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“I Drink Tea”

A letter from Ellen Smith, regional liaison for Eastern Europe, based in Germany

Lent, March 2017


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Dear Friends and Family,  

People so often ask me what I “do” in Russia. It is a question that never ceases to perplex me, but I always answer in the same way—“I drink tea.” It is not the answer these same people want to hear and sometimes they even get irritated with me, but I can explain (and usually do). Our Russian partners don’t need me to “do.” They want me to visit often, but they generally won’t let me “do” anything. I am cared for at every turn, for Russians have a deep sense of hospitality. Often my visits start at a table over tea, followed by a ride in a car to another church and another pot of tea. And as we drink tea, we talk deeply and listen closely. They share what they are trying to accomplish, what obstacles they perceive, how Christ has led them through such challenges before, and the joys they have in the midst of real struggle.

They want to hear about my walk as well. Isolated during more than 70 years under the Soviet Union, they want to connect and connect deeply. I vividly remember a time when I was trying to organize a marriage seminar that they had asked for. I had found a couple who seemed like the right match, but their supervisors didn’t want them traveling to Russia. They wanted instead to do the training over Skype. The Russian pastor’s response was: “That won’t do at all. We want to be able to drink tea with them after each session and ask questions, probe more deeply.” Sometimes I do organize seminars, but that would not be possible if I had not first drunk tea. It is at the table that life takes place, when we talk deeply and listen hard. I don’t organize seminars that they have not asked for, and even then we do the work of organizing together. For me, what takes place at the table is paramount. I think it is the same for our Russian partners. We’ve drunk a lot tea together over these many years. In these days when they are feeling isolated again and judged by much of the world, the importance of tea is even greater.

I made another trip to Russia last week to connect with a group from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, students and pastors and Professor John Burgess, who led the group. The group had their own schedule in Moscow, but they wanted to visit Father Vladimir’s village and community, and asked me to accompany them. This is something that I often try to organize, but not usually during the first week of Great Lent and the Great Fast, but what a privilege to be present during this time. For the Orthodox, Lent begins on Monday, not Wednesday, with a gradual move toward Lent in the week prior (Maslenitsa). We arrived on Thursday. The first week of the Great Lent is a time of worship, with morning liturgy (3-5 hours) and evening worship (another 2-3). It was physically tiring as much of the worship in these first days involved not just standing but kneeling and prostration, but it was spiritually uplifting. Lent is not a punitive time, but a time to remove the distractions of the world and seek reconciliation with God and with one another, because we cannot be reconciled with God if we are not reconciled with our neighbors.

Despite a tiring schedule and the challenges of late winter (ice), the community welcomed us with rich, Russian hospitality. They provided the group with an opportunity to visit a banya [a Russian sauna] with members of the community. Father Vladimir welcomed us in his home, sharing a meal that included foods they would not themselves consume (chicken, sausage and cheese) because it is what hospitality requires. A folk group shared spiritual songs and the meaning behind them. We spent hours in deep conversation. Father Vladimir made every effort to help us understand the fast and other aspects of Orthodox tradition, as well as hearing some of the Protestant perspective.

In particular Father Vladimir shared two anecdotes related to the fast. The first was when a great warrior was traveling to Pskov to lay waste to that city. At the city gates, he found a monk sitting by a fire, roasting and eating meat. The warrior was appalled that someone would eat meat during the Great Fast and challenged the monk. The monk responded that it was better to eat meat during the Great Fast than shed Christian blood. The warrior turned back, leaving Pskov untouched.

The second anecdote was of a man visiting a monastery during the Great Fast. The abbot of the monastery ate meat at the evening meal. The guest made a comment, shocked that the abbot would be eating meat during the fast. The abbot responded that it was better to eat meat during the fast than make a comment like the guest’s.

As you make your way through your Lenten journey, I pray that you are finding the blessings and the joy of these days. It is not a punitive time, but a restorative time. May the peace and blessings of our Lord be with each of you.

With love in Christ,

Ellen


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