My Ukrainian Adventure

My oldest brother, Rod, went to college with such a passion to be a missionary to the Soviet Union that he double-majored in Russian and in Biblical Studies. When the iron curtain finally fell, my brother was so hampered by his battle with multiple sclerosis that he was unable to go. He eventually died in 1999, just short of his 49th birthday, after years of praying for the people of the former Soviet Union. So, when I get invited there I make every effort to go in his honor and to love the people he carried in his heart and his prayers for so long. I was in Russia seven years ago and spent the past weekend in Ukraine.

In addition to the Ukrainians that joined us, we were also enriched to have people from Israel, Armenia, Bulgaria, and Moldova, and such rich people they were, too. The hardest part of traveling is how connected I become to people even after only three or four days together.  Leaving is always difficult, not knowing if I’ll ever get to see any of them again. This weekend, I was enriched by their faith, played out in the difficulty of a country transitioning out of Soviet domination, while still at war with Russia on their eastern flank. I was amazed at their hunger for the real things of God and the price so many had paid to follow their heart instead of the religious conventions of others.

Since this was only a five-day trip for me, I spoke through the stupor of a persistent jet lag that never allowed me to get a full night’s sleep. Often I lay awake at crazy hours and used it to pray for the day ahead. But each time I helped facilitate a discussion, my mind was graciously alert and my heart alive with passion for how I might be able to help or encourage them. The first good night’s sleep I’ve had in over a week came last night after I returned home to my own bed. Surprisingly I slept through the night and woke up wonderfully refreshed this morning.

It is never easy to be with people whose language I don’t share. While there were people who would translate for me in personal conversations, I felt like I missed so much depth in the stories they were telling me. I felt like I’m just scratching the surface of who they are and what they’ve been through. And, of course, translating takes extra time, which means we don’t always get to the heart of a matter before someone else comes along and the conversation shifts yet again. Even so, I found my heart touched by their love for God and each other and their desire for a deep and vibrant walk with the living God.

The picture above is of some time around the fire our last night at the camp. Even though I could hardly stay awake as we sang and shared, this picture brings back such rich memories of my time there, the people I met, and the stories I heard of faith and courage.

On Sunday afternoon after the conference had ended, some people took me around the city of Kiev to show me the sights—World War II memorial, where the army gunned down protestors of the government five years ago, a delightful chocolate shop, and a seemingly endless stream of religious buildings with golden, onion-shaped copulas, like the picture below.

Isn’t it tragic, that we call buildings like these “churches”, and few people would use that same term to describe the people in the picture at the top of the page? If anything, however, the picture at the top is a far more accurate characterization of the reality of the church in the world. It speaks of people, shared life, relationships, and following God together the best we can.

Like most people, I find the ornate, opulent, religious structures of Europe fascinating in their beauty and architecture. I just cringe when anyone calls them a church, or thinks they represent God in some special way. They don’t. If anything, they represent skewed priorities of religious leaders who put opulence over people and power over love. That most were built on the terrified backs of peasants trying to curry favor with God or alleviate their guilt makes it all the worse.

Remember, Stephen was stoned for saying, “… the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” That reality still makes people nervous today, and makes it difficult to justify the incredible wealth we have (and still do) put into buildings. And yet, if you want to find God, you would be better off looking for him in the people around you than in any building, as impressive as it may be.

With special thanks to my hosts and all the people I got to meet in Ukraine.


On an unrelated note, the first of a two-part interview I did with the ladies of Confronting Normal has just released.  It’s about community and you can find it here. This is how they described it:

Community is a complicated topic. It’s a conversation laced with many layers, a wide variety of interpretations and definitions, and typically, it comes accompanied with a ton of painful baggage and unmet expectations.

But in this episode, Cindy and Renae get the rare opportunity to sit down face-to-face with author, speaker and fellow podcaster, Wayne Jacobsen, as they explore this important conversation from the comforts of Cindy’s living room – a fitting location for such a relational topic. Together, the trio share openly and honestly about the struggle and beauty that is community. In the end, they consider that perhaps community should really just be called … friendship.

9 thoughts on “My Ukrainian Adventure”

  1. Wayne,

    While I agree God does not live in buildings I think you may have missed a point. The churches did and still do a lot of good for people. Did you ever see Les Miserables? The French priest in the movie provided a refuge for the troubled thief Jean Valjean. He provided a place to live, eat, and find God through mercy. The buildings that you are condemning have done baptisms, salvation’s, healing, and deliverance through the centuries. They may not all be recorded but I can tell you that only God knows what the “church” did. A place of worship. A place of hiding from the Nazi’s. A place of underground resistance. A place of good. A place of holiness in the midst of turmoil. A place for food. A place to sleep out of the cold. A place to confess sins. I think you have lost the point of the church by your own hurts you experienced in the church and you are now passing those wounds onto others who need the “church”. Remember yourself at one point was lost. You were found by God and welcomed by the church into a new life in Christ. There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Therefore there is no justification for you to place condemnation on the Church or a place of worship. Its okay to sit around a fire and talk about God, but stop the church bashing. We need the bride.

    1. Thanks, Jason, for your comment, but I do think it underscores the purpose of my post. It wasn’t the “building” that helped Jean Valjean, but a priest who not only gave him a place to stay, but also made a gift of the candlesticks he stole. How many priests do you know will do that? In my view the church is ALWAYS people; it is never the building. That doesn’t mean religious buildings haven’t been used for incredible good. They have as you point out, but again that was because of the people who managed them. I think it is critical we make that distinction for us to appreciate and engage the church Jesus is building in the world. I never disparage the bride of Christ, wherever she appears. But his people are the temple that is rising before the Lord. You may think that point of view is due to my “wounding”, but has nothing to do with the betrayal I suffered by a close friend. How do I know? I taught those things before that ever happened. We didn’t own a building but rented one for our gatherings for that reason. That said, I have no fight with those brothers and sisters of mine who find comfort and aid in one of the buildings we call “churches.” In fact, I celebrate it. This is about terminology. Those buildings are not the church; the people are and that is expressed in how they love one another.

  2. I never knew the story of your Brother, it must have been incredable to at least in some way have seen and spent time with the people he felt God had called him to. It brought tears to my eyes just thinking about.

  3. Your post was beautiful. I was quite taken by the description of your experience. The gathering around the fire speaks of community where presence with one another has its own language with no interpretation being necessary.
    Thank you, Wayne for sharing your journey.

  4. I was so blessed to read about your visit…..This sounds like Paul and his adventures during his trips to the lands around him. I am blessed to know that the “church” is thriving abroad and we can be blessed by your blog to hear about them. It is like Paul’s letters he wrote to the brethren. Thank you for being willing to go so many places and to share your adventures with us. You always give such insight and thus blessing me/us in return. Blessings to your family for supporting you, too! Thank you for following our Father’s direction!

  5. Brother, It was a blast being at the fellowship conference in Kiev with you. Thank you so much for sharing your life long journey with the Loving Father. God has been touching my heart by stories you shared and by your open heart to serve. There were many lessons and not just through our sessions time but even when we just have had a great time at lunch. With His Love from Moldova.

    1. Stas, so good to hear from you here. I appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with you and your heart for Jesus and his kingdom. I pray that God will continue to draw you closer to him, synching your heart with is, allowing you to reflect his glory more accurately in the world. What a great journey you are on, and I’m blessed to know you.

  6. Recently my Sister tried shamming me into finding a “church”. It hurt, it got me mad it, it got you a book sale(Beyond Sundays). I calmed down, but it made me think how horrible that would be if I didn’t have a deep personal intimate relationship with God.

    Back to my experience.
    How overcome I am, in tears, in joy, when I reflect on the wondrous love and care of my father. When I feel the the deep understanding that those I work with are walking into.
    I’m a systems guy, but there is no system for this relationship with God.
    So I build systems for the business but invite people into relationship.
    Show them God is there and available let them learn his voice. Make sure they know how everything we do, we can do cooperatively with him.
    And my father has granted me a love that I want more of.
    What an awesome life we get to engage in sitting around the campfire.

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