Passing the test of fellowship on a special day

May 22, 2011

by James Dimitroff

Seminary students prepare a birthday barbecue for instructor Rev. James Dimitroff

The last several days at the Odessa seminary have seen heavier study loads. I gave the students their first test (which, in Russian, is called “control work”) on Tuesday, May 17. The seminarians wanted all true/false questions because, they said, people in Ukraine disdain ambiguity in theological discussion. I compromised with some true/false but also five short essay questions. The results proved they have good retention and excellent understanding of their introduction to Dogmatics.

Next were oral reports, with each seminarian given 30 minutes and a theme. The themes seemed simple on the surface, but led to deeper issues. For example, “faith” as a theme required some attention to what the Bible calls “saving faith.” Likewise, the theme of “the kingdom of God” saw the seminarian quickly identify its polar opposite, the kingdom of evil that bedevils each of us in our daily life.

After sweating over the challenges of this week, word got out that Wednesday was my birthday. A rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” in English punctuated the morning meal!

Then, for the evening meal, there was silence. Literally, silence. The clock moved past 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and well beyond 7 p.m. Normally, we all take the evening meal together at 5. Something was up. With hunger pangs gnawing at my stomach, I decided to start exploring.

After a few minutes, the reason for the quiet kitchen became obvious. Way out by the rear seminary gate, the students had dug a fire pit and were concocting a birthday barbecue to surprise me. Fortunately, I didn’t spoil the surprise too much since the cooking was all finished. I ran to grab the camera for a shot to share with family and friends back home.

The grilled chicken was excellent, but getting it was not as simple as making a trip to the supermarket. The students first had to find the chicken, which in Ukraine took some extra reconnaissance in the neighbourhood. Our cook made a big tub of mashed potatoes to serve with the meal and whipped up a 20-layer (count them!) birthday cake and brought a jar of red tulips to grace our table.

As we completed today’s topic, “The Love of Christ in Christian Fellowship,” our theme was demonstrated again and again in this spontaneous birthday surprise. Even with a test and oral reports looming, the students went out of their way to express kindness and generosity at this Odessa birthday surprise. I’ll always remember the lesson so well taught, of fellowship far from home.

Rev. Dr. James Dimitroff, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Sask., is currently teaching seminary students in Odessa, Ukraine

A bishop’s visit stirs vivid memories

May 18, 2011

by James Dimitroff

Bishop Graefenstein (centre), Rev. Dimintroff (second from right), and the delegation headed to Yalta with humanitarian aid.

There was a buzz in the classroom. The seminary students had heard they may receive a visit from their bishop, Rev. Dr. Viktor Graefenstein, this weekend. Bishop Viktor lives in Marburg, Germany, and his visits to Odessa, while consistent, are not always planned far in advance. Whenever he sees a need or wants to make the trip, he drives—some 30 hours one way—usually pulling a trailer full of humanitarian aid. 

I met Bishop Viktor 15 years ago in St. Petersburg, Russia, during my previous mission service there. He sat behind me during a major meeting (Sinod in Russian) of ELKRAS, a now-defunct entity that tried to draw together all German Lutheran believers then living in the former Soviet Union. As the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod representative, I was given a courtesy invitation. My task was to try to understand the rebuilding of the Lutheran church after the Soviet collapse and what role LCMS Lutherans might be allowed to play.

Bishop Viktor was one of the leading voices of Lutheran churches in Ukraine. What made this particular meeting most memorable was the open and very public clash between Viktor and the presiding ELKRAS officer, the celebrated Lutheran theologian Georg Kretschmar. It hinged on women’s ordination and the German State Lutheran Church’s decision to bring female pastors immediately into Russian and Ukrainian ministry. 

Apart from being contrary scriptural teaching, this was an unprecedented action, with no prior consultation. Bishop Kretschmar wanted to move quickly over the thorny question. But Bishop Viktor refused to be silenced. Finally, after loud parliamentary objections, Viktor rose and informed President Kretschmar that Ukraine Lutherans would walk out of the Sinod and never return. Kretschmar suggested they adjourn to a quiet room, suspend the agenda, and try to resolve female pastors’ activity in Ukraine. Bishop Viktor said no, he would not accept “secret discussions” and right then and there walked out with his entire delegation of Lutherans from Ukraine.

Today’s meeting gave me a chance to get reacquainted. This time Bishop Viktor led a delegation of 10 German-Ukrainian Lutherans who now live in Darmstadt,Germany. They collect aid for some of the aged Lutheran pensioners and travel back into Ukraine several times every year. This delegation will worship with us today, Sunday, and then continue 650 kilometres to Yalta in Crimea. Bishop Viktor explained that there is only a Lutheran Prayer House in Yalta, not a full-fledged congregation, because there are no funds to support a Lutheran pastor.

Two elders from the delegation presented sermons and then Bishop Viktor preached his own sermon. This is a regular part of Ukraine Lutheran worship, with three sermons the norm at Sunday worship. Some of our seminary students had travelled Friday night to Dnepropetrovsk to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Alpha and Omega Christian Student Fellowship. The guest preachers from Germany were welcome as seminary students often have the privilege of preaching on Sunday mornings.

After a quick  lunch at a downtown Odessa cafeteria, the delegation (a van and a minibus) were back on the road to Yalta, dropping me off first at the seminary. Classes resume tomorrow, on biblical teaching concerning the Christian Church as the Body of Christ. Today’s international flavour at worship makes a perfect introduction into the very meaning of the term “Body of Christ” for pastors-to-be in Ukraine.

Rev. Dr. James Dimitroff is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He is currently teaching at Concordia Seminary, Odessa. Preparing Lutheran pastors for the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine is a project of Lutheran Church–Canada financially supported by Concordia Lutheran Mission Society.

Visit to Ukrainian village parish inspiring for LCC pastor

May 14, 2011

by James Dimitroff 

Seminarian Yuri, Rev. Sasha Yurchenko, and Elder Misha greets Rev. Dimitroff (right) at the door of the church.

Wednesday’s (May 11) invitation to travel to Kagarlik was a bit out of the ordinary. Usually church is held on Sunday, even in small villages. The added invitation to attend Holy Communion made the trip all the more appealing. Besides, this was an opportunity to visit the home village of one of our seminarians and meet his family. In an effort to become better acquainted with the students, it was an offer I wouldn’t want to decline.

Kagarlik is about 40 kilometres away from the million-plus city of Odessa. Wednesday’s preacher was to be Rev. Sasha Yurchenko, who graduated from the first Ukraine seminary class almost 11 years ago. As we drove toward Kagarlik, one could see endless fields of yellow-flowered canola. No wonder so many people have remarked on the similarity between Ukraine and Saskatchewan. Other fields awaited seeding, but overall the agricultural enterprise seems efficient and up-to-date.

To get to Kagarlik, the car passed through the even smaller village of Kamenka. I remembered that Kamenka was the site of the original seminary LCC helped staff and organize in 1998. I hoped we would pass by that first seminary building, but later was told that the church area in Kamenka is now, unfortunately, in ruins.

As we arrived in Kagarlik, the entire congregation was already seated. I entered along with senior pastor Yurchenko, church elder Misha and seminary student Yuri. After singing a number of beautiful hymns, the normal style in Ukraine of two consecutive sermons followed.

My student, Yuri, preached first on Luke 24. He brought out the important message of Our Lord’s constant caring and companionship along the road of life. Next, Rev. Yurchenko spoke. He impressed me deeply with his God-given ability to zoom in on important Bible themes. His style was intense and full of vigour.

After almost half an hour, the congregation sang a few more hymns before Communion began. The tradition in this congregation, and possibly others in Ukraine, is to allow individual congregants to pray personal prayers aloud, just before consecration of the elements. On this day, some seven people raised their voices to ask for help at the throne of grace. Personal prayers also followed, once the sacrament was finished.

All congregation members in Ukraine receive Holy Communion kneeling—but there are no pads or pillows. This meant everyone knelt and rose on the linoleum, without a mishap. When my turn came, I hoped I would not tip over, and fortunately, there was no problem.

It was my pleasure to bring greetings to this congregation from all the believers in Lutheran Church–Canada. The congregation, in turn, sent back praise and glory to God for the faithful support LCC has given over the years to seminary training and congregational support of the small, confessional Ukraine Lutheran Synod (SELCU).

Following the service I was delighted to meet Yuri’s wife and six-year-old daughter. The elder, Misha, announced that this coming Saturday would be a work day for the congregation–the entire third floor needed painting. Many volunteers offered to help.

Even though the village is one of thousands scattered in southern Ukraine, Kagarlik was very special. Here we see the Lord’s hand steadily at work, bringing Word and Sacrament to all who believe, even on a Wednesday afternoon. I am still trying to determine why Sunday was unavailable and it may have had to do with the church repair and painting set to begin Saturday. But in any event, this was a most memorable village that formed a solid contrast with metropolitan Odessa. Odessa may be “Mama” in the local slang (meaning flamboyant and intrusive) but Kagarlik is faithful, devoted to the Lutheran confessions, and inspiring!

Rev. Dr. James Dimitroff is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He is currently teaching seminary classes in Odessa Ukraine.

A timely illustration for seminary students

May 11, 2011

Dr. Dimitroff (second from left) and seminary students celebrate Victory Day, May 9

by James Dimitroff

May 9 is a national holiday in Ukraine (and in most of the former Soviet Union). It was universally called Victory Day as it marked the final capitulation of Nazi forces in World War II, with special reference to the Nazi onslaught that started against the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In Ukraine, which suffered occupation by Nazi forces between 1941 and 1944, memories are especially severe and tragic. And so even though Ukraine enjoys sovereign statehood today, the government still celebrates the victory over Hitler and his forces.

In the city of Odessa, the lilacs burst into bloom just before May 9. With spring in the air, Odessa seminary students decided, rightly, to respect the holiday and attend a festival honouring the World War II defenders of the city, and Ukraine in general. We drove downtown from the seminary and parked near the central train station. There, through the park, we visited several tank emplacements, saw a few of the remaining veterans proudly wearing their medals and vintage uniforms, and heard an orchestra play patriotic tunes.

Of course, being good Lutherans, the students arrived an hour and a half before the festivities began. That meant we needed something to fill in the time. “Why not walk to the Black Sea?” they suggested. It sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea, especially since the seashore was only “20 minutes” away.  Some 40 minutes later, we were still walking, but finally arrived at a lovely, private beach not yet open for business.

We got back to the city plaza in good time. We watched the parade and heard the patriotic music. The younger generation in Ukraine has a hard time imagining events of 66 years earlier. There seem to be more immediate concerns: high inflation in the economy (somewhere around 10 percent per month), unemployment and a muddled political picture.

As we drove back to an area called, ominously, The Catacombs, we stopped to see the underground tunnels used by partisans in their struggle against the Nazi occupation. These underground labyrinths weave an extensive net that extends for a hundred miles deep underneath the Odessa highlands and city proper.

Tomorrow we return to the seminary curriculum, which happens to be “The Nature of Sin.”  A perfect tie-in to what we saw today: results of unbridled sin and defiance of God’s love and law in the city of Odessa and world-wide. We will have lots to talk about as we look at humanity’s inhumanity, our inherent corruption, and God’s great love in sending us a Saviour who brought us redemption.

Rev. Jim Dimitroff is pastor of  Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

LCC pastor reports from Ukraine seminary

May 1, 2011

 by James Dimitroff

Rev. Dr. James Dimitroff, who is fluent in Russian, is beginning a six-week seminary teaching assignment in Odessa , Ukraine.

May Day greetings to all from the heart of Odessa, Ukraine! May Day used to be the big political holiday with parades and fireworks. Now things are far more quiet. 

Arrival here from Toronto via Istanbul was hectic and slightly confusing. The Concordia Seminary, where I am to teach beginning tomorrow, was closed for the Easter holidays. All the students went home to villages and other cities for a few days’ rest with family. Only one student, Valery Verba, returned early to meet me at the Odessa airport. We had never seen one another, but amid the wild crush of frantic Odessans trying to return home from Turkey, Valery somehow found me easily.

The Ukraine immigration inspector was more officious. He demanded to know exactly how much cash I was carrying at that moment and the reason for my coming to Ukraine. I told him I was the Concordia Lutheran Seminary instructor but he heard only the word “seminar” and let me through with little trouble.

Odessa is in bloom—all the flowering cherry trees, apple trees and linden trees declare the glory of God’s creation. On the surface, it is a charming seaport with more than 1 million people living in and around the coastal areas. Pre-trip reading of a new book just released in 2011 (Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams) spells out the tragic history of this major Ukraine metropolis. True, there were decades of great export deals, a large Jewish cultural influence and the special flavour of Odessan humour. But so much was lost during the war years. Odessa was occupied by Fascist Romania as a “gift” from their Nazi allies. Horrendous pogroms and deportations followed.

When the Soviets regained control in 1945, they proclaimed Odessa to be a “Hero City” because it had resisted the Nazis for 87 days. There were only a total of four original “Hero Cities” that earned this special mention. This is important because next week, on May 9, Odessa will celebrate “Victory Day” as a national holiday along with many other former republics of the former Soviet Union.

Concordia Lutheran Seminary is a beautiful example of cooperation in international mission. The brand-new building, dedicated in August 2010, is comfortable and clean. Its location on the outskirts of Odessa means there is a haven of peace and quiet for the seminarians to study and apply themselves.

 This morning, I visited the Lutheran congregation pastored by Rev. Oleg Shewtshenko in downtown Odessa. As Oleg is away in Germany for a few weeks, the main sermon was given by Valery Verba, the only student I’ve met so far. Seminary students fill in at this congregation from time to time. That church too has been beautifully and tastefully rebuilt. It is the landmark St. Paul’s Lutheran, which towers over the city from one of its highest hills. For almost a century, ships arriving at the Odessa port would use the light from St. Paul’s steeple to be their beacon for navigation.

Our beacon is Jesus Christ. This morning’s sermon dealt with Our Lord’s powerful words to Thomas and Thomas’ subsequent declaration of new-found faith. In his sermon, Valery Verba asked the parishioners to examine their faith too, so that it is not found to wobble in the face of “Reason’s” so-called challenge.

Once again, may I wish you a blessed May Day from the Instructor’s Room in Concordia Lutheran Seminary. Keep the Odessa seminary and its students in your fervent prayers as they prepare for a lifetime of faithful ministry to the Lord and Beacon of our life, Jesus.

Rev. Jim Dimitroff is pastor of  Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

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