“…symbols were relied upon for heavenly teaching; and familiar images, chosen from the known, were made to mirror the unknown spiritual truth.” William H. Hunt, U.S. Diplomat to Russia, 1882-1884
Symbols are powerful! One simple shape can represent a story spanning hundreds or thousands of years. Have you ever thought about what represents the heart of culture where you live?
In my hometown of Palmer, Alaska the main symbol is the downtown water tower, not unlike the water towers that dominate many rural American towns. It tells the story that Palmer was started by immigrant farmers from the Midwest, and today its image appears on the city’s website, in local publications, and in places around town as a distinguishing symbol.
Christianity also has a distinguishing symbol that represents its core values and main narrative. The cross comes in various forms, whether the empty cross of Protestantism, the crucifix of Catholicism, or the eight-ended cross of Russian Orthodoxy. The cross tells the story of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection as the center of the Christian faith. Many Christians wear crosses as jewelry, place them on bumper stickers and hang them on the walls of their homes and churches. The cross reminds us of our story. Unfortunately, to many people groups around the world, the cross symbolizes something else.
Multiple crosses dot a hilltop overlooking the city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, where I spent the last year interning with InterAct Ministries. There a chapel sits in commemoration of God’s faithfulness and protection over the city’s Russian founders during attacks from indigenous tribes, who were trying to protect their homeland from the foreign invaders. The Kacha people at that time were nomadic, moving between summer and winter pastures and hunting grounds. Each summer they would return north to the Yenisei River (the location of Krasnoyarsk today), where they had a sacred hilltop and burial ground. However, in 1629 they returned to find a Russian fort on that same hilltop.
The Kacha’s attempts to attack the Russian explorers and reclaim their sacred hill were repeatedly unsuccessful. Eventually the Native tribe was pushed further and further afield. How sad those early explorers did not reach out to the Kacha's with the Good News of Christ! This is just one of many similar stories for indigenous peoples of Siberia and the Russian Far East. As a result, today these Native groups most often see the cross as a symbol of foreign power and religion—a symbol of trying to take away their own cultures and values.
In my vision-setting year in Russia, I traveled to the Siberian cities of Kyzyl in the Republic of Tuva and Ulan-Ude in the Republic of Buryatia. There, a different symbol is seen virtually everywhere, called the “Endless Knot.” It appears on embroidered clothing, greeting cards, walls of houses and gates, streetlight posts, even drawn on casseroles with mayonnaise! Being surrounded by this symbol, I had to know what it represented, so I asked my Tuvan host to explain it to me. He explained that because the knot is endless it represents eternity, along with prosperity, peace and happiness. The symbol is a blessing to people who display it and who make a wish for good fortune in their life.
When I heard my host say the words “prosperity, peace and happiness” my mind immediately jumped to the Hebrew word shalom, which means a combination of all three of those wonderful things. Shalom is the Hebrew understanding of the state the universe was in when God first created it. It refers to the perfect condition all relationships were in when God placed humans into the Garden. This includes rapport between God, man, woman, other spiritual beings, and even the animals. Biblical shalom speaks of completeness, fullness, and a type of wholeness that overflows and spills out to others. When Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God, he declared that the Kingdom belonged to peacemakers, the gentle, and those who hunger to right wrong relationships. These are the truly happy (blessed) among us.
Yet, the Endless Knot comes to the Tuvan and Buryat cultures from Buddhism, in which it symbolizes the wisdom of the Buddha. This faith has syncretized it with their animistic beliefs to be a totem of good luck in their daily lives. What if a Christian witness could reframe the way they think about this symbol? Can you imagine the power the Endless Knot might have to bring these Native and least-reached people groups of Russia into a prosperous, peaceful and happy relationship with Jesus? Then the Endless Knots all over their lands would symbolize the blessings of the gospel instead of an empty wish for good luck!
Likewise, what if conversations about the hilltop crosses in Krasnoyarsk were turned toward God’s love and the true story of the cross, its sacrifice and salvation? Could we take back that pagan “holy ground” for Christ by telling the story of his cross through which God so loved the world? As I prepare to go back to Siberia in full-time service with InterAct Ministries, I look forward to God-ordained conversations directing long-held symbolic beliefs toward truth in Christ and his gospel!
Support The Ministry in Russia by Praying and Going
Pray for more workers in Russia, or consider going on one of the following trips yourself!
EnGage! Russia: This seven-week internship focuses on building relationships in local communities and impacting people’s lives with the gospel.
One-Year Internships: Spend a year in Siberia! A longer intership allows for prolonged exposure to cultures, ministry opportunities and language study as well as building a vision for possible long-term service.
Long-Term: Ready to go all in? Long-term service in Siberia involves many components such as discipleship ministry in both the urban and village settings, part-time tentmaking, college/youth ministry and using English teaching as a ministry bridge.
Visit InterActMinistries.org to learn more about these opportunities.
The Master’s Model of Teaching Truth
Parables were a primary teaching tool for Jesus. The Master was a master in starting with the known and bridging it to the unknown, to a new understanding of reality. In this month’s lead story, Frankie Emrick describes using one of Buddhism’s Eight Auspi-cious Symbols, the Endless Knot, to bridge between traditional beliefs and the Truth that is only found in Christ. Wisdom, understanding of culture, solid grounding in Scripture, and so much more are necessary if one is to recast such traditional symbols with biblical integrity. This is both a challenge and an opportunity typically faced by our missionaries serving cross-culturally.
And speaking of solid grounding in Scripture, please rejoice with us about the latest reprinting of the Sakha New Testament, and please pray with us that God will expedite the completed translation of the Sakha Old Testament.
Russia also needs more workers to take the gospel to the millions still unreached among indigenous people groups of Siberia. Praise God for new workers like Frankie! Pray that God will raise a host of new laborers to serve among the least-reached in Siberia!
Second Printing of The Sakha New Testament Completed!
In the fall of 2017 we shared with you an opportunity to help put God’s Word into the hands of the Sakha people of Russia. InterAct Ministries partnered with the Institute for Bible Translation in Moscow to help fund the second printing of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs in the Sakha language. In February this printing was completed and the Bibles were delivered! Christians throughout the Sakha Republic will use these Bibles to continue spreading the gospel and teaching people God’s Word.
In addition, enough funds were raised to help with the translation of the Old Testament into Sakha! Soon, the nearly 500,000 Sakha-speaking people of Siberia will have access to the complete Bible in their native language.
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