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.

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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.

aviators

Confessions of the month: I wear mirrored aviators and I used to love my birthday.

A  few years ago I began to strongly dislike my birthday. It’s a horrible statement right? We always hear people not liking their birthdays because they don’t want to turn a year older.

That’s actually not my problem. I could care less what my age is…it’s actually because for the majority of my life I shared my birthday with someone else and several years ago my birthday became only my own.

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I was given the beautiful gift of being born on my grandpa’s birthday [thanks, Mom]. Obviously, early on…I had no clue. But as I got older I realized that it made my birthday that much more special. I was the first grandchild AND born on his birthday. Luckily we both had a penchant for angel food cake, although I’m not sure if it was because it was forced on me so much at an early age or if I really did like it. Grandpa relinquished his being put first while I was younger and even submitted to a New Kids on the Block cake one year. When I went to college, he and my grandma even drove six hours to be able to say grandpa and I were still together on our birthday for several of those years. Their perspective was we hadn’t missed in 18 years, so it wasn’t going to start happening because I was six hours away. Ah, the sacrifices grandparents make for their grandchildren.

My grandpa was one of those men who never knew a stranger. I vividly remember him shaking the hand of every person he met, and immediately making them feel like they had been friends for years. I don’t think he ever forgot a name. I never saw him be unkind to anyone, and family always came first. He also carved out time for his family to be together when he bought a house at Table Rock Lake. Our memories there are countless, and no one will ever convince me that those summers didn’t have a large part in shaping who we are as adults. I also cherish the memories when he ‘drew the short straw’ and had to get the kid out of the Deck the Walls store our family owned, so he would take me to Chick-fil-A in the food court. I’m certain his love for basketball fueled my own, but I never caught on to the whole baseball thing.

Sept 29, 2001But then grandpa was diagnosed with frontal temporal lobe dementia, and everything changed. Birthdays started coming with the absent thought of will this be the last one? As his motor skills declined, and early on stopped using speech, once a year I found myself taking the back seat so we could celebrate his birthday in his last years with all of us. I think it was on our last birthday together the photo that shows us blowing out the candles doesn’t even have me at the table. Instead it is a beautiful picture of my grandpa surrounded by his grandchildren. I think a large part of me felt it was only right that in the end he have his own day without sharing it, since I had claimed it so many times.

It never occurred to me that one day, eventually time and age would make our birthday…mine alone. I had rare years with my birthday coming around without my grandpa next to me celebrating the same thing.

It had been the most special feeling to share that day, but I found myself unprepared to celebrate and experience the void his death left several years ago.

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Now it is haunting, even when enough time has passed that feeling should have subsided. As soon as September starts, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach that it’s coming. So I tell myself to stuff it down, get over it and do what I tend to do best and jump into the massive boat of denial.

I’m honestly not sure why I felt so pulled to put this into words this year. Perhaps because last year was the first year I was less touchy about the ‘day,’ and it was saved to double up this year. Maybe memories are fading with time, and I want to cling to every piece of him that my heart can grab. Or even this year, I simply find myself missing him while my grandma’s diagnosis of pre-Alzheimer is manifesting in very real ways while my heart breaks for my mom, aunt and uncles – all our family –  who are facing this…yet again. But this time without a built in caregiver in the house.

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A few years ago I decided that I was going to adopt a practice of solidarity against my unavoidable emotions, and go the route of memory keeping, when I chose to wear a pair of aviator sunglasses for the month of September. My grandpa wore aviators. Then October came…the next October came, and I’ve never stopped. I’ve gone through so many pairs of aviators. I sit on them. They get dropped. Someone grabs them and they break as they pull them off my head. At some point someone thinks they are cool, and the aviators would look better on them, so they put them on and forget to give them back. The aviators I am wearing right now have a crack in the top and I have no idea how it got there.

For being what pilots wear, they are not very durable. But then again, I don’t buy expensive pairs, because I break them so often.

However, the reason I continue to wear them is always the same. It reminds me that I come from somewhere, I was loved by someone very special, and I should honor that love with choices and actions I make. I don’t write this to make more people say ‘Happy birthday!’ I am incredibly blessed by multiple communities of people that challenge me, listen to my mission rants, radically love others and also put up with my sometimes dorky, always adventurous, hair-brained ideas. I think I do share it so that you become more aware of how you love others, not just your family…but your neighbors, your co-workers, the homeless person on the corner and the barista at Starbucks. We get so caught up in differences and what we are all against…that we lose sight of what we should be fighting for and the commonalities that can be found in us all being made in the image of God. Love always wins, friends…love always wins.

blood ties

Family: Love and complication interwoven with a healthy mix of surrender and humility.

I get the honor of being the ‘oldest’ cousin. Sometimes it is a pain in the ass, but other times it means you get to see these amazing small people turn into even more amazing adults…beards and all. Labor Day weekend is a family tradition for us. We all gather at my grandma’s lake house each year, and as this weekend proved there are plenty of memories to reminisce.

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When you are allowed the honor of witnessing the family bonds in action, it plays out like a well rehearsed script that had been acted out for 24 years. In our extended family teasing, playing and sarcasm are staples of the blood bond we all carry…with the well intentional family spat and competitive spirit along the way.

As we’ve grown older my absolute favorite moments are the ones when we get so caught up in conversation that the whirlwind of family can blow around us in volume and action, but the conversation carries on. It is in those moments that we build on the foundation of family, and create memories that carry us to the next time we see one another.

In a world as fast and vast as ours we only see each other once or twice a year, and as with our world, it’s easy to get caught up in life and not keep up.

I’m guilty of that with my own brother. I hate we don’t live in the same town anymore. Honestly, I hate that he’s as old as he is…mostly because I still see him as the little brother he isn’t anymore in size, stature and life path.

Being intentional is hard when people are not physically close to you, but we have to take on the responsibility. I know my brother knows I love him. I’ve spent his entire life telling him, but if I don’t back that up with actions…does a piece of that family bond slacken?

But isn’t the purpose of family to make us a part of something bigger than ourselves? That we are not alone in this world. With all of the dysfunction and pain in this world we are pulled to hold on to those times that bind us together.

Isn’t it the same in a group of believers…are they not bound the same? We may not be tied by earthly blood lines, but the moment something goes downhill and they set everything aside to help you…earthly blood ties don’t matter, we are all family bound by the blood lines of Christ.

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Frankly, the students in Youth Group remind me so much of watching my cousins interact, but the teasing, playing and bountiful sarcasm are just a piece of what ties them together. For our students the are bound so much tighter through growing in Scripture, worship, mission and their common belief in Jesus. The blood lines of Christ. Strong aren’t they?

It’s beautiful. Just as I was enamored with spending a few days with my cousins who I have watched grow since they were babies, I am equally enamored with seeing how God will continue to grow those around me, and being thankful of the time God has given me to watch. I know well how strong the blood ties of Christ make a relationship, and I am grateful that our students are learning that as young as they are.

Here’s to the time we have, what we choose to do with it and the ‘family’ God has placed around us.

go

‘With great power there must also come – great responsibility!’ Yes, I finally watched The Amazing Spiderman today…I know, it’s about time. And yes, I am a superhero movie geek.

But the message is the same for us…as a believer in the universal reign of King Jesus, you have been given great power.

‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ [Acts 1:8]

To sum up…go! Get your ass out there, and love someone for the Kingdom of God!

And I could stop there, but I’ve been off the mission soapbox for several blogs now because the Rethink Church words sent me down some personal rabbit holes…which means I’ve kept a lot pent up!

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ [Matthew 28:19-20]

A lot of people ‘do’ mission, which is not always a bad thing. But more important is that you ‘are’ mission. Mission should not just be limited to our human auto response if you love God…it should be an extension of who you are as a disciple of Jesus…making other disciples.

Ah! No! Not the ‘d’ word that makes all believers get antsy and uncomfortable because God is asking something of them!

Yes! It came straight from the lips of Jesus, folks.

And if all of the disciples had NOT taken those words of Jesus and literally ran with them to other communities…we would not be believers today. God’s message spread like wildfire because they took Jesus’ words seriously and took them to others.

So where have we gotten scared to go and make disciples? Where have we lost the excitement of BEING a disciple? Where have we lost the urgency of spreading the message and stories of Jesus? When did we confuse ‘going’ as the one thing you need to do a year?

Several people pointed out that my blog post yesterday was vunerable. My normal auto response is to hide behind my self-made fortress of steel, rock, brick, rebar and concrete enforced walls.

But when you engage in being a disciple of Jesus…and making disciples…you don’t get afforded the luxury of keeping walls up. God breaks them down.

You have to make the very real decision to pour your life into another, and invite others along in your journey. Speaking about what God is teaching, helping people discover their God given talents, being open with our imperfections along the way and looking with expectancy to God restoring His Kingdom.

It’s time consuming, but it does not require a seminary degree.

Paul spent the rest of his life preaching and creating disciples in community. But Paul also stopped using the word ‘disciple’ after Acts 21 where he starts using father/son/brother language.

Think about that for a second…he starts referring to those he is pouring his life into as family. No formal contract, or big speech about this is who I am discipling now. Just one disciple of Jesus pulling along another.

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A painting from Liberia that says, 'Truth needs no decoration.' In the tribal language of basa.

We need to stop being scared of the ‘go’ and want more than just ‘do.’ We need to care deeply about transforming lives. We need to stop being scared of letting our imperfections show, and embrace being vunerable with others. We must share what we are learning and share how God is using us. Discipleship is about telling the stories of how our story intersects and collides with God’s story. We need to take seriously living as Jesus lived…in community, discipling others and loving others unconditionally…and radically.

I pray that you see the beauty in that, and ultimately see God’s truth. I also pray you feel the power of the Holy Spirit and take the responsibility of sharing your life seriously.

To sum up…again…go! Get your ass out there, but do it as someone reflecting a life lived not only for, but WITH God…also known as the God who reigns over the entire universe.

*Warning…walls may be falling around you as you GO.*

family

IMG_0615 ‘Подруга, you are my friend,’ is what I kept hearing in broken English from the kids. They don’t know a lot of English, but they know some basic they have learned from their English teachers.

Then I started hearing…

‘Семья.’ Family. You are my family.

This year, one of our team members who had been twice, but not the year before was looking for a familiar face. Her Russian friend had shown up last year and asked me, ‘Where is Marca?’ I had to tell her Marca is not here, to which Nadia immediately replied with concern, ‘Is she ok?’

This year, as we finished our tea and delicious sweet rolls…some Russian hospitality customs are really fantastic, we were walking out and the kids swarmed. In the merriment of hugs, hellos and I’ve missed you…I looked around for the faces of graduates. We have several grads that hear a Woods Chapel team is coming, and show up over the weekend to see familiar faces. I found a few…Sasha, Artyom, Pavel…but no Nadia. We walked through the school and up the stairs to the small room that doubles as an auditorium with a stage, where several of the kids had already gathered.

As Marca walked in, a head popped out of the first row to watch the Americans walk in…and there was Nadia. Marca had a myriad of emotions, and I had a huge sense of answered prayer.

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Throughout the day they had several small conversations, just trying to catch up.

But my favorite part was when Nadia went through all of the kids who were in the family group that Marca had spent 2 trips with their group. Vitalyi entered a portrait of her in a drawing contest and did really well, and his drawings have gotten so much better! Olga is at the same school with Vitalyi…this person is here, this person is doing this…sharing the family news with a relative she might see once a year. As I observed them at the back of the bus, Nadia’s face lit up as she talked. There was no doubt about her love for Marca, and no doubt that she knew that loved was returned.

Her words to Marca where, ‘You gave me hope.’ And isn’t that how we all want to impact people? Motivation for the struggles, and knowing someone is there…Nadia is a success story. She is at the Medical Academy and doing fantastic! It’s unusual for an orphan to make it, especially someone as young as Nadia.  But isn’t that how family should support each other?

The kids are contagious…their enthusiasm for activities, for learning about us and most of all their strong desire to know their American friends better. At the core is a need to be known. Each year we watch as kids open their gifts from their friends, and every year the first thing they grab out is the letter and photos that are sent to them.

WCC members sent video this year as an experiment in being able to share messages. It went over so well that many of the kids wanted to send video messages back. As I taped the kids talking, they were nervous, but their excitement to show themselves on video was evident. They had considered their messages on video as gifts, and wanted to give that gift in return.

As I taped Alyona, Sharon Hutchen’s friend, she was showing her photos to the kids around her. Her excitement was like nothing I’d ever seen out of these kids before. She pointed to each person, said their name and mixed those photos in with the few photos she has of her biological family. To her, Sharon’s family is her family and I got her feelings on tape as she said on her video, ‘I miss you so much! Avery has grown so much!’ It melted my heart to know that she feels so loved, and included, by a family half a world away that is brings to her high pitched squeals of excitement.

The amazing thing about this year was that after 4 years of investing into the lives of these kids that we see each year…conversations were real, not just surface. That’s when you know you’ve crossed into new territory, and when you know the Kingdom work has become very real. You’ve not only gained new family, but you’ve poured hope, love, commitment and friendship into a child abandoned by their family.

I have tried here, but I would never be able to fully express how honored I feel to be a part of their family. And count them a part of mine…

There are so many more stories to tell! Please join us in the Lecture Hall on January 6 at 12:15 pm as we share more about our trip, show videos from the kids and talk about the amazing kids we have the privilege of knowing. And if you missed it, we blogged our trip…you can check it out at http://www.russiamissiontrip.com.