Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Perspective Restored

A couple weeks ago I was invited to preach by a South African missionary at a small church plant.  While there we met an older Armenian couple, also visiting, who had emigrated to Ukraine shortly after the break-up of the Soviet union.  They invited us over for lunch this week.  They and their 2 adult daughters live in a one room apartment.  It was sparsely decorated and their clothes were in a cupboard in the wall.  We gathered around a small table where we sat on the bed or floor.  We were served a delicious meal as they told us more about themselves.  They were very proud of their country's Christian heritage, but persecution and life there was apparently hard enough in the early 1990's that moving to Odessa was an improvement for them. 
          They apologized for their cramped living conditions but there was no sense of embarrassment or shame as they shared their lives with us.  The father, Samvel, beamed with pride as his daughters sang praise songs for us they had written in Russian and Armenian. One daughter, a teacher who speaks 4 languages, talked about her struggles to find work and the difficulty of living on a small teacher's salary.  I started to say something about how, as a former teacher I could understand, but  fortunately I stopped myself.  I realized I had more money in my pocket than she probably made in a month.  I realized that even on a salary that could have qualified for food stamps in America we lived at a level of comfort this family could only dream about.  I do not say this to be dismissive of anyone's financial difficulties back home, but the plight of this family helped restore some perspective for me.  Any self-pity we had as we continue to struggle with the coldness of this culture was dispelled.  Their obvious joy and contagious faith was a timely reminder for us that, as Christ said, a man's life does not consist in the abundance of things he posseses.

Friday, December 14, 2012


My first introduction to Galena came back in 2004, when I moved to Kiev for a year. I walked into that first day of language class, knowing just a few Russian words, to be greeted by a very stern woman who started pounding the table and speaking loudly in Russian. I was dumbfounded… I hadn’t known what to expect but it definitely was not this. As the pounding and tone of her voice intensified I and the other 2 guys with me started to panic. What did this woman want from us?! Finally one of us tried to repeat what she was saying, and her expression softened just a little. We started babbling like incoherent toddlers trying to repeat her. And so the tedious, humiliating process of learning Russian began.

On one hand we were terrified of Galena. She was very intense and sometimes used the Soviet method of embarrassing you in front of the class when you made a mistake. There were days when Russian was so frustrating, it was all I could do not to throw something and storm out of the class. However, she also had a terrific wit and sense of humor so she was impossible not to like, even when that humor was used at your expense. Underneath her intense demeanor, she had a maternal affection for all her students. She taught me valuable phrases for running a house of orphan boys and helped me understand better how to relate to them. Her humor also allowed me to ask her about certain words I heard them use that were not in the dictionary. “Don’t say that,” she’d tell me, shaking her head and trying to stifle her laughter.

Although she taught missionaries for years how to clearly present the Gospel in Russian, she herself did not follow Jesus. There was not much room for softness in her worldview. On more than one occasion she explained to me why Stalin was a good ruler and his harshness was necessary. Like most missionaries that she taught, I felt a special bond with her and came to realize what a gifted teacher she is. I prayed for her often but she is such a good person that it seemed unlikely she would embrace salvation by grace. So you can imagine my joy when I found out a couple years ago that she did place her faith in Jesus Christ. I recently saw her for the first time since those language school days. She invited a group of her former students over to her apartment for a Thanksgiving breakfast. The change in her was instantly recognizable. “For so long I thought your job was to teach the Gospel, my job was to teach Russian grammar,” she told us. “But every one of you planted a small seed in my heart, and God brought those seeds to fruition. Now I understand.”

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Christmas and Family

December 1st. Time to think about the holidays....though I must confess we've already been listening to Christmas music and put up our decorations. Today, I changed the month on our calenders. As I flipped the calendar, I saw all the wonderful photos of our families at Christmas. I couldn't help but look at them longer and my heart just ached to be able to be with family for Christmas. I have truly been blessed with two families: My immediate and my in-law's. We have so many good memories together and there is a sense of peace just being able to "be" together. My 12 neices and nephews are growing up way too fast and I feel that I am missing out. I want Esther to be able to play with her cousins, grandparents, aunties, and uncles. And this year 2 of my nephews, who were adopted from Ghana this summer, will be having their 1st Christmas with my family. As I was contemplating this and longing for my family, thinking it was unfair that I couldn't be with them, I could almost sense God saying, "and what family do these orphans have to spend the holidays with?" I was convicted...here, I have a loving family and my parents are even coming out to visit us after Christmas and these orphans have no one. Most of them have never had anyone. I remembered a conversation that Gabe recently had with a 13yr old oprhan boy. He was talking about how he had a bad day and he just wanted to leave the orphanage. He just wanted to go home. Gabe asked when he had been home last, and he replied, "4 years ago." I realized that I need to be thankful for what I do have instead of focusing on what I am missing. Even though we can't be there for Christmas, I am thankful that my 2 nephews will be able to celebrate the holidays with family, and not alone. I pray that we can love the orphans  we will be with during these holidays like family.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hiking in the Crimea

Recently I got to be part of a group that took 16 teen orphans camping in the Crimean mountains. Almost nothing went as planned… the group leader didn’t show up, train tickets were purchased for the wrong day to the wrong city, a different orphanage came, and the group was co-ed instead of just boys… yet it’s hard to see how it could have gone better. The orphanage that came was the same one I helped at the soccer tournament in April, and also one of the groups at our summer camp, so I already knew some of the kids.

Our 12 hour train ride began at midnight so I thought I’d be able to sleep. That was wishful thinking however, since the kids were so excited and chattered non-stop. Upon our arrival we met a couple local believers who proved to be excellent guides (I think that part actually was planned), drove for a while on some remote roads and then started hiking. One of the places we came to was an unfinished, Cold-War era fortification built into the side of a hill. It was supposed to be a secret front-line form of defense in case of a USA attack. As the lone American in the group I heard a few good-natured “If I show you this I have to kill you” jokes. One counselor told me very seriously, “Only 3 can know about this place: you, me... and facebook.” There was also a profound moment as we walked up to the fort and considered the enormous amount of money and labor spent in hauling up tons of cement and heavy equipment, only for the funding to run out and the Soviet Union to dissolve. A counselor quoted Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” There was a wonderful sense of irony as I thought about this Scripture, so appropriately quoted at the ruins of a site supposed to represent the power of a regime so hostile to the Gospel. Empires rise and fall but God’s Word remains.

As I talked with the kids I got more of a sense of what their lives are like. Their orphanage is in a small village, from which most of them have never travelled far. It only goes up to 9th grade, so at age 15 they are on their own. They spoke of their ever-present boredom but also of the fear of leaving the only place they know. There were numerous chances to talk about faith, and I felt a confidence in my Russian to share about Christ that could only have come from the Holy Spirit. When it was time to say goodbye, a 15 year old girl named Nadia broke down in tears. “Thank you for taking us on this trip. It was the most fun I’ve had in my life and I will never forget it. I miss you already and will pray to God that you all can come and visit us soon.”

Nadia (on the left)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Heart of a Child

“Do you love your wife?” I started to laugh before I realized that the little girl who asked me the question was serious. I was walking her & her brothers home from a center for at-risk children. “Of course I love my wife,” I replied. She continued to walk pensively beside me, absent-mindedly swinging my hand. “Do you swear and yell at your daughter?” “No,” I answered. I could only wonder what she has experienced in her 6 years that would make her ask these questions. She said nothing more but when we got to her street she gave me a hug & flashed an adorable smile that was missing her two front teeth. Times like these are what keep me coming back to this center to love on these kids.

Another one of my favorite times is at our church orphanage during group prayers. With 12 kids (ages 5-13) it can get long and a little chaotic, as inevitably some of the older boys will feel the need to pinch, kick, or roll their knuckles across the spine of one of the younger kids. But in spite of the length, the sore knees, the squirming, each kid prays their heart out. They fight for the places next to us. Usually the two next to us have their arms around us, and the two next to them are holding our hands. Without fail they all thank God that we came to see them & pray that we will come again soon. They ask God to help them be obedient during the Bible story and craft times. One boy always prays for his mother to go to church and know God although, to our knowledge, she has no involvement in his life. I asked him if she ever visited and he replied no, because she lives too far away. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the village where she lives is only 10 minutes away. But his sincerity in constantly praying for a mother who gave him up and has nothing to do with him always impacts us. I pray we also have hearts like this boy, free of bitterness and full of compassion.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Foolishness of God

I’ve been reading 1 Corinthians 1 and much of this passage is a contrast between the wisdom of this world, and, as Paul refers to it, the foolishness of God. From verse 18 to the end of the chapter, the word foolishness is mentioned 6 times, and the word wisdom or wise is mentioned 10 times. That phrase seems a little heretical when I first read it, but Paul explains in 1 Cor. 1:25 that “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” I am realizing this contrast calls for a re-evaluation of what I consider to be wise.

During our first year here, the predominant feeling we experienced was stress. We were always tense, waiting to get yelled at for some cultural infraction or misunderstanding. Whether at the store, post office, or on the street we would constantly be straining to understand everything and inwardly bracing ourselves for a backlash when we didn’t.

There is a hostility and anger that often lurks just beneath the surface in people here, and it is all too easy to draw it out. It’s understandable given what many of these people have lived through, but it takes some getting used to. That anxiety is still present, but as our language & cultural awareness improve it is diminishing.

Now the main emotion I find myself experiencing is foolishness. Our circle of friends is expanding, but we are always very aware that we are foreigners and we don’t fit in. What seemed like such a worthy endeavor on one side of the Atlantic often doesn’t feel so noble over here. I feel foolish when I try to explain to some Americans why we moved here, when obviously there are also orphans in America and we could probably serve more effectively in our own country. I feel foolish when I explain to incredulous Ukrainians why we left a nation many of them wish they could move to. I feel foolish when I think how na├»ve I was in underestimating the difficulty of establishing a meaningful ministry here.

The reasons that make me feel foolish, however, also make me depend on the Lord to a much greater degree than I otherwise would. I have few words of wisdom to offer to the kids we work with…. my main contribution this week was teaching a 12 year old boy how to tie his shoes. Yet when we left to play outside and he held my hand as a child much younger would do, it reminded me that God doesn’t need some special talent or skill from us in order to accomplish His work. As 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 says, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty…. That no flesh should glory in His presence.” What seems to be foolish to us might have a much greater purpose in our lives.

Friday, July 27, 2012


To follow up on our orphanage soccer tournament that took place in April, I was part of a team that took about 60 orphan boys camping for a week. We took 10 kids from 6 orphanages to just outside a small village a few hours north of Odessa. It was one of those villages where when you turn off the main highway, the only traffic you see is a horse & wagon, the occasional 1960’s Soviet car that looks like it’s held together by rubber bands, and old bicycles. It was a unique, ambitious endeavor, something I’m not sure I would have attempted, but thankfully I was not in charge! My good friend Slavic directed it, and I really admire the faith & breadth of his ministry vision.

The kids chopped firewood (no limbs were lost), built rafts for relays, had outdoor survival lessons, had slip & slide and diving contests, a soccer tournament, Bible lessons, paintball with slingshots, and various team quests. Each orphanage had a staff member also there for the week to observe, but most of them were cordial and complimentary. In many ways a week wasn't long enough to create the atmosphere we wanted... it took time to break down the “us vs. the world” mentality that each orphanage had. They were just starting to pray for the first time in their lives and join in the praise songs we sang each night. In other ways however, a week was certainly long enough... my mind was shot from always straining to understand the Russian or Ukrainian that was spoken. The conditions were rustic… we dug our toilets, our only "shower" was a stagnant, muddy, mosquito-infested pond, and we were served hot buckwheat, soup and tea every day in humid 95 degree weather.... but not too bad.

I was in charge of a daily 3-hour sports session, which for these boys meant soccer. Here you don't do sports or hobbies for fun, you take them very seriously, especially soccer. These boys play with such anger and such a propensity to argue that it caught me a little off-guard, even though I'm well aware of that trait in Ukrainian culture. I was the lone ref, & to try to curb these tendencies, the first day I told the kids that for swearing I would award a penalty to the other team. Bad idea... I know some Russian swear words but Russian has so many you can say whole sentences just by cursing. I awarded 3 penalties but all I really did was give the kids another reason to argue with me as they ran up to me claiming someone said this or that. Since the kids often spoke Surgic (Ukrainian-Russian mix) I felt even more tentative with my Russian than usual. So by the end of the day the only factor uniting the kids was mutual disgust with the decision to allow the only American in the camp to be the soccer official. It can be a yell or be yelled at culture. So the next day I abolished the penalty experiment, sat several kids for arguing with me, and made myself get comfortable with grabbing kids arms & speaking very forcefully to them in Russian, even if my grammar was off. Things improved after that and the soccer ended up being a success.

   Although it was a challenging week, by the end the boys' demeanor had visibly softened, and some said it was the best week of their lives.  It was rewarding to see them enjoy themselves so much, and difficult to say goodbye.  We pray for open doors into these orphanages as a result of this camp!