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Creating a Rebellious Heart
Two short months before leaving for Russia, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel Europe with my mom, both grandmothers, and my aunt. It had been a lifelong dream of my 88-year-old grandmother, and I relished every second of it.
One of the days that had the most impact on me was the trip to see the Dachau concentration camp. I had asked my mother to go see it, knowing the history of the Nazis. I wanted to see for myself the result of extreme oppression of innocent people. I don’t ever want to gloss over history–I want to learn from it. And I believe that the Holocaust should never be forgotten.
As I stood in the camp, the feeling of hatred was palpable. Despite the sunny day, the hatred felt cold, seething, contemptuous. Enough hatred to build concentration camps devoted not just to the destruction of a people, but to the utter agony of the victims’ last days. Particularly poignant was a bronze memorial statue, depicting gaunt, skeletonized prisoners enmeshed in the barbed wire fence.
That’s how I felt in the presence of a woman whom I’ll call Mrs. Doe when I came to the Moscow Training Center (MTC). Hated. Even when I played basketball in high school and discovered that, yes, there are racial slurs that can be used against Caucasians, I had never felt so despised. Those things were spat out about my skin color in the heat of competition and were easily shrugged off. These new attacks were against my very character and my faith. They burned. We were repeatedly subjected to statements like “You are the worst group of girls to ever come to the MTC. We’re scared that you’re going to ruin our Pensioners;” “You’re here for selfish reasons;” “You’re the most immature girls we’ve ever seen;” and “You have problems with authority.” Well, I do now!
She couldn’t have been more wrong about me. My family went to the MTC for two weeks to see my brothers when I was only 12. Mom and Dad almost had to bind and gag me to get me on the plane to go home. I loved Russia with a passion that I can only describe as God-given. I loved the people, the history, and even the food. I couldn’t believe that there was a place where tons of young adults (at that time there were well over 100 apprenticeship students alone) came to serve God and got to live in a place like Russia!
After I returned home, my goal was to go back as soon a I graduated from high school. With that goal in mind, most of the money that I earned went towards my Russia fund. All of the money given to me for graduation went into the fund or directly for the purchase of clothes and other items I would need. Most other teenagers study Spanish or French. I studied Russian. I went to a child training course, to the basic Character First course, and my first Children’s Institute, all in the summer before I left, to further prepare. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any other plans for my life or things that I wanted to accomplish. I had tons of goals and dreams, but the first was to serve in Russia.
When I landed at Sheremetyevo Airport, I almost cried because of that overwhelming, peaceful, happy feeling of being exactly where I was supposed to be. I was home. Up to that point in my life, that was the most certain that I had been of anything God told me. Then there was this woman standing in front of me, judging me, telling me that I had wrong motives?
Mrs. Doe presumed to know what was in my heart and “saw” rebellion. What she really saw, or rather refused to see, was a girl who loved God, who had a heart for the Russian people, who was loyal, who was teachable, and who loved to serve. And yes, I had been hurt deeply by abuse, but that’s another story. She chose to ignore all of that and attack based on false premises.
“You play soccer with the boys. You must be here trying to get a husband.” I have always played soccer with boys. My dad encouraged it. And while you’re at it, don’t forget about basketball, skiing, and hunting with the boys.
“The guys are always hanging around the kitchen. You all must be trying to attract them.” Um, it’s called food! Have you ever seen these guys, they’re like bottomless pits? They’re hanging around the kitchen begging for handouts.
Everything that had been “normal” at home was flipped upside down. While I was okay with that, and had expected it to some degree, I was completely blindsided by the spiritual guilt trips that would accompany that previous night’s game of sand volleyball. It didn’t help that Mrs. Doe’s daughters were doing the very things that we were being reprimanded for.
Mrs. Doe could have been a mentor, a woman of Titus 3:5 who reaches out and disciples younger women. But she chose not to be. Sadly, she was an important leader. Others followed her example and treated the apprenticeship girls with disdain and distrust rather than valuing the young women in their care.
Years of abuse had conditioned me not to speak up or defend myself. Combine that with the Gothard teaching of absolute, unquestioning obedience to an authority, and I felt helpless. The few that tried to stand up for the apprenticeship girls found themselves ostracized.
Now, with more years under my belt and after numerous sessions with a Godly counselor, I’m aware of how I handle this kind of pressure: I shrink back, ducking my head until I am backed into a wall. Then I realize that I’ve been pushed way too far and I fight back. Think of the cartoon “Tom and Jerry,” in which the cat chases the mouse into a corner. Once cornered, the terrified mouse turns into a roaring lion and makes the lion pay. Not the healthiest response!
I have greatly improved, but I didn’t have the same self-awareness and help back then. I was barely 18. All I knew was that I was being abused again. Yes, it was abuse–spiritual abuse. And just because there are no marks does not mean it is not painful and cannot leave a scar. I was young and was hurting. Hurt by those I had hoped to rely on as mentors, to serve alongside.
Let me preface my next points by saying that my response was not Christlike and it did not honor God in any way, shape, or form. Part of me knew what was right and true, but that part was silenced by the abused victim who was fighting for self-preservation. I did not respond with false guilt to their games, I knew that what I had done was between myself and the Lord. What I did was allow her constant negativity to leave its cold, disdainful mark on my heart. Pride mixed with survival instinct, and I burned with resentment and anger. And the resentment and anger began to show outwardly–as rebellion.
The rebellion that wasn’t there at the beginning came around full force. I walked the line and looked for any way possible to bend a rule. I never did anything “big”–never enough to get into serious trouble (I didn’t want to get sent home). I didn’t have to work hard at getting into trouble anyway. I was always in trouble for working in the kitchen, for being an English teacher, and ultimately, for being a female.
My attitude became “respect the uniform, not the person,” and even that was minimal. I know that the friction and negative attitude affected those who I was trying to minister to, and I know that it hurt my Savior.
Years have faded the memories a bit, but they will never go away entirely. I know this because I still jump and my heart races every time my boss asks, “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
So what have I learned from the experience? Some of the obvious: Judge not; Only God can read a heart; Don’t shoot your own troops. I also learned of the extreme vulnerability of the heart. I am mentoring a young woman in my church and I pray every day, not just for her, but for God to give me His words to reach her with His gentleness and compassion.
I’ve also learned of the damaging power that situations like this have on both sides. While writing this article, I heard from a friend that one of the moms was devastated to learn of the hurt that she had inflicted. She was only trying to follow the rules as she had been told. I’m grateful that at the end of my time in Russia, God let me see her in a new light and see aspects of her compassion and love for Him.
Most important, I’ve learned the power of God to forgive. Last fall, a decade after my experience in Russia was over, I was finally able to release my anger, disappointment, and bitterness. I haven’t tried to contact the people who so deeply hurt me. How would you even start a conversation like that? “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that you almost destroyed my life. But it’s okay now; God helped me forgive you.” Pretty hard to pull that one off without sounding sanctimonious. But I have forgiven them for what they did to me. And I know that God has forgiven me for my rebellious heart.
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