Tuesday, December 22, 2015

His Holy Interruption

A couple of weeks ago at a church meeting, a man in our congregation gave a small sermon. He started out by talking about a documentary he had watched about a group of ex-gang members in inner-city Chicago called the “Interrupters.” These people have broken the cycle of violence in their own lives and are trying to help others break that cycle. They show them that there is a different way to resolve conflicts; there is more to life than revenge and killing.*

The man then related the work of the “Interrupters” to God’s work—God also calls us to change our lives, and to break those cycles of pride, violence, apathy, bitterness, etc. He tells us that there is more to life than what we see, and that we “don’t have to live like this.” We can change. We can improve.

The man’s mini sermon was impromptu; he didn’t know he was going to speak that day, but his words really touched me and I have thought a lot about them. We speak of worshipping the God of deliverance, of worshipping the God who weeps. But what does it mean if we worship the God who interrupts? And what does that mean at Christmas time?

Especially because the Christmas story—indeed, Christ’s story—is a series of interruptions from the very beginning.

The story starts in medias res, as many stories do, and we learn that in a certain city called Nazareth, there is a certain “virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:27)

Mary is simply going about her life. She is a good girl, just getting ready for her upcoming wedding. Excited, no doubt, but just living life.

But then comes the interruption of her life.

“And [an] angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.” (Luke 1:28-31) 

Blessed Art Thou Among Women, Walter Rane 

What a disruption! Here is Mary, a young woman engaged to a man she cares deeply about. Of course she has thought about their life together—with their own home, garden, and little children to teach and love. But this—how could this be? What was the angel saying? What kind of message was this? What kind of God would ask a normal, upstanding country girl to agree to something so strange, something that could ruin her reputation forever?

To Mary, Gabriel’s message was initially troubling. She didn’t understand how or why the Lord chose her to be the mother of the Son of God. However, she gave her consent. She agreed to be part of this miracle, even though she could not possibly comprehend it . . . even though it interrupted her life in a very drastic way, and even though it threatened her relationship with Joseph.

According to Thy Word, Elspeth Young 

Because this was not just an interruption in Mary’s life. It disrupted Joseph’s life, too. He agonized over it. This lovely couple—who I think were in love with each other and hopeful about a future together—had their ordinary lives interrupted quite abruptly by a baby—a baby Joseph knew was not his; a baby Mary did not completely understand, yet unconditionally loved.

I find it striking that when Joseph and Mary were confused and frightened by this news that an angel—a heavenly interrupter—told them each to “fear not.”

To Joseph: “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins.”(Matthew 1:20-21)

And to Mary: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. [. . .] The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. [. . .] For with God nothing shall be impossible.”(Luke 1:30, 35, 38)

Fear not. Yes, this interruption is alarming. It is different than anything you’ve ever known. It will change your life—and the world—as you know it. But fear not. Choose faith. Choose action. Choose to believe.

And that is what Mary and Joseph chose to do. They embraced this holy interruption with humility and dignity. They changed their lives completely.

The Road to Bethlehem, Jospeh Brickey 

Christ’s birth, like all births, was an interruption. Although you can prepare for a child, and even though you expect and plan and wait, ultimately, a birth—any birth—comes at an unexpected and inopportune time. Christ’s birth was no different.

Nativity, Brian Kershisnik 

Now we plan for Christmas. We buy gifts. Make dinners. Sing carols. But no one was prepared for the first Christmas.

How were Mary and Joseph to plan for an inconvenient census trip to Bethlehem—with Mary’s due date drawing closer and closer?

How was the couple to prepare for the fact that there was no room at the inn?

And how could the shepherds have anticipated a glorious announcement of their long-awaited Messiah that first Christmas night?

Just as Mary and Joseph were unprepared for Christ’s interruption in their lives, the shepherds were unprepared for the heavenly interrupters—those angelic messengers—announcing the birth of a Savior. Their Savior:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”(Luke 2:8-14)

Good Tidings of Great Joy, Walter Rane 

The shepherds were just going about their own business, doing their job.

The normal.

The usual.

The ordinary.

And then. Then the angels came in brilliant glory—setting the Judean night sky and hillside ablaze with light, announcing that there was more.

“You don’t have to live like this.

Like Mary and Joseph, the shepherds heeded the grandest interruption of their lives. They set aside their fear and uncertainty and decided to act. They went into Bethlehem and found the Child. They found peace and new direction. They found that there is a Savior.

A Prince of Peace.



The Mighty God.

For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

Ye who are lonely, laden, forlorn—oh friendless, fallen world . . . to you a Savior is born.**

Christ interrupts our lives. Sometimes, like Saul on the road to Damascus or Alma the Younger set on destroying the Church of God, those interruptions are dramatic. More often, however, He stands at the door and knocks, interrupting our supper or favorite television programs.

He interrupts us, telling us that we don’t have to live like we currently do. We don’t have to settle for the mundane. The dark. The lonely. The despair. The anger, violence, and evil of this world do not have to be a part of us.

He is the Inconvenient Messiah.

The One who asks us to leave the comfort of the hillside and seek Him.

The One who tells us to forsake our nets for His work.

The One who tells us to put mud on our eyes so we can see. 

The One who commands us to give up all we possess and follow Him.

The One who asks us to believe, even if we do not completely understand. 

The One who entreats us to love our neighbors as ourselves and do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

The One who has “hard sayings,” who insists that He has come not to bring peace, but a sword, and to cut off those things which keep us from Him.

The One who commands a higher law; a more excellent way.

Christ is the Grand Interrupter. He interrupts the ordinary—our ordinary. And the interruptions jolt us. His way is not easy. It never has been. He asks us to not only believe that there is a different way to live, but He asks us to change. To root out our desires for pride, revenge, and complacency. To break the cycle. He sees our potential. He believes in our goodness and asks us to believe in His.

This Christmas, remember the interruptions. 

Remember His entrance into the world—perhaps only noticed by only a handful, but oh, how that glorious interruption meant the world for those who received Him.

Remember His interruptions into the lives of ordinary fishermen at Galilee, publicans, sinners, and Pharisees.

Remember how He has interrupted your life—whether in grand or simple ways.

And remember that He will continue to interrupt.

“Come,” He says. “You don’t have to live like this. There is something more. You can be something more.”

Christ Healing at the Pool of Bethesda, Carl Bloch 

The choice of how to respond to Him is ours. It has been and always will be.

Here is a link to The Interrupters. It is an incredibly powerful documentary and well worth your time if you haven't seen it before. Even if you have seen it before. 
**See the beautiful song Carol of Joy.” 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Я люблю Москву (I love Moscow)

My last day in Moscow I went to the Kremlin. I wasn't able to go when I had planned (on Thursday), because apparently it's closed on Thursdays. 

[Walking up to the Kremlin gates.]

[Scaffolding and Japanese tourists.]

[Hey look, Mom! I'm in the Kremlin.]

[And now a nice photo for the fridge.]

[This is Uspenski Cobor. It is where the tsars of Russia were coronated.]

[Doors to Uspenski Cobor.]

[Golden domes.]

[A giant bell.] 

The Kremlin was really cool. Not only did I get to see an important part of Russian history, but I made a friend there, too. Her name is Irina and she is from Kazan, Russia. I noticed that she had been taking selfies of herself, so I offered to take some pictures for her. Later, we ran into each other outside of Uspenski Cobor and she asked me if I would like to tour the Kremlin together. She was super nice and it was wonderful to make a new friend. I really do love Eastern Europeans, especially Russians and Ukrainians. 

After the Kremlin, Irina and I walked down Old Arbat Street. There are more street vendors there in the summer, but there were still a few people there selling their wares. 

[I also got to see a Pushkin statue. Pushkin is basically the Russian Shakespeare. So kinda a big deal.]

I really enjoyed my trip to Moscow (if these pictures and what feels like five thousand pictures I posted on Facebook and Instagram are any indication). Of course I thought the touristy things were neat. But what I loved the most was just being there. Seeing the layout of the city, riding the Metro, hearing Russian on the streets and up and down the escalators, the smells, the atmosphere of the city. It is a vibrant place to visit. 


I think just another reason Russia appeals to me is how old it is and how foreign it is. I know that there are old things in England, too. And I've seen weapons, pottery, and gold used by the Anglo-Saxons. But there is a kind of richness to Russia and to Eastern Europe that I just don't feel in England. Perhaps it is all in my head. But I think there is an "otherness" to Russia and to Eastern Europe--perhaps it's the fact that they use a completely different alphabet. Perhaps it's because I could feel the music in cathedrals reverberate in my bones and sense the legacy of blood, power, reform, and struggle in the walls and the paths around me. But there is something special about this place. Something that you breathe but cannot completely understand. And I want to make it a part of me. 

Good-bye for now, Moscow. до встречи! I will see you. Hopefully sooner rather than later. 

Moscow Metro

In addition to the Tretyakov Gallery, I figured the Moscow Metro also deserved its own post. Because it's a work of art in and of itself.

When I first got onto the Metro, I was swept back to Kharkov. The platform smelled like those familiar platforms in northeastern Ukraine, and the cars looked like the metro cars in Kharkov, too--a blue-greenish color.

(I was just talking to a friend from Kharkov, and it makes sense--both Kharkov and Moscow were rebuilt after WWII, so there's a reason why the Metro systems are similar . . . even though Moscow's metro system is much bigger than Kharkov's.)

Something I like about any metro system (whether it be in New York, London, Kharkov, or Moscow) is how when you step out of the station, you feel like you truly have entered a different part of the city. Moscow is no different. But something cool about Moscow is how different each of the stations are, too. 

[And, of course, Lenin looks on.]

[This station is called "Revolutionary Square." It was one of my favorites. There are statues representing those who fought in the Russian Revolution.]

[People rub certain statues for good luck. For example, this guy's knee is apparently good luck. There is another soldier's pistol, and then a dog's nose which are also good luck.]

I wasn't able to get pictures of all of the Metro stations I was in (nor did I get a chance to go to all the ones I wanted to see), but I hope this gives you a taste of the uniqueness of the Moscow Metro system. 

The Tretyakov Gallery

The Tretyakov State Gallery was founded in 1892 when Pavel Tretyakov, a merchant and patron of the arts, donated his art collection to Moscow city. There are now over 170,000 pieces of art by Russian artists in the Gallery, and the artwork spans about 1,000 years.

And it is absolutely incredible.

Going to the Tretyakov Gallery was up there on my "to-do" list while in Moscow, because of one person: Raissa Vulfovna, who was my Russian Cultural History professor. She is a delightful Russian woman who loves her culture--art, music, literature, dance, etc. There is a rich tradition of beauty in Russia, and she was eager to share it with us. 

And I, ever the student, was eager to take it all in. 

So imagine my sheer joy and giddiness when I was able to see some of those pieces we talked about with my own eyes. It was just . . . it was a wonderful moment for me. 

Rokotov. Portrait of Alexandra Struyskaya (1772). Often called the Russian Mona Lisa. 


[Yep. This was pretty much my face the entire time. Megan = really, really happy.]

One painting I was looking forward to seeing was Ivanov's Christ's Appearance to the People. I wasn't sure where to find it (I didn't buy a map . . . call me a lazy museum-goer if you must), but then I turned the corner and wham! There it was. 

[It is huge. Absolutely huge. It is a depiction of Christ coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. The entire painting is masterfully done. But what I found incredibly moving were the expressions in the different faces.]

I also wanted to see Kramskoi's Christ in the Wilderness. I actually ended up asking one of the museum workers where it was and she opened up a few of the barriers so I could go straight to it. And I wasn't disappointed. 

[It is an extremely moving picture. I think it really captures the idea of the Savior being a "man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." I have a lot more I could say about it, but I will save that for another time.]

Some more paintings by Kramskoi: 

Portrait of Lev Tolstoy.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman. 1883. 

Some other paintings I liked: 

Life is Everywhere, by Yaroshenko. 

Conscience of Judas, by Nikolai Ge

Portrait of Dostoevsky, by Perov

Honestly, being there was like my Russian 330 class come to life. It was so nice to know the history behind these paintings. It made being there much more meaningful to me. 

Bogytyrs, Vasnetsov 

Boyaryna Morozova, by Surikov. 
[This painting depicts an episode in Russian history called the Raskol, or the Great Schism. It was a break in the Russian Orthodox Church between Old and New Believers. Some of the arguments included whether or not you should cross yourself with two or three fingers or use two or three "Alleluias" when praising God. It wasn't just a matter of fingers to them--it was a matter of worshiping God in the correct way. The lady being carted away is an Old Believer--you can tell because she is lifting two fingers to heaven. She was a noblewoman who defended what she believed, even though she went to prison and died for it. We sometimes think arguments like this are foolish, but often we do the same thing--we argue and even kill over faith and morals.]

Ivan the Terrible and His Son, Repin. 

[Another episode out of Russian history. Ivan the Terrible got into an argument with his favorite son (also named Ivan) whom he had chosen and groomed to be king. In his anger, Ivan the Terrible ended up killing his son. Repin (the artist of this painting) didn't like doing historical paintings, but after the assassination of Alexander II, he felt that this was a way that he could protest against violence.]

The Trinity.

[One of my very favorite pieces of Russian art.] 

The Tretyakov Gallery is exquisite. I'm so grateful I had the chance to go and hope to be able to go again someday.