dresses, dances and exams

Last Saturday night, my brother had his senior prom. Thanks to this lovely internet, his big sister a few thousand miles away has already seen photos of him and his friends... and I must say he was quite a dashing figure. But as for the girls... well, I never thought prom dresses were the most classy of garments.

America is not the only country to torment its teenaged girls with such clothing at this time of year. Also last saturday, masses of Belarusian teenagers celebrated a kind of 'graduation' (though it's not exactly a graduation because the exams are yet to come). For the ending of classes, all the girls had to dress in something that is even worse than a prom dress.

I'll spare you a full description and will just say that it requires a huge white frilly bow in the hair, the skirt is uncomfortably short, and that it makes every girl who wears it, no matter who she is, look out-of-place. The girls who rushed to our Shabbat (Saturday, the Jewish sabbath) still wearing these outfits were at least able to laugh at themselves.

Happily, they all immediately changed into their dance uniforms (for what I suppose some of my friends in New York would call "liturgical dance"). We held our Shavuot festival -- the Jewish holiday from which Pentecost is derived -- that Saturday, and the program was filled with skits, dances, and songs performed by the youth of the congregation. (I even put my dramatic foot forward, to play a disciple in Acts 2 who spoke in the English tongue when the Holy Spirit fell!)

The youth who put on these little shows are already busy in ministry. They are Shabbat school teachers, worship-band members, hospital-visit organizers, home group leaders, and on and on and on. I am consistently amazed at the level of dedication I see in them. Some come from abusive homes, or homes with alcoholic or absentee parents, and some of were once addicts and alcoholics themselves. Without much else to hope in, they know that their hope is in their God, and so they want to serve him and give that hope to others. They have focus and purpose, and, in a country known for its passivity, they know how to take action.

And so, I had more opportunity to marvel as we prepared for this festival. About twenty youth (and only one honorary youth that I know of) conceived, rehearsed, and perfected three new skits, two new dances, and several new songs in a matter of days. They fit in practices between all their other ministry work and in their final days of classes, which are full of partying and drinking for most other teens here.

The students in our Bible school, meanwhile, acted as postal workers to hand-deliver Shavuot invitations to 250 new Jewish contacts. Of course, everyone wanted the program to go off without a hitch for the sake of our guests... but in all the chaos and work we had to do, we were aware of how completely unable to do that we were. So, we fasted and prayed... and kept working, in faith that God would bring things together.

And he did bring things together. Everything went beautifully, in fact. The two Jewish babushkas who sat behind me were so touched at seeing so much Jewishness -- after many decades of seeing little or none -- that they cried through most of the program and received prayer afterwards.

The next day, several of the youth took a well-deserved rest to play a game of football (uh, soccer). I'm not sure if that can really be called rest, but it was fun in the sun (well, a little bit of sun... Minsk is not known for having many sunny days) which did us good.

Now, though, it's time to get back to work. Because those who wore the funny dresses on Saturday have exams through the month of June, testing all their book-knowledge from the last eleven years. Those who are applying to institutes also have entrance exams, which determine whether they can get into the institutes of their choice.

The guys, though they didn't have to wear funny dresses, have an added pressure to that general exam stress: when they turn 18, if they are not in an institute, they have to go to the army. Here, going to the army means spending a year and a half in an environment that is entirely hostile to a godly way of life, and not knowing if you will be posted near to or far from friends and family. Since Belarus doesn't have the money for army equipment, soldiers' lives often consist of waiting for something to train on... which usually translates into sitting around and drinking a lot. Indeed, alcoholism often follows the army as it follows so many other things here. We have faith that "our guys" are firmly planted in the Lord and won't be uprooted, but nobody wants to go through the army if it can be avoided.

So, exams here are now often are the topic of conversation and prayer. Our youth group has even declared a fast for prayer for those who have exams, a couple of times per week for the next month. It's a simple formula: when there is a challenge in front of us, we should pray, rely on God to control the chaos... and apply yourself.

In spite of a culture and governmental system which continues to say to do the minimum possible to maintain the status quo, these youth are learning well how to successfully carry out what they intend to do, whether in dances or exams. And I have even seen them conquer painfully ridiculous clothing with joy.

- 4 June 2001

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