April 22, 2009

An Atheist's Three Prayers

2009 1512 page24 capife couldn’t get worse, thought Nadya as she stood sobbing in a bustling Moscow metro station. A purse-snatcher had just fled with her bag, taking her passport, the keys to her apartment, and all her money.

But Nadya wasn’t crying about that.
Everything seemed to be going wrong in her life. Her parents had thrown her out of their home. She had left a violent husband. She felt unloved, alone, and desperate.
A man emerged from the crowd. “Do you need help?” he asked kindly.
Nadya, her cheeks moist with tears, told about the robbery and said she needed to call her landlord to get a new key. She needed to clean her pants because she had slipped and fallen into a mud puddle while running after the purse-snatcher. The stranger invited Nadya to use the telephone in his nearby apartment.
As soon as they arrived at the apartment, Nadya knew she had made a mistake.
2009 1512 page24“He closed the door, and I realized that he wasn’t going to help me,” said Nadya, a soft-spoken brunette with warm green eyes.
Nadya excused herself to wash the mud off her pants and raced to the bathroom. Bolting the door, she prayed frantically, bitter tears running down her cheeks. An avowed atheist, she didn’t even believe that God existed.
But as she prayed, the stranger inexplicably had a change of heart. “When I came out of the bathroom, he stared at me and said, ‘Yes, you have been robbed today. You are not in a good mood. I will take you home now,’” he said.
It was a miraculous answer to her first-ever prayer, but Nadya promptly forgot about it when she arrived home.
God, however, wasn’t finished. It took two more prayers before Nadya Kondrashova began to see God working in her life. Nadya now is an active member of the Moscow International Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“Some people are active in church because they want a title, but Nadya is active because she loves God from the bottom of her heart and wants to serve Him,” said Viktor Osadchuk, pastor of the Moscow International church. “She is a big help in the church.”
Looking for Love
Nadya was born in the city of Saratov, the eldest of three children in a family of authoritarian math professors. From her earliest years, she remembers her father’s relentless ridicule; her mother never hugged her.
When she was 9, Nadya’s family moved to Pereslavl-Zalessky, a small town located about an hour’s drive northeast of Moscow. Two years later her mother sent her to live with her grandmother in another town, fearing that her father’s taunting would completely destroy her self-esteem.
Nadya married her first boyfriend at her parents’ urging, but he beat her. She divorced him and moved back in with her parents. Refusing to believe her accounts about the beatings she received from her estranged husband, her father escalated his verbal abuse. One day he angrily threw Nadya’s belongings into the hall outside the apartment. Nadya refused to speak with her parents for two years.
Hoping for a new life, Nadya packed her bags and moved to Moscow. But bad things seemed to keep happening. She dated, but every man who showed an interest turned out to be either an alcoholic or violent-tempered. She loathed her job. Then her purse was stolen.
“I felt like my life was a bad detective story. I felt like my parents were wicked creatures,” Nadya said. “When the man took my bag and ran away with it, my father was actually pleased. He felt joy that I was so upset. He asked me why I had not used karate, and I told him I had taken karate lessons for only two months, and to fight with a man you need much more training, maybe years.”
Nadya’s thoughts turned to suicide. “I wanted to end my life because logically—not emotionally—I realized that I had no future. I would never have a happy family and a good husband. I felt that my place in life was only with intellectually inferior, bad men,” she said.
An Atheist’s Prayer
Nadya prayed—her second prayer. Hours later, she visited a beauty salon for a manicure. When the manicurist heard about her troubles, she advised Nadya to seek help from a psychologist—a novel idea in a country where psychologists are largely shunned by people reluctant to acknowledge that they have psychological problems and are afraid of being labeled mentally ill.
Nadya felt she had nothing left to lose. She wound up attending group therapy sessions with a top Russian psychologist. He loved to read from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to the group, but he insisted that God did not exist. This pleased Nadya, who did not believe in God and disliked everything she associated with Christians—“kissing dirty icons and praying in stuffy churches filled with the nauseatingly sweet scent of burning candles and incense.”
The psychologist advised each of his clients to set several goals and achieve them.
Nadya made her first goal to learn English. While glancing through a magazine, she saw an advertisement that promised the ability to both speak and think in English. Impressed, she called the telephone number on the ad.
The person who picked up the phone on the other end was David Kulakov, a Seventh-day Adventist who teaches English to wealthy, prominent Russians.* Several of his students have been baptized, including the woman who became his wife.
“When he conducted the first lesson with me, I felt something very good come over me. I realized that I wanted to study only with David,” Nadya said.
Attacking With Love
As they got to know each other, Nadya slowly began to confide in David about her parents, her finances, and her ambitions. David advised her to give up her apartment and economize money by renting a room in someone else’s apartment. He helped her open a business selling clothing. He shared with her stories about his relationship with his parents and urged her to speak to her mother and father.
“I told her that one rule of self-sufficiency is never to wait for a situation to resolve itself,” David said. “A self-sufficient person should attack—in a good sense of the word—and should always be attacking with love.”
2009 1512 page24David did not mention God, but his advice came straight from the Bible. “Love is never inactive. Love is always active,” David said. “If you read the Bible, you will see that God is always actively showing His love. He is always confronting people with His love, saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ He does not want to see people dying in their sins. People are left with the choice of accepting this love or rejecting it.”
David told Nadya that if she expressed unconditional love to her parents, they would be forced to accept it or reject it; and they would probably accept it.
Nadya replied that the advice, like everything else David had told her, sounded logical. But she felt torn because her psychologist was offering conflicting advice.
One day Nadya excitedly shared with her therapy group how David was helping her improve her life. The room fell silent. All eyes turned to the psychologist.
“There’s Nadya. What is she trying to say to us?” the psychologist said, his voice tinged with sarcasm. “She doesn’t realize it, but she wants to sleep with David.”
Several people tittered. Nadya walked out, never to return.
From the psychologist’s office, she headed straight for her parents, determined to bury the painful past.
“I embraced my father; my mother refused to embrace, as usual, but that didn’t matter. I made peace with them in two hours; before this I had not had peace with them for two years,” Nadya said.
Nadya’s parents did not admit any wrongdoing, and she didn’t ask for an apology. She merely told them that she loved them and wanted peace.
Nadya returned to her apartment and elatedly told her landlady about what had happened. The woman quizzed Nadya about David, finally declaring that he must be a member of a sect. In Russia any Christian faith other than the Russian Orthodox Church is commonly dismissed as 
a sect.
At their next lesson, Nadya pointedly asked David if he belonged to a sect.
“Yes, I belong to a sect,” David replied, laughing.
“Which sect is yours?” Nadya said. “I want to visit them.”
David immediately presented Nadya with a Bible and a copy of Ellen G. White’s book Patriarchs and Prophets. He showed her how to read them in parallel. The next Sabbath, Nadya visited the Moscow International church. “I loved it right away,” she said. “But I told David I would never believe in God.”
Nadya opened the Bible for the first time as she read Patriarchs and Prophets. “I started to read because I wanted to have my own opinion, and to have my own opinion I had to read the Bible,” she said. “As I read, I realized that it contained wisdom that was more than human.”

Unsure what to do, she turned to David.

David gave her a simple prayer with no opening or closing. He suggested that she go to her room, close the door, stand in the center, and offer the prayer.
The Unbeliever’s Prayer
Nadya followed David’s advice and prayed: “I do not believe You exist. But if You do, lead me to an understanding of You, to a place where I can find You in my own life, to see You acting in my life, and to a place where I can believe in You.”

What Do You Think?

1. In what ways is Nadya's story different fro somebody who grew up in a Christian home? In what ways is it the same?

2. How would you describe the interaction between God and the other characters in this story? Can you do it in one word?

3. What obstacles have you overcome in your own relationship with God? How do they compare with those overcome by Nadya?

Is there someone you know who needs a spiritual emotional boost? What can you do to provide it?

It was Nadya’s third prayer.

Soon she began to see glimpses of God in everything around her. Less than a year later, she accepted Jesus and was baptized. An accountant by training, she now manages a small but flourishing accounting firm.
Nadya inadvertently became active in the church before she became an Adventist, using her new English skills to interpret during worship services. Enthralled with the loving atmosphere and beautiful songs, she invited her friends to attend church even though she didn’t believe in God. One of those friends was baptized last year and is now married to a devout Adventist woman.
Asked why an unapologetic atheist had wanted to visit an Adventist church in the first place, Nadya pointed to David’s marriage. “I liked how David treated his wife, Anya. I saw their good relationship, and I dreamed about having such a family,” she said. “I realized that his faith system works, so I decided to make it my own.” 
*Kulakov’s story, “A Daniel in Moscow,” appeared in Adventist World, July 2008.
Andrew McChesney is a journalist who has lived and worked in Moscow, Russia, for more than 13 years.