Life, Liberty and Ukrainian Cherries

Many well intentioned people think the country of Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Not true.

It actually happened ten years later, when I liberated the people with my rock. In all modesty, let me say that freeing an entire people group is no small thing. With only an acoustic guitar and vocal chords woven from the wings of baby cherubim, I set off in search of the unsuspecting republic. After a day and night roaming the cobblestone streets of Zurich on a layover, I found myself on a flight to Kiev. Landing in Kiev was surreal. It was only upon bribing a local official that we were released to our transportation, en route to Priluki. I will never forget Priluki. I will never forget the orphans, clinging to my legs…begging for a better life. I will never forget lifting weights with the prison inmates, showing them that I could indeed…lift the bar. Beautifully haunting images were forever ingrained into my mind. Praying for the Holy Spirit to fill us, hardly knowing what we were asking for. The next day, playing soccer with four year old orphans, knowing that the Spirit had long since been indwelt. We didn’t know it, but we were doing the work of God.

I don’t wear shorts. Too many years of emotional abuse. But friends…Ukraine is hot. Hotter than anything I had encountered stateside. And I grew up with 116 degree summers. In 2001, I was wearing Dickies religiously…don’t ask why. But by day two of our trip, the pants had been cut off. Well below the knee, mind you…but cut off. We walked everywhere in Priluki. We had learned very quickly not to trust Ukrainian cab drivers. If I remember correctly, there was a mile between the “Discotecha” (existing church) and the place we were staying (future church). The building in which we were sleeping was recently abandoned, thanks to the owner being shot to death no less than twenty feet from my pillow. I was told not to worry.

There are two things I remember at every corner on that mile long walk. Stores featuring “Dove” ice cream bars…and cherry trees. It seemed that to be a Ukrainian citizen, you had to own a producing cherry tree in your front yard, among other things. The problem was that the cherries were irresistible. In Ukraine, we were on a strict diet of cucumber sandwiches and potato chips. Obviously, meals like this left something to be desired. But cherries were free and plentiful. One could consume dozens without realizing it. Until you reached your destination, at which point your large intestine began screaming like a banshee. Luckily, we had a brand new bathroom. Perhaps I’m embellishing, but I remember it as a glorified hole in the floor. Which, if you can imagine, was a luxurious upgrade from the restrooms of our predecessors. I’ve never had diarrhea like that. Never before and never since. Something about Ukrainian cherries produce a sort of Kryptonite for your digestive system.

One day, we were about to play music near a local market. As usual, everyone in town was invited. It didn’t matter what we were playing, all the locals knew was that there was a band from California in town. Once we started playing, the missionaries and others from our group would begin to talk about Jesus to the locals. It was sniper witnessing at its best. They never knew what hit them. Before the show, we decided to pray. As we were praying, I experienced what would best be described as a vision. Like the Ukrainian cherries, this was something that hasn’t been repeated since. Now, I’m not one for Benny Hinn types of experiences, but in all honesty, I don’t know how else to describe what I saw. I’ll explain it to the best of my ability:

Imagine yourself on a stage in a huge auditorium. It’s dark, but you can sense thousands of people in the audience, waiting for you to perform. You walk out with your guitar…as if you are exposed, and the guitar is the only partition between you and the people. At the front of the stage is a solitary microphone. A spot light, shining down on the microphone, is the only source of light in the room. As you walk up to the microphone, you are met by a man. You know who the man is, but not by introduction. You offer your guitar without petition. Almost immediately, the man reveals a sword and begins slashing across your stomach and piercing your chest. Doubled over in pain, with your arms folded across your belly, you see blood dripping onto the floor. You look up at the man responsible. As you make eye contact, he says three words…

“Now lead worship”

That image has stuck with me over the past seven years. Reminding me that whatever I do, whether it be leading a congregation in worship or raising my child, I should do it fully exposed (figuratively, of course). Realizing that when I am weak, Jesus is strong.

Freedom comes in many forms, and while the Ukrainian people had experienced it quite literally ten years prior…the summer of 2001 was a huge milestone for my development as a man. There is so much I’ve yet to understand about Christianity and Ukrainian cherries. Especially the latter’s effect on the digestive system. But rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, maybe it’s okay to admit that I just don’t have all the answers. Isn’t it amazing what a little soft-rock, bloodshed and diarrhea will teach you. Like Jack Black said, “Stalin ain’t no walk in the park.” Or something like that.

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