In 1990, three years after the Berlin wall fell, my dad was at a conference, listening to a man speak about his 17 year ministry behind the iron curtain. After 2 hours of hanging on every word, he asked God what he should give in the offering that was being taken up. He was ready to empty out our checking account, and that’s when he was overcome, doubled over, weeping. To his surprise, he heard God say: “Don’t give a penny. I want you to go. Learn the language, learn the culture, and go.” So after that night, he and his partner in ministry went to the nearest university and signed up for Russian class. Like you do.
3 long years (and a bunch of crazy stories) later, he found himself in Vishni Volochok, a village halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, where only 10% of homes had running water. They were halfway around the world with only a tour guide and a translator, both of whom likely thought they were crazy, and beginning to feel a little discouraged. After a tour of the village, he and his partner returned to their hotel and began to pray, crying out to God for their next step, because they didn’t have one. At 10 o’clock that night, while they were still praying, they heard a knock at the door. It was their translator (who was an atheist, and high up in the Communist party) and a pastor he’d found who agreed to come meet the crazy Americans. You can’t tell me God doesn’t answer prayer. Pastor Leonid looked my dad in the eyes and said, “It is OK. We believe in Jesus as you do. We are having a birthday party. Please come and join us."
What began as what many would call an elaborate fool’s errand became a deep, lifelong friendship with the families he met there on that first night. My dad and our family have made numerous trips over the years, both to Russia and to Minneapolis, where some of our friends eventually immigrated. That translator later gave his life to Jesus, and came to visit us in our own “village” of Sandy Hook, Kentucky. Sergei and Ginadi also came on a separate trip, along with our dear friends Victor and Vera. Vera would bunk in with me, so I got the privilege of having “spendies” with a Christian woman who had lived through persecution, and who had risked her life just to go to Sunday School. I’ll never forget that.
If you were an evangelical church kid in the nineties, you know what a praise chorus is, and if I start singing one I guarantee you’ll be able to finish it. Ok, let’s play a game. this’ll be fun, promise…
“Our God is an awesome God he reigns….
….in heaven above with wisdom, pow’r and love…”
“I’ve got a river of life flowin’ out of me…
…makes the lame to walk and the blind to see…”
“Jehovah Jireh, my provider…
…his grace is sufficient for me, for me, for me…”
“As the deer panteth for the water so my soul…
…you got this. I don’t even need to give you a second line.
Aaaaaand you’re welcome. Now you have dated church songs stuck in your head. I promise this does have a point.
Let’s do one more:
“Give thanks, with a grateful heart. Give thanks….
…to the Holy One…”
This song was part of the soundtrack of my life as a child. We sang it at church and on road trips, gathered around the piano, guitar, or the dinner table. It so happened that our Russian friends also knew the song, so we often sang it when we were together. We’d sing in English, they’d sing in Russian, and I felt like magic was happening. We lived on the other side of the world from each other, but we were family.
When I was a kid (because I was totally normal and not weird at all) I took a blank journal and wrote down all the songs my family used to sing together. Music was a significant part of our lives, and it was important to me, apparently, to always remember the music we shared. I found the journal a few years ago while cleaning out my parents’ house, and in it was “Give Thanks,” both in English, and in a phonetic spelling of the Russian version. Our friends had taught me to sing it in Russian, but I had no clue about the Russian alphabet, so I scribbled it in our letters as best I could. Tears filled my eyes as I silently thanked my 7 year old self for recognizing the importance of this, enough to write it down. My kid-self was a little wiser, I think, than my adult-self sometimes. Sometimes I need gentle reminders from her.
The other day I was sitting on my couch, having my morning time with God, and thinking about my life. I was feeling pretty drained, and completely frustrated with a great many circumstances. I began to talk with God about it, not so much in words, but in the abstract lifting of my heavy heart up to him, silently.
Without warning, the words and melody floated up from somewhere inside me, and my heart was reminded.
“Give thanks with a grateful heart.
Give thanks to the Holy One.
Give thanks, because he's given Jesus Christ, his Son.
And now let the weak say I am strong.
Let the poor say I am rich,
because of what the Lord has done for us.
And just like that, all the memories came back to remind me what I’d forgotten: that even in the midst of the darkest times (which, for the record, is NOT what I’m experiencing right now—my life is cushy and bursting with blessing), God is abundantly good. I have SO MUCH to be thankful for. I closed my eyes and I was back in our piano room. (**Yes, where most people had a dining room, we instead housed my mom’s grand piano, because music was THAT big of a deal to us. Eating, music. You know, same difference. And before that, it took up the entire living room of our single-wide trailer. This shows you our priorities.**) I was singing my little 5 year old heart out, looking around at faces singing back to me, faces telling the story of great pain, loss, and struggle, and yet of overwhelming gratitude.
I'm so thankful those words were woven into me at a young age. I'm so thankful they still speak to me and show me both my own selfishness, and God’s infinite grace.
God, forgive me. God, thank you.
Today, let’s take the perspective of those who have lived through great tragedy, and yet who thank God—the one who rescues us, gives us life and hope and a new identity. Let’s look at our lives through those eyes, and maybe then we will live like our lives are a gift. Because they are.