Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
-Psalm 84:4 (NIV)
The Christian Chronicle’ Eric Tryggestad has done some excellent reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and especially the effects of it on Ukrainian Christians and churches, in his feature “Good News in Ukraine’s “Real Winter.’” The story is real about the devastating consequences of Putin’s war, but also has a lot to say about the hope the gospel shines in even so dark a corner.
Part of the story has to do with Christians who are making the painful decision to leave their homes, their loved ones, their churches, and their lives to escape the most intense fighting. One of those who has left Kharkiv, Julie Kachuk, wrote these words in a social media post:
“Will I ever see my mother again? We are scattered all over the earth. … I'm just crying, I can't hold back those tears. Should I be ashamed of it? Now my home is a suitcase and a path. The way to where you don't know yet ... We are pilgrims. I know only one thing, that God is leading somewhere ... I know only one thing, that our connection with each other is in our heart. All I know is that the power of gratitude for everything, the power of prayer and faith in the best, forgiveness ... keeps our hearts in love for God, for life, for people …”
In case you’re wondering, Julie is now safe in Warsaw
Reading Julie’s post, as she leaves her life behind, I’m reminded that there are much worse things in the world than the things I routinely complain about. Her words remind me of the Psalm:
What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem. (Psalm 84:5-7)
In another part of her post, Julie says: “There are only wounds that do not heal for a long time, but these wounds will also grow poppies.” I’m not familiar with that figure of speech, but I think I know what it means: that wounds heal, that pain is temporary, that beauty often comes through it. Julie says that she’s having trouble believing that’s true, that she doesn’t even want to believe it — maybe because it feels like it trivializes what she and so many others are going through. I can relate to that, in some ways. I know it feels like writing a post on what’s happening in Ukraine without emphasizing the pain, the grief, the loss, and the magnitude of the atrocities being committed runs the risk of minimizing the absolute terror, dread, grief, and anger that people like Julie are feeling. No, she shouldn’t be ashamed of her tears. Neither should Olga, a client in our food pantry who fears for her children and grandchildren still in Ukraine. Neither should anyone who’s having to walk away from the life they’ve known into something they don’t know.
So resist the impulse to turn away from the news about this. Please, feel free to shut out what politicians and talking heads on TV news have to say about it. But don’t miss what the real journalists are doing as they chronicle for history the terror and death a dictator is visiting on an entire country, for no reason other than his own ambition. Don’t fail to note who stands with him — even here in the US — and make sure they have to answer for their support. We need to see how bad things are.
But that doesn’t mean we give up hope. Julie hasn’t. “My home is a suitcase and a path. The way to where you don't know yet….I know only one thing, that God is leading somewhere.” When you’re a pilgrim, when you aren’t sure where your path leads, then you focus on what you do know. You might not know where you’re going, but if you’re a believer you know that you’re following God’s lead. You know he’s in front, blazing the path. You know he’s behind, watching your rear.
In Psalm 84, verse 5 says more literally, “Happy are those whose strength is in [God], in whose hearts are highways.” It might be that sometimes the highway is the place to be. On the highway, we learn where our strength really is. Oh, the lives we’ve gotten used to can be so nice, comfortable, familiar. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by the people we love, in settings that make us happy. But those lives are more temporary than we’d like to believe, aren’t they? And when home is a suitcase and all you know is a path to…somewhere?…, well, that’s when you start to discover what’s permanent. What can be trusted forever. What will never fail. And that list begins and ends with our God. On the highway, we learn that there is still life away from what we’ve come to know as our lives.
Few of us understand a tiny fraction of what Julie’s going through right now. But I’m betting that very few of us as well are always living the life we’ve imagined for ourselves. Things happen — and will happen — that you’ve not expected, that you never wanted to see. And we learn, in those moments, whether there are highways in our hearts, whether we know how to live as pilgrims, whether we’re willing to believe that there is joy on the road with God that we’ll never know sitting comfortable at home among our illusions of untouchability.
When highways are in your heart, then you really do know your destination. Oh, you might not know what your next way-station is, but that’s OK, because that’s not home anyway. Home is what God has for you. Home is the life he has made possible, in his grace, love, and faithfulness, through Jesus. Home is his presence through the Holy Spirit. Home is his people gathered in worship, service, and care for one another. When you know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, then valleys of weeping can become places of refreshing springs and wounds really can heal and poppies really can grow in the scars.
Pray for Julie. Pray for Olga’s children. Pray for the people of Ukraine. Pray for God to protect them, to heal their wounds, to dry their tears. To set them securely in homes.
And learn from them what to do when your life leads you to the highway, when what you know and trust has been replaced by a suitcase and a path. Know that God is leading you somewhere. Stay connected with other pilgrims. Develop the habit of gratitude; if you look, you’ll always find reasons to thank God. Pray. Forgive. And keep God’s love in your heart to give you the reserves of love you’ll need for those around you. The psalmist says the highway will make you stronger with every step, until you arrive before God.