Today’s the day I head east for my trip to serve the displaced overseas and collect the stories of those I meet along the way. During the past few summers, I have spent much of my time leading mission trips and pilgrimages for church groups from all sorts of denominations and backgrounds.
Before the first trip I would lead, I would rummage around my room trying to find my small, black, Patagonia man-purse. I carried this bag with me at all times on my trips. My life resided in that bag — in more ways than one — and it stayed forever perched on my hip for the summer months.
Necessary paperwork and a few books would be jammed inside, but nestled in the flap pocket was (and is) a Russian pilgrimage icon. It was given to me and blessed by an Anglican priest in Moscow one summer when I took my own pilgrimage of sorts to Mother Russia.
In the midst of my busy travels and a weary soul, my distraught hand would brush up or lay absently upon the icon which was located perfectly on the outside of my bag, and my bag was located perfectly on my right hip. A quick jolt of God’s mercy would shoot from the hidden icon, through my tired hands, and to the fatigued places of my soul. It would strengthen me and remind me — You can do this. I am with you. Don’t forget. I am indeed good.
As I am about to board a plane to places I have never been, to be with people (for the majority of my trip) I don’t know, and called to do a work I am utterly incapable of doing, I place my hand of the icon and remember:
Oh yes, You are good.
Therefore, the story below is the story of how the icon became a symbol and a means of God’s goodness in my life. A reminder I will need each day of this journey.
I walked into the sanctuary alone. It was my third day in Moscow, and I was craving conversation. I had spent the last three days grunting, pointing, and google translating in order to connect to the Russian people I lived with and met on the streets. My sanity began to wane as moments of frustration and isolation piled up. I was extremely lonely.
I searched online for an Anglican prayer service. To my surprise, a church (one of three Anglican churches in Russia) was located just a few blocks away from Red Square, and they had Morning Prayer every day at 8 am. The small apartment I bunked at was about a 45 minute train ride from the center of the city, so I woke up early, and snuck out of the apartment before my hosts woke up.
St Andrews was quiet. There were two solitary figures in the front — one sitting on a stool facing the entryway, the other in a chair on the end of a row with an alter view. Thinking I was early, I sat on the opposite side of the center aisle, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible in a room of three meant for a few hundred. I wonder why I still fall into my anti-social tendencies at the most inopportune times.
Neither of the men said a word to me. I fidgeted uneasily in my chair feeling — knowing — my presence solicited wonder amongst the “crowd”. I avoided eye contact and examined the pale white walls with waves of spotted yellow creeping down from the vaulted ceilings of this old cathedral which once acted as the recording studio for Soviet Russia. The stories told within these dilapidated walls…
I fumbled through the prayers and the prayer book — a lost Bible Belt soul clueless on the Canterbury trail. When the service ended, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Should I talk to them? They didn’t seem interested when I arrived. Should I wait and see if they talk to me? Should I flee at the last Amen and avoid any awkward interactions? The latter is my default in these situations, so as the service came to a close, I began to gather my things, and make my way toward the exit. But, before I could bolt, the two interested gentlemen grabbed me by the arm and ushered me to the parsonage for tea.
Father Simon Stephens and Jim Connell had been friends for quite a while. Jim was in his 70s and a retired Navy officer. During his time of service, Jim spent much of his time in the Soviet Union. Because of this, when the USSR fell in 1991, he was appointed to command a joint military commission between the US and Russia that searched for information in the newly released Russian archives on MIAs during the Cold War. Since Russia was his home away from home, St Andrews became his church, and Father Simon, his priest.
After tea, I was on the verge of departing the men when Jim offered to show me around Moscow. Joyfully, I agreed. The English language was too sweet to resist. I desperately needed a companion — even if it was a 74 year old Navy man from Arlington, VA.
As we walked and we talked, we came across statues of Russian musicians and artists. Jim preceded to tell me their stories and why these particular statues are important to the Russian imagination. We walked to Tverskaya Street, the main thoroughfare in Moscow, where a statue of the founder of Russia, Yuri Dolgoruky, stood. He spoke confidently and passionately about the history of his surrogate homeland. I sort of wish I recorded Jim’s words.
Next, we wandered into a nearby orthodox church. The church was small; it was not very deep, but the ceiling rose and seemed to extend much longer in length than the width. At the highest point, there was a painting of a white dove, wings extended in mid-flight, as if the Spirit was in descent to bless this holy place.
The priest was in the middle of his homily. We stood off in the back and watched. Jim translated the message for me – a crystal clear exhortation for the church to live out the gospel of Christ. As the priest spoke, the people listened in fervent, participatory worship. Icon after icon lined the beautiful walls of the church. Men and women alike, men in their work clothes, women with scarves covering their heads in reverence, walked up to each icon, crossed themselves, bowed and kissed the plexi-glass protecting the Window to God, and quietly prayed to the God who saves. As the service came to a close, I followed Jim’s lead and kissed the ring of the priest as he bore the cross of Christ in his hands.
We spent a few more days together – listening to a pianist and violinist at the Moscow Conservatory, and experiencing the oldest one ring circus in Moscow (He went twice that week. He loved the circus). After my five days in Moscow, I was off to the home of Raskolnikov and the Hermitage – St. Petersburg. We shook hands, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.
“A strange period began for Raskolnikov: it was as though a fog had fallen upon him and wrapped him in a dreary solitude from which there was no escape.”
I walked in weary lonesome circles amongst thousands of people. It was noon on my last day in Petersburg, and I was getting hungry. I had met no “Jim” during my four days in Peter the Great’s city. My hostel was empty, and those at the local English speaking church I attended said a passing hello and congregated and communed only with their own. The Raskolnikov fog enveloped me in a burdensome darkness (A previous reflection about the darkness I experienced in Russia).
This last day was supposed to be a culmination of how the Russian culture transformed my views on life and God; this trip to Russia was supposed to be a measure of grace – the measure of grace – I needed to affirm the work of God in my life. Yet, as I wandered the city, I desperately tried to enter simple restaurant after restaurant to satisfy my hunger, but I did so to no avail. My mechanical hand grabbed hold of door knobs and door handles, only to be repulsed by the cold chill of the steel and metal. Sickened, I released my grip, and continued aimlessly on the circuitous path around the Church of the Spilled Blood and Nevsky Prospekt.
After an hour and half of this diseased existential crisis, I was able to eat, and make my way to the last place of interest on my trip – the Dostoevsky Museum (fitting). Yet, as I descended down the stairs of the restaurant, I was swept up in the same sickness from before. In a trance, I slowly began to walk the opposite direction of the museum on the Nevsky Prospekt…
As I unconsciously passed by the coffee shop the Russian poet Pushkin frequented, a familiar orange hat floated above the crowd of people on this busy street. I stopped. Why do I know this hat? I tried to shake off the haze which cloaked my rational thoughts and voluntary movements. I squinted; I watched; I tried to focus as the hat drew closer and closer. The bright orange hat began to pierce through the fog of the darkness which consumed me. As its radiance pushed aside the mist of sorrow, I was overcome with the realization that Jim Connell was walking toward me! 450 miles from where we originally met, I see the one and only person I know in Russia!
My heart began to race. What do I do? Do I let my depression dictate my decisions and keep destroying my soul in isolation? Almost instantly, before I am able to decide, he is parallel to me, mere feet away. Uncontrollably, with no regards to the masses which encircle us, I let my emotions decide for me. I shoot my hand to the sky and wave ecstatically, and I shout with a quiver in my voice, “Jim! Jim! It’s me, Justin! Jim!” As he passes by, he hears my cries and turns his head toward my direction. His eyes meet mine; his face lights up and matches the bright warm color of his hat. We embrace and marvel at the chance of our meeting.
Jim introduces me to his Russian wife, Irena. He insists I spend the day with them. I said, “Anything to be in the light, Jim.”
We go to the hotel the military used to put him up in. They buy me a cappuccino, and we listen to the harp player who plucks her beautiful instrument every day at 2:00 pm. Afterward, they take me to the Dostoevsky Museum. At the museum Irena told me about her journey to faith — about how Dostoevsky and Tolstoy brought her out of the darkness of her communist Atheism and into the light of the Orthodox Church. I always suspected certain literature had the transformative power of the Spirit. Jim just sits in the corner and watches us. He shakes his head, “I can’t believe I saw you again, Justin”, as a smile stretches from ear to ear.
Grace is inherent in our brokenness. God himself is in the brokenness, not solely a spectator removed from the events of our sorrow and shame placing bets with the angels on whether or not we serve him through it all. If this presupposition is true, then our response to it should be an overflow of joy in all situations of our lives and the lives of others because what is seen through them is God himself and the hints of his glory. It is an attempt to frame the reality of the world around the truth of God as the one who redeems and is redeeming all things to himself – even the broken things.
God used Jim to remind me of his inherent goodness – that his inherent goodness trumps the reality of my brokenness. I oftentimes fail to remember this simple truth as the darkness shrouds the light which presses constantly against the unrelenting nature of sin and death.
But, the image of Jim and his orange hat remains. It tells the story of how God redeems, and he continues to redeem, and he will never cease to reveal his goodness to those who seek it.