search

Tonight as I finish my day, I am reminded the hearts that search for God in courageous ways, surrendering who they were and embracing who God has created them to be is an honest time for us to search the same in our own hearts and remember our journey. Where it is, where it was and where God is leading us. 

“The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out. But I, God, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be.” [Jeremiah 17:9-10 MSG]

As I graciously accept the gift of sharing and storytelling tonight from a new friend, I also find myself incredibly thankful for how God has connected us as his people. Supernaturally linked through common love of Jesus. A community of Kingdom walkers. I am mesmerized by unique calling in each of our lives, the humility to answer that calling and the voice we all seek in discernment. 

Jesus, thank you a million times over for allowing the pain and shame of our stories to be redeemed and merged through you as The Storyteller. Speak into our lives. Dig deep into the roots of who you have created us to be. Bless us with your peace while waiting for your timing. Give us courage and strength to surrender the parts of ourselves that make the vision of your Kingdom dull and hazy. Expand our capacity to love beyond ourselves. Allow us to see each other as equals in your Kingdom, with no barriers through language, poverty, spiritual gifts or education to live as believers in the God who reigns over the entire universe. Search our hearts, remind us we are yours and the fight is already won. Amen

near

I am a huge lover of movies. I will watch anything except horror flicks, and I definitely do not enjoy all chick flicks. Some are just ridiculous. My favorites are action and comedy genres. The more action the better and more laughs are the best.

Every now and then in the movies there is a ‘Hollywood typical homeless man’ on the street corner yelling out scripture with a doomsday megaphone and holding a sign that says, ‘The Kingdom of God is near.’ I think we all collectively roll our eyes when we see this, because we know there is a disconnect between the message and the way in which it is delivered. Also, not discrediting the prophets from history, but prophets need to have an awareness and place within the culture to be able to accurately deliver the message to the culture they are calling out. Unfortunately, a random dude on a street corner doesn’t exactly qualify. It’s not the first or last time the stories of Jesus will get muddled in Hollywood.

“After John was put into prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’” [Mark 1:14-15]

Jesus’ messages about the kingdom of God do get a bit intense, but we have to remember that those messages also coincide with GOOD NEWS: belief, transformation, love, grace, working towards that kingdom being restored and renewed.

We get so caught up in what is right and wrong, and how to obey socially unspoken rules in how to act as a believer within this culture that we forget what Jesus said.

“But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’” [Luke 18:16-17]

There is an innocence in little children, and there is a way that they accept truth when it comes from people they trust. And that doesn’t even take into account the easy faith they have when it comes to Jesus. Why is it so easy for children to believe? What happens as we get older to take that quality out of our lives?

What I do know is that proclaiming the message of good news is not something to be preached from a street corner and be taken seriously. Proclaiming that message is earned through genuine, honest relationships that are built over time and it brings in an element of the message coming from someone you trust. People ask questions when your life looks different, and that makes it the easiest proclamation you will ever make when someone asks why you do the things you do.

“Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” [Luke 17:20-21]

What does Holy Spirit transformation look like within you? Is it reflected in your actions? When people make observations about you, what do they say? Do they see God?

What I love about the kingdom of God is that it isn’t a physical place…yet, and we get to place our hope in the restoration of this world, as well as work toward it with how we live our lives. And that is a message that is easy to proclaim when we are faced with corruption in government, murders, racism, death, sickness, war and everything that breaks God’s heart in this world. Eventually, all of those things will be erased and God’s love wins. Maybe someone should yell that from a street corner…God’s love wins, friends!

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.]

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.

time

There is this thing that I have to remind myself…my timing is not God’s timing.

At least that is how this post started earlier today, but when I actually went to post…God was leading me to write about something else.

Which is hard, because I had the entire thing written and I was just going to reread it before I posted tonight for my Rethink Church Advent word ‘time.’

What kept sneaking into my brain is where my time dissolves…because it does. All of the time. I get to the end of the day and cannot believe it is already time to sleep again.

I love spending time with people, and I will take that over most any other option. It honestly doesn’t even matter what we are doing. I love being around people, granted I do need my down time, but I don’t do much well on my own.

When my brother was a kid I would take him out to eat so I could get him to talk to me. He had too many distractions at home with video games, TV and playing outside. Even when I would cook a meal, when it was just us, he would want to eat in front of a TV. What conversations take place then? What relationship can form without talking?

Loving sharing stories makes me a good listener, a good friend and I think I’m pretty funny…so..there’s that, too.

I learned a long time ago to never plan lunch for an hour, because inevitably I’d look down and it will have been 2 and a half hours making me, most likely, late for something.

I don’t like to rush the time I have with someone, especially if something is going on or even we are simply sharing stories. They need to know they matter, and that I’m not counting the minutes until I have to be somewhere else. They need to know I value their words and what God is doing in their life.

It doesn’t have to be a meal. I even linger over coffee. Depending on the conversation, it literally feels like God has put a bubble around us, and time doesn’t matter.

What I love most about spending time with people is the God moments that happen there. Encouraging words, Kingdom stories, pain shared, love for mission, prayers, a bond strong enough to inspire an entire community to get behind a cause…I have too many memorable moments with people to even think about writing them all down.

I walk away from each of those conversations energized, focused and excited what God is doing in the lives of people I know.

A huge part of God’s Kingdom is our taking time with each other to form community. But if we don’t invest in that time, and allow God to work among our time shared…the strength of our community suffers. Your community may be your family, coworkers, small group, athletic team or even a neighborhood group, but whatever it looks like…what have you done with your time together lately? We are truly stronger together, and God will use us wherever we are in this world.

20131205-001154.jpg

silence

**Forewarning: this blog post completely changed from ‘Silence is beautiful and we need more of it…’ following a really ‘happy’ blog post, to what you read here. Beware, it wasn’t me…it was the one I serve. If you are looking for beautiful silence, probably find a different blog…because the silence you read here is a bit dangerous.**

Amos. He’s in the Bible, I checked. It helps when God keeps bringing scripture forward from this obscure book everywhere. His name in Hebrew also means ‘burden’ as in lifting or carrying a burden. Appropriate for a prophet I think, because with the words they are burdened with from God…they cannot rest in silence.

Amos is the book of the Bible right after Joel and before Obadiah.

Who the hell is Obadiah?!?! I said the same thing, and he only had a page in my Bible, so I felt a better about not quickly recollecting his words. Bible fact of the day: Obadiah is the shortest book in the Bible with 21 verses.

Have you heard of minor prophets? Well, they weren’t minor because they were less important…they are just smaller books. Isaiah had to be wordier, he was predicting Jesus…a lot!

We blogged about prophets earlier in our Lent journey, but it is important to note that God called prophets to speak, and to not follow the beliefs and ways of the nations they were calling out. Then they had the beautiful opportunity to proclaim the message of salvation and coming glory…the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

Amos’ carried a message for God’s people to return to his ways…instead of their current perverted sense of religion and complete lack of justice.

Amaziah, priest at the shrine at Bethel, sent a message to Jeroboam, king of Israel: “Amos is plotting to get rid of you; and he’s doing it as an insider, working from within Israel. His talk will destroy the country. He’s got to be silenced. Do you know what Amos is saying? ‘Jeroboam will be killed. Israel is headed for exile.’

Then Amaziah confronted Amos: “Seer, be on your way! Get out of here and go back to Judah where you came from! Hang out there. Do your preaching there. But no more preaching at Bethel! Don’t show your face here again. This is the king’s chapel. This is a royal shrine.”

But Amos stood up to Amaziah: “I never set up to be a preacher, never had plans to be a preacher. I raised cattle and I pruned trees. Then God took me off the farm and said, ‘Go preach to my people Israel.’ [Amos 7:10-15 MSG]

Acts 18They wanted to silence Amos’ message against greed, injustice and self-righteousness.  Their society was incredibly materialistic to the point that the wealthy were setting themselves way above the peasant class, and only using their wealth to improve their own gain.

Amos gave a message with absolute clarity that God hated evil and was going to punish injustice.

Thinking of anything familiar?

Our culture has pigeon-holed us into a corner that makes us feel like our beliefs might offend someone. That we should be quiet and that we have no business forcing our beliefs on others. Even when those beliefs include setting right the wrongs in this world.

I had lunch with some students today, and one was sharing that she wasn’t going to Tweet during the showing of the Bible Series anymore. When we pushed her for why, she said, ‘I lost 4 followers because I was tweeting about the Bible.’

If we live in a world where God’s message and conversation are no longer welcome, are we really okay with not push against those enforced boundaries? Do we let it slide and decide we shouldn’t use social media to spread the message and truth of God? Do we sit in our buildings, our homes…in silence?

Let me just say, it’s against my nature to let it slide. It is, however, in my nature to push against boundaries and has been since I was a toddler. Just didn’t grow out of it, I guess.

And I am definitely not perfect, by any stretch of the word.

But when it comes to my beliefs, who I serve and why I serve Him…I’m sure as hell going to push back on anyone who says I shouldn’t be sharing.

I believe in being in relationships with others, and that God created us for community.

To learn from one another. To share our stories with one another.

I am not intrusive with my beliefs. (At least I don’t think I am…maybe I really am one of the crazy ones others find intimidating.) But you could say I am intrusive with my actions, because I am going to care about people that no one cares about. I am going to love people that some say I have no business loving. I am going to talk about the reality of God’s Kingdom. I choose to embrace my God given missional impulse. And I am going to fight against the injustice in this world, because things in this world are really screwed up and God never intended it to be this way.

Stand up. Do not be content with silence. Speak God’s message through relationships that matter. Choose to see the world through God’s eyes, instead of the eyes that are conditioned to our culture.

Amos called out God’s people for not caring about the things that mattered and I think we can learn from his lack of silence.

Care to join? Think wisely…you might just be told you shouldn’t.

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.

Image

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.