Sometimes I surprise myself. Searching for some documents from the 1998 trip to Ukraine, I discovered the text of one of my lectures. Reading it again, it seems that I was already wondering about the connection between faith and human flourishing. This is how the lecture began.
"Preparing for this trip has been a journey of discovery and clarification for me. I've been thinking about you, Jesus followers here in Ukraine. For most of this century, with extraordinary courage, you have warmed your hearts at the flame of God's love, even when fierce winds tried to blow it out. And now as you are gathered here to fan the flame even brighter, I feel that I should be sitting at your feet, listening and learning from you. We, in North America, living without material struggles, didn't realize that the insidious, self-centered materialism of our culture was threatening the flame of faith in ways perhaps more deadly than the direct government intervention that happened here. And so I come to you today, not with definitive answers, but with one part of a conversation, eager to listen but willing to share.” April 1998, Peterfalva, Ukraine
Though I had been shocked by communism’s residue, I was also beginning to see signs that many had survived with their spirits intact. Daniel Szabo, a survivor, addressed all of us one morning. His challenge to the teachers was unforgettable. He told them that in this time of recovery their most important task was to “cradle the baby birds who had fallen from the nest, and gently return them to the warmth and safety of their home.” Their work nurturing the young, he continued, was more important than rebuilding monuments and establishing universities. His passion in life was to reach the young with the Gospel so that they could participate in rebuilding an authentic, Christian community.
I heard another, but different, testimony in the Reformed church in Peterfalva, Ukraine. The only picture I have of that bright Sunday is in my mind. It was pleasant and sunny, so when we were summoned to church, I appeared jacketless. Strongly encouraged to get a coat and a sweater, I obeyed. When we walked into the sanctuary, I was thankful I had listened. The wan April sun had not loosened winter’s grip on the thick brick walls. It was cold inside. Glad to be dressed for the occasion, I was able to observe the scene without shivering.
I don’t know whether Reformed churches in Ukraine still follow the arrangement I saw, but the seating plan surprised me. The women filled one side of the church and the men were on the other. Even more surprising was the seating of the teenagers. The boys filled the balcony and the girls were directly below. This seating plan definitely discouraged eye contact and presumably promoted concentration on worship.
When we arrived at bit late, the women’s section was packed. Feeling a bit conspicuous, we traipsed along behind Janos to the men’s section where there was room. When the singing began, it was obvious that we were visitors. Worshippers carried their own psalters; we had none. Genevan psalms were sung in a slow and sturdy fashion. One voice boomed out above the others and when I looked for the source, I noticed the man in the row ahead of us. Light streaming in the window flooded his face as he sang. I watched and listened and wondered what lay behind the worn face, and what memories the work-hardened hands had recorded. I wondered what story he might tell.