believe

My heart was broken the other day. Not just a simple broken either, it was more a shattering, deep pain that was busting forth in front of my eyes that I couldn’t stop and in the end it tore me to shreads.

I was sitting at a village and there was a young one asleep in my lap and several kids hanging out around me. We were joking around when the conversation suddenly took a turn for the worse, and while I am super impressed with my Creole abilities to participate in this conversation, my inability also left me at a loss of complete words to help.

“Stephanie, did you know both of his parents are dead?” we shall call this kid, Little Shit, LS for short.

“That’s a lie!” we shall call this kid the Tortured Little, TL for short.

“It’s true! Both are dead!” LS stated plainly.

“That’s a lie!” TL said, grabbing my hands in his, “My mama is dead, but my dad is in prison.”

“His dad stole something with a gun,” LS said.

“That’s a lie!” TL shouted.

“It’s true! He used a gun,” LS said.

“A lie!” TL shouted as silent tears started running down his face.

“I believe you,” I said gently straight into TL’s eyes as he silently nodded, still combating the onslaught of lies coming at him.

“Go away! Stop hurting him,” I told LS, who by this time was smirking at the reaction he was getting from TL.

I pulled TL to my side and repeated again, “I believe you. I don’t believe him. You know the truth. He doesn’t know,” as tears continued to fall down his cheeks.

“Do you understand my bad Creole?” I asked him.

With a direct look in my eyes, he silently nodded yes.

“I believe you. God knows the truth. God loves you a lot,” I told him.

Little Shit is on my radar now. Up until now, I’ve noticed some things he has done, but couldn’t understand enough of the words to really know what was happening. It angers me that he feels he needs to make other kids feel that way in order to feel powerful or to deny his own story. And truly this could happen with ANY kids, emotions and situations are difficult when you are a kid. In these moments it is hard for me to remember grace. LS didn’t ask to live with a multitude of other kids in a village run by a Pastor. The sin of this world has gotten so rampant that it led him there in whatever way sin has kept his family in poverty and manifested there.

If there is anything that makes my heart break more, it’s knowing the defense mechanisms of the orphan culture can be mean, harsh and ruthless. It’s awful, but the sin of this world is ridiculously appalling and it is painful to see when it becomes visible this way. So many get caught up in how cute and adorable most of the kids are – and they are – but if we don’t acknowledge that the life of those that have no one to champion them sucks, then we do them a disservice. Acknowledgment comes in small forms, not big gestures. We are talking about young lives that God created and has a path for in this world…who need to be encouraged and repeatedly told they have value.

It is three small words I was able to use with Tortured Little…”I believe you,” and I am incredibly thankful in that moment I knew that verb. Our stories are our own, and no matter where the truth really lies…they are still our stories. No one else has the right to them, and they certainly don’t get to use them against us, though many try. When in those moments, we can feel so very alone and as if no one else would have the guts to stand with us. We feel like everyone is against us, and that no one actually values the truth of the story or would attempt to see both sides.

As I reflect back on this conversation, since it has stayed with me for several days, I hope that the next time someone tries to use my story against me…someone is there to say, “I believe you.”

knowledge

“That night, God appeared to Solomon. God said, ‘What do you want from me? Ask.’” [2 Chronicles 1:8, MSG]

Wow. Anything? What would you ask for if God gave you freedom to request something from him?

World peace? A million dollars? A friend to finally seek God’s grace and love? Discernment? To be the most famous person ever?

There are a lot of Haitians looking for the letter ‘T’ on Prestige beer bottles right in a contest to get a free car. Would you ask for a car?

“Solomon answered, ‘You were extravagantly generous with David my father, and now you have made me king in his place. Establish, God, the words you spoke to my father, for you’ve given me a staggering task, ruling this mob of people. Yes, give me wisdom and knowledge as I come and go among this people – for who on his own is capable of leading these, your glorious people?’ God answered Solomon, ‘This is what has come out of your heart: You didn’t grasp for money, wealth, fame, and the doom of your enemies; you didn’t even ask for a long life. You asked for wisdom and knowledge so you could govern well my people over whom I’ve made you king. Because of this, you get what you asked for – wisdom and knowledge. And I’m presenting you the rest as a bonus – money, wealth and fame beyond anything the kings before you or after you had or will have.’” [2 Chronicles 1:11-12, MSG]

Solomon could have asked for anything. But God recognized Solomon’s heart when he didn’t ask for something frivolous. He wanted to honor God.

There is something here we can learn from when Solomon asks for wisdom and knowledge. How many times today have you, sometimes subconsciously, asked God for something?

Perhaps, help me not strangle this co-worker, or maybe your kids? How about for a car to get out of your way because you are in a hurry? What about asking for more time in your day with a loved one who doesn’t have much longer to be in this world, or even that you find yourself too ‘busy’ to be with those you love? Maybe it is patience you ask for? Careful on that one, God tends to give you situations to grow your patience instead of actually just bestowing it on you.

I ask a lot for God’s voice to be clear and discernment to be what God needs me to be for those around me. I’ve also asked for wisdom, because who has enough really? We can always use more wisdom, but never once have I asked for knowledge. I’d never really thought about it until I read Solomon’s request a few months ago. Possibly, it is because I have a significant amount of faith in the Lord I serve, coupled with a relative easiness at the mysterious parts of God.

Solomon wanted wisdom and knowledge to lead well. I wonder at those who lead around me, if they frequently ask for wisdom and knowledge. In the areas I lead, I know I haven’t…and I cannot possibly be the only one who hasn’t asked.

Solomon didn’t lead perfectly, but he started out with his heart in the right place. None of us could ever lead perfectly, we all sin after all, but what characteristics of leadership could we commit to improving ourselves? Maybe it is wisdom and knowledge, but maybe it is in hearing the voice of God and discerning where the Holy Spirit would have you lead people.

Let today be a day you commit to having your heart in the right place…and if I end up failing today, in the uncanny tradition of David and Solomon…God will still love me tomorrow.

 

roots

CLEARING CANON 009There is a stunning, tangled web of beauty at the base of each tree that stretches to the ocean of blue above. But the most beautiful part we can’t even see. It’s hidden beneath the surface, going so deep that if you tried to pry it out it would take hours, if not heavy machinery, depending on size.

Once on a mission trip to Galveston, we were tasked to dig out the root system of a tree that had been taken down by the hurricane. I worked on one section of the root system all morning. It did NOT want to come out. I dug, I pulled, I dug some more…then pulled some more. I even got ‘blessed’ with a large cockroach in my pants for all my efforts. That was not a beautiful surprise when I used the bathroom. Texas does grow them biggest. Several more hours after lunch, I was starting to think the roots were really not coming out.

All of a sudden I was on my ass with a root as tall as I am, and about 3 inches in diameter. It had a dirty dampness to it’s rough surface, and if it could talk, probably pretty angry. I looked at that thing in amazement. I’d put so much time into digging it out, and it had put so much time in growing in that one place. I wouldn’t have wanted to come out either!

A bit later, I heard a roar of celebration…a group of students had successfully gotten out a massive root system from the front of the house.

There we were, all celebrating in our own ways…our vicories over roots. Ironic, right? They had invested so much time in that one place, allowing their tree to have a stubbornly, strong base and we took it from them.

As the crappy caretakers of this world, we think we know all about what should be where, and how long it should be there. What if those root systems were supposed to stay? What if they were going to sprout a new tree, more beautiful and stronger than the last that succumbed to a hurricane?

We dig roots up and throw them out, or we dig roots out to transplant somewhere else with much authority. But we are not the ones who planted them in the first place…

Then the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” [Matthew 15:12-14]

No surprise that Jesus wasn’t really talking about roots. Also, no surprise that I wasn’t trying to stick with a earthy theme, either.

Right before the disciples asked Jesus if he knew the Pharisees were offended, Jesus had just quoted the prophet Isaiah:

You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” [Matthew 15:8-9]

Read that again…conflicted anywhere?

Honor me with their lips. It is so easy to be that Christian around Easter. Do what is expected. Dress nice. Be nice. But if your actions are not matching what is coming out of your mouth…you are doing an incredible disservice to Christ’s sacrifice…and his resurrection. You never know who is overhearing you, and you never know how you actions will be perceived by that person. Which is why you heart should be aligned with…

Their hearts are far from me. Sometimes it’s amazing the show we put on so people see what you want them to see. But you cannot force yourself to be close to God. You have to make an effort, and put work into it. And that takes time. I know I’ve grown a lot closer to my heart being more like his in the last few years, but some days I am absolutely guilty of being consumed by this world and not in the ‘I am a missionary to this world’-consumed. So many distractions to separate my heart from his, and I allow them let my heart drift away from him.

They worship me in vain. I love worship. I feel very connected to my Savior through worship. But the idea that worship HAS to be in a sanctuary, or on Sunday morning, or even in a building is complete crap. Make your worship true. Seek your Abba. Break out of the worship ideas that shackle you to what people have ‘always’ done. Sadly, some worship experiences are so consumed by tradition and performance I have trouble feeling the Holy Spirit. I’m not judging, but that seems pretty in vain to me.

Their teachings are merely human rules. Do you live by the Spirit, or do you live by mandates? Do you live by faith, or restriction? Do you expect the laws of this world to enhance the laws of God’s Kingdom? They are not meant to. We are a set apart people, and we are not held to human rules and regulations. Kingdom rules lay groundwork for love, not hate. For acceptance, not exclusion. For grace, not guilt and judgement. For transformation, not status quo. Kingdom teachings cannot be contained…they are meant to be shard.

What Bible are you reading? Has God planted you? Do you cling to his roots? His roots are trustworthy, and strong.

We are a stunning, tangled web of roots when planted by God…made into beautiful trees. Will you live as though you are planted by him, or will you be a blind guide? If  I am only a blind guide, I am doing a garganuan disservice to the Gospel message. So I better damn well make sure I am planted correctly, and that no one tries to tear me up as I cling to his even deeper roots.

pain

You would hope something as wondrous and miraculous as God’s mission wouldn’t bring hurt, pain or anger. But when you have people that are serving from a place of passion…our humanness enters in, and all hell breaks loose.

It’s ugly.

It’s painful.

It hurts.

But what can we really expect when we are dealing with sin? Because it we were all serving from the perspective of putting God and others before ourselves…there wouldn’t be pain in mission work. And at what point did we try to fool ourselves into thinking sin can bring about characteristics of God?

So how do we, as folks created by God, set ourselves aside and serve with love, compassion and kindness?

Seek God’s heart. There is a great quote from Bob Pierce that always gets thrown around, and has been a prayer of mine for well over 3 years. ‘Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.’ Imagine what the world would look like if this were truly the prayer of people who love Jesus, and choose to follow him. I know it has changed me.

Embrace your emotions. It is what makes you so passionate about those you are serving, and where you are serving. Those emotions are God-given to ignite you to action where God has called you. It is exactly what makes a person feel connected to you, because you are invested in who they are as people, not what they are as projects. It’s called relationship. And God has created us to be in those relationships with others. And the beautiful thing is when we get it right on our end, it reflects our relationship with God for others.

Risk. Did I lose you? Does risk intimidate you? Does it outright scare you? It should, because when you risk your heart to work towards God’s Kingdom restored…all bets are off. Period.

Be courageous in stillness.  Afraid of silence? Be ready to accept it in abundance, because the only true thing that can heal your pain is the loving, compassionate Father who sent his son to die on a cross to wipe away the bad you have done in our world. And that takes time…to not run away from the quiet in an effort to increase the work-a-holic in you…and to embrace the quiet stillness of God’s balm.

Grace. At times I hate forgiveness, but the only time I hate forgiveness is when I have to give it to others…not when I am accepting it from Christ. Horrible, right? But it’s 100% true. How can we truly accept what Christ gave up for us if we are unwilling to bestow that gift on others? It is as if we are saying, ‘You see, Jesus. I don’t really think what you did was all that great.’ We are completely negating His death on the cross if we hold grudges…seek retribution…deny others grace. I completely admit to being a failure in this area. But I also admit, God is not finished growing my spiritual heart. I just don’t really like it…perhaps God would make my memory shorter so this would be easier.

Pain is beautiful in the shadow of our God.

But unless we are prepared to see it that way, we keep holding onto it in all of its black, crusty glory. Nasty, at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Everyone who seeks to serve God struggles with pain in whatever way it manifests. The true test of a servant is what they are willing to do with that pain.

reminiscing

Wow! It’s been a long couple of weeks! We leave for Russia in only 17 days! Getting that close makes me reminisce on the last 8 years. This trip will be…a lot of trips for me…but it is not me I travel for. I travel for the kids that I have friendships with and love, even when I haven’t seen them for years. I recently cleaned up my office at work, and if you know anything about me, you know I love (and am possibly addicted) to art. Today I brought in one of my favorite photos from the last 8 years. It normally hangs at home, but today…today, I felt it needed to be at work. Several months ago, on a different blog, I posted this story, and today I feel it needs to find its home on sojourner4jesus. It’s l-o-n-g, but it is a story that is a large chunk of why my heart became so attached to Russia over the years, and why it is firmly planted in my heart now.

How I fell in love…

…I wasn’t planning on it. And I certainly wasn’t planning on the surprises God had in store for me. But sometimes, isn’t that the best part? When something is entirely orchestrated by God that it is absolutely perfect and suited to your gifts and characteristics?

It all came together in a moment when an amazing woman, Pam Jackson, walked into a Sunday school class I was teaching. She came armed…with her photos of a trip she taken to a Russian orphanage, and was ready to share a multitude of stories about orphans that the Russian government labels as damaged and outcast, only because they have no one to take care of them.

The beginning of our conversation was my humoring Pam, because I had all of my paperwork ready to send off to teach English in China. I was leaving the country, not staying in this country to go on a mission trip to Russia. Then on top of that, God hadn’t called me to Russia. He’d called me to Africa, then to China.

However, that was ‘my’ plan, not the Savior I serve, which is how I ended up in a strange country, with a strange language, with people from WCC I didn’t know, weird food and falling I love…

It was our first day at Kurlovo orphanage and I was intrigued. I’d never been to an orphanage before. There were so many kids everywhere, and it smelled like cabbage mixed with a strange concoction of body odor and dirty feet in every room. But the caregivers and the kids were ecstatic we were there. The bizarre language jabbered all around us, but I understood only what the accented translator relayed.

You could tell that the kids shared clothes based on what shirt matched pants another was wearing. It was insufferably hot, which I thought was incredibly odd for such a cold country. And there was tea…tons and tons of tea. We had it when we got there, at lunch, tea time, when we looked like we were cold, then again at dinner. I felt like I was floating by the end of the day. But every encounter we had with the Russians was marked by an astonishing amount of hospitality. They are very generous to their guests and very concerned about your well-being while you are with them.

Walking through that door for the first time was like stepping into a different life for me. I had done mission trips before, but this was different…it was dealing personally with the life of a child. But even though kids weren’t really my thing at the time, I was ready for whatever God put in front of me.

As the orphanage director took us on a tour of the building. A disheveled looking boy, no taller than my waist, kept popping into every single room that we entered. He had faded bruises on his face, never-been-brushed hair and clothes that had been through the woods a few too many times. I noticed him first, and shared a smile with him. Then after a couple of rooms it became a joke among the Americans, ‘where will he show up next?’

Alyosha’s story started coming out over those first few days. He had only been in the orphanage for a couple of months. His dad had died at some point, but to a 9 year old, how long ago was incomprehensible. He had been taken away from his mom because they had been living on the streets of Russia. They had lived on the streets for most his young life, and while we were there the staff was having problems with Alyosha. He could not read or write and since he was a street kid, he was stealing and fighting with everyone. Those were his survival tactics…everything he had ever known.

I will never forget one of our last days, I was talking with Olga, his caregiver, specifically about Alyosha and she shared that up until a few days ago they thought he had been running away. What they learned, however, was he was only running away part of the time. The rest he was searching out a place to hide and sleep at sunset just as he would have done while living on the streets. Someplace dark and protected where he could stay warm. He was sleeping under desks, beds, snuggled in corners – just places to be ‘safe’ for the night. They couldn’t even get him to sleep in a bed, because it was so foreign to him.

As the week progressed, it’s hard to explain what happened between Alyosha and me. But then again, love is hard to explain. There was just something about him, and about the way he seemed to choose me and want to be around me. Even then, almost 8 years ago, I would have heartily admitted that he was a holy terror with legs, but at the same time I saw an amazing goodness and potential in him. I saw a 9-year-old boy who was craving to be loved, cared for and accepted. Sometimes he had a glint in his eyes that I knew he was thinking of doing something ornery; he would always carry that ‘street kid’ mentality.

But the adventures we went on over those years are the best memories. He would grab my hand and ask in Russian, ‘Are you ready?’ And I would say, ‘We need my translator.’ And he would reply, ‘No, you know enough.’ One of the things I loved about him then is that he was fearless. The best way to describe our ‘Alyosha Adventures’ would be to compare then to the Family Circus cartoons when the mom calls Billy inside and he takes the craziest, over, under, longest route to come home. But for those adventures time, distance or route didn’t matter as long as it was time counted being with him. One of my photos from our adventures is still one of my all-time favorite photos I’ve taken in Russia. 

His antics became known to the whole team over the years, I once took a photo of a brick wall with a hole busted through it and one of our team members said, ‘Look, Alyosha came through that wall.’ He also became very protective. I was ‘his’ sponsor, ‘his’ American friend. Sometimes it was hard to balance, because I was there for all of the kids. But there was no denying the connection he and I had.

Alyosha filled a hole in my heart, it wasn’t even a hole I knew I had, but he has firmly kept hold of it even though we are traveling to a new orphanage now. I haven’t seen him since I traveled in 2007 before the orphanage closed, the Russian governments’ choice, but he was so hurt the last time I left…I don’t blame him, I was hurt too and went through some serious conversations with God before I worked through it. Alyosha and I are so similar in some ways, compartmentalizing the areas of our life and closing them off if it hurts too much, like not wanting to say good-bye or showing cracks in the veneer. I had seen him twice a year for almost 5 years, become a part of his life, and then was torn out of it.

I had discovered a new kind of love. It’s the love that flourishes in God’s mission field in Russia, Africa or in your own neighborhood. It’s the love that multiplied as the disciples spread out to new cultures after Jesus’ death. It teaches me that the breath I take, I take with the love and grace I receive from Christ and with the life I choose to live I represent, ‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:34-35)

Given the choice, I would never take back those trips, those years or the time I spent in Kurlovo. In time, the hurt will disappear, and he will remember that someone loved him unconditionally as she was loved unconditionally by her Savior. And I pray that the God I serve covers him in wisdom, love and an understanding that I will never forget or stop loving him. After all, he was the first person I ever truly fell in love with…

‘Til next time…

//Stephanie//