December 20, 2013

Dateline Moscow

After a Sabbath lunch crowned with homemade pizza, my Russian guests eased back in soft leather sofas in the combined kitchen-living room area of my Moscow apartment. Eight-year-old Slava sat on the carpet, his last slice of pizza lying forgotten on a plate at his feet.

Suddenly, a shrill cry pierced the air. Slava sprang up, wildly pointing a finger at the plate. “Cockroach, cockroach!” he screamed.

Sure enough. A long, brown insect with spindly legs stood, antennae quivering, at the edge of his plate.

The serene faces of my guests twisted into expressions of disgust and horror. “How can you have cockroaches in such a nice apartment?” asked Slava’s mother.

The year was 2006, and I had embarked on a search for Jesus’ will for the first time in my life. The apartment was a trophy from my worldly days.

Earlier that Sabbath I had beamed as my guests “oohed” and “ahhed” at the towering Greek-like columns in the living room, the enormous bedroom, the study with two powerful computers, the home movie theater, and the cavernous bathroom, complete with a top-of-the-line hot tub and real Finnish sauna. I was renting the apartment from the wife of a wealthy oil executive who lived in another Russian city. Living in the apartment made me feel as though I had arrived.

Then the cockroaches surfaced.

I’m not sure where they came from. The apartment building itself was an old, gray, seven-story affair built under the regime of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The first cockroach had surfaced shortly after I had started attending church regularly. The scavenger was soon joined by others, many others. When I flipped on the lights at night, I could hear them scurrying for cover behind the stove and refrigerator.

But when the day arrived that they stopped running and unblinkingly continued to gorge themselves on whatever crumbs were left on the counter, I declared war.

At first my efforts appeared to pay off. After one late-night fumigation using aerosol cans, I returned to the kitchen in the morning to sweep up dozens of brittle bodies. But a couple weeks later the cockroaches marched back.

A complaint to the landlady did little good. She said the apartment had been fumigated before I moved in, and the age and size of the apartment building made it impossible to exterminate them all. “The only way to eradicate the cockroaches would be to pull down the building, and even then they would probably survive,” she said.

My options were limited to aerosol cans or moving to a new apartment. I didn’t want to lose my beautiful place.

But then my secret emerged at that fateful Sabbath lunch.

After my friends left and the sun set, I furiously launched a new attack on my unwelcome guests. An epiphany struck me as I stood on a kitchen counter, directing the poisonous spray behind a cupboard. My life resembled my apartment. To friends, I represented a picture of success. My career as a journalist was flourishing at the age of 33. I owned everything I wanted, and then some. I lived in an apartment that could be classified as fancy even by Moscow’s decadent standards.

But it was all only appearances.

Deep inside I had been nurturing a cockroach, the most resilient of all creatures, capable, scientists believe, of surviving even a nuclear explosion. As I cared for that cockroach, it had started inviting over its friends. The picture of my life wasn’t pretty after all.

With a heavy heart I said goodbye to my apartment at the end of 2006. I determined to start the new year without cockroaches of any kind, both in my home and in my soul.

With another new year approaching, I have been reminded that cockroaches have a way of reappearing in this old world. Several have poked their antennae into my life this year. But a new year offers new hope. Join me in my New Year’s resolution to stop clinging to cockroaches, and instead choose to cling to the cross in 2014.