letters

“I haven’t had a letter from my friend since you were here last year.”

“Do you have news of my friend? I have not heard from them.”

“Do you have letters for us? I miss reading words from my friend.”

To my chagrin, I was discovering a common theme among my young Russian friends during our visit with them in November. Every year the same beautiful time with our community comes around like clockwork. I count on it. My community that supports our Russian friends counts on it. All our Russian friends count on it.

But over the last year, our community was terrible at writing our friends in Russia and my young Russian friends were very blunt and to the point…it sucked for them.

I found myself apologizing to several young friends, “I am so sorry I only wrote a couple of times. There is not a good excuse for that, and I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”

Forgiveness.

What else is there to do when you feel like you have epically failed friends that you want with all of your heart to make feel like someone is always there for them?

I could have given them a litany of excuses as to why this year went so fast for me. However, the bottom line is I need to be more, and when we commit to loving friends far away, we collectively need to be more.

It is not always easy.

IMG_9584A decade ago when we began our friendship with this particular group of young friends, we were fresh and excited and expectant of what God would do within our large community spanning cultures, language and distance. But a lot happens over a decade. Some of our friends have moved on to university, others to technical schools and several that have started their own families and are busy being amazing parents to babies.

Sometimes the friend you met when you visited in person leaves and a new friend is assigned to you. Or you have never visited and have no reference point for their personality or characteristics. It is easy to feel that you have nothing in common with them, and you are writing to a brick wall.

But here is the reality…

When our friends receive a letter it is like receiving an extravagantly priced gift. They value words and news of their friends so highly that receiving a letter is a very big deal. It is hard to describe to someone who has not seen a child horde their letter to read in private, so no one reads over their shoulder or sees them get emotional when reading those words, or the times that is the first thing they grab and sit with for many minutes reading and rereading the words gifted to them.

Our friends around the world crave connection, and when we visit only once a year, we are boxed into a structure that relies on words to connect our communities. When those words are absent, our friends feel forgotten. And they need that consistency of encouragement when they struggle in school, with friends, family or a myriad of other things that stem from the abandonment and neglect in their world. We will never understand their perspective wholly or what they have been through, but we can be present when they need a friend.
IMG_9586During our visit this year, I received a letter from an older girl that graduated many years ago, “When I was a child, I looked forward to your every visit as it was a real holiday for me. Now, being an adult, I still look forward to meeting you…it’s difficult to explain how important it is for me to know that in another part of the world, there is a person who is my friend.”

There are many things I am still processing from my time with my friends this year. A decade of friendship builds significant trust and respect that leads to intentional and impactful conversations.

But the most prevalent thought in my head right now is that our community has to be better at writing letters to our friends. It is all about the relationship God has gifted us with. It is about the commitment we have given. It is about our responsibility to speak life, encouragement and gratefulness into our friends. It is about ‘sharing the news’ as my Russian friends put it.

What I know for sure…our friendship is NOT about me and any response I might think I deserve to receive from my friends. I would never want them to feel forced to write or respond. God tossed me into this friendship for them, and the multitude of benefits I receive from knowing and loving my friends is merely a blessed by-product of why I continue to be loyal to my Russian friends.

When it feels like your friends are not reading words you send, know that it is quite the opposite. And if you need someone to tell you the opposite, let me know. You are NOT writing to a brick wall, your letter IS getting to them and every single word counts…every time.

The bonus takeaway for anyone who finds themselves in the midst of Kingdom partnership or sponsorship, GO WRITE A LETTER! Right now. Seriously. Your friend wants to hear from you!

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years

Seven years ago this month, I found myself among a group of people that allowed me the freedom to grow into the life and language that God was leading me to move from ‘doing mission’ to ‘living for Kingdom.’ It’s actually not that big of a leap, but it is a flip in perspective. God took what I thought ‘mission’ was and completely broke it all down, and rebuilt it as Kingdom. Doing mission encompasses a lot of doing, building for and typically results in stealing dignity from those you think you are helping. Kingdom is embracing the person God has created you to be to empower others to live in that same freedom. It is choosing to see multiple perspectives and sometimes making a hard choice to humble yourself to see others lifted to their full capability. Kingdom has no borders, no language barriers and brings us into a unity unlike anyone has ever experienced.

The thing about Kingdom is that it is solely owned by God. It is God’s Kingdom we work to see realized in our world. It is hope, and it is life.

In the ‘doing mission,’ we tend to think of ourselves in the ‘saving’ role, and elevating our own accomplishments, when realistically…they were never our own to start with.

It has always been and will always be God’s Kingdom, no matter how many times we try to redefine it.

While God was changing my language and growing me in ways I never thought possible, he also led me to start a small group in a church largely defined by Sunday school, and women’s weekday Bible studies on mornings that excluded working women. I still vividly remember those conversations, because what I was feeling led to start was not like anything else available. I did not want to be the ‘teacher,’ and I had been in enough Beth Moore studies to last a lifetime. Learning was great, but I knew God had more within his heart for us than learning without action steps. My heart was in the discipleship and passing on of everything God had been pouring into my head and heart.

I wanted a group of people that would revolve around the Kingdom of God. From the beginning I felt led to only use studies or books that would lead us into the action of incarnational living and see God’s Kingdom realized on earth. I wanted people who would be willing to fight for justice, and passionate about righting the wrongs in our world. I wanted a safe place I could experiment with ideas and conversations that didn’t always fit into the ‘church culture’ and wouldn’t bat an eyelash when cuss words would become littered in my passionate rants. I wanted people that were aching for discipleship and to go beyond the surface level of a Sunday morning. I wanted to give God the space to create genuine community among us.

After much prayer and discernment, I put an announcement in the church bulletin and left it in God’s hands as to who would show up and what our group would look like. I had no preference on gender, age, life stage, etc. I was at peace with not having a lot of people, and thought that was probably better anyway since I was experimenting with the poor schmucks since I had never done this before.

Through conversations with the group of people I was learning with, I had found a great resource at Missio Publishing and had chosen ‘The Tangible Kingdom Primer’ to start our small group.

On March 5, 2012, I had three people show up…all women. One was a surprise, and the other two were friends I had persuaded (maybe bribed) into coming and over the next couple of weeks we would grow to six women. I still remember where I was sitting in that room, and in that first night, I had no idea where God would take us and what we would go through as a community of believers.

At one point in the Primer, there was a community day that said to have fondue together. We made fun of that suggestion for WEEKS. Comments like: ‘Did this author live in the 70’s?’ and ‘That is SO weird, who eats fondue anymore?’ Until one night someone said quietly, ‘Well, I have a fondue pot we could use…if we wanted to…’

The night we ate fondue was the end of the eight week Primer, and that night was unlike any night I had ever had within a small group of people. In that unique setting, God broke down barriers in conversation unlike anything that we had talked about in the previous eight weeks. It was incredible. Truly, only God can create a night like that one, and he has been creating moments for us ever since.

That night started our rhythm of marking ‘big’ moments with having fondue as a community: when we’ve finished studies, when someone moves away or a time of celebration. We’ve been as large as twelve, and settled into a group of eight people for the last couple of years. Each woman has uniquely been added into the group. Though one of the most memorable is my friend I met in Haiti who needed a small group, and started hanging out with my friends while I was living in Haiti. That first night was a surreal moment for me on FaceTime to see her with my friends, who quickly became our friends.

We have done a multitude of studies surrounding incarnational life, missiology, justice and discipleship. Admittedly, we have gotten into a nasty rhythm of not finishing what we start, which is why we are doing a four week Bible study at the moment.

Today is SIX years since I sat in that room with three other people.  Six years, while four of those years I have lived outside of Kansas City. FaceTime is a lifesaver when your ‘people’ are far away, because without technology, I would be even more disconnected.

These seven women have been the support system I never knew I needed, and had God allowed me to see the pain our community would walk through when I started it…I might not have started it out of fear of what was to come.

The unique thing about our group is how much it has morphed and flexed with time, yet still maintained as community. People have come and go. Some left with drama, some with silence and some just needing to be released from our community for the season of life they were in. Others just found that our group was no longer a good fit for what they needed. Some of those moments still bring up bad memories and other moments have been heartbreaking, but the reality is community is messy and you have to live in the mess. It is coming out on the other side of the mess as one body of believers focused on God’s Kingdom that is common unifier. It is also about prayer and discernment. Our community is really shitty at praying out loud. It just isn’t a comfort level for many of us, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pray and discern direction, words and life with each other. It just looks different and every small group has a different rhythm.

One of the other unique factors about our community is that each woman has entered into God’s Kingdom perspective with orphan ministry while being present in Russia, Haiti or both. We cross into very different languages and cultures, but the passion and desire to see children know their worth, be educated and live with their families is identical. In other communities, I am the odd duck who has made ‘weird’ choices revolving around care for orphans and seeing families’ whole. Yet in our community, I am among friends who get it and I don’t have to explain why I do what I do. I can be who I am, and know I am accepted unconditionally.

I know within our community we are not perfect, with some of my asshole tendencies leading the pack, and we have to be comfortable with people going through different seasons of life.  One of my very best friends waited to join us until her kids were a bit older, but now I don’t think any season of life would pull her away.

But I also know there is no other group I would want to have my back when everything goes to complete shit, because they have wrapped around me and protected me in ways no one ever had before in those moments. They are fierce, and together we are insurmountable. I am honored to walk with them through their shit, too, because that is what friendship is to me: loyal, accepting, unconditional love, presence (because, quality time…) with insane amounts of laughter (sometimes inappropriate humor…okay most of the time). Even in my worst moments, they never abandoned me…even when I abandoned them to move to Haiti. The real truth is, I never would have been able to stay in Haiti as long as the time God had for me without their unconditional support.

For the times they have gone beyond the Stateside borders with me, the times they came to me in Haiti, for all of the amazing weekends in Missouri and for the time we get next month in Colorado when they come to me…I need these women in my life just as much as I need air to breathe. They are the gift I never knew I needed those six years ago when God whispered, ‘Start a small group.’

I still look back at 2011, and am mesmerized that God had me in that room with leaders that were decades beyond what God was teaching me at the time. I had no seminary degree and no undergraduate degree that even warranted being in ministry, yet I was among people that were leaders in large churches. That I had the privilege to learn from them and be included as a part of their group was a gift I will never forget. It is no coincidence that God had me in that group at the same time he allowed me to see vision for His Kingdom. He knew where I was going, what I would be doing and how I would grow into him…and he also knew I would need seven insanely amazing women to walk with me through the good and rough moments we would encounter while aching for God’s Kingdom to be known.

celebrate

As I Skyped into the Russia celebration today…I may have videoed myself…and it ‘might’ be 20 minutes long. No one has ever accused me of being short winded…especially when the Holy Spirit starts putting words into my mouth. This may not be the most flattering angle, but it is the words that count. So do me a favor and listen without looking.

water

Water takes on so many forms…Colorado has educated me on even more forms than this Missouri girl realized even with a multitude of icy experiences. The beauty I find in water is the ethereal quality it possesses. It constantly keeps you guessing and you never know what you will get.

Someone else was like that, especially at a wedding where his mom tells him to save the family from embarrassment and do what he needs to do: “Six stoneware water pots were there, used by the Jews for ritual washings. Each held twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus ordered the servants, ‘Fill the pots with water.’ And they filled them to the brim. ‘Now fill your pitchers and take them to the host,’ Jesus said, and they did. When the host tasted the water that had become wine (he didn’t know what had just happened but the servants, of course, knew), he called out to the bridegroom, ‘Everybody I know begins with their finest wines and after the guests have had their fill brings in the cheap stuff. But you’ve saved the best till now!’ This act in Cana of Galilee was the first sign Jesus gave, the first glimpse of his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” [John 2:6-11]

God is also saving the best for last…because the Kingdom of God is what we yearn for. Even as things around us change, and we constantly fight to see the good of the Kingdom realized in our world…the best is saved for last.

spirit

The big three. (No, not ‘This Is Us’)

The trinity.

God. Jesus. Holy Spirit.

Outside of the standard Sunday School answer of “Jesus is the most important,” sits the reality that the Holy Spirit is the insanely strong Kingdom unifier among us.

“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” [Matthew 3:11-12]

Jesus continually told the disciples that when he ‘left’ he was leaving a connector with them. No matter what the name used for the Holy Spirit, the intent is clear…we will still have direct connection to the One we serve.

“He told them, ‘You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.’” [Acts 1:7-8]

That interaction with the Holy Spirit is different for everyone, as each of us naturally communicate and feel things differently.

It’s the tingle on your spine when you ‘know’ something is wrong.

It’s the 3a random wake up that you can’t fall back asleep and find yourself praying for someone someone specific.

It’s the ‘intuition’ that guides what we think is right and wrong.

It’s that surreal moment when you know the words were not your own as you speak into people around you.

It’s knowing something is wrong with a friend and the incessant prodding to reach out to them.

It’s the electrical current that courses through your body head to toes when you find yourself in a significant spiritual moment in worship, studying the Bible, praying, etc.

It’s that firework display in your chest that leaves no room for denying the Holy Spirit is alive and active not only in your life, but all those around you.

As we grow in our belief and continue to experience the Kingdom in all areas of our life, the Holy Spirit is the guide that will never steer us wrong. One of the most blessed things God ever gave me was the ability to acknowledge when the Holy Spirit was at work around me and how to hear God’s voice though those moments. It’s not a perfected practice, as humanness and sin are massive road blocks to active interaction with the Holy Spirit.

Because it is in the willingness to surrender.

Because it is in the willingness to seek the Kingdom of God.

And because, it is in the willingness to relentlessly pursue God’s heart.

Those alignments bring about a purity with the Holy Spirit that consistently blow my mind.

This Lent season, God is leading me to dig into his scripture, seek his heart and surrender to the Holy Spirit so that my voice is used for the Kingdom. I think it is perfectly planned that the first word was ‘Spirit’ from the Rethink Church Instagram photo challenge I am using, because so many times negative, disbelieving conversation and opinion suffocate the reality of the Holy Spirit. That suffocation denies God being able to actively work through us, and we need to come to a place where we are willing to talk about real things and refuse to be told to be silent on spiritual issues that God speaks very clearly on in the Bible. Lent is a journey of fasting, which is meant to draw us near to God through denial of self and genuine worship. Let the journey begin as we invite the Kingdom unifier to speak into our lives and draw us together.

denchik

November always finds me traveling a horrendously long distance from the States to Velikoretskoye, Russia. It is literally a journey of planes, trains, and automobiles. I have been making this journey to Velikoretskoye since 2008 to visit my friends who happen to live in an orphanage. As wards of the state of Russia, our community is restricted from talking about faith and religion, yet it is hard for me to hold that part of myself back. Each year, I develop discussion questions to generate conversation with our friends. Over the years it has been about joy, struggles, superheroes and many other things that all allow us to ‘talk’ about who we are created to be and how we live, yet not pointing directly to the one who created us.

I typically say that Russia is like the book of Esther. God is unabashedly throughout the entire situation everywhere, yet never once specifically mentioned. They pray, they fast and they acknowledge that they were created for something specific…but never once do they identify who that person is in their life. Russia is the same way when it comes to ministry. God has his Holy Spirit so incredibly active in Russia it takes my breath away and I see it everywhere I look, but I cannot point to God as the one responsible while hanging out with orphans.

This year, as I was praying and discerning through what to talk about with my friends in the mornings, God spoke and directed me to my love for storytelling as a way to point to Jesus. I struggled in the beginning to figure out how to articulate the meaning without talking about the Ultimate Storyteller, but then realized we could easily talk about stories without mentioning Jesus and still point to all being a part of a massive story. I needed my friends to know the impact they had on my own story, as well as once they enter into our massive story, it is impossible to exit.

One morning we talked about stories we liked as children and their moral compass, which led into stories we read now. Sitting with the older kids in the orphanage, I had several who love to read. Taking in everything they were saying, I asked, “Has anyone ever written a story? I loved to write stories when I was a kid.”

Getting a strong answer that no one had ever done that, I suggested we write out an outline for a story. It was in preparation for making puppets the next day in hopes of doing puppet shows. But, as always, my friends ultimately surprised me with their insanely good creativity and humor.IMG_3622I asked, “If we wrote a story, where would it take place?”

Vanya, sitting on my left, immediately replied, “Narnia.”

“Okay, Narnia it is. Who would be in our story?” I asked.

Names floated from all around the room: Nastya, Denis, Sergei, Valya, Hobbits, Chicken Raba, Shrek, Trolls, Fiona, etc.

“Got it. That’s a lot of characters, who would be the villain?”

The entire room chants: “Denis!”

“Denis as a villain? Really? Why would he be a villain?” I asked, unable to reconcile the mature teenager sitting in front of me with the spunky, funny young boy I first met in 2008.

“I was traumatized by hobbits as a child,” Denis said with a completely straight face as I erupted in laughter.

“Because they eat first breakfast, second breakfast, third breakfast and then start on lunch?” I laughed, soaking in his humor that will be missed once he graduates in June.

“Of course,” Denis replied.

“They ate all the food!” the room contributed.

“All right, genocide against the hobbits. What about a hero? Who would we have as the hero of the story?” I asked.

“A mouse!” the room yelled. In the beginning, we had talked about how mice were always the heroes in Russian fairy tales. With super strength, and very cunning…they were always the hero.

It is in this moment I must add, that while writing this story, it was the day after I’d had ANOTHER mouse in my car a mere three months after one had died in my blower motor resulting in replacing everything around the blower motor in my car. Mice have cost me a LOT of money over the last three months as the price tag was big again last week, and with everything in me I did NOT want to make a mouse the hero. But due to the creative stylings of my friends, I honored their ideas, yet cringed along the way.

“Does the mouse have a name?” I asked.

“Mickey Mouse Man!” my translator Sveta contributed, yet got overruled by our friends who decided ‘Mouse Man’ was the better selection as a name of a hero.

“How does Mouse Man take down Denis?”

“My name is Denchik,” Denis stated.

“Ok, how does Mouse Man take down Denchik?” I asked saying ‘Denchik’ in a low, enunciated, villain voice. Adding, “That is a much better villain name.”

Discussion happens around the room, making translation near impossible, until a consensus is reached, “A cheese canon!”

“A cheese canon?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, a cheese canon,” Roma responded.

“Okay, I have to know, is it hard cheese or liquid cheese?” I asked.

“It’s hard cheese, but it isn’t the cheese that kills him.”

“Oh, really? Then what kills him?” I asked curious to see where this was going.

“The mold on the cheese kills him,” they responded.

“The mold?!?!?!”

“Yes, the mold kills him.”

“What is the moral of the story? When we talked about Russian stories, you all told me there is always something that teaches the reader. What are we trying to teach?” I asked them.

“Forgiveness is always possible,” Roma stated.

“Yes! Is there a cure for the mold?” Sveta asked them.

“No, Denchik must die,” Roma blatantly replied.

“So, no possibility of redemption?” she asked.

“No.”

“Then where is the forgiveness?” I asked.

“He is trying to kill the entire hobbit population, he has to die this time and he cannot be redeemed,” Roma reasoned.

“We have to have a sequel, though, all good stories have sequels,” contributed Denis.

“Yes! So, redemption has to be possible and there has to be a cure for the mold that kills him!” I said victoriously raising my fist in the air as my exuberance for superhero stories flooded out of my voice.

“The cure happens in the sequel,” finished Denis, who loves superhero stories as much as I do.

And that, friends, is how the story of ‘Denchik’ was created through one insanely creative morning with friends in a small village in Russia, and a weekend in the States of being submerged in what affectionately gets called my ‘Writing Cave.’ It would be so easy to write off this silly, crazy story as something that means very little, but realistically, in the name of community, it means so, so much. It is representative of something God called our Stateside community to step into first in 2002 in a different region, then to Velikoretskoye in 2008, and the loyal love we have for our friends. We never dreamed that with each year we visit our lives would perfectly meld into something so important to all of us. None of our lives would be the same without the impact each have equally made on every one of us.

‘Denchik’ came through friendships that have been grounded in consistent visits every year, through years of being present to talk and know each other, and simply showing up where God leads us to go. It is knowing that stories play a big part in our lives. In the reading, telling and retelling…all stories matter and have priceless value. There are more stories that will be told from our visit this year, but knowing this one has entered the universe in the way it has makes me completely overjoyed with our community and what God has been able to do among us.

To read the powerful story of ‘Denchik’ (always remember to say in a ‘villain’ voice) click here, as I am not a professional writer, please ignore the amateur nature of the storytelling: Denchik

 

 

 

 

 

 

visit

Several years ago God started a conversation in my heart and it overflowed into conversations with several people in our Russia community. 

At the time God had been teaching me the importance of language within church ministry and that we should all be speaking the same language. It was simultaneous with changing the language of ‘doing’ mission to more accurate language of mission being who you are in your every day, walking around life. 

At first it started with a tension I felt every time I said ‘mission trip’ in reference to our time with our friends that happen to live in a Russian orphanage. It didn’t feel right every time I used it and it took awhile for me to realize why.

Think about all the connotations that go with ‘mission trip’: building things, youth trips, VBS camps, medical trips, relief after natural disasters and a myriad of other thoughts. 

At one point during our yearly travels to Russia, we had thought we were doing VBS, but looking back, we could have literally traveled with no activities and it would have been a great visit. I’m actually really proud of how far we’ve come in not taking a lot of ‘stuff’ and buying what little we use there to pour into the local economy. This year is the fewest amount of checked bags we’ve EVER taken. 

In the tension I was feeling about what the hell we were doing every November, the reality was that our time in Russia was no longer any of the ‘normal mission trip’ categories. We were not there to entertain or occupy the kids, but we were there to love them deeply and continue our friendship. Frankly, we were there to talk, eat, hang out and eat some more with tea about four times a day, because Russians are some of the most hospitable, warmest people that love spending time together that I have ever met throughout the world.

Through the years, God had taken our idea of ‘ministry’ and grown it into genuine friendships that have been invested in and nurtured for many years, and will ultimately continue as far as God would have us go. The commitment is strong and passionate for those of us who truly feel called into this relationship…and we are a stubborn lot. 

We’ve seen the kids we love go to university or technical schools, get jobs, and have their own families. We’ve also seen the not-so-good stories of kids that have followed the not-so-excellent example of their parents before them. Yet, once called into this piece of someone’s life, God doesn’t mean for you to exit. God means for you to walk alongside…for the long-term. Rest assured this type of ministry will test you and your endurance. It will challenge how you think. It will create a different perspective that you never intended to gain. 

It was about five years ago we started changing our language and calling our time in Russia a ‘visit’ to our friends. When people ask me why I am going to Russiaeach year, I tell them I am visiting my friends. ‘Oh, how wonderful you can make that trip,’ they say. And I always reply with, ‘It is a blessing to be able to visit them.’ 

Through the year-ish that it took us to actually change our language, I am most proud of the fact we actually sat in the tension of the wording ‘mission trip’ not feeling right, and then praying and discerning the ‘why.’ We could have sat back and decided that’s just what is the norm for what we are doing, but it didn’t accurately describe what we were as a community with our friends who happen to live in an orphanage in Russia. 

Who really wants to look at their friends and tell them they were a ‘mission trip’? 

I think the first time I really thought about that perspective, I was wearing a t-shirt saying ‘Velikoretskoye Mission Trip’ and one of the kids asked me what it said. As I sat in front of my friend, I was tongue-tied as to how to explain a ‘mission trip.’ 

At that moment I knew God needed our language to change. 

Speaking the same language is important, and we’ve had confusion on the congregation level of people understanding what we mean. I’m pretty sure some thought it was a touring trip, and it is no where near that because we spend as much time as possible with our friends. Long days of travel lead I to long days every day as we make the most of our time together. There are several of us who will animatedly educate others as to why we don’t take ‘mission trips’ to Russia, and we love those conversations. 

As I sit on the plane for the first leg of travel on our way for this years’ visit. I am aching to see my friends…to wrap them up in my arms, whisper I missed them, talk with the older kids as they struggle through knowing they will leave the orphanage, see the older ones who have left and catch up on their lives…and spend one of the most amazing weeks out of my entire year. The pause button that was hit about this time last year will be unpaused very soon, and I cannot wait for our yearly visit.