This is what I feel like I’ve been doing for weeks now, spiritually speaking. I think I know the source of the issue.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend in America asked me about my churchgoing activities and what church here is like. I told her that there are lots of Russian Orthodox churches but I don’t attend them because my experience with them in Moscow didn’t leave me wanting more. Firstly, I find myself overwhelmed by the iconography that covers every inch of space. My eyes just can’t process it all. I’m the same way orally, which is why I can’t listen to certain pastors. It’s as if my mind shuts down when they start to shout because I just can’t process it, which is ironic because I love listening to loud music in my car (when I have one). Go figure.
The second reason why I wasn’t taken with Russian Orthodox church from my brief visit in Moscow is that there didn’t seem to be an order of service or structure of some kind. People go in and do their prayers at various stations, as far as I observed, but there was no priest delivering a homily based on a selected scripture. Having been a fairly regular church attendee for most of my life, I believe that there are two important parts of the experience that I’m unwilling to do without: believers worshipping and praising God together and a Scripture-based word being delivered by someone who has studied specifically for that reason.
The final reason I don’t attend Russian Orthodox church here is the same reason why I don’t attend Protestant church here: I like to be able to understand what’s being preached and my Russian is just good enough for me to manage in restaurants and shops but definitely not good enough for me to understand a sermon.
So my friend asked me about church and I told her that I don’t go here and that Jesus and I pastor me on a daily basis. It’s true, I have no human being available in my life at this time to guide me so I depend fully upon Jesus and my own (hopefully) good sense. Additionally, I said, every day – when I wake up, when I’m going through my morning routine and as I’m winding down for bed – I listen to sermons from various people. I average between three and four hours of sermons daily. Also, I usually listen to praise music on a Christian Radio app I have on my phone while I’m getting dressed and walking to school. Just before that, I spend time praying about the day ahead and any specific thing that’s on my mind. And I tend to have a running conversation going on with God throughout the entire day, which is a habit I’ve developed over the past few years.
So what’s missing from this equation? Why would I possibly feel like I’m gasping for spiritual air? I’m praying, I’m praising, and I’m absorbing the Word from various sources. What could be wrong with this picture?
It’s studying the Word for myself. Personal Bible study is a big, glaring hole in the fabric of my life. It sounds basic and simple, and some will probably think that it shouldn’t be a big deal but it is. Here’s why. Ephesians 6:17-18a (ESV) says:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
Do you see it there? “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” I’m putting on other parts of my armour but I’m not taking up my sword! So if I’m attacked, some of my defensive armour is in place but I’m missing the one piece of offensive armour that I’m supposed to have. That’s utter and complete folly on my part and I know it. And yet I still struggle.
Why? Why have I recognised this problem but haven’t resolved it, even as I write this? I think I’ve figured that out, too.
I simultaneously loved and hated English Literature class in high school. As an avid and committed reader, I loved that there was a class dedicated to reading books and plays but I hated when we got to the part in class where we had to figure out themes and motivations and analyse each character and setting and word. That part of class was torturous for me. The Bible happens to be a work of literature that requires analysis in order for me to squeeze all of its rich and valuable juice into the dry sponge of my life.
A few times in recent years, I’ve been able to sit and study my Bible on my own and get a tonne of stuff from what I’ve read.
But mostly, I struggle with Bible study, particularly if I don’t have a good Bible study guide that holds my hand and walks me deep into study. Believe me, the type of Bible study guide that I need is rare. Most Bible study guides either pose one or two deep questions and expect me to make a whole study out of it, or they simply skating along the surface, giving the author’s view of everything instead of guiding me in my own study.
So this is why I feel like I’m gasping for air; it’s because I’m not feeding my spiritual woman with the Word of God. I know from experience what it feels like to be bathed in God’s presence because I’m living in His Word, and I miss that feeling. I also run the risk of missing other things that God has in store for me because I’m not studying and growing in His Word and that idea is distressing, to say the least.
On top of my lack of personal Bible study, I feel like I’m failing in Jesus’ last instruction before He ascended back into heaven:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Matthew 28:19-20a (NIV)
Everyone here knows that I’m a Christian and that I love Jesus because I don’t hesitate to share that information. For example, when everyone wanted to know why I wasn’t participating in the Halloween activities, I told them it’s because I’m a Christian and I Halloween is not something that I believe in or celebrate. When someone asked me why I’m generally so happy and always have something positive to say to everyone, I told her that it’s not really me, it’s Jesus, because I’m so thankful for all He’s done for me. When a colleague was going to South Korea for medical treatment, I told her that I would be praying for her. I don’t hide my faith, but I haven’t specifically witnessed to one single person since I’ve been here, I haven’t brought anyone to faith in Jesus, I haven’t started a Bible study in my house. I haven’t done anything except live! And that doesn’t feel like enough. Yes, people here like me but what impact am I making for Jesus?
In fact, someone here said to me a few weeks ago that she likes the fact that, as a Christian, I don’t try to convert everybody around me. On the surface that may sound like a good thing because it means I’m not being an obnoxious Christian, but it may also mean that my witness isn’t particularly strong.
So what to do, what to do? I’ve done the first thing I always do – I’ve been praying about it all. I’m also seeking ways to change these situations because, by the grace of God, I hope to rectify them sooner rather than later. I don’t like knowing that I’m failing at my God-given assignments.