Touchstones of Remembrance
To step into the future, we gain faith from God's provision in the past. This is what we in Joshua 4:20-21:
‘And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground’”’.
Here’s the key idea: The previous generation – the parents of those who entered the Promised Land – they had crossed the Red Sea. It was a powerful moment, but that was God’s work for a previous generation. God wanted the new generation to experience him and to develop stories about it. Every generation has to experience God.
Two days in May 1990 remain the most remarkable of my life. Having been in Poland for two weeks as part of a short-term mission trip, we arrived on a Monday night in L’viv and were leaving on Thursday morning. That gave us two days to get something done. The ‘us’ were myself and five others I had recruited from my local church – King’s Park in Durham, NC – to join on this trip. Before leaving, we had been praying and fasting, and we believed that God was going to do something great. Being sent out by our pastor, Ron Lewis, we went in faith to see what the Lord might do.
Eventually our great faith met a great opportunity, but the trip didn’t start out with great results. Our time in Poland was interesting – we simply visited a few churches and youth groups; it was a nice cross-cultural experience, but nothing significant. However, we thought our time in Ukraine might be different. My expectations were not encouraged when we met with the mission team leader in the lobby of the Dniester hotel on the Tuesday morning. He said, ‘Here we are in the Soviet Union. We have no contacts, we don’t know anyone in this city, we have no plans, so let’s just break up into groups and just go out and see what the Lord does’.
I’m the kind of person who likes a plan, and this lack of one immediately catapulted me into a bad mood. ‘We’re in the Soviet Union on a mission from God! If only we had a plan!’ But all we could do is head out into the city. Along with the others from King’s Park, we left the hotel lobby, walked down through Ivano Franko Park, and came out at the bottom, noticing a lot of younger looking people walking into a large building with Austro-Hungarian architecture. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was Ivan Franko National University of L’viv.
On the steps of the university we met a young woman named Irene who spoke English. We were soon joined by a few of her friends; we discovered they were students in the English department and that this was a university. As this was still during Soviet days, they had not had much contact with westerners; they decided to skip class and show us around the city. About halfway through the afternoon, it occurred to me that this might be a gospel opportunity. So I said to Irene, ‘I teach on universities in the United States’ - I didn’t tell her I taught the Bible as a campus minister – ‘perhaps your professors would like the students to hear a native speaker of English’. She responded that this was a great idea.
So we went back to the university, she spoke with her teacher, and they agreed it was a good idea. They brought several sections of the English department together into a lecture hall and gave me an open podium. As I was introduced and stood to speak, I remember feeling quite intimidated: I started thinking about the possibility of KGB agents (Soviet secret police) hiding behind secret doors in the back of the hall; I might be arrested and shipped off to Siberia for talking about God and the Bible. But overcoming this fear, I stood up to preach.
Beginning with the American Declaration of Independence, I said that ‘Many nations want the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness Americans enjoy. But these are given to us by our Creator. You won’t experience the fullness of life, liberty and happiness by copying the American form of government; you have to know the Creator. And here is how you can …’ From that point, I simply preached the gospel of who Jesus is, what he has done, and what it means for us.
About halfway through the talk, the professor who organised the lecture raised his hand to ask a question: ‘What is sin?’ I answered that sin is anything the violates the character, the will, or the law of God. He began furiously taking notes of everything I said; I found at later that he was working on his PhD on the notions of goodness and evil in the English language. Through other questions, it gradually dawned on me that I was preaching the gospel to people who had never heard it before.
Several people responded to the invitation to follow Jesus, and following on from this moment, we began to take more steps into Ukraine. Mike Watkins joined me on a follow up trip that October (1990), and from there, we gradually moved to planting a church in L’viv, and then other cities including Ternopil and Novodnistrovsk.
That’s a great story. I could expand it with many more details, telling many more interesting and painful anecdotes from our early years in Ukraine. But here’s the point: that’s my story. What’s your story going to be?
The Israelites who came to the edge of the Promised Land had heard the stories of previous generations. They had heard the story of deliverance from slavery. They had heard the story of the plagues and the Passover. They had heard the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. But now they had to cross the Jordan. Now they were entering their own story.
The stories from the past are good – those stories build faith and boldness and remind us of what God has done in the past. But God is calling us to walk into the future where we experience him afresh and anew. He is calling us into our own story – our active participation in the purpose of God in our generation.
Looking back is important. That’s why the Lord instructed Joshua and the Israelites to collect stones from the Jordan. The previous generation had walked through the Red Sea on dry land, and the memory of that needed to be preserved. Looking back is important, but looking back is not enough. The Red Sea generation was gone. The new generation could not fulfil God’s purposes based on the memory of what God had done; the Lord wanted them to have ‘fresh stories’ about God’s work amongst them. That’s what crossing the Jordan River was all about.
You have to experience God for yourself. I’m not talking about the personal spiritual experiences of joy and encouragement that come when you pray and read the Bible. I’m talking about the experiences of seeing God work through natural and divinely-powerful means as you go to new places, reach new people, make new disciples, plant new churches, and reach new cities. You might be thinking, ‘New cities!’. OK, just start with new neighbours. Go wild and crazy - bake a cake … carry it across the street. Live a little.
You might be thinking, ‘That seems too hard! What if it doesn’t work!’. When you have thoughts about what might go wrong, when you have discouragement because you think you don’t have what it takes – when you knock on a door that’s not opened or try to have engage a conversation that’s not wanted - remember a young 23-year old American standing in front of a lecture hall at the University of L’viv, afraid of the KGB.
The point is simply that God has new memories for you – new memories that will be built on new experiences you have in adventure with God. But you will only experience these if you step out in boldness to follow God in his mission. You need your own experiences, your own stories, your own memories. This doesn’t mean we forget the past; the Israelites always told the story of the crossing of the Red Sea because this was their defining moment; this is how the nation was born.
And I hope that somewhere, somehow, this story from May 1990 - this story of a young campus minister preaching in a Soviet university – I hope this story is remembered and re-told. But Scotland is not going to be reached with the gospel by telling old stories; it will be reached as we each step out in faith and boldly share the love and truth of Christ with others.
Remember: Every generation has to create new memories and experience God themselves. The only way you can do this is if you step out in faith, boldness, and proactive initiative to do something you’ve never done before.