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.