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Hard Times and Hard Places

A letter from Ellen Smith serving in Germany/Russia

August 2016

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Dear Friends and Family,

At last we are each home from our travels. Emma is back in the U.S., starting classes again at the university. The full schedule has kept the three of us on the move and rarely together, but that is more or less normal.

When I slipped back to Berlin briefly in mid-July to take a break, our pastor took the opportunity to ask me to fill in for him one Sunday in August. I often preach as I itinerate among churches in the U.S., but in all honesty, it’s usually one of two or three sermons already prepared. After having agreed to preach, I discovered that the summer schedule of sermons had covered all the texts that I usually use, so I took a look at the lectionary. The texts resonated deeply with the stories I had encountered across my travels this summer.

The text was Luke 12:32-40, but it was these words in particular that pulled me in deeply: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (verses 32-34).

“Do not be afraid,” “Fear not,” “Be not afraid”—words repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments. Why is it that again and again God, his prophets, Jesus, and his disciples needed to remind the people of God not to be afraid? Perhaps it is because fear has been such a part of the human condition since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were cast out of Eden. The world is a hard and scary place. In each instance when the people of God are told, “Fear not,” they have some pretty scary things going on around them. But the Bible tells us again and again to not be afraid, but to trust and believe.

The problem with fear is that it is consuming and paralyzing; it takes our focus away from Christ and our call to love. In fear, we make poor choices or we make no choices at all. We are incapacitated by fear, and often become filled with anger and even hatred. We live in a time of great fear now, but it is not any different from the rest of history.

This text resonated because of encounters I have had this summer across Russia. With a small group of Presbyterians I spent a week going from church to church. This visit was part of the Twinning Program, begun over 20 years ago to accompany churches rebuilding after 70 years of communism and to overcome Cold War stereotypes. Many things are easier now in Russia, but the program continues because we have discovered that we need one another.

One of our partners, Pavel, a senior pastor in his region, had asked me to explore the possibilities of partnership with some of the other churches he is responsible for. It is a hard region, where Protestants have more obstacles than usual. The propaganda against them is alive and well. Pavel’s church has been in partnership with Presbyterians for 12 years. The fellowship and the prayers of their partner have been an encouragement to his church. As he looks ahead to retirement, he would like to see such bonds of encouragement in place for others.

Sergei and his family moved from Ukraine to Russia several years ago as missionaries and have been working developing a small group in a small city that had no church. They had hoped to begin building their own church this year. Other churches in the region had offered to lend a hand, but they discovered that the land they had purchased was prone to flooding. They searched and found another piece of land to purchase. Once purchased, they discovered that the new one has water lines running across one corner that will have to be moved. They are working on it, but in the meantime the building that they were using for worship, rented from believers, caught fire. It’s ruined. It will take time to resolve the land problems, so for now they gather where they can and carry on.

Sasha and his family were a part of Pavel’s church in the regional capital, a comfortable city with good schools and good jobs and a large, healthy congregation, but after attending a missionary conference Sasha heard a call to serve. He asked where he was needed, ready to set out with his family as the church’s first missionaries. With some concern, the church leaders suggested that they consider serving a congregation in a fairly hostile town that had lost their pastor. Undaunted, Sasha and his family set out to visit the church.

On the way they were in a car accident and one of their daughters was seriously injured. Their home church asked if this wasn’t a sign that they should give up on this town, but Sasha and his wife felt the call even more strongly.

It has not been easy. The church building required structural repairs. They have not been well received by their neighbors, but Sasha and his family persevere. They have started an after-school program and children come because they are not afraid like their parents. Sasha always asks if their parents know where they are, and they always say yes. He asked the children what they’ve been told. “We hear that Baptists eat their children!” they reply. Sasha replies, “Here are my children, do they look eaten?”

Our Russian brothers and sisters were thankful for our visit. Many Western friends have stopped coming to visit. The fact that a small group of Presbyterians were willing to come so far to sit with them, listen to their stories and share a pot of tea was encouragement and a witness to who we are as the larger body of Christ. They were an even greater witness to us of faithfulness and courage in hard times and hard places.

If you might be interested in partnership, let us know. If you want to know more about it, it is not too late to join us for the Russian Mission Network gathering. This year RMN will gather at First Presbyterian Church in Asheboro, N.C., September 15-17. Al and I will both be there, as will the archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia. He too knows a lot about hard times and hard places.

We are grateful for your support in these hard times. We covet your prayers and are encouraged by your notes and emails. If you already support us financially, you have our heartfelt thanks. If not, might you consider it? Every gift makes a difference.

Peace and blessings,

Ellen


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