Thursday, January 22, 2015

Something hidden from view, unexplained and sacred

As a college student majoring in history, I scrimped and saved and sacrificed to travel one summer with a study group to Eastern Europe and Russia, yes, both still at the time behind the Iron Curtain.  I was attending a fiercely secular university at the time.  The trip was offered by a Christian college, led by professors who were Christ-followers.  I wanted to see first-hand the integration of faith and academics, and to grasp the spiritual dimension of history, those facts and incidents somehow conveniently omitted from textbooks.

It became evident from the onset of the trip that this was no luxury tour.  We had been forewarned that we would be staying in urban hostels and rural campgrounds for the duration of the journey, traveling in a caravan of three very rattly Volkswagen vans.  The details had been somewhat muted.  We ate peanut butter and jelly at least twice a day and rested in sleeping bags everywhere from partitioned gymnasiums to rustic wooden shelters, and once, in a parking area alongside a highway in the middle of the night, our sleeping bags lined up on the grass in the shadow of the moon.  We awoke at dawn with dew in our hair and Polish truck drivers looking quizzically at what appeared to them as a disheveled group of lost refugees.

In a particular campground in the middle of Russia, conditions were primitive at best.  Rural was an understatement.  We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere, studying the relics of magnificent cathedrals which stood like a reminder of an ancient culture. We pulled into our designated campground late one evening, a makeshift collection of unadorned huts so crudely constructed that the cold night wind whispered through the cracks and electricity had not yet been discovered.  I wondered about the history of this place, and those whose hard lives had been written on these dilapidated walls.

The other people staying at the campground stared at us as if we were aliens from another planet, and yet as young people facing unknown futures, we too were transients in time and season.  This was a place of nomadic people, some who stayed only a night, and others as long as they were able.  It appeared we were dwelling not in a campground but traipsing page by page through a decades-old issue of National Geographic magazine, complete with unidentifiable smells, dialects and the sounds of cooking over wood collected from the forest around us. 

I loved the aroma of the pine needles as we searched for firewood, the idyllic outdoors spread out underneath a canopy of stars.  But there was another side to living in this place.  The bathrooms were violent in odor.  The toilets consisted of two cinder blocks and a hole in the floor.  A few dirty sinks provided a flow of cold water, for drinking, doing dishes, and the closest thing to a bath we would see for a week.  One did not linger.  I could barely breathe the noxious air. The floor was adhesive with something I dare not think about.  Toilet paper had not yet been invented here.  We rationed what we had brought by ourselves, square by square.

Early one morning, I dashed through the door of the bathhouse only for necessity.  As I washed my hands in the ice cold water, my toothbrush fell out of my pocket.  The world came to a standstill as my fellow travelers stared.  You would have thought an heirloom vase had been shattered on the concrete floor.  We were at least a hundred miles and several scheduled days from a store.  I didn't even want to pick it up, let alone ever use it again.

A chuckle broke the silence.  "Oh, so that's why," one of my friends laughed.  "Follow me," she said.  From her duffel bag, she pulled out a brand-new toothbrush, still packaged.

"My mom insisted that I bring this with me in case I needed it.  This has been taking up space in my bag now for seven weeks.  I had been wondering why I was carrying this unnecessary toothbrush through Europe.  I thought that I would finally prove my mom to be wrong.  I didn't need it.

"But you did."

This incident occurred a lifetime ago, but God still reminds me from time to time what I am carrying, what I am experiencing, what I have been given, may not be about me at all.  God may have placed it in my life for someone else.  And most likely He did.

I need not know the reason
        for how God can use it. 
But He does.

Not an unnecessary experience,
nor a mystery after all,
        but His divine purposes taking root.

God will redeem.

And God is able
to provide you
with every blessing in abundance,
          so that
you may always have
enough of everything
and may provide in abundance
    for every good work.
As it is written,
"He scatters abroad,
He gives to the poor;
His righteousness endures

          2 Corinthians 9. 8-9

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