HOPE BEHIND THE HEADLINES

A few days ago, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, announced that a formal impeachment inquiry would be opened, exploring allegations lodged against the American President, Donald Trump. This constitutional exercise is the stuff of high drama and dramatic headlines. Just when we think today’s news could not top yesterday’s, another story develops that gives us pause to wonder.

I’m old enough to have lived through two other presidential impeachment proceedings in the Congress; there have been only three in the history of the Republic, until today, as a fourth has been commenced. I had just graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree when Richard Nixon resigned (rather than face a trial in the Senate) in 1974, after Articles of Impeachment were drawn by a House Committee, in the wake of the Watergate burglary and cover-up. Nixon had been charged with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.

I was in my late forties and a pastor when Bill Clinton’s extramarital-affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky fueled Articles of Impeachment charging the President with perjury and obstruction of justice. The full House voted to impeach Clinton and he faced a trial in the Senate; the Senate did not convict him on either count, though, with the two-thirds majority required.

And now, the curtain has been drawn on another Presidential impeachment stage. This drama has been prompted by concerns expressed about Trump’s interactions with the new President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zeleniskiy and their context. The Speaker has said the President’s actions amount to “a betrayal of national security.” The President has responded by declaring the inquiry, “Presidential harassment.” Time will tell.

Ukrainians demonstrating in Maidan

Ukrainians demonstrating in Maidan Square in Kyiv (Kiev), 2013, demanding a pro-Western and democratic government. These demonstrations ignited tensions between Russia and the West, still in play.

Whatever the outcomes, anytime a President of the United States faces a formal impeachment inquiry, the nation and, indeed, the world (because of the United States’ commanding presence globally) move into unchartered and unpredictable territory. It is a perilous time. It is time to redouble our prayers for truth, justice, and supernatural wisdom to prevail; this is not a political game. The stakes are high. Much hangs in the balance. It is a serious, very serious, pivot in American history. Above and beyond the political rancor, unseemly public speech, and social media fusillades, let us be those who are “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Jesus talking in Matthew 10:16).

We must keep in check our own temptations to speak or post intemperately, sobered by the reality we are ambassadors for Christ. Listen to the evidence, from both sides of the aisle and from credible and varied sources of news (not Facebook re-posts, for instance), carefully discerning fact from fake. Be redemptive, but never wink and nod at wrongdoing because you are focused on political benefits. Follow Jesus. What does He think? What would He say? Of what would He approve? Why do you think so?

Still, the Lord doesn’t waste anything, even the devil’s mischief; these events can be an opportunity for us to open our eyes and broaden our horizons about the world beyond. Unlike previous impeachment inquiries, this one is centered on relationships and events involving other countries, beyond the borders of the United States. Ukraine is the country suddenly thrust into our news cycle. In a storyline that no one could have just days ago imagined, the fate of an American Presidency is suddenly intertwined with a country largely unknown to hundreds of millions on this side of the Atlantic. It is a real place, with real people, and real challenges. Maybe this is a chance for us to try and see the world from heaven’s view, not just our own. Impeachment inquiries aside, events have placed Ukraine squarely in front of our windshield.

Ukraine. Many (most?) Americans and Canadians have little sense of the place. Is it that big blue country on my Risk game board—you know, strategically located in Eastern Europe, at the center of everything? Man, I spent many hours playing Risk when I was a kid. Holding Ukraine on the game board could be the key to power over my competitors. Well, if Risk is your starting point, you’re not too far off from the truth. It has been the key to many national fortunes. But, Ukraine is so much more than that.

Young man from Ukrainian Church

Young man from Ukrainian Church of God, in Ukrainian Army, home from front lines of conflict in the Donbass, for ChoG Convention Ukraine.

Ukraine is the largest nation in Europe; the geographic center of Europe is in Ukraine. The haunting Christmas classic “Carol of the Bells” is a Ukrainian folk song, as are the fundamentals of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”; no surprise there, as Gershwin’s parents immigrated to the United States from Ukraine.

The Ukrainian capital, Kyiv (Kiev), was once a dynamic, wealthy, and influential city-state, anchoring much of central Europe. It embraced Christianity in 988. But, over many centuries, Kyiv and Ukraine were overrun by competing neighbors, sliced and diced by armies and empires. The Poles, the Lithuanians (yes, the Lithuanians), Genghis Khan, the Austro-Hungarians, the Ottomans, the Nazis, and the Russians invaded, dominated, suppressed, annexed, and toyed with the fertile plains and strategic seaports of Ukraine.

Tsarist Russia (beginning with Catherine the Great) made Ukraine its own. A nascent independence movement and resurgent sense of national identity and pride emerged in the 19th century. When the Tsars lost power at the end of World War I, Ukraine declared itself independent in 1918. But, the Bolsheviks fought to retain Russian control of Ukraine and it was again subsumed, this time into the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s catastrophic collectivization of Ukraine’s farms starved 5,000,000 Ukrainians to death in the early 1930s. Subsequently, over 18,000 Ukrainian towns and villages disappeared. The Soviets sent Russian settlers into Ukraine to repopulate the countryside. “Russification” became the political and social goal of the regime, as the Ukrainian language and culture were, by design, minimized.

Rapid and unrestrained Soviet industrialization scarred the landscape. Pollution diminished the rivers and seashores; the air itself was widely compromised. In 1986, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl became the emblem of an industrial age run amok; the human and environmental toll remains incalculable. By the year 2000, over 3.5 million Ukrainians had been identified as “radiation sufferers,” fully 5 percent of the whole nation’s population.

When the Soviet Union unraveled, Ukraine, once again, declared its independence; it has remained free from 1991. Nevertheless, the road to nation-building, given its long and tortured history, has been rocky, with a deeply-rooted culture of corruption and local power plays, hobbling its progress.

I am telling this history to bring you some good news. It was into this stew that a new voice of hope was heard, beginning in 1984. It did not come by the feet of missionaries or gospel tracts (though there were some). It did not come with smuggled Bibles, ferried across the Iron Curtain by brave believers (although there was some of that, too). It came by radio, through the Russian-language broadcast of our own Christians Broadcasting Hope (CBH).

In the 1980s, an ethnic German whose family had been deported from Ukraine to Soviet Central Asia during World War II, found his way back to Germany. His name was Wallentin Schuele and he had been raised in the Church of God, underground, in the heart of the Soviet Union. The Church of God first came to Russia at the dawn of the 20th century, during the reign of the tsars, from Germany; its adherents were deported by Stalin far away from the “eastern front” of the European World War II theatre, deep into Soviet Central Asia.

Once landed in Germany, Wallentin found the Church of God there and, in partnership with the Church of God in the United States, launched a Russian-language version of CBH on the radio, produced and broadcast from (what was then) West Germany (before reunification).

The Soviets successfully jammed most broadcast media from the West, throughout the Soviet bloc. But, somehow, some way, CBH penetrated the veil and was heard in Ukraine. We did not know it was getting through at the time. That’s the thing with radio, you cannot always know who is listening.

As the Soviet empire collapsed in the 1990s, the Church of God suddenly began to receive letters, in Russian, from Ukraine. They were written by Ukrainians, mostly in rural villages, but sometimes in larger cities, who had formed house churches around their radios listening for years to the forbidden CBH. Eventually, Wallentin found a way to travel to Ukraine and meet them. I was privileged to make one of these trips with Wallentin in 2010 and have been back since, as general director at Church of God Ministries.

The history is important, because the power of the gospel to give life and future to a people so long struggling to breathe free is astounding. I visited small houses, decorated with flower boxes and shutters, as if in a fairy tale, surrounded by fields of sunflowers, in which villagers for years gathered around a radio and found Jesus. I have visited church buildings, brought to life, as new believers moved from house churches into houses of worship. I have walked down quiet Ukrainian streets, passed abandoned and derelict Communist Party meeting halls, to church buildings filled with young and old, seeking first the Kingdom.

Ukrainian Church

A new generation of Ukrainian Church of God leaders takes the stage at ChoG Convention in Poltava.

I have stood amazed at the back of a large auditorium in Poltava, watching a second generation of brilliant young adults assume the reigns of leadership in the Ukrainian Church of God—the children of those who braved discovery by hostile authorities a generation ago to hear the Word of life.

I have met a Ukrainian Church of God pastor who once was a prison guard in the Soviet era, feared for the way he abused and tortured political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. A huge man, with hands each as large as mine together, he wept as I sat with him in the courtyard of the church building where he served as pastor, telling me tenderly of his conversion, the Lord’s grace and mercy, and his love now for the community that once loathed him. And, I watched that community love him, in return.

The stories are legion. This is the Ukraine behind the headlines. This is the Church of God, with congregations straddling the country, birthed by the ministry of CBH. This is a New Testament work, in which first- and second-generation believers have asked me questions like, “Is it right for our young men to go to the front lines of the war with Russia and bear arms?” “Can we follow Jesus and fight the invaders?”

It was the anti-Russian demonstrations in the Maidan Square in Kyiv in 2013, the Russian seizure of Crimea that followed in 2014, and the continuing military conflict in the Donbass, pitting Ukrainian nationalists against Russian and Russian-supported insurgents, that have prompted this soul-searching within the Church of God in Ukraine. Over 15,000 Ukrainians have died since 2014 in this fight; over 1.5 million Ukrainians have become “internal refugees” as a consequence, displaced from their homes in their own country.

David and his daughter

Ukrainian Church of God: second and third
generations, David and his daughter.

And, all of this Ukrainian history is a part of the backstory of today’s news in the United States. When you read of Ukraine in the impeachment inquiry, stop and pray for the Church of God in Ukraine. Yes, pray for those who govern in the United States, but pray also for the believers in Ukraine. They are smart, courageous, authentic, dynamic, and all-in for Jesus. They are working to build better lives for themselves and their families—and, they are bringing life to whole communities, in Jesus’ name. They are our brothers and sisters.

If you would like to know more about the work in Ukraine, give us a call.

And, if you would like to know more about how CBH is still reaching people and places that others cannot, give us a call. Our CBH Arabic broadcast, as an example, is now being streamed online with great effect. Check out these stats: in the last 90 days, 762,517 people across the world have visited CBH Arabic online; we have tracked 287,741 engagements (meaning 287,741 reactions online, shares, likes, comments, etc.). The biggest part of the “fan base” are women (ages 18-24), equaling 38 percent of the audience. The top five countries accessing the broadcast are: (1) Algeria, (2) Egypt, (3) Libya, (4) Afghanistan, and (5) Yemen.

Perhaps, we will someday find that house churches have been formed in faraway places around computer screens, listening to CBH Arabic, too.

The Church of God in Ecuador was also first established by people gathering in homes to listen to CBH Spanish.

And, back here at home, in the United States and Canada, perhaps someone will listen to CBH English and consider Jesus—in a tumultuous era of polarized and bitter public debate. We can pray so.

Be encouraged. Whenever Jesus is the subject, hope lives. That’s what we do at CBH; that’s what we do at Church of God Ministries. Thanks for your support, your prayers, and for your partnership with Church of God Ministries. When you give to Church of God Ministries, you make things like CBH Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, Swahili, Portuguese, English, French, and more possible.

Thanks for remembering that behind every headline there are stories and people, real people, with hearts and hopes just like yours and mine.

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