Last week I slipped away to Ukraine for a few days. It had come as something of a surprise, but I got asked back in March by Cor Harrijvan, a Dutch missionary to Ukraine, to help out with a conference he and others were organising for pastors and students of the seminary in Kiev. Ever since my trip to Belarus eight years ago with my then pastor, Tim Gunn, I have had an interest in the progress of the gospel in eastern Europe, so the opportunity to go to Ukraine this time was difficult to turn down.
The journey was long: two flights to get from Birmingham to Kiev with a 4 hour wait in Amsterdam, followed by a 7-hour journey by car to Khmelnytsyi to the south-west. Outside of Kiev, the roads were bumpy single carriage ways. Huge potholes and men on bikes with no lights were common obstacles as we drove through the night. However, on arrival in Khmelnytskyi the welcome was warm from Alexei and Nadegda on one night and Vlad and Nadia the next.
At the conference there were about 20 people there made up of pastors, students and some wives. My journey was long, but one man had spent 23 hours in a train to get from the eastern side of Ukraine to be there. That was humbling!
In the end I gave two lectures through a translator, one on servant leadership from 1 Peter 5:1-4, and the other on lessons learned from our experience of church planting in Solihull. Both sessions ended up being interactive as I was happy to take questions along the way. As a result me, translator and questions, each session lasted about two hours.
For me it was a good experience to meet these men. Their situation is so different from mine. Life is much harder, and the social context is vastly different. There were two main factors I saw:
- the legacy of corruption: corruption is endemic in the society. Everyone seems to be on the take. Police take on the spot ‘fines’. Officials take their cut of the social care budget. Politicians make promises easily but are rarely kept. There is widespread disillusionment after the ‘Orange Revolution‘ of 2004. It is difficult for Christians not to get sucked in, especially when money is tight everywhere. It is difficult for pastors to keep a healthy distance from money and its temptations.
- legacy of Eastern Orthodoxy: I visited Orthodox churches in Khmelnytskyi and Kiev. In Kiev in particular, I was fascinated to observe the devotions of the faithful – genuflecting, bowing to icons, kissing icons, the ritual blessing of food and drink. The artwork was astounding, and the symbolism interesting. However, it is horrifying. There is no Bible knowledge. Christian faith seems to be mediated through pictures of saints and their stories. I was amazed to learn that there is no concept of ethics in the Orthodox religion. Holiness seems to be something received from the icons through the process of veneration, rather than worked in the believer through obedience. It is no wonder that corruption can exist in such a seemingly religious society. I was left wondering how this affects someone who comes to living faith in Christ. It strikes me that, though repentance is a recognised necessity at conversion, it may be a difficult to see it as a continuing pattern of the Christian life.