The 2018 World Cup in Russia is half over. 32 teams has been reduced to 16 and it has been a very exciting process to reach this point. Of course my native Canada is not involved. This is not a huge surprise – they have only appeared in the World Cup one time in the 21 tournaments – 1986 in Mexico where in 3 games, they were outscored 5-0. A little more surprising this time around is that USA, my country-in-law, is also not present at the tournament, failing to qualify for the first time in the past 8 World Cups. So that, of course has left me looking for who to cheer on. The games have been quite entertaining to watch, but I haven’t landed on a team that I really am pulling for. So instead, I will simply share some stories over the next few days of players in the tournament that are outspoken about their faith in Jesus. I will start with this great story from the host nation and their 33 year old midfielder Alexandr Samedov.
What makes his story really stand out to me, and I will dig into it in a little bit, is the fact that Russia has strong guidelines limiting evangelism in general, and at these games in specific. But the Russian church has found a way to use this tournament to share God’s love with others. As you can read in this Christianity Today article, many churches are hosting viewing parties, inviting the public to come in and watch the game in their church buildings. According to the article, the guidelines say “There won’t be scores of Christians flying in to partner in proselytization efforts, either. For several years, the government, with its ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, has shut down foreign missions groups, stopped issuing visas for missions workers, and threatened to deport visitors who violate the restrictions.” And so while the population is not able to share their faith with others outside of the registered church buildings, one of the Russian players is sharing his journey of faith with American magazines. Meet Alexandr Samedov.
Growing up in Moscow, the son of an Azerbaijani Muslim father and a Russian Orthodox mother, Samedov didn’t really connect with either faith. He says “My father always told me that I was a Muslim. My mom didn’t agree with that. I didn’t really go in either direction. I lived my life in my own way.” However, when life brought hard things and challenges to him, Samedov didn’t have a natural place to turn. He says “I had already reached the age to be thinking about those things. And then I met my current wife, Yulia. She was a believer; she went to church. Seeing my problems, she simply said to me, ‘Sasha, such and such…’ I came to church once, twice, and I understood. My life began to change.”
Up to that point, Samedov’s life was focused on soccer. He was not interested in academics or reading in general. But one of the ways that his life began to change was his interest in reading. In this Sports Spectrum article, He says “‘I didn’t read much at all. I hardly had any free time. Because I went to a sports school, it didn’t really work out for me to combine academics and sports. I paid more attention to sports, and reading wasn’t the most important thing for me.’ But reading the Bible has been different…“I don’t look at reading the Bible like reading other books, because the Bible is something spiritual; it’s about faith,” he says. “The Bible teaches us. It provides direction for our lives.”
Here are my takeaways from Samedov’s story
1- Unashamed – I admit that I don’t know Russia’s laws about evangelism and proselytizing, but I do know, based on the article I read about the World Cup, that there are strict limits to what is permitted. Yet, Samedov shared his story openly with Sports Spectrum Magazine. He has seen a great life change since he chose a life of faith in Christ, and is interested in sharing these life changes with others. I am challenged by this. Most of my life has been lived in Canada and the USA where despite the changing culture, it is still relatively safe to share your faith story with others regardless of the setting. Sure there are some places where it is more frowned upon than others, but the risk of arrest or more serious consequence is pretty small. However, if this should change, or regardless of our circumstance, am I ready to share the importance Jesus plays in my life with others around me? Am I ready to follow 1 Peter 3.15 “Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life. Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope” We do have this hope to share – let’s not hold back.
2- He is the Solution – We are problem solvers by nature. We don’t like to rely on others or admit that we need help. However, the reality of our existence is that we ARE in great need and cannot solve this problem on our own. Samedov ran into some troubles in his life that led him on a search for answers. His future wife brought him to church where, when giving Jesus a chance, he found many of the answers he was searching for. And it changed his life. The fact that this happens is the reason for the hope that we were talking about above. Other people around us are looking for answers and we have the resource to the answers they are looking for living in us. Let’s be bold and helpful, sharing our stories and helping others meet the one that can really answer their questions, meet their needs and change their life.