On this episode, I share stories of God's miraculous intervention while I battled deep depression during my time teaching in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia.
God had called me to Russia at age twelve, and since then, it had been a place of awe and purpose, of romance and transcendence. But my fifth time there, I was surprised and disillusioned when my joy was smothered by depression.
But God pierced the darkness, illuminating my path through Tatarstan with the continual revelation of His care for me through specific, truly divine interventions.
In this episode, I talk all about these divine interventions that bear witness to what a personal God He is.
If you want to read more about my time in Tatarstan, here are some of my favorite blog posts I wrote while I was there:
The Land of Seven Fridays
Russia: The Best Boot Camp for People-Pleasers
“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24
Jesus’s words before He was crucified speak of death, but are filled with life. He went boldly to the cross for the joy set before Him, the assurance that His body, broken and murdered, was the seed that would sprout into our wholeness and everlasting communion with Him.
As His followers, we too are called to the death that will bring life. The death looks different in each of our journeys, but we all have the assurance that the One who called us wastes nothing, and that the deaths in our stories, those seeds that burrow deep and dark beneath the suffocating earth, will blossom into living fruit, hope multiplied.
This is my story of the many deaths I died in a country that had once represented vivid life but had transformed into a place of death. God had called me to Russia at age twelve, and since then, it had been a place of awe and purpose, of romance and transcendence. But my fifth time there I was surprised by a deep depression. But Jesus told the truth: unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. That year in Russia, 2013-2014, was the most difficult of my life, but now, years later, He has helped me to make holy sense of it all and to reveal to me the fruit that is still multiplying. This is my story of the Hope who refused to let me go in a season heavy with hopelessness. This is an offering to the One who, when I couldn’t breathe, sustained me with His breath, resurrecting me, new every morning.
Before I start though, I want to talk to any of my former students, coworkers, and friends who are listening. As I share my story of depression, I want to assure you that you were lights in the darkness, and that I love you so very much. I want you to know that the smiles I gave you were 100% real, and that I truly long to come back and visit you. You did not only touch my heart, but became a part of it. But even in the midst of your welcoming presence, I also experienced a deep depression caused by a mixture of brain chemistry, culture shock, and the spiritual darkness I felt. But Jesus Christ, my Savior, and my King, carried me through a dark season in my life with an unexplainable hope, and there’s nothing I desire more than for you to know Him. If you have any questions about who Jesus is and why I follow Him, I’d love to talk. I pray that you would be overwhelmed with the truth that He loves you with a hope beyond the love humans can give and He offers hope that will flood the darkest places of your life with light.
The old woman stands in white-haired waiting, feathery snow landing on a ragged jacket the color of dry earth. Her only entreaty is the sign of the cross, two fingers and thumb pursed, painting brushstrokes of blessing in the air. She holds a glass jar, ready for change. A ruble? A kopeck?
No ruble, no kopeck. I ignore the beggar because though she is beautiful, she isn’t real. She is only an ornament on this perpetual trek, along with the pastel buildings and the tattered Orthodox church and the statue of Lenin that watches me, hawkish, as I pass. In order to stay sane, I must deny reality.
Because this Russia is not the Russia I knew—the one where I ran through the forest in ecstasy ten years before, the first inkling of all that was more, so much more bubbling, searching, blossoming. At twelve, I hadn’t wanted to serve in that former Soviet youth camp. But I trusted and jumped when untrained, but faithful ears heard His whisper. When the whisper widened into song, He reached into my chest, took his finger, and engraved the name of these people deep into ready tissue —a holy tattoo, irreversible and sure.
I love looking back on those memories. I like to think of it as the first summer I was awake, as the time when the unconsciousness of childhood bloomed into the awareness of a world so much bigger than myself. But I also remember that stepping into that unexpected joy was birthed by death. In fact, it was the very first time I died to myself to follow in Jesus’ steps.
Another pothole shook the rickety bus, and the window I was using as a pillow jolted my head yet again. I clutched my Walkman, tears bubbling beneath the surface as I mouthed the lyrics to a favorite song. At age twelve, this was my first step into the unknown, a mission trip to a Christian children’s camp in the Western corner of Russia. Russia was a place I’d never heard anything good about. It evoked chilling images of gulags and persecution and cold. A medical missionary from my church had once passed around pictures of her work in remote villages on the Siberian tundra, all of poverty and sickness against the backdrop of the starkest snow. Never. Now that looked like the worst place on earth.
Yet here I was. A childlike faith that God wanted me in Russia had buoyed me through the packing and plane ride and the scowl of the scary woman at passport control. But as each pothole propelled me further away from home, I wondered if I’d made a mistake.
After only a day at Camp Елочка though, I was in love. In love with the laughter and friendship and how the Russian girls and I could communicate without words. In love with the skinny pines that stretched stretched to the heavens and the joyful peals “Our God Is an Awesome God” in Russian.
I’d thought the adrenaline of this new adventure would carry me through until my homebound flight, but one afternoon, the lack of sleep and constant movement caught up with me. I’d been put on craft duty, a task that didn’t just bore me but pounded me with thoughts of incompetence every time I tried to help a child and messed something up. Crafts had always been my weakness, and I felt like a failure. I wanted to rest. Desperately. So, as naturally as breathing, I prayed. The words poured out in a childlike specificity:
“Let it rain God, a rain with drops big like I’ve never seen, but let it be for only five minutes.”
I don’t think I really expected it to happen. The sky was grey with clouds, but it had been that way all day without a drop. But as soon as the words left my lips, the sky rumbled. Down poured raindrops, thicker than I’d ever seen, sending the children and helpers dashing for the nearest shelter. Crazed by the joy of the unexpected, I dropped the crafts and ran down the forest path in the giddy hope that defined me, slick with the answer dripping off my face, through my clothes, breathless and known. And five minutes later, to confirm that all of this was truly for me, the rain left as abruptly as it had come. The name my parents had given me started to unfold—my first name, Hope, and Jaazaniah, meaning “one whom the Lord will hear.” Hope, because the Lord will hear you! Hope, because the Lord does hear you.
I hadn’t yet read about Elijah, the man who was just like us, who prayed for rain and saw the sky open just as I had millennia later. I hadn’t yet read about Hagar, whom God saw and loved and saved in the desert with the lasting water Abraham couldn’t give her. I only had one story in my canon: the miracle of the rain. And it was enough. I received the answer before I was conscious of the question, before I would face the disappointment and loneliness that would lead me to tremble with tears, lift my hands and whisper, “Do you see me?” He answered that question before I needed the answer, and years later, the memory of the rain still whispers into the wind, “yes, yes, yes.”
I bounded back to Russia four times, each one enlarging my joy as the consonantal waltzes of the language danced across my tongue and the friendships multiplied, each laughing adventure and easy silence echoing the original, unexpected song.
In 2013, at age 22, I returned again, this time as an English teacher. They placed me in Yelabuga, a small city in the Republic of Tatarstan, the crossroads of Islam and Orthodoxy. The throaty call of the muezzin drifted into my classroom as the sun set, inviting Allah’s faithful to prayer, and each Orthodox church topped with vivid cupolas was rivaled by a majestic mosque graced with emerald minarets. Another edifice—the Devil’s Tower—was Yelabuga’s claim to fame. The millennium-old watchtower that overlooked the river spoke to the city’s ancient roots, and locals loved to tell the legend of how, near the tower, a priest had outsmarted the Devil’s scheme to marry his daughter.
Yelabuga was like no place I’d ever been, each landmark a window to a layered history, each house of worship radiating a haunting beauty. The city was like something taken from a fairy tale with its emerald-topped mosque, the log houses with colorful, embellished shutters, the faithful sunset that framed the Orthodox church at dusk, and of course, the mysterious Devil’s Tower. But Yelabuga’s beauty only sharpened the darkness I felt.
Since I was 18, I had battled clinical depression. With clinical depression, sadness often defies the circumstances, and I was no exception. Though counseling and medication helped, even in the best of times, sadness often haunted me.
But the one place I had been able to escape it was in Russia—during those adrenaline-filled trips paced by newness and adventure. I had expected this trip to be much the same—a reprieve from depression, a respite of joy. But after only a few weeks in Yelabuga, I knew that this was not going to be like my other times in Russia. Here, depression would not only follow me, but would conspire to destroy me.
Even though my students welcomed me with smiles and a kind teacher from my department befriended me, the familiar symptoms of depression only grew: the knot in my stomach, the weight on my chest, and mostly the tears that were always bubbling beneath the surface. This year was supposed to be the culmination of the calling I’d had since I was twelve, a time where joy reached its pinnacle, but my mental health continuing to spiral downward.
Every evening after I taught in the castle with the cupolas, I floated, invisible, down the stairs, painted the orange and green of the Tatarstani flag, and drifted to my nightly grave, a Soviet era dormitory, or kommunalka. It wasn’t the sparseness of my room that shook me, nor the beat-up hotplate balanced on crumbling bricks, or the ancient space heater I was told was “dangerous, better not to use.” I wasn’t daunted by the shower that scorched my hair with rust and sulfur during those lucky times when the water was hot, or the dirty tub where I would wash my clothes for the next nine months.
Even after five trips to Russia, the lack of easy amenities had remained a novelty. In America, remembering to carry my own toilet paper or hauling a five-liter water jug a mile on foot would be a nuisance, but each previous trip had been paced with so much joy that I’d found myself liking and even delighting in the inconvenient. It wasn’t any of my physical surroundings that had trapped me in the paralysis of nightmares. No, it was one solitary thought that haunted me: if I choke in this dorm room and die, no one will find me for days.
I climb into the bed that crunches with the dirt and dregs of the years and close my eyes. Another kernel falling, dying, waiting beneath the suffocating snow.
Every morning, I wake, but how? My heart beats, My lungs fill. He has breathed His life into me again, another resurrection.
I came because these people were a poem, but now, I imagined my doughy muscles growing taut, propelling me off and away. When I escaped, these memories would be but the smoke from a bonfire, a primal fragrance stretching to the sky, diffusing into insignificance. The limber ghost would haunt, but only in whispers.
I came to Yelabuga willingly, but Marina Tsvetaeva didn’t. The famous poet lived when Stalin purged his faithful followers with random consistency, always cleansing the palate, unbothered that each fake trial and bogus accusation extinguished lives. Marina’s husband and daughter were Stalin’s loyal servants, but the secret police had taken them, and her letter to the dictator hadn’t helped. She and her teenage son evacuated Moscow in the August of 1941 and when Marina found herself in Yelabuga, as soon as she settled in a room with a curtain for a door, she wanted out. Because this Russia was not the Russia she knew. To Tsvetaeva, Yelabuga was the end of hope. Less than two weeks after she arrived, she penned a suicide note, found a rope and left Yelabuga forever.
Every day on my way to the university, I walk past Tsvetaeva’s suicide haunt. With her short hair, flipped outward, Roman nose and tired eyes, she is now a statue. It seems she always was; the townspeople who remember her in her last days said her face was like stone.
Her story haunted me, but I knew I was different. I was not Tsvetaeva, because even in my hopelessness there was hope. I could not hope, but my Savior was my Hope Unyielding, a hope beyond all hope who grasped me fiercely even when I let go. How did he bring me this hope? In the same way he did ten years before, when he opened the heavens just for me, when he showed me that he truly saw me.
About a month into my time in Yelabuga, the churning in my heart wouldn’t translate to words; the tools of sounds and letters ran like sand through clenched fists as I grasped for a way to make sense of this guttural, overwhelming consciousness. For that month, all I’d been able to do was to open my mouth and sob once again, “Help me Lord, I need you.”
It was a desperate prayer packaged in unbelief. I reasoned that He might bring some kind of intangible comfort, some change in my spirit, but I doubted he would actually change my circumstances. Because why would he act for me when He didn’t right all the injustices in the world, when He didn’t save the little girl from being abused or heal the mother dying of cancer? And of all the prayers I’d prayed, why was the only one He’d chosen to answer that silly request for rain?
These thoughts weren’t conscious, but as I look back, I see the buildup of living in a fallen world that made me doubt His action on anything other than a spiritual level. I expected nothing except the slight lifting of the heart and the strength to keep trudging to the university without crumbling. But in my lack of faith and inability to put my anguish into words, the Holy Spirit was translating my cries to the Father and was setting a plan in motion to answer me in a way so personal, I couldn’t deny that He saw me just as clearly as He had that summer day ten years before.
One morning, as was the custom in Russia, there was a problem. As my Russian friends would joke, Это Россия! There was some hiccup with my paycheck, and I didn’t know what bureaucratic hoops I needed to jump through to get my money. Overhearing the problem, a girl with pretty blue eyes and long black hair about my age approached me. “I can help you,” she said. Her soft, musical voice perfectly complemented her small frame. Her name was Leila, and she was the new secretary in my department. She quickly solved the problem with my paycheck. Then, we began to talk. And with her, my soul finally relaxed.
I quickly realized that she was a rare kindred spirit. We were both sensitive, introspective, and longed for something beyond the mundane. On the hardest days, she gave me words of encouragement and understanding. On the best days, we had impromptu photo sessions and laughed at our many inside jokes, an especially precious gift in a place where I often felt like an outsider. And to my great joy, she listened to me as I shared my faith and my heart, listening and absorbing the words about Jesus that she’d never heard before. She was hearing about the Way, the Truth, and the Life for the first time, but it was Leila who revealed a truth about My Savior I’d heard again and again but still doubted.
“Hope, do you know why I helped you with your paycheck back in October?” Leila asked one day. I shook my head. I’d assumed she’d just taken pity on the American teacher who couldn’t tell up from down.
“The night before, I had a dream about you. I dreamed that you were in great trouble, and that I had to help you. If I hadn’t had that dream, I wouldn’t have done anything.”
It was then I knew. God had heard me. God had seen me. The truth of the rain was now joined by the truth of her dream. In those cries for help, He hadn’t just lifted my spirit or given me strength, He’d decided to answer my loneliness by planting a heavy dream in Leila’s mind that wouldn’t let her rest until she’d followed it through. I firmly believe that God entered Leila’s dream in an answer to my desperate cries. I also believe that one of the main reasons God sent me to Tatarstan was to meet this precious friend. Leila is still one of my dearest friends to this day, and I know that our meeting was not a coincidence.
But though my friendship with Leila was a light in the darkness, the depression didn’t lift. We crave stories that are tied up neatly, a linear trajectory toward a happily ever after, but often, our lives are the coexistence of joy and sorrow that remind us of our heavenly home, that this world is not all there is. God sent me hope through Leila, but my heart was still heavy and my mental health still shaky. I needed to get out, if only for a few days.
My friend Annie, an American teacher from a neighboring city, had the perfect plan. Go to St. Petersburg for New Year’s Eve. St. Petersburg was the perfect escape. In previous trips to Russia, St. Petersburg had been full of joy and romance and freedom. I remembered the Winter Palace that had housed the tsars, the specters of Dostoevsky’s characters wafting through the city, and the metro station near where Pushkin had fought his fateful duel. Of course I said yes when she asked. Her friend Masha had an apartment, and we could stay there.
It was a terrible decision. The lack of sleep was how it began. As depression sunk its claws into my life at age eighteen, sleep had become element as essential as water or air. Instead of simple grumpiness or lack of focus, on mornings when I woke unrested, the day would unfold shakily, tears would sprout unbidden, and existential questions and dark propositions would whisper in my ears. Sleep was no small thing in a world where I had to armor myself against the sadness that was always poised to attack. We arrived at the airport at three a.m., and our adventure began. I couldn’t wait to arrive at Masha’s apartment, where I imagined we would sip tea and make New Year’s resolutions.
I was naïve, so naïve. This was Russia—where New Year’s celebrations are extravagant and bold, and alcohol runs freely. The first hours in Masha’s apartment were tranquil enough, but the fatigue was working its depressive magic on me. I was close to spiraling. When people started filing in for the festivities, I pasted on a pearly American smile. I made conversation, answering everyone’s questions about the United States while eating more than my fair share of the traditional salads doused in mayonnaise. I could do this. I’d almost made it to midnight.
But what started as a sweet, if rowdy step into 2014—toasts and fireworks and Putin wishing us the happiest of New Year’s, quickly melted into blurry chaos. Dark and drunkenness merged with the repetitive pounding of pop remixes, and a smashed bottle soon covered the floor of the studio apartment with shards of glass and sticky, sugary liquor. I sat on the couch, my chest a rubber band about to snap, exhaustion making my skin ache. Closing my eyes, I willed time to move forward, but the cackles and bass and slurred words repeated in little infinities. Time stretched, but thankfully, it didn’t freeze. The couch was pulled out into a bed and I claimed the far corner, hoping to close my eyes and quickly open them to a new reality. As soon as I lay down, a man named Dmitri passed out on top of me. Being sandwiched between Dmitri and the bed embodied the theme of this hour, of this evening, of this year: trapped. Trapped and helpless.
I looked at my phone. Four a.m. It was probably futile, but I had to try. I wrote a quick message on Facebook to my only friend in St. Petersburg: “I’m in a place where I don’t feel safe right now. Are you online? Could you help me?” At four in the morning, there was little chance she would be on Facebook. But Katie answered me as quickly as God had answered with the rain. “Definitely! When do you want to meet?”
Another miracle: we found each other. When she got lost on her way to find me, the minutes on my phone ran out as I was explaining where I was. So I started walking, somehow purposefully though I had no idea where I was going. And there she was.
We spent the next few days exploring the city together, reminiscing on old times, my spirit built up, once again in awe of how God had seen me and answered me. I hadn’t been in mortal danger, I wasn’t about to be assaulted, but He saw His sleep-deprived daughter sandwiched between a drunk man and her own mental anguish, and in His compassion, freed and steadied her.
Yet again, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Being who created the earth and set the stars in place had heard me, seen me, and answered me. But He isn’t only the God of the patriarchs. He is also the God of Hagar, the foreign slave woman mistreated by her mistress, who was unseen and unknown by everyone else, even the father of her child. When she fled to the desert from her cruel reality, she found that she had never been alone. God met her there, not once, but twice. The first time, she named the place “Beer Lahai Roi,” saying, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” The second time, when she feared that she and her son would die in the wasteland, He led her to a well.
Both Hagar and I were in a foreign land, trapped and suffocated by our realities. Two women separated by millennia, but united by the seeing, answering love of God. Russia is my Beer Lahai Roi. It has been there, in times of exhaustion and despair and loneliness, that I’ve most clearly seen the One who sees me.
“In Russian literature, doesn’t everybody die?” a friend teases. Yes, they do, but what a death! It’s always a culmination of something, of an idea, of a thought, that can only be articulated in the ending of a life. Maybe a better reply to this question would be, “In real life, doesn’t everybody die?” By now, the white-haired woman on Lenin Square probably has, dissolved straight into the snowy earth she stood on like it was her kitchen floor, at home in the home that had been so filled with the suffering of her generation.
Dust to dust, snow to snow, but perhaps she’s still there, whitening ever more, waiting for me to drop a few kopecks in her cup.
The white-haired woman must have been a little girl when the poet Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide. Had she seen Marina’s stone face at the market? She certainly must have heard the whispered rumors when the poet was found dead. What other deaths had she lived through—the five-year plans and the hunger, the fall of the Soviet Union and the wild nineties? Had her father died in the Great Patriotic War? Had her mother found her a husband whose face soon turned sallow from drink and left her bearing her world and her children alone? What had given her the grace to choose life, to steadily make the sign of the cross when so many before her had chosen death?
Was it the same Hope who had kept me alive? The unyielding pursuit of the One who saw beneath the American smile and confident stride to the daughter with a broken mind? Because His hope is boundless and limitless, pursuing His children through the centuries with a specificity and intimacy overflowing with love.
When summer comes, Leila and I stand on a cliff near the Devil’s Tower. I’ve come here more than once to offer up my heaviness in prayer, but in this final pilgrimage, I am happy.
Do you remember the legend I mentioned about the Devil’s Tower, about the priest who saved His daughter from the Devil’s clutches? Here’s the whole story.
The Devil liked the priest’s daughter very much, so much that he wanted to marry her. The priest didn’t want to give her away to the Devil, so he decided to outsmart his scheme.
“Okay, Devil,” the priest said. “If you want to marry my daughter, you have one night to build a white-stoned church on the riverbank. You must finish the building before the rooster crows.”
The Devil immediately got to work and toiled zealously through the night. But when he had almost finished, the rooster crowed. He had managed to build everything except the roof and a cross. Though he had worked through the night without respite and had mustered every last bit of strength, he could not snatch the daughter from her Father’s hands. And everything that the Devil had built crumbled at the moment the rooster crowed.
I now see that I am the daughter in this legend. The Devil worked tirelessly to capture me into his darkness, but he had run out of time. The walls rose around me as he laid brick after brick, but he never managed to build the roof; even on my darkest nights, I could always see the stars. My Father and high priest knew that no matter how hard the Devil worked, he couldn’t snatch me out of Jesus’s hands. He cloaked me in his presence, shielding me from the Devil’s arrows. And now, as I eye the land I’ll soon depart, the Devil’s plans for me crumble.
Soft rain meets my face as I laugh with Leila and give my gentle goodbye. I want to go home, oh, how I want to go home. At the same time, I feel that I will split in half. These people haven’t just touched my heart, they’ve become a part of my heart. I know that when I leave, despite the depression I walked through, I will always long to return.
So in this moment, fullness of joy is feet planted firmly on this Russian earth, eyes drinking deep of the city before me. This is my Beer Lahai Roi, where I have seen the One Who Sees Me, where I have been pursued by a hope unyielding and true. I am glad I died here, because for every death I’ve died in Yelabuga, I’ve woken into new life. With each final gasp, I learned to submit as a living sacrifice. Questions still linger, and paradox remains, but for now, all I need to know is that ever faithful, He resurrected me with holy breath, new every morning.