Saturday, August 30, 2008

Shifting Residency

Hello all! My guess is that no one is still checking this blog, but I figured if it's still on anyone's RSS feed, I'd make a note about my re-entry into the blogging world. I'm not going overseas; rather, I'm simply opening up an outlet to have theological conversations with friends far and near about any and all items of interest.

So! Feel free to join me over at Resident Theology. Hope to see you there.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Wrapping Up, Russian-Style

Hullo all! I am with Heath -- a devastating case of writer's block has hit us, and completely robbed us of anything resembling the energy, creativity, and time needed to post rewarding and enjoyable posts. Therefore, here is my super-tiny, sneeze of a wrap-up. Maybe more will come later, but just in case, this is what you get.

Monday, June 25th -- the last day I posted! -- we broke our Sabbath in a major way and studied with Zhenya and attended a big birthday party for a few of the Russians here (Timur, Vasya, and Katya).

Tuesday, June 26th, we had a rough day with studies -- Inna was incapacitated and couldn't come for our first study with Tanya, so we had to send her away, and Denis wasn't feeling well, so we ended up just visiting with him, but not studying. That night we saw Ira off to camp and Alissa made us chili. We had a make-up Sabbath night in which Garrett and I -- otherwise known around Texas as "The Poker Masters" -- took on Heath and Alissa in a game of Spades. This was to be finished later due to time.

Wednesday, June 27th, we began with the leaders meeting, studied Philippians 1:12-30 with (a different) Ira, studied Matthew 5 with Lyena and Pollina, and had a rousing and boisterous study with Ilya. During the afternoon, in between studies, Alissa came over in tears, as her grandpa had just died, and we spent time just being with her. Real ministry always intrudes upon "planned" ministry, and hopefully it was good for some other Americans, however clueless or male, to be present with her.

Thursday, June 28th, we didn't plan any studies because we were now translator-less, and just played basketball and went to Stronic.

Friday, June 29th, we woke up to news of the NBA Draft, which is like Christmas for basketball fans. It was another bad morning, because we woke up to a bunch of study cancellations, but it ended up being fine. Alissa took us souvenir shopping, and then we each individually met with Jim to review our time here. Oksana had her bachelorette party/shower thing that night, so us guys from the group met to hang out, but then ended up going to see Die Hard 4.0 at the theater! Good fun, and great time to spend with just the guys. (Always good to know that Bruce Willis is cross-culturally awesome. Needless to say, Sergei and Alosha thought it was the best movie they'd ever seen.)

Saturday, June 30th, we woke up to even more bad news -- our studies with both Zhenya and Ilya were both canceled! Even a scheduled visit from the landlady was canceled. It was just in the air that day. So we watched The Life Aquatic instead, then went to the College Group. That night was particularly terrible for me, though . . . my stomach must have contained multiple things which were not in agreement, and felt the need to be completely flushed out over the next 24 hours. So I slept very little, was constantly nauseous, almost threw up multiple times, and made about a thousand trips to the bathroom from midnight to noon Sunday. Bad times. Therefore . . .

Sunday, July 1st, I didn't get to go to church, which was the General Meeting! Garrett and Heath spoke to everybody and shared our goodbyes and affection for the church (and said that the shashlik eventually caught up to me). I had a huge, boring, free afternoon, and then we went over to Jim's for the night (luckily I was feeling better by then and was able to enjoy the good food).

Monday, July 2nd, we faithfully honored our Sabbath, and did nothing. Actually, we went souvenir shopping, hung out with Sergei and Alissa, and watched the second Pirates of the Caribbean, after having watched the first one the night before, all in preparation for the third one when we get back! This was also one of many nights Heath and I have stayed up until between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning talking -- Garrett is always invited, but apparently he needs his beauty sleep, so he rarely joins us. Please feel free to make fun of him for this.

Tuesday, July 3rd, we spent the afternoon hanging out with some Russians we met at the English Club a month earlier (Andrew, Tanya, Lyena, Anastasia). We ate at some swanky, secret underground lair of a restaurant, which was pretty cool (if slightly scary). I rode back on a bus early to study with Tanya -- which was now possible because Svyeta came to translate! We continued with Matthew 5. That night was our last Soup Group, and it was fantastic as usual.

Wednesday, July 4th, we had our last leaders meeting, then left early for our regular (but last again!) schedule with Ira. I finished our study of Philippians with 2:1-11 -- one of the most central passages about Jesus in the entire New Testament -- then looked at 3:7-11 and 4:4-9 to conclude. That afternoon Garrett continued with Tanya, looking at Matthew 6. That night we Americans (us three plus Alissa) had dinner at Timur's apartment with his family. We ate lasagna, which confirmed Ira (Timur's wife) as one of the two best cooks in Russia. We rode a taxi back to our apartment -- a first for us -- and just so you know, he had the largest rearview mirror any of us had ever seen.

Thursday, July 5th, we had our last meeting with Zhenya, and it was really sad. His girlfriend of a year and a half broke up with him the week before out of nowhere, and it devastated him. He feels that "religion" isn't for him right now, and gave his New Testament back to us. He was one of the coolest and brightest guys we'd met here -- someone who was both open and in need of the gospel -- so this was a major bummer. This was the first day it was truly hot here -- I know, I know, "sweltering Siberia" -- trust us, without air conditioning, living in a crowded little apartment, with the temperature approaching the 80s and 90s, it's pretty miserable. I guess it's a good thing that we're such good Christians, huh?

(A few things: first, that was a joke, just in case someone was offended. Second, that afternoon we finished our Spades game, and The Spades Masters dominated once again: we won by 400 points if you're counting. Third, the fifth was the three-year anniversary for Katelin and me, so that was a wonderful achievement, even if dampered by being on separate continents for the second year in a row! So: Happy Anniversary!)

That night we also studied with Sergei, and I led him in a brief overview of Philippians (I think I became the Philippians go-to guy here, by the way). We're so bummed we can't keep studying with him, because he was probably our best student yet! Sometimes he would make a point before I got to it, and would completely say exactly what I was planning to say. That's the kind of receptiveness you want! From there we had our last night at Stronic.

Friday, July 6th, we moved out some of the bigger things from the apartment with Sergei and Max. That night, with Oksana's small group canceled again, being the eve of her wedding, we had another guys night out at the movies, and saw Transformers with Sergei and Alosha. (I also found a sweet poster for what read "Ultimatum Borna," which got me all kinds of excited.) We took a long walk back just to talk and hang out.

Saturday, July 7th, was wedding day! We got to the place at about 4:00 and got back around 11:00, having experienced a thoroughly un-Russian Russian wedding (being Christian usually limits the endless partying, debauchery, vodka, and fights). Getting the wonderful opportunity on our last weekend to participate and watch as our two new friends Max and Oksana tied the knot was a great blessing. We'll get pictures up later, but for the record, Max got his tuxedo custom made by a friend, modeled after the orange suit in Dumb and Dumber. How unbelievably cool is that? It was made even cooler by the fact that I went to prom my senior year in high school in the blue suit, top hat and all. Good stuff.

Sunday, July 8th, is today, our last day in Tomsk. We had all-day church as usual, and while I was exhausted, it was certainly bittersweet, being our last time to endure it. We are currently packing and making sure we haven't forgotten anything, hanging out with Sergei and Alosha, ready to head to Jim's to sleep for the night and enjoy one final incredible meal. Tomorrow we will fly to Moscow and spend the day there, then take a train through the night to St. Petersberg. We will spend Tuesday through Saturday in St. Pete, then take a train back on Saturday night, and spend all of Sunday in Moscow. We'll likely sleep in the terminal Sunday night (we have a place, but our flight is so early that it will likely be better to stay at the airport), then head out early Monday morning for home. We should arrive home on the afternoon of Monday, July 16th, thoroughly incapacitated by jet lag and culture shock, and in desperate need of some creamy jalapeno. Also, my fiancee will be waiting for me, and that is an exceptionally wonderful thing.

So! We might be able to update here and there throughout the next week, but we don't know for sure, so if this is it, thank you so much! We appreciate all of you keeping up with us, praying for us, thinking about us, talking about us, laughing about us, and all of the encouraging comments, notes, messages, and emails. We will be giving our report to the church on Sunday, July 22nd, and shortly thereafter we should have a link to the recording on here. Until then! Blessings on all of you.

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understandings, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." --Philippians 4:4-7

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tomsk Intern Report

Hullo all! Sorry for the paucity of posts this week. We've been pretty busy, and apparently all decided to start posting on or around Monday (our day off), so I'm sure it may seem like we aren't updating at all! But just wait -- Monday will undoubtedly bring days of reading with is. Whether that is frightening or exciting, either way, it's coming.

But! I thought I'd post something else. Jim emails out a monthly report to his supporters, both churches and families, and we wrote something up for him to include in it, so I figured some of y'all might enjoy it. So here you go! Please be praying for us as we enter our final week of ministry here in Tomsk.

(P.S. I have finally added the link to our third set of pictures, so feel free to go check them out!)

- - - - - - -

It has been an incredible six weeks for us here in Tomsk. We have just one more week left, but the time has flown by. If you don’t know, we are students from Abilene Christian University who have been interns here with Jim for the past two months. As it happens, Jim studied with, baptized, and married Brad and Garrett’s parents 25 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, and that’s how we got connected to him. We are all majoring in Biblical Text and we each have plans to eventually be involved in missions (one way or the other).

From the day we arrived in Tomsk we hit the ground running. We were able to immediately set up a regular study with a new Christian, Ira, who just got baptized in May. We also got to meet her sister Masha, a nonbeliever, and have studied with her a number of times. Then our first week we met a young guy at basketball named Oleg, and were able to study with him until he had to head up north for work.

Halfway through our time here we had a pretty frustrating week where studies and meetings fell through left and right – really, anything that offered the promise of getting to know and possibly studying with new Russians, whether believers or not, ended up being canceled or needing to be rescheduled. So we learned the wonderful lesson of what it’s like to be missionaries when nothing is going the way you’d like it to! Fortunately, Alissa Poindexter, one of the AIM interns, came back to finish her time that week, and she has been a great resource, and ended up initiating what began the slow build-up of many more studies to finish our time here!

The church here has continued to blow us away time and again. The spirit of joy and freedom is wonderful and refreshing, and greeted us the moment we met any gathering of believers. No matter what is going on, everyone hugs and greets one another, there are always introductions, always food – can’t have Russians without tea! – always singing, always holding hands during prayer, always laughter and always sharing. We always look forward to the myriad small groups throughout the week, and of course, the intimacy of the house churches – and especially hosting two in a row every Sunday morning! – offers a different and illuminating perspective.

(As a sidenote, it is worth noting that we have had perfect weather here, and nothing like Tomsk has ever had before. It’s summer, so it’s not freezing cold; but neither is it hot: it’s cool, breezy, somewhat rainy, but no extremes to be found. Hailing from Texas, we have welcomed this with open arms!)

Of course, a short report could never adequately describe or summarize our time here or its impact on us, but to be sure, it has been a powerful and forming time for all of us. The simple experience of studying the Bible with people individually, and learning how to share the good news of Jesus with people from a different culture, will be one of the foremost experiences that we hope to bring back with us to the States. Thanks to our home church in Round Rock, and thanks to Jim, for their support and encouragement. It has been an incredible time here in Tomsk! May God continue to advance his kingdom and the good news of Jesus both here and throughout the world.

Sincerely,

Brad East, Garrett East, Heath Newton

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Clarification, and a Tome of a Recap

Hullo all! It is almost noon on Monday, and if I were you, I’d prepare myself for an unenduringly long post. (How's that for honesty?) It’s possible that I might split it up, but we’ll see. One unfortunate note is that our internet has been fluctuating mightily the past few days, so I am writing this on Word and will post it at some point when it won’t take away all of our money. So! Here we go.

To begin, I have to clarify. I’ll try to keep any possible unwanted grossness out of my comments, but it has been brought to my attention that my previous post about my unfortunate accident involving unsettling chili, bowel movements, and a Russian toilet was confusing and unclear. So, allow me to set the record straight.

I did not, in fact, poop in my pants.

Katelin said that the story made it sound that way, and however funny that must have been for the past week – man, I can’t even imagine the unending trouble I’d give to someone like Spence or Chris if they told a story like that – it is definitely not true. I realize what was confusing, so allow me to (quickly) elaborate. I made the comment that I didn't have time (and the floor was too dirty) to pull my pants off, which made things trickier. This made it sound like I didn't pull my pants off at all before everything . . . happened. What I meant was, I couldn’t take my pants fully off, and thus had to just drop them and squat – which, for obvious reasons, made things significantly more challenging. So, if you read the story the previous way – I think Janice Wiginton’s exact comment was “Poor Katelin!” – I’m sure this way makes it no less ridiculous, but at least I still have the dignity (ahem) of not having pooped in my pants in Russia.

So there. :)

Tuesday, June 19th – I woke up on Tuesday to the sound of Heath talking to Katie on Skype for a marathon 2 and a half hours. Because we are so supportive of Ms. Morrison, I was perfectly fine with this fact, but I did want to point it out to everyone.

I still wasn’t feeling up for playing basketball, so I went but just took a shower (cue chorus of amens). We came back and did some language with Inna, and then Ira came over for a study. I’ve been taking her through Philippians, and this week we did Philippians 1:1-11, and it was a good study. Throughout our time, I was somewhat worried, because she didn’t really have any comments, and no one else was talking, so I felt like a straight monologue the entire time – however different that may be from normal? – and was worried nothing was hitting home. Fortunately, when we finished, she said that she appreciated the way I went verse by verse and explained everything, and that she just had to chew on it and go home and reread everything in the light of everything we talked about. So that was encouraging.

(Sidenote: The thing I told Ira I hoped she would take away from the study more than anything is something worth passing along. We seem to pray for pretty weak things sometimes, I think. I have a professor at ACU who remarks that if a stranger were to walk into our churches and listen to our prayers, they would deduce that physical health is the most important thing in the world to Christians. Obviously, we should always and continue to pray for people’s health – that is both biblical and good. However, if we look at the prayers of Jesus and Paul, especially Paul’s prayers in his letters for those receiving the letter, we could learn a lot about what our focus should be in prayer. In Philippians 1:9-11 Paul prays this grand prayer for the spiritual growth and well-being of the believers there, and it offers a great example to follow in our own prayers. Just a thought.)

Our study was later in the evening and went long, so we didn’t get to go to Soup Group, and that was our day!

Wednesday, June 20th – As always, we began Wednesday with the Leaders Meeting, which was good. Timur and Vasya, probably the two biggest leaders here, weren’t present, so it went a lot quicker (and we were appropriately thankful). We also borrowed a few movies from Phil, which was very exciting. We’d been itching (randomly) to see Batman Begins again sometime soon, and we (mainly I) want to re-watch the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies before we get back and can see the third, and Phil had all three of them on DVD, so he lent them to us.

We had some time to hang out, but as noon our friend Dennis came over for our first study. Please be praying for Dennis – we met him last weekend, studied with him on Wednesday, and will study with him tomorrow, but then he leaves Wednesday for a month to be with his grandparents out of town. We will obviously be gone by the time he gets back, and he doesn’t know anyone in the church here, but we really want someone to keep going with him, because he is deep in searching and very open.

Garrett has already done an excellent job of summarizing our time with Dennis and the others we studied this week, but I’ll offer a few other comments. First, he was remarkably open and energetic in our discussion of God and the Christian faith. He is also thoroughly optimistic, which I’ll address in a moment. As a moral and ethical person, he impressed us with how deeply he has pondered the questions of love and how to live. He claims to live by an “ethic of love,” and wonders why anyone would need a god or a perfect-man or an example to make them act ethically or treat others well. If one already is committed to loving all people, why tack on this Jesus guy as some sort of extra motivation?

Excellent question #1.

Dennis also wondered why in the world, if God wants to forgive us, wouldn’t he just do it, as opposed to needing some man to die as a sacrifice and thus fulfill some sort of arbitrary need for a sacrifice?

Excellent question #2.

Displaying some of his optimism and worldview, Dennis then talked about the idea of suffering. Why would we need or want God to come and suffer with us, when at base, suffering serves an ultimately good purpose? When we make a mistake and suffer the consequence, we see the consequence, and learn from our mistake. In the same way, even larger suffering allows one to better enjoy the gift of life and enjoy what Dennis called “the beauty of the world.” Who needs a suffering God when suffering itself does its own job quite well?

Excellent question #3.

Lastly, Dennis wondered about the idea of God’s reign coming to earth, and what would happen if everyone were a Christian. If everyone were to take up this idea that we should love and serve each other, what happens to hierarchical structures within society? Does order and authority just disappear? Does government collapse? Do we get chaos and anarchy from the implementation of the Christian vision?

Excellent question #4.

As you can tell, we had our hands full with this one. I cannot express, though, what a blessing it is to be able to participate with God in sharing good news with people like Dennis. Whatever the outcome – for which we are certainly praying! – the opportunity to share God’s long and troubled relationship with and action toward the world, his beloved creation, never gets old, and couldn’t be more convicting. To see the lights turn on in people’s minds and hearts when they hear about this God – whose voice, in the words of N.T. Wright, they have heard in countless echoes throughout life – is a sight to behold.

But! To give brief (…) answers to each question, here is what we generally said in each instance.

1.) We believe as Christians that believing in and following Jesus is more than needing motivation to act well and love people. The story and person of Jesus invites us into a new way of life, in which Jesus’ example and present through his Spirit actually empowers us to be able to live like him. Furthermore, we don’t accept Christian faith for what it gives us; we accept it and live according to it because it’s true! And its truth is confirmed in our experience and in the life of the church.

2.) This was the hardest question, and the answer was undoubtedly the longest-winded. (Guess who answered it?) Personally, I don’t find the pat answer that God can’t be around sin and thus needs a way of purifying us, or that sacrifice is always needed/demanded for sin so Jesus fulfilled that need once and for all, to be immediately satisfying. I believe them to be true, but first, I think they are much deeper than we usually go, and second, they are reasons that make sense once you’ve stepped into the Christian worldview, but from the outside, they make absolutely no sense. Why in the world would this (supposedly!) all-powerful God “need” a sacrifice to forgive people? Just do it already! I know I would!

So this is where our always-at-hand story of God and his creation came into play. Telling the basic biblical narrative is almost always the right way to go, because it frames everything correctly, gives them the whole scope of what’s going on, and really puts into perspective the long-suffering, caring, deep, unwilling-to-give-up love of this fiery God we find in Jesus. To keep it as brief as possible, in the context of telling the story, I gave three preliminary reasons why Jesus needed to die for forgiveness to come:

a.) The first relates to the need for sacrifice, but from a different viewpoint. In essence, God takes sin much more seriously than we do. Sin distorts and destroys God’s good creation, and especially the image of God in human beings, and thus sin must be dealt with in some powerful way. More on this in a moment.

b.) Jesus didn’t only “fulfill the arbitrary need for a sacrifice.” In Jesus’s very way of life, in his willingness to not fight back, in his deep and terrible suffering, and in his death on the cross, God came near in a way unimaginable before. God came and suffered with a suffering creation, not just for some “bigger” end, but as an end in itself: God took upon himself our sad and lowly state, and wept with us. And that is the extent of God’s love for us.

This is where we got into a big discussion about the nature and purpose of suffering, and Dennis’s optimistic worldview came into play. This was one of those times where I had to come out and strongly and adamantly disagree with Dennis. While certain types of suffering can offer meaning and purpose, such as learning from mistakes or more fully valuing life after a near-death experience, such a view is a decidedly upper-class understanding, taken from a life of luxury and comfort (not extravagantly so, just in relation to the rest of the world’s living conditions). I gave the example of a woman in Africa, raped by a man with HIV/AIDS, who not only contracts the disease but becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child with the disease. The child will die quickly, and the woman will die soon after. There is nothing “good” or “to be learned” from this situation. The African woman will likely have led a life of suffering already, and if not, it will soon be over, in no way related to her own actions or character, and ultimately, her suffering will have been pointless (if we are honest with ourselves). It took a long time for Dennis to see the point I was making, but he did finally come around; he actually responded with, “Well, maybe that’s why there could be reincarnation.” An interesting response, but he definitely got it.

But! Let’s say the Christian faith is true. That entails two wonderful pieces of good news for our African woman: first, that the God of the universe, the God who created the world and everything in it, the God who created her and her child, doesn’t just watch from afar, sitting on high and taking in the situation; this God came to earth as a poor and needy man who bled and suffered with and for her, out of the depths of his love for her. What comfort and meaning for the present! And not only that, but second, this God offers a new world just around the corner. If life has been impossibly hard and unrelentingly terrible, there is the promise of hope from this loving and suffering God; if our African woman believes and gives her life to and commits to following this God-come-near in Jesus, when he comes back to restore and renew all things, fully establishing heaven upon earth, she will be raised back to life, given a new and suffering-less body (like his!), and will live forever with this God and the rest of his people in perfect harmony and bliss.

Now – that makes a difference. And that’s another reason why Jesus came and suffered and died.

c.) I pre-empted myself with my previous answer, because the third reason I gave had to do with all that went on in Jesus’s death and resurrection. I have already renounced any brevity to this post, and even this study, so I will truly try to be brief. Essentially – and as we all know – Jesus, as the sinless one, took the world’s sins upon himself on the cross, and in dying, conquered sin. Then, in his resurrection, that other great problem of human beings was addressed and answered and defeated and destroyed: death. Thus, in his death and resurrection, Jesus answered and solved in a unique and profound way the two unsolvable problems of human existence. And in the final great triumph of the resurrection, the promise and offer is extended to all people to join in this new way of living, this resurrection life, the beginning of God’s new creation, to start living as we are meant to live, and sharing this life with all people.

After all of this – and I do mean all of this – Dennis looked a little bewildered and yet fascinated and wanting more, and said something to the effect of, “Hm. That is very convincing, and I feel myself almost persuaded. But even though it sounds good, I cannot believe yet, so let’s keep talking.” Sounds good to us!

3.) I answered his third question about suffering in my “b” answer above.

4.) In response to his question about order and government, I simply pointed him to Mark 10, where Jesus talks about his followers not “lording over” others like the pagans, but serving like Jesus served. After reading it, Dennis looked up and simply said, “That makes sense!” Way to go, Round Rock boys, for getting out of God’s way and letting him speak for himself.

So that’s a pretty good synopsis of what happened. Our study with Masha that afternoon got canceled because she was sick, so that was a major disappointment. With new time on our hands, we watched Batman Begins, which was great. Then we went to the small group for Christian Counsel, came back, and slept.

Thursday, June 21st – I woke up early Thursday morning and got to pull my own marathon session with Katelin, talking on Skype for about 2 and a half hours. That was superb, especially as I won’t be able to talk to her for at least 2, if not our final 3, weeks.

We headed out for basketball, and I chose to finally give it a try, but it was a pretty big failure. My ankle was fine, but my playing was definitely not. I hurt my left shoulder out at Chernoshovka a few weeks ago, and ever since I don’t have any range of motion or power in it, and so I was pretty useless. But it was good to be active again.

After showering we came back to the apartment and had a study with Tanya. Heath led, and spent the time getting to know her and where she is at in her faith. She comes to church, and her mom is a Christian, but she hasn’t been baptized yet. We had no idea how young she is, but she’s only 15 years old. She shared that she believes everything, but wants to learn about what it means to live as a Christian, so we did that for a bit, and then scheduled some more studies.

That night we went to Stronic, but sans Russians – and the homeless ladies certainly don’t know any English. So that was an interesting experience, but still great. We mostly sang and just sat with them. Alissa, the AIM intern who was here for the last year and who is finishing out her time this summer, can communicate and was able to do enough to get by. From there we came back and talked and went to bed.

Friday, June 22nd – We woke up early Friday morning to go to Jim’s and sit in on a new study he was having with a young woman named Vera. He thought since she is young that she’d like to be passed on to us, but she ended up wanting to stick with him, which was both good (more Bible studying!) and bad (not a new study for us…).

From there went to the Bistro, which is a kind of fast food restaurant here (the only restaurant we’ve been to here more than once). The food actually isn’t half bad – we get pizza and fries every time we go, and it’s great. Anyway, we had contacted a guy named Zhenya whom one of the former AIM interns had known but never studied with, and set up a meeting at the Bistro. Once again, it was an awesome meeting.

(Sidenote: We are really experiencing the fruit of answered prayer here. Both in terms of people coming out of the woodwork to study, and in their openness and our success with them in the studies themselves, God is working powerfully and once again proving himself to be more than faithful. So: please keep praying, and thank you for doing so!)

Zhenya is really seeking, and is sure that there is definitely something out there. Like Dennis, he doesn’t see the need for an external motivation to be a good or ethical person; he was pretty insistent on the fact that people are their own masters and make their own choices. One of his questions was why we would want God to be our “everything” – as he’s heard in song lyrics – or how we can talk about God “making” us better, as if it’s not just us deciding to act differently. Good fodder for conversation. It seemed like the gospel was sincerely good news to him, and that is always the best starting point. We addressed some relativistic ideas of his – like, why everyone can’t just believe in their own god and leave it at that – but he, like everyone else so far, was engaging, interested, civil, seeking, and wanting more. So we are meeting with him again today, actually, breaking our Sabbath to have as much time with him as possible!

We took a long walk back to the apartment, hung out for a while, then went to Oksana’s (more pictures, by the way – keep checking them out!). We had a lot of people, which was great, but we were disappointed because we had invited Dennis and had hoped he would come, but he ended up having a conflict. We talked about how to communicate with God through his Spirit, and it was a lively discussion.

When we got back I tried to talk to Katelin on Skype, but was pretty unsuccessful. For the record, though, my future bride had her official fitting for her wedding dress on Friday. Exciting things all around.

Saturday, June 23rd – Garrett and Heath played some outdoor basketball with Jim Saturday morning, but after my terrible showing on Thursday, I wasn’t feeling up for it. I had some good quiet and alone time with God, though, so that was enjoyable. I spent some time washing all of our dirty dishes, and, reminding me of Brother Lawrence, it was good to work and serve and commune with God all at once.

That afternoon we had another study with Tanya. I didn’t mention this before, but she is extremely shy and reserved, so we don’t get a lot of feedback or commentary from her, but she’s super sharp, so we know she’s hearing us. We had decided to address Christian living by going through the Sermon on the Mount, and divvied it up: chapter 5 for me, 6 for Garrett, 7 for Heath. I introduced the entire Sermon as a whole, then just got through the Beatitudes before our time was already up. Next time I’ll try to finish up all of chapter 5 to keep us moving along. I won’t rehash point for point what I talked about, but here are three overall points that I emphasized, and that resurfaced throughout:

1.) The Sermon on the Mount presents Jesus’s upside-down vision of the world, a vision in which Jesus invites us to share. Everything hinges on the fact that in the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed, everything gets turned upside down: the lowly are lifted up, and the high and mighty are brought down.

2.) The Sermon on the Mount is at its essence a kind of charter for kingdom living. How should Christians live? Matthew 5-7 gives the answer in concise form. If we lived solely according to the Sermon on the Mount, I don’t know if we could be more faithful to God.

3.) The Sermon on the Mount, while of course addressing individuals, is spoken to the community of believers as a whole. That is, that group of people who believe in and follow Jesus – the church – is the recipient of this new teaching of how to live. Thus, we are not each individually expected to live “perfectly” (5:48), as if that were possible, but in our collective life together, we are to embody Jesus’s teaching to the extent that when people see our communal way of life, we are like a city set on a hill, which people may see and in doing so perceive an alternate reality than the one which the world offers them.

After the study we went to the College Group, which was great, then we headed back, and slept.

Also, at some point during the weekend we regained hot water, and that was a moment of great celebration and joy for us.

Sunday, June 24th – Our Sundays here are long, and require endurance to make it through. Of course, the actual churches and people are great, but hosting people in our apartment for 9 straight hours, involving two church services, dozens of people, and endless talking in a language we don’t understand – it’s pretty stressful and tiring. So, not a whole lot to pass along, but it was a good (if long) day.

We had some babushkas come to our first house church, which was great. Sergei also shared a personal experience and situation in which he has been struggling through; namely, what Christians should do if mugged. I think (though I’m not sure) that it actually happened to him, and he felt called to give the muggers double what they asked, exactly in line with what Jesus calls us to do in Matthew 5. However, he’d had some conversations with people, and wanted input and discussion. Allow me to say something which shouldn’t need to be said: when people are convicted to live out fully or more completely the call of Jesus in their lives, let our first and only and resounding response as brothers and sisters be one of absolute affirmation. Jokes about not being able to do it ourselves, or the likelihood of compromise, or how this or that teaching isn’t realistic in practice, or how it is too hard to implement – that is all nonsense, and foolish talk. We should encourage one another when notions of compromise and difficult situations do arise, but when someone sincerely and fully obeys what Jesus calls us to do, let us affirm them, not keep them in a place of questioning and uncertainty!

After all of our churches, I took a great hour and a half nap with my guitar, and it was excellent and much-needed.

As is custom, we went to Jim’s for the night, which is always a restful and enjoyable time after our long Sunday. We ate beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes and cherry and apple cobblers, and that sentence sounds just as good as it was to eat. Our stomachs are still thanking us.

We got into some really interesting and profound questions toward the end of the night about war and Christian participation in war. For any number of reasons, I won’t get into it now, but the impetus was Phil sharing with us about his time in Vietnam in 1970. When things like that come into such clear focus, "theoretical" questions become all too real. The idea of having a draft in our (that is, my) lifetime is certainly thought-provoking.

We thought we were going to get to bed about midnight last night, but Garrett and Heath and I ended up staying up for about 4 more hours, talking into the night. It was good sharing and spending that time together.

Which leads us to today – I was going to talk to my parents this morning, but as I said, our internet has been wishy-washy, so that didn’t work out. We have a study at 2:00, then a birthday party for Timur and others at 6:00. So not much of a Sabbath after all! But still a good day, by all means.

I have a bunch of random assorted notes to pass along, but I think I’ll wait to do that throughout the week. I hope you’ve enjoyed another one of my blog tomes! We only have 2 weeks left in Tomsk, and then one split between Moscow and St. Petersberg, so we are beginning to enter the home stretch. (I get to see my future bride at the end of that time, so there is certainly good news in there along with the difficulty of leaving.) Thank you for your continued prayers, and please keep them up!

P.S. Our Russian friends to pray for by name: Oleg, Masha, Sergei, Inna, Ira, Dennis, Zhenya, Tanya, Lena, Vera, Elia. Thanks!

P.P.S. Yes! If you would like to watch our Champs Camp videos, go to this website: http://www.themerkords.com/photos/. Mark Merkord put them up for us, and left that link in a comment on my last post, so there you go! Thanks so much for doing that for us, Mark. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

On the Gift of Prayer

Just a short note -- no, really! -- after a bit of reflection. I was talking to Katelin this morning on Skype, and while telling her about our study with Dennis yesterday, I pronounced his name for her ("Denise" like the female name in America), but said that I still pronounce it like it looks. She then responded, "Ooh -- well I'll be sure to say it the right way when I'm praying for him." We joked about whether or not it actually matters -- of course not -- but it led me to reflecting about prayer.

What a wonderful and strange and powerful gift, and reality, that as a certain few young Russian men and women seek out the truth of God in the story of the man Jesus, followers of this man Jesus and believers in this God, all over the world, are praying by name for these very same Russian seekers -- all only by the very gift of this very same God, following the example modeled by this very same man called Jesus!

(And I might add, these Russian seekers are currently being led and convicted and guided by the very Spirit of God that was present in the man Jesus and is currently empowering men and women from around the world to pray for these Spirit-impacted Russians!)

Praise God for prayer, and may we ever utilize it more for the powerful gift it is. In particular, please be praying for our Russian friends with whom are studying: Oleg, Masha, Inna, Sergei, Ira, Dennis, Tanya, Lena, Zhenya, Vera. Thank you so much for interceding in love and hope for these friends of ours, created and beloved by our God. May we trust in the promises of the God we extol, and may he answer our pleading!

Monday, June 18, 2007

In Tribute to American Toilets: A Cautionary Tale

Hullo all! It is Monday, our Sabbath, and we are having a great day of rest. Sundays are always so constant and draining, so it is great to take a day off and enjoy renewal. I have a ton of random stuff, and a funny but disgusting story, so here we go.


Chernoshovka last Friday (10 days ago) never got a thorough description worthy of it, but I really don't have much to add. It's great to see what they are preparing and working on to help house people without homes in which to live, especially during the harsh winter, so it was doubly great to help in whatever small way we could. Being hosted by the guy living out there was fascinating, because the villages here are not unlike the villages in Africa. There are random technological upgrades, and obviously Russian correlaries to distinctly African aspects, but the similarities were pretty striking. Hospitality, though, seems to be the great unifying characteristic of so many people in "low" circumstances!


And, again, the swarms of mosquitoes were killer. Literally, they kill livestock because the swarms are so dense the animals can't breathe. Good fodder for stories for the grandkids, I guess.

- - - - - - -

It was wonderful helping Vasya, one of the leaders here, move into his new apartment last Monday -- even though we did have to break our Sabbath. Because it's Russia, his apartment was on the ninth floor, and, of course, the elevator wasn't working. It was such an encouragement to see all the help from the church that came. Most of the church are in their 20s, so there were something like 12 young, strong guys who showed up, all leaders in the church and friends with one another, ready to kill themselves for 30 minutes to move their brother's family in. Good stuff!

- - - - - - -

Wednesday's leaders meeting was particularly interesting, as Heath has written, because Timur (probably "the" leader in the church here -- actually, as far as Jim knows, the only Russian minister in Russia who is supportedly financially solely by his local congregation) brought up the issue of sex. In conversations with multiple Christians, Timur became concerned that sex wasn't really being addressed -- past sexual guilt (before converting), current struggles with sexual sin, sexual temptation, and sexual wholeness (within and without marriage). I don't have the time to delve into these topics, but may all churches deal openly and honestly with such thoroughly personal and widespread issues!

We had a rough week, what with small groups and studies being canceled left and right, and our study with Masha on Wednesday almost seemed like it was going to follow the trend -- she forgot about coming! -- but she came late and it turned out to be an awesome meeting. I led the study, and we went through most of what we had hoped to talk about the previous week; namely, God as creator, the lack of a need to dichotomize and separate God/faith/Bible and science, the point of Genesis 1-2, the genres of different texts, what the Bible actually says about things like creation and nature, etc. We had a lively discussion, but after we exhausted that avenue, we got out of the way and let God speak for himself. We opened up to a ton of New Testament passages, and just had her read them on her own, one after another, and it really seemed like God's Spirit was able to move in her much more so than our endless debating did (or could). We read passages from John 1, 1 John, Hebrews 1, Philippians 2, Colossians 1, Romans 5-8, and more. It's always a great idea to let God do the work -- especially when he's better at it!

- - - - - - -

Thursday morning...we checked ESPN at about 11:00 am our time...and we were greeted with the wonderful headline that...

THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS ARE THE 2007 NBA WORLD CHAMPIONS!!!!!

This was good news, however expected. Honestly, after four championships, even though they don't get old, you really just start to expect greatness. Just like last summer, when the Mavs were up 2-0 going into Miami -- without a history like the Spurs, you might be worried (and you might be justified in your worry). With the Spurs -- of course they'll show up! And of course they'll win another one for you.

Way to go, guys. And Timmy, you're the Finals MVP in my book.

One random cool thing about missions field(s) is that old people are baptized. Think about it; when was the last time you saw a 75-year old woman baptized? Older people are always the hardest to study with and convert, but they still respond in faith, and how cool is that? Thursday a babushka Vasya had been studying with was baptized (in a plastic blow-up kiddie pool in the middle of an apartment!), but we didn't get to watch it. Good stuff though!

Stronic continues to be wonderful. Just singing and hugging those old homeless ladies is the best sort of way to follow the way of Jesus.

P.S. On Thursday, I refrained from basketball for the sake of my ankle, but I did shower. And all of Tomsk, and all of Round Rock, and all of Abilene, and all of Jinja, and my two very thankful roommates said . . . AMEN!!!!

- - - - - - -

Heath wrote about the interconfessional small group Friday night, but it was beyond fascinating. No non-Christians, but definitely some believers from much different traditions. It really can't be a bad thing to get together and talk and worship together though, right? Ideas like this small group can only be avenues toward fellowship, friendship, reconciliation, and unity, right? Score one for Timur and the Russians.

- - - - - - -

Saturday we canceled plans to take Inna out because we finally had a lead to get to know some more Russian nonbelievers. (We didn't actually "have" the plans; just what we were thinking about doing.) Alissa, a former American intern who was here for the past year, got to know two students here and was going to meet them for lunch, so we tagged along! Their names are Dennis (pronounced Denise) and Anya, and it was a great afternoon. Neither have really been up for studying with Alissa, although they like talking about religion -- they both speak English very well and have been to America before -- but Dennis agreed to meet with us this coming Wednesday at noon to talk about the Bible, Jesus, and faith, so we are very excited about that study. He brought up a lot of stuff he's read from Nietzsche, so hopefully we are not in over our heads -- come on, Intro to Philosophy 101! -- but either way, it will just be good to share our faith with him. Please be praying for Dennis!

(One sidenote: if you don't know me, for the past 5 years or so I have become increasingly interested and intrigued by politics. I love keeping up with what is going on in the U.S. as well as the world, and I love reading about the ins and outs of politics, how government works, the different parties, etc. For a long time I was super-political in opinion (and voting!), but since last summer I have withdrawn a great deal from that stance -- actually, not just "that stance" as in, my political views, but the stance of being invested personally in politics at all, whether right or left or anywhere on the spectrum. Going to Africa, a lot of conversations, and a lot of reading really altered my worldview regarding politics and America (and the world), but having much less to do with any sort of "reality" setting in about the "worldly" nature of politics, and having much more to do with a renewed understanding and commitment to the politics of Jesus. I had never heard the idea that Jesus' message of the coming of God's kingdom was a political message, and thus the church is and has its own "politics" -- and that radically reshapes the picture! Anyway, my point wasn't my view of politics, but the somewhat difficult questions I now find myself needing to find the words for an answer -- such as Dennis asking me on Saturday whether I'd like to see "that woman" in office, or what party I belong to, or who I will vote for, etc. I try to reframe the question and share my thoughts from a Jesus perspective, but I also found another good answer -- just giving who I think is the best candidate from each party. As in, if a Democrat were elected, who would I want it to be, and if a Republican were elected, who would I want it to be. Many people may already think like this, but it was revelatory for me! Not an either/or, but a "best of" situation. And if you were wondering my answer, it was Mr. Barack Obama for the left, and Mr. Fred Thompson for the right. There you go!)

- - - - - - -

Yesterday was endless church day. That probably sounds awful -- although for what reason! -- but it really is something like that. We begin at 9:00 and end around 4:00, before hanging out with all the church people till about 6:00. So the next time you are glancing at your watch around noon, think about us!

Anyway, both of our house churches were good. The first one only has a few people, but the singing is wonderful. The second one had a record 19 people, but the singing is terrible! Just thought I'd toss that out there. Oh yeah -- last week I gave the "sermon" (I prefer the African term: I brought the word) in the second house church, talking about simple ideas and practices for how to grow as a Christian. My suggestions were threefold: unplugging, simplicity, and seeking out opposing views. That is, give God undivided attention; get rid of stuff you don't need; and don't be satisfied with "knowing everything" -- seek out views with which you disagree, and see what merit they have. When we do things like those three examples, we open ourselves up to God's Spirit to transform and shape us more into the image of Christ, more into the people of God whom he wants us to be.

This week I just did comments about the collection for the first house church. It is truly tough making it through the long hours of both churches, in that I am usually tired, and there is much that I can't understand (whether because it's in Russian or the translator is confusing me). Either way, though, it is a great blessing to host everyone.

And the best part was that we got a couple more Bible studies! I think Garrett may have shared more about whom the people are, but two girls who came to the second house Church, nonbelievers both, would like to study the Bible with us, and both are coming over at different times on Thursday. Their names are Tanya and Lena, so please be praying for them!

Garrett also got in contact with a guy named Zhenya (there are a ton of guys with that name here) who had met with former interns, so we are studying with him on Friday. So make that Ira on Tuesday, Dennis and Masha on Wednesday, Tanya and Lena on Thursday, and Zhenya on Friday! Way to go God for answering our prayers!

(That sounds so goofy. Imagine a much more eloquent, meaningful, and reverant thanksgiving/doxology in replacement.)

Last night we got to eat chili, and it was so good. I can't wait for some good, homecooked, Texas food when we get back.

- - - - - - -

Even though today is our Sabbath, we woke up at 8:00 am to attend a Russian friend's final exam in an English class. Her name is Svyeta, and she translates for us in our second house church. She is really nice -- although not a baptized believer; we are hoping to study with her also -- and asked us if we wouldn't mind coming, so we went along. For their "finals" in the universities here, the Russians have "exams" all month long, and instead of written tests, research and study like crazy then defend their presentation/thesis/discertation to a panel of teachers, and are given a score of 1-5 (5=A, 4=B, etc.). So we got to sit in on her 3-hour English "final" -- which included only eight other girls! -- and it was actually quite enjoyable! Most of it was in English, and it was fascinating.

However, here is where my soon-to-be-infamous story, and the title of my post, comes in. Just so you know, I have to make abundantly clear that this story is absolutely disgusting, and probably not appropriate to share (as my parents scream, "Oh, no!"). I'll run it by the guys to see if they think it's okay, but it doesn't seem "wrong" or "sinfully inappropriate" -- just gross-out disgusting and not table-worthy talk. So! Like a movie review with a spoiler alert, I'll put one before and after the tale, and if you're not up for it, skip on past it. It involves bodily functions and Russian toilets, so beware.

* * * * * * * BEGIN GROSS-OUT ALERT * * * * * * *

Okay.

So while we're walking to the university building this morning, about halfway there I felt a certain sensation. I had gone to the bathroom the night before, but it was immediately evident that something I had eaten -- perhaps the chili the night before -- was not sitting well, and that I needed to find a bathroom as soon as possible.

Well, as you know, we had just left our place, and were on our way to listen to a Russian final exam that would likely last forever (and it ended up being 3 hours!). I had never been to a public restroom, so I just banked on the school having a toilet. When we got there, I ran in, but to pass through to the classrooms (and hopefully toilets!), you had to show a guard your student ID. Uh oh.

So I came back out, and then Svyeta came and found us almost right after that, so we got to go in there. Waddling a little bit, and in serious pain, and about to explode, I followed Svyeta to see where her classroom was (after she showed me the guys' bathroom), and then waddle-ran back down two flights of stairs to get to the bathroom.

Here is where I should share what I found there:

1. The smell was pretty rank. Not terrible, but bad.
2. Their "toilets" are all raised up on a platform -- as in, you have to step up to get onto the level, a raised platform, where you stand (before you do whatever it is you have to do).
3. There are no toilet seats -- the only thing is a hole in the ground, with a kind of oval-shaped "catcher" kind of thing around it. All just sitting there in the floor. So you step up onto the platform, shut the door, and then there's a hole in the ground.
4. Nothing around to hold on to, or, as I said, to sit on.
5. No -- I repeat, zero -- toilet paper.
6. Although I didn't remember at the time, the water for the entire city was out for about 18 hours from last night through this afternoon. Therefore, even though the toilets normally flush, I was going to find out that, due to the outage, nothing was going to be flushed down. Mm.

So, in dire pain, starting to sweat, crossing my legs, waddling, about to explode, feeling the clock ticking before I soil myself and am forced to walk out of the Russian university handcuffed and sans pants . . . I look around the corner, and -- praise God! -- paper towels on the wall by the sink! (Of course, something to dry your hands, but . . . somehow, no toilet paper. Is this some sort of oppressive Soviet hangover?)

So I start pulling and pulling and pulling the towels -- which proved to be surprisingly and reassuringly soft -- and got what I thought would be enough, and shoved them into my pants pocket.

I jumped back up into the stall, closed and locked the door, and prepared myself. I got some practice in Africa for what was coming, but unfortunately, the floor was so gross (and time was so little) that I didn't have time to take my pants off. Therefore, things were much more difficult. (I'll try to refrain from anything more graphic from here on out -- but no promises.)

Suffice it to say:

-My chili from the previous night, quite obviously, did not agree with my stomach.
-The ticking time bomb hit zero.
-The smell of the restroom shifted quickly from "bad" to "rank" to "agghh -- is there a sick and clueless American in here stinking up the place!?!?!?"
-With regard to the platform nature of the stalls, there were also several inches between the floor of the platform and the bottom of the stall door, meaning -- you guessed it -- just where I was squatting (holding for deal life onto the handle of the door) was the exact line of sight for anyone walking in. That is, anyone who wanted to see all of me, in all my glory, need only to glance through the bottom window offered by the gap between the platform and door. And multiple people definitely walked in. I am still awaiting arrest for illegal exposure and/or nasal sabotage. (Garrett and Heath were joking at the time up in the room that the headline would be, "American arrested with pants down!")

But, from here on out it was mostly good news. I finished, I felt much better, the hand towels worked great for toilet paper, and even though the toilet didn't flush, the water was out in the whole city, so I don't think it was all my fault (although I'm sure I was some sort of bad omen).

When I walked up to the room, Garrett and Heath remarked that I looked like I had just run a marathon. In a way, I think I did.

The moral, as always: thank sweet Jesus if you live in America and enjoy the glorious blessing of American toilets. No other country can hold a candle to our toilets. Trust me. Bats flying up at you, painful squatting, no toilet paper, falling into swimming maggots -- these are the things the rest of the world knows. I know clean, white porcelain, and clean, clear water, and comfortable seating, and toilet paper.

Be thankful, brothers and sisters. You never know when you're going to have to use an African cho or a Russian toilet, and if and when you do, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Praise God for American toilets.

* * * * * * * CONCLUDE GROSS-OUT ALERT * * * * * * *

Alright! Now that that's over with...

I've written way more than I was meaning to, so I'll hold all the rest of what I was planning for one of the next couple days. Lots of reflections and observations. But! Please keep praying for our time here, and especially for the nonbelievers we are studying with. Oleg, Masha, Dennis, Tanya, Lena, and Zhenya are their names. Thank you so much for your continued support and prayers! And I hope you will still talk to me and/or shake my hand after that story.

P.S. Just because, and in the spirit of loving lists, here's one if you were thinking about picking up a CD from the first half of 2007:

Top 10 Albums of 2007 (so far)
1. Wilco -- Sky Blue Sky
2. Modest Mouse -- We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
3. The Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible
4. Peter Bjorn and John -- Writer's Block
5. Richard Swift -- Dressed Up For the Letdown
6. Page France -- . . . and the Family Telephone
7. Menomena -- Friend and Foe
8. Bright Eyes -- Cassadaga
9. The Shins -- Wincing the Night Away
10. Derek Webb -- The Ringing Bell

Until next time! Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Russian Short Cuts

Hullo all. It's been pretty slow for the past week -- we've been going to all of our small groups, studying language, had endless house churches on Sunday, and braved swarms of mosquitoes out at Chernoshovka on Friday -- but our Bible studies have slowed down considerably. So: please be praying that we are able to meet more Russians, especially nonbelievers, and set up new Bible studies. It's not that we don't know enough people -- we know too many to count or remember names! -- and many have been nonbelievers, it's just been bad luck with people going out of town, or not calling us back, or being shy, or not feeling ready yet, or being swamped with final exams, etc. So please be praying. Our afternoons are generally open and free -- and this is not a good development! We would like to be investing our time and effort into sharing the gospel with nonbelievers, as well as teaching young Christians here about the life of faith and how to grow as a follower of Jesus.

With that in mind, here are more random assorted notes from the past few days:

-As Garrett remarked on his blog, just like Africa -- is it the rest of the world? -- Russians have a very different worldview than Americans regarding expectations. Americans expect things to work, and are surprised and upset when they don't. Russians expect things to not work, and are surprised and delighted when they do. How this affects one's attitude and reactions to unforeseeable events and unexpected crises is striking.

-Due largely to the constant walking required to get around in a place where most people don't own or drive cars, we realized the other day -- a full three weeks into our time here -- that Russians are surprisingly fit people! Apart from babushkas -- who understandably have rounded out over the years -- I hadn't seen even a semi-overweight person until Monday afternoon. I don't even know how to process what that means, but it's interesting.

-If there are two extremes of the quality of driving in different locations, Africa would be what we may call "chaos," and America would be what we may call "organized." Russia stands directly in the middle, in what I call "organized chaos."

-Russians put ungodly amounts of mayonnaise and/or sour cream on just about everything they eat, including soup, meat, and bread. I just about gag every time I see them do it.

-When Russians talk, they almost uniformly purse their lips just a little bit. An interesting phenomenon, to say the least.

-Even though foreign movies are dubbed in Russian here, we are still going to see one, and hopefully this weekend. Our wonderful all-purpose interpreter/cook/cultural-teacher, Inna, refuses to take most of the money we try to give her for payment, so we are planning instead to take her out to a meal and a movie. The movie will likely be Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer -- probably not very good, but visually enjoyable, and in no need of understanding the dialogue.

-In a cafe yesterday, there was what we can only assume is Russian MTV playing on TVs, and they were playing a music video by Wolfmother. That was great, but it quickly devolved into an endless string of American music videos involving half-naked women dancing around. Thank you, America, for spreading such wonderful culture to the rest of the world. How proud we were watching that.

-This year Garrett and I took a class called "The Story of Christian Spirituality," which explored all of the different authors and forms of Christian faith and spirituality that have manifested themselves throughout the centuries. No tradition or denomination was out of bounds, and we were especially excited about learning about the Eastern Orthodox Church in anticipation of coming to Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church is incredibly powerful here -- just like Catholic countries like Italy or Mexico, Russians are "born" into the Orthodox Church; this is regardless of their actual beliefs, of course, leading to the wonderful fact of millions of atheists who are baptized members of the Orthodox Church -- but in learning its history and about its wonderful founders (like Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa), we learned to appreciate the Orthodox Church's profound and wonderful contributions to Christianity and the life of faith. We remain excited about attending an Orthodox service our last Sunday here.

However -- and I don't have the time or stomach to delve too deeply into the matter -- we have been deeply disturbed to hear more about the Church here. The worst thing we have learned is that apparently the Church charges money for a host of its functions, all of which your normal Russian believer would think they must have to be "saved," and all of which no "official" church or clergyman has the right to claim authority over. For example, one of the reasons Vasya, a local leader, first came to the church was because he wanted to be baptized in the Orthodox Church but didn't have any money.

Allow me to repeat that again: a penitent and believing man wanted to be baptized, but he couldn't, because he didn't have the money to pay the Church to do it.

I don't have the words, let alone the patience or respect, to adequately describe what sort of nonsense, foolishness, heresy, and outright evil that is. Wholly unbelievable, and completely despicable. Maybe I'll say more later, but not now.

-In lighter news -- and to conclude -- the San Antonio Spurs won Game 3 of the NBA Finals! We are ONE GAME AWAY from SWEEPING the Cavs for our THIRD CHAMPIONSHIP IN FIVE YEARS and FOURTH IN NINE YEARS. Pull out LeBroom -- it's time for some sweepin'. Tim Duncan for Finals MVP, and for President.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully we'll have more later. Please continue to pray for us -- we are indebted to you for it. Until next time.