stories

I love stories! I love telling them, but more often I love hearing them. I have random stories that like to pop up in conversation, then I have the stories that are a bit deeper and are more likely to share when I am asked.

Stories of the places I have been in the world are one of those that I typically get asked questions. Several months ago, I had a student that asked about my last trip to Russia. She asked at a point in time where student ministry chaos was abounding, so my response to her was ‘I would love to tell you, let’s get together and talk about it!’

The next month I get a text from her: ‘I want to get coffee, and just sit and talk.’

First…I do that really well. Coffee and talking. Talking and coffee. Second, though, in the many years I’ve done student ministry…this is a loaded text. Let me assure you that those conversations can range anywhere from ‘I got a bad haircut and my life is ending.’ to struggles with suicide.

But this time, it was story time! We sit down and she says to me, ‘Tell me everything about your last Russia trip!’

Obviously, I could never pass up that invitation…and the conversation carried on for almost 3 hours. Get me started on the things I am passionate about and this is what happens! I would say one thing and she would ask five questions about it, I would head into a different story and she would again ask me several questions.

One of the things I love about students is their curiosity, and their ability soak so much in and work to digest it. They ache to see God’s at work. They desire to know what it feels like to have the Holy Spirit leading them. They are thirsty for God’s word to be real in their lives. They want truth, and if you try to BS them…they will call you out. They scream out at the injustices in the world. They are a passionate bunch, and they are seeking relationships around them that are loyal, trusting and PRESENT.

A few weeks later, I was walking into the Student Ministry Building and my friend jumped up off the floor and ran to be yelling, ‘Steph! Steph! I have to share something with you!’

She had led a group at school in a devotion, and had used my stories about orphans in Russia to open the eyes of other students to the ways God is at work in our world and how the Kingdom is alive around us. She was so excited that she was able to share the stories that I had shared with her in order to push the truth of the Gospel forward.

Jesus told stories. A lot of them actually. After his death…how did the Gospel spread? How was God’s truth carried forward? A ton of Holy Spirit…but by stories being told. Witnesses actually baring witness to what they saw.

Too often we contain the ways God is working in us so that it is only ours.

That makes me incredibly sad, because stories are still worth their weight in the Gospel. I see it every day, as well as the impact of a story being told.

Stories are a beautiful thing, but the beauty of a story cannot be realized unless someone is willing to give it a voice.

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awake

I strongly dislike mornings. If I am awake early, it is purely strong black sludge in a mug that makes me appear human.

Which means I am a night owl. I love the quiet of night, and if you look at the time stamps of when I post you will notice a pattern of time of day when I get my inspiration to write.

There are times that I have the best intentions of going to bed early, then the next thing I know I am still awake past midnight.

I watch TV. I listen to music. I read. I pray. I write. I ponder…a lot.

My brain tries to process the day and who I was with, who did I not see that I need to check in with, what needs to be done tomorrow…the list goes on and on.

But one of the last things that play through my mind while I am still awake are the places that have made a mark on my soul, and changed me.

They take turns. China. Russia. Haiti. Liberia. College. Friendships. Arguments.

Tonight I find myself doing the math as to what time it is in Russia. Right now, the kids are probably studying and it’s almost lunch time. How was their morning? How much snow did they get last night? (This thought is normally followed by a quick check of the weather, which is a snowy 17 and feels like 7 during the day while it is 11 and feels like -3 in KC overnight.) Did they wear the hats and gloves they were so excited about last month? It’s banya (bath) day, who will try to skip and not get caught by caregivers? Sergei is the best bet or maybe Dima S. Is Valya still in the hospital with pneumonia? Has Danil decided to not be as psycho today? Did someone tease Lena and make her sad? Who made Gera smile today? What has Vika drawn? Was Larisa more of a kid or mama today? What new poem has Stas memorized and did the superhero cape get pulled out and worn? Have the boys seen the soccer world cup groupings that came out? Has Dima kept control of his anger issues? Which Americans wrote a letter that might get delivered today by Yulia, our discipler?

These are orphans I know by name. They struggle with most of the same things our kids struggle with, but with the added scars of not being accepted by their culture and living with abandonment issues.

I was being obedient in my calling to international mission when God woke up a huge part of my soul in a small village orphanage with 50 kids, and he’s kept my passion alive for justice ever since.

One of my favorite songs is ‘Wake Up’ by All Sons and Daughters, and it always reminds me of this verse in Ephesians:

‘Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”‘ [Ephesians 5:14]

The chorus of the song is ‘Wake up all you sleepers. Stand up all you dreamers. Hands up all believers. Take up your cross…’

When you lie awake at night, what are you thinking about? What has God made you awake for?

Or better yet…what is God trying to wake you up to…or have you been choosing to press snooze?

The truth is this world is waiting for a lot of believers to wake up. Whether you have believed in the truth of the universal reign of God for an hour, a day, a month or 50 years…too many believers are asleep to the mission impulse God put in each one of us.

It’s there. Dig deep. Maybe chisel down to lay some of your scars bare to find it.

Because this world desperately needs your compassion, discerned words, unconditional love and faith in the world beyond this one.

Choose to be awake.

This post is part of a blog series using the Rethink Church Advent photo-a-day word. If you use Instagram follow #rethinkchurch or #rethinkchristmas.

change their story

IMG_2187For the last ten years I have given a lot of my life and love to children in Russia that are cast off into orphanages. What started as a willingness to follow God’s pull to orphan ministry has become what is, and will be, a lifetime of fighting for orphans in our world…wherever God may lead me. 

Coming from someone who used to not like kids at all…this is an ironic calling. However, the truth is my passion for seeing educated orphans grow into healthy and mature citizens of their own countries, then have healthy families of their own that break the vicious orphan cycle…makes my soul sing.

I believe that the things our world finds worthless…our God sees worth. I believe that the people our world judges…our God wraps his arms around and whispers, ‘You are loved.’

But alone…I am just one believer fighting against many social and political structures.

I am blessed to be a part of a community that wants to invest in some great kids in Russia through Children’s Hopechest. Together, as one community, we fight to see the kids embrace the hope of a future and see love as genuine and unconditionally given by not only us, but by the God that has loved them since the beginning of time.

Most Russians believe orphans do not have a story, but we believe these kids have been a part of God’s story since before they were born.

IMG_2444I am known in the orphanage as the one who always laughs and smiles. To me it is the easiest gift to give,  crossing language and cultural boundaries, to make someone feel included and loved. The greater gift, however, is being accepting as a part of their family. Someone they trust. Someone they ask advice from when they want to reach out. Do you know what an honor that is? To be asked for advice from kids that have been betrayed by family, with countless promises broken, and resulting in not trusting anyone?

These are the moments God works through. Where he shows himself and everything points backs to his heart for our world. This is one of the moments in my life that I have waited for…to be counted as a part of their family no matter how far away I am or what language I speak.

I will fight for these kids with everything I have in me. They deserve better. They deserve to know love. They deserve to know laughter and joy. They deserve the presence of people who will come alongside them, and walk with them through the tough things life throws at them. They deserve people surrounding them that will hear them say, ‘My dream is to be a good mother.’ Respond with, ‘I believe you will be. Let’s talk about what you need to learn and how you need to grow to make that dream come true.’ Then be invested long enough to see that dream realized.

This Christmas season I am creating an opportunity for others to fight for these kids, too. To make a different choice in how you approach the Christmas season of giving.

I am choosing to make it known that I do not want gifts, and asking my friends and family to make a donation to Children’s Hopechest and their campaign ‘Change Their Story.’ My team will be raising funds for tutors at Velikoretskoye Orphanage in Russia. Russian orphans are given a free education…as long as their grades are good enough and they continue passing exams. We have several students on the verge of graduating and heading to tech school next year, which means more tutors will play a large roll in helping the kids continue their education.

Here you will find a link to the team I have created for ‘Change Their Story.’ This is a way to set aside normal American standards of Christmas, and embrace a new way of celebrating the birth of our Savior. An invitation to help some great kids and perhaps choose to spend time with those you would normally give a gift to instead.

IMG_2245I write this post as a call to action. A call to belief in a God big enough to embrace the broken in this world. A call to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This is a call to be a part of God’s story and change the story of some incredible kids.

This year will you choose to worship the materialism of a holiday that was created for worshipping our Savior? Or might you choose a new way? A new opportunity to fight for the injustice in this world? It may be that you are not passionate about orphan care…perhaps you are about clean water, the hungry, the homeless or victims of sex trafficking. No matter what your passion, choose to change a story of someone that will draw others closer to God’s Kingdom and reflect God’s heart.

I am praying that others will join me and choose to fight for something this Christmas, while I choose to fight for some amazing kids who deserve to know people are fighting for them. This year, listen for the sound of heaven touching earth as your heart aligns with God’s heart for the orphan. It’s the best sound on earth.

anticipation

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Anticipation…jitters…nervous…expectations…excitement.

In Russia, on our way to the orphanage for the first morning with the kids it is always a wide array of emotions.

It is one of my favorite moments of the trip, as those of us who have been before sit up straighter and crane our necks to see out of the front window to watch the landmarks count down until we arrive. This curve, that massive pothole, the bridge…the flatland, another curve. Worship music blasts in my ears as I beg God to fill me just a little bit more so that I am ready to pour myself out for him and his kids in the orphanage. The ‘newbies’ look around in confusion as though they are missing a very important part of this bumpy, crazy 20 minute long road. What they will soon understand is that they are missing the anticipation we carry of being back home.

But this moment is about more than just our excitement, heightened nerves or having found ourselves on the back roads of Russia.

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It is about seeing the affirmation on each others faces that today we are not individuals. We are one. One in Christ. One community. One family crossing language and cultural barriers. Family visiting family.

This is not a mission trip. You could make arguments for it being one, and I’ve called it that many times. But as God deepens my passion and understanding of his kingdom he morphs my definitions into his kingdom definitions. And one thing is certain…’mission trip’ and all of the connotations that come with it in the Christian-ese world we navigate, is not what we were bumping along that road to do. We travel to make sure our family knows we remember them, and we hug them so they know we love them. We tease and laugh to make new memories. And we get into real conversations about life issues so that we can ask how situations are going, how their grades are and what their hopes and dreams look like. It goes deeper than a surface relationship. It is about being known and being loved.

20131114-183138.jpgAs I share my passion with the kids for justice and serving I find myself horrified when I think they might see themselves as my ‘project.’ Because they are not a project. They are my little brothers and sisters, and they happen to fall into an area of injustice with no control of how they got there. Our relationships may have started because of my passion for orphans to know love and worth, but God tends to grow us together beyond our simple human definitions, and open our eyes to his global family. Making everything change.

As we landed in New York on our way home, I had a message from a friend that the kids were sad we were gone and wanted to know my secret for being able to laugh so much. They thought knowing my ‘secret’ might help them not feel as sad. Those questions are rooted in relationship. Those questions are rooted in trust. Those questions are rooted in family. And the answer is rooted in Jesus.

It truly was a little sister going to her big sister for advice, and in that moment it was affirmed that we had been on our annual visit to family.

On that first day we drive to Velikoretskoye, the last stretch of road to the kids is the longest out of all the days we drive there…because we are knee-deep in anticipation with the knowledge that God has created a community that is stronger together. A community that travels to visit a small orphanage in a small village in that is full of humor, love and relationships. Family visiting family.

aching

My arms are aching. Not because I did a major workout yesterday…yah right. It is an empty and waiting sort of ache. All because I know that I am within 36 hours if holding onto my family members that I haven’t seen in a year.

It is that time of year…and I am on my way with the annual Russia team to visit Velikoretskoye orphanage. I wait all year for this visit. It’s as though each year at this time, a piece of the puzzle falls into place, and all seems right in the world.

Which is weird, because the whole reason I travel is because things are very wrong in our world. Sin runs rampantly unchecked. Injustice plagues every continent. Generations are being raised that don’t know a time without a war somewhere. An unimaginable numbers of slaves exist in our world. And there are hundreds of thousands orphans. Things are very wrong.

I serve a God who restores, transforms and creates beautiful futures through our relationship with him and others. Which is why I have always felt like a ministry of relationship and presence fits me so well. After all I am the person who will drive 20 minutes for a conversation instead of talking on the phone.

I ache to be in community with others, and that sometimes leads me across oceans to fill my aching arms with my friends…family…that I cannot wait to see how much taller they’ve gotten!

To follow our Russia Team blog, it can be found at: www.russiamissiontrip.blogspot.com.

reasons

IMG_4520It’s too expensive.

It takes too long to get there.

You have to use translators.

The money would be better spent on helping orphans than sending you to travel there for a week.

You name it, I’ve heard it regarding the reasons NOT to travel to Russia, and spend time with our kids over the last 10 years. And yes, it’s been that long, insane…I know.

But what happens when the discernment of calling, self-examination through prayer and the need of the kids to have a physical presence far outweigh the price tag?

You cannot put a price on relationship.

You cannot put a price on encouragement.

You cannot put a price on a hug.

You cannot put a price on giving a child hope because someone is supporting them and choosing to believe in their future.

You cannot put a price on family.

The orphans in Russia are put into a category that places a stigma on them as worthless and inferior to all other Russians. Simply because their parents either got in trouble with the law, abandoned them or died. They are told that they deserve to be in that orphanage by their culture…because no one wanted them.

They are considered broken.

It’s not fair, and it ignites God’s sense of justice in me.

It puts innocent kids in situations they are not equipped to navigate. It creates a mistrust of everything and everyone in each of those kids. It makes them feel alone, and unloved. How can anyone expect them to trust a loving God they cannot see when each person around them has broken their concept of love and trust?

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That it not God’s heart for them…and it is wrong, very wrong.

I have had the privilege of a front row seat for the change in the kids as they grow closer to their American friends. I’ve grown those relationships myself with two incredible gentlemen. I’ve experienced the change in them as they are poured into by someone who genuinely cares for them and wants nothing in return. I’ve seen students push themselves harder in school while encouraged by the love of another. I’ve seen them develop a sense of family with someone who is thousands of miles away.

I’ve seen God ignite a passion for his children in so many people that choose to make a difference in the lives of some phenomenal kids.

Mission is about God’s heart for the world. It is about righting the wrongs of this world, and believing that each of the wrongs that get righted moves us closer to God’s Kingdom.

I passionately believe God has called each one of us to a specific purpose, and within that purpose we find ourselves as the best we can humanly be in his image.

Some God has called to their neighbors. Some God is calling to the urban core. Others God calls to disaster areas. And yet others are called to the crazy world of global mission. We don’t choose our calling…but we get to choose to live it.

Many times over the last 10 years I have found myself examining my heart for the orphans of Russia. It is expensive. It is far away. The language is hard. It is a completely back-ass-ward country.

Yet every time I return to God and ask, ‘Still?’ the answer is consistently a resounding ‘Yes!’ with an aside of ‘Please stop asking!’

I’ve learned over time  it’s not worth it to argue with God…therefore I choose to live in my calling, and choose to love and support kids that are stronger because of God’s love  flowing through his people.

*If you feel pulled to help me live in my calling, consider checking out my photography at sojourner4jesusphotography.com. I am currently fundraising for the next opportunity to serve God in Russia this November.*

leave

There is one place on this earth that rips my soul in two to leave.

It is a palpable sound to God’s ears because after all, he is the one that sends me.

The echo of that rip haunts me when I leave. A good haunt though, a reminder that things are not right in this world, and that I’ve been chosen to make a small difference for the life of a child. A reminder that God is working long before me, all around me and staying after I leave…that it is never about me, and always about him.

I never would have imagined my soul would be so closely tied to an orphanage…let alone one in Russia. It wasn’t too long ago that I couldn’t even deal with being around kids. But to speak God’s love, worth, hope and community into the life of an orphan is the greatest privilege there is in this world.

It used to be the hardest thing I’d ever done to leave the orphanage on the last day. The emotion of leaving is overwhelming to even the hardest of hearts. We would lose whole days to the kids acting out or withdrawing. We eventually amended trip schedules so that we went back for a ‘last’ morning so the kids wouldn’t be as emotional on the last day. It helped everyone take the leaving part in slower steps.

Some trips the kids would hang on to the back of the bus, it didn’t matter how seriously we told them it was dangerous. It was as if they were clinging to those last precious moments, too.

What I love most, though, is it rarely happens anymore. It isn’t as emotional when we leave as it used to be. Why? They know their friends, or friends of their friends, are coming back. We’ve crossed the line of dismay and sorrow into this beautiful place of deep love and trust. It’s amazing the strength of the ties that God creates in his mission fields.

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But this is what happens when you surrender your heart…soul…life…God leads us to unimaginable, beautiful, Kingdom places.

The hardest part for me is leaving those places, and holding on to that Kingdom life.

The beauty of it is the places God sends you is where you find the person he has created you to be. The best of you and worst of you collide, and his heart is ignited in yours. Your soul finds itself overflowing, all because you willingly surrendered.

And when that happens, no one wants to leave that behind.