Living in Russia offered me the priviledge of many unique and crazy circumstances to draw from for writing material. This scene is the real event that sparked the premise for my first published story – The Measure of a Man novella in Tyndale’s, Chance Encounters of the Heart Anthology.
It’s been a brutal fall. Somehow, the reality of Russian life has snuck up to us, and from stolen headlights on our cars, to an unfortunate mugging, our normally forgiving hearts have been crusting over. Russia is a difficult place to live, with the crumbling cement buildings, the glass-covered, weedy yards, the broken streets and the cold smack of the wind from the North.
Russian Friendships, however, are warm, run deep and more than compensate for these trials…usually.
With the death of our friend Costia, the mishaps of muggings and thefts and the advent of the holiday season, the joy of working in Russia began to flicker and cynicism sneaked into our conversations.
God must have known I needed a fresh perspective. But He sure delivers in strange ways.
One frosty November evening, I decided to pop over to my girlfriend’s house to chat, and learn how to cut up a chicken. (Okay, I know, this is something I should have learned in Missionary 101–I skipped that class).
Throwing on my jacket, I sent the kids down the elevator ahead of me and told them to head over to her house, just across the yard. (When I say house, I mean 9-story apartment building, in which she has a 3 BR apt on the 10th floor. I have a 4 BR apt on the 9th floor.) We had some Japanese folks living with us, and they decided to join me, so we called the elevator and hopped in. I did take note of the fact the lift seemed to behave oddly, not quite meeting up with the ninth floor when the doors opened.
But this is Russia. Things are often off-kilter.
We rode down the nine flights, landed on the first floor and waited for the doors to open. Nothing. We went to the second floor. Again nothing. We visited all the floors, a few times. Nothing. Panic began to seep into the tiny one-meter by one-meter compartment. The word claustrophobia wasn’t mentioned, but considered. We were three adults and a child in a box the size of a phone booth.
We returned to the first floor. Hearing a group of teenagers, I pounded on the door and asked for help. They laughed at us. We tried to pry the doors open. Hercules couldn’t have exerted more force than three slightly desperate adults. Unless we were worms, however, we weren’t getting out of that elevator.
I kept pounding. The teenagers began to mimic my pleas for help. One suggested we pass out dollars and they would help us. We decided to pray instead.
Another group of potential good Samaritans shuffled up to the lift and pressed the button. I called to them and guessed, from their voices, they were about nine years old. Giggling, the boys ran off, saying they would call the “Liftor” (the Russian translation for the lift operator). We have a Liftor who works an area about as big as ten city blocks, with approximately twenty nine-story buildings–nearly 100 elevators.
We never heard from the boys again.
We kept pounding, prying, praying and pleading. The teenagers’ voices drifted off as they scattered to smoke cigarettes in some other hallway. The frosty nip of a Siberian November seeped through the cracks of the lift and my toes began to feel fat. Occasionally, after we would attack the door, the dim light overhead would flicker off and bathe us in darkness. I head the Japanese folks praying in a strange tongue. (Which I supposed was Japanese). When I checked my watch, an hour had ticked by. I hoped my children had made it to my girlfriend’s house safely.
Since it was 5pm, a steady flow of people entered the building. Most of them called the elevator, and we responded by calling out, “help.” Our hearts sunk lower every time silence answered and we heard feet trudge up the stairs.
Anger started to simmer in my soul. Here I was, a servant in their country, showing them the path to salvation, and they couldn’t even stop to call the lift operator? The frustrations of the past three months roiled through me and I fought tears. Thoughts of hopping the next plane filled my mind. Fury fueled my emotions. I slammed my fist into the door, wrenched at it with all my might, and earned a few bruises.
Then I remember that is EXACTLY what Satan wanted me to do. God doesn’t hold us accountable for what happens, but rather how we react. God expected me to react with patience and forgiveness, despite my hurt. In the quiet pitch of darkness, I battled to forgive a country that seemed so cold and uncaring. I battled to obey God’s will for my life, and love in the face of callousness. I battled to turn the other cheek.
An older gentleman trotted up to the door. We called out, again, and miraculously, he answered, then said, “I’ll call the liftor!”
We heard his footsteps scamper out the door and hope lit inside me. I felt the first tingling of forgiveness in my heart. He returned shortly, said he’d made the call, and that they’d be here shortly. Grateful tears pricked my eyes. We heard him ascend the stairs.
Forty-five minutes later we were still waiting, now frozen and ready to devour the raw chicken in my bag. I didn’t need to learn how to cut apart a chicken — I could rip it asunder with my bare, nearly numb hands! Please God, I prayed, send us someone who cares.
We again attacked the door, cracked it open and saw twilight had descended, bathing the corridor in shadows. Suddenly, an elderly woman, dressed in a thick wool coat and a fuzzy rabbit shopka, poked her eye into the crack.
“Are you stuck in there?” she asked.
No, I just thought I’d sleep in the lift tonight, I wanted to retort, then glad I didn’t have the Russian to pull it off. Deliriously grateful to see a friendly face I said, “We’ve been in here nearly two hours! Can you help us?”
Then she spoke the most wonderful words in history. “I’ll get an axe.”
I didn’t care if Russia fined me for destroying public property; I’d buy
the entire building a new elevator if I could just sleep in my bed for the night!
She reappeared with lethal instruments — a long rod which she passed through and we wedged into the crack, and an axe, which she wielded herself. She began to pry the door open. Fresh air flooded into the box and hope was palpable.
We grabbed the rod and attacked the door. It began to slide open.
“What are you doing? Why are you breaking the door?” The Liftor’s face popped into view and he grabbed the pole, like it personally offended him. Russian anger usually intimidates me. Not this time.
“We’ve been in here for two hours! Didn’t you get the call?”
He shrugged. It’s a good thing the door wasn’t wedged open wide enough for me to grab his wrinkled collar and give him the what-for.
“Stand back,” he ordered. Three minutes later, we were out. (He used a long wire, stuck it between the doors from the outside and flipped an invisible switch).
I hugged the Babushka like a long lost friend. Shocked, she stared at me. “What was that for?”
“For listening to us and caring,” I replied.
The liftor turned the lift off for the night, which was fine because I won’t be using it anytime short of eternity. The Babushka smiled at me and ascended the stairs home. I ran to collect my kids, freedom adding a spring to my step.
It occurred to me later that God used this Babushka to bolster my deflating spirit, and remind me He loved me. She cared after dozens of others had turned away, and God used her to scrape away a bit of my cynical crust and help me forgive.
This is still a hard country, and during the Christmas season, longing for home roars through my heart. Then I am reminded of Mary, giving birth in a dirty barn, and Jesus, entering a cruel world, leaving paradise behind. He came for the lowly shepherds, who ran to welcome him, for wise men, who knew to search for Him, and for people like me, who need His grace. Though the world be dark and cold, He is light, He is warmth and He cares. Cares enough to soften a calloused heart, cares enough to send salvation to a dying world.
I pray that today, you see God’s love for you. Keep your eyes open — it may be dressed in wool and carrying a big axe.