The Christian Witness According to Leo Tolstoy
Preparing for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Transfiguration Sunday), Three Days before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 99
Old Testament: Deuteronomy 9:1-5
Epistle: Acts 3:11-16
Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
by Lindsey Funtik, Coordinator of Volunteer Ministries, Ashland First United Methodist Church, Ashland, Ohio and Pastor at Polk United Methodist Church, Polk, Ohio.
“But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you” (Acts 3:14-16)
I cannot tell a lie. Despite the fact that I love reading, and even went on to earn a degree in English, I did not always read assigned texts quite as closely as I should. In fact, my student days equipped me with an uncanny ability to discuss a single sentence, chosen randomly, at length. It turns out that my ability to talk without ceasing fooled teachers into believing I had actually read the whole book. More honesty: I would be lying if I said I wasn’t just ever so slightly proud of that skill.
The older I get, however, the more that I want to be able to say I’ve digested the classics. So I’ve embarked on an adventure to read some of the books that I was either never assigned or that I neglected to read in its entirety. From this exercise has come a passionate love for Jane Eyre and a vehement hatred of The Awakening. I have been unsuccessful at wrestling through Beloved, but I still smirk when I think about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I love books, and I find that I understand the world with a more compassionate and observational heart when I actually give these great works the time of day. Past Lindsey, take note.
The latest spine to be pulled off my bookshelf is that of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. It has been quite the undertaking (I am on page 240 out of 873), but so far I have been swept up into the inner world of some very well-crafted, nuanced characters. While I know that there is still a lot of story left to read, I have found myself fixated on a character named Varenka.
We see Varenka through the eyes of Kitty, a main character who has come to a spa to get well after suffering a heartbreak. While Kitty is resting and trying to get her bearings, she observes Varenka selflessly taking care of others. Kitty is instantly taken with her from afar, becomes a bit obsessed, and the two women ultimately become friends. Kitty, who has lived a life of parties and flirtation and society, is fascinated by Varenka's lack of preoccupation with herself. Eventually, Kitty and Varenka get into a conversation during which they both share their respective stories and Varenka divulges to Kitty that there are more important things than shame and humiliation over a man. Kitty, once again fixated, asks the question repeatedly: What is more important?
In the end, Kitty finds the answer in religion, but not as she understood it in her youth, which was about memorization and ritual. Instead, ‘…this was a lofty, mystical religion that was bound up with beautiful thoughts and feelings that you could believe in not only because you had been ordered to, but because you love it.’ (pg. 237). Kitty begins to walk in step with such a faith. Tolstoy writes, “Because of Varenka she understood the value of simply forgetting yourself and loving others, in order to be serene, happy, and good. And that was what Kitty wanted to be. Now that she clearly understood the most important thing, Kitty was not satisfied with being enthusiastic about it, but instantly surrendered with all her heart to this newly disclosed life.” (pg. 237)
Kitty, so concerned with beauty, the shame of society's eyes looking at her failure, and growing physically ill over being rejected, discovered what Varenka possessed within the very fabric of her nature: selflessness, self-forgetfulness, a meek heart in the way of Jesus Christ.
What struck me most about Varenka and Kitty’s friendship was that Varenka did not have much going for her from Kitty’s perspective. It is stated,”…she couldn’t have been attractive to men cause she didn’t have enough of what Kitty had too much of–a repressed flame of vitality and the awareness of her own attractiveness.” (pg. 227-228) Varenka simply absorbed herself in serving others and it is this, so different from her own mode of operation, that drew Kitty to her. Varenka’s simplicity, her humility, her selflessness was her strength.
I still don’t know where Kitty and Varenka will end up in this story, but I do know that there are some nuggets of truth to be mined for believers. In short: the world is watching. When eyes fresh from weeping look up, they will see how the followers of Jesus will or will not comfort. When the self-absorbed come up short, feeling empty and numb, they will observe what the alternative route of loving dispossession of self might yield. When those who are jaded from the wounds left by faith communities see that Jesus is not the type to cut down, but to build up, that realization will come from observing people who are carrying the cross, just as He did. When a man is murdered in the streets because of systemic, poisonous, inexcusable racism, eyes will turn to the Body of Christ to see what kind of reaction will be brought forth.
The world is watching, and what will they see? Will they take in more of the same apathy and vanity and vapid concerns? Or will they see prophetic action, which condemns injustice; selfless action, which serves the least; and loving embraces, which are flung wide to any and all? We must ask ourselves these questions. We must be a people consecrated, set apart.
In all of this, it is important to note that, despite the fact that we may have an audience, none of this is meant to be for show. When Kitty approaches Varenka, desperately seeking an answer for what makes her life so different from Kitty’s own, Varenka has no flowery words, only a concern that she will not have time to drop in on one of the individuals for which she was caring. Yes, we should always have an answer ready to explain our hope (1 Pet. 3:15), but the point here is that Varenka was simply living her life and that was what drew Kitty in. We do not serve and love and humble ourselves because we want recognition, but because we are transformed by the Holy Spirit. Serving and loving and bringing healing and peace simply becomes part of the fabric of our being.
In the end, I think Tolstoy was on to something in his understanding of the Christian witness and how it can be so transformative without speaking a word. I pray that when the Kitty eyes of the world spy the living, moving Varenka of the Church, she will see Jesus and be transformed. As it says in Ephesians 4, we must be worthy of our calling. Be worthy, Church. Be worthy.
Originally published on May 28, 2020 at “Reflections on Faith, Words, and The Holiness of Today.”