It's Sunday night--Amy and I have arrived in England after a week with the Choir in Kiev and Moscow. We had a special time with the choir, enjoying their concerts, sharing insights, hearing their stories, laughing together and understanding more of Eastern Europe and the churches we visited.

Dan and the choir did an amazing job memorizing 20 pieces of music and adapting to all kinds of venues. People were amazed at our choir and bells. We had to remind ourselves that our choir is a called choir, not a professional choir, because they sang with such conviction, skill and energy. Their faces told the story along with music from different genres, from classical to spirituals. I turned to Dan on the last night of the concert and told him I couldn't imagine the choir and bells sounding better. I was impressed and proud they were representing Christ and our church.

Here's a few thoughts from our first time in Moscow:

The Kremlin is a walled ancient city with impressive historical buildings, but what was so surprising was the centrality of historic orthodox churches within its walls. The three orthodox churches plus the bell tower were used for baptisms, coronations, worship and weddings during the time of the czars until the Revolution. The Church of the Assumption was used as a storage facility for much of the Soviet Era, but it was not destroyed. The icons and frescoes are amazing.

Moscow is an impressive city. Seven skyscrapers built by Stalin to celebrate the victory of World War II look like "Gotham City": ominous columns, straight lines, and statues up high. The boulevards are wide, the buildings are far apart and the traffic is always heavy. It was noticeable the number of expensive BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes Benz and the high end shops along the boulevards. It would take us 30 minutes in the bus to get from the center to our Cosmos Hotel across from the Expo center built for the 1980 Olympics by the French. There is an enormous statue of Charles De Gaulle to prove it. The metro is a city in itself and the people move up and down escalators and on and off trains en masse as a way of life.

We visited Red Square. It is ironic that Lenin's Tomb is directly opposite the Gum Mall, an historic (120 years old) high end three story mall, which is evidence of the new Russia. St. Basil's, Resurrection Gate and the mosaic of Jesus over the entrance to the Gum are all reminders of the 1000 history of Christianity in Russia. Again, it's amazing that these reminders of the rich Christian heritage of Russia were not destroyed under communist rule.

That night the choir sang at the Central Baptist Church, which is 125 years old and the only protestant church open during the Soviet era. There were 6000 members in the early 90s, but those members began other churches around Moscow and now the membership is at 1600. The concert was scheduled during a normal Thursday night prayer service, so there was a good crowd for the concert, including teens from the bell choir leaning over the balcony to see the choir. There was a film crew from the Christian television network interviewing Alex and there were two Asian young women from a local music school who were interested in hearing the choir sing.

Before the service Dan and I talked with Sergey and Alex about their lives and ministry. Neither of them could attend a university because they were not in the communist party. Alex remembers when he was six and his grandmother took him to church. A communist official kept him from entering the church and said children no longer belong to the church. This was after Khrushchev announced that by 1969 there would be no more Christians in the USSR. His grandmother cried on the way home and said if they won't let children come to church she would teach children in their apartment, even if it meant being arrested. She prayed for peace during the missle crisis. Sergey and Alex said Baptists always thought the propaganda about Americans was wrong because they knew the majority of Baptists lived in the United States.

Alex shared with me that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in this church in 1963 and Billy Graham preached here many times. Amy and I remember Urbana 1984 when Dr. Graham shared his enthusiasm about his recent trip to Moscow and all 20,000 of us prayed for Russia. Who would have guessed 26 years later I'd preach in the same pulpit? I thanked the congregation for their faithfulness through 71 years of communism; they faced imprisonment, fines and fear that we have never known.

I also had interesting conversations with our guides who helped us understand the culture and history of Moscow. One grew up as a communist youth (Komsomol) and therefore knew nothing of God or the church. She was 10 when she went on vacation with a friend and visited an orthodox church in the village and saw a crucifix for the first time. She asked who that was and why he was bleeding. That's the first time she heard about Jesus. She shared with me her distaste for Stalin, indifference to Lenin, and dislike of Yeltsin because he brought changes too fast. She and her husband lived in one of the "stan" countries because he served in the military. One day Yeltsin made it an independent commonwealth, and suddenly they lost their citizenship. Gorbachev made reforms more slowly and she believed was headed in the right direction but was still in the same structure and ideology of Communism.

The other was  baptized when she was in her 30s because she didn't know if she was baptized as a child. Her grandmother was taken away because she complained one day in the food line. No one knows where she went or how she died. Another grandmother wanted to marry a KGB, but insisted they get married secretly in the Orthodox church. They were discovered, and her husband had to dispossess her of all her property.

Friday night we finished our last concert in Moscow. We sang at St. Andrew's Anglican Church. The congregation began 400 years ago when Queen Elizabeth flirted with and created an agreement with Ivan the Terrible to support trade between the two countries by providing houses of worship for the English living in Russia. The original church was burned to the ground by Napoleon as he burned the Kremlin (just a few blocks away).

The sanctuary we met in was built at the end of the 19th century, but services ceased in 1920 after the Revolution. The building was used for storage and most recently as a recording studio for Melodic Records. Services began again in 1991—71 years of not meeting during the Communist Rule. Simon is the Dean of the Church and responsible for the care of the government owned church building and manse. He also serves as the messenger to the Orthodox Patriarch for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope, and meets quarterly with President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin and four other religious leaders to discuss any tensions between Orthodox, Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim. English speakers from all denominations attend the church, and they have a ministry of education for orphans who are post orphanage. We met people attending from Moscow, Belarus and Nigeria. There were also two couples visiting from Washington State—one of the couples knew Tom Theriault from Yakima.

After the choir rehearsed we met in a small room off the sanctuary. I asked each person to think of the mental picture they will take back home of their experience in Budapest, Kiev and Moscow. A story they will share to illustrate how they were sent into the world to demonstration of the kingdom of God. A few responses:

The boy in Budapest with cerebral palsy raised his hands in response to each song;the widows we visited in their homes in Kiev; the elderly man who ministers to the widows and who memorized 100 Psalms and the woman who recited her favorite psalm from memory; the teens in Moscow who watched the concert from the balcony; the young tenor who sang the last song of the concert with our tenors at the Baptist church in Moscow; two men from a 2000 member slavic church in Tacoma, Washington, who church plant in northern Russia--they took 20 choir CDs to distribute at their church plant on the Black Sea; when Karen Gordon had to return to Solana Beach with a detached retina the choir rallied around like family to care for her; and receiving a hand stitched doily made by Pastor Alex's mother.

Don King, Dan Bird, Amy and I had the opportunity to speak with Alexander, an "unorthodox" orthodox priest who shared about his ministry to the poor and homeless in Moscow. Caring for the poor is a new experience for Christians in Russia. During the Communist Era the government took care of the poor, now Christians are learning to demonstrate charity. Alexander is unorthodox because he believes salvation is for all believers, that Jesus calls us to be a part of his Kingdom and to follow his way. After he shared what he believed was the "Jesus Way" I said, "Well, then we are brothers." He responded with a smile, "I hope so."

That day I spoke with an orthodox priest, and Anglican dean, and a Baptist minister who have all said we need to be united around our love for Jesus. If I'm the fourth and we all agree, that's pretty good! Unity around the person of Jesus is a very precious and important thing in Russia and across the globe. I used John 17:19-22 as the text for my message that evening. As the choir sang I thought about how they demonstrate unity. They are all different, with different personalities, gifts, ages, experiences. They sing together because they follow the director who keeps them all on the same page and helps their voices actually sound beautiful. In the same way Jesus is our director and has music for us to sing so that our song is a beautiful song for the world. When we have unity Jesus says the world knows that God sent him into the world. John says No one has ever seen God but when we love one another God iives in us and his love is made complete in us. What greater witness is there to the world, yet what greater challenge do we have than unity?

I have a Ukrainian icon of Jesus in my office. It looks very much like the one I saw in the St. Andrews Church, the mosaic in Red Square and another one we saw in St. Michael the Archangel in Kiev. Now when I see my icon I will remember that we may all worship differently, but we worship the same Jesus. I'm grateful to Doug Burleigh, the former president of Young Life and longtime visitor to Russia, who encouraged us to see there is one church in Russia--the Church of Jesus Christ.

Overall it was an amazing, surprising, encouraging visit to Moscow. So what is the value of singing in Eastern Europe? I think for our choir it was a chance to get outside themselves and serve in another setting, to deal with disappointment and challenges. It was also an opportunity to get to know each other and learn each other stories by eating meals together, touring, singing, rehearsing, and serving together. The countries they visited were face to face with American Christians who demonsrate the kingdom of God by coming half way around the world to share the love of Jesus and give their very best. I believe they are encouraged by new voices, new stories of what God is doing in the world, especially in America.

Christianity has been around for 1000 years in Russia. There has been a great revival among Christians in Russia, especially through the 80s and 90s. But, like all Russians, the Russian Christians are still adapting to their newfound freedom since the collapse of communism, and they are not certain how long their freedom will last. We have so much to learn from their faithfulness and perseverance in the face of challenges we have never experienced as American Christians.

The song that keeps ringing in my head is We Are Not Alone. While the choir sang the line "We are not alone, God is with us" Barbara Tobler sang the soprano part as a lone voice in the back of the church. Her ethereal obligato soars above the choir's chant with the message of hope that the church of Jesus Christ has not been alone, that we are never alone.

We're glad we made the trip with the Choir and pray we blessed them as much as they blessed us.


  1. Thanks for sharing all the intresting experiences with us. I've really enjoyed hearing about all of them and feel a bit like I am in the places you have written about. Hope you continue to have wonderful experiemces, relaxation,fun and grow in your fellowship with God and each other.
    Doris Melson


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Sending and Blessing


My Love of Spain