Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Odyssey of Pastor Mike: Part V

Pastor Michael prayed and asked God what the next stage was, what more God might demand of him. “Go to Belarus,” was God’s reply. After five years of preaching in the prisons, hospitals, and streets of Russia, God was calling Pastor Mike to a new ministry.

The transition was difficult for Pastor Mike and for his wife Lena and his son Sasha. But God sustained them through the trials of the move. He started a church. God gave him power to heal the sick and to preach with authority, restoring families who had been broken by drug addiction and the rampant alcoholism in the country. Through it all, Michael remained a steadfast servant of God. His efforts, and the results they were bringing forth, attracted the attention of a local woman, Galina Samusenko, who would join the church and exhibit the same passionate fervor Pastor Mike had for serving others. She would go on to serve as an assistant Pastor.

Galina helped the church grow, and soon the worship services were overflowing. They opened a new church, then a third. They continued the Biblical commandments of feeding the poor and the needy, caring for orphans and widows. All of this activity began to attract the attention of the local authorities, who intimidated some of the parishioners. In Belarus, the only accepted religion is Orthodox Christianity, and to worship in the style of Pastor Mike and his parishioners is a jailable offense. Further, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought not liberation, but a tightening of the stranglehold the government of Belarus inflicted on its citizens. Times grew tougher for Pastor Mike's church.

Yet Pastor Mike and his congregation continued to worship. Further, their farms were prospering, and they began to feed the people of the local village, then the surrounding villages. Pastor Michael petitioned the local government to approve his church as an official church, and finally, after many years, it was accomplished. The church continued to face discrimination and injustices, but it also continued to grow.

Pastor Mike's church formed an alliance with my church, Aldersgate and things continued to prosper. The churches supported one another, and the financial support we were able to provide helped build a new church in Krichev. It was placed at the top of the only hill in the town, a shining beacon on the hill, and a sign of just how much things had changed. Further financial support from Aldersgate enabled Pastor Mike’s congregation to purchase a tractor, allowing them to grow more crops, and feed more people. And still the church grew.

The church garnered more land and set up pens for pigs, geese and ducks. Pastor Michael created a Church Camp, a safe haven for kids who no longer had to be at the mercy of predators in the streets. The Church created a children's Sunday school, a Bible school for adults, a daily prayer service, a women’s and men’s group, youth services, and Praise and Worship services. Today, the three churches have more than 200 people attending.

God continued his work of redemption with Pastor Michael right until the end. Shortly before his death earlier this summer, Pastor Michael received a message from God that He was going to call him home. True to his nature, Pastor Michael called his team, including Galina, the young woman who had so enthusiastically joined the church and served as his right hand, and told them they needed to begin preparations for a time when Pastor Michael would no longer be with them. They worked together to institute a transition plan, and the Krichev Church was accepted as a member of the International United Methodist Churches. Shortly thereafter, Pastor Michael was called to his rest.

The Odyssey of Pastor Mike: Part IV

Michael Kazimirov was wrapped in the arms of a forgiving God, weeping and appealing to God because he wished to live. To truly live. It was a sincere plea, born not out of a selfish need for preservation, but out of the realization he had not served God to this point in his life, and there was much to do. He pledged his life to God, begging for forgiveness, for direction, for absolution. And it came upon him in waves.

Several months later, as the date of Michael’s execution drew close, the military tribunal reconvened, unexpectedly. Michael faced the court, unafraid, knowing that God was moving, and was not surprised when he heard his sentence changed from death to a life sentence. He saw the hand of God moving now, committed himself to following where it led him. But where would it lead? What would happen next? How would he know where to go? He had so many questions, but this time he sought the answers, and he had a place to turn.

Michael returned to prison that day, and began to read. He picked up the Bible from his cell, seeking God’s words, devouring it like a meal set before a man who had been starving for years, which was, in effect, what he was. God continued to move, but now Michael knew who was in charge of his life, recognized the force of God. Michael was allowed to mingle with the other prisoners and began to share the word of God with the lost souls who occasionally surrounded him, men just as lost as he had been.

And Michael Kazimirov spoke with authority, showing the men how God was working in his life and the power of God’s forgiveness. Not surprisingly, his fellow prisoners began to listen. At first, just a few came, huddled close to hear the story this former Special Forces soldier, this murderer who had been redeemed by God’s love. Word spread throughout the prison of a man with the fire of God about him, and Michael was preaching with the fire and zeal of a new believer, a man who had experienced the redemption of the Holy Spirit. His ministry continued to grow in the prison and he became the prison pastor. After 12 years, he had 50 people in his group of believers.

The tribunal convened again, and Michael’s sentence was declared complete. After twelve years, God released him from his chains, and Michael was a free man. He went back to school and applied himself in the study of God’s word and was ordained as a Pastor. He preached in his native Russia for five years, building churches, visiting hospitals and prisons, bringing good news to all who would hear it. Michael looked at his work and felt satisfied; he was bringing the Word of God to his people, as he had promised to do.

But once again Michael began to get the feeling he was missing something, that there was a question he was not answering, that something was about to change.

The Odyssey of Pastor Mike: Part III

The dungeon was a perfect place to wait for execution, if such a thing can exist. It was cold and there were no windows, no visible way to the outside. There was very little light, save what was offered by a single, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Michael tried to warm his hands by the heat of the bulb, but it was hung just too high. It was a place devoid of hope. “Perfect,” thought Michael Kazimirov. But there it was again, that feeling that he had missed something. Only now, Michael had no place to shoe it away to. He was a condemned man, a hard worker with no work to bury himself in, a soldier with no battles to fight, a boxer with no opponent on the other side. It was all gone: his career, his honor, the respect he had earned. He had nothing but the icy, inflexible floor of this prison and his life, and he recognized he would soon lose both. The recognition was without bitterness, only a slow resignation to his fate…except for that feeling. What was it?

The cell was sparse. Michael. The light bulb. A blanket. A book. Absentmindedly, he picked up the book, undoubtedly left by a previous inhabitant, who put it down as he walked (or crawled, or was dragged) out to die, as Michael himself would do when the time came. He wondered grimly how many men before him had done this exact pantomime. He did not open at the front of the book, but rather let it fall open, as he slumped down on the floor to read by that dim bulb.

It flopped open to Psalm 91 and Michael Kazimirov read:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust." Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. If you make the Most High your dwelling – even the LORD, who is my refuge- then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent. "Because he loves me," says the LORD, "I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation."

…and the arms of God came into his prison, wrapped Michael in love and comforted him. It was that sudden. Michael Kazimirov had found the answer to his question, to his doubts, to his fears, to what was missing all those years. The suddenness of the realization shook him. First, there was no God, then there was God, though later Michael would realize there had always been God, it was only that he had not been looking for God, and therefore was not seeing Him. Michael Kazimirov once a hard worker, Special Forces Operative, and Champion Boxer of the Baltic fell into the arms of God and wept the tears of a Child of God.

The Odyssey of Pastor Mike: Part II

Michael Kazimirov had it all: a solid career, renown, respect. But still there was a nagging in the dark recesses of his mind that something was missing. He had managed to brush it off and put it out of his mind, but it kept coming back. One night, while he was out with his comrades, he decided to go to dinner at a restaurant. There was a disturbance and the police were called. Two militiamen and an officer tried to quell the disturbance, but the situation escalated with the police and a full-on fight quickly began.

In the mind of Michael Kazimirov, the world went red. All of his professional training took over and all of his Special Forces hardness and boxing prowess came to the forefront. And, it was over. There was an odd stillness to the room. This was a restaurant after all, used to the bustle of tables being waited upon and food being ordered, of diners laughing at the days events or discussing their plans. The din was interrupted by the even louder conflagration of the fight, a rowdy soldier's brawl. And then there came that long, terrible silence. In the quiet, the red drained from Michael’s eyes and he looked around, and more accurately, down at the damage. Both militiamen were completely disabled, lying on the floor, their chests heaving from exertion but unable to move. The officer lay in an unnatural position, the kind that, had he been conscious, he would have immediately shifted his position for the pure discomfort of it. Looking intently at the officer, Michael suddenly realized what was different about the man: the heaving breaths, the signal of life exhibited by the two militiamen, was absent from the officer. A quick check revealed the man was dead.

There was a trial, performed in the Soviet style. Either you did something or you didn’t, and Michael had killed a man. An officer. The trial proceeded quickly, and at the end the court was “inclined to the maximum measure of punishment.” Michael was sentenced to be executed and was sent to the chamber of condemned men, a cold dungeon where he was to wait for his execution. He was alone, a man without hope, and it didn’t matter. He was just waiting to die.

The Odyssey of Pastor Mike: Part I

Pastor Mike was the pastor who welcomed me into his church family when I went to Belarus. He was an incredible man of faith, and I was asked to share his story with my congregation here, as a way to help my church understand the church in Belarus. While I was writing his story, he passed on to the next life after a massive heart attack. This is his story.

Michael Kazimirov was born in the Soviet Union near Bryansk, a small village nestled up to a dense and beautiful wood. Growing up, he busied himself with helping his family, as was the custom of children there. It was a physically demanding existence, but Michael was a strong boy. He took a keen interest in gymnastics, especially the horizontal bar, and soccer. He was a natural athlete and excelled.

At 16, he left home to go to Riga for school. It was here that he studied seamanship and joined the military, but it was his athletic prowess that won him initial recognition. Michael turned his athletic interests to boxing, and his strength and fearlessness led to many bouts…and many victories. Michael was relentless in his pursuit of excellence, and he finally reached the pinnacle of his boxing career when he was crowned Champion of the Baltic for his weight class.

Similarly, his military career was taking off; the incredible drive that made him successful at boxing also led to advances in his job. He was promoted to the highest level of the Spetsnaz, the Soviet Special Forces which are the equivalent of Soviet commandos. Their training is incredibly harsh, and the demands placed on Spetsnaz commandos are among the most rigorous in the world. In short, they are the elite fighting force of the Soviet Army, and Michael had risen through their ranks.

He was given the toughest missions and traveled throughout the region, meeting and exceeding the requirements of the most demanding assignments. Michael Kazimirov had it all: a solid career, renown, respect. But as is so often the case, something seemed…wrong. It occasionally nagged at him, creeping into the backdoor of his consciousness and gnawing at the edges of his mind and his…what was it? Michael tried to brush it aside, to shoe it out like a rodent and then plug up the hole. It was his nature to increase his efforts at work and his boxing, convinced that sweat, effort and focus would keep whatever that gnawing thing was at bay. Boxing and work, work and boxing, boxing and work: surely that was the solution! But, it always found a way back in, quiet as a church mouse.