The time has come. Of course, there is no way to capture it all at once, but I'll do my best. Then I'll file it under "key posts."
I feel old, reminiscing. I was 14 that summer and heading to Russia for the first time. We had been invited to a place called "Camp Karavella." We were the first team to visit that camp, and our church had never sent a team to Russia before. It was a first for everyone. It was a curious meeting.
I don't remember much from that trip, although my teammates could tell stories of friendships that were formed. I experienced a lot of culture shock, as well as amazement that such an exchange could take place.
I didn't know any Russian, and I didn't particularly know how to use an interpreter. Besides, what was there to say? I am a reticent person, and I don't like making small talk. I found other ways to bond. I remember many times looking into the eyes of new friends there, and finding understanding hidden there, beneath the confusion of different cultures.
We were invited back to Karavella the next year, and for many subsequent years. Karavella was the place where I grew up, in various ways. I can mark how I was changing by recalling the fruit of each summer there. And my Russian peers were going through growing pains at the same time.
We went to Russia to preach the Gospel, and we did this by way of friendship. I know that this doesn't always work. Sometimes motivation is incorrect; sometimes the methods are incorrect; sometimes we are too fast or too slow; misunderstood or failing to understand.
But the friendships we formed were real. The tears and the smiles we shared with our friends there were real. The conversations about God were real. When I meet with old friends from Karavella, they have fond memories of that camp. They were kids there, and then became counselors. Now their own kids are campers or even work there. And we have this shared experience.
I remember feeling how God was changing me. As I became bolder and took more initiative, I also felt more burdened, sharing in the responsibilities. I remember walking through camp and seeing people as though God had peeled off the layers and was showing me their hearts. He was inviting me to go deeper. He was clearing the way for me. I watched the youth respond to the Gospel message. I saw on their faces how it penetrated their hearts.
I also was becoming more culturally sensitive. Now I could speak some Russian, and had a new level of understanding. I understood that we were not just honored guests. We brought challenges with us. It was not easy to accommodate us, and it was not easy to make room for the message we had brought. There were believers in that camp, but it was not a Christian camp. It was a former Pioneer camp. There were strict laws about evanglization. I felt that conflict.
Journal entry 7-16-01And I faced inevitable times of doubt.
"There is a conflict here, but somewhere underneath there is hope. Help us uncover that hope. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11) What is the truth? The truth is that we are your children. You sent your son to die for our sins. You love us and you are faithful and just. You are forgiving. You called us here to serve you. And serving you means serving others. It means respecting our leaders. It means being faithful in our responsibilities."
Another journal entry from the same summer:Each summer, we went back to the U.S. after our trip. I felt awful that summer when we left. I thought of the new believers whom we had told "you're now a part of the Body of Christ." What Body? We were now in the States and they were back at camp or in the city with their families. They weren't connected with anyone. At least, not that we could see. We could only pray for them to find other believers in St. Petersburg.
"Oh, Lord. I need to talk to you. I'm in one of those low spots...I'm not sure what to do or if I even need to do anything other than wait for your healing and your comfort. I guess I'm frustrated about being shy. It's hard for me to make friends. I know that reaching even one person makes a difference to you, but I need to feel like you're really using me."
And besides that, I missed Russia. I had an awful feeling of grief that produced wrenching heartache. It seemed, this way of life was not of God. I felt deceived. "How could you let me love like that and take me away?" I asked Him. It was baffling.
I have had a few other experiences in life when it felt like I loved too hard. I remember feeling devasted after graduating from college and leaving all my friends and church. It felt very final. I wondered why I hadn't held back a little. After all, I knew that I would be leaving after 4 years. Why hadn't I been more careful?
And I feel that way now. I love some people so much that it scares me (and others, not enough. But that's another issue). God comforts me and whispers, "I know." But He doesn't make it go away or make love less of a risk.
Back in the summer of 2001, I felt as though everything was very wrong. And I decided that there would be no more short-term missions for me. I was sure that I would die of heartache if I had to experience that again.
No more camp
I didn't go back for a few years. One year I was busy, another year I was in St. Petersburg, studying abroad. That was an interesting look at life. I was staying with a Russian host family, and hanging out with fellow students from my university. It was very different engaging in secular activities in Russia, rather than being there for a missions trip. Though I lived in the student bubble, I became a bit more independent, and got a taste of the city.
I continued to study Russian during the school year. I prayed for Russia. In the meantime, my parents had adopted 2 teenage girls from one of the orphanages we were familiar with in St. Petersburg. Now Russia was with us all the time.
When I was at university, I felt twice removed from Russia, despite it being my course of study. No one understood what I had experienced. But of course, it wasn't their fault that I couldn't explain it to them. When I opened my mouth, nothing came out, and tears formed in my eyes.
The next step
Senior year. I was graduating soon. My father had formed an organization to do full-time work in St. Petersburg, rather than just in the summer. Over eight years we had formed many contacts. There were young people in need of counsel, and there were orphans in need of attention. I began to think of going over there to serve alongside Russian Christians.
I am not sure how I eventually made the decision. I just took one step after another, and let the Lord lead. The doors were open. I remember people thinking that I seemed uncertain, because I wasn't running around shouting something emotional about the vision I had. Maybe I was uncertain, but I was trusting in the Lord.
I committed for a year. After a few months, I knew that it was going to be longer. Therefore, I devoted that time to building a foundation. I found a church. I met as many people as I could who had the same goals as I did. I became grounded in the Word. I searched for opportunities and asked questions. I learned how to buy groceries and do laundry and mail letters and ride the public transportation.
And then, I decided to stay.
Sometimes, I think of Russia as a person. She has impacted my life in so many ways. She has brought me joy as well as pain. Sometimes I wonder if we will go our separate ways. I want to be faithful to her, yet my first love is Christ.
One day I wrote in my journal, "I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. (Isaiah 38:15b) I think this pretty much sums up how I feel about living in Russia." Perhaps this is accurate. But it is not only anguish. There is a sweetness and contentment when I feel God's presence with me here.