Many years ago over a couple of winters I read through the Russian activist/author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s lengthy and important volume “The Gulag Archipelago” which chronicled his and many other’s horrific in-country exile in some of the worst Siberian concentration camps of Soviet Russia.I’m a slow reader and especially so when I care about the material, major points are being made and of course, when the book(s) are thick.In “Gulag” he commented on the deep and sincere spirituality, connections with God and one another inmates experienced while condemned (in many cases) to die in the midst of sub-freezing weather, slow starvation, torture and the ever-present spectre of death in the camps.He wrote specifically of the various Christian groups who had been enemies, who had preached against one another by name, who had been in competition with one another… until they were thrown together like rats in the worst of conditions staring the worst sort of misery in the face.The warmth came in waves, over time, through nursing the sick, sharing the meager food they could scrounge, in prayer and Bible-focused gatherings. God was present and the many differences and old, often thin, trifling disagreements meant nothing in such a time and place.Solzhenitsyn eventually wrote how horrible it was when after a number of them survived and were released that within a very short time the old nastiness, vitriol and strife between otherwise Christian pastors and leaders returned just as before. The warmth of deep love, compassion and friendship they’d experienced in the camps dried up as they returned to normal life outside the Gulag.Each and all of us are capable of love. Any true follower of Jesus is in fact commanded to love in a number of verses of Scripture.How quickly God’s agape love evaporates- not in Himself but among you and I… when circumstances change. In fact often when they change for the better!It seems to me getting what we want is often not the best place for spiritual growth, not even for brothers and sisters growing together in unity. So often it’s the wartime, “foxhole” experience that brings people closer to things that matter and in the process, our focus is so sharpened that the dogmas, the personal pettiness and desire to control is jettisoned… as it should have been prior to the shared pain.But as Proverbs tells us “A brother is born for adversity” -when we find a genuine friend in Christ who themselves are truly Following Jesus and His Word in the midst of the trial, fellowship like that sustains us. It carries us through the darkest of times.Isolation in the camps only happened when guards threw someone into an isolation cell. Otherwise, they were forced into overcrowded, bug-infested huts where disease ran rampant, the occasional rat or field mouse was a life-saving meal and a painful Siberian wind blew through the holes day and night.As Solzhenitsyn wrote of spring, warmth and sunshine and the health and life it brought, I could only wonder at the contrast and imagine what these poor souls felt.When those who survived the cruel years and who happened to be set “free” (or at least comparatively so being back in everyday Soviet society) they found work, places to stay and other things difficult to find. They were not so sure family or old friends had truly been- or would now choose to be- friends. In some cases family members or “friends” had either been coerced or out of fear, reported things that had put them in the prison camps in the first place. The KGB was alive and well though so many of these men and women were half-dead when they were released.But it seems to me what was worse, was the temptation and embracing of the old, thick walls of suspicion and harsh judgment of Christian to Christian many succumbed to.Isolation might mean personal quiet time with God. It can mean a “prayer closet” experience with Father, Son and Spirit. Such is wonderful refreshing and life-giving.Isolation can also mean we separate ourselves from godly friends who love us and encourage us to love Jesus, His Word and one another more… sometimes more than we want to.If we don’t have such friends, do we have any true friends at all?What does it take to bring people to a place of realization, of understanding of what true fellowship, genuine, forgiving, loving koinonia in Christ truly IS? What might it cost you or I?The communion of saints in the camps reveals something that causes me to wonder.Thank God we don’t all have to experience the horrors of a Gulag or a Chilean mine disaster to experience and appreciate it.


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