Sunday, July 1, 2018

Barvinok 2018

Our first camp of the summer is over, and tomorrow we go on to our second. But I don't want to move on to another set of kids without sharing with you just a few stories about some of the beautiful kids in this picture.

This camp particularly blessed me because my dad also came to camp for the first time. He jumped right in and did his best to connect with not only the kids in our group but with the younger kids and the Ukrainian team as well. Everyone fell in love with him. We were with the oldest kids, 15-16 year olds, and one night we had a bonfire with them and all took turns answering fill-in-the-blank questions. One of our boys shared about his grandmother and how she always tried to take care of him, and one of our girls, Dasha, commented, "Grandparents are the best people. That's why Jason wants to be a grandfather." The boys loved playing american football with my dad and admired his stories and insights in our lesson times.

Another special aspect of this camp was that our team already knew most of the kids in our group. Some kids we knew from previous camps, like Luba, who is getting adopted along with her younger sister by a Ukrainian family in Texas! And others we knew from teaching english and life skills classes once a week at their orphanage during the school year. So our group was more like a reunion than a new meeting and we went deep early on because we didn't have to break the ice and build new relationships.

Because we already new these kids, they each quickly let us deeper into their stories, feelings, and dreams. The things these kids have gone through and are going through broke our hearts to a point beyond words. One afternoon Liliia and I walked with Dasha as she told us about what's going on in her heart and the pain and hopelessness she carries. After holding her and letting her cry, Liliia asked her if there was something in life that brings her joy. She said laying on the grass and looking up into the trees, so we did just that.

The morning after a really interesting conversation about principles and convictions, we found out one of our kids was beaten very badly by another boy in our group. And still another boy from our group stood watch and guarded the door while the beating took place. It was so bad a doctor and the police were called in. There are similar gang and prison structures in orphanages, power and fear are tools of control that establish a hierarchy. We knew things like this happened all the time, but to see it play out with our boys, boys we loved and thought had chosen to live differently, deeply discouraged us.

But, the boy who stood guard eventually came to Liliia and then to Jenya and wept over what he had done, and admitted he felt horrible about it and wanted forgiveness. He went and apologized to the boy who was beat up (who forgave him) and that evening apologized in front of our whole small group, even though there were some boys who laughed at him. He said he never would have felt bad about doing something like this before, but God was awakening his heart and convicted him. And then, on our last night of camp the boy who did the beating came to our small group and as we shared our reflections from camp, he said that his take away from camp was that he needs to be kinder.

We pray that these things take root in these kids hearts and truly changes their lives. I was once again reminded to never give up on someone. No one is ever too far lost that God's love cannot restore him or her. Our Good Father is the God who brings dry bones to life.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
The Valley of Dry Bones

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and He brought me out by His Spirit and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them. There were a great many of them on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry. 3 Then He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I replied, “Lord God, only You know.”

4 He said to me, “Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Lord God says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. 6 I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am Yahweh.”

7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 As I looked, tendons appeared on them, flesh grew, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath,[a] prophesy, son of man. Say to it: This is what the Lord God says: Breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these slain so that they may live!” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me; the breath[b] entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army.

11 Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Look how they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore, prophesy and say to them: This is what the Lord God says: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, My people, and lead you into the land of Israel. 13 You will know that I am Yahweh, My people, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put My Spirit in you, and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I am Yahweh. I have spoken, and I will do it.” This is the declaration of the Lord.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A New Journey

On New Year's Eve, 2014, I was in Ukraine celebrating with dear friends during a few days lapse in between camps we were putting on for children in local orphanages. We decided to write down our dreams for the new year and seal them up in tiny jars to be opened next year. I heard the scratch of everyone else's pens as they wrote their dreams, but my pen simply rested against the piece of red construction paper I held in my hand. I had nothing to write. There were the usual resolutions I could put down- go skydiving, study Russian, write more poems, read the Bible every day... but these were practical things I could accomplish, not a vision or hope I had for the future.
Life had taught me dreaming of the future could be dangerous. The future could disappoint and hurt me, so why dream at all? I had rationalized the safest way to live meant having no expectations, simply taking whatever came and accepting it as the Lord's will. Sitting on a kitchen chair in a friend’s living room that night, I realized how sad it was that I allowed fear and pain to stop me from dreaming. After a few more minutes, I wrote down the only honest thing I could, "Lord, give me dreams again." We all sealed our jars and sang a few worship songs together.
As the party dwindled and people began to leave, a new friend of mine, who had no idea what I had just asked the Lord, turned to me, looked me in the eyes and said, "my sister, my wish for you is to dream impossible things." And then he turned away and left.

Two and a half years later, I moved to Ukraine as a missionary to work with Ukrainian friends serving orphans. 
I've been serving in summer camps for seven years now, but since moving to Ukraine over a year ago I've been able to see kids growing up in orphanages in a deeper and fuller way. Their resiliency, intensity, kindness, ingenuity, and charisma surprise me daily and motivate me to draw closer to them despite language barriers, wound walls, bad habits, fears, and insecurities. They teach me much. I long to create safe spaces for these youth to bring the shameful experiences they carry to light, to encounter Jesus, and to embrace and celebrate their story and its connection to God’s narrative.

I love stories and hold them as sacred and precious, especially The Story from which comes all stories -- the craft of God and His movement toward us. There is nothing more wonderful to me than the story of the Gospel, that we not only are able to know the story, but are invited to participate in it as well. I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection. I want to see His kingdom come. Even if the circumstances of an orphan’s life aren’t changed, I hope to give him or her the experience of being seen, being heard, being in the presence of someone willing to sit with them in their pain and to know this experience as an extension of God’s incarnational love for them and desire to be in relationship with them.

I have witnessed painful stories in prisons, strip clubs, halfway homes, and orphanages. Through these stories and the people who carry them God has shown me His heart. In Ukraine specifically, I have offered what little I can, and the deeper I’m allowed into orphans’ lives the more I realize how unequipped I am to help them navigate their pain. There has been blessing in offering what little I have and seeing God use it, but there is much more I want to learn about loving people who are living in the fear and pain of chronic trauma. I want to go back to school to learn how to go to depths with these youth I am currently unable to reach. So often a child will share a piece of their story and because I don’t know how to enter their wounds and healthily bind them up again, I have to bring the conversation back to a manageable depth. So often a kid is triggered by something around them and I don’t know how to help them feel safe. I have band aids, but these kids need tourniquets. I have a first aid kit, they need a hospital. That is why I want to pursue a MA degree in counseling and psychology.
Chronic trauma is not a well studied topic in Ukraine and there are few resources, so I started looking for a program in the States. After reading Dan Allender’s The Wounded Heart, friends and I discovered the Allender Center and the Seattle School. I love this school's fusion of Gospel and psychology- recognizing their integral relationship rather than viewing science and theology as sterile separates. I really respect the structure of the Seattle School, and that personal counseling is required as a part of processing your own story and being aware how it shapes your interaction with others.

My new “impossible” dream is to study at the Seattle School and take this equipment back to Ukraine to better support Ukrainians as they serve orphans. I want to better serve and love the kids I’m currently trying to serve and love. I want to go deeper into God’s heart for them. To offer them the best that I can. It would be an overwhelming gift to offer what I would learn at the Seattle School to these kids.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

But You Heard Me Today

We just returned from a short 5 day camp with kids from Gorodenya during their spring break. This is an orphanage we have been visiting for several years now and have relationships with kids we've watched grow into teenagers, several of which were in my small group this time.

One of these kids is a young man I will refer to as Roma to honor his identity. Over the years Roma has spent time with host families in the States and has learned to speak English pretty well. This camp was the first time I really got to sit down and talk with him outside of the usual games and activities of camp. He told me about his favorite sports teams, hobbies, and things he liked to eat in the States. He also told me about his family. I didn't realize it before, but his older brother is a young man who was once in my small group with my mom a few summers ago. We still write to each other and video chat from time to time. What I didn't know is that Roma's brother is not doing well. He stopped his studies, isn't working, and left the ministry house he was living in because he wasn't willing to follow the house rules. He now lives on the streets and in the metro. We know this is a common story for many kids who age out of orphanages, but it's a hard reality to accept. The orphanage does not and cannot equip these young people to face life on the outside. It's hard to watch these kids grow and know they are running out of time and that as horrible as their conditions may be in the orphanage, their chances for a good life once they leave the orphanage are slim. 1 in 10. And that's a statistic from almost 10 years ago. With the ongoing war with Russia, I doubt the statistics have improved. 

Roma prayed with us during group time a few times and I witnessed him being kind to kids who were loners or disadvantaged, but I also saw him being rude to other kids and trying to manipulate team members to get something from them. I think he is unfortunately like many kids who are hosted and get into a mentality that Americans are for getting cool stuff. Many of the kids live double lives, trying to impress us (and their host families) to our faces and acting horrible toward each other when they think we aren't paying attention. I don't say that to make these kids seem like bad kids. Honestly, it makes sense that they would cheat and bully each other. I don't think they're trying to be conniving when they're trying to please us, they're just fighting for attention, acceptance, and survival in a brutal environment where few things are certain or consistent.

During our first small group time, the Ukrainian leader in my group explained it was his first time doing camp at this orphanage and asked who has been to camp before. Some of the kids raised their hands. Then one boy, Andre, said “Abi’s done camp here before; she’s been coming here as long as we’ve been here!”

I’ve been going to Gorodenya for 6 years but I didn’t realize that kids like Andre noticed or cared. As I'm given wider and deeper perspective into these kids' lives and how helpless I am to change anything, this moment encouraged me that at the very least presence matters.

After our second day’s lesson, one of the girls in our small group wanted to show me her room and her drawings. One of the drawings was a sign that read “your dreams don’t work unless you do.” I asked her what she dreams about and she said “nothing”. I asked her why and she said because she doesn’t believe in dreams. In very broken Ukrainian I told her about my impossible dreams story, that several years ago I had stopped dreaming because dreams could be painful and disappointing, but God gave me new dreams and one of those dreams was to live in Ukraine- and here I am.  My prayer for her is that God will show her His "impossible" dreams for her.

After the camp day was over we had an evening team leader meeting. One of our new team members shared that she realized we can only be an example and give kids a taste of what they are worth and what life could be. We can’t be these kids' best friend because we will leave at the end of the week and can't promise to be consistently in their lives the way they need.

After the meeting I thanked her for sharing because her words were so important and needed to be heard by the rest of the team. We have potential to cause as much harm as good. Too many times I got close to a child because I wanted the validation of being loved and needed but when camp ended I left that child feeling more abandoned and rejected than they already felt because I was loving them for myself and not for their benefit.

She told me that the children love me, that even before getting to know me she heard about me because the kids would talk about me and ask where I was and save a seat for me next to them. She said coming to camp she thought what was most important was talking with the kids, but she saw that I can’t even speak really well with them but they love me and feel my love for them. It touched me deeply and encouraged me that God is using me and what I’m doing matters.

This kind of ministry isn't one for quick results. In fact, most days it feels like losing. It's not hard to slide into a rut of thinking nothing you're doing makes a difference or will foster real positive change. On returning from camp, I was reminded of these words from Oscar Romero,

"We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very, very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”

I remember Gary Haugen once saying the work of justice is long and boring. There are beautiful moments of glorious miracles and chain-breaking results, but for the most part it's like living through an ages long winter with only the future hope of spring as comfort.

Before this camp I heard a beautiful story from François Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. He said after one particularly moving episode Fred closed the show with the same words he always closed his show, "I like you just the way you are. You make each day a special day by just your being you," while looking right at François. After he said those lines Fred walked over to François and François asked, "Fred, were you talking to me?" And Fred replied, "I have been talking to you for years, but you heard me today."

God is like that. And I want to be like that for these kids. It may take years of showing and telling, but someday just might be the day a kid hears us.

Playing a game during English master class

Our small group goofing off

A precious heart

 Craft time!

Having fun but so ready for the snow to melt!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Hungarian Community Camp

Last month my friends from GYProject let me join them for a kids camp in West Ukraine to a Hungarian-Ukrainian community. These people (the "Roma") were born in Ukraine, but they live like refugees. Their history is a long and complicated one that I want to learn more about, but from what I've experienced and learned, these people live off the grid, unrecognized, responsible to, or protected by the Ukrainian government. There is a huge stigma regarding Roma people in Ukraine, and many Ukrainians believe they are lazy, superstitious thieves who have nothing positive to add to their country. My friends have been going to this particular Roma community for several years now, but last month was my first time being able to join them. My friend Andre described the experience so well that I want to share his words...

Not long ago we got back from our trip to Western Ukraine to the village of Veliki Luchki to visit the Roma people. We got to put on a children’s camp and youth meetings, have a doctor see to sick people (many children were fighting a breakout of measles and TB), and spend time talking to our Roma friends in an informal setting for six days.

During camp we had time to hang out with kids, do crafts, games, sing songs and dance. And we got to see and fall even more in love with these kids. The first half of the day we held a children’s program called “Treasure.” We talked with the kids about how everyone has things they value, their treasure. For some people it is work, for others money, for some, family. And God has His own treasure, too. Our goal was to show them that each of them are treasure in God’s eyes. At the end of the program each day a local lady helped make hot lunches to feed each of the children. After lunch we had free time to spend with the kids—we drew together, played different games, made crafts, painted nails, hung out and had fun :)

We also had a special time with the teens and youth where we talked about dreams, callings, purpose, relationships and sex. These meetings helped us get to know and understand them better and to evaluate the things we do on these trips.

Because of people’s donations we bought some necessary medicine and a nurse was able to help those in need. The funds collected was enough to purchase basic medical supplies before the trip and buy other medicine there based on the patient’s actual needs. Some children were suffered from measles and the timing of the nurse coming was much needed.

In addition to the main program we also had time to spend with families, talking and having dinner together with the Roma.

We are so thankful to those who support us, who sacrifice time, money, clothes, prayers and care for these people.

We’ve never visited the Roma during the winter before. Mostly because of difficulty with transport and living on the camp territory in such cold conditions. But we have a deep desire to see the Roma more often and the idea came up of how to make that happen. Support us with your prayers.

We want to share pictures from this trip. Look at the description on each photo, we will try to explain what is happening.

David (in the center) has been a faithful friend for a long time. He interpreted for us every day and helped us lead the program

Visiting David at home. He is 19 years old, married, has two children and is waiting on his third. He treats us to tea and we talk about church, ministry, family, and horses.

Our camp theme was Finding God's Treasure. During this day's program we talked about ancient Egyptian treasures.

The lady on the left is Margarita, the pastor's wife. She cooks hot meals for the kids during camp and throughout the school year

Craft time!

Dance time!

David with his brother Miklola (bottom left) took us for a ride on their horse--even let us drive.

Evening youth gathering. Anyone over 12 is considered youth and people are often married at 15 or 16.

David and Mikola took each child in camp one by one on the last day, and asked them if they wanted to see what God's treasure is...

Throughout camp we lead up to the fact that each of us is treasure in the eyes of God. We had a closed chest on the stage all week and no one knew what was inside. On the last day we reminded each child what was in the chest--a great treasure--and after those words we opened the chest so they could see what was inside. After seeing their own face, David and Mikola explained that each one of us is God's precious treasure.

I don't even know this girl's name, but on the last day she sat next to me and hugged me. I remembered something a friend who worked at Disney once told me- when a child gives you a hug, don't let go until they do. This girl held on to me throughout the whole program. 

This was a difficult experience for me. It was physically demanding and wet and cold, but if you notice in the pictures, our team is dressed way warmer than the kids. Many of the kids only ate a meal because Margarita helped us provide a hot lunch during camp. We all wondered if what we were doing made a different of was actually helpful. Toward the end of camp, my friend Liliya shared with the team that when she asked God how we can possibly change these people's lives, He told her that we can't, but we can invite them to the beginning, the beginning of hope, healing, change. We can't see the end because we are only at the beginning, and we have no idea what wonderful, miraculous lives these kids may go on to lead. So we remain hopeful, and we plan to go back at the end of January to continue building these new friendships and learn how we can best support their needs.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Dwell in the Land

It's a super cliché way to start a blog post, but I seriously can't believe it's October already! September was full of new starts and settling into new routines after summer adventures. One of my favorite things about last month was getting to have several kids visit us in Kyiv. We reunited with kids I haven't seen in 4 years and with some I just met in camps this summer. We celebrated birthdays, shared family meals, had a game night at my apartment, went to church together, and explored beautiful Kyiv. I've been a bit disoriented and lost amid all the changes since coming back to Kyiv, but getting to deepen relationships and spend time with these kids outside of camp reminded me why I'm here. I love getting to take these relationships beyond camp and having the gift of being here and available to continue being a part of these kids' lives.

Yesterday a group of us from HfO went to a nearby village and visited elderly widows and widowers, bringing them food packets and asking them questions about their lives and listening to their stories. Several of these people remember the forced famines of the 1930s and 40s, and fought in WWII. Their grit and fortitude are humbling and I'm thankful they gifted us with their stories. But honestly, I felt like the worst version of myself the whole day. In the van driving to the village, I didn't try to engage my Ukrainian friends in conversation, I just looked out the window and indulged in loneliness and self pity. Once in the village, I felt completely helpless and useless. I couldn't carry packets because I was a girl and there were too many guys available to carry them so it wouldn't have been culturally appropriate, I couldn't speak with the people we were visiting because they couldn't understand my accent and I spoke too quietly for them to hear me even if I found something to say in Ukrainian, I didn't know if it would be appropriate to hug them or hold their hands, I didn't know what questions to ask even through a translator... these were all the excuses running through my mind mixed in with selfishly focusing on feeling cold, tired, and hungry (even though I had warmer clothes and shoes than the people we were visiting and ate breakfast right before we left). I wish I could say yesterday was a one-off, but I have many days, and if not whole days, constant moments like that. Moments when I give up and retreat inside. Moments when I seek to be understood rather than to understand, to be comforted rather than to comfort, to be served rather than to serve, and to be loved rather than to love. The longer I live here the more I see my own insecurities and fears and selfishness blocking me from loving others well.

On days like that I wonder what I'm doing in Ukraine. I could be so much more "helpful" in the States. I love my life here, but it's pretty small. I do so little, and I struggle with being worthy of the trust and support people give me. I was praying about this a few days ago, and God reminded me of Psalm 37, specifically verse 3, "Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness." Psalm 37:3 NASB. This is the same verse He reminded me of 5 years ago every day as I drove to a job I didn't see fitting into any story of significance (spoiler alert: it ended up setting a foundation in my character and in relationships that would make living in Ukraine possible). The same verse he reminded me of when I worked with IJM and felt so small and useless to the amazing work IJM was doing. And I was struck by a deeply simple truth, our purpose, mission, calling, whatever you want to name it, remains the same no matter where we are. Circumstances change but principles remain the same. We are to dwell in Christ and in the land our feet are currently standing on, and we are to cultivate faithfulness as we would a garden, slowly and consistently in the tiny, seemingly insignificant details.

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. Brené 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.