Some years ago a Mennonite church in Costa Rica called on me to interpret for a visiting minister from Russia. All afternoon we travelled across the mountain to where they lived. Deep down in the tropics, on Costa Rica’s eastern lowlands we found them, a crowd gathered in a meetinghouse among pineapple and cassava fields. From all directions they had come: women carrying babies and leading children along muddy, deeply rutted roads, young people and campesinos in their best shirts, German colonists whose own ancestors came from the Ukraine, and brothers of North American Amish or Mennonite background.
From half a dozen congregations they gathered to hear an Evangelical Christian Baptist from Kazakhstan speak. They listened carefully. While translating the brother’s words from German to Spanish I watched the audience, crowded to the back of the large auditorium and with people standing at the doors, absorb the message. I saw the light in their eyes as the brother described Siberia (few Costa Rican Mennonites have seen snow) and realised that strange things are happening today.
East meets west. North meets south. The Cold War is over and with easier travel, more telephones and amateur radios, FAX machines, email, the net . . . we Christians around the world find it easier than ever to know about and learn from one another.
But do we?
My feeling is that we have all been eager to teach but slow to learn.
In the first chapter of this book I wrote that Nikolai Khmara, being dead, still speaks. Now I am ready to suggest what he and untold numbers of Russians like him, have to say:
We must flee from the world, not from sorrow and pain.
From the time Russia began, at Kiev, its government, social life, and state religion have given serious believers only one option: flight. That option they have used over and over.
But the more I learn about Russia’s believers, the more I have come to see that they did not flee to save their bodies. They fled to save their souls. Many times that flight did not involve geography at all.
Jesus Christ fled the fashion, commerce, and politics of his day. Sometimes he did it literally (going to the desert to pray). But usually he did it only in his mind and in his actions. He refused to pay attention to what the world believed important. He turned his back on wealth and fame. But when they seized him and took him to the cross he faced it calmly, even though he could have escaped.
In the same way, believers in Russia turned their backs on what was easy and pleasant, and willingly faced hardship and death. Doing this, the church survived!
“Things” are traps.
At a language institute where I used to teach college-level students I learned much about clothes. Every day I saw new outfits. No sooner did the buzzer go than bags appeared from under chairs. Students rushed by twos and threes to the bathroom to try on brand name jeans or tee shirts to go with major league caps and air pump tennis shoes. Now we are in the United States. It is Christmas season. An eighty page gift catalogue lies on my desk—spiral sliced boneless honey glazed ham, monogrammed glass beer steins, a musical copper stove with lids on kettles that lift as it plays My Favourite Things, gold prayer cross pendants, chocolate cherry fudge logs . . . while untold millions go hungry and a hurricane has just devastated the Caribbean.
What, in our western world, has happened to self-denial?
Everything is for sale, more often than not “on special.” Every day’s mail brings more gaudy fliers and bills. Shopping centres get larger and more numerous, and everyone, it seems, has more money to spend.
What does the brother, with his house paid, a steady income, and a comfortable savings account decide when he goes to buy a car? Does he buy the car he needs or the car he wants? Does he even stop to consider whether he needs a car or not?
Does it occur to the overweight sister with a credit card in her purse, a vehicle at her disposal, and time to go shopping, to deny herself of a tray of sugared donuts?
What does the youth in the sports department, with a wad of cash in his pocket (after all, he earned it!), think he needs?
Trapped in money and things! If we think like the world, buy like the world, and entertain ourselves like the world—would it be unfair if God let us spend eternity with the world?
Unlike Russia’s believers, we in the west seem to think it our “inalienable right” not to have to give up things—neither good things nor bad.
Giving up a spouse after divorce and remarriage—unthinkable! Give up owning a car—You must be crazy! Give up a television set, a computer, a trip to Yellowstone, electricity in the house . . . If I would go on like this someone might throw this book away. The very idea that something good can (and perhaps should) be given up for Christ seems laughable, or even heretical, to many Christians in America. But Matvey Semyonovich Dalmatov, Yefim Pereyaslavsky, the “road Christians,” and others like them even gave up their lives for Christ, and the church survived!
The way of the world, not the way of Christ, is crazy.
Every so often while writing this book I would almost lose heart, thinking, “This is so crazy no one will read it. Or if they do they will reject it outright.” But something in the “craziness” of the Old Believers and Lev Tolstoy began to speak to me. What is crazy, Old Believers sitting to fish through the ice near the Arctic Circle for refusing to get a birth certificate, or two hundred million Americans sitting—with the end of time and creation upon them—watching Donald Duck on TV?
Until recently I taught at a private high school in San José, Costa Rica.1 My students taught me what is “normal” in the 1990s. One day I came to a class early. The other teacher had not finished and I listened to a row of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds giving reports on different contraceptives, how to use them and how great a risk of pregnancy each one involves. Virtually all students by that time had experience in using them and talked about it. We had several “unión libre” couples in class, and occasionally a maternity dropout. This, they told me, is “normal.”
During the World Cup soccer games (France 98) our school was a madhouse. Ears propped on hands more than likely concealed Walkman wires. Boys shaved their heads to look like Ronaldo or died their hair yellow. Wherever I went—to and from work on the bus, even from my preschoolers playing on the back patio—I heard the Ricky Martin song. Crowds pushed up to store windows with TV displays and for goals made by certain teams one had to hold one’s ears for the screaming, the roars, and the honking of horns as pedestrians went wild, embracing one another, throwing girls into the air, or even trying to lift cars in the euphoria. This, they told me, is “normal.” Even something to laugh about.
A woman we know left her church to join a more “Spiritual” one. A reason she likes the new church better is that she can wear jeans to services (in her former setting she had to wear a dress). She can also cut her hair, wear ear rings, and paint her face. All this, she assures us, is “normal” among Christians today, but to wear a big head scarf with tassles, high shoes, and a black apron like she used to—why, that would be crazy!
Russia’s believers never thought the world was normal. Neither did they think it crazy to act, look, or think in a radically different way for Christ, and the church survived!
Christ’s demands are not fanatical.
The world’s idea of things, and of what is “normal,” has always made Christ, who asks us to give up everything (like he did), look fanatical.2 But what impresses me is not the “fanaticism” of those who give up things to find eternal life. It is the narrow-mindedness and fanaticism of those who feel threatened by Christ’s example and crucify him again and again.
The early Christians refused to put a pinch of incense on pagan altars. For preferring to die rather than co-operate in such trivial formality, people called them “fanatics.” They threw them into arenas with lions and bears and hung their wives by one foot from trees.
Who was “fanatical”? Who made the most out of trivia?
The border between the spiritual kingdom of Christ and the material kingdom of the world seldom runs along the lines of major issues. It runs through what most people find possible to dismiss as “nonessentials.” For the Old Believers that was how to spell Jesus, or whether to report births and deaths. For the Molokans it was whether to keep state holidays. For many in this century it was whether one should be officially registered to hold meetings.
But in all their history some of Russia’s believers refused to bow to outside pressure, even in “nonessentials,” and the church survived!
Resisting the world’s way brings persecution.
The way of Christ constantly puts the antichristian world into perspective. It also bothers the world.
If our way of life does not bother the world, is it not that we have become just like it?
Christ and his followers, because they have always resisted the world’s way, have always suffered persecution. The world’s intolerance of nonconformity, pitted against Christ’s intolerance of worldliness, has never allowed for a middle ground. Resisting the world and suffering persecution go hand in hand. That is true nonconformity.
True nonconformity (not just the wearing of a distinctive uniform) invites the wrath of everyone: the world’s government, the world’s church, or whoever’s conscience gets pricked by it. Russia’s believers did not fear to prick the consciences of others, and the church survived!
Christ lives only with the nonconformed.
In the west, we handle the issue of nonconformity in two ways. The majority of us, unlike Christ, shy away from visible nonconformity, thinking it must come from legalism or a Pharisaical “holier than thou” attitude. We rationalise what the world does as somehow compatible with the Gospel—making it “Christian” for the immoral to continue in second marriages, the proud to live in style, and the greedy to keep on making money as fast as they can. Nonconformity, some of us think, is a matter of the heart.
The rest of us, unlike Christ, standardise nonconformity by drawing up lists of rules on what to eat, what to wear, or exactly how to make our living. We think Christians must come to a certain “balanced position”—not close enough to the world to be “liberal” yet not so far away as to be “fanatical.” To see someone else not quite where we are makes us uncomfortable, as if a more nonconformed lifestyle somehow threatened us, or our freedom in Christ.
In this area, Russia’s believers may have the most to tell us. To them, no degree of nonconformity looked dangerous and they did not limit it in any way. They thought the opportunity should exist for everyone to go as far in following Christ as he wants to. One cannot go overbalance, they believed, in following him.
If that meant living on bread and salt, sleeping on the road, or wearing nothing but a long grey robe with a twine around one’s middle, it was alright. Those who did not go that far (for family or other reasons) did not feel threatened. Instead, they looked up to those who reached higher levels of self denial, and the church survived!
Being different is not enough. We must be like Christ.
We western individuals find it hard to decide on issues of nonconformity. As groups we find it even harder. The world keeps changing and nonconformity—if it is true nonconformity—must keep changing with it. We also change. That makes everything relative, we think, and hard to decide. Yet everything must and will get decided!
Russia’s believers from Nikolai Svyatosha to Nikolai Khmara decided how to be nonconformed by deciding to conform to Christ. Doing this, the church survived!
Nonconformity begins with an awareness of Christ.
Nil Sorsky already knew that we become detached from the world’s things to the degree that we attach ourselves to Christ. He also knew that this takes place in constant awareness of his presence. Wherever we are, while fully aware of Christ we will not do, nor say, nor think what is wrong.
In 1968, at a meeting of the Poustinniki among their abandoned farms and spruce trees at Combermere in northeastern Ontario, a question arose: “What if the Lord would want us to live in the city? Could we do that and remain as close to Christ as here in the woods?” Yekaterina, the woman whose memories of old Russia inspired the community’s founding, wrote in answer:
Suppose you were married and began expecting a child. Would you stop cooking for your husband? Would you stop doing the laundry and the cleaning, or stop going to meetings . . . ? No. You would go about your daily business. The only difference between you and everyone else would be that you were carrying a child. Your womb would be a Poustinia for the child, and you would carry him wherever you go.
Now you are carrying Christ, and bring his presence with you. . . . You have, as it were, a poustinia within you. It is as if within you there was a little log cabin in which you and Christ were very close. In this attitude you go about your business.
God forbid that everyone should become a recluse or a hermit! That is not what it means to be a poustinik. . . . It means that within yourselves you have made a room, a log cabin, a secluded space. You have built it by prayer—the Jesus Prayer perhaps. . . . And because you are aware of Christ . . . you can bring him to the street, and among people, in a very special and powerful way.
Quietness, and the Spirit of Christ living in a “log cabin within.” If as much as one noisy, active, western Christian can be brought into heavenly silence through the message of the Russian believers described in this book, they will not have lived their lives in vain.
Smallness and silence before Christ the King. A repentant attitude. This is umilenie. This is koinonia. And awareness of Christ—beginning with such a simple thing as calling on the name of the Lord—will not stop until it becomes an awareness of the infinite. Then it is eternal life. A secret. A great mystery, hidden from the wise and prudent. But Russia’s believers discovered it—Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, syne Bozhii, pomilui nas greshnykh!3—to survive Yosif Stalin, the Bolsheviks, Rasputin and Pobedonostsev, Tsar Nikolai I, Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible . . . the Antichrist.
To survive we need more than to follow the example of Christ. We need to walk with him. If we learn how to do this, our church will survive too.
1 A Roman Catholic school.
2 Luke 14: 33, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”
3 Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us!