by David Sisler

In 1971 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn went into exile from his native Russia. Among other works, his The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation earned him disgrace at home and high praise abroad. Americans at the highest levels sought out Solzhenitsyn and his counsel was gladly received. Then he began to talk about the things that were wrong with us and we stopped listening. The man once in demand became a virtual outcast in his New England home. He returned to Russia two decades after he left, this time a hero.

A few years ago I read The Gulag Archipelago in Samara, Russia. From 1939 until 1991 the 450 year-old city was known as Kuibyshev. Like so many other cities it was renamed for a "hero of the revolution," or, in the case of some, just the survivors (I still remember my emotions when a Muscovite told me they now think Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 100,000,000 Russians. It is frightening to walk along the Kremlin wall today and see floral tributes piled on the murderer's grave, dozens more flowers than on any other single grave).

Kuibyshev was a transit station on the way to Siberia the worst of the prison camps. It was particularly moving to read of the arrests and deportations while living in a city which had seen the prison trains roll up to the outskirts of town, stop, and then be loaded with the condemned. No one ever announced that the trains were there, or indeed what they were for. Everyone simply knew.

One of Solzhenitsyn's most chilling stories concerned a birthday party for Comrade Stalin, held in a small, out-of-the-way town. Stalin was, of course, no where in sight, but still there were speeches and applause. Without thinking, the mayor of the town rose and exhorted his fellows to one last cheer for the evening to the honor of Stalin.

The applause continued for minutes without stopping and everyone was growing weary, but who would dare to be the first to stop clapping? As the labored applause wore on an old man collapsed. Finally the mayor allowed his arms to drop and the noise died. The next evening the mayor was sentenced to the gulag, and no charges were ever spoken against him. As he stepped into the train, a party official whispered into his ear, "Never be the first one to stop clapping."

Last Sunday night it was my pleasure to attend the regular worship service at Christ the Savior Baptist Church in Kishinev, Moldova. The two-hour service was standing room only, and in that part of the capitol, there was no heat. The faithful came regardless of the weather outside. Inside, the building was filled with the warmth of fellowship and the sense of the nearness of God.

For years, one of the highlights of my "far-flung trips to save the heathen," as a letter writer to this paper once called them, has been the singing in Russian and English of "Our God is an Awesome God." Now, add another song. I knew the tune as the choir began to sing in Romanian, but it took me a few seconds to pick up the words. I glanced across the audience at Sherrie Kincaid, a fellow traveler from Dallas, Texas, and smiled as it dawned on me. "Majesty," the choir sang. "Worship his Majesty; unto Jesus be all glory, honor and praise. Majesty, kingdom authority, flows from his throne unto his own who his anthem raise. So exalt, lift up on high, the name of Jesus. Magnify, come glorify Christ Jesus the King."

The preacher that night talked about addressing God with the words Jesus taught, not the "Our Father" prayer which we seem to recite as quickly and with as little feeling as we can, but his cry in Gethsemane, "Abba! Father!" In Romanian, it is Avva. In American, it is Daddy. Think of the confidence and love with which a child says that word. Think of the God who cares, who lavishes undeserved, prodigal love on those who are his own.

In a 1991 National Review article, Solzhenitsyn said: "The strength or weakness of a society depends more on the level of its spiritual life than on its level of industrialization. Neither a market economy nor even general abundance constitutes the crowning achievement of human life. If a nation's spiritual energies have been exhausted, it will not be saved from collapse by the most perfect government structure or by any industrial development."

Majesty. Worship his Majesty. And for love's sake, never be the first one to stop clapping.


Published in The Augusta Chronicle 4/1/2000

Copyright 2000 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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