the White Rose and hope

2 10 2013

Today marks the beginning of my second year in Kyiv.  A year ago today, while moving to Kyiv, I had an 11.5 hour layover in Munich–which I chose over a 4.5 hour layover where I would have only seen the airport.  I hopped on the train from the airport to the city center with one primary goal : find the Hans and Sophie Scholl monument.

Munich was full of men in lederhosen, and women in traditional dresses, all there for Oktoberfest.  I grabbed a quick breakfast at a cafe, and set off to find the street which would intersect Geschwister-Scholl-Platz, the square named after the Scholl twins.  When I found the street its entire length was a huge party for the Day of German Reunification; every German state had a booth with tourist info, food, drink, and lots of people.  I walked maybe a kilometer up the street, found Geschwister-Scholl-Platz covered in festivities for the German reunification party, and eventually found the monument in the pavement.

I was en route to Kyiv, but finding that monument mattered to me.  Ukraine is a country that suffered greatly during World War II and under the Soviet Union.  I knew a little of the Scholl’s story, enough to know that their connecting their Christian faith with actively standing for truth, was something I wanted to learn about, and is something I believe is still relevant today. Perhaps more than anything, what Ukraine, Europe, or the United States need today is a solid basis for hope.

the White Rose in Munich

Hans and Sophie Scholl have been heroes of mine ever since I first read of them as a college freshman.  During World War II, the Scholl twins were part of a small group of university students in Munich who published a series of pamphlets from June 1942 through February 1943 informing people about the evil the Nazi government was pursuing, and calling people to stand against it.  Hans and Sophie were eventually arrested by Nazi secret police, tried in what was by all accounts a show trial and travesty of justice, and beheaded, along with five of their friends and fellow-students, who had helped write and distribute their pamphlets.

I felt that their story mattered deeply, and that in coming to Ukraine it was worth the stop to find their monument, to gain a little more understanding to their commitment to truth.  They believed that loyalty to truth ought to drive us to action, to standing against evil in the world, with a willingness to die if necessary.  During his interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo, Hans Scholl stated, “I knew what I took upon myself and I was prepared to lose my life by so doing.” Wow.  You don’t make that kind of decision without a commitment to truth and solid hope for the future.

But some have this idea that truth is for hard-nosed people, that you either care about truth or you care about people, that truth is only facts, and hope is just an irrational feeling.  Was that the case with Hans and Sophie?  Or did their loyalty to speaking the truth actually illustrate the deep love they had for their neighbors and hope they had for their future, for the men and women who lived in German cities, who were all around them but largely silent in the face of fascist atrocities?  Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  Their loyalty to truth, to living their lives out of their deepest commitments and hopes, still speaks today.

Here in Ukraine, one can still see the legacy of World War Two destruction, some seventy or so years later.  There are lots of monuments, eternal flames, and statues commemorating those who died, those who fought bravely, and those who died tragically and horrendously.  There are also countless villages which no longer exist, wiped off the map.  Much trust has been broken, and generations of people didn’t know if they could trust their neighbors or their government.  Soviet writer and dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago (p. 15) regarding the silence with with people responded to the disappearances of their neighbors and friends,

“You really can and you really ought to cry out—to cry out that you are being arrested! That villains in disguise are trapping people! That arrests are being made on the strength of false denunciations! That millions are being subjected to silent reprisals! If many such outcries had been heard all over the city in the course of a day, would not our fellow citizens perhaps have begun to bristle? And would arrests perhaps no longer have been so easy?”

Though not Ukrainian, Hans and Sophie Scholl provide a much needed example of people who weren’t content to remain silent.  They cried out, giving their lives as a witness to the truth.

There are still many things broken and wrong here, systemic corruption, and deep cynicism about the government.  However, this isn’t unique to Ukraine.  I have plenty of friends back in the United States who are deeply cynical about the state of things there.  Some think gargantuan corporations run the entire show with their Republican friends by simply pursuing the almighty dollar and a pound of flesh, others think leftist and statist liberals are out to destroy or remove constitutional freedoms.  All over people are concerned about the potential of terrorist attacks.  Whether confronting hard historical realities that still reverberate here in Ukraine, facing deep challenges to constitutional liberties and social order in America, or facing unpredictable terror, I think a primary question is how to give hope for the future.  And I’m not naive: neither people nor cultures change overnight, but they can change.

When a man lays down his life for his enemies, and then rises from the dead three days later, that can change the world.  That gives real, substantial hope as it reverberates through history.  That hope is something solid, not just a wish—its a foundation lives can be built on, truth to which we’re called to live in response, and hope for cynical cultures.

I’m beginning my second year here.  How much can I really do, as a foreigner?  I’ve just made a start learning the language, with only 11 months under my belt.  I worship with Ukrainians Christians, serve our community through an English club,  am investing in relationships with friends I’ve met here, and am helping a small group start a new church.  Why?  I long to give hope, to bear witness to the truth, to stand against cynicism and help Ukrainians, Europeans, and Americans display this hope for their own cities, and point to the empty tomb that gave birth to a new humanity of women and men with hope.



19 06 2013

The Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet, which I took during my day off there last month.  This beautiful building, designed and built by a Polish-born, Berlin-trained architect, Zygmunt Gorgolewski.  He won a municipal design competition, and managed to fit the building into the already built city-center with his proposal to enclose the Poltva River underground.  The Theatre and the tree-lined boulevard created by his design are beautiful.

Yesterday in my Russian class, while discussing reasons why people enjoy going on excursions, my teacher told me, “of course, to see достопримечательности.”  Well, she realized I didn’t know the word, достопримечáтельность, which is a noun meaning for an interesting place.  And I couldn’t help but think of my classmate Helen, who’s left for the USA, but who loves these incredible sounding Russian words.

So apparently, its not just the Germans who enjoy scrumptious mouthfuls of syllables in single words.  I guess if we were playing Scrabble again in Russian, at least three of us would need to gang up to play достопримечательность… if it even fits on the board!

on life-giving letters

9 03 2013

I just found a quote from Henri Nouwen Latin American Journal that I typed up when I read it, but never actually posted here.  On January 9th, 1982 (p. 105), he wrote,

Letters are gifts, often greater than the writers realize.  Ever since I left the United States, I have experienced a deep hunger for lifegiving letters–letters from very close friends who have little to ask and little to inform me of, but who simply speak about bonds of friendship, love, care, and prayer.  I am overwhelmed by a letter that says: “We think of you, pray for you, and we want you to know that we love you.”  I have never experienced the power of such letters as strongly as during these last months.  They directly affect my spiritual, emotional, and even physical life. They influence my prayers, my inner feelings, and even my breathing and heartbeat.

“The Word was made flesh, he lived among us” (John 1:14).  These words by St. John received new life for me during my last months here.  A word of love sent to me by a friend can indeed become flesh and bridge long distances of time and space.  Such a word can heal pains, bind wounds, and often give new life.  Such a word can even restore a faltering faith and make me aware that in the community of love, the incarnation of the divine love can be realized wherever we are.

The letters I’ve received here have been a huge encouragement, perhaps even more so than the emails.  Is that because the physicality of ink on paper echos Jesus’ incarnation more directly than pixels on a screen?  When I’ve taken time to send handwritten thank you notes or letters, I come away from that hour or two deeply grateful for the people who’ve partnered with me in prayer, in giving, in friendship.  Or to use Pauline terms, writing brings people to mind, and when I remember them I give thanks for their partnership with my in the gospel of Christ.  How appropriate it is, then, to encourage one another with the incarnation of our words on paper.

time to play

23 02 2013

Yesterday there was a group of school kids on the subway platform, waiting for the next train.  As they boarded, I noticed many of the adults who were close to that subway car’s door walked further than usual to get onto the next subway car, to avoid the noise of that class of children.  I followed the kids onto the train, to observe and catch whatever phrases I could understand.  Most of them were playfully interacting with each other, and I’d say they were probably between 9 and 12 years old.  A few had smartphones, interestingly the girls who had smartphones were using them in groups–one group of three playing an electronic Uno game, another group taking pictures of each other and laughing a lot, whereas the boys tended to be using their phones by themselves.  When the train crossed the bridge over the Dnipr river, most of the kids turned looked out the window at the river, at the shore, at the world around them, except for one of the boys who had his nose stuck in his smartphone the entire time.

I reflected on my love for kids, for playing with them, and for helping them understand God’s incredible love for us in Jesus Christ.  I miss singing songs with the kids at my church back in Chattanooga, and miss my friends’ kids.  In Henri Nouwen’s South American journal, he said that for most of his adult career in seminary, in university, and in his teaching positions, he wasn’t around kids–from his 18th year until his 50th year, when as a missionary he moved into a roof-top room with a poor Peruvian family.  He reflected in his Thursday, January 28, 1982 journal entry:

The children always challenge me to live in the present.  They want me to be with them here and now, and they find it hard to understand that I might have other things to do or to think about.  After all my experiences with psychotherapy, I suddently have discovered the great healing power of children.  Every time Pablito, Johnny, and Maria run up to welcome me, pick up my suitcase, and bring me to my “roof-room,” I marvel at their ability to be fully present to me.  Their uninhibited expression of affection and their willingness to receive it pull me directly into the moment and invite me to celebrate life where it is found.  Whereas in the past coming home meant time to study, to write letters, and to prepare for classes, it now first of all means time to play.  [My grandpa’s margin note here says, “Beautiful!”]

In the beginning, I had to get used to finding a little boy under my bed, a little girl in my closet, and a teenager under my table, but now I am disappointed when I find my friends asleep at night.  I did not know what to expect when I came to Pamplona Alta.  I wondered how the poverty, the lack of good food and good housing would affect me; I was afraid of becoming depressed by the misery I would see.  But God showed me something else first: affectionate, open, and playful children who are telling me about love and life in ways no book was ever able to do.  I now realize that only when I can enter with the children into their joy will I be able to enter also with them into their poverty and pain.  God obviously wants me to walk into the world of suffering with a little child on each hand. (Nouwen, p. 123) [Here my grandpa wrote, “Let the children come to me & don’t let them get cut off because God’s reign belongs to those who are like children – Matt 19:14.  Beloved we are already children of God – I John 3:12.]

I’m thankful all the other families on my team have kids.  Last night I had dinner with my team leader’s family, as I often do Friday evenings.  I love arriving at their house  and hearing their son Zachary’s enthusiastic greeting, “Joel is here!” as he runs from the living room or kitchen to the entry-way to give me a hug and start telling me about whatever he’s doing.

Advent snows

3 12 2012

Today began with slushy rain.  By nine or ten o’clock it was turning to snow, a wet, slushy snow, but snow.  Around the world Christians are celebrating Advent, reflecting on the prophecies and promises fulfilled in Christ’s first coming, while we anticipate his return.  By late-afternoon, this is how things looked in my neighborhood of Kiev:

2012 Kiev First Snow from Joel Swanson on Vimeo.

A friend asked, “Why do so many people love the winter’s first snow?”  Perhaps the cold windy snow gives us eyes to appreciate the warmth and cheer of hearth and home, and the company of good friends.  Perhaps its the anticipation of the coming of Christmastide.  Many of our Christmas carols reference snow, such as this:

See, amid the winter’s snow,
Born for us on earth below,
See the tender Lamb appears,
Promised from eternal years.

        Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
        Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
        Sing through all Jerusalem,
        Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies:
He who, throned in height sublime,
Sits amid the cherubim.

Say, ye holy shepherds, say,
What your joyful news today?
Wherefore have ye left your sheep
On the lonely mountain steep?

“As we watched at dead of night,
Lo! we saw a wondrous light;
Angels singing, peace on earth,
Told us of the Saviour’s birth.”

Sacred Infant, all divine,
What a tender love was thine,
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this!

Teach, O teach us, holy Child,
By thy face so meek and mild,
Teach us to resemble thee,
In thy sweet humility.

Whatever the reasons, I love the first snow.  Its a time to pause, to celebrate the goodness of our God who demonstrates his steady love from season to season, sending both snow and sun, cold and warm, day and night in their appointed times.

Lift your mug of hot chocolate or mulled wine: here’s to the unchanging goodness of our faithful, covenant-keeping God!

building in the borderland

20 10 2012

I’m here… and I’ve mailed a letter!

Actually, I’ve been here two and a half weeks already.  Wow.

In that time, I’ve found an apartment, begun getting to know Kiev and where to find things for my apartment– you know, dishes, furniture, linens, towels– all that stuff.  I’ve nearly used the 50 rides on my Metro card, plus I’ve racked quite a few up Marshrutka (minibus-taxi) rides, started studying Russian, and walked a lot more kilometers than my daily routine included in Chattanooga.  A couple  surprises so far:

  1. Coffee is far more readily available than my last time here in 2009.  One can even find good coffee, though instant espresso (made with a machine, not hand-crafted by a barista) is available outside of most Metro stations for the equivalent of 50 cents to just over a dollar.  Actually, the last couple mornings I’ve grabbed an espresso and a vartrushka before taking the Metro.  But as far as caffeinated beverages go, tea is still at the heart of this culture.
  2. Leaving Chattanooga was far harder than I had anticipated, especially saying goodbyes to a few particularly close friends and family.  I hope to flesh that out a bit more in my next email update, but having the confidence and send-off of those who know me best, and the commissioning of my home church, is a huge encouragement.  Thanks!

Having left Chattanooga, when I looked down on Kiev as the plane passed low over the city on approach to the airport, I had a very strong sense that this is my city.  Not that I own it, or even understand it, but God called me here, sent me by your encouragement, prayers, and support.  Behind the seemingly everyday reality of being here, I’m actually a commissioned bond-servant of the King, called to serve in a different part of his realm.  All authority and power are his, and he has sent me out.

I’m deeply convinced that learning Russian is a crucial step I must take to seek the welfare of this particular city, of the particular people whose paths God will weave together with mine.  So pray with me on behalf of Kiev and the millions who live here.  As the Lord said through Jeremiah when God’s people were called to live in Babylon, “in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).  Somehow, my welfare is wrapped up in seeking the shalom of Kiev, a city in the borderland between many different things.

Through your partnership with me in the gospel of Christ, and by his spirit, I’m building in the borderland.

Happy Saturday evening

12 08 2012

So I’m home in Chattanooga, mailing out hard copies of the email update many of you received yesterday.  I also hope to send out a couple thank you notes, and more will follow on Monday.  Addressing and signing letters, penning thank you notes… these things may seem mundane, but they’re the stuff of relationship–expressions of the real partnership in the gospel I have with many of you.

planted one month in Astoria to prepare for two years (minimum!) in Kiev!

Thanks for your prayers and support!  I wouldn’t have been able to attend MTW’s Cross Cultural Ministry Internship in New York without your partnership, and certainly wouldn’t been able to follow God’s call to serve in Kiev without your vital role.  Because of your faithfulness, I was planted in Astoria, Queens, New York City last month, and was able to serve Astoria Community Church there while preparing to serve in Kiev soon.

Also, through your prayers and giving, you’re making more certain my September departure for the field.  I’ve received emails regarding two more pledges, one from an individual and one from a church, that move my overall support to nearly 98%!

Happy Saturday evening!  Thanks for your generosity in giving and your persistence in praying!