Friday, August 25, 2017

Are you Willing?


HFO summer camps are over and I've had some time to reflect on the past three months, three camps, dozens of kids and hundreds of stories that passed through us.

Camps were different for me this year. I've been going to HFO summer camps for seven years now, but since moving to Ukraine I've been able to see kids living in orphanages in a deeper and fuller way. Their resiliency, intensity, kindness, ingenuity, and charisma surprised me daily and made me want to draw closer to them despite language barriers, wound walls, bad habits, fears, and insecurities.

I would love to tell you about all the kids we met, but let me introduce you to 3 of the many whose character challenged and inspired me.


Above is a picture of Sergei, a teenager whose example taught me courage. Dr. BrenĂ© Brown explained in a Ted Talk the English word “courage” comes from the Latin word “cur” which means heart, and the original meaning of the word "courage" is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. One night, we had a campfire with our small group and were talking about what makes us afraid. I said something surfacy about my very rational fear of monkeys, but Sergei shared he was afraid of becoming like his father, and then he shared the pain and difficulty of denying his father parental rights at 8 yrs old (I'm not sure about the legality behind this, but it is what Sergei understood to be the situation as an 8 yr old), and though he doesn’t regret that decision it was the hardest he's ever had to make and still brings him pain. Sergei's vulnerability created a safe space for the other kids, and even myself, to be vulnerable with each other as well. He had the courage to share his story authentically, and now when people ask me questions, I try to answer authentically.


The young lady on the left with blonde hair is Amelia. Amelia has a deeply troubled and abusive mother, and she has scars on her body as constant reminders. After her mother threatened to kill her, Amelia was taken in by her grandmother who was a Christian and loved and cared for Amelia. However, when Amelia was 11, despite desperately begging God to save her, her grandmother died of cancer and Amelia was taken to an orphanage. That was 3 years ago. At first, Amelia was mad at God for not answering her prayer, but on the last night of camp during our small group time, Amelia, with joy and determination in her voice, told us she believes God answered her prayers because though He did not stop her grandmother from dying of cancer He sent us to her to show her that He sees her and hears her heart and cares about her pain. When I’m struggling with finding hope in a story, Amelia’s faith strengthens my own.


Slavic's resilience is truly "incredible." Slavic is always smiling, but one day, I saw his face change when his mother came to visit him. When she left I asked him about it, and he shared his life story with me. To honor him, I won’t share that story, but it is one of unspeakable pain. I didn’t know how to respond. Though he showed his sadness in that moment, he also continued to show kindness and even joy through the rest of camp. But I was not so resilient. Being helpless to change Slavic’s circumstances defeated me. I could sit in his pain with him for a moment, but I couldn’t fix it. I wanted to give up and go home. I came face-to-face with my own hero complex and it failed me.

But the next night I had a dream. Do you know the song by Coldplay and the Chainsmokers “Something Just Like This?” It was one of the songs we played every day at camp before our evening program with the kids. In my dream, I was walking into the concert hall at camp with my father (who hasn't been to Ukraine -- yet). He took my hand as we walked in and the line of the song was playing, “I’m not looking for somebody with some superhuman gifts...I want something just like this.” And God reminded me of His father’s heart for these kids. He wasn’t asking me to be the hero, just to keep showing up.

Ironically, the theme of our camps this summer was His Power. We talked about famous superheros, their strengths and weaknesses, and the only true super hero the world needs (note to self: I'm not that hero). During our small group time at each camp, our last day’s topic was Jesus as the ultimate superhero. The dominant religion in Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so most of the kids in our small groups knew about Jesus and the facts of His life and why he came to the world… but we wanted them to see the difference between knowing about Jesus and actually knowing Jesus.

I shared with them about a time I felt lonely, helpless, and distant from God and I screamed at Him “where are you!?” After a few moments of silence, He gently reminded me of Adam and Eve. What was the first question God asked them when they disobeyed Him? Genesis 3:8-9 ESV -- And they [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 

“Where are you?” Not because He didn’t know. He could have said so many other things, “How dare you disobey me!” Or, “Seriously? You had one job, one job!”, “I knew you would fail.” “You disgust me. I’m done with you.” Or He could’ve not said anything at all and struck them dead right then. “Okay. Let’s make man in our image round 2.” ….. But He didn’t. His question, “Where are you?” shows His main concern- connection. Where are you? We’re disconnected. And immediately He lays out His costly plan to reunite us to Him, to send Himself, Emmanuel, God with us.

As I was sharing this story with the kids in my small group at the second camp, Amelia’s group, God let me see the answer to a question I’ve asked almost my whole life. From about 11 yrs old to 18 I had panic attacks constantly, and though I knew I was safe and loved, I felt terrified, helpless, and lonely. I’d beg God to take away those feelings but He didn’t. I knew God couldn’t have abandoned me because He doesn’t do that, but I felt abandoned. Even after the panic attacks stopped years later, I still carried that feeling of abandonment. Why did He let me feel so helpless and lonely? Because He was answering a prayer I would pray years later when I moved to Ukraine. A prayer I prayed without truly knowing what I was asking- “Break my heart for what breaks yours.” When I prayed those words last year I didn’t realize He already had. Sitting among those kids, sharing my story, I finally realized that in allowing me to feel those things He was giving me a glimpse of what these kids have experienced their whole lives.

If we want to love people, we have to follow Jesus’ example and suffer with them. We have to be willing to have our hearts broken open and widened. I think that’s part of what it means to share in Christ’s sufferings when Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:5 ESV “For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” Not only the suffering of Christ’s persecution, but I think Paul is including the suffering of Jesus’ broken heart. The heart that wept over the death of his friend Lazarus and the pain his sisters felt, even when Jesus knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead.

There’s a poem by Mary Oliver that expresses this so well. I'm sure I've shared it on my blog before. The speaker starts the poem with “Here is a story to break your heart. Are you willing?” She then tells a story of loons dying without explanation or purpose- needless suffering. And she ends the poem with, “I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only, that it break open, and never again close to the rest of the world.” The poem is called “Lead” and it is a challenge to all of us to take the lead in brokenheartedness. Are we willing to have our hearts broken? No matter if we can stomach the truth or not? But it’s brokenness for a purpose- to be broken open, to widen our hearts to love with Jesus’ love.

I love Paul’s vulnerable, raw plea to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 6:2-13 ESV -- “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians (he addresses them personally); our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children [as to his own dear children]) widen your hearts also.” How do we widen our hearts? By allowing suffering to break it open as Paul describes.

Our world is sick and desperately needs us to be willing to break our hearts open with them and for them. If we protect our hearts we may remain safe, but we will miss participating in the movements of God’s heart.

When we are willing to look, we will see suffering all around us. In Ukraine, in the U.S., in our own families. Sometimes it hits us so personally we can’t look away even if we wanted to.

And what should be our response? I've learned the hard way that we are called to sit with people in it, rather than try to fix something we can't. So often our fix it solutions are only a cover up of platitudes to make ourselves feel better and distance ourselves from the reality of pain and helplessness.

The question I want to leave you with, and I hope to continue to ask myself is, “are you willing?” And you know what? We aren’t. I'm not. Each new person I meet or story I encounter sends me back into questioning God's goodness and giving up hope. The truth is we will never be willing unless we understand the heart that was and is broken for us, that our brokenness connects us to him and His comfort. I don’t want to guilt or shame anyone so I hope that’s not what you’re hearing. This is a challenge to me just as much to anyone else. I so easily close my heart back up and hide from God and don’t trust Him and even become angry with Him for the suffering I see and experience. I constantly need the reminder that God does not give his heart in pieces. He is not hiding from us, He has pursued us from the very moment we hid ourselves away from Him.

There’s a song that has ministered deeply to me since moving to Ukraine, and I hope God will speak to you through it as well. May we be willing to break our heart alongside Jesus, knowing He will widen our hearts to receive His beautiful heart that redefines love for us.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

His Power Summer Camp 1: Barvinook

Barvinook 2017. This is a camp I've visited with the HfO team for the past 3 years, but when we got to camp, we didn't recognize many of the kids and some we hoped to see weren't there. This turned out to be because kids for an orphanage we were familiar with were not allowed to come (allegedly due to bad behavior) and there were a new group of kids from an orphanage we hadn't visited before. Most of these kids were not legal orphans but were living at the orphanage because their parents were unable or unwilling to keep them at home. At first I was disappointed that I didn't know most of the 26 14-15 year olds in my small group, but as the week went on and we spent time together, God began to show me His heart for these particular kids.

In this camp I found myself just watching the kids in my group often and being filled with joy and wonder and love at the small glimpses of their personalities, emotions, talents, hearts, pain, and experiences they were willing to share with us. My prayer was and continues to be that they will come to see how valuable they truly are. Several times we challenged the kids to ask 2 questions of God- "Who are You?" And "Who am I?" And we created safe spaces of healthy vulnerability and boundaries. Such a precious gift to share this little piece of life together.

One particularly precious moment happened the second to last day at camp. At the end of each day we meet with our small group and debrief the day together, sometimes having tea and cookies and just talking about life or whatever is on their minds. On this night, we let the kids in our group write down questions for Jenya (my team leader) and I. The night before we had written down various questions and let the kids randomly pick one and answer if they wanted to. One girl named Anya got the question, "Are you carrying any pain in your heart?" She chose not to answer. However, on this night when we let the kids ask us questions, Anya wrote down the very same question she was asked the night before, "Are you carrying any pain in your heart?" I decided to be honest and share some wounds I had received in my life that sometimes flair up and still cause me pain. I explained that the pain felt different now than it had originally, because before I was alone in my pain whereas now I am learning to bring that pain to Jesus and receive His comfort. The pain doesn't always go away, but being able to be completely honest with Jesus and knowing He not only understands my pain but enters into it with me is my greatest source of comfort. Jenya also opened up about pain he carries, and I believe it was a great gift to show the kids we can be vulnerable in a healthy and healing way.

It was hard to leave them, but after so many camps and with 2 more coming up, my perspective has changed. It's not any less painful to leave, but I hope the examples and care and love we shared with these kids will linger long after we are gone.

Here are some pictures from camp for those of you who are not on Facebook:










Please pray for these kids.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

To love another person is to see the face of God


So this post isn't about Ukraine, but it's about a profound event that has given me deeper understanding of God's heart and serving people, so it's bound to influence my life in Ukraine. :)

Last week my former housemate and fellow IJM UK intern got married in London, and I had the great blessing of being there for her wedding. While in London, I also got to see Les Miserables (That's a sentence I never thought I'd be able to write! I'm still a little in disbelief that it happened!). Dang. I could go on and on about this phenomenal work, but there were two things that struck me particularly.

Having memorized the soundtrack and seen the film, the story of Les Mis didn't surprise me, but what did surprise me was the experience of seeing the production with a live audience. At any given point in the musical, at least one person was crying. So many people love this story. This production has been translated into 22 different languages, has played in 44 countries, has been seen live by more than 70 million people worldwide, and is the world's longest running musical. There's something special about this story, something that responds to the longing of the human heart. 

Much of our modern society (especially in the western world), from pain, fear, or disillusionment, has rejected absolute truth and left hollow our universal desire for divine justice. Life is chaotic and unfair, as reflected in the lives of Eponine and Cosette in Les Mis. These characters were girls together, both from humble circumstances, both prove to have compassionate hearts; but one is plucked from a life of misery and the other dies in it. Why is one saved and the other not? In life and in the play, we do not get direct answers.

At the end of this particular version of the musical, both Fantine and Eponine come to Jean Valjean as he's dying to guide him to paradise. At first I was confused - why Eponine? But her presence in that scene shifted how I see the whole play. 

I always thought Les Mis was a bit moralistic (even though it presents the parallel stories of Javert who is destroyed by moralism and Valjean who is saved by mercy), because at the end of the story Valjean is ushered to paradise by Fantine for taking care of her daughter. His good deeds in response to the mercy extended to him by the priest redeems his former criminal life and he is rewarded with peace. He gets to see the face of God because he has loved another person.

Nope. The presence of Eponine and her singing along with Fantine the famous line, "to love another person is to see the face of God," made me realize I had it all wrong. 

When Fantine tells Valjean, "You raised my child in love, now you will be with God," he responds, "She's (Cosette) the best of my life." I had thought he meant loving her was the best thing he had done in his life, when really, being able to love her was the greatest gift of his life. 

Eponine helped me to see that. She too knows what it means "to love another person is to see the face of God," and that's why she is the character to appear alongside Fantine. Though her life was tragic it was not a tragedy. She too was given the gift of loving another person, even though Marius never romantically reciprocated her love for him. Being loved is a special gift, but truly, sacrificially loving another person is to literally participate in the greatest attribute of God, love Himself.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Pace of Nature

As a geologist, my dad did a lot of work in Avon Park; and as home school kids, we often went with him, doing schoolwork in the morning and going out to play by the lake in the afternoon. We spent hours digging up clams and collecting them in buckets just to be thrown back at the end of the day. But I remember my favorite thing to do was lie still on the shore with my body stretched into the lake so that only my head wasn't submerged. After a few minutes, the tiny minnows living in the shallows acclimated to my presence and began swimming around me and gently bumping against my arms and legs.

Some things are only experienced in stillness.

God reminded me of that yesterday. Both of my usual commitments cancelled and I found I had the whole day to myself. Liliya is in the States (hug her for me if you get to see her!) and so I also had our apartment to myself, but the weather was beautiful and warm (finally! This FL girl is ready to sweat.), so I decided to go exploring.


I found a walking path that led to a lake so I sat down and started to journal. I had many questions I wanted to get out. Though my life in Ukraine has been truly wonderful, it's also not been what I expected. It's honestly pretty simple. I study Ukrainian, teach English, meet new people, occasionally help HfO with outreaches and preparing for summer camps. Guilt and worry attack in waves -- I'm not doing enough, I should be more assertive, I should study harder, I should have a ministry plan by now, build more partners, be more involved at my church... the list goes on. And while none of these things are bad and I do want to find specific ministry work to dive into, God reminded me today that waiting is a verb. I might feel directionless at times and worry that I'm standing still, but there are some things that are only experienced in stillness. As I sat by the lake, I looked at the nature around me. It too seemed motionless at first glance, but the longer you look the more you realize everything is in motion at the perfect pace. "Oaks of righteousness" do not sprout up in a day (or in the 6 months I've been in Ukraine). In the perceptive words of Emerson, "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience." Patience is indeed a virtue necessary to build anything strong. 

I will continue teaching English and studying Ukrainian through the end of the month, and then I will be in 4 camps with HfO throughout June and July. In August I will be in FL for 3 weeks (and would love to see you!), and then back to Ukraine for Lily and Matt's wedding. At this point, I'm not sure what my life will look like come September, and I have many decisions to make - where to live, where and how to give my time, what ministries to partner with, what my role should be as an American supporting Ukrainians serving Ukrainians, to continue raising support or to find work in Ukraine, to serve as a layman and connect professional counselors and therapists to orphan ministries or to go back to school for counseling or trauma therapy. Please pray with me for guidance over those decisions. Your comfort and encouragement help keep me going and I am so grateful! 

My visit to London last week for a dear friend's wedding inspired me to get back into The Valley of Vision. These words have been my prayer, 

Fill me with an over-flowing ocean of compassion,
     the reign of love my motive
     the law of love my rule.
Cement my oneness with my blessed Lord,
     that faith may adhere to him more immovably,
     that love may entwine itself round him more tightly,
     that his spirit may pervade every fiber of my being.
Then send me out to make him known to my fellow-men.

I'll be real with you, I'm an idealist and theorist. This is helpful in giving me perspective to see bigger pictures at work through the details and to be intentional, but it's also dangerous because I can so easily get lost in the abstract and not bring these ideals into living, breathing actuality. It scares me, the potential to learn and understand and perceive but then to do nothing with it. Even now the fear claws at me since I've literally spent the whole day writing two blog posts (no joke! That's why they're so few and far between) and haven't interacted with a single person face-to-face. Please pray that God will give me the courage and strength to take these gifts given to me in solitude and stillness and use them to serve and love people and honor Him. 

Thank you for entering into this with me.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Emmanuel


Several times these past few weeks, especially the last 4 days we spent at camp with kids from Horodnya, I've been overcome with awe by the reality of God entering into every dark and shameful and painful corner of our stories -- Emmanuel, God with us. God doesn't know us in abstraction, He knows us not only as our Creator, but as a fellow participator in this human life. He has been and continues to be present with us. His presence is what our world needs, and amazingly, He invites us to participate in extending His presence to others. Moments when I am allowed to sit with someone in his or her pain are treasures I hold precious, because such moments when others have done the same for me are some of the greatest gifts I have ever received, moments when God's presence with us is visceral.

There is more pain in the hearts of these kids than we could ever have enough time to sit with. And yet, we saw and experienced joy tucked into so many moments and corners, for it is into such places that God himself went when he was here in the flesh. What a gift we are given to walk into places and stories of despair with authentic hope. The incarnation didn't end when Jesus ascended, it continues every moment we live out the Gospel as made possible by God's spirit in us. 

I've been reading Diane Langberg's book Suffering and the Heart of God and I love the way she describes incarnational ministry:

     Demonstrate in the flesh the character of God over time so that who you are reveals God to the survivor 
     [of trauma]. That, of course, is the incarnation, isn't it? Jesus, in the flesh, explaining God to us. Jesus, 
     bringing the unseen down into flesh and blood actualities. The survivor needs us to incarnate God for two
     reasons. One, we all need that. Secondly, this need is intensified for the trauma survivor because what has
     been repeatedly taught to a child in the seen is antithesis of the truth of God. She has learned about 
     fathers, power, trust, love, and refuge from one who emulated the father of lies.
        If you want the trauma survivor to understand that God is a refuge, then be one for her. If you want her 
     to grasp the faithfulness of God, then be faithful to her. If you want her to understand the truthfulness of 
     God, then never lie to her. If you want her to understand the infinite patience of God, then be patient with 
     her. And where you are not a refuge, or are tired of being faithful, or are fudging in your answers or 
     growing impatient with the necessary repetition, then get down on your knees and ask God to give you 
     more of himself so that you might represent him well.

That challenges and encourages me. May God continue to fill us with his presence and poor it out in flesh and blood actualities. Please continue to pray for me, the HfO team, and these kids.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Justice and Weariness

I am weary. On days like this I am so ready for Jesus to come back and restore peace forever. The suffering and exploitation that wearies me is not just in Ukraine. It is everywhere, even in my own heart and actions. There's a poem by Warsan Shire that runs through my head often these days. It's called "what they did yesterday afternoon."

they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

It doesn't matter where you go, what you do, who you interact with- everything everywhere hurts.

I was reading Galatians this morning and Paul's charge that we not let ourselves grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up. I am so easily wearied, so easily discouraged and despairing.  But I have had two deep encouragements I need to remember and I'd like to share with you.

We have a death conquering Savior. In the face of death we can boldly nurture life. Jesus absorbed all the carnage we have wrecked in each other. The "desperate tides of the whole great world's anguish were forced thro' the channels of a single heart." His heart. I am constantly shocked and horrified by the injustices I encounter; Jesus knew them personally. How often I forget. Honestly, I almost daily vent my anger at God, as if I am the one showing him the suffering of the world rather than the other way around. God is personally acquainted with every injustice ever committed and what's more has personally paid the consequence of those injustices. He has conquered death and extended life to us, leaving no room for despair.

And yet, I find a way. But that leads me to my second deep encouragement- the beautiful, resilient people I've met whose courage, grace, and love give me the energy not to give up hope. These people share more of the Gospel with me through their lives than I ever could with them.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in McDonald's at Ocean Plaza in Kyiv with a dear friend of mine. This friend and I met in Ukraine at an English camp 7 years ago. We connected over our love of words, quizzical eyebrows, and a magnetism toward Ukraine with which neither of us understood what to do. After living oddly parallel lives which included IJM, London, and living in Ukraine, we were recently reunited. Sitting in McDonald's, we discussed what our lives would be like if not for Ukraine. A love for justice is embedded in both of our DNA, but through our conversation I realized without Ukraine, justice wouldn't mean what it means to me now. Without Ukraine, I would still be asking the wrong questions. As an abstract thinker, I could easily get stuck exploring and defining my understanding of the concept of justice without ever actually entering into pursuing justice. Without Ukraine, I don't think I would've been forced to move beyond my anger at God for injustice in the world. I have met so many beautiful people who have suffered incomprehensible pain and shame, and yet they see and rejoice in the goodness of God. They know God on a level that inspires me to continue pressing into His heart and not allow myself to grow weary of doing good. They have helped me to see the truth of Gary Haugen's words in the introduction to his book Good News About Injustice

      For those who look at the deep ravages of injustice and find themselves descending into despair, I do
      not have adequate words. In such dark waters, words can rarely do the required work. But I can usher
      you into the holy spaces where we have met these survivors, by the thousands, and allow you to be
      awed by their stories. There is little about the agony and humiliation of evil that they do not understand,
      but in their harsh struggles they have also testified to the mysteries and mercies of God in a way that, to
      me, makes despair or cynicism seem like an indulgence, a lie and a dishonor.

If these people I have come to respect and love can endure what they have endured and come out of it praising God, then I have no right to me mad at God on their behalf. Their closeness to the God of justice and mercy urges me closer to Him even amid my anger and doubt. And in that closeness, I meet a God who is far more just and merciful and empathetic and patient and powerful than I could even hope for, and I am humbled to the very dust.

I have just one more poem to share. It's by Philip Metres and it's called "Compline."

That we await a blessed hope, & that we will be struck
With great fear, like a baby taken into the night, that every boot,

Every improvised explosive, Talon & Hornet, Molotov 
& rubber-coated bullet, every unexploded cluster bomblet, 

Every Kevlar & suicide vest & unpiloted drone raining fire 
On wedding parties will be burned as fuel in the dark season. 

That we will learn the awful hunger of God, the nerve-fraying 
Cry of God, the curdy vomit of God, the soiled swaddle of God, 

The constant wakefulness of God, alongside the sweet scalp 
Of God, the contented murmur of God, the limb-twitched dream-

Reaching of God. We’re dizzy in every departure, limb-lost. 
We cannot sleep in the wake of God, & God will not sleep 

The infant dream for long. We lift the blinds, look out into ink
For light. My God, my God, open the spine binding our sight.

I'll rein in my inner poetry critic and spare you a total analysis of the poem, but I do want to point out the first line of the 4th stanza, "That we will learn the..." which begins a list of descriptions of Emmanuel, God incarnate as one of us, experiencing the total weakness of infancy even though He is the commander of galaxies. The line doesn't start with God learning our human experience, but with us coming to know His experience. On that beautiful, dreadful day when our blessed hope, Jesus, burns up injustice and suffering, then we will know Him. We will know fully what He did to fulfill justice and extend mercy to us.

So for today, I choose hope, and thank God for one more day of grace for those who do not know His mercy.



Tuesday, December 13, 2016

December


Guys, I love Ukraine.

Sure, there are rough moments and this past month has certainly not gone by without pain and difficulty- I miss my loved ones, the ocean, the English language, the confidence of living in a culture whose rhythms I know how to dance in- but I also love getting to move deeper into life and ministry here in Ukraine.

A couple weeks ago I was in the HfO office with some of the team members. One of them had a micro lens for his phone and was taking up-close shots of random things. Soon everyone started taking pictures of their scalps, eyes, nose hairs, moles, and pimples, laughing at the gross and strange images. I didn't want to join in. Invite people to take a magnified look at my embarrassing blemishes? On purpose? Aren't pimples the kind of thing we cover up or refuse to mention out of politeness? And yet, as I watched the team hunting for moles on their arms and pimples on their necks, I realized I was the only one feeling embarrassed. The rest of the team laughed with each other, not at each other as they experienced the freedom of vulnerability and literally bringing what has been deemed shameful to light. I decided to join in.

I want to live the rest of my life like that, creating a safe space for others to bring the shameful things they carry to light, drawing us closer together as we become more and more authentic.

Out of this desire and recognizing a need for authentic fellowship and processing shameful experiences, we've started a (for lack of a better word) "training" for some of our team members and the young men living at the HfO house. We meet together once a week at our apartment and go through exercises and discuss life skills topics with the purpose of engaging in the boys' lives, inviting them into ours, talking about dreams, shared experiences, and tools to respond to life's struggles in a healthy way. The first week we just played games, talked about our expectations and hopes for the training and what topics we'd like to cover. The boys were very honest with us that they don't want to be treated as orphans, and they're not convinced we would care about spending time with them if not for their orphan status. They told us they don't care about the Bible and don't want to be our Christian project subjects. It was a difficult discussion, but I was encouraged and challenged by their honesty. These boys have had to figure out significant pieces of their lives on their own. We would be crazy to sweep in and think we could save them and tell them how to live their lives. We can't "fix" them or remove the injustice and pain they have experienced. Our best gift to them is to keep showing up, consistently showing them we care, they matter, their stories matter, and we want to see and hear them.

Orthodox Christianity is deeply rooted in Ukrainian culture, and has unfortunately pushed people away from God through hypocrisy, judgement, and hierarchy. To many people, the Bible is a list of rules people in power created to dominate and shame others. If God does exist, He is distant, angry, and uncaring. We face these barriers every day as we try to share and live the Gospel.

In my prayers, God reminds me daily of some of the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples, "A new command I give you: 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). Please pray that God continues to teach us to love as He loves us and to extend that love to these young men- Jenya, Adik, Seryozha, Igor, and Tolik- and to everyone around us.

If you want to know how you can pray for me day-by-day, here's my basic weekly schedule:

Sunday- Worship service at Open Hearts church in the morning, and Reformat youth group at New Life church in the evening. Some of the boys and the HfO team go to both and I have relationships with both church communities.

Monday- HfO office meetings in the morning and our "training" sessions in the evening. Last week we focused on personal identity, last night we explored personal values, and next week our session will be about personal boundaries.

Tuesday- Ukrainian language lessons with Alex, my new tutor. Alex and his wife, Natahsa, attend Open Hearts and are studying Biblical counseling at Kiev Theological Seminary.

Wednesday- I teach English in partnership with New Life's middle school youth ministry, Flip. We have an English club at a local school and build relationships with the kids there.

Thursday- Masha, Igor, Liliia, and I travel to two orphanages in near-ish villages and build relationships with the kids through English lessons and life skills discussions. It makes for a long day of traveling, but I really enjoy these simple, regular interactions with the kids. I've never taught English before, but Masha is a great teacher and I learn much from her.

Friday- Winter camp preparations! We will do a 5 day camp in Mariupol next week with friends who have started regular visits to the orphanage there. It's incredibly encouraging to know that after camp, our friends will continue to meet regularly with these kids. We will also have several smaller day camps in early January in orphanages around Kyiv with which HfO already has relationships. The theme this year is Final Destination. All our games, activities, and lessons will center around different crossroads we have in life and how to make healthy decisions.

In addition to camps, we have several events coming up to celebrate the holiday season. Ukraine follows the Orthodox calendar, so Christmas is celebrated the eve of January 6th through January 7th. We will celebrate New Year as a team, and also have celebrations at a trade school where we teach lessons, as well as 2 different celebrations for elderly men and women in near by villages who don't have family to celebrate with.

Thank you for your love and support and for making all this possible!

And now, some pictures....

Lilliia and I found a lovely 1 room apartment near the HfO house.

Igor and Jenya made this awesome pallet bed for us.

This is Misha, he and his fiancĂ©, Luba, practice English with me and teach me Ukrainian words. They are lovely friends. 

Preparing skits for winter camp.

Teaching English at an orphanage in Starobasan.