While living in Ukraine, we were entrusted with a couple acres and a “khata,” a humble peasant-style dwelling, heated by an adobe wood-stove, not all that different from one in which people would have lived a century ago. We frequently used it not only for personal “time away,” but pastors’ retreats, women’s retreats, prayer weekends, and the like. We had a vision to developing it to house folks coming out of prison or drug rehab… but a sudden, unplanned departure in 2009 changed all of that.
We grieved almost as much about what seemed to be the death of the dreams we had for that place as we did for having to leave our beloved Ukraine. But Ukraine remains close to our heart (and frequently in our itinerary) to this day. And we pray always for the land and people.
As we walked up the hill from the little village of Grigorivka, we wept. We didn’t know when, if ever, we would return, and the hopes we had for this place to be a haven of blessing and redemption and peace seemed to disappear like a puff of smoke. But, in our sorrow, I felt God speaking directly into my heart, not audibly, but in words, real words in real time. Here is what I “heard”: “This land belongs to the Lord. Are you afraid that your leaving means that worship will cease? My name will be glorified in this place and my name will resound through these hills.”
One of the pastors who frequented our khata was our great friend Igor Stakhovskiy, who served as the pastor of the little flock at an early church plant. (Here’s an article from Christianity Today about this from “back in the day.”) He was one of the few people we knew who had a relatively dependable car, and he often drove the two hours from Kyiv, sometimes to drop us off, other times bringing his entire family.
While friendships and burdens remain, dreams do sometimes die. Yet they’re sometimes reborn. Entire chapters of life seem to end in a sudden aposiopesis… only to be reconfigured in a new place with new characters.
When we come through Kyiv, we always seek out Igor, his wife Raia and as many of their kids as can be summoned. We talk about faith, the country, Scripture, prayer… and the village of Grigorivka.
It turns out they go down there fairly regularly. Sometimes Igor just goes to fast and pray. Other times they go as a family to enjoy “village life.” Or they’ll bring a whole crew down for prayer retreats, to seek vision from the Lord.
They’ve connected with another couple, who moved down from Kyiv about 10 or 11 years ago… in other words, pretty much exactly the same time that we started going down there… “You really would like them. The wife so reminds me of Liz.”
Igor and Raia have started a ministry of prayer with this couple. Central Ukraine, and this region in particular, has a long, pre-Christian pagan heritage. So the four of them head out walking the land, walking to and around old pagan sites to pray against any spiritual bondage or pollution. Because some pollution and poison dissipate over time. And maybe some hangs on. They do this “because it’s God’s land. All of it.”
Igor always thanks us for introducing him to this place, this spot on the map onto which we stumbled as strangers and aliens over a decade ago and fell in love with. “We have come to appreciate,” he says, “that this place truly lies at the heart of the nation of Ukraine.” It’s near where their national hero, Taras Shevchenko, chose to be buried. “Even he understood the spiritual importance” of these hills along the Dnepr. “And Satan cannot have this land… it belongs to God.”
In recent years, Igor says, Ukraine has endured harsh insults for being “at the margins” (as in of Great Russia). “Instead of being offended by that, we can embrace it… we ARE on the edge… the edge of the new Jerusalem. Just like St. Andrew said!” (It’s said that he traveled up the Dnepr in the days after the bible’s narrative closed, waking one morning on the riverbank near the spot where Kyiv now sits – not far from our apartment. He told his companions, “Do you see these hills? Look at them; for upon them will shine the rays of God’s grace. Here will be built a great city in which God will place many churches.”
What about Ukraine nowadays, particularly in spiritual terms? Igor hails from the southern town of Mariupol. “Let me tell you about my town. They had a Lenin statue made out of the same special “semi-religious” red marble as the one in Kyiv that was destroyed during the Maidan demonstrations.” (I’ve also seen the same material liberally used in Lenin’s tomb in Moscow). “It really made it more of an idol than a statue. One day I was worshipping with a Roman Catholic priest. We agreed that we were feeling the power of the Spirit. The next day the Lenin statue was pulled down. There were three others Lenin statues in town, but the crowds couldn’t get to them, or when they could, they couldn’t physically succeed in pulling them down. However, in the course of the next few days, the city got spooked and took them down themselves.”
A group of believers decided it would be a good idea for all of the religious confessions in the city to come together for a “procession of the cross.” Nothing like this had been done before, no one was sure if, strictly speaking, it was legal. The city government certainly was opposed to it at first, fearing that the mix could become volatile, though they eventually relented. So Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Pentecostals, all held a 24-hour prayer service and then marched through town. (Here’s a news report of it.) They even all took communion together.
One elderly woman, basically speaking for all who had taken part, approached the local government and asked whether they couldn’t set up a prayer tent on the spot in the central square where, until recently, the Lenin monument had stood. The response (either authentic or intended to stall) was that they would need to “ask Kyiv.” So the request went up the line. The response came back: OK, fine. But would you like us to provide a tent? Do you need to have power hooked up? So everything was set up with the help of the militia.
The tent opened on Easter… directly on the spot where Lenin had stood for generations. They fed and shared the Word with soldiers, protesters, everyone… All the clergy and ministers, across the board, participated, led services, led prayers, served in unity. They didn’t really have any concrete “plans.” “They just prayed and expected God to work… and He did. God opened the door and led his people through it.”
In Mariupol everyone united to pray for protection of the town. There have been attempts to overtake it, but it has never fallen to the Russians. “The place they met to pray for protection is now a security check point. They are using the Apostle’s Creed as their common prayer. In one meeting, a sailor guy got healed through the power of the Holy Spirit… he didn’t know anything about being or talking “religious,” ience before, he did what he knew: he began jumping up and down, praising God for his awesome f*king mercy!
I asked Igor what gave them inspiration to pull this off. “Simply put, it was this: Jesus is Lord. And this land belongs to the LORD.”
Funny how that’s the same word that the Lord gave us when we felt we were being torn away from Grigorivka.
And it’s funny how a lot of the rustic beauty, the gritty relationality, the feeling of simultaneously being isolated and connected, the hard work to cooperate (not master) the land in order to see God glorified that characterized our presence at “the khata” seems to have been transmogrified into our lives, dreams and burdens here at this old Mill Pond.