righteousness of God and not in our own righteousness.
Finally Phillips asks a very good question. “If we have never even been tempted to behave as these people [thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors] did, can we feel righteous because we avoided such behavior. And of course the biblical answer is no!”
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publically as a propitiation in his blood through faith. (Romans 3:21-25a) (Italics mine.)
The last passage I will look at is the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who climbs up in a tree so he can see Jesus as he passes beneath. (Luke 19:1-10)
Here Phillips makes a rather strange comment. “There may have been several reasons for Zacchaeus climbing the tree, but what is important is that Jesus broke into his ordinary life.” This was not an ordinary time in Zacchaeus’s life, unless he often climbed trees. He climbed the tree, the Bible tells us, because he was short and wanted to see Jesus.
Ellis gives a clearer comment on this passage. He writes that “Like Bartimaeus, his determination is noteworthy (18:39). His desire to ‘see’ Jesus is not the curiosity of Herod (9:9) or the sign-seeking skepticism of the crowds (11: 16, 29). As the sequel shows, Zacchaeus was interested in and open to the message of Jesus.” Zacchaeus was, undoubtedly, by the work of the Holy Spirit, ready to entertain Jesus.
Calvin, in his Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, gives a very helpful picture of the conversion of Zacchaeus. He writes:
Thus Zacchaeus is not only ready to give satisfaction, if he has taken any thing by fraud, but shares his lawful possessions with the poor; by which he shows that he is changed from a wolf not only into a sheep, but even into a shepherd. And while he corrects the faults which had been formerly committed, he renounces wicked practices for the future, as God demands from his people, first of all, that they abstain from doing any act of injury. Zacchaeus has not laid others under obligation, by his example, to strip themselves of the half of their goods; but we have only to observe the rule which the Lord prescribes, that we dedicate ourselves, and all that we have, to holy and lawful purposes. (Italics editors)
It is possible to tie together the first part of this particular Horizons, Russia and Eastern Europe and mission, with a Bible study that not only looks at those who are broken by poverty and neglect, but also by sin. All of the people in the above Bible study were dealing with the difference between their own righteousness and the righteousness that is given by Jesus Christ. In the text, it has been those who are poor, marginalized and aware of their own needs and sinfulness who found a home within the care and nurture of Jesus Christ.
In the stories and beautiful pictures of the Eastern European, Roma and Russian peoples one finds that there has been and continues to be an open humbleness and desire to follow Jesus Christ. There is much to learn here and Gary Payton says it best with words from his last missionary letter  :
During ten years of mission service I’ve shared with you stories of faithful people and renewing churches in a region where decades of communist rule brought persecution, exile, even death to faithful Christians. It’s a story I’ll continue to tell because we have so much to learn from them about “being church” in our own country today.
I am very aware of these faithful Christians. My city, Sacramento, has been the home of many Pentecostal and Russian refugees. At one time my place of worship, Fremont Presbyterian Church, was home to a whole Russian Pentecostal Church. Several times they came and sang for us with their beautiful voices. May we learn what it is to be faithful by opening our hearts to their faithfulness.
1 Beverly Phillips is the author of Learning a New Language: Speech About Women and Go, a book which basically uses Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is to redo the Biblical account of who God is. To read a critique of Phillips’s work go to http://layman.wpengine.com/Documents/Doc0276.aspx?type=21&name=Womens%20Ministries%20(PCUSA)%20|%20Presbyterian%20Women%20|%20Horizons%20Magazine on Voices of Orthodox Women’s web site.