As I sit in my office this morning drinking my hot tea (I'll explain later) and listening to Rich Mullins (that's right, I'm old-school) my mind is 5,592 miles away.
A few weeks ago I was blessed with the opportunity to visit a small church, Island Christian Church, in Kherson. (For those of you unfamiliar with the area, Kherson is a small city in eastern Ukraine tied to the Black Sea by way of the Dnieper River.) The name "Island" comes from the fact that the church meets on a small island in the middle of the Dnieper River, but it's name symbolizes so much more.
Kherson is a colorless city that longs to be brilliant. Its history is evident and boldly proclaimed from its architecture to its monuments. Once a proud and important city in the Soviet Union's military (navy branch), the city is now a shell of its former life. As the shipping industry has dissolved in the area, so, it seems, has the city's hope. A town once thriving with activity on the River is now a very small port city with little water traffic.
The people of Kherson are an interesting mix of beautiful and hard. On many faces you can see lines of difficulty, frustration, and hard work, but mixed in with the firmness you see a beauty, grace, and confidence trying to shine through. Many wouldn't look us in the eye as we walked by. More than once I had strange looks and even glares as I smiled as much as possible. But every once in a while a brilliant smile or a twinkle in an eye would come my way. It is easy to see that Khersonians are trying to break through the grey, but they are struggling.
In the midst of this mixture of 1950's streets and buildings and 1980's clothing fashions, there is an identity crisis - people longing to find themselves. A city struggling to figure out who they are. They know who they were, and they are very proud of that. They should be. Kherson has a long history of loyalty, leadership, and influence, but today they are battling. Freedom, it seems, has not been too kind to this city. When communism fell in 1991 and "liberation" came, people were left trying to start over. Not knowing how to stand on their own, they wobbled and fell trying to take their first steps. Almost 20 years later they still haven't learned how to run.
Why all the commentary and set up? Because in the middle of uncertainty, insecurity, and self-evaluation sits the answer, a small church that knows exactly who they are. An Island of hope. An Island of peace. An Island of security. Island Christian Church.
With no more the 40 members, Island Christian Church (ICC) meets in an abandoned school classroom and unashamedly proclaims the Gospel. They smile. They laugh. They pray. They sing. They preach. They learn. They try. With over 300,000 people in Kherson, 30,000 of whom live on this small island, ICC has spent the last 6 years trying to bring the color of hope to this gloomy city. They have put on festivals and spoken at schools. They have ministered to the poor and needy and offered books and conversations to the community. They have been a light in a dark place, albeit only a small candle. But it's worth pointing out that even a small candle in a dark place provides light. In fact, this candle burns with a light that can't be extinguished.
The Island Church has faced a number of challenges. They have been forced to move from three previous locations before finding the abandoned kindergarten classroom they now call home. The owners of the property do not allow them to put up signs to advertise, so they try to tell as many people as possible. A few Easters ago they personally placed invitations on EVERY door on the Island - over 30,000 people were invited to their service. That Sunday only 5 visitors showed up. You see, one of their greatest challenges comes from the local churches. As the Island Church is not an "orthodox" church it is consider a sect. A cult of sorts.
And yet their light still burns.
So whey do I tell you all of this? Certainly it's to ask you to pray for the Island Church. Without question it's to solicit your interest and compassion for the city of Kherson. But those are secondary reasons.
I'm writing this to challenge you (and me) to live more like a member of Island Christian Church. I challenge you to live a life of hope in a hopeless world. I dare you to be as courageous with your faith in "free and prosper" America as the Khersonians are in a depressed and struggling Kherson. I ask you to consider how distracted you are with the stuff of life and how much more focused you should be on the stuff of heaven. And I beg you not to read these words with pity or sympathy for Kherson or the Island Church, but with conviction about how much YOU can learn from THEM.
I have committed to pray for the Island Church and the people of Kherson every day. While we were in the Ukraine we were asked a thousand times, "Would you like tea or coffee?" after meals. I've never cared for coffee, but tea works for me. To remind me to pray daily I'm committed to take 15 - 30 minutes every day to close the door to my office, grab a cup of hot tea, and pray - pray that I can be more like my brothers and sisters in Kherson. So far, so good. My times of tea and prayer have been rich and challenging, and I've been moved to tears more than once thinking about how God is moving both there, and here, in cities, and in hearts.