This one is long, but if you can, please read it. I think you will be glad.
A few times this year, I've paused to think to myself, "Wow, that last week was the hardest -- and absolutely the best -- week of my life." No joke, this has happened at least once every two months. The crazy thing is I think I'm actually right every time.
It just gets better and better!
So, I thought this was a good time to talk about joy.
Last week, we had guests to our congregation from the US and Singapore and Ukraine, for a very special pair of services in Minsk and Brest which celebrated the Jewish festival of Hanukkah... The feast of rededication and of lights.
Our "foreign" (Ukraine doesn't really count as foreign here, so these are the US and Singapore folks.) visitors arrived about a week before the festivals. I noted that the week was off to an interesting start when the first plane arrived about eight hours late, at 1:30am on Monday morning, the 10th. As I waited in the Minsk airport to greet the guest, I was completely bundled in my coat and hat and gloves. This airport is cold, I thought. Being cold is no fun, I thought. Poor poor me, I hope he gets through customs soon because I can't feel my toes.
Thinking of the wee hours a week later makes me laugh at myself when I think about my airport chill. But we'll get to that.
Later that day, as we greeted more guests at that grey and draughty airport, I think we may have wound up on Belarusian TV. A new World Champion gymnast, Ivan Ivankof (consistency is good in a name) returned home to Minsk, and the video camera swirled all around us in the cramped arrivals hall. Gymnasts really are tiny in real life. I mean really, really tiny. Belarus has produced some remarkable (and probably quite tiny) gymnasts, and I remember that back in 1992 it was Belarusian gold medallist gymnasts who prompted me to find out where and what this little country is anyway.
The foreign visitors who came had an amazing week, a sort of crash course on life in Minsk. They visited a town orphanage, our favorite Minsk hospital, the streets of the World War II Jewish Ghetto in Minsk, several of our prayer meetings and home groups, and not only got to experience the luxury (ahem) of the Minsk airport but also the starkness of a Belarusian train.
My tongue is in my cheek now only because I know what's coming next. I'm going to write you about lessons and songs and miracles and light and simple, pure, grateful joy. But I can't even being to describe the joy without painting the backdrop for you -- and the backdrop is Belarus in Winter, a very snowy and cold place with blocky buildings and lots of vodka, clouds throughout the daytime, and a night which lasts from about 4 in the afternoon to 9 in the morning... a place doesn't appear to be big on cheer.
So in Minsk in Winter I joined the foreigners and the president of the Belarusian Holocaust Survivors' Association for a walking tour of the former Minsk Ghetto. Minsk and every other major city in Belarus had a ghetto. Minsk had its own concentration camp, which nobody knew about until a few years ago. Mikhail, the president of the Survivors' Association and our tour guide, remembers. He remembers what it was like in Winter in the Ghetto, when there was nothing to eat and you had no coat and you were forced to work outside in the cold. How could one survive such conditions?
The way some people tell stories, you know that they really care for the people in their stories. Mikhail tells stories this way. He wants you to understand why this woman is so remarkable, or why this man is considered a hero. He told us plenty of stories about other survivors, and I understood that he cared for each one of them deeply.
But the best story of all that day was a simple connection that God made across 60 years and several thousand miles. Andrew from Singapore was on the tour, and Mikhail told us about a song he heard while he was a teenager in the ghetto. The song started with the lines "In the far away land of sunny Singapore..." As a boy, Mikhail would sing this song to himself during the winters as a comfort, just to know that there was something warmer out there. He says he still finds himself humming the old tune sometimes. "I never, ever would have thought," he told us, "that I would someday walk the streets of the former ghetto with a guy from Singapore." He was so happy.
Mikhail is a toughened man, but meeting Andrew struck him somewhere deep. Maybe joy is just lurking within us, joy is our original natural state, and in our lives we build up so many walls to protect our joy that we hardly see it anymore. Because joy and protection don't go together -- joy needs to touch something outside to really become alive. It's funny, the things that can break through walls and bring out our joy.
Maybe I should get on with my story. It's just that my roommate is playing her guitar and singing in the next room, and it's quite beautiful and it's making me whimsical.
So, the thing about Hanukkah is that it is the festival of lights, and of rededication. A quick rundown of the Hanukkah story: Basically, Jerusalem was overrun by the big Syrian army who defiled the temple and outlawed the worship of the true God, and a family nicknamed "Hammer" or "Maccabbee" managed to fight off the big army in David and Goliath style -- nothing but a figurative slingshot and the power of the Creator of heaven and earth.
So that was one miracle. The next was that they went to clean out the temple and there was a 7-flamed lamp that was to burn at all times, but they only had enough of the special oil to last for a day. It took them 8 days to find more oil, and during all that time the little smidge of oil somehow lasted and lasted.
Because of that, they made another special lamp to commemorate the miracle. This lamp, called a "hanukiah," has nine branches -- one for each day that the oil lasted, and one that is called the "shamash" or "servant" light, used to light all the other lights. Hanukkah as a festival lasts for eight days, and each day the shamash is used to light progressively more candles.
On the last night of Hanukkah, all the candles are lit. As a kid who got presents every night of Hanukkah, I was always a little bummed out when the holiday ended... But a fully lit "hanukiah" is definitely the best kind of all.
The Antonoviches from Zhitomir -- my hosts twice this year on my Ukrainian sojourns and a family whom I utterly adore -- visited Belarus for our two Hanukkah festivals. Anton Antonovich (again, gotta love consistency) told the Hanukkah story both times, and his main point was to look at yourself and one another and ask, are you light? We are supposed to be light to the world. Are we light? The shamash candle, placed a little bit above the other eight but still the "servant" for them all, is a pretty good example of Yeshua, and we are like the other eight candles.
In Russian, "Are you light?" is two words, and a change in intonation turns it from a question to a statement. You light? You're light. I'm light.
Please bear with me, I hope it will make more sense in a minute.
We had our festival in Minsk and it was wonderful. The next morning 20 of us -- all the visitors and a bunch of us from Minsk -- went to Brest to do another festival there.
Sunday morning we started out at 07.20, and I packed up the leftovers from a little Hanukkah party I threw the night before, so that we would have something to munch on in the van. Eight people were in the van, 12 on the train. Even a Belarusian train is more comfortable than this van, and almost all of us had wanted to be on the train for some reason or another... for me, it was that my friends from Ukraine were on the train and I was separate from them. The van acted a little funny at the start of the trip and then was fine, and we were in Brest in about four hours.
We threw the festival and it was tough in a lot of ways, but good. Everyone scattered around the city for dinner afterward and then the train folks (including all the vistors, thank God) headed to the station. We who were in the van got going around 10:30pm.
Everyone in the back settled in, leaning on each other to sleep, but I couldn't sleep. I just was looking at the road ahead and praying peacefully, having a nice time. The van slowed unexpectedly at one point but then went along fine. We stopped for gas and when Valodya, the hero who was driving, came in from getting gas, he practically shouted that it was very, very cold outside. Painfully cold... We found out later that it was about -25 centigrade which is somewhere around -10 farenheit.
About a half hour after the gas station, the van stopped moving... And stopped the little bit of heat that we did have. Valodya told us to start praying. The van is basically a big tin can, and he told us that within a half hour of no heat, the van would be below freezing and well on its way to being like the outside. We were not in any way dressed for such temperatures. We started praying. A lot. A few revs of the engine. The van started moving.
We move along. How many kilometers left to Minsk? About 200, guesstimates Valodya. The van stops again. We are still praying. We go again, and then stop again. It's about midnight; Valodya goes outside and flags a minivan who is willing to tow us to the next gas station, which is close. We frantically search for rope in the van and finally find something that we can use. We are towed to the gas station.
The gas station is closed but Valodya talks with the attendant who reopens it enough to check out things and fiddle with something and say everything is okay. Okay. We are on our way again, and Sergei, who towed us, goes with us a little while to make sure that we're going okay. Then he speeds up and drives away.
We're going a little slowly, but we're moving along fine. Everyone says thank God and tries to go back to sleep. I am dozing off when I feel that feeling again... A slowing, and then a chunk-chunking, and then the crunch of snow beneath us as we pull over, and then we stop.
Belarus is not like America; there are no emergency call boxes and there are no 24-hour gas stations, if there are gas stations at all. This was about 1:00am. None of us had a cellphone. Flagging down cars was an impossibility at this point, because nobody would stop for us anymore -- people are afraid of picking up strangers at that time of night -- and it was far, far too cold outside to just stand for two hours (like I did in Zhitomir once) waiting for a car to stop.
So we were praying. And we were singing, and we knew that we were going to be okay. I looked around the van and thought, wait, how many people do we have in this van? Eight. And what holiday is this? Hanukkah. And we all looked at each other and said "Are you light? You're LIGHT! I'm LIGHT!" And we were a hanukiah, all lit up on the last night of Hanukkah. And we knew Who the shamash was, and we were praying for him to make whatever energy that this van had left, last long enough for us to get to where we needed to go... wherever that would be.
We moved forward some more, and passed a sign that said we had 210 km to go. An hour ago the guesstimate had been 200. Okay, that was a little discouraging. We were all still praying. And then we passed another sign that said we had 213 km to go! Belarusian signs aren't all that accurate either. We went and stopped and went and stopped, with very little heat, for what seemed like a few minutes though it was actually much longer. We were still praying and singing.
And then we found a groove, moving at about 40km per hour, or 25mph. The only way to keep the van moving was to go no faster than this and to not turn on the heat except for every once in a while for a couple of minutes. It was getting cold. In this groove we went for a while, and I did the math and realised that it would be about five hours before we got to Minsk!
It was already 3am. And it was very cold.
And then we reached a hill, the first of many in a hilly section of the country. There we lost our groove. The van chug-chugged, and stopped. Now we were on an uphill incline, and there was nothing Valodya could do with the engine to get the van moving again. It was getting colder and colder, and we realised then that we actually could just die there by the side of the road.
I had one person's feet under my coat, was sitting on someone else's, and we were all rubbing and hitting each other to keep the blood circulation flowing. Little sparks went off from the static as we tried to keep ourselves warm in the dark dark van. We were light. We were helping each other. We were really cold, but somehow we were still singing joyful songs and laughing. We were praying, and expecting a miracle.
And a miracle we got. Valodya was still playing with the engine once in a while, but it would not turn over. What I am going to say now you can believe or not believe, but if you have ever been in a car when it is being pushed, you know that it feels a little different from a car that is motor-powered. Aside from the vibration of the motor, there is also a pulling feeling in a motor-driven car. A motor pulls you forward, and hands on the back of a van push.
You probably also know that in order for a car to move forward, the motor must turn over. It is physically impossible for the car to move forward on its own power without that particular thing occuring. I don't know much about cars so I checked on this twice before writing it down.
The motor did not turn over, and yet we were moving. Without vibration from the engine. Up a hill. We were all inside of our van, but our van was being pushed up that hill. So maybe a big strong bear or two decided to come out of the woods and do a random act of kindness, or maybe we were already all too frozen to know what a motor starting feels and sounds like, or maybe it was angels, or maybe it was just the hand of God. Whatever it was, we got to the top of that hill and a ways further.
And then we stopped again. A couple were shivering uncontrollably now, which I knew was bad because tensing makes you lose heat. But now we had a very particular hope in sight, because there was a GAI (highway police, generally a very unfriendly bunch) station about 400m (1/4 mile) away. We could see it. Maybe we could get there and use their phone to call Minsk and ask them to come get us. Two others and I decided to head for the GAI and see if we could make the call.
It was cold outside, and the GAI looked closer than it really was. Within a few minutes of walking I could not feel my feet and we practically hopped to the GAI in order to keep circulation in our legs. When we got to the station, they said Sorry, our phone line doesn't go out of this region. But these guys were unusually friendly GAI officers, and they said that if we could get the van to their station, we could all stay in the station until they could flag down cars to Minsk for us (cars were legally bound to stop).
So the three of us hopped back to the van, and when we got inside it suddenly was so, so, so warm in the van. Probably just from the body heat of the people inside; compared to that night, even our icebox was warm. We explained the situation, and then all prayed for another little push to get us to the GAI station. We actually did get it... again the car moved forward without having turned over, but only for half the distance. The last 200 meters we did the pushing ourselves. We got to the GAI station and the officers even took off their warm boots and let us put them on. The station seemed hot to us at first, but we realised later that the officers actually wear coats in the station.
They flagged down cars, and two batches back to Minsk. Valodya stayed there with the car until afternoon when help came for the van. I got back to my flat around 10:00am. Throughout that day and night all of our fevers broke and now we are all okay, no frostbite, no lasting negative effects. Some lasting postivite ones, I hope.
And now I'm warm. Not feverish anymore, but I mean warm. My flat doesn't seem so cold. I remember that night being so so cold physically, but spiritually it was so warm... And it was light. Each one of the eight of us was invaluable to all the others during that time, and each one drew something special from the experience.
For me personally, I have started to remove some of the things I've put up to protect (ie., suffocate) my joy. I knew this was coming, and this is how God decided to bring it about, a mere three weeks before I leave Belarus.
A few months ago I watched the movie "Almost Famous," in which the members of a rock band all think they're going to die on a plane. They all start confessing how much they hate one another. For us, it was a little different. First there was in the van itself... I'll never forget Sarah just laughing and laughing, or Natasha being like a gentle mother with us, or the other Natasha jumping from person to person offering to be their human blanket for a few minutes... This was how each of them showed their love for the others. And in the days following, I've been overwhelmed and inspired to do nice things for people and tell them I love them. And I've already seen walls of bitterness that I didn't even really know existed starting to come down. Nothing is easy. But it's funny, the things that bust through where I've been trying to protect myself, and show my joy.
At the beginning of our troubles that night, I confessed to my van-mates why I hadn't wanted to be in the van. And then I said that I was very glad I was in it. And now I am still so, so, so thankful that I was in that van.
"Nez gadol haya sham" is "A great miracle happened there" in Hebrew... The traditional Hanukkah dreidel top has letters which represent this phrase. The girls in the van had done a dance dressed as dreidels in Brest, and we had four big cardboard boxes with those letters on them in the back of the van. We thought of them. Valodya said if we had been in the van for another 15 minutes we probably would not have made it. I don't know about that, but I know we did make it, and regardless of the backdrop, the foreground is all joy. It's essential. And if we had each isolated ourselves, our lights would have gone out pretty fast.
So. I still keep asking myself: Are you light?
- 21 December 2001
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