07 February 2019

Deanery Visit to Magadan

  In the first days of February, my duties as Area Dean of the Far East took me to Magadan and Sokol, a region I last visited in 2016. You can read about that trip here. In the two years since I have the impression that while the economic situation in the city might have improved slightly, in general the area constantly feels the effects of a tragic history, isolation, and continuing emmigration.
 The flight from Moscow to Magadan in northeast Russia takes eight hours; if going so far it might be desirable to stay for longer. During my visit I did not have as much time to explore the area as I might have liked, but meetings with key local leaders were at the center of my attention. The situation in the congregation in Magadan has occupied the thoughts and prayers many of us connected with the deanery lately; even before this visit it was relatively clear that we would be moving toward closing the congregation.
  St. Marks has run into various disappointments throughout the years in regards to spiritual leadership. At present the Magadan congregation is served by lay preacher Andrey Ozols; however during my visit I went to see Andrey at the hospital after a minor stroke. His age and health concerns, unfortunately, make it unreasonable to count on his being able to lead the dwindling congregation forward. Faith is very important for those few people who are left (picture, right), but it seems that it might be in their best interests if they could find a more vital congregation, even if it is of a different denomination.

In Sokol (below) the congregation is relatively vibrant for a a house church - approximately 10 people meet weekly in lay leader Elena Romanova's apartment. Here, too, however, but it is does not seem wise to invest the significant funds and time needed to develop the congregation when Elena does not plan on staying in the area for the long term and there are no other clear leaders on the horizon.

These conversations are not easy to have, but we held them in the context of thankfulness for what the Lord has given and that God brings us through death and in to a new and different kind of life. In the coming months I will continue to work with the people in the region to try to see that they find alternative sources of spiritual care and also to sell the Magadan congregations apartment and invest those funds in other parts of the deanery as the Lord and common sense direct us.

Just outside of Magadan from the air.

Clinical Pastoral Care in Russia

Pastoral care and Counseling is one of the areas to which our church has been dedicating special attention throughout the years. Russia and its neighbors have lived through upheals and historical shifts that have affected generation after generation. This fact has led to many people carrying trauma in their lives, with no real tools with which to move toward healing. Out of desperation, some turn to the church for help; experience has taught us that lives can be changed if we are prepared with the skills we need in order to respond appropriately to cries of help.

With that in mind starting in 2017 an experiment program was initiated in order to see whether or not the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) approach that is the standard for many churches doing pastoral training in the West  could prove fruitful here. This is the first time the methods of CPE have been attempted on Russian soil. While the “clinical” aspect of CPE was not as formal as it would be in America or Germany – after all, it is next to impossible to find institutions where our people would allowed to act as chaplains – in other aspects we were able to replicate the growth in knowledge, skills and self-understanding that is necessary for quality “care of souls” (using the literal translation from the Russian.) Having completed the first cycle of training seminars with 8 graduates of the program, I can say I could hardly be more pleased with our progress.

While students evaluations in Russia tend to avoid specifics, I saw a pattern of positive results in what they wrote: “I learned how to listen;” “I saw how important it was to avoid giving direct advice and to instead accompany the care-seeker as he/she finds his own solutions;” “I now realize that... empathy is at the center of pastoral care.” “My job as a pastoral care giver is to be a sojourner along the path of life that the Lord has given us.”

For some of the participants the seminar was transforming on a personal and professional level: “I understood that pastoral care is interesting to me, is a gift God has given to me;” “Before this seminar I saw pastoral care from a different perspective and what I learned is really valuable and important;” This... was a turning point in my understanding of the means and methods of pastoral ministry;” “I thought about...aspects of my life that I hadn't considered before;” after this seminar “I feel healthier spiritually and physically. I've been sleeping like I haven't slept since I was a child. Many thanks once again for accompanying me on the way, for caring about the healing of my soul.”

I look forward to continue to work with our German friends and the Russian head of the pastoral care committee, Pastor Oleg Shtulberg, as we plan next steps in the further development of this critical area of ministry.

15 April 2017

Holy Week in Khakasia

"What do we need to do?"
  This is the question I run into very frequently in all sort of areas of congregational life...but none more so than in the area of worship and ritual. I'm not sure how much of it has to do with the "hardening" of various norms that took place during the church's underground (and later semi-official) existence in the Soviet era and how much of it has to do with the "folk Orthodoxy" shared by many of our neighbors here, a piety that is very rule-based (while at the same time, ironically, not usually very serious about following all of the rules). In any case people are concerned that they do the "right thing"... ad are usually pretty sure that the solution be in the singular. 
  For that reason there is a certain barrier to working on renewing worship here. Church leaders recently dealt with the issue at a seminar for extension students in Novosaratovka, while during Holy Week I had the opportunity to work on this issue "on the ground" as I visited south central Siberia. 
With confirmands in Bograd
Palm Sunday in Kuragino

 The region's four viable congregations and other preaching points are served by three dedicated, competent lay ministers who continually seek out ways to improve their ministry skills and to gain knowledge that will help them fulfill their responsibilities. Together with them and Area Dean Vladimir Vinogradov, we decided that it would be good if I could visit them in order to provide them with some additional pastoral support and to introduce them to some of the options for enhancing liturgical worship during this special time of the year. 
  Maybe it's their Montana-like landscapes, maybe it's the people's warmth, but I always feel a bit like I'm coming home when I visit Khakasia. I was privileged to interact with them in an intense week of worship services, theological discussions, Bible study and planning for the future. The preachers, who now have mastered the basics of leading worship, were surprised and excited to hear about the ways our services can be enhanced or altered  on Lenten holy days. They saw and their congregations saw, as I had hoped, that a renewed experience of worship can help us feel closer to the events that took place in Christ's life and bring us deeper into our sense of what that all has to do with our lives.
  I hope that after this seminar lay leaders can feel more confident so that we might dream together of asking not "what do we need to do?" but "what might we be able to do?" 
Zoya Heintse, the region's coordiator, leading worship.

13 April 2017

A Retreat in the Russian Forest

  While it certainly wasn't the taiga, the vast forests of more isolated portions of Siberia, the tur baza (more or less like a camp) called “Russian Forest” still made for a good spot for folks from the Omsk region to get away from the city and its cares and to come together to think and pray about how God is calling them to develop.
  If you read this blog regularly you will know that last year Pastor Len Dale (from the Central States Synod) and I made a trip to a number of sites in order to lead short seminars on strategic congregational development. Dean Vladimir Vinogradov liked that seminar enough that he asked that I come back to his region this year for follow-up.

  In mid-March, then, 12 congregational leaders from 5 congregations (Beryovovka, Zvonarev Kut, Kazanka, Azovo and Omsk) in addition to myself and Dean Vinogradov got together for a weekend retreat. Dean Vinogradov led morning and evening prayer based on the Biblical theme of the weekend – Mt. 9.38 – while I led the lessons related to analysis of the congregation's situation, it's gifts and it's potential call as the people of God in that place. In addition to study and application of the book of Acts, we also covered materials that are applicable to almost any organization regarding life-cycles, focus and goal-setting. The mix of the practical and theoretical, of the human and divine elements of the church, brought a lot of life to our discussions, work and plans.
  I'm especially pleased with that result given that it is the first time I've led this topic on my own. We were hindered a bit by a lack of time such that we did less concrete ministry planning than I had hoped. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that these topics are totally new for most people here, and so it may be unrealistic to expect to move so quickly.
  Because we saw the need for continued work in this area Dean Vinogradov and I agreed that it will be important to find good ways to follow up with those who attended. One option would be to plan a similar seminar (though introducing different tools and with the attempt to go deeper) for next year. A second option would be to try to gathered representatives of larger congregations together insofar as they face a common set of challenges and have significantly more opportunities than congregations with fewer human resources. Another option would be consultation, where someone would come in to help congregations analyze their ministries and mission opportunities. We will see where God leads us, as through the “Equipping for Service” program we strive to continue to increase the capacity of the Russian church to spread Christ's love.

Area Dean Vladimir Vinogradov

10 April 2017

Reformation and Partnership

Rev. Dr. Joseph Kang
  From my first year in Russia I've been blessed by the presence of mission workers from the Presbyterian Church (USA) here. THE PCUSA has a very interesting vision of mission here; instead of trying to establish congregations of their own denomination, they put their efforts into helping those churches that have historical roots in the country. Most of their contacts have been with the Baptist and Orthodox churches, but they've supported the Lutheran church in significant ways, too. Two of those that have been most significant in my ministry - Joseph Kang's teaching of Biblical subjects at the Theological Seminary in Novosaratovka, and Ellen Smith's work partnering congregations.
  Ellen has been a good friend and colleague throughout the years, and together with her husband Al they have been really good people with whom to reflect on life and ministry here. We've had ideas about how to actually work together in the past, but only this year did it gain concrete form....and in two different ways within one week. More about the second of those in another post, but the first is related to my latest trip to the Northern Caucasus deanery near the end of March.
  Dean Sergey Maramzin and I had spoken about the continued need of folks in his deanery to gain a sense of what the Lutheran branch of the Christian family is and what it might mean for us to build up the church in this region. With that general idea in mind, we developed a couple of goals for a seminar through the "Equipping for Service" project: 1. To help congregational leaders become “local experts” on Luther and the events of the Reformation in this important anniversary year. 2. To make a first attempt to use the new deanery retreat center in Makhovsevskaya (Krasnodary Krai, not far from Maikop, Adygeya) as a place for educational events Sergey has been working very hard to construct (much with his own hands) a building that could be used for deanery-wide events or simply for individuals looking for a place of spiritual restoration. Having the seminar planned pushed Sergey to make the place livable by the date we had set, and he accomplished that, even if there is still work to be done.
Dean Maramzin, Pastor Pavel
Tkachenko and Ellen Smith
in the church in Novorossisk
  While we were planning, we learned that Bishop Dietrich Brauer had suggested to Ellen that it would be helpful if she try to establish partnerships for our churches, too, starting with the Northern Caucasus region. Ellen, Sergey and I decided that we could combine these things; she and I flew down, then, to visit two congregations (Krasnodar, Novorossisk) and to meet regional leaders at a day-long seminar.
  12 people (including the 3 pastors) from 4 different locations were in attendance; Dean Maramzin kept the number deliberately relatively low insofar as this first use of the retreat center was an experiment; more will get invitations in the future. As it is, though, we were together for most of a good day. While it wasn't too much time (particularly because some of us had to travel great distances - 5+ hours – to get home and the road conditions were poor), it was of high quality - we had fellowship, a meal, conversation, a short sermon on the occasion of the Annunciation (it was March 25, after all), and a basic course on Luther's life and the Reformation. Besides getting to know one another better, the participants also had a good chance to meet Ellen and to hear from her how PC(USA) envisions partnership.

  Sergey, Ellen and I, as we reflected on the weekend, were filled with hope for the potential of what God might do with us and the congregations with which we are in contact. The deanery retreat center has now been "tested" and Sergey mentioned afterwards that now he feels more comfortable using the space for other (education and not-strictly-educational) activities. This was a very important achievement, in my mind, and Dean Maramzin is to be praised for his hard work to make a place for retreat for the church. It is still certainly a work in progress and there is much potential to do more, but even now it is quite usable, with sleeping places (up to 7), seating (for more than twice more than that), a place to prepare food, wash, and a place for outdoor activities. Ellen was also able to get an impression of congregational members in the region and has already started praying for and sharing potential partnerships... and is already recruiting staff for the region's plans to do a day-camp this summer... For my part I heard from seminar participants that they appreciated the way Reformation-area materials were presented in a way that was understandable and accessible, that it helped them bring order to their scattered thoughts on the subject.

  Overall we can see that God has provided for the people of this region and, after a long period of stagnation, how something new is happening there. It is a blessing to be a part of it. 

30 March 2017

Tea with Milk, Paul with Luther, Bashkortostan with Sisters and Brothers

 It is hard for me to say which part of my ministry I enjoy more - returning to congregations where I have already been (which gives me the chance to see how God has been working there since my last visit) or coming to a place for the first time. The latter not only gives me the chance to meet new brothers and sisters in faith but, almost without exception, teaches me something new about the country where I am serving. This is particularlly true, I've found, when visiting regions of the country with significant regional ethnic and/or religious differences. This was the case when I visited Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, a majority-Muslim region in the eastern part of European Russia. 

In just a few days there one could feel some differences - in the way people looked, in the architecture and pace of life, in the tea they drank (everyone had it with milk)... in short, Ufa showed me that this huge country can continue to surprise me.
  The Lutheran congregation in Ufa, however, fit in to a pattern I have seen in many places around the country - a strong lay woman, inspired by her faith and driven by a God-given strong will, accomplishes the miraculous.  In this case her name is Elvira; she (not single handedly, of course, but certainly as the leader of the charge) was able to get the local government to return the congregation's historical building. 
The Church Building Before Restoration
Not only that, she is able to find sponsors - in this case many of them local - to restore the "kirche," and today it is a small but beautiful church snuggled in Ufa's historical center. But the story doesn't stop there. Elvira was able to find a way to dismantle the warehouses that had been built in Soviet times on former church property and have built in their place a new congregational center. As sometimes is the case here, while all of these practical concerns have been on the front burner, congregational life as such has been given less of a priority. A clear witness to this fact - Sunday worship in which large parts of the liturgy are translated from German into Russian; hardly a satisfactory worship experience for anyone new, and certainly unnecessary when there there are no exclusively German speaking people in the congregation. 
  I learned all of this during the past month, after long discussions with congregational leaders finally lead to my first seminar in the region. The idea began to take shape in conversation with an extension student from Ufa at the Theological Seminary and started to take on concrete form after speaking with the congregation's at the pastors' gathering in Crimea in September 2016. We agreed then that the February Men's Day holiday weekend would be the best time, and we were not mistaken - free days without many obligations led to us being able to attract a good-sized group of participants.

  Pastor Igor Zhuravlev joined me for this seminar to help me teach on " Paul and Luther," insofar as I have wanted for quite some time to give him the opportunity to teach and to put to use the Master's degree in theology that he earned at the Christian university in St. Petersburg. Originally I had thought that it would be the two of us teaching, but in the end Anton Tikhomirov joined us to take part in two days of teaching. While these changes led to greater cost for transport, this seminar's overall expenses were kept low thanks to local contributions (which covered room, board, and local transport).  

Dr. Anton Tikhomirov giving a lecture on the early Luther
in the conference room of the congregational center.
  Our time in Ufa was broken up into a number of segments – teaching for members from the Bashkortastan and Orenburg deaneries, a public theological conference on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a youth group meeting (the first time I've led youth group for many years; I chose the theme “Be yourself, be free”) and worship.

Igor Zhuravlev reading a paper ("Preaching Christ in the Post-modern Age")
at the theological conference in the restored church building. 
  The seminar was well attended, with 18-23 participants engaged at various moments. The conference (with speakers arranged by the local congregation in particular through ecumenical and scholarly contacts) had seven speakers and around 30 participants. 
  The wonderful facilities and hospitality in Ufa created a very positive environment for such seminars. There seemed to be a hunger there to expand and deepen congregational life and, while the topic was challenging for those who are not used to dealing with theology, I found that the participants were  good, engaged listeners. I pray that as they look forward to their next steps I can help play a positive role in their journey of discipleship. 

28 March 2017

Men's Ministry in Russia

  My years in Russia have taught me that some of my pre-conceived notions about mission and ministry are misguided...or, at least, that they are not completely applicable to this context. One of those examples is "men's ministry." In the past I had a notion that this was a way for men to assert their authority in the church and in their families. This looked a lot like encouraging patriarchy, certainly not something in which I would want the church to be engaged. 
  Here, however, in addition to there being a different set of issues around gender and roles than in the West, there is is the problem of an almost total absence of men in many congregations. "Men's ministry," as I see it being developed here in the Omsk region of Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia and Far East, is not about re-asserting men's power, but is instead an attempt to help men see that there is a place for them in the church and to give them the opportunity to be surprised both by their potential usefulness and by the support which they didn't even acknowledge that they needed. 
  For that reason I've been hoping to find a way through the "Equipping for Service" program to support an idea I heard at the last synod assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in European Russia. There my successor as pastor of St. Nikolai Lutheran in Novgorod, Igor Zhuravlev, mentioned the lack of men's ministry (despite a thriving women's ministry) at the last ELCER synod. I suggested to him and then to the folks in ELCUSFE that he and I travel to Omsk, where they've been doing such work for a few years. He agreed, and our hope was to go a see a model that we might use to replicate (with certain modifications) in European Russia. 
  We arrived on Friday morning and left Omsk for the  “Admiral Makarov” camp in the early evening. One of the most impressive things about the seminar was the way different types of activities were planned and balanced. We started with bowling and a meal Friday, while on Saturday we had activities that were more about listening (morning prayer, Bible study) or about talking (stereotypes about men, a survey of questions about our live's most significant moments), were more focus was on the physical (winter soccer and capture the flag) or the mental (chess with living figures). 

  Sunday morning was used for morning worship, another activity reflecting on mens' roles, and final reflections before leaving back for Omsk around noon.  By the end of the weekend the seminar's 13 participants had had the opportunity to reflect, be encouraged, experience renewal, and come away with a new sense of brotherhood. 
  If the original goal of this seminar was to help Igor and myself gain confidence and motivation to run a seminar in ELCER, that goal was met. While it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of the unique character of the gathered group (Omsk has a good team of leaders that know one another well) we came away from the seminar with the realization that, because this is a need that is not currently being met, it actually might not be as challenging as we thought to hold a similar activity. Igor and I felt inspired to make further plans, and we hope to test out our ideas at the first men's seminar for the Northwest Russian deanery in May. Dean Vinogradov also saw the potential to build on what has already been accomplished, and he and I are making plans for a church-wide (including participants from other parts of the former Soviet Union) coordinators' seminar in September. 

26 December 2016

Christmas - Not Yet Christmas

As I prepared to lead Bible studies and preach this past Advent season, the Scripture passages I was studying drew my attention to a particular image, one I had not paid much attention to before – the process of giving birth, of labor pains. Biblical authors in both Testaments used this dramatic metaphor to underline the struggle that occurs while God's Reign is breaking in. In this image the physical and spiritual are closely tied together - God working in and through human vulnerability and giving strength to bring new life.

Having been present for the birth of Matvey, Martin and Lukas, I know that it can be difficult to see someone you love hurting, especially when you feel mostly powerless to do anything about it. You know that this is the way it should be and you have reason to hope that in the end everything will turn out alright. But in the meantime it's not easy to witness suffering...and you wonder what it must be like for those directly impacted by the pain.

As I write this on the evening of Christmas Day, I am once again feeling pain for those whom I care about. While I was not personally acquainted with the victims of yesterday's plane crash, this loss is particularly disheartening. The Alexandrov Ensemble (one of two groups to use the title “Red Army
 Choir”) represented the Russian musical tradition both at home and abroad; it's numbers were cut by more than 1/3 in a blink of an eye. And on that plane to Syria was Dr. Elizaveta Glinka, “Dr. Liza” to everyone here. She was an American citizen as well as a Russian citizen, and I hope that with her death more will be informed about her life. Dr. Liza felt like an ally...or, to be more precise, she made you feel like you wanted her to consider you her ally. She was incredibly dedicated to bringing medical care to those who needed it desperately; she started in the field of palliative medicine (doing much in the 2000s to, for the first time, bring hospice care to people's attention) and then, over the past few years, concentrated on those in need in the war zones of eastern Ukraine (“Donbas”) and Syria. She was one of literally two or three people in the country who have fought for human rights successfully and without compromise in a way that draws public attention on a national scale, including the attention of the country's leaders. Just a few weeks ago she received a government award for her work and in her speech used the opportunity to acknowledge that it is risky work, but ultimately we have no other real choice than to believe that the power of good will overcome.

Here in Russia, where the majority of the country's Christians follow the Gregorian calendar, many people are still waiting for Christmas. Even if Christmas Day is behind us, though, to one degree or another we are still all living in the midst of labor pains. The church's tradition reflects this – marking the massacre of the innocents just days after Christ's birth. The hard truth of this and every season is that a full-throated celebration of Christmas is almost impossible while the labor pains continue. Our faith calls us to trust that new life will come. In the meantime, though, our call is not only to witness the suffering, but to do all in our power to ease it, whether that be by singing as a member of a choir, healing and advocating as a doctor / human rights advocate, or in whatever way God has called each of us to be instruments of the Kingdom. Every day that we are given.

21 November 2016

Equipping for Service in Perm

The art museum has a large collection
of wooden carvings of Christ, all set
during his trial. I've never seen anything like
this anywhere else in an Eastern Orthodox
   It promised to be a long week.

   When Len and I went to St. Mary's Lutheran in Perm on the first morning of our four day seminar, we found that the pastor (Area Dean David Rerich) had come to the morning session. As had Lilia, a faithful member of the church council. That was all. A large amount of the material we had planned to use would work most effectively only if there were at least four people in the group. I was wondering if we would have to move to “plan B,” which was my doing Bible study lessons around the theme of “hope.” While I would not have been opposed to doing this, I really hoped that the congregations could take full advantage of having the unique opportunity to hear from Len – after all, God willing they'll be able to hear from me some other time!
   The first meeting, though, was not indicative of the rest of the week. After the slow start, by the evening session planned on that first day attendance had increased, and that meant as the week went on we had the chance to cover a full (or at least reasonably full) “tool box” of activities that the congregation could use as part of a concerted effort to work on transformation. Having adequate time allowed us to present more than just a snippet of the process (in contrast to other places on our trip), but instead to show the material according to its natural flow  – starting with the Bible and then moving from there to speak in a wider sense about the ways in which it is possible to live out the Great Commission...or, rather, in the ways this congregation can live out the Lord's call to mission in their particular place. 
   Their place, as it turns out, is really quite wonderful. I was really surprised at how much I
enjoyed the city itself - its history, culture, architecture, and natural surroundings - and congregational members were happy to show us around. They felt blessed to live there and that God has provided them with a historic church building in the city center; they've responded by taking great care of the building and have begun to use it for concerts as well as worship. They also have what is one of the only a few parsonages to have survived the Soviet era. They have room there for the pastor's family to live as well as other space that can be used for various purposes – including, this time, for housing me and Len. They have an active church council and a group of lay leaders outside of the council, some of whom are young and many of whom are well-educated. They've also benefited by having stable leadership; while Pastor Rerich (far left in the picture above) is moving toward retirement (not without some bumps along the way for him and for the congregation) having a reliable leader throughout the years has allowed the congregation to weather the storms that it has faced. 

  Stability, though, is not an eternal or absolute value. Change is also necessary, ,and after our visit to Perm I feel confident that God brought Len and me to the right place at the right time, “equipping for service” in that place for the work God has for them as they move in to the future. I feel privileged that I'll have the opportunity to follow up with them to see how their plans (including living in their draft mission statement and trying new ministries in December and January) have worked, whether they be successful or “excellent failures” (i.e., those failures from which we take something useful for our future development). 

14 November 2016

Transsib |trænz-SÍB| verb [intransitive]

   The title of this entry includes a word that, of course, exists in no other dictionary than the one in my mind. But some words virtually demand to be brought into existence. Riding through northern Asia on the train is certainly a unique mode of travel, and after celebrating its centennial recently I think that the Trans-Siberian Railroad deserves its own verb. 
   Len Dale and I were not on a leisure trip, of course – if  we were we would have found a train that left Khabarovsk at a reasonable hour and whose wagons would have been new and modern. As it was, however, for us the scheduling of congregational events held priority and that meant getting on the train after midnight and putting up with an antiquated system of heating the passenger cars that slowly roasted us over the next few days and nights. 
   I had ridden significant portions of the Trans-Siberian before, mostly in my time in service as a pastor and acting dean based in Novosibirsk. In western and central Siberia it can seem like the birch forests and fields of cereal grains go by at 50 mph for  whole days at a time. There was some birch in the east, too, but also a greater variety of hills, steppe, thick coniferous and mixed forests, rivers and streams. On this trip stops between Khabarovsk and Chita (our next destination) were even less frequent than in other places of the “magistral” – about twice in 24 hours there was a stop of 20 minutes or more, with 1-2 minute stops every four hours or so. I knew that this area (“Zabaikalsky krain” and the “Amurskaya oblast”) was among some of the least densely populated areas along the Trans-Siberian, and we rode through abandoned villages with some frequency. At the same time, there were enough people living there that I thought of what life must be like in rural Siberia, and it made me miss home. 

   As we approached Chita and saw the spreading urban development, I couldn't help thinking about what it is like coming in to Billings – a place that is not very large in terms of its population, but important insofar as it is the biggest town for many miles around. Chita, though, is bigger, older, and draws in people (for shopping, trade, and work) from an entire time zone. As with Magadan, Chita has a reputation in Russia as a city where the people (as the joke goes) have been in prison, are in prison, or are planning to go to prison in the near future. Our experience there, however, was wholly positive; we stayed in the charming older part of the city which, like with almost all Russia cities, has a mix of new buildings, restored older buildings, and buildings that are still occupied though they should be condemned for safety's sake. 

The oldest building in Chita, now a museum, formerly a
church used by the Decemberists who were exiled to Siberia
   We spent three days with the tightly-knit, multi-generational Lutheran congregation there, made up of two or three extended families and explored with them how God might be calling them to develop their ministries. We introduced ourselves and our work there by reading the story of Paul's meeting with Christ in Acts 9, using the very simple method of asking three questions about a text: “What is God doing here?” “What are the people of God doing here?” “How does this apply to us?” These discussions helped us get a sense of what was important to them, which was, most of all, raising their kids (which are many!) in the faith. One of the men there, Viktor, shared how he taught his kids to pray in part because his parents never taught them, and he knows his own life has been enriched thanks to prayer. Together with them we realized that God had put among them a desire to grow in discipleship and Christian education at all levels.
  That is a long-term goal; Len and I were able to meet some of their immediate needs by leading worship with Holy Communion, baptizing a newborn, and preaching at a mid-week worship service arranged to coincide with our visit. Congregation members provided hints that their worship life has suffered recently, mostly due to a lack of a clear leader in spiritual questions. Dean Manfred Brockmann in Vladivostok has made efforts throughout the years to support the congregation by sending interns there, but one of their clear needs is to develop their own lay leaders; Chita is not moving anywhere closer to any other city and the nearest full-time pastor is still two time zones away (in either direction.) I hope that I was able to provide them with the resources they need in order to take steps toward resolving this issue for themselves. We left the city knowing that there is much more to do there and with prayers that they can gain strength both through developing internal resources and by finding new ways to relate to those outside. 

   Then Len and I hoped on the train once again, continuing our westward journey another day to Irkutsk, where Pastor Thomas Graf Grote met us VERY early at the train station. He was our kind guide around the area for the day we were there, taking us to the amazing Lake Baikal – where our walk turned rather meditative as we stopped trying to shout over the wind – and to the impressive museum of wooden architecture, Tal'tsy.

   As we drove around the area and as we conversed with Thomas in his home, he spoke to us about his ministry. This helped prepare us for meeting congregational leaders in Shelekhov, an Irkutsk suburb, late that evening. We began only at 8 pm, since a number of key people were busy until that time either at work or at their (para-church) ministry with developmentally challenged children. (This ministry, together with the other aspects of Pastor Thomas' story, are worth a separate blog post some time...)
 The group of congregational leaders gathered that evening once again brought us hope – they were clearly people who cared deeply about their faith and were open and energetic enough to think creatively about the ways the church might develop. Len spoke with them about congregational life cycles and re-assured them with words he repeated frequently throughout our travels; they sound something like this when translated back into English from the Russian - “God gives you everything you need for mission in this time and this place.” Insofar as the congregation anticipates changes in the next few years, it was a timely conversation, even if it was only a start. From discussions with Pastor Thomas both immediately after the meeting and when we met again a couple of weeks later I learned that in Shelekhov they intend to continue their work together in order to grow in their sense of the Spirit's leading. 
   From Irkutsk we needed to make it quickly to Omsk in order to take part in the last day of the ELCUSFE synod assembly. Regretfully, then, we exchanged the train for a plane in order to catch one of the relatively few flights that directly connects Siberian cities with one another. While the flight was fine, I already missed the train's rhythms, the gently swaying cars, contemplating the scenery for hours on end...everything, actually, except the heat. It was good to know that, though the longest trips were behind us, we still had plenty of transsibing to do before the month was through.