torn

Shattered into a multitude of pieces is what my life typically feels like. You would think I am used to it by now. I want to be so many places all at the same time. It literally feels like a ragged ripping with a painful element of being torn…how is it this possible to feel comfortable and natural through different cultures, languages and continents?

It is an unexplainable feeling to be torn for completely different places and friendships.

I love Russia. I deeply love my friends in Russia. I value those friendships as important and transformative to my life.

I love Haiti. I deeply love my friends in Haiti. I value those friendships as important and transformative to my life.

See the dilemma?

This morning while driving through snow, I was reminded how drastically different these two places have been created. From general structure to temperature, landscape, architecture, politics…you name it and most everything is all on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Except for one, hospitality is completely in sync with one another. Each place would do anything to make a guest feel welcome.

But for me, there is a common denominator for both firmly within the orphan window of this world. Each has different orphan situations…social, political and poverty orphans…both places have an overwhelming abundance of children aching to be championed by someone who genuinely cares about them, listens to their dreams, encourages their worth, and is willing to fight with them for their education and future. Someone to be a friend in the times their cultures tell them they are not worth the time and effort. Someone to make them feel they are not alone, and they have been created for good.

Ultimately, someone who supports locals within their culture to step into a variety of scenarios with unconditional love and friendship. My greatest dream is that the number of people within their country to make them a part of their family increases exponentially until all orphans throughout the world are taken into families within their home culture and no orphanage needs to exist to raise kids. It could be that this will not happen until this world is restored, but I believe God is continually raising up and calling people to be that champion in their own country.

There is no escaping examples of orphans in the Bible. Moses in a basket floating down a river. Esther’s parents dying, then being taken in by her cousin. Jesus being adopted by Joseph, for just a few.

There is also no escaping God’s mandate to seek justice for orphans, because, he is their protector, and as agents of God we are not invited to participate, but instructed to participate in protecting those who need to feel chosen and loved unconditionally. Don’t take my word for it, look for yourself in Psalms 10:17-18, Psalms 65:5-6, Jeremiah 22:3, James 1:26-27, Deuteronomy 10:17, Isaiah 1:16-17, Zechariah 7:9-10 and Malachi 3:5 to name a few.

My life is proof that each created life has a unique calling and purpose within God’s Kingdom that is theirs alone. My life is whole and I would never trade what I have been given for a different life…it’s just my kind of crazy.

As one who is anointed and called as someone to speak into the lives of others, when I started coming to Russia, I lacked the maturity to speak well. Some would say I still lack maturity, and for certain situations I wouldn’t argue but for most I would argue they really don’t know me. I’ve done nothing to deserve the insane blessing and transformation of the journey into the orphan window over the last twelve years. I’m not worthy of that honor, but when it comes to the orphan window of this world, God has tuned me to the same frequency as his heart for the orphan and widow. For that I am ever grateful for being able to exist within so many different perspectives.

As I ride to Velikoretskoye listening to what I like to refer to my ‘Kingdom focus’ music to drown out my torn heart, I am not ready to leave my Russian friends…even though it is time. Oh, how I long to be hugged simultaneously by my Russian and Haitian buddies. These kids are meant for greatness. They are meant to transform the world with their gifts and talents God created them to possess. They are created to be good people, shitty situations come on them and choices get made for bad things…but they were created for good.

God moments have been written into every aspect of the last two weeks. Some small and others massive, then in an unexplainable realm, every time my Russian buddy would run to my legs and wrap his small arms around both legs in a tight hug, exclaiming ‘Stephanie Stevovona!’ with a high pitched giggle, I would simultaneously feel one of my Haitian buddies doing the same on my opposite side, yelling out, ‘Éstefony!’ I genuinely hope it works in reverse once I return to Haiti. 

Looking at our time in Velikoretskoye, God was everywhere, just as he is present all over the book of Esther, yet his name is not written into the pages.  His name may not have been spoken out loud and his word may not have been quoted, but his heart was represented well through relationships, conversations and goofy inside jokes that continue to build our community with each other. Many moments I am hoping to share and celebrate, while others are more likely to stay between me and my creator. We will see what ends up getting shared from our visit with our friends. 

I hate that I am torn. I love that I am torn. And I am learning and growing to live within that love/hate tension through my deep love for the orphans who find themselves in the orphan window of this world, because I am created as a voice to inform those who are unaware and a friend to encourage those who didn’t deserve that injustice in the first place.

I’ve been redeemed and set free through grace for this calling that I humbly walk into as one who is deeply in love with Jesus and choose to journey within that calling…fully knowing I will continue to feel the tension of being torn as I love my friends all over the world.  

 

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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.

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.

the heart of God

I love snow. I just cannot help it…there is something incredibly peaceful about how silently it falls. How pure and white it is…how perfect, yet individually unique. I am literally giddy when I see perfect snowflakes and all of their points. And the world is so quiet when snow falls, especially when it falls at night…it’s a God moment for me. It’s as though, if God whispered…I’d hear it crystal clear.

Last month on the van as we drove way from Velikoretakoye orphanage…I was caught up in the emotion of the moment, and needed to put into words how I was seeing the heart of God in action. It just so happens that I was struck with the irony of being surrounded by the snow I find so peaceful, yet struggling with the inner emotional turmoil of what God was doing in my heart as I drove away from my Russian family. It’s just not ‘normal’ to love kids so much that you only see for 6 days out of the year. We find ourselves struggling with our human side that says it’s impossible to love someone THAT much especially when you barely know them. The outpouring of love, when you are choosing to do so on behalf of our Christ, is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. You surrender to God, he fills you up and you release it all onto kids who rarely receive God’s love through hugs, encouragement and time well spent.

And just to be clear, when the heart of God collides with your heart…it hurts. At least it sure doesn’t feel good most of the time. But it is also one of the most beautiful, most pure, incredible things we will ever have the privilege to to experience. When you find your heart, or be blessed enough see anyone else’s, merged with God’s…it’s overwhelming and most of us are ill equipped with what to do, not only in that moment, but afterwards, too.

This doesn’t just happen on a bus traveling away from some phenomenal kids…it happens anytime someone serves God. It could be an amazing team  He threw together that against all odds, accomplished so much for Him. It could be when students ‘get’ what the Bible is talking about, and get so passionate you could never hold them back. It could be sitting at the side of a loved one when you know time is limited. When you pray for your heart to break as God’s heart breaks…that’s when you are going all in for His kingdom and embracing the joy and pain that comes with it.

What I keep trying to tell myself is…

When we feel hopeless, God is faithful.
When we feel broken, God is whole and we are made whole in him.
When we are scared, God has already won.
When we see no way out, he is the way out.
When our earthly family is not enough, he is Abba.
When our plans don’t go our way, his plan is still evolving and in place.
When we see no light at the end of the tunnel, he is the light.
When all we see is despair, he sees it all working for His good.
When all we can do is let our eyes leak, he counts each tear.
When we feel unlovable, he declares our name, counts the hairs on our head and says, ‘You are mine, and my love is ever flowing and unconditional.’

The heart of God is the mission of God…they are inseparable. Mission is connecting people to God’s heart in such a tangible way that they cannot go on without acknowledging him in their life. The mission of God doesn’t exist to be a department of a church, the church exists as a means to fulfill God’s mission in this world. Mission exists because of God’s love for each one of us. That is the whole reason we are celebrating Jesus’ birth…God sent perfection into our world so we would know how sacrificial and complete his love is for us.

Does that always mean I am hopeful? No.

Does that always mean my faith is strong? I waver when things don’t go the way I thought they would.

Does that always mean I have the answers? Hardly ever.

Does that mean I need to be reminded why I am here? Of course.

Does it make my passion for God’s coming kingdom and his mission any less passionate? Absolutely not.

Do I constantly have to listen for God’s words, his guidance…his whisper?
Every day…maybe even in a still, quiet night as snow falls and my heart collides with the heart of God. Shhhh…I’m listening, are you?

//Stephanie//