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What I Did in Ukraine (And What I Learned From It)

Posted by Tommy Keene on

Saint Sophia's in Kiev

was recently invited by the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine to teach on Hebrews to Revelation. Our elders and mission committee were pleased to send me, and I was glad to go! It was a wonderful opportunity, a real challenge, and a great encouragement. Here’s what happened, and what I learned from it.

What I did in Ukraine

What did I do in Ukraine? In one sense that’s easy: I taught. I taught the same seminary class that I’ve been teaching for almost ten years now in the states: Hebrews to Revelation. Now as anyone who has read that section of the canon might appreciate, understanding such a corpus is a daunting task. How to summarize so many books in so little time!? What is more, the books in question are quite diverse!

It’s certainly a challenge, and one which we can’t fully address here. For those who are interested in what happens when I’m down in DC or at Westminster Seminary teaching, I have good news. Over the coming months I will be blogging over at The Christward Collective on the theme “How to Read a Biblical Book,” which will give you a taste of what I do in the classroom. I can, however, boil it down to the essentials: the key to interpreting the Bible is being a good reader. That may sound a bit obvious, and frankly it is (though I would say that we humans are masters of missing the obvious), but I am more and more convinced that being a good interpreter of Scripture is mostly a matter of being a humble reader. If you know how to listen well, and seek to cultivate the art of listening, then you have all the “ordinary” (to quote WCF 1:7) skills necessary to understand what the Bible is saying. So in my classes we train our ears and our minds to read and to listen well.

There is, however, an additional challenge for the seminary classroom. No teacher teaches in abstraction from a goal and purpose and context. What is the purpose of a seminary classroom? In essence, what we are doing at seminary is teaching and training shepherds. Some of them are already shepherds (at least 5 of my students in Ukraine were already pastoring or serving in local churches), and some of them are hoping to be pastors in the near future. Regardless, we are teaching future pastors, or pastor hopefuls.

In this context, teaching is more than just passing along information about the Bible. There is another layer that needs to be addressed. It’s not just “who wrote Hebrews” but rather “how does knowing who wrote Hebrews help me shepherd the flock that God has given me” (the answer, by the way, is that “it doesn’t,” so stop wasting your time thinking about who wrote Hebrews). The former issue is challenging enough; the latter requires practical wisdom, pastoral sensitivity, and most importantly, student engagement. Any student can learn and pass along information. It takes an engaged and a humble student to apply that information to the particular needs that he or she faces in their church.

That’s where I found my time in Ukraine particularly encouraging and also challenging. The students there were engaged. They had concrete theological and practical questions. They wanted to know how to apply these things in their own context. One memorable moment for me occurred in connection to some conversations about 1 Peter 2:18, “servants, be obedient to your masters with all respect….” I argued that the reason Peter starts with servants in his instruction for families, rather than the paterfamilias or Governor or Emperor (as would be more typical in Greek and Roman circles), is because for Peter the servant, rather than the master, is the model for society. Christian society isn’t built upon or modelled after rulers, but servants, because our God came not to be served but to serve. Christ is the model, and because Christ is the model we are called to serve first, and lead only as we serve.

This proved to be surprisingly countercultural and provocative. That’s not so much the case in the states. We still tend to value humility and servitude and even, to some extent, subservience. Even our highest offices in US government are still described as being a “public servant.” Whether they are that is up for debate, but we at least value the idea that they are.   

What I learned in Ukraine

There were a lot of firsts for me in this endeavor. Though it was my 10th time through this classroom material (I also teach it annually at Reformed Theological Seminary in DC), it was my first time to do it in translation. In fact, it was my first-time teaching anything for more than an hour or two in a foreign country. It was my first time inside an Eastern Orthodox Church in the midst of worship. It’s also the farthest “east” I’ve ever travelled. It was the first time I spent a significant amount of time in a country occupied by a hostile state. It was also, significantly, my first time to have spaghetti-with-ketchup-and-hot-dogs for breakfast. But most importantly, though I have often dialoged with students and Christians and people who come from radically distinct cultures and backgrounds from my own (and I always love those discussions), it was the longest I’ve been truly immersed in such a culture, if only for a week or so. As you might expect, I learned a lot.

Green Eggs and Ham

Let’s start with the obvious: the green-eggs-and-ham question. Did I like spaghetti-with-ketchup-and-hot-dogs? No I did not. And I even followed the general rule of thumb when it comes to new foods: I tried it twice. It was proffered to me five times, and I tried it the third and fourth (the first two and the last being in a hotel buffet), which in the end was enough I think. I did like everything else however. Borsch was wonderful. I heartily recommend Kvass to anyone and wonder why it has not replaced non-alcoholic beer in the states. And Shashlyk… oh wow; I have no words.

The Unity of Faith

Worship at Trinity Church in KievThere are, however, more important things to consider. The first thing that really struck me on the trip was the unity of the faith. There were so many differences on display, and yet at worship on Sunday I felt at home. The service was in Russian and Ukrainian, but there was a translation service on offer, and even if there hadn’t been, the flow of the service, the liturgical content, and the whole tone and ethos of the day set me at ease and reminded me of the common bond we share though the Gospel. At two points in the service I was even able to sing along, since I recognized the hymn tune and could look up the verses through the magic of the internet. It felt like a worship service at home.

Now some of this that was, of course, coincidental and circumstantial—coming from a common tradition, it is no surprise that the liturgy and content of the service would be similar to ours at Christ the King. Yet much of it transcends these incidentals—or, rather, it felt like home because these incidentals were common familial features. It’s like meeting a cousin you’ve never met before but see immediately a certain resemblance—the noise, the shaggy hair, the nasally voice, whatever—that indicate he’s like me. Sure, some things are different, but the common features are more than just isolated similarities; they are what we would call “the family resemblance.” That’s what it felt like at Trinity. I felt at home because certain components were the same, but those components were the same because I was worshipping at a sister church, using common traditions passed down by our forefathers, even by Christ and his apostles.  

My conversations throughout the week confirmed that initial impression. We are bound by common struggles, but more than that by a common confession. Amidst all of our differences, that became a source of confidence and solid ground. “OK, yes, that’s very different than my experience. I don’t know how to address that, so let’s look at the Scripture and see what we find.” Something like that happened just about every day.

A Different Culture and Context

Of course, amidst all the similarities, there were significant differences. Many of these were small. Analogies that I rely on when teaching in the U. S. fell flat in Ukraine (seriously, no one know who Denethor is?). Certain theological positions that are difficult here were not difficult there, and vice versa (so, for example, Revelation required far more time in Ukraine than it typically does here, but James 2 was no problem).

The general approach to teachers was also different—though there was a high degree of suspicion about me (at least at first—it was gone I think by Wednesday), there was also a high degree of respect shown (always raising hands, never interrupting, addressing me always as “Dr. Keene”). It’s almost the opposite here. The professor is immediately trusted and well-regarded, but students nevertheless will blurt out questions, interrupt, etc., because we are a functionally egalitarian society.  

The Church in Exile

The most significant difference, however, was the very real sense that the protestant church in Ukraine is a church in exile. Better put, the idea that the Christian community is an exilic community was, for the Ukrainians I encountered, totally ordinary and normal.

I think that’s hard for us in America to wrap our heads around. There is much talk among us of entering some new phase, a “post-Christian America,” that is, an America in which Christianity no longer looms as the dominant worldview. I think such talk is probably accurate, but at the same time we are, relatively speaking, just entering that state of affairs. It’s come as a surprise to many, and we as a church are just starting to wrap our minds around it. What is more, Christians are, for the most part, still tolerated and sometimes even respected. We are not a shame to our family and friends. We are not, by and large, treated as an oddity in society or as a problem to be solved.

That’s not the case in countries like Ukraine. To join an evangelical church is to separate oneself from one’s family and friends. It’s to associate oneself with a group that is little known and even less loved—considered by many to be a cult, and a dangerous one at that.

This point was accented for me as we were discussing 1 Peter 1:18, where Peter describes his audience as being “ransomed from the futile ways of your forefathers.” In the states I usually need to spend some time on that. To abandon the ways of one’s forefathers is almost an honorable thing for us. Each generation is expected to abandon the outmoded and obsolete traditions of one’s forefathers. But that’s not the case for either the Romans or the Jews. To do such a thing—to repudiate your father’s traditions—is shameful, and you will likely be ostracized. As we discussed this passage in Ukraine, all the students were totally right there. This was their experience. To be at this seminary, learning the Reformed faith, was equivalent to abandoning the old ways, to be isolated from the communities of one birth, and to be now incorporated into a new community, one which was an exile and sojourner in the land.

In that respect, their experience is much closer to a 1st century Christian, and it is no doubt we modern Americans that have a lot to learn from our Ukrainian sisters and brothers.

More Pictures!

The rest of the class and crew for my week:

The class and crew for the week

This is the Golden Gate in Kiev, which I got to see during my very brief sight-seeing run.

The golden gate in Kiev

And here is the Motherland Monument, which was even more imposing than it looks here.

The motherland monument

And no trip would be complete without seeing where Eric used to live. Here's his old street!

Tags: missions, seminary, ukraine

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