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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.