bless

I once heard ‘bless’ interpreted as the tangible touch of God, and it has been burned into my vernacular ever since. I just love the thought that we can feel God’s love for us through the blessings that pour into our lives every day, coupled with the fact that we could be a part of blessing others to feel that tangible touch of God. Beautiful cycle, right?

Several years ago, I first heard several folks in the Kingdom movement realm talk about acronyms they use for small groups to develop missional habits. Missional being that all we do and say alerts others to the reign of God. Michael Frost talks about ‘BELLS’ as Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn and Sent as a rhythm for small groups to adopt in order to have opportunities to tell Kingdom stories, as well as to hold each other accountable to living well within their Kingdom life. Frost says, ‘It is a really handy tool for mobilizing Christians up, in and out into mission. That is, up into deeper connection with the Triune God; in to a stronger sense of community with other believers; and out into the neighborhood. The fact is we all recognize the need to live generous, hospitable, Spirit-led, Christlike lives as missionaries to our own neighborhoods. We want to live our faith out in the open for all to see.’

Bless is rather straight forward in blessing three people throughout the week, at least one of whom is not a member of your church. And while most people think of a blessing as something monetary, it definitely does not have to always have something to do with money. It could, but more likely is the blessing of spending time with someone, doing something for them, telling them they are doing a good job or giving a hug when someone needs it.

What group of folks hates eating together, right? I’ve seen so many frustrations and tensions dissipate within a single meal sat across a table from others. Eat is intentionally sitting down to a meal with three people throughout your week, with at least one of them not being a member of your church. So many times I’ve heard folks say, “I really like the stuff you talk about and want to live more missionally, but I cannot add another thing to my full schedule. It’s impossible!” Eating with others adds nothing into the schedule, because you already eat three times a day, right? Which means all you are doing is choosing who will be across the table from you in one of those moments throughout the week.

Listen. I honestly think this one is so incredibly important, because when we choose not to listen to each other we are choosing not to learn from each other or respect the other person as a viable contributor to community. It is the same with the Holy Spirit, when we choose not to listen to the Holy Spirit we are telling God that we don’t think the Holy Spirit is a viable part of the Trinity in a world where it truly is the most active piece of God we have with us. The missional habit of Listen is choosing to give one period of your week to listening for the Spirit’s voice. That looks different for everyone, but once you choose to intentionally listen, you will be amazed at the things you hear and how you respond. As a Spirit-led person, the entire Kingdom becomes increasingly real to you.

Learn is a commitment to learning the characteristics, stories and things Jesus said to help us grasp a hold of our life with him. When you learn about Jesus, you tend to take on those traits as well…give or take an asshole decision every now and then…it’s no fluke that my small group that has been pouring into missional theology for three years refers to themselves as ‘recovering assholes.’ When learning more and more about the character of Jesus, we tend to also have a spotlight put on our sin and humanness as well. We are all in the process of being transformed, but without the commitment t learn more about the heart of God through Jesus, we have no example to spark that transformation.

Sent embodies action. Frost says that the habit of sent is committing to journal throughout the week all the ways you have alerted others to the universal reign of God through Christ, and it has a lot of different outlets. Know how to answer where you see God reigning through Christ. Is it in the beauty of God’s creation? Whether it is nature, music or art? Is it in how we treat others? Is it in how passionate you are about injustice in this world? What makes your soul sing in this world? What makes you most angry? When you look at the emotions you have surrounding a situation, at their core, does it go back to how God has uniquely created you to build toward his Kingdom on earth? What forward motion are you participating in to see God’s Kingdom come into its’ full power and restoration? Living sent is about alerting AND demonstrating the universal reign of God through Christ. It’s both together, not one or the other. When you commit to journaling when you see aspects of this habit in your life, you will more increasingly see how God has placed you to live sent.

IMG_6371When I saw these habits several years ago for the first time, I sensed that my community wasn’t quite ready to tackle all habits at once. So we moved forward in other ways, then last month when I sense this was the right time, each person was excited and had a certain aspect of giddiness at the accountability to live out what we’ve been talking and learning about for so long. I’m anticipating a TON of stories to be told over the next couple of months, and I cannot wait to see how God continues to move in us.

 

 

 

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church

Where I live, wheelbarrows have many uses. As general transportation, gravel mover, nap location, boom box blast station and storefront…among other uses I am sure I am not aware of in Haiti. The point is that it is still the same object, a wheelbarrow. But the creativity, sometimes out of lack of anything else, of what it can be used for is insanely broad.

A wheelbarrow is so specific in the States and we have a very narrow view of a wheelbarrow’s function. There are so many ways that the wheelbarrow could be used, but we limit it to what it has always done instead of thinking outside the box and letting our God given creativity loose.

The American church has become just as limited, wasted in some aspects, and it is wearing people out on ‘doing’ church. Creativity is stifled. Holy Spirit inspired vision is suffocated. Passion is told to simmer down, it’s too much. Don’t even try using the ‘D’ word, discipleship…it takes too much time, but could be a great hobby for some people. Calling has become something you ‘should’ follow, but support of the church community in that calling is nowhere to be found. Well, that’s also assuming community is genuine and present among believers within a church. Come Sunday morning, worship isn’t what you really want, and whoever is preaching is not the person you hoped it would be. Trust me, I’m just as guilty here, too, all reasons I justify ‘righteously.’ For those with families it’s a struggle to get there, and then your kids don’t want to go to Sunday school. Everyone in the family was grumpy. Your kid wants to wear the superman socks where the cape floats off the back of their calf, and you would be mortified if anyone saw them. Or worse *gasp* the only thing your family wants to wear to church is jeans and a t-shirt.

People are burnt out on ‘doing’ church and the expectations it brings. It’s exhausting, and ultimately those distractions take away from the Church. Notice the caps. Not the building you show up at on Sundays and Wednesdays, or any other day of the week, but rather, the Church. I will confess to being jaded by local church. Working every Sunday, morning AND night, will do that to you eventually. Walking a thin line between it being a job and pouring into the church as a believer is hard, especially when you are passionate about discipling others into God’s calling on their life and being involved in student ministry, which both happen 24 hours a day. Politics within a church building will cut you, and damnit, it hurts. Not being wanted for who God has called and created you to be will also make you jaded. Desperate love for God’s Kingdom, Holy Spirit leading and living a sent life is ingrained in me in a very deep way, but local church can be very fickle when it comes to those three aspects of the Gospel.

However, within this confession has to be a joyful proclamation, full of God’s glory, that I am in love, absolutely infatuated and intensely in love with the global Church.

I see faith. I see hope. I see sacrifice. I see strength. I see loyalty. I see community. I see people fighting for justice. I see disciple makers. I see risk-takers. I see a deep reliance on the Holy Spirit. I see people sensitive to God’s heart. I see a reckless abandon in prayer as they connect with their Father. I see a thirst for God’s word to speak. I see a desperate desire to preach the Gospel. I see Pastors come alive as they lead their congregation into areas that are heavy in the chains of evil to drawn people into the freedom of Kingdom life. I see dependency on God in everything.

“Missio Dei, as I understand it, is that God is reaching out to the world, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Although God could have used other methods to proclaim the message of salvation to the world, He chose to use the church. God needs the church as instrument of mission, not because He is incapable of reaching the people in other ways, but because He chose to use the church. And for this reason, the church is not unnecessary in mission. The church is a vital part of God’s plan to reach the world. And where the church refuses to take up this task, God’s work is being hindered. And this is quite a frightening thought!” [Taken from ‘Missio Dei, the Role of the Church’ by Arnau van Wyngaard]

American church, it is time to take a real good look in the mirror, because even though it is not a competition, when it comes to reaching out to the world through investing in relationships and community, the global Church is kicking your ass. And at the moment I am really glad they are, because your version of church is diluted and fractured.

For those offended by that statement, I would encourage you to pray. I know many believers and leaders of churches that are not in the majority of the statements I am about to make, and I am encouraged and inspired by you, but there are many more that need some real self-examination through discernment and prayer.

It is time the local church stopped with the asinine arguments and pointing fingers because they feel blame needs to land on one person. Set differences aside and figure out a way to move forward as one church body. Ironically, in Chinese culture, blame is shared by the whole community. It never rests on one individual…just a random thought.

It is time the local church embraced God’s creativity in how the Gospel is put forward into the world. A million programs and running church like a corporation is killing you. Jesus met people on a personal level, why aren’t you? Jesus sent out the disciples, and never once did they have the same experience in a city, with a family or on the road. Led by the Spirit Jesus breathed on them, they took the stories they had witnessed out from their home base. And when they returned, their stories invigorated the other believers and continued to draw others to life with Jesus.

Your people are worn out from this world and its’ death, sadness, sickness and fighting. But, you see, it’s not this world they are fighting for…more for the one that is to come. Fully restored, renewed and reclaimed by God. That’s what the Truth draws us to in Jesus. It’s time to inspire them beyond this pathetic, sad world and motivate them to fight for the real Gospel, and point to the new Kingdom to come.

It is time the local church removed the glue from pews and started pushing people out of the building and into the life of the city and neighborhoods. Be radical. Cancel church on a Sunday morning to be OUT and WITH people, but disciple your people to be real, not fake. And while I’m on a roll, quit perpetuating the idea that people with kids are exempt from living out the Gospel simply because they are ‘busy’ with kids. That’s a bunch of bullshit. I know plenty of families that are teaching their kids to live a Gospel life by actually living for God’s Kingdom while they are raising them and bringing them along. Confront fears they have of being ‘outside’ the church walls and among people, and don’t make it a check list of things they need to do. Lead them to live their Gospel led lives everywhere God places them. There is zero reason to make believers feel guilty for missing youth group when they are at baseball practice to pull others into God’s Kingdom by being present in the relationships he places around them. Be a support system, but ax programs that teach them their place is only within the building. It’s not there. Jesus didn’t actually build church buildings, he preached on hillsides, in homes and in synagogues that were already built then toppled a few tables because of the disrespect he saw within the building. Hold believers accountable to acting in love, and not judgment, within their relationships. The world needs no more ‘righteous’ people, it needs confessed sinners who are transformed through Christ’s love and grace ready to tell their story to draw others to their own transformation with Jesus.

It’s time the local church stopped seeing boundaries between each other and embraced a Kingdom community of believers who are led to transform this world together, not individually. And I’m not talking about a once a year retreat ya’ll combine on to save money. I’m talking about every day. Take a big risk and choose to be Church as one community together under the peace and direction of Christ as the perfect Cornerstone. Our foundation as believers is so much deeper than we tend to grasp. There is a long lineage that has gone before us. When we are truly built with Christ as the starting point of the foundation, crazy Kingdom things happen that are absolutely unexplainable and 100% of God. Wouldn’t it completely fulfill Christ’s call to the Church if we all advanced his Gospel forward as one body, with all of our quirks and callings embraced? What if our community so radically loved each other that people were actually attracted to God’s love among us?

I know there are church leaders who would prefer to debate this point by dreary point, but the reality is I’m not an expert and I’m honestly exhausted by the debating. I’m just one believer trying to discern what God has for me, my community and words he wants shared. Has anyone ever considered that the endless arguing by believers is actually being used by the forces fighting against us to distract from the real mission we’ve been given? We need to find common ground, and that common ground is Jesus. I am inspired by the believers I meet in the majority world, and I am inspired by believers within the American church. But as a whole, we have a lot of praying to do for the American church and for me I generally start with get them off their asses and into their communities.

Clarity comes when you are removed from unhealthy environments, and thankfully for me, it enhances the flow of my creativity and I find myself more in tune with Kingdom perspective while I am side-by-side with the global Church. For instance, in a place with a plethora of uses for a wheelbarrow…I think I will get one to use as a shelf for books. It’s got so many uses, it’s just seeing through the right creative lens for how it will be used this time, but it has a use.

jesus

‘Who do you say I am?’

Jesus asked his disciples this in Matthew 16:15, and since it came on my radar last weekend I cannot get it to stop playing on a loop in my head. Jesus asked the disciples in Matthew 16:13, ‘Who do people say the son of man is?’ and they go on to list what everyone else is saying about Jesus. Then Jesus turns it back on them and makes it a bit more personal.

‘But what about you?’ Jesus asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’

Peter immediately answers, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

There is so much in that simple statement. Fulfillment of prophecy, the Trinity…hope…life…

When the disciples were left on their own to propel the stories of Jesus out from that place, there was a moment when they were faced with the decision of being who God has created them to be and fully accept who Jesus is, or turn the opposite direction and forfeit life in God’s Kingdom and the eternal life promised.

When we choose to pursue life in God’s Kingdom, we find ourselves in unique positions to answer Jesus’ question to the disciples.

‘Who do you say I am?’

This question has been annoyingly consistent at running on a loop in my head, I even challenged my community to mull it over…you know, just so I’m not annoyed alone. I hate doing things alone, which is why I love community so much.

Jesus is community. He gathered a group of friends, walked through life with them and drew people in with genuine kindness and never treated someone differently based on the wrongs they had done in their life. He calls us to the same…to gather and walk through life with a group of friends in such an authentic way that others are drawn to what they see in the community God has given us. We gather to be honest, loyal, supportive, faithful and actually, to completely call each other out on our shit when we need it. And for the moments when that happens in a setting of genuine community and relationship under the model Jesus laid out in Matthew 18:15-20, then we are able to work through that together as believers should when their community is built on the perfect Cornerstone, Jesus himself. Life with Jesus is 100% inclusive and 0% exclusive, I realize that is redundant, but more people need to live their life with the 0% exclusive mandate. We do not judge sin. We do not judge the level of belief a person professes. If we are not a visible image of who Jesus is, then how is anyone being drawn to the intimacy of his Kingdom? When we present ourselves as judgmental, exclusive, rule-driven, hateful and disloyal to each other…that is NOT the image of Christ.

Jesus is love. Unstoppable love to be more accurate. Unrelenting. Pursuing. Intimate love. Personal to who you are. His love will never leave, and you could never do anything to make his love separate from you. His love will never force guilt on you in order to be worthy of it. It is never dependent on how much good you do. It flows out of him like a colander. You could never plug all of the holes quick enough to make it stop flowing. Even in your anger and you don’t want Jesus or his love anymore, he doesn’t stop it from pouring over you. His love is perfect, and actually drives out fear. His love covers me constantly, and is at times so tangible that I am overwhelmed at my true unworthiness at receiving it. But I am so grateful for those moments and intimate reminders that I belong to him. He chose me.

Jesus is healer. I think it is hard to recognize Jesus’ healing without having experienced it firsthand. That incredible miracle of healing on body, mind, and soul…healing on every aspect of who we are as humans is so supernatural it is completely incomprehensible. It’s not just the incredible miracles that we read in the Bible, but how individualized it is to us as his daughter or son. Chipping away at protective walls we spent a lot of time fortifying, yet so tender, because he wants to use us through the walls we’ve built.

Jesus is peace. He is the peace. Your peace. My peace. Complete peace. It takes on so many different meanings in scripture. In 2 Chronicles 14 is means to be at rest and free from conflict. In Ephesians 2:14, more like tranquility, harmony and reconciling relationships. The most important part is that Jesus says he left his peace with YOU in John 14:27. Jesus knew he wasn’t bringing physical peace to this world, but he did know his peace would be left with those in this world.

Jesus is Savior. God born in flesh to sacrifice himself for the nasty shit we sink ourselves into on a daily basis. No need to point fingers…unless you are more than ready to have some pointed in your own direction. Jesus was the ONLY perfect human, and the faster we accept and honor that with our lives, the less pressure you put on yourself to be perfect. You are not responsible for 50 conversions this week…you aren’t even responsible for one. And if you happen to be present for a life transformation moment, you most certainly do not get the glory, it all goes to him. The small group that you are part of doesn’t need the perfect image you want to put up as a façade. They want the real you. The one who is just as much of an asshole as the people you are gathering with. Your façade of perfection just makes them feel like more of an asshole, and they don’t need that pressure if they are already admitting faults. You will screw up, and it is ok. Jesus wasn’t selective when he took on the sin of the world. He took it all. Every last bit, but you have to stop trying to keep some of your sin to yourself. When you hold back, that’s on you, not him. He wants your transformation and growth to reflect his sacrifice.

Jesus is present in Spirit. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples in John 20:22, and they were blessed with the physical presence of that moment. However, ALL believers have access to the Holy Spirit. In Romans 5:5 is says that God’s love has been poured on us through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Jesus said he would send a comforter, a guide, helper, counselor, advocate, truth…and Holy Spirit is all of those things. It is not something to be afraid of, and definitely not something to ignore, because it is a piece of how Jesus is still active and present with us now. This piece of Jesus is like home for me. It’s the gift of grace that guides my decision making, sends me out and gives me words for those that Jesus needs to speak into. It is my connection to Jesus that is most substantial at times.

Jesus is sender. Some of his last words to his disciples were that the Holy Spirit would come on them and they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Jude and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Ironically, those church pews that tend to be pretty sticky and very comfortable for most believers were never a part of the sending plan. He was adamant that his people would be scattered and that they were sent out. It wasn’t a byproduct of a plan, it was THE plan. If you have never read the sent language of the Bible, dust off that Bible and get to it…start in John.

Jesus is empowerment. He left his disciples to propel his message forward, and calls every single person who believes in him to do the same to make the kingdom of God attractive to others so people would be drawn to God’s heart and grace. He didn’t tell the disciples, “Guys, hold down the fort and I’ll do it all when I get back.” Instead it was the freedom of, “Friends, you have a lot of work to do. Go out. Tell my stories. Be my love. Always point back to who I am.”

Jesus is a rebel. His presence as a baby incited Herod to kill all of the boys age 2 and under in and around Bethlehem. He pissed off the Pharisees. He said he would cause divisions in families when only part of a family chose to follow him. He tossed the tables in the temple when he saw the blasphemy that was occurring there. He hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and all of the people that fell into the forgotten and despised part of society. Honestly, how popular would be in our world as that rebel? But it is who he is, friends.

Jesus is a storyteller. He was a master at it, actually, but also, a master at confusing people with parables. But the bottom line is he told stories that pointed to God’s kingdom and made people struggle with what that meant. He didn’t give all the answers, but he pointed in the right direction.

Jesus is victory…and hope. As believers we do not fight, pray or exist in this world for God’s victory. He’s already won. We fight WITH his victory, and that victory has us put our hope in a world that is fully renewed, restored and reconciled to God. At least, that’s the victory I am fighting with in this shitty, sinful world that rips people apart instead of draws them together. The enemy’s goal is to separate us, because we are worthless apart from Jesus and separated from each other. Our true strength is in being unified under the peace of Christ and fighting as one body.

Realistically, who Jesus is could go on for eternity…and really does. But, for where I am and who God has created me to be, this is who Jesus is for me.

It is our responsibility as a body of believers able to answer who Jesus is to a world that is desperately seeking his truth and unconditional love. How is he real? How is he present? How have I been transformed by him? Why did I choose him? How does my life look different? Where does my joy in a hurting world come from? Where does my story merge with his story?

If you cannot readily answer those simple questions, then you are not telling Kingdom stories when the opportunities arise to draw people to God’s heart and you are not pointing to the one who is Truth with your life. Gauntlet thrown.

 

story time

It’s no surprise that one of the things I miss most from being in the States is sitting down to a cup of coffee and telling stories with my friends. Usually, after getting back from Russia, I sit down telling the stories from our visit with the kids over coffee too many times to keep count. The beauty of connecting communities is in telling the stories, and I am blessed to be an intermediary for these two wonderful groups of people much beloved by God.

So here I am…barefoot in winter, Creole chatter mixed with school kid squeals from over the compound wall drifting into my room, listening to Josh Garrels and drinking my preferred Russian brew in my favorite mug I got for my birthday…handmade by Haitians employed to keep their families together and their kids out of children’s homes. I am ready to tell some stories, friends, and before we are done I may be breaking out the Russian chocolate because this is going to take awhile…you should probably get some coffee.

IMG_5378To begin the stories today, I need to fully disclose that I am crazy. Completely crazy, but completely obedient to how God is active in my life. You see, I never dreamed I would be going to visit the kids in Russia this year, but by the grace of God and his timeline it was within his plan for me to be present with my friends. I left Haiti on a Friday morning, and arrived in KC that night. I packed, purchased photos and snacks, and then celebrated my brother’s birthday all on Saturday. And then flew to Moscow on Sunday with three amazing people that I was beyond blessed to travel with this year.

It takes a ridiculous amount of time to get to Velikoretskoye, but I have never had anyone say it wasn’t worth it after spending a week with our friends.

We arrived to a very hospitable time with tea and coffee, and then we went to Gyorgy’s office. Gyorgy is a Russian man that commands the attentiveness of the many that work for him. I have massive amounts of respect for this man who is very dedicated to the success of the kids that come into his home as the orphanage director, who doubles as the school principal…and mayor. We spent about an hour with him, which doesn’t seem like a long time until you understand that on some trips we see him for about 5 minutes for the entire week. We started talking about one of the kids that was reunified with his family, which is very unusual in Russia where the parental rights are quickly terminated once kids are put into orphanages. Then we got Gyorgy talking about the current graduates, and hopefully were able to build more trust into how we want to support the orphanage kids’ education as much as we can. It has taken many years for trust to build to the point that Gyorgy knows we are not there to adopt kids from his home. We partner with him, because we believe and support his vision that education will provide a future for the kids.

This year, Gyorgy sent seven kids to university or colleges. SEVEN. Every single orphan that graduated from Velikoretskoye went on to a higher education instead of a tech school to learn a trade. Friends, orphanages in Russia don’t typically have this happen. In the whole FIVE years partnering with Kurlovo, where we went before the government shut it down in 2007, Kurlovo had ONE student go to university.

I had been waiting impatiently to express my excitement to him over this achievement in person, and later in the week when I did, he humbly brushed it off with, ‘I can help them gain education, but it is their character that needs improvement, so they will stay in school and succeed.’ My inner monologue was saying, ‘Sir, just take a compliment.’ However, if he truly thinks it is character building that needs to be improved, then we start working together to ask the questions of how can he best do that and where does he see us being able to help, if at all. One way he has asked for our help is in funds to have tutors for all of the kids. As is normal in an orphanage, some kids come in at a significantly lower grade level than their age assumes they should be at in school. One of the recent graduates was kept in the orphanage three years longer than the government says she should be so she could graduate from high school and go to university instead of tech school. She wants to be a school teacher, and she will make a fantastic teacher. Gyorgy’s request is one I hope a significant amount of us can get behind, because it is truly making a difference in the future of the Velikoretskoye kids.

What you are missing by reading this instead of being across a table from me is the massive amounts of animation I have in my countenance when I am telling a story about something I am really passionate about…just think of toddler at Christmas time and you will be pretty darn close.

I had really been praying about why God wanted me in Velikoretskoye this year. Why me? Part of the reason was revealed when I walked into my small group with the older kids. When we split into small groups, I always put the team members in the small group that their Russian friend is in if I can. We spend a lot of time building relationships with our Russian friends throughout the year by writing letters. First timers always get to be with their friend they write to and if you’ve been more than one time…you know more kids so it is easier to be wherever the team needs you to be. This year I ended up with the oldest group of kids. I honestly thought there would be no one there, because as they get older they are sometimes too cool to hang out with us the whole week. But as only God can orchestrate, the two friends I’ve known for six years and God had been pushing me to talk with one-on-one this year were both sitting in the room.

There were five kids in the room that afternoon. As we sat and talked about shared experiences and what I had missed in their lives over the last year it was so normal to be present with them. We laughed. We told stories. We teased each other. As some of the other groups were getting to know each other, our group literally picked up where we’d left off a year ago. I loved hearing about their summers in person, and seeing them tease each other about parts of stories they left out. I love seeing their shy reactions when I encouraged them…the ducking of the head, downcast eyes and soft, “Spaseeba, Stephanie.”

One morning, I had several of the older boys present, which meant there were some computer stations empty down the hall. While they were there I made them take a photo with me. I told them I needed a photo of how tall they are now next to me, because they used to be so small! As we took the photo, the first one clicked then each of them in perfectly timed synchronicity stood up on their tip toes. Laughing, I tried to stand up on my tip toes and could not hold it while laughing so hard. Oh, teenage boys!

VK HistoryOne of the boys has an older brother that was one of my Russian friends I wrote letters with six years ago. One of my favorite memories of he and his brother was during lesson time our first week-long visit with them. I was teaching lesson, and he and his brother were acting out the Starfish story. They were both leaping around like they were being thrown back into the ocean, and I was dying laughing. This would be the relationship I would have with both of them going forward…them being hilarious with me constantly laughing. As I was telling him this was one of my earliest memories with him, he replied, “But Stephanie, that wasn’t the first time I met you. You were here the year before and brought the inflatable globes to show us where you were from. That was the first time we met.”

“I can’t believe you remember that.”

He replied, “How could I forget the first time you all started coming to visit us?”

I get stuck in a cycle of thinking I am the only person who really remembers things, and when people share their memories of me that date back as far as I remember…it always shocks me, because I don’t consider myself memorable. For months, I had been questioning why God wanted me to be in Russia this year. Months, friends, but I trusted God, and he continually provided through a second passport with no problems from the US government. When our Visas needed to be signed, the time miraculously came when my go-to bestie was coming to Haiti for a visit. Everything kept working out, even though in my semi-logical brain, I didn’t understand how. I am not special. I don’t even speak their language. I’m not Russian when they desperately need believing Russians around them. I’m not a psychologist or teacher with a degree that might help them. I am no better for the kids than anyone else who travels to visit. Who am I to have something Russian orphans need? What could they possible learn or glean from me? What love and knowledge of God did I have that I hadn’t already given in previous years?

God is always sovereign and his orchestration in this world is always for his glory when you are just crazy enough to go along for the ride. And his glory explodes in the midst of relationships.

Over my time with the kids this year, God used me to funnel so many things he wanted them to hear. They trust me, and they know me, so what came from me was taken as genuine and loving. They heard encouragement for their incredible gifts, assurance that they are known, hope for their dreams, conversations about behavior that is getting them in trouble and encouragement in their school work. Once I got to the end of the day, my words were all used up.

IMG_5720 - CopyMy Russian friend that I get to write letters to is a small fella with a very large personality. I had been praying that our friendship would become stronger this year, since he is now another year older. He is still not too sure about me, and some of the looks he gives me are downright hilarious. On the final day last year, he and I had bonded over taking photos. I’m rarely seen without a camera of some sort, and he meandered over wanting to take some. This year, we dove right into taking photos. I was stunned when he was able to focus and manipulate the 85mm lens to get the photo he wanted. Not every photo was great, but there is no logical way a seven year old should be able to accomplish that level of focusing on an 85mm. Seriosna. Wow! All week, I patiently stood with him as he scanned a room through the lens thinking to myself, “This moment I need to remember, because everything is as it should be in this time and place.” Pride blossomed in him as he showed me the ones he thought were best and I responded with “Good job!”

On the day of the bonfire, I had been planning to stay back since the little kids were not normally allowed to go. It had snowed about six inches the day before on top of the snow they already had in Velikoretskoye. Not so secretly, I was glad my Haiti adjusted body temp wasn’t going to have to be out in the cold for multiple hours…until Gyorgy said all of the kids could go. They were all ecstatic, so I piled on the layers. Shashliki, basically pork kebob, was grilled and the kids attacked it with fervor. Admittedly, so did I…it’s SO good! We had massive game of snowballs…leading to snow tackling like pros. At one point, I went back to the bus to get my camera and take photos of the trees. As I was facing down a path, I hear these soft, little taps in the snow behind me. Turning around I see my seven year old buddy with a snow ball in his raised hand and a feral look in his eyes. IMG_5834Panicking I lifted my camera high above my head hoping he couldn’t throw that far. Seconds later, he was distracted by the bus. There is a reason we are friends…both easily distracted and all…this distraction was followed by his remembering that he was going to hit me with the snowball physically playing across his face. Boom. There it was snowball in the chest, and camera protected.

Because Russian government is so strict about God not being ‘pushed’ on orphans, it makes our responsibility to let God work through us in our relationships with the kids so very important. One evening, our Russian contact came to me and said the administrator had made a comment to her about the team talking too much about God. At that point in the week, our small group conversations had revolved around our favorite music, art and joy. Stifle that chuckle, friends, the administrator was serious. When I had written our small group discussions, I will admit to pushing the envelope with questions and what we were sharing, because I know that our relationships with the kids have progressed to the point that a lot of them are curious about our faith and why we believe what we believe.

Imagine that! God showing up in conversations about music, art and joy…respectfully we got a bit more creative on the last day when we talked about being known. And by creative, I mean creative translating by a very excellent translator. We had been showing videos of folks that had traveled before since our team was small to start small group discussion. We wanted the kids to feel like a lot of people were a part of our week since there were just four of us on the team. The last conversation was about being known and community, because when I was writing it, I wanted the kids to really, truly feel how much we do treasure not just being a part of their community but their being a large part of our community. Lindsay Evans was up first as muffled ‘Lynd-say!’ was heard around the room. She gave a beautiful example of how our friendship has grown even closer while I have been living in Haiti, and how with friendships it doesn’t matter how far away you are to be close to someone. Completely true, by the way, and a fantastic thing for the kids to hear since for 99% of the year we are across an ocean.

Next up was our inspiring, Pastor-friend Shawn. Choruses of “Shah-wn!!!” rang out…here is where the translating got creative. Shawn did exactly what I had asked him to do…talk about how God created us for community, how the original intent was for us to live within community and it comes in all forms. As one could imagine with a pastor, there was a lot of God in his message. After Sveta and I previewed it, I said, “That was a LOT of God, do you think we can use it?” She replied with, “It was a very good message that the kids need to hear. We will use it, but I will be creative when I translate it.” Creatively, ‘God created us…’ turned into ‘We were created for…’

Afterward, we showed video messages from the American friends to their Russian friends to the kids’ delight. My prayer for that day was that the kids would not find any question in the community that has been created across an ocean and that when they need to, they can trust and lean on that community. There is a deep, deep supernatural love within this community that cannot be easily explained, and within that deep love is the One who first loved us. Who we are overflows out of that love and it cannot be contained, even by the Russian government.

Russia is ripe for Gospel, but as with all cultures, how we present the truth looks different. In Haiti, relationships with God are abundant, and the Gospel is very vocal everywhere. In Russia, faith is very personal and past hurts by ‘religion’ have made it very hard to be vocal about the Gospel. Talking about God comes through having trusted relationships, which in Russia takes years to build, and God being so much a part of who you are that nothing you do is separate from his Kingdom.

Our tradition on the last day is to have tea and cakes with the kids, and after artful negotiating with Gyorgy all week, we were able to have it in the orphanage building with one of the Americans and a translator in each of the family groups. Gyorgy likes for us to do all of our activities in the school since there is more space and it is much newer than the orphanage building. In the past, our team size has been deemed too large to spend time in the orphanage, but when we are able to be with the kids in their home it is much more personal than a formal classroom. Again, by default, I placed myself in the last room that needed an American. In God’s great humor, Sveta and I walked into the same family group room we had started in five years prior on our first week-long visit with the kids. She looked at me and said, “This is where we started. Here we are again.” Choking back whatever wanted to come out of my eyes, I replied, “Yes. Yes we did.” I sat at the table with the kids, trying to get them to talk. For whatever reason, they had few words to share that afternoon, but it opened the door for me to go around the entire table and remember a time when I first met each of them. I told them many faces were gone from around the table, and some new faces have joined their family. Elbows flew into the sides of those that were new to say, “She’s talking about you!” The caregivers shared stories. I shared stories. Dima had tackled me into the snow the day before at the bonfire, and I told him that reminded me of when Kostya had done that the first year I was with them in family group. Everyone immediately remembered that epic game of snowballs that had quickly progressed to tackling.

IMG_5680Community is about being known, being remembered and not being alone. God didn’t place us here to walk through life alone, and in the midst of our time during the week God used so many different opportunities to use us to speak into that with the kids.

When I got on the bus the last day, I laid down in the back seat, plugged my music in my ears and thought to myself, “I left it all on the court this year. This week was like the book of Esther. God was all through it, around it and over it…and it all happened by him flowing out of his people not through actually saying God this and God that. I have poured out everything Haiti has filled me up with, and I did what God sent me here to do.” In eleven years of traveling to Russia, I’ve never once gotten to the end of a visit and thought I had nothing else to give. God is so good, friends.

And in true fashion that a coffee or lunch with me to talk about the stories from the Russia visit would normally turn into 3 hours…this is the longest post I’ve ever written on this blog. I probably should have broken it up into multiple posts, but each story poured into the next just like it would have in person. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed living them. God constantly mesmerizes me at what he allows me to be a part of, and sitting in Haiti right now, most of these stories feel like a dream. I have to remind myself every day that they actually happened and I was allowed to be a part of what God wanted to bring in person to the kids this year.

So I spoke up, I spoke out
I learned that love doesn’t hold its tongue
And passion doesn’t bow to what they think
It’s you and me
Sometimes it’s painful to be brave
To look fear in the face
And know your name
To know your strength
[Steffany Gretsinger, ‘I Spoke Up’ from her album The Undoing.]

men

I’ve seen countless women answering God’s call to be present within the orphan window around the world. Obvious reasons feed into why women are drawn to orphan care. Each has an innate way they nurture, love and care for others. I’ve even been surprised to see some of these qualities come out in myself. What I really wish is that social expectations for those qualities in men were higher, with much respect for what they already bring to the table.

Realistically, I would trade 5 of these phenomenal, Jesus’ lovin’ women drawn into orphan care for ONE MAN who is passionate about Jesus, willing to surrender himself and step outside his comfort zone to pour into the lives of orphans in this world and those who care for them.

No, ladies, I am not disvaluing your continual presence in the lives of orphans you care about, and it is always a joy digging deep into the mess of relationships with the kids and laugh until I cannot breathe with you. I am emphasizing the importance of men who are not afraid to show they love Jesus in the lives of kids who have been abandoned, and have few examples of the strength found in men that embrace their love for Jesus, and then their love for wife, family and friends.

If you hear one thing let it be that orphan care is not for one gender or the other. It is equal opportunity for all to be active in God’s Kingdom. Let me also clarify that orphan care is all inclusive of many different people in our world. When you define an orphan as someone who has no one to champion them…that busts open a new worldview to orphans being elderly, single moms, widows, foster kids, abandoned kids, kids with no parents, kids with parents in jail and the teenager down the street whose parents have decided they are done parenting.

Orphan care is also not just for those of us who happen to be called beyond the borders of the United States. It is for every believer living in God’s Kingdom who is a neighbor, employee, spouse, parent, sports enthusiast…the list goes on. Orphans surround you on a daily basis. Granted some are living in far more extreme situations than the neighbors of those that are reading this, but to God each orphan is equal to the next. No orphan is loved more by God based on the situation they find themselves.

IMG_1114I’ve had some unique opportunities to see men active in the lives of orphans around the world in the last month. In October, there was a group of 22 that came down to Haiti. Four in that group were women. Do the math…that’s eighteen of the male variety. What I saw in that group was the admiration on the kids’ faces as the men led games. Joy when a kid found themselves on the top of a man’s shoulders. Intense concentration as a man’s hair was braided, then pride in the result. Complete abandon as men held them and ‘hopped’ them through a potato sack race. There is great responsibility when a man steps into the life of an orphan, because that child of God is looking at how they treat the wife and kids they are traveling with, as well as the others on the team. They are watching, because they don’t see it very often.

IMG_5081The kids rarely have men play with them, and each of those interactions is a mark on a young boy or girl that has few models to look to in their life. I love the translators that work with us in Haiti. They have genuine love for the kids they see, and it’s no coincidence that the kids gravitate to these strong men who love Jesus. A few months ago one of the male social workers was at the village when a group pulled in to visit. He had a swarm of older teenage boys hanging around him as they kicked a soccer ball around. Another village we support has mamas and papas who live with the kids. The respect the kids have for the papas who are with them every day is evident. When you look around the village you see a lot of women taking care of the kids, cleaning clothes, cooking meals and male Pastor who is leading them all. What is absent from the daily life of most villages is the presence of good, strong examples of what it looks like to be men who passionately loves Jesus and choose to be present with the kids. There is definite strength in the women surrounding the kids, but God wants to use the presence of men in the kids’ lives to enrich their view of his Kingdom, too. Does it help an orphan connect with God when they see the real life example of what it is to be a man running after his Father’s heart? It was beautiful watching the kids come alive around the men on the team, but equally beautiful watching the men come alive as the kids soaked up the time they were given.

He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers; or else I will strike the land with a curse. [Malachi 4:6]

My hope is that men would inspire men to go deeper into God’s heart for the orphan, but that means time and loyal investment into the messy areas of orphan care. It means making time to walk through life with someone else. It means spending time with other men struggling through a calling to be present in the lives of orphans. It means digging deep into relationship and in the best case scenario…discipleship. And ladies, it means no guilt trips when your man is working through answering his calling. Take pride in that with him and support him, even if that means a fraction of time away from your family. He will be a better dad and husband for answering God’s calling…I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

Recently I traveled with a group to visit the kids in Russia that we have known for six years. These are short visits with long-term commitment that God is richly showing up in as we gain shared memories with the kids. Kids and their American friends write letters throughout the year, and once a year we get to physically be present to connect with kids, as well as their caregivers, teachers and the man who directs them all. These relationships have taken years to develop and much patience with God laying a base of trust. It has been a hard road, but worth every messy minute to be a part of what God is doing now.

IMG_5817This year we had four people, two men and 2 women, after several years of only one man traveling on our yearly visit. Much time was spent with these fellas being goofy, leading activities and allowing themselves to simply be present in the moments God put before them. We spent a lot of time in the gym, and there was a constant line of boys challenging the American men to different athletic endeavors. But it wasn’t just about a show of strength, it was about connection. It was about how you act when you lose, and how you represent yourself in a game. It’s about taking opportunities to be on the same team. It is about a young boy looking at an older man and craving to be known by someone that cares about them. It is about the moments in conversation where life is shared. It is about respect. Men crave respect, and it is no different when you are 14 or 55. How a man respects another man in the context of a challenge shows their character, and as far as the character in the lives of the Russian kids…not many take the time to pour into it.

One of the conversations I had with the orphanage director this year was how impressed we were with the amount of college and university students he had this year. He humbly blew off the compliment with a response that they may be getting good grades, but their character is lacking. His example was how he can provide for them and they can get good enough grades to move on, but after that it is up to them while living on their own. I’m praying God will raise up Russians to help pour into his concerns, at the same time I know we will seeking God in ways we can help support him to grow character in the kids. It is God’s Kingdom community working together that dissolves language barriers and country borders.

I am blessed to know many men who are active within the orphan window and passionately love Jesus. These men have incredible character, and love for their families. I get to see every aspect of these men come alive while being present with some incredible kids. It’s in those moments I see God’s Kingdom come to life.

Many of the kids I know names and faces of throughout the world never knew their father. The fathers are the ones that, unfortunately, are more likely to not take responsibility for their families. I also know many men that are taking responsibility, whose character is strong and love for Jesus is written all over their lives. I believe God is calling these men to call out the men who have not taken responsibility for their families. I get that it’s hard. I get that you don’t think it’s your responsibility. I get that it’s easier to pretend that single mom is doing great on her own, but if you are a great father then disciple other men to be great fathers. Imagine an absentee father on his knees asking forgiveness of his children, imagine the grace possible…imagine the picture of a family restored because a community of men came around another man whose relationship with God needed restoration. A Kingdom life restored to God’s glory. Men, it’s time to be men…real men who stand up for what is good, right and just in this world. Hold fathers accountable to being present with their families, and keep their family unit whole. Embrace how God has created you and lead with confidence.

He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers; or else I will strike the land with a curse. [Malachi 4:6]

God is calling men to take seriously the spiritual role as head of their families. God is calling the men who already are to disciple those that are not leading their families. God is calling men to seek the gentleness, playfulness and compassion within the strength he has given them. God is calling men of all backgrounds to be present and pour into the orphans of this world…the real question is which of those men will have enough crazy and courage to say yes.

 

 

 

camp

Even countries apart, it astounds me how God connects us in peculiar, yet pure Kingdom moments.

Several days ago I got a Facebook message from a friend that the Methodist camp staff in Missouri had been let go. To be completely sincere my initial reaction revolved around the fact I live in Haiti and while I was sad for the pain those I love are experiencing…there is not much I could do. I wasn’t even at camp this year, and due to work related mission trips, I hadn’t spent a whole week at camp in a couple of years.

Then, more and more things started popping up on my radar. More Facebook messages. More text messages from students that were heartbroken, and wanting to know what I thought. More photos assaulting my Facebook feed. More emails. Then last night as I saw a photo that got posted…I was reminded of camp in 2011.

Honestly, I didn’t want to be there. I was organizing the biggest relief effort the church I worked at had ever fielded. I was sending teams and leaders twice a week for what would be an entire year, and traveling myself at least once a month…on top of everything else I was already doing. The friendships gained over that time were countless and so incredibly special. However, while I was juggling mission responsibilities and student ministry responsibilities I was completely burning myself out…because I was giving myself to good, God honoring things and in my heart I did not have time to be at camp.

But God’s time table did place me at camp.

I was placed as a leader in a small group that would have a ripple effect on my life, and life outside US borders for years to come.

I shared about surrender one night. One of my co-leaders had shared from the perspective of marriage, and I felt led to share my perspective on surrender as someone who God has created and called to life beyond ‘social norms.’

Afterwards, one of the students followed me and said, ‘Can I talk to you about what you were sharing?’

I will never forget that night. I will never forget that conversation. I will certainly never forget the intense presence of the Holy Spirit over what was shared.

My friend shared that she felt called…to a strange place she had never been and couldn’t explain why she would feel called there. Those she had already shared it with had told her she was crazy, and it couldn’t possibly be a real thing. Callings like that didn’t come to people like her.

I was the first voice in her life to say she wasn’t crazy. She felt called to Africa, and I knew she wasn’t crazy because when I became a believer in college I had the same calling in my life. I had the same well-intentioned, or not, people tell me I was crazy, and even ‘You are a young, new Christian. All new Christians feel that and you will get over it soon.’

I knew what it felt like to be in her place. I knew what challenges lay ahead for her. During that evening I knew God had placed me in her life to encourage, love and pour into her with all of the gifts and experiences God had placed within me. It is called discipleship…and it started at camp.

We prayed her through years of obstacles, and she traveled to Haiti with me in 2013. It wasn’t Africa, not yet, but it will be. She came back to Haiti with the organization I work with in Haiti this summer. She has been ignited, and went home ready to change her major at her university. Now we are praying her through God’s plan for her. He is certainly the only one right now that knows where he will lead her.

I first felt the call to Africa in 1999, God didn’t send me to Liberia, West Africa until 10 years later. Now he has landed me in a place that if I arrived blindfolded, then had it taken off outside of the airport, I would ask ‘Why has Liberia started speaking French?’

Calling is real, and sometimes God speaks into it in the most beautiful ways.

I did not grow up in church. I never went to ‘church camp.’ My first experience with church camp was as a leader for our students as a student ministry director. Our church had many discussions on where we should take our students to camp each summer. This particular camp is not the slick and modern camp that many of our students were craving, and thought they wanted. The tradition of silly songs is awkward for me at times, but this is a place God preserved for transformation. It is a place students are challenged to leadership in planning, praying through and doing nightly services for their peers. It is a place where all are told they have talent and all talent is affirmed. It is a safe place to toss out your doubts, your disbelief and be challenged to be more for the Kingdom of God. It is a place that the Holy Spirit shows up in very significant ways.

God has used so many moments within the camp setting to heal, ignite and send out students to live a Kingdom life. Even in my short time with the leaders and students, I have a plethora of stories I could share.

Nothing within me naturally wanted to be a part of camp, but God revolved it around a deep community that I was absorbed into so easily and seamlessly. Kingdom community is sacred. It does not always revolve around place, nor should it, but sometimes places are sacred, too, not as an idol. Moses didn’t take his shoes off to idolize the ground, he took them off because he was on sacred ground.

This community is my brand of crazy, and they desperately want to preserve time and space for God to show up…in whatever way God has planned. But in God’s plan, not the human plan that revolves around human perspective and opinions. Five years ago, I never would have cared that a Methodist committee decided to close some camps, but God does usual things at times and I find myself wanting my friends to persevere in how they feel God is leading them. I find myself praying for the leadership, students, staff…that God would speak for all to hear and obey gracefully.

I have no revelation about where God is at work in this. What I do know is that his glory will shine through this and I desperately want the time preserved for young women who are from small churches to meet other crazy, Jesus loving, Kingdom living women so they can hear that they are not crazy and God’s calling is real.

lent

It’s Lent. But to be honest, I’ve barely noticed. As I write this, I am sitting at an airport in Dallas traveling to Port-au-Prince, Haiti where I will make my home for the next year to 18 months. I am now working for Global Orphan Project as their trip manager for the Haiti teams. Some may think it is a strange place to live, but I can guarantee you there is something about that place that will stir you. Could be something you have been trying to find. Could be something that you didn’t even know you were missing. Either way…God is alive and active, and that is exciting.

At the same time this is happening…Lent is back, which means my blogging community is back in action. I have some amazing friends, because after blogging every day of Lent last year we had pretty much decided not to do this again. Never say never. Because here we are with me moving, and them blogging to create community for me.

This year we will not be blogging every day, however we will still be focusing on the topic through Rethink Church. Our goal is to post every Wednesday, but I’ve already missed that with all of the packing I had to do. Throw in not being sure how effective posting through Wi-Fi will be, and adjusting to not only a new job but a new culture…I will be doing my best to stay with everyone else.

Lent is about drawing closer to the one that sacrificed all. It is about sacrificing some part of ourselves to see the God who reigns over the universe as clearly as possible. It is about acknowledging that without him we are a broken, sinful, distracted creation who seek to fall at his feet in surrender.

The version of Lent I claim is one of community, worship and sacrifice. I will be missing my community like crazy. I will be worshipping daily. And it will be a sacrifice of time to seek God so intensely that I might be given an inspiration…perhaps even a revelation to toss out into the world.

Join us. Read where God leads us with each topic, and above all else…choose to make this Lent unique in your ability to draw closer to God.