The Man Who Wouldn't Take "Nyet" for an Answer

Sergei, one of our Walk Thru the Bible workers in Ukraine, kept asking and we kept answering. The answer was "No" or "Nyet" or "Nee". Whether in English, Russian, or Ukrainian they all meant the same thing: "Thanks for the gracious invite to a Russian banya, but we'd rather not."

I had experienced the full banya treatment before and was convinced that once was at least enough for me. It never was on my bucket list; but even if it had been, I had checked it off years ago. Chris Tiegreen our wonderful writer, and Wahid Wahba, our Director for the Middle East and North Africa, joined me in voting for other options on how to spend our one free day before we headed to Bila Tserkva. There, we would launch our new course Crucible at a large pastors' conference before returning to Kiev for more teach opportunities.

article3-1Yuri, our leader in Ukraine, just kept smiling and saying, "Everyone needs to go to the banya at least once." When I tried to offer up Chris and Wahid as sacrificial lambs, their firm refusals reminded me that they had heard my horror stories from my first visit to the banya in the mid-nineties.

So after a day of site seeing, our fears of the banya had mostly vanished and we were peacefully riding along on our way to dinner at the home of Sergei's pastor, Anatoly. What we didn't know was that Anatoly lived in a beautiful home on top of a snowy hill and had built his own private banya on his property.

Pastor Anatoly and his robe welcomed us with hugs, promises of a great dinner, and a whole series of instructions on how to prepare for our non-optional visit to his banya. Final attempts to dodge this cultural adventure were brushed away as meaningless chatter by this man who wouldn't take "Nyet" for an answer.

After exchanging our normal clothes for proper banya attire, we were each given hats made of one inch thick felt "to protect our brains from the heat." It was all coming back now. We were heading into a torture chamber and there was nothing we could do about it without causing a scene or making a major cross-cultural faux pas. When I asked Anatoly if he was going to beat us with birch branches, he smiled and said, "Of course, and you will thank me for it".

And so the six of us entered the hottest sauna I've ever experienced wearing borrowed swimsuits─a rare concession to our Western modesty─and our protective headgear. Anatoly immediately threw some more water on the gas-heated rocks because evidently 120% humidity isn't high enough when special guests visit his banya.

article3-2There were three levels of wooden benches, and I was directed to the top row. I lasted all of five minutes before sliding down to the cheap seats. This was some sort of inverted form of Dante's Hell, where each level higher was about ten degrees hotter.

After what seemed like eternity, the first one of us cracked and headed for the door. I won't say who it was, but it wasn't me. My ego was much too strong to surrender first. Plus I knew that the next step was a plunge in the outside pool. With remnants of snow on the ground, this was not something I was looking forward to. In fact, Chris and I chose the wimpy alternative of a cold shower before heading to the gathering room for thirty minutes of delightful conversation with our host.

Wahid and Yuri headed for the icy plunge. Chris and I looked on with respect as they climbed out of the arctic bath with steam emerging from every pore. They soon returned to the banya for beatings with boiling birch branches and spontaneous chiropractic adjustments from Anatoly. Wahid captured the gold for Egypt. Yuri claimed the silver for the host nation, Ukraine. And Chris and I, representing the United States, failed to medal in Manhood.

Following another visit to the cold pool, we all sat down to a wonderful meal of grilled pork chops and fresh Ukrainian vegetables. I'm still not sure about the long list of health benefits attributed to the banya, but I have no doubt about the banya's ability to accelerate the process of male bonding. The vulnerability we tend to resist all melts away during this primal survival ritual. Our conversation went deep quickly, highlighted by Anatoly's stories of life as a pastor under Communism.

He had defied the KGB on numerous occasions and lived to tell about it. He had smuggled in, and distributed, thousands of Bibles. He was one of the main catalysts who first brought the Jesus Film to Ukraine despite being refused and threatened over and over by the authorities.

And suddenly everything made sense. This was the man who wouldn't take "Nyet" for an answer. Whether the subject was the banya, the Bible, or the Jesus Film, Anatoly viewed huge barriers as mere hurdles to jump over. So when he asked me to speak at his very large church the following Sunday, I quickly submitted to his request. Somewhere during the course of the afternoon we had won each other's respect, and I knew in my heart we would be friends for life even if it meant more visits to the banya on future trips.

Our personal covenant was sealed just before we all stood to pray together and head our separate ways. Anatoly stared into my eyes and said, "You're not leaving until you make me a promise. I've seen the Russian DVD and workbook for Crucible, your new series on the life of David, and it's a wonderful resource. Promise me that every time you create a new resource I will receive the second copy available in Russian. Yuri should get the first one so he can share it with pastors all over our region. But I must get the second copy available because I need these tools to help me teach my people and all the pastors I mentor. So shake my hand, look me in the eye, and promise me you'll come back and visit my banya each time Walk Thru the Bible develops a new course on another Bible character."

I started to explain that we have twelve regions serving 110 countries all over the world and there is no way I can make that many trips to Ukraine. But then I remembered. This wasn't some ordinary guy; this was the man who wouldn't take "Nyet" for an answer. So after the strongest hug I've ever experienced, I began to reconcile myself to the inescapable reality that my visits to the banya are far from over.

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jfretz 03.11.2014 11:05  
Banya History Yes No   Hi Phil,

Did you get the history of the "Banya" from Anatoly?
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Jonathan Petersen 08.11.2013 17:07  
Your invitation to join the Bible Gateway Blogger Grid - BG² Yes No   I’m writing to invite you to join the new Bible Gateway Blogger Grid (BG²). If you'd like details, email me. Thanks.

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Marty 04.10.2013 15:52  
Banya and culteral differences Yes No   Great story, I really enjoyed reading it, but I do not understand why a host with even a modicum of good sense would insist on you participating in something so culterally limited. The company I work for is based in Japan and expects visitors to go get drunk and sing Karaoke until the wee hours every night they are there. Stupid.  
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carolyn 29.07.2014 13:59  
banya and cultural differences Yes No   Perhaps the getting drunk part isn't a good way to keep a level head; or to build good, solid, godly relationships with one another and with the loving, holy, righteous God who lives in heaven, who gives us his awesome holy spirit for fun and fellowship and wisdom. Gods ways are better than man's.  
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Sharon Henneman 30.04.2014 08:56  
Banya and culteral differences Yes No   The answer lies in one word in your comment, company. This is a ministry and there was nothing biblically incorrect about the invitation, or the response.  
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