Church on the verge

Sitting riverside in Tampa, as worship launches the 2012 General Conference, everything feels so new and shiny — the  church just out of its box. There’s anticipation and hope. It’s God freshly re-encountered.

I think of the quote: “Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits,” or some such pep-rally inspiration. At this moment, the church seems big enough, smart enough, creative enough, tolerant and bold enough to make a significant difference in the world.

In the nearby town of  Ybor, a tour guide at a local museum invited visitors from Germany to return for a more in-depth tour. “We’ll be busy these next two weeks,” they told him. “We’ll be at General Conference, we’ll be saving the world.”

The tour guide laughed, so did the United Methodists, but they were also earnest. The signs on Tampa’s  lampposts  promote the denomination with the slogan, “Change the World,” but I suspect there’s more than one United Methodist who believes God is calling us to really transform the world, or at least significant pieces of it.

The conference opened with the traditional hymnodic question, “And Are We Yet Alive?” and ancient ritual made the space sacred.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster preached about Jesus calling his disciples to leave their fishing and  follow him. Every four years, he said, the church gathers on the shore to mend its nets and tend to business. “But will we hear the invitational call of  Jesus,” he asked.

Responding to Jesus’ “follow me” brings “a fundamental transformation of life and work,” Goodpaster said.

For me, on this first day, that transformation was glimpsed in small moments –Bonnie Marden of New England receiving Communion bread from her father Bishop Clifton Ives; the Rev. Laura Easto reminding the mayor of Tampa that The United Methodist Church ordains women; the Rev. Conrad Link whistling with a generous kind of joy as the choir sang and the nearly 1,000 delegates wrapping themselves in prayer stoles made by people throughout the connection.

On the large screen in front of the 3,700 people who gathered for worship, there was a photo of a sun rising. Only the image was on a loop, so the sun never really rose. I’m hoping the real horizon will be different. I’m anticipating a new day and some nurturing, clever, and important change.

Nothing springs more eternal than hope and the church on the verge.


Russia Day 15 – New names, new world

Sunday morning began with worship at Aspiration UMC, which also serves as a Conference Center of in St. Petersburg. The state of the art building was built in partnership with the Minnesota Annual Conference.

United Methodists from Austin, Texas were also in worship, having just arrived for a mission trip to several orphanages. The Rev. Irina Margulis preached on Jacob wrestling with the angel. Jacob, and we and the church tend to live in comfort, she said. But when we move to the margins, crossing borders into unknown lands and situations, something new happens to us. God works in new ways when we change our point of view, she said. “We may find ourselves wounded, but we also discover a new names, new lives and ultimately a new world.”

In the afternoon, some of the group visited the Hermitage Museum, which features more than 3 million works of art. It is located in the former Winter Palace, home of Russia’s emperors.

Among the highlights of the tour was Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son, created in 1668.  The painting, critics say, is “endowed with the sense of great tragedy elevated to a symbol of universal significance. Complex emotions are expressed in the figure of the bent old man and his suffering, kneeling son: repentance and charity, boundless love and regret at the belated spiritual awakening.” It is simply beautiful – a biblical story made masterpiece.

All that was left was farewells to Russia – and the knowledge that United Methodists in the Baltimore-Washington Conference has embarked on partnership with people who are seeking our prayers and resources to assist them in creating disciples to transform the world. Our faiths combined have limitless potential to glorify God.

Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat, had a prayer that summed up the trip and the partnership: “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.” Amen.

Russia Day 14 – A Hero’s City

“To Your Good Deeds, Leningrad,” reads the letters inscribed in Victory Square, as classical music provides a soundtrack to the eternal flames keeping vigil.

Now called St. Petersburg, the city of Leningrad was under siege by the Germans for 900 days in World War II.

Toward the end, the residents resorted to cannibalism and bodies were piled in the streets. Documentary footage at the memorial shows images of an old woman trudging through the snow, lugging the body of a loved one on a sled.

For their survival, Leningrad was named one of Russia’s “Hero Cities.” But the horror lived out beneath that designation defies imagination. It also lends itself to tremendous courage and points to the resilence of the human spirit.

In the midst of the slaughter and vast deprivation, Igor Stravinski paid homage to this human spirit by writing a symphony. Musicians, some who could barely hold their instruments, played the piece, which was broadcast to the Germans and to the world beyond. Good deeds.

This same day, the group also visited the palace of Catherine the Great with its magnificent Amber Room. Opulence abounds and visitors are pulled into the world of this woman ruler who ushered in an age of enlightenment in Russia.

The itinerary also included a trip to Bethany UMC, which is building a new church in the town of Pushkin and the day ended with a boat ride down the Neva River.  The arc of a perfect rainbow appeared in the sky as we walked down the streets to the hostel. It was a benediction.


Russia Day 13 – Camp Spring

They came to the 20-day camp – abused, abandoned and neglected children – “non-believers,” who the Rev. Rauza Landorf felt compelled “to help meet Christ and learn his will and ways.”

The 40 children moved into the public school building, living on cots in geography and science classrooms, under portraits of explorers and the Periodic Table of elements. During the day they did sports, made crafts, had Bible study and worshipped in the evening.

“This is called Camp Spring,” Landorf said to the 10 Americans who visited her in Zhitkovo, near Finland. “Spring like the source of water; every child has a source of something good in them. We tap into the source of new life in every child.”

During the course of the camp, the children gradually learn about God, the old, bad stuff is removed and we open them to the Holy Spirt and fill them with God and good things, said Landorf.

After a day of play and getting to know one another, at the evening worship service, some of the children came forward to hold a lit candle and pray for their families. They then sought the blessings of the BWC clergy, who laid hands on the children, one-by-one, claiming the children’s unique destinies for God.

The prayers were intense, transcending language barriers and some of the children got in several lines, eager to be blessed.

Landorf knew this would happen. Over the years, 170 children have come through the Spring Center. She marvels at what is possible when one relies on God.

Raised a Muslim, she was 35 years old before she had ever heard of Christ. Her child’s illness led her to God and to serving children. The United Methodists took in her and her flock when no one else would. “We are thankful for Methodist church; we learn from you to be a big family,” she said.

For Landorf, family has few boundaries. God gave her a gift to love all children, she said.

Recently, Grace UMC, the church Landorf pastors and the homeof Spring Center, was closed by the government, which denied the 45-member congregation permission to continue to rent their facility in St. Petersburg.

It is one of the city’s largest United Methodist churches and Landorf worries about the children who will be hurt if they cannot find a new space.

The Rev. Charles Harrell of Trinity UMC in Prince Frederick, assured her that “what God has started he will bring to a finish, and those words have brought her comfort,” she said. “I will keep loving God, and I will love these children. What else can I do?

Russia Day 12 – St. Petersburg

We arrived in St. Petersburg, a city founded in 1703, where Europe and Russia merge in history, architecture and culture. With 80 rivers and canals and more than 300 bridges, it’s often called the Venice of the North.

The group stopped for a photo at the iconic Church on the Spilt Blood, with its multi-colored onion domes along the river. In 1881, revolutionaries threw a bomb at the carriage of Tsar Alexander II, who escaped uninjured. The Tsar went to help others affected by the blast and was killed by another bomb, thrown by an assassin. Ironically, when he died, unbeknownst to those seeking political freedom, Alexander had the draft of a constitution in his pocket.

We also visited the fortress and church of Saint Peter and Paul, where the city was founded, and the history of the nation’s leaders is told in the burial places of the its leaders, beginning with Peter the Great, who built the Russian empire, creating a national army and navy and launching extensive educational and culture reforms.

The tombs of the Nicolas and Alexandra Romanav family, the last tsarist family who were executed by a firing squad in 1918.

The shots that called the Russian people to revolution and signaled them to storm the winter palace, were fired at the fortress on Oct. 25, 1917. This movement ultimately brought Vladimir Lenin to power and launched the creation of the communist  state.

Russia Day 11 – A Russian soul

The morning was filled with souvenirs and row after row of matrushka dolls in the market. When buying, the more dolls that nest inside each other, the better. It’s the uncovering that’s the delight.

The same might be said of Russia. In fact, in 1939, when trying to predict how Russia might respond, Winston Churchill called the nation “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Russian poets understand this. One said, “Russia cannot be understood with the mind, nor can it be measured by a common yardstick. A special character she has. In Russia, one can only have faith.”

The depth of mystery that is Russia was reflected in the native art of the Tretyakov Gallery. Amid the centuries of art, is the work of the painter Ilya Repin. One of this most well-known works, painted in 1885, is titled “Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan.” The painting portrays events from 1581 and features the grief and madness of a father as he clutches his dead son in his arms.

Russian culture is also reflected in its ballet. Before bidding farewell to Moscow, we watched a production of the Nutcracker with its sugar plum fairies in swirling white tutus, rat kings and a dance of cultures. It was a world of fairy tale and imagination, with a dangerous undercurrent, all set to music and defined by beauty.

Russia Day 10 – Heart to heart in Moscow

The BWC group bid an emotional farewell to the people of Voronezh and stepped back on the train, which was almost like stepping back several decades to the sleeping berths in a movie like Murder on the Orient Express. The Russian countryside rolled pat as we slept, and we awoke back in Moscow.

The day was spent at the Way of Salvation UMC with the Rev. Elena Kotelkina, superintendent of the Moscow North District, and pastors and laity of the Moscow churches.

After the bold and pioneering ministry of Voronezh, the spirit of Moscow was subdued. In recent years, six of the 12 United Methodist churches have closed. The reasons are varied, but, Kotelkina attributes the decline, in large part, to the pervasive influence of the Russian Orthodox church, which places significant roadblocks in the path of Protestants seeking to do ministry in Russia.

Kotelkina believes it is only a “heart to heart” approach that will bring people into church.

She has great hopes in pastors like the Rev. Alexander Bogdanev, whose name literally mean “gift from God.” As pastor of Sulanita church, which meets in his apartment, Bogdanev receives no salary. The churches of the Moscow district do not have partnership relationships to provide such assistance.

Bodanev explains that his mother was a pastor and he feels called to care for his mission field. “Our vision,” he said, “is to be a vision community that can
change the society. That is a prayer.”