My Russian Roots

A subject I delve into once every few years for a few days before real life takes over again is genealogy. It’s a topic the Apostle Paul warned not to get caught up in (e.g., 1Ti. 1:4; Tit. 3:9), but given the plethora of biblical genealogies from Adam to Jesus, the concern can’t be with genealogies per se but (in the context of these passages) with the temptation of intellectual diversions and vain controversies that distract us from our first love.

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Neither I and my brothers nor our father had any idea until this summer our rich earthly heritage.

Most of my life, based on what I knew of my background, I assumed that I was as WASP as they get. All branches traced back to the British Isles. Thomas is Welsh, as is my mother’s family, Winn. Beyond that there are names like Casey, Peace, Campbell, Stewart, James, Shipley, Williams, Nichols, and Collier. Pretty clear, right? About 20 years ago I found a bombshell in a handwritten note of my grandfather’s: about 5 generations back there was a Cherokee. This fact rocked my world (relatively speaking), because it was simultaneously a blow to my self-image (I’m White, gol-darnit), but it was kind of cool, since growing up in Georgia I had learned a lot, and all positive, about that great nation that had once occupied my hometown and beyond through most of North Georgia.

With the exception of about three lines that went back 200-300 years, I was stuck in most cases without any knowledge beyond about 4 generations. All this changes this summer when I found a site sponsored by the very religion that is most known for genealogies: the Mormons. I’m perfectly happy for them to put in all this work in research, since it effectively diverts energy from doing other activities that might better promote Mormonism as a doctrine. So I’m OK with them thinking they can baptize the dead through this futile waste of time. Maybe they will wake up one day and see it for what it is and start to look for the One who is our true Father and His true Son without the filters that have them presently blinded.

As you have guessed from the title of this blog, I found out a pleasant surprise through this discovery. This site (www.familysearch.org) is cool in that it is free and in how you can easily connect into others’ work, so my family history got fuller very quickly by a factor of 20 or more. The first new country that came into view was France, but even that took several hundred years. Then slowly others started coming into view: Germany, Holland, Spain, then Scandinavia. And even going back 1000 years (yes, I have a whole lot of lines that go back that far and much more!) no new countries emerged, but it was cool to find names like Charlemagne, William of Normandy, and Henri II.

Grampa Vlad

I still never crossed into Eastern Europe until finally one day when I saw the curious name Anna Yaroslavovna. Of course I had to check that out, and indeed she was Russian! Then the greatest discovery came: her grandfather was none other than Prince Vladimir of Kiev – the monarch who brought Christianity to the Russians in 988.

I hasten to say that from a spiritual perspective, that is in terms of our standing before God, none of this matters. Moreover, as a counselor involved in the healing of the human soul, I know both theologically and from personal experience the power of God to redeem anyone from the curse of a difficult family history. Even Jesus had a genealogy that included some sordid and even very sinful history.

So what does all this mean to me? Just having a tiny bit of Russian blood feels like just a tiny bit more reason why I can understand and even justify my call here – not so much to myself, but to the Russians, for whom such questions are not academic. But add on the fact that my connection is not just to any Russian, but to the most important figure in the history of Christianity in Russia, and something larger emerges.

According to the most popular stories, Vladimir sent his boyars out to investigate which religion would most fit the Russians. They rejected Islam because there was “no gladness among them, only sorrow and a great stench” and because they reject alcohol (a truly disastrous motive, as Russian history proves!). He rejected Judaism on the logic that since they had lost Jerusalem, then God must have rejected them. He then rejected Catholicism in favor of Eastern Orthodoxy, the latter being much more beautiful to the emissaries. A worship service in the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople was so impressive, they exclaimed, “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth.” According to other sources, however, Vladimir’s motives were more about forging a political alliance with the Byzantine emperor Basil II.

Of course both motives may be true at once, but either way, we are not talking about a person who seems convinced because of anything resembling a true spiritual conversion. Nonetheless, his behavior did change in some remarkable ways. Before he had been an active promoter of paganism, including erecting a temple in Kiev and initiating human sacrifice. After his conversion he destroyed the pagan temple idols, and he got rid of his 800 concubines and all but one of his wives. Vladimir was also renowned for his generosity. He held feasts every Sunday for the citizens of Kiev, and even ordered his servants to deliver food and drinks to the sick and infirm.

My takeaway: Vladimir was called to introduce Christianity to Russia. I am called to reintroduce Christianity to Russia. Certainly I’m not saying no one has done that, and not even that no one has done that well. But I come in that spirit – to show Russia that the God of Christianity is indeed most Russian, most appropriate, and most fitting to their needs, context, and culture. The Russia of the 20th Century was much like that of the 10th Century: total ignorance about God, pagan worship (isn’t Communism just another form?), and human sacrifice (what else do we call the Gulag system?). And just as the development of Christianity in Russia had a profound effect on society originally, I dream of seeing Christianity have an even more radical impact on every aspect of society today than ever before. May the day come when all across Russia it may be said that “we no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth!”

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