I first visited Russia in 1974. The country was known as the USSR or Soviet Union in those days and sported a red flag bearing a hammer and sickle. I arrived by sea on a ship carrying 38,000 tons of grain from Beaumont, Texas. The voyage took thirty-three days as we sailed via the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean, arriving in the quarantine anchorage for the port of Nakhodka on 24 February 1974. Various officials boarded our ship. They carried out an inspection of the vessel, and a close examination of the crew. We remained at anchor until 2 March 1974 when a berth finally became available.
Nakhodka was a bleak place. After a long voyage across the Pacific stores were low, but there was very little to purchase locally. This posed problems for the chief steward in feeding forty-eight people. Leaving the ship was a complicated process and there was little of interest ashore. It was possible to visit a Seaman’s Club in the evening where the expectation was that you would watch propaganda movies and listen to tales of life in the wonderful Soviet Union. The staff also loaded us up with written propaganda, some of it disguised as a local history! We finally sailed from Nakhodka on 19 March 1974. One day later we arrived in Otaru in Japan where ten of us paid off. As we left the ship, fresh stores were being delivered. The ten of us went immediately to the restaurant in our hotel where we ate well for the first time in nearly a month. We began our journey back to the UK the next day, having been away from home for five months.
It was a very different Russia that I visited in June this year. Some hassles remained – such as the process for obtaining a visa, but the country is fundamentally different to the Russia I remember from the 1970s. Who would have believed that Communism would one day be replaced by the very system it despised? To walk out from my hotel and see McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts showed me just how different things have become in Russia. The locals can at least complain about their political masters these days (as long as they don’t do it too loudly).
This morning I read Ezekiel chapter 37 where God adds flesh to dry bones and breathes life into the restored bodies. If God can do this then God can do anything. Just as the Soviet Union and former Soviet Bloc countries have been transformed in recent years, change is possible for anything and anyone. In fact, change is surely inevitable and essential, and to be desired. As with the dry bones the transforming power of our holy God can change us to something new, to something beyond anything we could ever imagine. The only catch is that to truly change we have to be completely surrendered to God. Only then is He able to transform us into beings of beauty who bring pleasure to Him. A bit like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:1-6 NIV)