Stories can be powerful. I think that’s why I like the format that Beth has created for this blog and the idea of gathering around an online fire. Stories are our history. They allow us to participate in each other’s history or to relive shared experiences.
A lot of the things I keep have a story behind them. I have discovered this in my continuing efforts to reduce Stuff. Things with stories are hard to reduce! And while some keepsakes are displayed prominently in our home, others are relegated to dark corners of drawers and closets.
A toddler-sized disposable diaper had a place among our things for many years. I would encounter it in a dresser or bin and think, “How long am I going to keep this?” The answer to that question was always “A little while longer,” and back it would go. While a diaper was not something I would display, as such, it was still important to me as a memorial to God’s miraculous provision in the days when our family first moved overseas.
Our daughters were four years old and 16 months when we left the United States in September of 1993 to spend four months in Siberia for language training. We were being sent as missionaries to Russia, where John would work with re-emerging Lutheran congregations after the fall of Communism. Because our stay in Siberia was temporary—Moscow was our ultimate destination—we had packed everything for those months into eight large trunks and suitcases, stuffed to their maximum weight limit. We took advantage of every available ounce!
Among the many other items in our luggage, we had strategically scattered two packages of Huggies disposable diapers for our toddler, along with diaper wipes, a dozen cloth diapers, and several packages of concentrated detergent. The Huggies were intended to give us time to get acclimated. Disposable diapers hardly existed in Russia at that time, so ultimately we expected to use cloth diapers, which we would have to wash in one of the small portable washers that were common in Russia. We were as prepared as we knew how to be!
We sensed our plan had some flaws when we were shown our new home and discovered there was no small washer in the apartment–just a large mustard-colored bathtub that we were encouraged to use to wash our clothes, as well as ourselves. A second and more distressing sign of trouble came when we unpacked our suitcases and discovered that all of the boxes of detergent had been removed somewhere along the way—a not uncommon occurrence in Russia in those days.
So there I was, the morning after our arrival, still in bed, foggy with jetlag and not keen to meet the challenges that lay ahead, while John fed our girls in the kitchen. The menu featured cooked buckwheat cereal (unsalted, unsweetened), the lone breakfast food we had found in the store the day before. The girls were eating it gladly.
The doorbell rang, and I felt oddly indignant that someone would be invading our privacy. Didn’t they know we were overwhelmed!? I heard John’s voice and then other vaguely familiar voices, all speaking English and having a rather cheery conversation. After a short time I heard John say “Thank you!” several times, then some friendly farewells, and the visitors left. In another few seconds, John was at the door of the bedroom with a funny look on his face. For some reason he was holding one of the packages of Huggies from our luggage. Only it was NOT a package from our luggage at all. It was another, identical package of Huggies that had just been delivered to our door. In Siberia.
In the kitchen I also discovered a high chair, a package of wipes, a few jars of baby food, and two happy daughters eating baby applesauce. But most importantly in that moment of need, there were diapers—disposable diapers that were the exact size and brand that we had chosen to bring with us. The message was so clear and poignant: “I’ve been expecting you!”
During our months in Siberia, diapers continued to be delivered to our door, and it is hard to explain what a difference that made in our daily life. Disposable diapers meant we did not have to wash cloth diapers in our bathtub with the locally available detergent that sat in a semi-dissolved lump in the water, demonstrating no noticeable cleaning power. A toothbrush and a bar of Dial soap made a surprisingly effective treatment for tough stains on other clothes, but I was not eager to try this method on diapers.
Disposable diapers also meant we didn’t feel compelled to attempt toilet training our little girl—a popular suggestion among our Russian friends. In an unfamiliar place where we were often in class and always out of our comfort zone, toilet training seemed like just one more stressor in our lives.
Not all of the diapers we received were Huggies. There were other brands, and some were labeled “for boys,” because the family who shipped them from America to an apartment not far from ours in Siberia had a baby boy. For reasons unknown to us, that family returned to America shortly after arriving in Russia…several months before we came on the scene. The older couple who moved into the vacated apartment had been on our flight from America, and belonged to the same mission organization as the family that left. They had access to the diapers that were left behind and knew we had a toddler. They were happy to keep us supplied!
In the usual way of sharing stories that are incredible but true, the miracle of our personal Siberian Diaper Delivery Service was a story we related over and over after it happened. People who were in Russia with us at the time, or following our progress through emails and newsletters, seemed to understand the miracle very keenly. In a few short years, we had adapted to our new life and Russia changed a lot. We would still tell the story in a “back in the day” sort of way, but realized that even people who arrived four or five years after we did seemed to have difficulty grasping the shortages of those earlier times and the immediacy of the need we felt in our very first days. It’s actually been many years since I have shared these events. So why am I circling back after 25 years to tell it now?
First, whether or not others can understand the desperation we feel at times, I want to say that God understands fully. He knows our needs, whether they are the most fundamental needs of day-to-day living, or the very fundamental spiritual need of a Savior to redeem us from sin. The needs of daily life he provides in both mundane and miraculous ways. The need for a Savior has been met—once for all (1 Peter 3: 18)!
Second, I find it encouraging and exciting that God uses us in each other’s lives, intertwining our pasts, present, and futures to accomplish what he wants to accomplish in our lives, separately and together. Sometimes we cross paths and never actually meet. Sometimes we share paths. We may even share paths, part ways, and share paths again. But we are by no means alone in our life of faith on this earth. I never tire of stories that demonstrate this!
Third, as our daughters and son (born in Finland a year after these events) have grown to adulthood, and consider how God might be working in their lives, I want to remind them of what God showed us long ago–He knows where we are. He’s been there ahead of us and he is prepared to be there with us.
I may be lost in unfamiliar territory, over my head in territory that is all too familiar, or with feet firmly planted, whatever my territory. I may feel led by God to be where I am, or that I simply ended up there, and don’t know why. I may be satisfied and happy with my life, or aching to change it. I have been all of these. Whatever my situation, He who is not bound by time or place, and freely gave his life for me, is fully aware of MY time and place and is in it with me for the duration.