Tanya: Lessons about Lent from a Soviet from Siberia

A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbra Mraz
February 26, 2012
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul Minnesota

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:9-15

The word “Lent” is never mentioned in the Bible, and was never used in the Church until the Fifth Century. The word means “spring,” the lengthening of days, and is the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, modeled on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness before he begins his public ministry.

The wilderness is a place known to us all. Sometimes we go to the wilderness intentionally; other times, the wilderness comes to us.

We go to the wilderness for beauty, quiet and nearness to the stars; we go to the wilderness when we must make a career change in economically-troubled times; we may go to the wilderness adapting to retirement, or when we dare to speak openly about a troubled relationship.

The wilderness comes to us through the results of a medical test, the loss of someone we loved above all others, a child in trouble, or the front page of the newspaper.

None of us are strangers to the wilderness, and it is to the wilderness – wild, unpredictable, and foreign, that Lent calls us.

Many religions ask a person to give a tenth of their yearly income to some holy use, such as the church or charity. But a currency in our culture almost as important as money is time. What if you tithed your time, turning over the 40 days of Lent– or a designated part of those days — to God?

Traditional Lenten disciplines are fasting and prayer. Some people turn off the car radio or read a daily meditation. Today I suggest another method: this is The Discipline of Showing Up.

Let me tell you how I learned about this:
I grew up in the late Fifties and early Sixties, the days of the “Cold War” between the U.S. and the then Soviet Union. I was part of the generation of children who learned to dive under their school desks and cover their heads in the event of Russian nuclear attack, and saw our neighbors stocking backyard bomb shelters with canned goods.

So it seemed like the impossible was happening when the Berlin Wall came down, democracy gained strength in Eastern Europe, and in 1990 it was announced that the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbechev and his wife Raisa, would visit the United States — with a stop in Minneapolis.

Three months before all of that happened is when I met Tanya.

It was March of 1990 and I was teaching juniors and seniors at The Blake School in Minneapolis. There was a continuous parade of international visitors through the place: exchange students, delegations of foreign visitors. I didn’t pay much attention to this; an introvert by nature, I had other things to do.

But then Chuck Ritchie, the Russian language teacher, approached me to see if I would host a visiting Soviet teacher/administrator in my classes, maybe show her around town a little. “She’s right about your age,” he cajoled. I sighed inwardly and thought that here I was again being asked to commit to some predictable “So what is it like in your country?” discussions with troublesome accents, forced smiles, and interest that seems more pretend than real. I was pretty jaded and almost obsessed with all I had to do: hearing student speeches, grading papers, preparing for classes, writing college recommendations, my family at home, my church job. But Chuck had me cornered so I told him that sure, “could help out.” I even mustered a “Great!” (Great… more to do.)

Beautiful Tanya showed up the first day in my Communications class; she listened politely to my students’ speeches and gave some impressions of America. Bracing for compliments, I asked her what had surprised her the most about the United States: “The fact that Americans do not seem sincerely interested in us. They smile and say hello, not much more. It’s very important to people in the Soviet Union right now to feel that Americans care about them.” This was all said in a melodic voice with exquisite English pronunciation.

Saved by the bell, literally.

The next day in my Women’s Studies class, Tanya watched a film with us about weight and self-esteem in women and I asked her if Soviet women were as obsessed with thinness and appearance as Americans are. And the barrage began.

Tanya talked nonstop for twenty minutes about how she worries about her weight every day of her life, how hard it is to diet with the shortage of fruits and vegetables, the strategy of not eating lunch. The talking began and we didn’t stop for a week. My defense system had been disabled by a Soviet from Siberia talking about diets.
I  asked Tanya to come to my house for dinner the next night. She arrived and immediately brought out two red and black enameled boxes. She held my arms with touching formality and said, “These are for you, Bar-bar-a,” giving my name its full three syllables.

At dinner, the four women I had invited barraged Tanya with questions, moving quickly past polite inquiries to passionate interest, the six of us sitting there in south Minneapolis, only a half a block away from the Watson home where Raisa Gorbachev would visit some three months later, but we certainly didn’t know that then.

Tanya told us about the long lines, the shortages of all types of goods in the shops, and the fact that winter boots could not be bought with less than a month’s wages. Her husband was a scientist at the university in Novasibirsk, working all day, as was Tanya, so her mother would stand in the blocks-long food lines twice a week while Tanya and her sister were at work so that the families could have groceries. She said that there were many beautiful women in the Soviet Union but “the deprivation – it does something to them that is very sad.” She was amazed at the array of convenience foods and microwavable products in America. “If I lived here,” she said, “I don’t think I would ever cook.”

“Not unless we have to!”

This was a time of tremendous shortages in the Soviet Union; Tanya’s delegation would bring back with them the most basic items that were unavailable without weeks of waiting: toothpaste, deodorant, underwear, condoms, chocolate. One day we went to Best Buy and Tanya asked me how many months of waiting would there be to get a refrigerator. She saw the low prices of shoes at a discount store and looked at me, asking, “How can this be?”

Knowing she was to leave soon, I wanted to get Tanya some gifts. I was seized with an overpowering urge to buy her everything I could think of: clothes, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, books, household items, anything to make her life easier and that she would enjoy. I found myself wanting to spend hundreds of dollars before I stopped myself, for it wasn’t just affection for Tanya that was driving me. It was a deep feeling of injustice at the core of my being that was inflaming my judgment. And I, who consider my United Way contribution so carefully, balancing it against my own “needs,” who is impatient with yet another request from Public television, now I wanted to make up for it, to share my appallingly vast resources, to make a feeble attempt to even the score.

But no amount of short-term buying I could do for Tanya was going to remedy the inequities, and I could not play the sophisticated older sister, showering the younger, less fortunate sibling with extravagance for the fun of seeing her reaction. And I did not want Tanya’s pride and dignity to suffer from my cultural guilt.
I settled for an engraved silver picture frame – “To Tanya, in friendship.” In it, I put a picture of the two of us at Blake, smiling, arms around each other’s waists. I also bought two bottles of Tea Rose perfume, one for her and one for me. I liked knowing we would smell the same roses.

I told Chuck Ritchie how deeply I had connected with Tanya and much I would miss her when she left. He responded, “Maybe you want to join one of our trips and go over there and visit?” “Oh no, I’m busy…I’m not real … brave.” Earlier I had made the same observation to Tanya, when she suggested that I visit her in Siberia. “Well, Bar-bar-a,” she said, “It may be time now to become brave.”

Tanya, my Soviet sister, my soul mate from half a world away, taught me the importance of showing up for an experience I was sure I couldn’t fit into my busy life.
As Christians, we are called to a way of life that has a purpose, that goes beyond our boundaries. Lent calls us to align this purpose with our calendars.

Writer Brian McLaren observes: “Showing up is inherently inconvenient. It means going to a place I didn’t choose at a time I didn’t choose for a purpose I do choose. My commitment to the purpose – in this case, learning and living a way of life—motivates me to show up. In this way, going to church when you don’t feel like it becomes the most important kind of going to church there is.”

The world is a mess: polarization and lies threaten our political system; diverse cultures struggle to get along; jobs are scarce, gas is high, war somewhere is always a given.

Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to show up each day in Lent for something or someone you would normally pass by: a conversation, a visit, a compliment, a phone call, a book, an invitation. You’ll know it when it beckons. The impetus is a Lenten discipline; the rewards may be considerable.
After she left, I wrote an article for the Star-Tribune about Tanya, and with grandiosity, declared that “friendships like ours could change the world.” Actually, I really think this, and that it is time now to become brave.


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