"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

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!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Smolensk - Day 2

Years ago I led a mission trip to Mexico. It is a trip I will never forget. It was the first time that I felt as if I was part of something much, much, much, much larger than me. It was the first moment I can recall where I realized that God has used me, and our group, as an instrument. On that trip, a trip which was perilously close to "falling apart" as it endured set back after set back, we had become the answer to someone else's prayer. The church we were helping complete had been praying for a new roof for years. They needed a concrete roof but did not have the money, materials, or labor to roof their large church building. And God called us to build a new roof for them. They had not been praying for us specifically. They had just been praying that God would send someone. And someone was us. We were the answer to a prayer.

(Our group at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Smolensk. We visited there today. Pictures inside are not allowed but I can say that I have never seen anything like it. Ever. A truly stunning piece of architecture and a work of Christian art that I have not seen paralleled many places if at all.

http://www.smolensk-travel.ru/en/about-smolensk/touristic-musts/holy-assumption-cathedral/ , or,
https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g672719-d5521267-Reviews-Cathedral_of_the_Assumption_Uspensky_Sobor-Smolensk_Smolensky_District_Smolensk_O.html ).

Today was a day much like that day long ago in Mexico. In a VERY small way (but important way), I think we were played a part in answered prayer today. Our church partners, Central Baptist Church in Smolensk, have been working for years for more cooperation from the government (remember the history of the Soviet Union and the persecution of the church in the mid 20th century) and cooperation from the 'official' and historic Russian Orthodox Church. This process has taken decades. It has required year upon year of relationship building by Victor our friend and the pastor of the church.

Today, many things culminated for Victor. And we played a part in the hard work he has done and in the hard prayed prayers he has offered. Our presence, American Christians in a city that only sees a handful of Amercians in any given year, became an opportunity for meetings with government and church officials. Think of it like a catalyst. And though all we did was bring greetings from America, and from White Memorial, our presence mattered. The Russian church and government officials were generous to us (you would not believed the meal we had at the Orthodox cathedral today), and curious about who we were and how we found Smolensk and Russia.

(Harriet, Jerry, Victor and the head of the State of Smolensk office of Human Rights and Human Services).

The officials in the governors office and the Metropolitan of Smolensk (think Archbishop or Cardinal) would not allow us to take pictures.

But it was an incredible day of sharing and discovery. We learned of them, they learned of us. We talked about American TV (of which they see a lot). We talked about music (you should know that Russians are, as a whole, incredibly musical). We talked about the beauty of the arts here. We spoke of new opportunities for religious partnerships "across the many confessions." They treated us with the best and most generous forms of hospitality. And we did our part to help Victor, who has long prayed and worked for these types of relationships, to continue to build on the good foundation he has been constructing. 

Many prayers went into today. And we were here to help them find answers.

It was a good day. A different day. But special. Goodness -- by God's abundant grace -- so special.

(The wall which still surrounds much of the old city of Smolensk is one of the great historical sites of Western Russia. Forgive the blurry picture. The photographer was very rushed and very cold. It is amazing to see in person. Read more about it here: http://www.smolensk-travel.ru/en/about-smolensk/touristic-musts/smolensk-fortress/ ).

(Victor leads us from his home to one of our meetings down the main walking "boulevard" of Smolensk.)

(It became very cold today. Very different than our first few days.)

(The Duma building in Smolensk.)

(Victor and Olya took us on a brief -and cold - walking tour of the sites of Smolensk. Here we talk about Russian music in front of a statute of Mikhail Glinka. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Glinka ).

Tomorrow: we go to Katyn in the morning. It is a site dedicated to victims of mass murders during WWII. After this visit we travel to an alcohol and drug rehab facility run by the church about 50 kilometers away.

Prayer requests:
- safe travels
- warmth (is that too much to ask for?)
- that we will represent WMPC faithfully as we sing in church on Sunday and as I preach on Psalm 67 and John 15. We will also talk with the church family about the ministry of WMPC and what we are doing in Raleigh.
- that the time we spent today will continue to help Victor with his ecumenical dialogues and growth in his relationships

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Day 4 - Moscow to Smolensk

Have you ever wondered where birch trees were created? I can tell you. Russia.

Millions, and millions, and millions of them. Birch trees everywhere. Their white bark as far as the eye can see is truly a sight to behold. Spring has not quite come here. And it threatens to be pretty cold before we leave a week from tomorrow (Friday). But Spring is almost here. The buds are bugeoning on the birch trees. The world here will soon become green.

(Members of the group wait for the train to start boarding. Hardest part? Negotiating the coffee shops with limited Russian language skills. That,and moving 30 pieces of luggage and backpacks on and off trains.)

Today we took the train 5 hours to the west to our mission partner in Smolensk. This area of Russia, near Poland and Belarus was long ago visited by German Baptists. And so Protestants here are mostly Baptist. After the suppressions of the 1930's, churches here were allowed to be reestablished after WWII. Why here? Perhaps because this area (remember, near Poland, western Russia) was devasted by World War II and German occupation. They needed the gift of faith to survive the terror of the after-war hardships. I have no way of proving this. This a thought. A theory.

And so the Baptists who had been here for so long began again after the war had ended, just when hope and trust and God was most needed.

Twenty or so years ago, White Memorial got involved and partnered with Pastor Victor and the Smolensk Baptist Church. And we have each, in Raleigh and in Smolensk, been enriched time and time and time again by this relationship.

I am happy to say that we found the right train and we navigated our way through stations across platforms well enough.

(Judy and Dan quiz Ellen Smith, our Russia Mission Network co-partner. The train was quite pleasant).

(Colin looks out the window as the Russian landscape zooms by. Note the birch trees. Here a birch tree, there a birch tree...it is amazing.)

(Victor meets us at the train station in Smolensk. Members of the group take in our new surroundings.)

So, where to stay in Smolensk? Well, we are staying at the "camp" outside the city that the church has spent the last several years building. Our church, White Memorial, has been a major partner in this effort. Sending teams of workers, money, and other forms of support to help the camp become a functioning site for ministry. Now weddings, meetings, conferences for religious and secular groups, educational seminars, and summer camps for the children of Smolensk, including many orphans we sponsor through scholarships, all take place here. This place, like many other similar efforts around the world, is as if a dream rose out of the dirt and became real. It took a big vision and a grand calling to dream this place into being. It takes a great faith and huge amounts of prayer to see it take form and become something very real.

(Rodnik, the church camp where we are staying.)

To be here is to be blessed in a very specific way. Simply to come these 5,000 miles is a form of witness. Witness to our friendship in faith. Witness to our joy at seeing this dream take shape. A witness to our hope that we will be able to witness more growth and more ministry in years to come here in this place.

Victor and his family, as well as the members of his church, are proud of what they have accomplished. They dream of expanding: building soccer fields and outdoor picnic areas. And I say, why not? To make anything of goodness, grace, and witness one must have a big dream, a grand calling, and a depth of faith. Thus far, these folks have proven to possess as much. Why think they cannot make it happen?

(The main assembly room at the camp. What do you see when you look at this photograph. Look closely. There is a lot going on here. A lot of tools of ministry are present. On a related note: the cross-quilt on the wall was made by WMPC members.)

(Victor begins a tour of the building. Lydia, Jerry, Judy, Jean, Dan, Mary Grace, Ellen, and Irinia - Mary Grace's friend from Belarus who joined us today for a few days - listen to Victor tell of the uses of the camp.)

(Lunch was abundant! Olya, our translator, Victor, and Christopher talk about the days ahead immediately following the meal.)

(What were those 30 bags mostly packed with? Things from White Memorial sent to help the camp, to aid orphans, and to help with the various ministries of the church in the community. Blankets, TShirts for camp, hundreds of pairs of socks, hygiene items, kitchen utensils, arts supplies, puzzles....the list could go on. Included here are items and quilts from the knitting ministry at White Memorial.)

What will be doing in Smolensk?

Well a break down would look like this:
- Friday: meeting with Russian Orthodox Church clergy and touring the Smolensk cathedral; then meeting with members of the governor's staff to tell them about interfaith efforts in the US.
- Saturday: we travel a good deal out of Smolensk to visit the small rehabilitation center the church supports. Alcohol and drug addictions are major obstacles in this part of Russia.
- Sunday: church day. Including conversations between our church members about different ministries that people are devoting their gifts to getting done.
- Monday: visiting orphanages, delivering supplies, etc..

It will be a full few days.  Here's hoping for abundant grace in days to come.

Prayer requests:
-that meetings with Smolensk church and state officials will go well
- that we will preach and sing and share about our faith and congregation faithfully on Sunday
-safe travels for our group
- our families back home