Sitting in a house-church in Burshtyn, Ukraine, I heard a familiar song. It was the only one my new friends knew in three languages. First they sang it in Ukrainian, then in Russian, and finally in English. “I have decided to follow Jesus, No turning back, No turning back,” rang out in the living room. I smiled and sang along. It was the culmination of what has been at least a summer-long struggle between me and God.
Believe it or not, being engaged and in the Peace Corps is not the easiest thing in the world. When I started dating Riley, I was finishing my application to the Peace Corps. I remember questioning rather to even include the fact that I was in a relationship since it was so new and seemingly tenuous. Little did I know a year and a half later he would be flying to Ukraine to propose. Life is full of surprises
The last six months since he popped the question have been exciting, depressing, humorous, confusing, and wonderful all at the same time. The fact that I can plan a wedding from 6,000 miles away is cool. The fact that I only see my fiancé on a computer screen is not. The pain of missing him is compounded by two factors: firstly, everyone is always telling me how sorry they feel for me. This makes me feel sorry for me, too. I mean, really, who goes and gets engaged and then lives in another country for two years? This is illogical, I hear all the time. And then I start to believe it. I see my friends get engaged, shop for dishes and curtains, and get married. In less than a year. Spending nearly everyday together. I get more cynical. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, I tell myself. This is cruel. Which brings me to my second point.
The Peace Corps is not the Marine Corps. I can leave at anytime. It’s my choice to be here. I’m not a masochist. So why don’t I just go home? Live in the same time zone as Riley, pick out china patterns, and be married by Christmas. Well, there’s this tiny little detail. I actually don’t think that I just chose to be here. I feel useful, needed, and challenged in Ukraine. I believe God wants me here. It should make it easier that Riley thinks that, too. But it doesn’t always. I routinely forget this vital fact. And when it smacks me in the face, I rebel against it. The other night, I was talking to Riley and admitted that I just really wanted to come home. I said I wished that instead of doing web development work, he had a steady job with health benefits so he could support us while I looked for work in the states. I said I didn’t know how much longer I could be away from him.
I was coming from a pretty selfish standpoint. I missed him. I missed laughing together and eating ice-cream and watching Cowboys games. But, he came from a different place. He said half-jokingly, “Maybe God knows if I had that kind of job right now you’d come home, and I really think you’re supposed to be in Ukraine right now.” Joking or not, it struck a chord, and I knew God was trying to tell me something. And I hated it. I literally writhed and whined, lamenting my plight in the world. My friend Molly was over, and I complained to her, “I don’t want to be mature about this.” She replied with a chuckle in her ten-year-older-than-me-knowledge, “Don’t worry, you’re not.”
God is really teaching Riley and me some pretty important lessons in all this. Like the fact that we are not God. We cannot even begin to do this on our own. Of all the lessons we have to learn as a couple, this is probably the best foundational one. The other day, I was listening to music and feeling melancholy when a song I had never heard came on. The lyrics went like this, “Those who trust in the Lord are as strong as mountains. They will not be moved.” I really needed to hear that. I needed to be reminded that my God is a constant source of strength. And I am human. Trusting in myself and in Riley is not going to cut it.
As fate would have it, after weeks of trying to track down a protestant church in Ukraine (no small feat!), I finally found a phone number for a Baptist Church about an hour away from me. I called a very enthusiastic and slightly confused man named Vladamir, the local pastor. The trip to Burshtyn was filled with obstacles, like hailing a bus in the middle of the street and getting off at the wrong stop. But we made it. And Vladamir was there to greet us. As soon as we got to church, we felt like family. I know that sounds cliché, but as foreigners in the former Soviet Union, this is not a common feeling. It takes a while for people to trust you and welcome you into their homes. While Ukrainian hospitality is no myth, this was the first time I felt it instantly. Never mind the fact that I didn’t understand half the things being said. They were smiling, gave us hot tea, and kissed us on the cheek. Before the service started, Vladamir gathered Molly and me to pray with a couple of other people. We listened as intently as we could to their heartfelt, Ukrainian language prayers. I didn’t get most of it. As a government employee and secondary school teacher, my vocabulary is limited to social and professional contexts. When it came to my turn to pray, I was afraid. I literally had no words. Then Vladamir said, “In English.” I had forgotten I knew a language effortlessly.
To open the service, we sang a Christian hymn “How Great Thou Art.” Molly and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was in Ukrainian, of course, but we knew the melody and could translate most of it. One of the funny differences between Ukrainian and English is that we have a lot of little words that mean big things and they have a lot of long words that mean small things. So in translation, the Ukrainian version of “How Great Thou Art” is simply, “Big You.” I mean, really, that gets the point across. So Molly and I sang “Big you, Big you” and thought, truly, How Great Thou Art. God is as strong as a mountain and quite big enough to see Riley and me through this and much more. After spontaneously being asked up front to give our testimonies (in Ukrainian, of course) as the 35mm cameras clicked and flashed, we were ready to sit down. In the back. But Vladamir had another request. “Now you will sing a song?” He half asked, half told. I assumed he meant the whole church would sing a song while we were positioned up front. I was mistaken. He actually wanted Molly and me to belt something out a cappella in English. The congregation waited expectantly. I, true to form, burst out laughing. I have zero musical talent. Molly shook her head and said “We can’t, we can’t,” in Ukrainian. They encouraged us more. I started to translate “Big You” in spoken word, but Molly decided to give them a little taste and sang the chorus. They were looking for more, but we just took a bow and sat down. The sermon drew on Matthew 7, where Jesus asks “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” I know that God wants to give me only the best kind of gifts. I know this on my best days. But when I’m at my worst, I think I know better. The next verse I recognized quoted was Psalm 144. I looked it up in my Message translation of the Bible and it began, “Blessed be God, my mountain.” My attention was officially grabbed.
The day came to a ceremonious end as we ate lunch together and were implored once again to sing English worship songs. We were jolly but at a loss. Then Natalia said she knew only one song with English words, and God reminded me once more that with Him, there’s no turning back, no turning back.