Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Shall I Wear?

Most of us own so many articles of clothing that we have to look at the clothes in our closet and ask ourselves, "What will I wear today?"  We are very fortunate.  There are people who live in some places in the world who do not ask that question when they begin to get dressed.  There choices are very limited.  They may own only two pieces of each type of clothing, just enough to have a spare when one needs to be washed.

I was fortunate to go on a mission trip back in 1997 with a team to Siberia.  We flew from Dallas to Frankfurt and then to Moscow and spent a few days there and then got on board the Russian airlines Aeroflot for a four hour trip to Tomsk.  A nice group of Russian people met us at the airport and picked us up in a little van and drove us through the birch forests to an orphanage where we were to stay and work for a week.  Our group got settled in and enjoyed a "welcoming dinner" provided by our hosts and the next day, we were up very early to begin our work of painting and doing minor repairs here and there.  It was the work that brought us to that orphanage but our real task was to build relations with the Russians we met and to spread peace through the lives we lived among them.

A little boy, perhaps 8 years old, named Cola became my buddy for that week.  He spoke no English and I spoke only about 6 words of Russian that I had learned from a Russian-English dictionary I had brought along.  We communicated by my talking louder than usual in English (doesn't that help them understand you?) and waving my hands about to demonstrate what I wanted to say to him.  Cola met me each morning after breakfast and followed me around.  Sometimes he would reach out and hold my hand and we would walk and talk and not know what the other was saying.  One day we were supposed to paint the outside of a building.  Some of us gathered and had our brushes and paint and were all ready to begin work when Cola showed up.  He waved his hand in an up and down motion to tell me that he wanted to paint too.  I shook my head to say "No" and said in English loudly, "You will get paint all over your shirt".  I had noticed by then that Cola wore the same shirt every day.  He was dressed with all the clothes he needed but he always wore the same shirt.  I was so afraid that if he got paint on his clothing from helping us, the rather stern looking matron who administered the orphanage may punish him so I didn't want him to have that happen.  Cola stood and watched us paint and looked ready to jump in and help at any moment but I could not put his shirt in danger of damage.  I did not know if he had another one to take its place.

We stayed at the orphanage for a week and had many experiences.  We visited a Russian Orthodox church for a special service.  We took a long van trip to another town to see the sights.  We were treated like visiting royalty by our guides and translators.  At the end of our week, they hosted a farewell party for us.  We had a dinner complete with lots of champagne and vodka and then the children sang and danced in some traditional costumes.  As we ended our time together, along came Cola and took me by the hand.  Suddenly I had this giant lump in my throat because I knew I had to say good-bye to this new friend I had made over a course of a week.  Why would a foreigner like me become attached to a little boy who could not speak my language over the course of a week?  How puzzling was that?  As I told Cola goodbye and gave him a hug, I began to cry as did most of our team members as we had to say goodbye to the friends we had made at this place we had never gone to before.  Tears were shed on both sides of the airport the next day as we boarded our Aeroflot plane bound for St. Petersburg.

We Americans brought a lot of clothes with us.  Many of us returned with far less clothes because we gave away most of them to the people at the orphanage.  We left there wearing our two or three changes we had to keep us till we got home but gave the guides and translators and people working at the orphanage all the clothing we could spare.  We had so much and they had so little in comparison.  It was the least we could do.

St. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus in chapter 6 describing how Christians should dress as they fight against the evil in the world around them.  Paul envisioned a Roman soldier dressed in all of his armor to protect him in battle.  Paul thought of the world in the first century Roman Empire as a very dangerous place and that Christians were doing daily battle against the forces of evil in the world.  To be prepared to live in that world, Paul said, Christians had to be suited up with all they needed to survive.  Take on the "whole armor of God" he said, and in that inventory was the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  Paul also told them to wear shoes that would make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

How ironic that Paul used a metaphor of war to say one would proclaim the gospel of peace at the same time.  Paul's vision of what was needed to be prepared in this world says that Christians need to use all they have at their disposal to stand up against the forces that they may encounter in the world.  There is evil in the world and we see it at work each day as we read the newspaper and see the broadcasts on television and computers.  We may feel overwhelmed at time by all of the violence and confusion at work in our world.  Evil abounds but it cannot conquer the forces of good, and Christians represent those forces equally at work in the world.

What we did as Americans going to work among the people of Russia in the 90s was to spread the gospel of peace among them.  I was asked to preach during the service we had on the Sunday when we were there.  I preached to Americans and Russians and children gathered for that service.  I preached in English as a translator said my words again in the language of the people there.  I cannot remember exactly what I preached but I know it was something about people living in peace together.  This was only 8 years after the fall of the wall that had separated our countries.  Both groups were a bit wary of each other and we did not know what to think about being around our former Cold War "enemies".  We needed to speak words of peace to each other and say that we believed that we could live together as friends even though our governments promoted war-like ideas.

Paul wanted the new Christians at Ephesus to know that even though they were surrounded by people whom they may be unsure of and not know whether to trust them, they were to spread the gospel of peace and live as people prepared to stand firm in their day but also to share what they had experienced as messengers of peace.

Paul described himself as an "ambassador".  He represented the Kingdom of God and lived in an alien land that did not see the world as he did.  We are all ambassadors of Christ in the world around us.  We live as people who belong to a heavenly kingdom even though we hold citizenship in an earthly one.  We had dual citizenship, you may say, keeping our feet firmly planted on earth but our spirits united with the one who enlivens and enriches us.  We are to speak on behalf of the kingdom we represent and let them know that our kingdom is one of peace and love and grace.

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