In the summers from 1902 until 1904, Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin was sent by the Russian Museum of St Petersburg to north west Russia to collect items of Russian folk art. During his travels he took pictures of scores of Russian Orthodox churches.
When Prince Vladimir had converted to Christianity back in 988, he began building churches throughout Russia. Many were made of wood and some of them had survived in the area where Bilibin was conducting his researches. By Bilibin’s time the churches were fairly dilapidated. Many had lost the their gilded icons and were a pale shadow of their former glory.
About a century later when a British researcher, Richard Davies, went in search of Bilibin’s churches, his nine year investigation revealed that most of them were rotting, had been destroyed by lightning or had succumbed to neglect or vandalism; one even fell down when a farmer reversed his tractor into it.
These churches certainly told a story. A story of struggle. Of the struggle with severe northern winters. Of the struggle with communism. They also told a story of a resilient faith handed down for a millennium.
Russia is not the only place in the world where spiritual edifices remind us of the church’s glorious past. Take a look in just about any village, town or city in the Western world and you’ll find the story of faith’s past.
Telling the story of the past is one of the duties of the church. Jude exhorts his readers:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. (Jude 3)
But that is only half of the story. The other half of the story – perhaps it is more than half of the story – is that the church is called to write the story of the future.
In His three years of earthly ministry, Jesus came telling a different story. He subverted both the stories of Jewish nationalism and Roman imperialism. Instead, He told the people that the Kingdom of God was at hand. A different power had come to interrupt the plans and dreams of the rulers of His day.
Doctor Luke, in the first chapter of Acts, explained that he had written about what Jesus began to do and to teach, the clear implication being that the apostles and the early church would continue to the mission.
And we continue the mission in our day.
I suppose the challenge is, what story are we telling? Are we content merely to recount the glories of the past? Or are we about writing the story of the future?
How can we do our best to ensure that we are faithful to the future as well as the past? Perhaps those Russian churches can teach us a thing or two.
Firstly, stay connected to people. Those glorious Russian churches might have served a good purpose in their day, but ultimately the people moved on.
Secondly, our glorious history is no guarantee of a glorious future. In a former life I worked in the financial world. The caveat in many a transaction was past performance is not necessarily a guide to future returns.
Finally, don’t go trying to recapture the past – however glorious. Bilibin found that some of those churches had been severely damaged by botched attempts at restoration. Trying to recover a glorious past never works. The past is, well, the past. The people of Israel held on to Moses’ bronze snake through which God brought them deliverance, but it became a snare to them (2 Kings 18.4).
There is no perfect model to go back to. No golden era on which to model the future. God does new things. He works on old principles of faith and sacrifice and the like. But he does new things. And He calls us to be faithful to the future that He wants us to join with Him in bringing into being.