January seventh was Russian Orthodox Christmas. So, being in Central Asia, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the Orthodox cathedral for midnight mass. We crowded into the packed, standing-room-only (not that they ever sit down anyway) church, straining to see the front. We were a little early and were greeted by the sounds of Gregorian chanted prayer in Russian. My friend Dina, who’s our frequent interpreter, leaned over to me and told me that the priest was repeating the same word over and over again (“Lord, Lord, Lord” or “Help, Help, Help,” etc.). When the service finally began, I couldn’t see much, unfortunately, because there was a huge pillar blocking most of my vision. I could see that some of the priests’ beards were so big that they shamed mine, though! One thing I was able to see up-close-and-personal was the candle lighting near one of the Saint icons. One older woman in particular had a whole bag filled with candles. She would pull one of the pencil-thin candles out of her purse, and, with a look of sad, determined desperation, she would light it off of another candle, first lighting the wick, then melting the bottom so it would stand up on the altar. I watched her do this for at least 15 minutes. Later, as I was leaving, I saw her headed back in the pillar’s direction, perhaps to light even more. The look in her eyes was one of hope and fear. Hope that the prayers that accompanied those lit candles would be effective in reaching her dead family and friends, and fear that the God she’d encountered through Orthodoxy might not answer those prayers. The Orthodox tradition, just like the Protestant one, has many beautiful aspects and many problems. However, looking around that room, and looking at that woman, my heart was breaking. Is this what Kingdom life should look like? Where is the joy that should accompany that life—especially as we celebrate the birth of our Lord?
I observed one other thing, as well. Looking around the room I noticed that, despite there being hundreds of people in attendance, there were only two or three ethnically-Central Asian faces. Central Asians make up about 60% of the population here, but they weren’t there that Christmas. Seeing the lifelessness in the room, it was no surprise. But I know that that’s not what God wants for Central Asia. He has great dreams for these people, neither of which are lives spent apart from Him, or fearful desperation, hoping that He’s there.
After much prayer and consultation with my mentors, I’ve decided to return to Central Asia next year. At this point in my life, I can find no greater joy than to be here sharing the Love that has been so graciously lavished upon me with these people I’ve come to love so much. You might ask, “Why don’t you return to America and do that here? There are a lot of people in the US who need Jesus, too, y’know.” That’s true. But while there may be a lot of darkness, there is also a lot of light. I thank God that people like you are there. As for me, I want—no, I need—to be somewhere where there are few lights, and where even those lights are dim. Many are called, but few are willing; if I am both called and willing, how can I say no?
I will be coming back to Missouri this summer. For one, I really want to see my family and friends (like you!); two, my visa expires, so I have to; and three, I’ll need to ensure that I’ve raised enough of my budget to continue being out here.
If any of you have any questions, please send me an email or Facebook message. There are few things I’d love to talk about more than the amazing things that God is doing here now and will be doing in the coming year.
God bless, and love,