Being a good boy from the South, I learned long ago that certain things remain hidden. A woman’s age, certain stories about the family, how much a man is worth (though we were too poor to care much about that one). Even religion could be a hidden thing – at least for some. Among the most hidden things of all were things and people that involved pain.
I was no stranger to pain in my family life. I had two aunts who died of Lupus, a cousin and an aunt who died of Rheumatoid Arthritis, all very slow, very public diseases. I had an aunt who was murdered in the early 60’s. Her story remained front page for nearly a year – mixed with racial issues, politics, all the stuff that made for front page news. I had another cousin who was murdered in the 1980’s. Same town, same tensions, deep pain.
I served for two years as a hospice chaplain in which I had a minimum of three patients a week to die.
Pain has not been a stranger to my life, nor to my ministry. Thus it has been absolutely essential in my life that the God who saves must be a God who knows my pain and your pain and all the pain that I’ve seen. I cannot bear the successful God of the prosperity gospel. He is too beside the point.
Last weekend I celebrated and preached at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was an honor and a good experience – just as I had expected.
What I did not expect came after the service in one of those surprises that stays with you. There is a second service on Sundays at St. Nicholas (a fairly rare Orthodox event). That service is a Slavonic (Russian) service – Russian choir, Russian priest, very beautiful.
I became curious, and wearing the proper garments of a priest (cassock and riassa) I knew that I could sneak around a bit and get by with it. Particularly I wanted to climb into the choir loft and get a good look at the Church. You see almost nothing of a Church when you are one of the celebrants in the altar.
I did my deed – climbed into the choir loft in the rear of the Church. They smiled and tolerated me – let me do my tourist thing. But then I turned to leave and was met with the surprise.
The Cathedral is covered from top to bottom in frescoes. Wonderful icons of saints with Christ looking down from the dome. But there in the back, just above the choir, is a very Russian icon.
On one side of it are the Russian Royal New Martyrs, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, victims of the Bolsheviks. On the other side, with barbed-wire swinging open are sainted victims of the gulag. In the middle is the Holy Patriarch Tikhon, another victim of the Bolsheviks and the treasure of the American Church, where he was once the Bishop.
There they stood and the tears leapt to my eyes. I had not expected to see them there – triumphant – with all the other saints that cover the walls of that beautiful Church.
But like so many Orthodox saints, they remind of a pain – this one a very fresh pain – all the more poignant for its newness.
The God who saves knows this pain and He knows these saints. He is the God they called on in the dark nights of the Gulag, in the frightening chaos of a revolution, in the midst of a world gone mad.
I want to be where such saints reign for I need their company. I need their victorious knowledge of a God who conquers all. I need to know that the senselessness we have hurled at each other in just my short life finds its sense in the redemption of Christ.
The icon came as a surprise to me, only because I hadn’t known it was there. But it came as no surprise to me – for such saints are always there. And I am grateful for their prayers.
If I find a copy of the icon that can be posted I’ll share it with all of you. If not, or for any other reason, take time when you’re in Washington to go by St. Nicholas. Admire everything there, but don’t forget to look to the top of the rear wall. New saints adorn that space – saints who remind us of the God who saves us even from such madness as they knew. Surely He has borne our griefs.