Several months ago my friend, Scott Holmes, invited me to join him for two weeks on a trip to Russia. Scott and his wife Kara (along with their two children) were missionaries in Siberia for several years beginning in 1993 (not long after the “Iron Curtain” had fallen). Since then, he returns for a short-term trip on an annual basis, usually bringing someone with him. On this particular trip we were preparing to speak at a pastor’s conference (among other things).
Prior to this trip, my knowledge about Russia was (and probably still is) embarrassingly lacking.
I knew the names of two cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was familiar with the names of several of their communist leaders from the 20th Century (Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev, & Gorbachev). I had heard stories about the KGB. I also knew a bit about the historical prominence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Other than that, anything else I knew about Russia came from the movie Rocky IV.
So this trip was quite an eye-opener for me.
There are so many cool experiences I could write about, but I normally like to keep these blog posts around 1,000 words. So let me just give you my main takeaway from this trip, and then I will close with a few quick, isolated anecdotes.
My big lesson from this trip was to embrace my limitations.
I have been preaching now for 26 years of my life. When it comes to preaching, there is never any substitute for the anointing of God, of course. But that doesn’t mean preachers should be lazy. Preaching is a craft. And I have always taken my craft quite seriously, working very hard to hone my skills.
But my reach as a preacher is still limited. For one thing, it is limited to my knowledge of language. In my case I can only speak one language fluently. As a communicator, I know the English language well enough that I can occasionally craft my words in such a creative way that it draws an emotional response from listeners.
I also know my own culture intimately (both nationally and locally). In my context, I know most of the communication pitfalls and how to avoid them. I also understand my listeners well enough to speak into specific challenges that are going on in their lives.
But in Russia, all of these tools were removed from my tool belt. The language and culture are completely unfamiliar to me. I had to speak through an interpreter. Which means that everything I said had to go through multiple filters. I could not rely on communication techniques (pace, inflection, flow, vocabulary, alliteration, etc.) that I have been so used to employing.
My limitations were rather glaring to me. And to a man who is so used to having such firm control over his message, this was a bit frustrating. But I came to see it as a valuable lesson. I am a finite human being. My reach is limited. And I must appreciate the unique giftings of other people, who can function well in contexts that I am not designed for.
I realize this may seem like an elementary concept, and I have known this on an intellectual level for a long time. But in Russia, this was an “aha!” experience for me. I felt like a monkey-wrench being used to hammer in a nail. Sure, it can get the job done, but that’s not really what a monkey-wrench is designed for. Going through this experience was, for me, a wonderful reminder that my limitations are a gift.
Okay, let me just throw out some interesting, isolated anecdotes:
- The food was terrific. On the few overseas trips I have taken, food is always one of my top concerns. But in Russia, I didn’t have a single bad meal. I still cannot explain to you exactly what I was eating. But it was much better than I expected. And the dollar goes quite far in Russia. On our last day, we ate lunch at an old diner in Gorno-Altysk (that still has a classic “Soviet” feel to it), and my entire meal cost less than $1.50 – and it was quite filling.
- Our hosts were amazing. The hospitality shown to us was first-class. The people I met were truly awesome in every way. I am so grateful that I got to meet each and every one of them.
- The Russian “banya” experience is quite interesting. I had no earthly idea what a “banya” was before I came to Russia. The only way to succinctly describe it for Americans is to call it a sauna on steroids. But that wouldn’t really be a sufficient explanation. I went through the experience three times while I was there (and I hated every moment of it). It felt like my nose hairs were burning off. But it was a great opportunity to build camaraderie with some of the Russian pastors. To give a full account of what it’s like would require a whole separate blog post. So if you’re interested, just Google it.
- The FSB (formally KGB) is still a formidable presence in Russia. We took a trip down to Mongolia for a few days and had to pass through four security checkpoints through Russian & Mongolian customs. When we arrived at “Passport Control” at the Russian border, as the official was processing our passports, he spoke into his radio (and someone on the other end responded). Later on, our Russian friend who was with us told us that the man was saying, “There are Americans here,” and the response was, “We already know.” Eventually they would pull Scott and me (separately) into an isolated room for about 90 minutes of questioning (“Why are you going to Mongolia?” “Who do you know in Mongolia?” “Where do you work?” “Where did you go to school?” “What was your degree in?” “Have you ever been in the military?” etc). I had to write down the names and birthdates of my parents, my sister & brother, and my wife & children. I also had to give them my email address and social media addresses (which is why I didn’t post about this on Facebook). They also pulled the IMEI number off of my phone for tracking. It was a pretty intense experience, and thankfully we didn’t have to go through it again on the way back through customs.
- The future of Russia looks very bright. Even though violence and harsh oppression has been a reality in the not-so-distant past for believers (and many Christians still do face certain indirect forms of persecution in Russia), I was able to witness just a tiny slice of the amazing work God is doing there. Historically, the Christian movement tends to thrive on the heels of persecution. And Russia seems to be an excellent example of this. The pastors and leaders I got to meet from the Altai Region of Russia are top-notch. Second-to-none. I was humbled to be in their presence. Five of them, in particular, joined us on the trip down to Mongolia. I spent 5 days with them. Only one of them (Sergey) knows English. But despite the communication barrier, the presence of Christ in their lives was powerful and unmistakable. Just being amongst these men sharpened me.
So I loved the trip. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to go. And I hope to one day return! Thank-you to each of you who prayed for me. Your prayers were answered.