Ukraine has suffered a very harsh winter this year which has affected many of the roads to and from the various towns and villages that we frequent. It seems that a combination of poor engineering, heavy trucks and corrupt local mayors have combined into the perfect storm of pothole purgatory.
So, when Cyndee was invited to speak at a Saturday morning conference for budding young Christians who had signed up as leaders for upcoming summer camps, I wished her well. The event was to be held in Lebedyn, about 20 minutes past Shpola.
Cyndee had told me about the shocking road conditions I described earlier. It took her almost 2 hours to get to Shpola this week - more than twice as long as normal.
Of course, since it’s Saturday she kindly invited me to come along. I reluctantly agreed. What else was I going to do this Easter Saturday? Sleep in, think of Christ in the tomb, or worse in the midst of his descending into hell.
I always find Easter Saturday such an odd day. It would have been a lot more convenient for Christ to have been crucified on Saturday and then risen on Sunday. I wonder why he needed an extra 24 hours to sort things out with Satan. I’m not underestimating the effort involved, but it does make the Saturday rather awkward I think.
Should I stay in a mode of sadness and mourning from Friday’s horror or should I be in a state of excited anticipation because I already know the joy of Easter Sunday?
To create extra confusion for my troubled soul, in Eastern Orthodox countries such as Ukraine, Easter is observed a week later than in the West, so technically it wasn’t even Easter Saturday yet.
So with that in mind, Cyndee, Inna and I set off very early on a wet, dreary morning, with snow still on the ground and no evidence of Passion Week, anticipating the painful road ahead.
As Cyndee drove, she told me more about this conference and the organizer. Pastor Sasha is a dedicated and convicted man of God who, along with his wife and five children, left the comforts of Cherkassy a few years ago to pastor the village community of Lebedyn.
If you are a regular reader of this blog you may recall a couple of years ago, we visited a poor, young widow in Lebedyn whose neighbors were trying to take her children away for having a cold and damp home. They claimed that the conditions were unbearable for the children even though they were only there at the weekend. We knew the family because the children stay at Shpola Orphanage during the week but go home on the weekend.
She asked us to help. Some money for her heating bills? Cyndee contacted Pastor Sasha and he visited the widow and brought a team to repair her broken window - in the name of a Jesus. The home was immediately restored to “normal” living conditions and the neighbors backed off. We were most grateful for Pastor Sasha’s willingness to bring this joy to a simple widow in need.
Today, our journey started out fine, not too many bumps and the road leaving the outskirts of Cherkassy seemed fine to me. I wondered what all the fuss was about. Cyndee continued telling me about Pastor Sasha and his great work bringing the gospel to villages who had no churches.
Then, we reached the town of Smila.
Smila is about a 30-minute drive outside of Cherkassy on the road to Shpola. It’s basically a few roads but it is the main thoroughfare for commuters and truck drivers who need to go West. I had visited Smila a few years ago when we took a team of high schoolers to visit an orphanage there. This is an orphanage for adults 18-35 who are either physically or mentally disabled. I remember this being a very challenging visit. It took us out of our comfort zones entirely and many of the troubled young people I met that day popped back into my mind, increasing my anxiety.
So, back to the drive. You may have heard that there is a conflict in Eastern Ukraine involving the Russians, Crimea and politics. As we entered Smila, my first thought was that the conflict had arrived in this village. The road we were on looked like it had been bombed by an aggressive group of local militia in an effort to block all the oncoming military invasion.Our little VW Caddy started bouncing from pothole to pothole incessantly. We could only drive at 5 mph to avoid losing teeth. We meandered across both sides of the road, looking for the best path but often even the best was a poor substitute. Other drivers meandered the other way and passed us on both sides. It was chaos! I was starting to lose trust that we would get through this.But we persisted. Cyndee kept telling me it gets worse and I started to get irritated. Why would she tell me it gets worse? Just tell me it’s almost over so I can feel better about it - I prefer to feel that way. But she was being honest and I started to realize this hard truth.
After what felt like a week of buffeting and bouncing, holding onto the door handle, talking about Dramamine and feeling my back starting to pull and jar, we left the Smila area and suddenly the road was smooth again.
We went through a few more small towns and villages on the road with equally bad bumps which made me catch my breath and reminded me of Smila. At that point though, I felt that I knew what to expect and I knew the journey was nearing the end. My fear in Smila was replaced by my hope of the destination.
Driving through Shpola town, I felt closer to home. We knew that the kids were away this week, but there was comfort being in a familiar place. We even saw Pastor Sasha driving the other way. We assumed he was picking up a few last-minute stragglers from the bus stop. I was a little sad that we were not going to stop at Shpola Orphanage.
We arrived at the church in Lebedyn 20 minutes earlier than expected and passed their well down windmill. We could finally relax. I noticed that we were the only ones there. We waited in the car for a while and I closed my eyes. As the time came close to 10:00 am, it occurred to us that nothing was happening. Inna called Pastor Sasha and he realized that he had forgotten an important piece of information - the conference was at his sister church in Shpola! This happens in Ukraine. Sometimes the most important piece of information is often lost in the details. Or lost in translation.We turned around and headed back to Shpola. A little irritated but actively reminding ourselves that we must adapt to the culture, not the other way around. This is sometimes a difficult mindset to maintain. But we were heading back to Shpola. We arrived as the conference was starting, but Pastor Sasha came out to greet us and was very pleased we had arrived. In Ukraine, you are greeted at church with the word Vitayu - welcome! We even had time to enjoy a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.I am now sitting in the church and writing this story. Since we left very early and endured the journey without a break, we expected Cyndee to be asked to speak any moment. But we waited 2 hours before Cyndee was finally asked to speak. It’s Ukraine! Of course she was ready!
Of course the driving adventure was far from over. I took the wheel to test my driving acumen and to give Cyndee a break. Within a few minutes of driving, I hit a deep pothole too hard and too fast which blew out the front tire! Of course, I’ve changed tires before - but the spare was hidden away so it took some rough translation from the German manual to find it.Just at that moment, while I was struggling on the side of the road, a car coming the other way beeped and I turned around. I was a bit concerned, but it turned out to be 4 young Christian leaders who we knew from Cherkassy who were heading to the conference we just left! Again, we knew God reminded us that he was in control even when things do not go perfectly. Even on Easter Saturday. They changed the tire in a few minutes, and we carried on our way.
Christ has taken us through the suffering and pain of “Smila” with his willing sacrifice on Good Friday. But we have not reached home yet. Today, we are waiting to reach our destination as Christ is working in us to resurrect us, which we know He will - tomorrow when He rises.
Today it is still Easter Saturday. We are pretty tired after a much longer day than we expected, and in desperate need of a good chiropractor. We still have challenges ahead, things He wants us to do, to witness and to engage with our fellow travelers on this complex and often painful traumatic journey we call life.
Chris is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
Danny and I had the opportunity to go back to Kompas Park Youth Camp in Ukraine this summer, and it was an encouraging week for many reasons. Both of us have volunteered at camp multiple times over the years (this was Danny’s 12th year!), and we praise God that He’s allowed us to be a part of this ministry over the years. There is something truly relaxing and peacefully familiar about driving through Khreschatyk Village into Kompas Park.
As we reflected on this year’s Youth Camp, we both felt encouraged by how we saw God at work - through the volunteer leaders, campers, staff, and activities. This isn’t to say there weren’t challenging moments, as well. Lack of sleep, a lot of vigorous activities (especially for Danny), and the ever-present language barrier led to moments of frustration and the increased recognition that our bodies are getting older and less resilient every year! However, we left camp feeling encouraged and spiritually revitalized.
I was thrilled to return to Ukraine again this summer to serve at Hope Now’s Kid’s Camp. I wanted a break from my normal routine and to be with my Ukrainian friends again. I desired to be in a different culture and to see the children I’ve gotten to know over the years. I was excited about the normalcy of going to Ukraine again in the summer. But I wasn’t necessarily ready for conviction…
So often I fail at loving people the way Christ calls me to. I am quickly thrown off by my own selfish desires, focusing on my own agenda rather than the needs and wants of others. Truthfully, as Christ followers, we should be constantly in a state of loving others. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to dislike people who are different from us rather than love them. But Jesus told us to literally love our enemies (which is way easier in theory than in practice, but yet I am called to do this). He modeled what real love looks like; He is love. If I’m honest, I fail every day at loving people like Jesus did.
Today, this simple verb is treated with a degree of tension that is often quite palpable. We live in an age of self-identification where knowledge of your personal story and self-awareness are perceived as strong character traits. Modern themes about being your own self, saving for retirement and looking after Number 1 resonate throughout social media as though our ancestors never really knew what was important.
Hidden within the disturbing meme is the emerging truth of who we are becoming as humans while the fabric of society wears thin.