I’ve worn suits to church—white shirts from the dry cleaners with heavy starch. I’ve also worn t-shirts, Hawaiian shirts, sport coats, even turtlenecks in the winter. And then there’s the Ukrainian folk shirt, the Russian chapka hat and the reindeer boots made for the Russian Arctic.
Yes, styles of dress change.
When we were missionaries with College Church some seven years ago, we had the privilege of participating in the missions festival “as missionaries.” It’s a very different experience to participate in this special time from that perspective. The festival is a busy time for missionaries, packed with meetings and opportunities to connect with different people, groups, classes and the whole church through the worship service. The Russian fur on the head and reindeer boots were especially handy when we used to have the “spring” missions festival in what seemed like the dead of winter.
I remember the traditional Russian and Ukrainian clothes we wore. I remember our son, hanging out with John Leaf and other MKs. I remember making a big pot of borscht for people to taste. Sharing life with other missionaries was always a gift. I recall the intemse interest and prayer support from adults. I especially enjoyed presentations on Sunday morning in the STARS classes, and how, even years later, some of the people remembered what we said and told us they were praying for us.
At one festival, our Sunday evening assignment was the two-year-old preschool class. Seriously? Two-year-olds? Based on our experience, if any missionary needs encouragement (or anyone really), he or she needs to visit the two-year-olds.
We kept the teaching simple: We explained that there are children who live in a country called Russia and that Jesus loves them. We also had one of our “matryoshka” dolls—Russian nesting dolls. We showed the little ones the first and largest doll; then opened it to reveal the second doll; then the third doll, lining them up on the table as we went along. Each doll was met with gasps of surprise and delight. We held up the tiny second-to-the-last doll and asked if this was the last doll, and when we opened it and showed the final doll, (a twig of wood with two black dots for eyes), the children broke into enthusiastic cheers and spontaneous applause.
Throughout the festival, there are meetings and presentations for missionaries, so that they can learn from one another and be encouraged and challenged in a variety of ways. I remember sharing heartfelt struggles and engaging in times of prayer with fellow missionaries, some who are still serving today. Others who have since died or moved on to another form of work or service. This is happening this weekend, too, with our current missionaries. And it is a blessing.
Looking back, I remember a sense of love from the church and my sense of obligation to serve the church well in my missionary work.
When there were flag processionals as part of the worship service, it was a big deal when our church acquired the flag of Russia (as opposed to the hammer and sickle of the U.S.S.R.). And several of us missionaries served in that area, so it was interesting to see who would be chosen to carry either the flag of Russia or Ukraine.
Now, participating in the festival as a non-missionary member of College Church, I relish the time to hear the perspectives of our missionaries from different parts of the world. I’ve noticed over time that the seemingly constant changes in the world today make for more rapid change and upheaval. This is true not just in our news and political realms, but in the global missions efforts as well.
Yet the earthly changes we experience as people do not stop the living God from working in big and little ways every day. Today even.
This weekend, I look forward to the missionaries participating this time round: nineteen missionaries, seven from watch countries, all here to be with us. Old friends, new faces—I’m hoping to learn at least three new things to help me in my sense of outreach and missions. How can I pray better? What might my next step be? How can I encourage these missionaries in real ways? What of their stories will I get to hear?
And during this festival, as in all the other festivals, when I see the black flag that represents persecution, we think and pray for so many people in many different countries of the world. We know some of their names, but there are many others whose names we don’t know. We can lift them in prayer to God, who knows not only their names, but also every hair on their head and every tear they cry.
Looking ahead, I can’t help but think of the vision John received. The blessing of so many people, from all over the world and across the whole canvas of history itself, all coming together around the Lamb. It is where we are headed, and why we long to reach out, that others from every corner of the world might join us. As we begin this special time, let us consider the heavenly kingdom that will include people from every tribe coming around the Table.
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” Revelation 5:9, 10