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I'm a passionate writer - and therefore spend most of my time writing thriller novels. But I also live an interesting life in the nations. This blog is here for that aspect of my life - our life - I live with my wonderful wife and two daughters.

I believe in encouragement. I live for obedience. I believe in learning from our experiences, and this blog exists for both of those, and more.

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I was part of the leadership team in St Petersburg, Russia - which planted Hope Church in 2009.(www.hopechurchstpetersburg.com).
In March 2012 Hope Church sent my family to plant into Tallinn, the Capital of Estonia. I therefore lead this small but growing church plant team. Here is the website for Hope Tallinn (www.hopetallinn.ee)

For details on our journey here, read the series called Adventures of Faith which is linked for you on the right hand column, just below. That details our original journey to Russia and then onto Tallinn 4 years later.

Author for fiction novels - Cherry Picking (2012), The Last Prophet (2015), The Tablet (2015) and The Shadow Man (2016) are available on all major bookselling sites. Please visit: www.timheathbooks.com

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Adventures of Faith - Part 4 - First Impressions

...As we arrived at the airport, held up by a customs misunderstanding, we get through to meet Dave Henson finally. Quickly a Mafia man and drug dealer pick up our bags and laptop and off they walk.....

We had arrived in Russia! The customs misunderstanding that held us up some 30 minutes or so, on top of the delay to the flight, was that we'd been told to go through the red line to declare everything we had coming on the lorry. With only the packing list to show them, this created a big problem. They didn't have what they needed. We looked stuck! We prayed and then they suddenly came back and said that we could go through the normal green line and we were through. The first of many small miracles that surely lay ahead of us in Russia. Dave had been standing something like 20 metres away from us this whole time. The opening paragraph is true, apart from the omission of two important words. Ex- & former.

These dear Russian men who had driven Dave to the airport in order to collect us, had indeed been ex-Mafia and a former drug dealer, men who'd had their lives turned around the same way we had – by Jesus and Jesus alone.

We got back to their car to quickly pick up that something was wrong – someone had broken into the car, the starter key block was gone and the drivers business papers, all in his brief case, were gone! They started looking around the other cars, looking for any signs of them. Nothing. They remained calm, prayed strong Russian prayers and kept looking. We stood there not knowing what to do. We didn't understand the language but we knew we were stuck there and that this man who'd come to help us had had his business documents taken. I then spotted the starter key on the floor of the car. Within a few seconds of that, the driver found his bag behind the back seat of the car and a broad smile flooded his face and praises to God flooded heaven. With a little bit of effort the car was started and off we went. We were still stopped by the police once before we got back to the hostel which would be our base for the next 10 days.....several days more than we had first expected.

I'm writing from this paragraph onwards some 18 days into our Russia experience so much of this will now be looking back. Looking back always has the benefit of greater understanding and less surprise by things, but having written the first four paragraph's its good to still have that sudden immersion into Russian life, much of which, if not as dramatic, remains still equally surprising and different.

I've got to say before I write anything more that I love life in Russia. Whether or not I've already 'hit' culture shock (everyone says you'll go through it though quite when you do is different every time) I feel I've got to a place where the difference's are not so different and where things are more understandable and less foreign, if that makes sense.

Another language and culture aside, one thing that we've had to face and will continue to have to is the shift that is city living. You see, going from living in the suburbs or anywhere else to suddenly living in the middle of a city is a big enough shift by itself. A city doesn't sleep. There are always people everywhere. There are queues at any time of the day. There's the heat and humidity of an inner city, the smog and smoke and traffic – oh the traffic! I'm so glad that I'm not driving here. Not that we really need to though with loads of public transport options, and for longer trips our friends do have a car which we can all fit in so that it good. But it takes some getting used to!

But back to our arrival.

In the car back from the airport, we decided that we'd, at least at first, head back to the hostel where the Henson's were staying, instead of the Hotel that we'd originally thought about. They'd also been due there but they hadn't had the room when they arrived so they ended up in the hostel. The hostel did have an internet connection and for us it now had the Henson's there as well. It was also a lot cheaper – for all these reasons, we were to learn in time, made this choice a very good one because we were to end up there for 10 nights, more than originally hoped, which would have stretched the budget had we been in the more costly Hotel. But also being near Dave & Hannah meant we could more easily go through together the difficult process of house hunting!

And what a process it was!

Nothing could really have prepared us for what was next to take place over the opening two weeks to our Russia experience. We came to Russia with the understanding, in relation to our house & furniture, that we'd need to have a permanent address to give to our shipping agent in order for the goods to pass through the border. Once at the border it would take about 2 days to arrive. The plan had therefore been that having arrived on the Friday night and settling in on the weekend, we'd get registered on the Monday (which we did and had to due to visa requirements) and then start house hunting (which we did as well I think) and that we'd find something within the first three days or so (highly optimistic as it turned out) and then could give them the address and maybe by the end of our first week the stuff would arrive and we'd move in on the same day. This is how our agent had led us in relation to the timing of things – first we needed to find somewhere to live!

In Russia (well certainly in St Petersburg) everyone has an agent – the landlord & tenant. The agent will find suitable properties and arrange viewings to which you have to race around town in order to see the places. It's all done in Russian, of course! (We were very grateful to Hannah Henson in this regard as well as our two new Russian friends mentioned in the opening paragraph's, one of whom was a property agent from another area so was able to help a lot!).

We were to find out that new properties were listed everyday during four times – 8am, 12pm, 4pm and 8pm. So it meant that even if you thought you had no viewings that day, come the afternoon we'd be racing out again with two or three to view! And of course, we didn't know about this at the beginning. On the Monday morning of our 4th day, we were due to have a 9am viewing across the city. First thing in the working week! What would traffic be like at that time of day! Well, both families were up and out by 8am, which was no small effort. As it happens, life doesn't really start until 10 or 11am in Russia. Most places only open at 10, which is 'rush hour' as we'd understand it (though it never gets that quiet!) but at 8am it was quiet. We were across town by about 8:30 and waiting outside – only to be told that they'd cancelled the viewing! This was a frustrating but accurate imagine of the week we were to experience ahead of us. I think that same property was due to be viewed again at 11pm that same day, before once again cancelling, though we hadn't left that time. Such a late viewing, so different to home.

What was difficult for us was especially difficult for our new friends Dave & Hannah. Not only had they been looking for 5 days already having arrived just before us, they had three children so needed more space – and the right size flat was proving hard to find. Plus, prices were such that even our budgets which had been accurate some three months before would now only be the starting points to what we'd had to pay. Prices were rising all the time.

It was an extremely difficult week but having come through it, even now it seems not so hard. But it was. There was the constant danger that as Westerner's we'd be ripped off. One flat that was quite run down but OK we had nearly accepted. Negotiations are done straight away by both agents and the landlord if they are around. We were pressing for somewhere to live (anywhere by now!). She even tried selling the place to us for about £250,000 – a flat that had just two rooms, a small old kitchen, a bathroom and a large (ish) hall that'd have to be a lounge with no windows! Rent would have been over £800 and then she wanted to increase it each month to reflect inflation! Praise God that we saw sense to pull out and walk away. As it happens, the flat we went on to get was just about 70 metres away on the same road but far better and for less.

But now we knew that our £750 top end budget for rent per month just wouldn't be enough. That was about 35,000 roubles a month and in May, when Dave & Hannah had last visited, that would have got something easily. But not now. (We came to understand that prices do rise in the summer as most people want to move then so I guess demand is high and therefore prices rise, but maybe only the best ones go so even if cheaper stuff was to be available later, if might not be the best quality). Tenants have to do all maintenance. We had looked at one place that needed a kitchen fitted. The danger was (as would have happened with that landlord we were told) was that you'd spend the money fitting the kitchen and doing it all up for them to ask you to leave so that they could move in!

Onto the one we got though. I had waited in the car with the kids I think as by now we'd thought bringing them all around was too much (for us as well as any possible landlords!). Rachel came back to ask for me as she felt this was the one. Initially I wasn't convinced, which I felt helped in the scheme of things. It just was to small! It was also priced at 40,000 roubles a month! Some £100 over budget! It was very nice for what it was, with high ceilings, being all well presented, a good entrance and stairs (its on the 5th floor), BUT it had just one bedroom, a large lounge, a kitchen with extra space at the end for a dinning table, large entrance hall and a very nice bathroom. My immediate reaction was – where do we put Mia (our daughter)?

We were here for some two hours in the end – I think the landlords had probably wanted us to have the place, so they tried to do what they could. Suddenly we were talking about putting in a wall in the kitchen bit where currently the extra space was. After all, we'd have the dinning table in the large lounge anyway so having a separate space for Mia's bedroom would be good – though it would be small. They would put the wall in and then agreed to reduce the rent to 37,000 a month, fixed for the year!

Papers were signed, deposits left and that was that. Though we'd be back to sign the proper papers the flat was off the market and we'd got ourselves somewhere to live. And it was such a relief! Everything, certainly as far as we are concerned and probably therefore most westerner's, is done in cash here. So for the deposits and agents fees as well as the first months rent, plus general food shopping money, we were having to withdraw large amounts of money each day, using our daily limit. The money was there but we just couldn't take it out – then our cards were blocked because of the unusual usage – but things soon got sorted, and we are through the worst of it, we just need to regularly keep taking money out in order to have enough.

By the grace of God our friends found something within about 3 days as well, and they are now in there settled. They have got lots of space, which they need, and though they are a little further away from us than originally planned, it will work well in time for the church plant to have two separate bases from which to build home groups.

Now about our furniture. Our agent had put us in touch with the people in St P's who'd actually do the delivery for us. Being Russia though, what was needed first was the paperwork that would allow them to bring it through customs on our behalf. At first they'd given me instructions to somehow get to a building in the centre and do loads of different things in order to do what was needed. We called them again and they arranged to have a lady come to us to collect my passport in order to get it translated and then I met her at a building where over 90 minutes we went through the process and finally a power of attorney was handed to her. This was day seven of our arrival and we'd just agreed on the flat.

Now the story changed though.

Having done this vital paperwork, only now were we told that this was the 'green light' that our relocation company needed to hear in order to allow the stuff to leave the UK!! It was all still in England. It was the 8th August – the green light had been given but even then the stuff didn't actually leave the UK until the 14th and then we were told that it would take 10 working days to arrive!

It's Saturday 23rd August as I write this section and, still furniture-less, the latest we have heard is that its due at customs on Tuesday or Wednesday and then should take 1 or 2 days to clear before the agent here will call us to arrange delivery. So it might still be another week? Having left our house on 23rd July and with the end of August coming next weekend, how things have worked out is far from what we were told but we've given it to God. We moved into our flat on the 11th August (at the time not knowing the delay to our furniture) and have effectively been camping out with minimal stuff – the wait goes on for at least another week but this will soon be over and we can get on with properly settling in.

So what of the Russian churches? Tomorrow will be our 4th Sunday here, and while we didn't go anywhere last week I had been to 3 churches in the first two Sundays, all of which differed quite a lot. On the first Sunday, 3rd August (which happened to be exactly 9 years since the original picture I had when God said Russia!) we arrived for something like their 4pm meeting and left somewhere like 8pm! The kids were all so tired! The meetings are long, and because its all in Russian its hard to stay focussed. Dave Henson was able to share a little about what we'd come to do. Being 'English Missionary's' (in their eyes at least) we were ushered to the front rows, which takes a little getting used to. Each meeting though we never quite knew what was going to happen next. Worship was quite free though and some good contacts were made. This church was quite a way out from the centre but they were very keen to keep up contact going forward.

The following Sunday both families again made a trip out to another place that our Russian friend (ex-Mafia man) had arranged. We arrived for the 11am meeting and left, after a lunch put on for just us, at about 3:15pm! At the end of the meeting, which Dave had shared at again, he and I were then asked to pray for lots of people, which we did together for about an hour. Our wives, outside with the kids, must have wondered what had happened to us but they did very well.

As we were leaving it was clear that for me and Dave there was another meeting that we were invited to at a different church, one far nearer us in the centre. We all raced back to the hostel and then Dave & I left for the 4pm start (which we were late for). This church had an American team over so it was good to sing in Russian & English as well as to be able to understand the preach! There were also some good contacts made. We travelled back towards the hostel tired but happy, having spent most of the day in meetings. It was now nearly 9pm! Dave stopped off just before getting back in order to pick up some food. He left the engine running and I waited. Though there were other parked cars around us we had no idea whether we could stop here or not so thought it best if I stay in the car just in case – and what a good choice that turned out to be!

Suddenly I noticed a tow lorry stop and sit in the middle of the road facing the other direction.
Having seen lots of crazy driving this didn't totally alarm me because people did all sorts of things on the road. But I kept a close eye, fearing the worst but not actually believing anything would happen. Besides, surely Dave would be back soon anyway. I didn't know how to drive this big 4x4 automatic anyway!

About two minutes later another identical lorry pulled up in front of the first and stopped in the middle of the road – then it suddenly pulled out and in front of the car in front of us! I could see clearly now what was going to happen – they were here to tow us all away!!

I jumped over into the drivers seat. As one lorry driver was taking photo's of the first car I was quickly trying to work out what I needed to do to move this car! The second lorry driver, while signally roughly, with words coming out in Russian that I didn't know, I could see he was allowing me to go! I pulled out, albeit a little jumpy, as this big automatic rolled down the road. I was safe! I thought I'd better just drive the 300 metres to the hostel, which I did, just a little shaky! I walked back to find Dave, who'd worked out what had happened having seen the lorries. Hopefully that'll be the last bit of driving I do in Russian for a long time, but for a few minutes I was quite worried!

So what are my first impressions then? Well, the above experiences have taught us something of the life that we'll live here. But the city that we live, while it might not sleep, is one of stunning beauty in much of its buildings, rivers and statues. The weather is more tropical than British. We can have storms and hot sun in the same day. Heavy showers then sun within 30 minutes several times a day.

The people, behind the expressionless exterior, are very friendly and happy to help. The little Russian we know does go a long way.

It's a very cultural place. We went to the Hermitage yesterday and its spectacular. Rachel went to the Ballet the day before that which sounded very good as well.

There's clearly a city that needs reaching with the gospel. It is not a small task that lays before us. We know that first we need to learn the language and understand culture more fully. But even in these early days its been good to have had a time when Dave & Hannah, myself & Rachel, Nadia (a Russian girl who has moved up from Tver to join us here) as well as another Russian couple looking to move here together with two English New Frontiers leaders all sharing a meal together at the Henson's flat. It may be early days, but the core of the church plant has already been planted.

We are all in this city now. Our journey's here may have been very different, but now our lives have come together for this time, this season, in order to see something equally spectacular established for the Kingdom of God.

In these four parts of this series its taken us from April 2007 until today, 23rd August 2008, sitting here at 4:35pm with a lovely sunny day outside and the temperature showing 31 degrees Celsius. I know that this next 12 months is going to change me more than at any other time in my life. I know that I will be challenged to my very core as I press through here, as winter kicks in and as life struggles on at times. Quite what surprises I'll be writing about in the final part of this series next summer I do not know.

What I do know though is that God, my God who has been with me these past months so closely, will continue to be so close to me going forward. It'll be God that starts the church here. And it'll be God's way that it gets started.

- Lord, I commit this time to you. Please lead me and guide me. Thank you for bringing us all here safely. Though scary at times, you've protected us and you continue to protect us. Help us with the language. Help us to settle. Please help bring our furniture all here safely. Empower us over this next 12 months that when I write next summer, we'd be different people – different because you've shaped us into a new shape – one ready for Russia!

Coming next summer – Part 5 – One Year On.
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