Where We Are

Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow

Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow

Do I dare bring up the time that guy was in the women’s bathroom stall at McDonald’s? Or when that man, so quickly, died in the Metro and she saw him lying there? Or when our chests hurt all day because we were truly convinced that Spring would never come (who imagined we could ever believe that?) Or how about those awful medical check-ups when I didn’t understand what they were asking, so they pulled my pants down for me?

Do I dare mention the things that are hard about living here? You see, I don’t want any misunderstanding. We don’t plan on leaving any time soon, and I don’t want to, either. There is beauty here that enables us to stay. But the beauty is not fully in the gorgeous spring tulips that say, “I told you Spring would come!” The beauty isn’t completely in the white, frozen grace that falls in winter days and makes the mud and dark bearable for 6 months. And beauty, completely satisfying beauty, is not fully in each strike of sun that stays for a  merciful 19-hour day in summer. It’s not even fulfilled in the faces of our amazing students, the ones we can’t imagine saying goodbye to, the ones that we are here to love.

What is wonderful enough to keep us here? What is so true that we have the grace to be grateful, most days? Let’s not kid ourselves. Moscow has harsh edges, but I don’t think any other earthly place is more forgiving. Why do we dare to keep living in any place? People are inconsiderate everywhere. A hard thing in one place is a different hard thing in another. In Moscow, they commit suicide by jumping in front of Metro cars; in New York, I hear it’s jumping off the bridge. In Moscow, there’re drunks; In Philly, there’re shootings. In one place, it’s something we’re used to; in another place, it’s something we don’t understand. Bad is bad.  And all the good, the almost beautiful enough things, don’t quite make-up for the hard, the cold, the dark , the black, the empty. So what is keeping us here? Wherever you are, why? Why not try to escape and move, move, move away, again and again and again to some place peaceful that must exist, to a place worthy of the title home?

A depiction of a Russian winter hanging in Tretyakov Gallery

A depiction of a Russian winter hanging in Tretyakov Gallery

I’m here, and I’ll stay here in Moscow, in 2014, because I was chosen. It wasn’t my choice to be born. I didn’t choose my family. My friends? Well, the best of them was a stumbling-into. Where I grew up, even where I went to college: I didn’t choose to receive that pretty colored brochure and know, instantly, that that was the one place I would go, if I could even get in. Maybe you choose each part of your life? Maybe. But each chapter of mine has washed over me with or without my “Yes!” or “No!”: family, dating, learning, marriage, Moscow, teaching. There was never a plan, not by me. I was chosen to be here, with these students, in this weather,  with these companions. Most days, that gives me peace. There is a plan, one that I’m discovering and He is laying out, one that He says will work out for good. Though I don’t know each part of this journey, I do know the end of the story: what’s missing will return, what’s broken will be mended, what’s heartache will be healed, home will be here.

In the meantime, we return and mend and heal what little we can, knowing we’re chosen to join in the resistance of evil. I’m not saying that I am good at being wherever I am. Actually, I’m really bad at it. But, my job is to read and commune and remember the truth and to say “yes” whenever I can utter a word. If I can’t make a sound, I just lay there in silence and let the Spirit say if for me–She’s good at that.

Father, help us as we remember:

In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

-Romans 4:18-25
Christ depicted in an icon, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Christ depicted in an icon, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Movie and a Dinner

Our favorite night out: dinner and a movie. Add to it a friendly couple, and you’ve got a classic double date. The night was lovely, dark, and -15 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, the bulk of the trip was underground. We met our friends in the Metro, running to get into their car before the doors slammed shut. As always, in my panic, I chose the door too early and got stuck in a car by myself until we got to the next stop.

Cold evening streets in Moscow

Cold evening streets in Moscow

It’s not too long before we’re above ground again and we, four figures, tromped like decked-out marshmallows; hats, hoods, and scarves to our noses, down the busy sidewalk until we reached our destination: 35 Millimeter, our go-to theater that sports foreign films in their original language with Russian subtitles. You know what that means! American movies are in English! This night’s showing, Inside Llewin Davis. Only the 3rd time seeing a movie in theater this year, we were all happy it was one by our favorite directors, the Coen brothers.

We entered and purchased our tickets (want a center seat? towards the back? near the front? in comfy seats? As if you’re going to a ballet, buying tickets for a movie asks you to consider your seating. Cheaper, undesirable seats or double your money for mid-center, cushioned heaven. We bought our usual: 4th row, to the right of center, just 250 rubles each, that’s less than our American standard movie ticket by, at least, $2 –living large in Moscow.)

What’s the natural next step in theater going? Not concessions. We bring our own or purchase a latte and cheese cake at the “while you wait for your movie to start” cafe. You see, you can’t enter the auditorium until 5 minutes prior to the beginning of the film. At that time, we all get into line and shuffle into the single entrance. Our seats are easy to find. They’re a little too close to the huge curved screen, as always, but we prop our heads up with our scarves and get comfortable.

The movie begins right on time, the first 15 minutes packed with dubbed-over trailers; the voice they chose for Julia Roberts is about 2 octaves too low. There is also a trailer for a french film which, of course, has to show somebody’s behind. Finally, they show us the trailer for the movie we are about to watch Inside Llewin Davis.
“What movie will we watch?” asks the Russian teen beside my husband.
“That,” replies Chris and points to the screen. It’s nice to know we’re not the only ones who find it confusing to be watching the trailer for the movie we’re about to view!

Watching a film from your own culture in a room full of people who are from a different culture is like having an inside joke with the director played out for 2 hours. You laugh when no one else laughs and you forget that no one else is in on “it.” Eventually you feel that it’s kind of rude to be laughing so much, you should probably stop, but you don’t.

As the credits roll, we shuffle back into our lines, now exiting the auditorium slowly. We tighten our boots, snap-up our down, wrap our scarves around our faces like mummies, and off we go to part 2: dinner. There’s a pretty fancy mall about 1/2 a mile from the theater, so we waddle there and find the food court. Over Burger King and KFC, we do our favorite part of the night, at least it’s mine, discussing the film. Favorite scenes, growth of the characters, that Odyssey reference, and the look in her eyes. . . it goes on and on. Until, there she is. We’re snapped back into the reality of where we are.

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Hats, scarves and coats hanging out of the way as we eat.

Her big brown eyes and dirty hat–a beautiful pre-teen gypsy girl cups her hand for some money. Experience tells us she isn’t going anywhere until we give her something, anything. There is always that moment of hesitation, what’s really best? This time, we choose to smile, hoping she feels less like a beggar and more like a girl, and give her the coins we have in our pockets. Satisfied, she hurries off to another table and then, eventually, to her parents. We’re ready to go home, too, so we put our coats on for the 3rd time tonight and tighten up our boots, and wrap our scarves around our faces-a 5 minute affair. The Metro swallows us whole then spits us out a few blocks from home, where we go to bed, grateful for an evening out Moscow-American style.

Beverly Hills, Moscow

It was a beautiful, gray Moscow morning with unexpected bits of blue sky peeking out behind the smoggy clouds. It was the day we had all trained for. The half-marathon awaited our first step. Sure, it was a rough start, our over-hydrated bodies needed a place to leave their waste and the public potties were locked, but we came through it. In true urban style, we squatted in the muddy corner as early metro riders walked quickly by, not batting an eye or wondering what was happening behind that tightly standing curtain of women in jogging outfits. We did what we had to do, and then we ran.

We ran for over two hours, chewed our energy gummies, and passed Christ the Savior, countless buildings of the 7 Sisters, and St. Basil’s herself. In a grand finale we stumbled over the cobblestones of Red Square to our glorious finish line: Beverly Hills Diner. A true American diner experience was ours to be had after our sweaty run. Pancakes, diner coffee, endless Christmas pop songs sung in our own native English. But, surprise, surprise, it wasn’t meant to be.

“They’re not letting us in,” my husband said. He was sitting in the 60’s style diner chair across the table from my visiting brother and sister-in-law.

There were numerous empty tables on the first and second floor. It just didn’t add up. The sweat on my dry lips tasted salty. All I wanted was clean sweats, icy water, and that endless pancake platter that was promised on that sparkly menu. We weren’t going to give up this easy.

Batman is our witness. We did it!

Batman is our witness. We did it!

“What’s the problem?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“There are too many of us. They say they don’t have the staff for this big of a group.” Our so called group was trickling in slowly: several other runners and their families, almost all of which had small children. They entered, tired from their metro transportation, heavy strollers, and lethargic children. The manager took a quick step forward and said something urgently. He would open the third floor for us, the kid’s floor, we had to go up there if we were going to bring children into this mess. We could only be on the third floor, he made it abundantly clear.

Children always win them over, I thought, now that we’re in, it’s only a matter of time.  “They always say, ‘It’s impossible! Impossible!'” I explained to my brother, “But if you push back, they’ll let you in.”

We moved up to the third floor slowly, our sore muscles aching for a rest. The young couples carried their diaper bags and lifted their strollers and infants.  We found our seats in booths next to the iron Batman and plastic ball pit–so far our only rewards for our long run.

Waiting for pancakes

Waiting for pancakes

Several more discussions were had with the manager. No, there was not anyone higher than him that we could talk to. No, even if we were willing to wait, he didn’t have the servers enough to take our orders. No, your group is too large to serve, just keep your kids on the third floor. “Wait it out,” he seemed to say. “Just wait long enough, and you’ll get your stinking pancakes!”

I walked up and down the stairs, once to change, once to greet more finishing runners, once to inspect the servers who were far too busy to take our orders. I couldn’t help but notice the slow business. There were only three other customer tables. One on the first floor and two on the second floor. They all were eating their already served food or making-out. I was getting seriously hungry now, and desperate. Where were these busy servers who could not take our orders? I climbed back up to our third floor exile.

“Okay,” started our fluent Russian speaking buddy, “I’ll take your orders and pass them onto the manager. I think he’s coming around.”

“I don’t understand why they wouldn’t want to serve us!” exclaimed my sister-in-law, “Don’t they want our money?”

The poor visitor tried to understand. Little did she know, while flipping through the menu, we had already seen it too many times before.

And then, there came the pessimist’s expected blow. “They’re out of pancakes, you guys!”

With that, we walked away from our restaurant Siberia, leaving the too-large group a bit smaller and with more hope that they might get served.  We don’t exactly know what happened to our poor third-story friends. Some may have escaped to a second diner. Some say they ordered eggs that never came. All I know is, their children were left swimming in sweaty ball-pits, and no one got a pancake. Not one stinking pancake.

The Disparity Between Light & Darkness

I have been reading a lot of books recently- children’s and adult fiction books alike. There are those stories that are understandable and even interesting, but I am caught by the adjectives that disrupt the flow but are trying desperately to paint a vivid picture. Contrastingly, there are some books that stick with me and captivate my attention that feel as if I am listening and watching a beautiful story play out before my eyes. I find that in those moments when I am captivated by a book that I am able to think more deeply about life. Maybe it’s the depth of the story or the openness of my heart or the trust in the characters, but whatever it is, it can be life changing.

As I began Book the Second in The Tale of Despereaux, I was sad to be leaving behind the tales of a passionate mouse. However, I was struck with a beautiful picture of the disparity between light and darkness.

John 3:19-20 (ESV)

19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

In The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo paints a fascinating picture of two rats, Roscuro and Botticelli, who were both born into darkness and are urged to love the darkness from their very beginnings. Yet Roscuro, which is short for Chiaroscuro (meaning “the arrangement of light and dark, darkness and light together” p.85), is enraptured by the hope and meaning that light brings. Botticelli, illustrative of the tempter, seeks to convince Roscuro that darkness has worth and meaning— “The meaning of life is suffering, specifically the suffering of others. Prisoners, for instance. Reducing a prisoner to weeping and wailing and begging is a delightful way to invest your existence in meaning.” (pg. 88)

Roscuro believes the lie of darkness and asks for the next prisoner. He is given his first prisoner to torture but not before he sees a glimmer of afternoon sunlight streaming down into the dungeon. He is captivated once again. Even so the lies of darkness quickly overtake him—“’Listen,’ said Botticelli, ‘this is what you should do: Go and torture the prisoner. Go and take the red cloth from him. The cloth will satisfy your cravings for something from that world. But do not go up into the light. You will regret it. You do not belong in that world. You are a rat. A rat. Say it with me.’” (pg. 96)

As I sit here thinking about New Years resolutions and moving forward in 2014, I am caught by the questions— In what areas in my life am I believing that the darkness is better than the light? Am I living like the true light has come? Do my words, thoughts, and deeds clearly show that it is God in me? Ponder this with me.

“What a disappointment it was! Looking at it, Roscuro knew that Botticelli was wrong. What Roscuro wanted, what he needed, was not the cloth, but the light that had shone behind it. He wanted to be filled, flooded, blinded again with light.” (pg. 102)

In all respects I want to choose the light over the darkness.

New

Newness. Not just new goals and hopes and dreams but new sorrows and burdens and heartbreaks, too. A new year beginning is full of endings. A year ending is like filling-in the last page of a precious, gifted journal or the last bit of wax melting away from the favorite scented candle. We know there are new journals to begin; they will be just as sweet and comforting to hold and pen into. We’ll light new candles, and their gentle flames will fill the room with ease just as well as the last.

Each year that passes, though, takes with it the older things. These things or people or memories or places that we wanted, so badly, to continue to hold. We value the old maybe more than the new: traditions, familiar faces. Each new thing is sweet inasmuch as it is what we already were longing for.

The recent advent now passed was about hope. New years and their resolutions are about hope. No matter the time of year, we are hoping. “Born Again to a Living Hope” is the title of a section of scripture found in 1 Peter 1:3-9. Born: something completely new, a starting moment. Again: implying a repeated act. Our souls are not satisfied without paradoxes, it seems.

Here, in 1 Peter, Paul shares,

“3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Every moment that brought 2014 closer was making my heart heavy. It is still heavy– I’m longing for so many new things, and I’m pondering the old and don’t want to let all of it go. New York pastor, Timothy Keller, teaches us what Peter says in this small portion 1 Peter that I quoted above. In his sermon he speaks of the hope that Paul tells us we have. It’s a hope that doesn’t ignore the horrors of our pasts, the sufferings of our present, or the trails yet to come. This hope remains no matter the circumstance and will, surely, be fulfilled.

The sermon is titled “Born into Hope” and can be listened to for free here.