"There is an intellectual desire, an eros of the mind. Without it there would arise no questioning, no inquiry, no wonder." Bernard Lonergan

"It seems clear that humans cannot significantly reduce or mitigate the dangers inherent in their use of life by ccumulating more information or better theories or by achieving greater predictability or more caution in their scientific and industrial work. To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it." Wendell Berry

"Do not be afraid, my little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Luke 12:32

Friday, August 19, 2016

Pray for and GIVE to Louisiana

Friends near and far. Take a moment to ‪#‎PrayForLouisiana‬. And then take a moment to give something. It is that important. In a four day period the place I call home received 6 trillion gallons of rain. My grandmothers land, which has never flooded, has all back flooded from water that fell miles and miles and miles away. Her home will be spared, but many of her neighbors will not. This is all unprecedented. Thus, requires an unprecedented response: much like Floyd in 1999.
At my church, White Memorial Presbyterian Church, we are collecting funds for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. You may make a donation to WMPC and tag your gift for Louisiana Flood. Next week we are having a meeting to decide how next to respond - collections, work teams, other means of aid.
Please do what you can to be part of the recovery. Please join me prayer for good people who literally had the Gulf of Mexico dropped upon them from the sky.
God bless you as you do your part.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Friends near and far:

This long blog entry is the sermon I preached one year ago - June 21, 2015. Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the massacre in Charleston at Mother Emmanuel Church. I share it here that you might read. Pray over my words, and where my words fail you I pray you will find your own.

I regret that this Sunday I am compelled to repeat much of what I said below. The problem and the challenge persist.

Psalm 40:
"How long O Lord, to sing this song?"

May grace abound. And may our land be free from the specter of murder.

(Please forgive typos, syntax, and grammar errors. This is  rough and unedited copy of the original sermon).

From June, 2015:
Storms…or Who is This?
Christopher H. Edmonston
Job 38
Mark 4: 35 - 41

When a pastor begins a sermon, we begin with a deep reading and exegesis of the text. So when preaching this text— the story of Jesus calming a storm on the sea of Galilee — we look at the early chapters of Mark, we look to other stories in the Bible about storms, about water, about survival by God’s hand: the parting of the Red Sea or Jonah and the great fish.

Then we look for a hermeneutical and homiletical approach — we look for touchstones — for those places where our lives are touched by the claim of scripture and how we interpret scripture for today.

There are at least two things we do not wish to happen:  the first is that we don’t want to divorce our message from the essential message of scripture.  The pastor’s life is a constant conversation with the text and a calling to be faithful to it.  There are few nights I do not go to sleep without a text echoing in my mind.

The second thing we hope for is that in the application of the text we are faithful to the times in which we live.  We avoid making our preaching so removed from our experiences that people cannot relate to the text.  We don’t want to bore folks to death. The stories are living because God is living — we are not to present them as though they were dead.

And so this week I was all prepared to preach a sermon about storms in our own personal lives.  I was going to begin with a couple of stories — the first about being on the sea of Galilee 15 months ago and how I could easily imagine a storm on that small sea.  I was going to tell you about how this story of Jesus and the disciples in a storm would have been a terrifying experience on a first century boat.

I was also going to tell a funny story about being in the dead-to-naught middle of the Pamlico Sound two summers ago, just ahead of a great storm.  I was going to share about my fears and my prayers as the boat we were in hit 6 to 8 foot swells, the boat lurching and lunging with every wave.  I was to talk about my profound thanksgiving once we made it to the lee of the channel, and the winds were blocked and the water calmed.  I was going to talk about the relief we feel when the storm passes.

I was then going to compare that experience with the storms of failure, fear, joblessness, poverty, shame, and sin.  I was going to remind us that in scripture and in our lives not all storms are driven by winds. 

Then I was going to make a final move, and tell you all about Leon D’Orleans and Haiti Outreach Ministries.  I was to talk about how through the storm of poverty so crushing it cannot be described in words, except to say that our groups routinely see children eating mud pies, and through an earthquake of historical proportions that Christian people are joining Leon there and building oases of clean water, education, self-improvement, and GLORIOUS worship.  It is among the most inspiring things I have ever seen.

I was going to tell us that Jesus Christ is still calming storms and rescuing disciples from the clutches of death.  

I still hope to preach that sermon one day.  I have the folder with my sermon outline and my resources from the trip.

But I cannot preach that sermon today.


Instead I must preach a sermon about naming the storm of evil in our own country.  I once again have to preach about the storms of racial hatred and gun violence.  Are there any two storms which so greatly threaten the future of our people or of our churches?

Charleston happened.  After Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Ferguson, Baltimore — do I need to go on?  After all of that nine precious souls at a Bible Study at one of the 10 or so most historic and important churches in the great, and I do mean great American south, my heritage and my birth land — nine precious souls were gunned down.

And in that gunning we were once again reminded that while we fight wars on terror and combat extremists around the world, our own streets are made unsafe by the storms of racial hatred and gun violence.  This is factual and it is incontrovertible.

In recent years, parents have been worried about sending their children to school and how many of our brothers and sisters are wondering today whether or not it is safe to go to church?  How many of our black and brown skinned brothers and sisters, and they are our Christian family, how many of them live in daily fear?  I imagine it is more than most of us can imagine.

I told my 13 year old that I was going to rewrite my sermon and that I was going to talk about race and murder, and he asked me if that was a good idea.  

“Are you going to get in trouble?” he asked.

“I might,” I told him.  
What is that we consider taboo in the church today?  Could I say something today that upset some so badly that they will be angry with me, or angry at the church, or put it in someone’s mind to consider leaving for some other church?

Then again, if we cannot talk and pray about these storms, about these real challenges which face our very community, if we cannot talk and pray about them at church, then where can we talk and pray about them? Shouldn’t the people of faith join in conversation about the very winds which threaten all that we have worked for and all that God has done?

We must talk and pray.  And then we must act.  If not, then we cannot know how to respond to the storms.  We are not bottles aimlessly subject to the will of the winds and the tides.  No, by the calling of our lives and through the Holy Spirit’s creation of the church God has made us into agents of witness and action.  

When Jesus says feed my lambs, 
tend my sheep, 
do unto others, 
love one another as I have loved you, 
and love your neighbor as yourself 
— it is not lip service.  Those are mission statements.  And his mission for us is one that we had better take to heart.

And we must take it to heart here at this church.  Take it to heart today.  

Why?  Because the storm is raging, and it must stop.  And nearly every member of this church is in a position to join Jesus on the boat in the midst of the storm and influence the future.  We are business leaders, government leaders, church leaders, PTA leadership, school leaders, legal leaders —we are members of the Raleigh Hall of Fame, we are founders of non-profits, and we are community builders.  And we can help the Godly cause of peace and the healing of our land.  We can be the peacemakers Jesus himself has called his church to be. 

But only if we allow ourselves to be a little uncomfortable, a little inconvenienced, and concerned and upset enough to take some actions.

A generation ago the church did as much. 

I was the pastor at Howard Memorial Presbyterian in Tarboro where the most beloved pastor in that proud church’s history was a man named Wellford Hobbie who journeyed and marched in Selma in 1965.  His actions were not understood by everyone easily, but the church knew something was at stake.  Because something happened in 1963 which changed the timbre, the tuning, and the tone of the conversation amongst Christians in the United States.

Songwriter Patterson Hood wrote about then event which occurred in 1963 - an act of terrorism against a church.  

The song I am referring to begins, “Church blew up in Birmingham and four little black girls killed — For no good reasonAll this hate and violence can't come to no good end — It’s a stain on the good land.”

A stain on a good land.  I could not say this better myself.

I have been a pastor in North Carolina for 16 years now, and have been with your here right at four years, I have yet to meet anyone that I believe to be a hatred-filled person.  I have yet to meet anyone who is unconcerned about the VERY REAL challenges that our black and brown brothers and sisters in faith face.

I do not think that the people in our churches are an acute part of the problem. In fact, I think that we are good people, sinners saved by grace.  I believe that most of are doing the best we can with what we’ve got.  And I take comfort in this.  Perhaps I am even a little sinfully prideful of it.  It makes me feel like I am one of the good guys.

But if we can see evidence of a problem which is dogging the children of God in our midst and we refuse to use our resources and our influences to be part of the solutions, to be workers in the calming of the storms, then we become part of the problem.

This is a legacy moment — the church, the black church, the black community — has been attacked and it’s children are on the ropes.  I am a history nerd and in the great struggle for the black soul of our nation there have been two large moments.  The first was emancipation.  The second the civil rights era.  And the third is upon us, in my estimation is less about the legal questions than it is the personal questions.  This is a storm that must not be challenged in the courts so much as it must be faced in our neighborhoods and communities, heart by heart, mind by mind, soul by soul.

No one pastor can heal the wounds.  No one church can solve the storm alone.  But what can we do?

Well, for staters we can pray.  We start today.  Join me in the Chapel after the 8:15 service, across the street.  I am going to pray for Charleston, pray for our neighbors and pray for the soul of our nation.  After 11 I am going to do the same — yes I am going to risk my Father’s Day lunch reservation — in the sanctuary.  We are going to pray.

We can each of us take the time to learn the history of our part of the city.  Did you know it was not originally known as Cameron Village, but instead as Oberlin Village.  It was named so by James Harris in 1866.  James Harris was a freed-slave and he created a 150 acre community for former slaves.  Our neighborhood was once one of the most significant African-American communities in the state.  At its center was Raleigh’s largest black cemetery, just mere blocks from here.  Today I commit the resources and the influence of this congregation to the grass-roots movement through Wilson Temple United Methodist church to restore the cemetery and ensure its preservation.

As a church we are going to work hard to increase our relationship with our neighbor churches and somehow through Daniel’s Middle School and our church partners we are going to work to reach the Youth of those communities in new ways.

I am going to write a letter to mother Emmanuel AME Zion church in Charleston, expressing the horror of our church family and I am going to research what we can do for them and in memory of those who were massacred.

Maybe you’ll have ideas as you pray and work along side us — and maybe, just maybe we can leave a legacy that no matter how large or how small our great-grandchildren will be proud of claiming as a heritage of peace and hope and neighborliness and love.

We, the local we that is White Memorial, and the collective we that is North Carolina and the United States can do better.  We must do better.  I am so proud and so moved by the people of Charleston as they move toward healing and change.  Let’s start with prayer and join our Lord and our Savior in their example, and be present as the storm is calmed and as the wounds are healed.  Let’s stand by our neighbors in South Carolina.

Y’all still with me? 

What of guns?  Is there a less digestible topic, any more inflammatory topic that divides people more than guns in America today?  

I am no lawmaker or legal expert, but I stand before you today an American citizen who says that whatever we are doing about the intersections of mental illness and hatred and guns and access to guns is not working.

There are tens of thousands of homicides every year in the United States and more than 7 out of 10 of them involve a gun.  There have been more than 70 mass killings in the United States in my four decades of life.  The death of our fellow citizens and the death of the children of God does not honor our creator and, I believe, makes Jesus weep.
Violence, and in particular, gun violence is public health crisis.  

Murder is moral issue — beginning with the Ten Commandments which say, “you shall not murder.”  And then continuing with Jesus Christ who warned us of living and dying by the sword.

What has happened in our country is that this moral issue has become politicized, and the very challenge is one that citizens are facing in their neighborhoods, their universities, their elementary schools, and now, O Jesus Christ forbid it, our churches.  We are helpless in a wash of constitutional and political fights.  There must be a better way.

I can speak only for me, but I am going to begin daily praying about murder as a public health crisis.  And I am going to educate myself about what I, and our church can do going forward.

Because I cannot imagine our grandchildren and our children, yours or mine, growing up like this any longer.

What do I mean, when I say “like this?”  What I mean is that if those 9 people in Charleston had died from SARS, or Ebola, or malaria, or the bubonic plague — our nation and its resources would be mobilized.  And yet because of the complexity of the politics, because of the complexity of the legal arguments and the variances in the interpretations of constitutional rights, but of the complexity of talking about mental health and racial hatred, we seem to be powerless in conversations about societal change.

Theses storms, these two cultural and historical ones, just like the literal ones which stir the oceans and the seas, they threaten to overwhelm.  

Today I throw my trust upon Jesus Christ. Today I call upon all us to throw our trust upon Jesus Christ.  For he is the calmer of the storms.  He is the healer of broken hearts and broken souls.  And he invites us, just as he invited the disciples long ago, to join him on the boat, in the middle of it all, engaging the storm and giving a witness to the calming miracle of faith.

The disciples were witnesses to the calming of a storm - which before it happened they believed was impossible.  Let’s believe as much.  At least hope for as much.  Our good land has been stained far too long.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Old and New and New and Old

photo credit Daily World News

In my family we are “light-weight” theater people. None of us have ever had formal singing or acting lessons, but we have been involved in community theater since the kids were very little. We have played bit parts in teeny-tiny productions, and some of us have had larger parts at community colleges and even larger stages. A near-perfect date night for me and my wife will almost always involve seeing some drama, comedy or musical.
At our core, I think we “light-weight” theater people love theater because we love stories. And lately one story has captured the imagination of our family. Perhaps you have heard of it? It is called Hamilton, and it is a modern musical based upon the political life of Alexander Hamilton. Historically, Alexander Hamilton was a giant—the major writer of the Federalist Papers, head of the U.S. Treasury during Washington’s presidency and a forefather of modern New York. Perhaps you have heard of this show. It is currently the most popular show on Broadway and will likely run for years and years. It is destined to be an American classic!
Lest I lead anyone to an erroneous assumption, no, we have not seen the show. It is far too expensive for our family to go. But we have the compact disc, and we have listened to it for months. The melodies are catchy. The emotions are authentic. The style is part jazz-era scat, modern rap and big Broadway melodies. It is a new kind of musical with styling appropriate to the 21st century. Everything about it is modern.
Everything, that is, except the story. The story is 240 years old. For the first time that I can remember, this modern presentation has kids and teens all over America singing about American history. Suddenly, it’s hip to sing about one of the founding fathers of this country. It has been quite a surprise to nearly everyone, even our “light-weight” theater family.
As I have been driving around listening to my family sing about the Federalist Papers in the car, I cannot help but think about the church. Not just our church. I have been thinking about “the Church.”
In the Church, we tell and hold and keep and share a story that is 2,000 years old. In all of our variants, in all our forms, what churches have done since the beginning is to take this old story—of Jesus Christ and his mercy and saving work—and interpret it for every age. So in every age that has passed and in every age that is to come, people have been and will be singing and reciting the story of God and the miracle of the gospel.
Our job in the Church is to make the old story new again—and then to pray and listen for the Spirit, the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, so it might teach us how to keep the story alive for those who have yet to hear. In this way, the Church is reborn over and over.

So friends, as spring slides into summer, let us each seek the story in new ways. Let us make ourselves available to God’s surprises—because God is always taking old things and breathing new life into them.

See this link for more on Hamilton:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

14 - Final Day in Smolensk


That is how many orphanages the Central Baptist Church visits and helps. They play games with the kids. They help the kids with clothes and the basic amenities that kids need. They pray with and for the children.  

I don't have the space on this blog or complete knowledge to explain orphanages in Russia. Suffice to say that there are many different types of orphans here.

There are orphans here who would fit our classical understanding of orphans. There are children who would be more like foster kids. And finally, there is a group of kids they refer to as "social orphans" -- children whose parents are very impoverished; children who live at the orphanages Monday to Friday and go home on the weekends.

We visited two different orphanages on our last day. One was for k 8 to 18 with respiratory illnesses. Think: asthma or chronic bronchitis. This orphanage is in the forest by design so that the children will get as much fresh air as possible. The kids go to school here, live here, play here. They move in groups around the campus very quickly, whispering as they go. They have Physical Education, Home Economics, and weekly breathing treatments. It is school, camp, clinic -- all in one.

(Here 12-13 year old girls share with us about the cherry tree they planted. Olga -pronounced Olya- translates. The orphans planted 71 trees. One for each year of the orphanage's existence. In 3-4 years the apples, cherries, and pears they planted will start to supplement their diets.)

(One of the gyms on site. Note the play ground in the foreground.)

Their dormitories are meager. Clean, yes. Warm, yes (Russians know to heat space). But they were very, very, very meager. The church built the kids new closets several years ago, but there was not much in them. Closets are mostly empty.

(Leonid, Pastor Victor's brother shows us the closets he built in one of the dormitories. Thanks to the churches the children have decent bathrooms and closets.)

( Harriet explains the rules of balloon relay to the kids.)

(We played balloon games with the kids. I think we had as much fun as they did.)

All the buildings we saw were built in the 1950's. Small and cramped. But the children seem well. It is not luxurious. But considering where some of them come from it likely seems like a safe haven. 

(One of the teachers. She was really kind and spoke good English.  Have met many teachers. They are all the same. Love children. Love to watch Indus grow. Love to watch students make discoveries and improve. The calling to teach and teaching ministries is not exclusive. It is on every shore and in every time zone.)

The children were beautiful. They are just like children all over the world. At one point my friend Judy sat next to a child. The child was alone. I asked the teacher if she was OK. "She's just shy," the teacher said. 

No sooner did I notice the shy kid when I heard a girl screaming "Pravda! Pravda! Pravda!" Translation: "rules, rules, rules."  They were playing balloon pop relay. And someone was cheating the game to get ahead. 

Here they were. Two girls. One shy and the other the kid who makes sure everyone is following the rules. 

My eyes welled with tears. 

Children are the same all over the world. Haiti. Russia. Honduras. Scotland. North Carolina.  I wonder about you when you were young. Which one were you: the shy kid? The everybody follow the rules kid? Which one were you. 

No wonder Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to the children. They are hard wired for joy and love. Trust and wonder. But somehow we forget all that. And emnity grows between us. Conflict is a learned and adult behavior.

Kids are the same the world over. They need the same things: support. Love. Safety. Lessons in faith and character. 

14. In addition to raising their own kids, the folks in Smolensk are reaching 14 different orphanages. 


Yes. There are hundred of orphanages in Russia. Far more in the world. In one light this may see like a thimble full of water in the desert. 

But in truth 14 is incredible. Jesus is concerned about the one. And here we have 14!

What if every person who reads my blog or who goes to our church or who knows me helped14 lost kids, 14 schools, or 14 people in need? 

Then 14 might be the biggest number of all.

If Russian friends can do so very much with limited resources and access, then what is stopping those of us with many resources from offering at least as much?


It grabbed my attention. 

Smolensk is beautiful. 

But most lovely of all is the faith of a few friends. Friends who, 14 orphanages at a time, are serving those who Jesus called the least of these.  

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday in Smolensk...Sing a Song...

 ...With the saints of God. 

We lost count of how many songs the choir sang. Different instruments. Different conductors. Different soloists. Words and notes and chords of praise. It was inspired in every way. Worship at the Smolensk Central Baptist Church was a celebration of the gifts of the saints. 

Richer, poorer. Talented, shy. Boys, girls. Women, men. Voices were heard and faith was shared and the gospel was proclaimed in each and every hour of worship in Russia this morning.

Most glorious was the very polished, expertly sung music. Tuning. Intonations. Volumes were all spot on. I think I teared up the moment they started singing. They even did a song in Russian that our choir at WMPC had done when Victor had once visited. They offered two songs in English just because we were their guests and they wanted to help us feel welcome.

(Nearly everyone in our group. They gave us the best seats. It was very gracious. The person sitting to my left is Iliya. Iliya translated the service for me. He is Russian but grew up in the U.S.. He is married to Pastor Victor's daughter. The man in front of me is 90 years old and is among the kindest souls I have ever met).

(Jean, Lydia, and Colin enjoy the worship service; the singing of the choir and the joy of praising with our Russian friends).

As you can see, the church was standing room only. And our group felt welcome through a Christ-like spirit and tangible joy. Joy found in common faith and common love. Love first poured out from the Creator. Love incarnate in Jesus Christ. Love between churches who over 18 years have learned to appreciate the gifts and witness of one another. 

Contexts? Between Smolensk and Raleigh? Could hardly be more different.

Mutual admiration? Respect for each of our churches? Yes, yes, yes and then some.

(After the service Jack and Joan sit and visit with Natasha. Natasha teaches English in Smolensk and she translated my sermon. She was excellent and she made the worship service understandable through her contributions).

Several of you have asked about children in Russia.  

They are everywhere. Especially at this church.

I should note that tomorrow we visit two different orphanages in Smolensk. And then we take the overnight train for Moscow and St. Petersburg. I do not know if I will be able to post anything for tomorrow. What of the orphans of Russia - the social orphans (like foster care in the U.S.)? Well we will know more tomorrow. And I will share as I can.

But one of the leaders of one of the orphanages was there at the service today. Little did we know she was there to give White Memorial two gifts in thanksgiving for all the help we had given the orphanage over the years. We have sent gifts of clothes, arts, crafts, and other supplies. We were completely surprised but the two plaques she gave us: one made by children, and one an official thank you proclamation. 

(Pastor Victor and the orphanage director).

Maybe we should not have been surprised by her presence and her gifts of recognition. There is something very "eastern" about Russian culture. The welcome and treatment of guests is of critical importance. There are gifts and blessings for us, as guests, at every turn. By blessings I mean literal blessings. They offer blessings to us, and then expect us to bless them. As in a young woman who is to be married in May came up to me and asked me for a blessing. So I prayed with her. She is studying to teach English and German so I think she understood me. My point: little gifts and blessings happen all the time here. And there is something very genuine and very genteel about it. Something I will think about as I return home.

(Central Baptist Church in Smolensk).

I want everyone back home in Raleigh to know that we are thought of and prayed for all the time here in Smolensk. Their love and care for us is genuine. For example:

Here in Pastor Victor's simple office, look on the wall. Do you see that? A picture of WMPC in Raleigh. They know us here. They know our names. They remember us in prayer. Yes it is 7 time zones away and half a world removed. But really is it so far? If we are remembering them and they us, how separate can we be? 

I suspect not too far apart after all. I feel close to new friends here. Beyond language, culture, and distance there is a tangible connection. Something bigger than we are is at play and it is good to feel and share.

So yes. Church today in Smolensk lasted 5.5 hours across a meal, a worship service, more singing after church, and question and answers about our ministries in Raleigh. Our Russian friends were most interested in our inter-faith conversations. We take it that such conversations would be a rather novel idea around here, but we cannot be sure.

That 5.5 hours? For me at least? It went by in a blur. 

I preached. Played guitar. Sang. Led our group in song. Heard the choir sing. Listened to another sermon. Heard poetry. Watched children wandering too and fro all over the building. It was like steeping in deep waters of community and praise.

And it was wonderful.

Prayer requests:
- that we leave tomorrow wiser and more faithful
- that our final day here is one where we share with integrity and learn with open hearts
-safe travels to St. Petersburg
- that the members of WMPC will be understanding if we ever have a 5.5 hour service
- for the growth and spiritual strength of the Central Baptist Church in Smolensk
- for Pastor Victor, his family, and small church staff

One personal prayer request -
For our oldest child, Jon Patrick. Today was his confirmation day. I had to miss it. It is among the toughest things I have ever missed. I got to watch much of the service online via streaming. I was a proud papa a long way away. So if you have a moment, a prayer of thanksgiving for him and his fellow confirmands. 

(My family back in Raleigh. Jon Patrick is in the blue shirt next to my wife.)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Smolensk- Day 3 - "The Trees are a Witness"

"The trees are a witness."

That's what Ellen, our PCUSA Russia Mission Network partner says.  We are at Katyn. Not the Katyn in Belarus. That story is hard on its own. This is Katyn about 10 minutes outside of Smolensk. Under the roots of these trees are buried countless, and I do mean countless, Poles and Russians. 

The Poles fled Poland after Nazi invasions. The Soviet government at that time executed them for one reason or another. Alongside of them were executed Russians who were deemed enemies of the state. Christians. Many priests.  Pastors.  Victor, our Russian-partner pastor, tells us his grandfather is somewhere in this soil.

Every step of Katyn a reminder of what happens when xenophobia, the lust for power, the idol of control, racism, and jingoism take control over people's thinking and actions. Such ideologies are best left in the past. Such places as Katyn must be visited and remembered. They are the only defense we have -- these memories -- against such horrible things happening again.

"The trees are a witness."

Yes. And we walk among them. And tell the story. On this blog. In a sermon. Person to person. And we become witnesses too.

(A Roman Catholic cross in the Polish section of Katyn.)

(There is historical proof that plans to kill those who opposed them - those in power - had been in place for many years before it was carried out. Most of the deaths in Katyn occurred during the last years of the 1930's under Stalin's rule. The above quotation is chilling.)

(The names of the thousands of Poles buried in mass graves here stretch on and on and on).

(Such cars were used to move political prisoners around Russia in the 1930's. Anyone who has studied Nazi Germany will notice a haunting resemblance).

(So many Russians were buried here that many will not ever be identified. This area was completely closed to any and everyone - guarded and fenced - for decades. It has been open to the public since the 1990's).

Now of course, the Russian and Poles are not the only victims buried around here. It is worth noting that the first mention of Smolensk occurs in the year 863. It is certainly much older than that. Half way between Germany/Poland and Moscow, and half way between the Black Sea and Scandinavia, and located along the strategically important Dnieper River, which runs to the Black Sea, and not too far from Ukraine -- well you get the picture. The fighting here in World War II was as savage as anyplace in Europe. By the end of the war 95% of this city had been destroyed. 

It was occupied by the Germans for two years. And, as a circumstance, less than a mile from the camp where we are staying, is a huge German cemetery. Soldier upon soldier is buried here.

(Three Protestant crosses adorn the German cemetery. Note the others in the distance. There are thousands of German soldiers buried here in Smolensk).

See the name Peter Gleich above. 19 years old. 19. My oldest child is 14. I wonder what he thought he was fighting for? I wonder if he knew it was futile in August of 1943. I think about his mother. What did she think? Father? How about him?

Of course these monuments are all over Europe. This one happens to be here. Only minutes away from where I type. Where I sleep tonight. 

"The trees are witnesses."

Yes they are. From one cemetery to another they are witnesses. And, for at least a day, so were we.

One more tree. This one very different.

(Yes, that is me planting a tree).

This little tree is one hour south and east of Smolensk. It is at a modest home which is a rehab center. A halfway home for 7 men trying to beat addiction. If any of you know a rescue mission or the Healing Place then you know where we were. Each man living and working in community.

They shared their stories. Veterans of the war in Chechnya. Unemployed. Former prisoners. Drugs. Too much alcohol. Families lost. Rock bottom. Turning to God when the choice was recovery or death.

It is modest. Meager. But goodness it is powerful. Supported by our partners at Smolensk Baptist Church, this little home is a place of healing and recovery. We could not have been more welcomed. We could not have felt closer to the goodness of the Holy Spirit.

(The men of the recovery house sing us a hymn).

(They gave us a gift. The first line of the 23rd Psalm. We gave them gifts from White Memorial - clothes, socks, knitted items).

And we planted a tree. A memory of our visit. A witness to the fact that there are people in the world -- us this day, you as you read these words -- who will remember these men and pray for them. Their lives are modest. Their home is as simple as any you can imagine. Their heat is firewood they cut themselves. But there is power there. Faith. Brotherhood. Community. Three things we all can use as much of as possible. 

Jesus calls people together. Once together, God gives them strength to do incredible things.

And the little tree I planted? It can be a witness to at least as much. It's a witness too.

Hope can grow where the truth is told and where faith is shared. No matter how unlikely the place. There are stories everywhere. You only need stop and listen. It is always a Godly thing to do. 

Prayer requests:
-for the seven men we met today. Pray for them. They are praying for you. Their motto everyday: "Work with no prayer is slavery; prayer with no work is meaningless."
- for the church services tomorrow. That we will pray, sing, and preach well. We hope to represent our church well.
- for continued good weather. It was much warmer today!