April 15, 2009

All Things to all People

2009 1511 page27 capHURCH SERVICES WERE OVER, AND I WAS TRAVELING BY TRAM TO THE subway station when my cell phone rang. It was Andrei, a former colleague who now worked as editor-in-chief of a Russian magazine. “Andy, where are you?” Andrei asked. “We need to board the bus for President Putin’s home.”
This was the first I had heard about being invited to Vladimir Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow for an annual meeting with a group of 40 academicians and journalists meant at boosting Russia’s international reputation. The catch was that it was Sabbath.
I told Andrei I would call right back. I had to pray. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No one from my workplace had ever been offered the chance to meet informally with the president, much less visit his home and dine with him. If I went, I could write an exclusive article. If I declined, I might be fired or, worse, ostracized by the journalistic community.
Praying for the right words, I called Andrei. “I’m not going to be able to attend,” I told 
him. “I’ll explain later.”
2009 1511 page27Back in my apartment, I resigned myself to the likelihood that I would be fired once word leaked out that I had turned down dinner with Putin.* But I asked God to direct me so He would be glorified. I resolved to tell anyone who asked that I worship God on the Sabbath.
After sunset, Andrei called to say I had missed a fascinating dinner discussion and to ask about my absence. I explained that I believe God set aside Saturday as a sacred time and I chose to worship Him on that day. As I spoke, an idea sprang to mind: Why not ask Andrei to write about the dinner?
Andrei hadn’t planned to write a news story for his magazine, but he quickly embraced the idea and pounded out an article.
I braced for a flood of criticism the next week, but none emerged. Andrei, clearly pleased with his article, made no further comment about my decision to skip the dinner. A reporter from Kommersant, Russia’s largest business newspaper, who was not invited to the dinner, saw my name on the guest list and called for a comment. The reporter lost interest when I said I had not attended and didn’t give me a chance to explain why. One of the dinner’s organizers asked about my absence by e-mail and had no problem with my explanation.
But the devil must have been furious. Trouble broke out two months later when Andrei submitted another article for publication and I rejected it. Andrei angrily told one of my colleagues about the missed dinner, and the colleague began to spread the word.
“Everyone in Moscow’s journalistic community knows that you refused to go to the dinner at Putin’s home because of your religious beliefs,” the colleague told me with a sneer. “You are a joke among journalists.”
I prayed and told my superior—a staunch atheist—what had happened that Saturday. Her response surprised me. “If I accepted every invitation that I received, I would never have time to do my work. That’s why I delegate responsibility,” she told me. “What matters is that we have the best news coverage possible. As far as I can see, that’s what you are doing.”
Praise God! For the first time I could say with Paul, “I have become all things to all men”—yes, even a joke—“so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). If my skeptical colleague is to be believed, God found a way for me to share the Sabbath truth with Moscow’s entire journalistic community. 
*After eight years as president, Putin is now Russia’s prime minister.
Andrew McChesney is a journalist living in Russia.