July 2003
Ukrainians Remind Us "When Freedom Came"


"And when the Lord your God brings you into the land He swore to give you then take care lest you forget the Lord" (Deut. 7:10 & 12 ESV).

On our nation's 227th birthday a couple weeks ago, my thoughts went back to my recent ministry in the Ukraine to a phrase I heard there several times. The phrase, "When freedom came"

The reference was to that watershed moment in 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell and the Ukraine and other nations in the former Soviet Union were freed from communist domination. The Ukraine particularly suffered when Joseph Stalin in the early 1930s brutally starved millions in an attempt to get the peasants to give up their land.

During those years of communist dictatorship, the Ukrainians lived under religious oppression. I heard gripping stories of underground church pastors being arrested and jailed, with some sent to Siberia. Sergei, probably in his 50s now and a godly, humble pastor, was born in Siberia because his father, an underground pastor, had been sent there along with his mother. Sergei was about five when he was sent back to the Ukraine to live with relatives.

During the mid-1970s when Russian Premier Leonid Breshnev was in power, Sergei's father was allowed to return to the Ukraine. Upon his return, he also resumed ministry. Sergei said his father told him, "I want to die in ministry." Several years ago, his father passed away a few hours after baptizing new believers.

Then there was Vladimir, the young pastor of a thriving congregation in Djonkoi in the Crimea, and the overseer of some 30 Crimean churches. Vladimir's father had been the pastor of that same Djonkoi congregation when it had been an underground church.

During the years of communist rule the church met secretly in a two-room building his father had on their property. Vladimir now lives on that same property. The two rooms have been remodeled, added on to and made into a house in which Vladimir and his young family now live (my translator and I stayed there about a week).

We stood in the two rooms where the church once met ­ each room perhaps 20' by 25' ­ and Vladimir told me that some 100 believers would secretly crowd in. Sometimes the people over the wall next door would call the police who would come and break up the meeting. His father went to jail many times. Finally the police warned his father that if they arrested him once more "you are going away for a long time," referring to Siberia. But Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Russia and conditions changed and the threat was not carried out.

Also on that property is the two-room house in which Vladimir lived while growing up, along with his mother and father, three siblings and grandmother. It has a kitchen, perhaps 7' by 10', and a bedroom, perhaps 10' by 12'. When I first arrived some days before and glanced at the ramshackle little house, I thought it might be a chicken house. But Vladimir beamed as he stood in the bedroom, pointing to the floor, saying, "Right here on this spot, while I was growing up, I saw many people come to the Lord. In fact this spot is where I received Christ as a child. We have thought of tearing this little house down; but we decided not to do so because it has too many memories."

In the early 1990s Vladimir's family emigrated to the United States, and at age 21, Vladimir became the youth minister of a Russian-Ukrainian church in Oregon. However, after a couple of years, the Lord began to deal with him about returning to the Ukraine to preach. Finally he yielded and, at age 26, returned and became pastor of the congregation his father once led. He married about a year later.

Now, four years on, the congregation has grown to some 225 and meets in a downtown theater (I spoke there on a Sunday morning). God has worked. Very remarkably he said, the family next door who used to call the police, have now come to the Lord and are in the church.

A woman, who used to make fun of his mother every day as she went to her job, is now born again and in the church. When his mother returned to the church after being in America, that woman ran up to his mother, fell at her feet sobbing, begging for forgiveness.

Plus Vladimir, as said, is the overseer, or "bishop," of some 30 churches in the Crimea. Many of these have young pastors. He has invited me to return with my wife, Esther, to hold pastors' conferences. "I am only 30," he said, "and I do not have a lot of experience; and I am trying to lead all of these pastors."

I could go on and tell about the men and women who came to Christ in the various meetings, of the local conference for pastors and church leaders, and of other things that happened. Plus I could discuss the many problems the Ukraine has. But what does this have to do with us here in America?

Perhaps add perspective.

Over these past 15 years, every time Esther and I have gone to an overseas nation for ministry (and at least 10 of the 15 years have been overseas), the Lord has done two things in us: One, while in the country, He has placed in us an enormous burden for that nation. It seemed that no matter what venue, whether church or public meeting, every time I spoke, an engulfing passion for the country and its people would grip us.

Two, when we returned to America, God used the time away to increase our urgency for our own nation. We saw our country with new eyes, and were freshly stirred to speak to its heart and conscience and plant the seeds of biblical revival and spiritual awakening.

The Lord did both during my time in the Ukraine, with this added dimension: This time I encountered believers who had lived under persecution, who had paid a price to serve Christ, but now rejoiced in an epic moment "When freedom came"

Yes, the Ukraine has many staggering challenges. Yes, they have a long way to go. But they recently have tasted freedom. Yet, they look at America as the true land of the free. Many Ukrainians want to come here ­ certainly the poorest in the Ukraine would love to come and be as rich as our poorest.

This time I have returned to America asking, "Do I appreciate what we have?" Do we? Have we become jaded? What are we doing with the freedom we have?

It is a grief to say that our beloved America is bearing less and less resemblance to the nation that was founded. Honestly, could our founders have believed that the freedom they sacrificed and for which they died, would become a freedom that would rationalize killing 40-plus million unborn and legitimizing sodomy as Supreme Court decisions in 1973 and 2003 respectively have done? It is by God's mercy that we remain a nation.

Our nation faces the Supreme Judge. Before Him our position as a nation must be repentance.

May we cry to Him to send revival to the Church, and spiritual awakening to our nation.

Let us petition Him as Isaiah, "Oh Lord, rend the heavens and come down..." (Isaiah 64:1)

Let us prayer together:"Oh Lord, your Word declares, "righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne." We have received from You a great and beautiful nation with gracious freedoms. But we have become unthankful and prideful and we are using our freedoms to rationalize such evils as killing our unborn and committing sodomy. It is by Your mercy that we remain a nation. Oh, Lord, we need desperation in Your Church. We cry to you in repentance. Come down. Send revival. In the Name of Jesus Christ, Your Son and our Savior and Lord, Amen."