A great moment: I meet Father Vladislav (right) in Chelyabinsk, Russia
I was very busy with parish matters, and almost didn't take the call on my cellphone. But I'm glad I did.
A few months ago, I received a phone call that turned out to be
quite remarkable. It was from the Rev. Dr. Tim Quill - one of my professors at Concordia Theological Seminary. Dr. Quill is a beloved seminary instructor, highly respected not only as an academic theologian, but also as a man with the compassionate heart of a pastor. I had the privilege to study under him in the areas of Homiletics (preaching) and Lutheran Worship (liturgics). He is a churchman who always has something witty, profound, or interesting (and practical) to say.
Dr. Quill was also the head of the seminary's Russian Project, a several-year operation to train men from the former Soviet Union at Concordia (Fort Wayne) for the purpose of educating pastors in order to establish an indigenous Russian Lutheran seminary. The project was a remarkable success by the gracious providence of our blessed Lord.
Anyway, Dr. Quill called to let me know that the Rt. Rev. Vsevolod Lytkin, the bishop of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) - one of our sister church bodies in Russia - had asked me to come and teach at their annual Summer Seminars. There were considerable hurdles - financial and otherwise - to overcome. But I told him that I would prayerfully consider the invitation.
By God's grace, through sponsorship of many friends and parishioners, and with the support and encouragement of my dear wife, I was able to commit to the trip. Dr. Quill paired me up with the Rev. Daniel S. Johnson of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Marshalltown, Iowa to travel with me and to assist me in the complex process of securing visas, buying plane tickets, and working with our Siberian brethren to work out schedules. Thankfully, the Rev. Warren Schulingkamp was able to conduct services at Salem in my absence, and the Rev. Philip Miller of Christ Lutheran Church in Chalmette graciously agreed to be on call for me while I was away.
Pastor Johnson has turned out not only to be a great help as an expert in these matters (he is the president of the Siberian Lutheran Mission Society and has been traveling nearly every year to Russia since 2000), but is also a wise and experienced pastor (at the same parish for 18 years) and has become a great friend and colleague as a result of our time traveling together. I'm grateful for all that he has done for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed our adventures on this trip.
There were several weeks of preparation, but we managed to work out a schedule. Our trip would span 24 days, from June 27 to July 20. We would each be lecturing in three cities in Russia, each preaching in one of our churches, visiting seven of our sister congregations, and would be touring parts of Siberia and the Ural region by planes, trains, and automobiles - including the legendary Trans-Siberian Railroad (not to be confused with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra).
Pastor Johnson is a wealth of wisdom and experience in travel in Russia, and one of his best bits of advice was to keep a travel journal. So, rather than blog in "real time," I took a step back and actually wrote on paper with a pen - which to me, is only a step removed from cutting cuneiform wedges into clay tablets. But it was a great exercise and I am glad I took his advice. I carried around a pocket Moleskin notebook and scribbled in the journal as time allowed. I later took these notes and wrote into a larger leatherbound journal - thus preserving an account of my adventure that is both a raw account in real time as well as some editorial reflection in hindsight.
So, what you are reading is a (hopefully) more polished edition of my travel notes from Russia. I hope to share with you my esteem and affection for our brothers and sisters in the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church. The one holy catholic and apostolic Church is an article of faith. It is a miracle that the Church survives from one generation to the next - especially in light of the persecution she has been subject to in twenty centuries. The story of Lutheran Christianity in Russia is a story of trial and triumph, of tragedy and tenacity, of suffering and the sufficiency of God's grace. The existence of the SELC is nothing less than a miracle. I count it a privilege that I was able to meet, speak with, worship with, and befriend so many extraordinary people in Russia.
If you would like some background concerning the SELC, please check out the website of the Siberian Lutheran Mission Society, especially the newsletters and the videos (here, here, here, and here). The video entitled "The Other Half of the Truth" accurately captures the life and work of our clergy and lay brethren in Siberia. Also, keep in mind, 100% of all donations to the SLMS go directly to Russia. None of your donations go to overhead or to pay salaries of the SLMS. All of their work is voluntary and all of their in-house costs are paid by specific donors.
So, I hope my scribblings are enlightening or entertaining to someone. If nothing else, it will be a good exercise for me to review and meditate anew on my great adventure. And if someone else is encouraged to pray for, financially support, or even to visit Siberia - I will count this project a great success. Regardless, I am grateful that God allowed me to go, to teach, to preach, to learn, to befriend, and to experience Russian people, culture, and places of interest.
And of course, I'm also grateful to Dr. Quill, Pastor Johnson, Bishop Lytkin, and the many other friends, lay and clergy, Lutheran and non-Lutheran, who were so kind to me while in Russia and in transit.
I'm really glad I answered that phone call!