Saturday, December 30, 2000

VOLUME 8 - 2000

Missionary Why Are You Here?

In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you. I tell you,

now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6:1-2

The adventurous spirit in me awoke as I read Bosnia on the upcoming Wheels for the World campaign schedule, “Now that would be a place to go”. Little did I know at the time the impact the trip would have on me. When I made contact with the European office coordinating the trip, they welcomed the prospect of another set of hands, especially ones that could bring “smiles” into the war-torn country.

An international team composed of members from Finland, Holland, Belgium, and America, partnered with the Finnish Free Foreign Mission in Tuzla, Bosnia. This dedicated group works closely with the ministry of Joni Erickson Tada, translating her books into the native language, as well as promoting the ministry through the nationally televised airing of Joni’s life story.

I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction. 2 Tim 4:1-2

In our initial meetings we learned the daunting figures facing the missionaries there. Out of a population of roughly 3.5 million, it is estimated that there are fewer than 500 evangelical Christians (including missionaries) in the whole country. Hearing that number, we knew the week ahead held great challenges.

I tell you the truth; you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. John 16:20

I thought it would be easy, “just another gig,” however clearly the Lord had some pruning in mind to this part of my garden.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. John 15:2

Outside the rain and sleet came down. The location for distributing the majority of the over 200 wheelchairs was located in a school for disabled children which CARE EE quickly decorated with balloon hearts and flowers creating a colorful array across the dirty window-panes. Hopefully the decorations would hold cheerful warmth inside to fight the cold wet winter days.

I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 1:13-14

Daily as the disabled arrived, the struggle to lift spirits and make smiles became more of a challenge. Little did I realize certain aspects of my repertoire just did not translate! Muslims are offended at the likeness of any religious personage. Therefore, my King of Hearts Cards with the big picture of Jesus raised more than a few eyebrows. And when I pulled out the plastic pig noses for the story of the Three Little Pigs, I thought the translator’s eyes were going to pop out. Quickly she said “No, no, you cannot use the pig, this is offensive.” I improvised, but it wore on my confidence. I felt like I was “in over my head.” As conversations with the locals wound up confrontational, I really began to have my doubts.

But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. 2 Timothy 4:5

The individuals we ministered to, the stories of war, the shelled city of Sarajevo, the weather, all combined to send me back to the States emotion-ally broken. There were more questions than I had answers for, more images that didn’t smile back and no place for me to “file away” the feelings. I was ready to resume a secular lifestyle and leave the foreign mission field to others.

And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 1 Peter 5:10

Back home nights were filled with silence. What called me into the mission field?

How can I be sure I’m still following the leading of the Lord and not the leading of the next adventure? The other American on the trip offered the single most critical piece of advice I’ve ever received, “Read the book The Peace Child, by Don Richardson.” Within its pages is the story of one of the first missionaries to the cannibal tribes of New Guinea. As he was taking his wife and eighteen month old child back into the swamplands of the vicious and violent tribes, he got out of the boat, surrounded by war-painted natives, chanting and wielding their spears. Fear naturally set in. What danger faced his helpless family? At that moment, he felt the presence of the Lord asking him “Missionary, why are you here?”

His answer changed my perspective forever: “I have come to tell these people of Your great love for them, and I am prepared to die, to give all that I have to do that.”

And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen. Ezekiel 2:6-7

While bodily harm was not an issue for me in Bosnia, reading that statement reaffirmed the “why” I go and do, and get ready to go again and again. To have the conviction of the call, and to know life itself has no meaning outside of the upward high calling of Christ, is not only everything it is all that I need.

But if I say, "I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name," His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. Jeremiah 20:9

Friday, December 29, 2000

War Zone

I lift up my eyes to the hills- where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalms 121:1-2

My admitted naiveté concerning the war in the former Yugoslavia is one that I unfortunately run across too frequently among my American counterparts. "Let's go save the world with sunshine, smiles, humanitarian aid and of course our Bibles". What I was faced with in Bosnia shocked me on every level. While the trip left me asking more questions with few answers, I did return with a deeper personal understanding of fighting the impact of war with weapons of compassion and love.

You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful. Psalms 80:5

I didn’t know what the "war" was about. It seemed another isolated distant catastrophe that little affects American habits of the high-life. The media didn’t give Bosnia half the airtime it gives to the Palestinian terrorists who lurk on Israeli streets. Whose singular acts may kill and maim 10 or 15, while there were 10's of thousands killed during the conflict in the Bosnia.

God has turned me over to evil men and thrown me into the clutches of the wicked. Job 16:11

The nationals we met, told of Serbian "Christians" who went into villages occupied by Muslims and practiced the atrocities of "Rape Warfare" (a brutal tactic supported and commanded by those in power of publicly raping women and children to create the removal of unwanted populations). They burned the houses down and painted crosses on the charred remnants. Mosques were bombarded and replaced by quaint chapels complete with steeples and crosses, the lives of the population and innocence of their children stolen through horrific circumstances I knew nothing about. Sound familiar? It did to me.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter Isaiah 53:7

The casualness of typical comments "those weren't REAL Christians" echoed with familiarity. I have heard this same statement said to Jewish friends who relate the horrors suffered at the hands of Nazi's and their cohorts. Explaining, “who are the REAL Christians” is just not that simple. I returned home asking why? “Where were You when these enemies were blaspheming Your name? How could You look away?”

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"-- which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Mark 15:34

What could I say to a woman, critically disabled and widowed by the war, crawling on the floor of her apartment with no water, no electricity? Within the walls made from the muddy hillside she cares for her five-year old daughter who stares vacantly back at the visitors bearing gifts. Can I say simply "Jesus loves you"?

For God so loved the world … John 3:16

I was confronted by a twenty-one year old Bosnian "How could you as a Christian stand by while our people were being systematically slaughtered? Why weren't you in Washington protesting, why weren't you here fighting for change to stop the awful carnage? Why?" My shameful response echoed with familiar World War II verbiage "I didn't know".

During the conversation I realized this is not my battle - it is the Lord's. Bosnia is only one tragedy in a world full of cruelty, horror, shame and disgrace that has gone on since the fall of Creation. There is nothing new under the sun.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9

Obviously the compelling of God can take us into difficult circumstances, cause more questions than answers, coupled with the guilt of Western excess. I flew out of Sarajevo on a 747, and returned home to my 2 computers, down comforter and pillows to keep me cozy while I "process" what happened to Bosnia.

Yet God is still acting on behalf of His creation. He still cares about human suffering and injustice. He is still compelling people all across the world to act with compassion, love and concern on behalf of nations and individuals. He is still motivating and calling people to repentance towards others. And the lives of those wounded by wars, haunted by shadows of things past can still be touched by our presence in the midst of their pain and the simple words "I'm sorry".

So our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy. Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. Psalms 123:2-3

Thursday, December 28, 2000

The Ends of the Earth

My own children think I’m crazy. For years their question was “when are you going to some place besides Israel?” Now they say “why don’t you go to a good place, why do you go to these countries that no one else wants to go to?” This makes for good spiritual lessons, as I answer, “The Lord chooses where I go, and I go where He chooses”. While making the flight arrangements for Bosnia, the travel agent had a good laugh as well. She said, “Seems like you need to talk to the Lord and pray for some better locations!”

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Acts 1:8

I laughed saying, “yeah I think there is probably some good mission work in Fiji, or perhaps Hawaii”. I hung up half joking half serious, but the next day a phone call came from a previous Russian teammate with an invitation to join them in Siberia. Who says the Lord doesn’t have a sense of humor. I just shook my head “tropical locale, Lord, not arctic”.

For this is what the Lord has commanded us: "'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth" Acts 13:47

Salekhard, Siberia the region known in Russia as “The Ends of the Earth”, is home to a tribal people called Nenets. Living on the tundra following the reindeer, these Eskimo looking tribes practice a pagan animist religion (i.e. sacrifice and deification of animals). Communism systematically tried to destroy their ancient culture by taking the children ages 5-17 away from the parents for 10 months out of each year, placing them in state run boarding schools. They were forced to learn Russian and forbidden to speak their native language. Graduating good citizens were encouraged to move away from the tribe and come to the “cities” to work in burgeoning industries such as natural gas and oil projects. Alcohol was cheap and the hardship of life on the arctic tundra faded into a warm inebriated haze.

You have shown your people desperate times; you have given us wine that makes us stagger. Psalms 60:3

But 80 years of oppression did not destroy their ideals and ways of life. They held fast to the traditions of their ancestors, customs that kept them alive in the months of total darkness on the tundra. Presently, the children of the Nenets are still being removed to boarding schools, but the old guard is embracing the culture of the past, both are struggling to coexist with the vast differences between them. We were there during the “Reindeer Festival” when the Nenets came to display their culture to outsiders. Prizes were given to the best “native costume” created from reindeer skins and colorful woven fabrics. Contests of roping and riding reindeer were cold counterparts to a Texas rodeo where ropes never freeze and losing your footing on ice is not an issue. This was our first inside look at the challenge of bringing the gospel to the only city built on the Artic Circle.

For he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. Job 28:24

After my experience in Bosnia, Salekhard confirmed my renewed sense of purpose. As our bus took us from the warmth of the hotel to the out reaches of the tundra, the white vista of snow and ice was otherworldly. I realized the presence of the Lord was HERE, concerned with a pagan nation shrouded in darkness and evil traditions, and there truly is no place on earth He is not.

He will stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will live securely, for then His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And He will be their peace. Micah 5:4-5

Wednesday, December 27, 2000

Created for His Good Pleasure

Before we faced the challenges ahead of us, the broken down bus, the blizzard that created a “white out”, the bureaucrats that fought to keep us out of the schools, we began with a daily devotion read from the Voice of the Martyrs book Jesus Freaks. This proved to be an excellent way to bring the team’s focus on the realization our pathway to this remote and frozen location was purchased with more than the price of our airfare.

Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD Psalms 102:18

Christian beliefs were exercised under the Communist regime at great cost. Many thousands gave their lives, many thousands more suffered in the Siberian wastelands known and made famous by Alexander Solzhenitszen’s Gulag Archipelago. Eyes welled with tears in both the Russian interpreters and the American emissaries as we listened each morning. Yet we heard victory through the testimony of Russian persecution and martyrdom, and we saw the reward, in our paths being made straight to come into this once restricted land.

The righteousness of the blameless makes a straight way for them Proverbs 11:5

Tuberculosis has reached epidemic proportions in the former Soviet Union and the disease is taking its toll on the undernourished children of the orphanages. Where is the God of mercy, when children who are the most disabled are given less nourishment, because there is not enough? How is God working in a remote Siberian village, inside a tuberculosis ward filled with half-naked, starving children? The friends of Christ asked Him similar questions when they saw the innocent suffering:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” John 9:1-3

The day after we visited the children’s sanatorium, sadness at seeing the desperate circumstances they were in threatened to crush the spirits of team members. As we struggled emotionally during the morning devotional, a reflective discussion on God’s mercy ensued. An eloquent response was offered, not in answer to the ultimate question of “why”, but it provided a way for us to deal with the feelings brought on by the plight of the children.

Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. Matthew 11:26

Our team member replied that while she gazed upon the lifeless, tiny bodies of the afflicted infants, tears flowed freely. The comprehension of “why” this suffering existed anywhere in the world let alone in a cold, isolated, ward with paint peeling from the walls overwhelmed her. But within her questioning soul, the Lord gave comfort by the scriptures relating to all things being created for His good pleasure.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Our eyes are trained to see illnesses, and maladies of birth as “brokenness”. Human flesh created by mistake and defeated by the world. Yet faith requires we believe that all things are under the Lord’s control. God creates no mistakes. He allows the “breaks” and the “brokenness” in humanity that interrupts our lives, distorts our view and distracts us from what plans we have made for our children and ourselves. Often I’m asked how I handle the emotional strain of seeing children in such severe need. Truthfully, I know their problems are so big - ONLY God can handle the situation. It keeps me from taking on more than is meant for me to carry.

For in you the fatherless find compassion Hosea 14:3

Tuesday, December 26, 2000

Sons of Siberia

He called a little child and had him stand among them. Matthew 18:2

In Salekhard we conducted programs for children at various orphanages and boarding schools. Concern was voiced about the older teenagers (especially the boys) seeing our program as too juvenile. The second day of the program I retreated exhausted after my performance, into a crowded dormitory styled bedroom where we stored our coats and all the gear that protected us against the 50 below zero wind. As I lay back to rest and restore my spirit, one of the translators came in and started a conversation. She explained it was very unusual for professional interpreters in the region to work with groups such as ours, and she wanted to practice her English with me. She began to ask a variety of questions on many topics.

The Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say Luke 12:12

One by one the teenage boys (15yrs - 17yrs) entered the room. They began practicing their English (though limited to "my name is..." and "I am 17 years old..." "I go to school...") and asking questions through the help of the interpreter. They asked if they could see what I really looked like, but as the conversation developed their questions turned serious. What did I think of Chechnya? What was my political opinion of the American President, etc.? On the surface typical questions anyone would ask a foreigner - BUT - they were asking a CLOWN!! Laughingly I said to the interpreter “they want to know a clown's opinion?” She replied, “they see what is underneath and that is whose opinion they are asking”. I was honored.

"Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7

As our dilapidated bus made its way across the ice, I thought of my own sons, whose biggest concern is if they will get to ride their motorcycles this weekend and what’s the latest movie they can take their girlfriends to. It was the first time I cried in Siberia. Here in the outer regions of the frozen tundra, boys the same age, without parents, are concerned with thoughts of war, worried about their future outside in the cold, very real world that will neither accept or embrace them. I shed tears for these sons of Siberia.

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. Matthew 19:14-15

Monday, December 25, 2000

The Little Apple Tree

Once upon a time in a forest with no name, grew a little apple tree. The little apple tree hated what it was, for it was the smallest tree in the middle of the forest of big oak trees. Every day the little apple tree looked up and saw the branches of the oak trees reaching high into the heavens. At night when the sky was darkest the little apple tree would look to the big oak trees and see their branches filled with stars. How envious of their beauty, size and strength was the little apple tree. So the little apple tree prayed “dear Lord, can I please be like the big oak trees? Big, strong, tall and important with stars in my branches.” The Lord said “be patient”.

Seasons changed and the little apple grew, beautiful blossoms came out on the tree branches and it was the only tree in the forest which bloomed. Yet the little apple tree did not want flowers in its branches, the little apple tree wanted stars. So the little apple tree prayed, “dear Lord, can I please, please be like the oak trees? Tall, strong and important with stars in my branches.” The Lord answered “Be patient, little apple tree.”

Seasons changed and the flowers on the tree floated gracefully to forest floor and in their place apples began to grow. When they ripened, passersby would pick the fruit and remark how they were the most delicious apples ever tasted! Alas, the envy of the apple tree was not stopped by the compliments and praise. It was mad. (It would have stamped its feet if it had them) So the little apple tree practically shouted “LORD, can I PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEEEEEEASE, be like the big oak trees? Big, tall strong, important,– with STARS IN MY BRANCHES (not this stupid fruit)!!!”

The wind started blowing, branches were straining against the fierceness of the coming storm, and all the trees in the forest bowed down before the Lord. The little apple tree started shaking. An apple fell from the tree and broke open (horizontally when cut the seeds inside will appear in a five pointed star). The Lord said, “little apple tree look down. What do you see?” In amazement, the little apple tree said “I see stars! I have stars in my branches” The Lord said, “you see little apple tree what your heart desired I had hidden inside you all along, I made you exactly who I wanted you to be.” The little apple tree grew proudly amidst the forest of big oak trees hiding its stars of the heart!

Saturday, December 23, 2000

The Rest of the Story

Or How Pasha Learned About Patience

Tears usually don’t come at the start of the journey. But upon my arrival in Kirov, the pastor’s wife approached me in the hotel lobby, and began to tell me a story. She pointed across the dimly lit room full of two thousands pounds of luggage and travel weary bodies to a small boy prancing playfully around this group of strangers. “His name is Pasha” she told me. “Our family adopted him this year from one of the local orphanages.”

Then she asked if I remembered the story of The Little Apple Tree. “Of course, it’s my favorite” I replied. She inquired if I remembered telling it to the children at the orphanage that houses the very young (birth to 5 yrs). I did remember. Then she told me Pasha was from that orphanage, and during the process of adoption, cutting through all the red tape, there was a time when they were not allowed to visit him. “Pasha was very, very sad,” she said. “But each week I would write letters to him, and I would remind him of The Little Apple Tree story, and how the Lord wanted him to be patient”.

The tears flowed freely. I saw in his newfound happiness a small portion of the reason I go to Russia. The things that go on after our flashy, funny, full of gifts group leaves is the greater harvest. It is not always about numbers of people exposed to the gospel. Nor should it become tainted by how many “accept Christ as Lord” at the end of our campaign. It should stay about the one lost, who the savior left heaven to claim.

"What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost. Matt 18:12-14

The stars are hidden within each of us. I have often cried out and symbolically (as well as actually) stamped my feet at the God of heaven who sticks me in the middle of a group of missionaries, as a single parent, without a supportive and loving spouse. I look “up” at my counterparts and see their marriages and mates as “stars in their branches”. The story of how one little tree learned patience and pride in itself, remains my favorite. For it teaches and re-teaches me, the greatest of my hearts desires, the Lord is growing an answer to!

Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Psalm 37:4-6

New Borders on the Map

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Matthew 5:14

Ten thousand miles is a long, long way. Twelve hours in flight, eighteen hours by train and at last a six-hour bus trip brought us to our first stop at 3:00 in the morning. We carted our 150-pound luggage up a flight of stairs, finding the accommodations typical (no elevators, no hot water), our aching travel worn bodies painfully longed for a horizontal position on the feather beds. But our team leader informed us that we were headed to the orphanage for chai (Russian tea). Half-closed lids exchanged glances of “you have got to be kidding”, but we did not come here for comfort, after all we’re soldiers!

Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs-- he wants to please his commanding officer. 2 Timothy 2:3-4

Dropping the baggage load off in our rooms and donning our coats, we boarded the bus once again for the well past midnight hospitable cup of tea. Fatigue caused more laughter than complaints. “Didn’t somebody tell them we are Americans, it’s the English that need the tea stuff?”

But when we arrived at the orphanage a few minutes later, it was not just tea that awaited us. Several women as well as the director of the orphanage had been patiently waiting for our arrival all night. They had carefully prepared along with the tea, a meal and desert for us as well. We were overwhelmed, not by the hour or the ordeal we had endured to bring us to Sanchursk, Russia, but by the patience and sacrifice that these workers had made. The meal laid before us, meant there would be less for them tomorrow.

Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything-- all she had to live on." Mark 12:41-44

A thousand pounds of humanitarian aid and supplies had cost each of us very little personally. Yes it was heavy and we had given our time to bring it a great distance, but ten tired people were awakened and humbled by these Russians and their sacrifice.

The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. 1 Timothy 5:5

For the next two days we brought them help and shared our hope. Typically, we take our lunch at the orphanage during the midpoint of our daily program. But in Sanchursk, we boarded the bus and headed off to the local restaurant. It was not until the end of our stay during our final meal that the orphanage director joined us. He told us why we were eating there instead of with the children. He said, “ We are ashamed we are so poor. We only have tin utensils that are left over from the army to eat with. We were embarrassed by our lack. The only hope we have is that someone from the outside, from the West will care and take pity on us and help our situation.” The Lord provided an open door for the Team Leader to share with this pleading man where his real help would come from.

O LORD, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief. Psalms 143:1

We returned to the orphanage for the farewell party. The children were dressed in their finest clothes. The girls wore hair bows and the boys had on coats. The accordion and balalaika played folk songs. We were encircled by the dancing children, then linked arms with them in jovial two steps. They stood before us holding decorative pictures they had taken from the walls to present to us as gifts. The Director came forward. In his hands he held a ruler and a tattered yellow map, leftover from the former glory days of the Soviet grand empire. He said “This map is the only one our school has. It is old but it has our city on it, and we found your city too.” He laid the map at our feet and continued. “Today, I will draw a line from Sanchursk to Dallas” It is a long line but it is one that will never be broken. We will teach our children from this torn map what this “line of friendship” means. Though we do not have a map to give you, we know this line, and our children will always be in your hearts.”

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. " Isaiah 55:8-11

A Continual Feast

The cheerful heart has a continual feast.
Proverbs 15:15

“I want to be a clown! Can you make me a clown? Can I dress up too? Do you have any more big noses, what about funny hair?”

Such were the questions and excitement as the variety of children arrived at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas. “Armed and Hilarious” the Sunshine After Rain Ministries clowns came for the second year to the Family Retreat Camp. This year we were prepared to “enlist and convert” as many as possible to share in the army of joy. Being a clown allows people to “step outside” of themselves. For the shy person it gives new freedom, for the challenged an opportunity to evoke laughter instead of sorrow. Even if only for a moment lives were transformed into the Kingdom of Mirth.

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine Proverbs 17:22

This opportunity to be merrymakers gave the children and adults with donned wigs, noses, funny hats and noisemakers a chance to be different on their own terms. The foolishness and foibles were welcome. People laughed with them, smiled at them, and the attention was comfortable in its comedy. Whether or not the outside of us bears washable greasepaint or a non-discardable wheelchair, we are called as believers to see deeper to the inside not being hindered by what we see on the outside, growing beyond our perception of ourselves and of others to do the work that He has prepared for each of us.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalms 139:13-16

The scriptures tell us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. With the advanced discoveries of DNA, scientists have determined there are four thousand volumes worth of information in each cell. The Father knit each one of those together in the womb. Within five years each cell is totally replaced – how much more able is He to “mold us” into what He created us to be.

For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10

Like the old children’s poem the “Blind Men and the Elephant” depending on where they stood, the elephant appeared as a fan (he had a hold of the ear) a rope (one was swinging from the tail) and a wall (another stood against its immovable side). We all have a different perspective of God and who we are in His image. I need your vantage point to “round out” my picture not only of who God is but who I am in Christ as well. I can say with conviction there are no wheelchairs in heaven – but clowns - now that’s another story…

And purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. Titus 2:14

Fishers of Men

They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:18-19

The camp organized by Ganaty Petrov for orphans was in a national forest on the outskirts of Voronezh. These 114 children had no other place to go for the summer when the orphanages closed their doors for repairs and workers vacations. While a good portion of the children are “social” orphans with relatives they can stay with in the summer months, unfortunately there are some who have no place to stay. This prompted Ganaty to organize a Christian camp where they could further learn about the Bible in a relaxed atmosphere and also just to have fun outside of a state run institution.

They arrived that first day unsure of what the days ahead would bring. Many came with only the clothes on their backs wearing threadbare shoes. We greeted them with a host of clowns, funny music, games and merriment. Kids are kids wherever you go and soon they joined in the activities running around the campgrounds, locating their cabins and getting settled in.

Our group was not the only group in the campgrounds. Many local families come and stay in the cabins and at a “hotel” taking advantage of the proximity to the city, yet able to enjoy time out in nature, swimming and fishing in the river as a relaxing getaway. We were joined from time to time by a variety of children who had come with their families. After all our group had organized game and craft stations, music and dance time, with afternoon swims down by the riverbanks. Quite a loud a boisterous bunch we were compared to their families, though any of the children in our group would have gladly traded places with them for a moment of their familial security.

One evening as we waited in line for our turn at the shower stall servicing the entire hotel, a man began trying to communicate that it was his young son in the shower. He banged hard on the door as any father would do in an effort to speed him up and shorten our wait. The boy came out and the father proudly indicated that the boy could speak English. He then proceeded to insist the boy try his language skills with these American “invaders”. The youth didn’t get much farther than his name and age and something about Cuba. We smiled, laughed, and went on into the showers. When we returned to our rooms there stood the father and son waiting for us with a string of salted fish to present to us as a gift, sharing in their day’s good fortune and catch. We gladly accepted their generosity, while wondering what we were going to do with the fish in our rooms?

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.. Matthew 13:47-48

The next day I was at the river with my interpreter Katya. We saw the father, now donning a military cap and preparing his bait and rods for another day’s worth of fishing. I told Katya about his gift the night before and asked if she would translate for me. She expressed our thanks for their kindness and generosity and the father came and sat on the bench beside us.

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? ' Matthew 25:37

He explained that he was a Russian military officer stationed in Cuba when his son was born. He questioned why we were in Voronezh, and about the children that were orphans. He asked me what my opinion was of Russians now that I had seen for myself. I answered that their openness to outsiders and their inherent generosity surprised me. This was not what I had been told in school about the Red enemy.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12

He laughed and said he was thirty miles from the American coast for many years. He had been trained to hate Americans. “When Russians hate something they destroy it, but when they love something they love it completely” a gentle smile curled across his weather worn face. “Russia left Cuba in 1988, but the Americans are still there” he chuckled “I think this is probably wise for the Americans.”

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. Ephesians 6:10-11

Foreign diplomacy by the banks of a river. While it was not hard for us to show benevolence to the orphans with no place to go in the Voronezh region. It was a tremendous leap of faith for this military man to ask his son to speak to his once sworn and hated enemy, much less to extend such a humbling hand of hospitality on a fisherman’s line.

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:44-48

That day it became obvious there was more to our being in the campground that what we could see in the faces of the children. Behind the scenes great things were going in the realm where the real battles are being fought.

God at the Gazebo

Becoming a Real Soldier

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 2 Corinthians 10:3-4

Many in our team had an opportunity to encounter other groups and individuals in the campground. On the second evening, two of the young men with us were approached by an inebriated group of revelers. They offered them some drinks and continued with slurred conversation. Jon Mark and Tim politely turned down the drink offer but did talk with them. Out of the group, one young man sobered up enough to express real interest in the reason these two had traveled so far to Russia to be with a bunch of miscreant kids. Jon Mark wisely suggested they meet the next day, when alcohol wasn’t an influence and he would answer any questions the youth had.

Jon Mark was excited telling us about the guy. “He really seemed to have a hunger in his eyes”. We joked and said “vodka does that sometimes”. Undeterred by our sense of humor and strengthened by our commitment to pray for the situation, they met under the gazebo in the midst of the tall pines.

For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." Matthew 18:20

This went on for several days. Each day when the children’s program was through, and before dinner, the inquisition took place. Jon Mark learned that the boy he was talking with was much older than he appeared, and had already completed his conscripted tour of military duty. The former soldier explained that all of his life he had such uncontrolled anger in his heart. “Too many questions that have no answers. I thought that the army would at least give me a chance to get rid of some of the anger. But it hasn’t. It is still there”.

But I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Romans 7:23-24

Jon Mark explained the good news and took this young man down the Roman road of salvation. By the fifth day, the soldier had enlisted in the Lord’s army. What a joyous day for all. The day we left for the train, the new believer was so excited about the choice he made he took off his military issued dog tags and presented them to Jon Mark. He said “I don’t have use for these anymore, for now I am in the Lord’s army”.

They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings-- and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers. Revelation 17:14

Friday, December 22, 2000

The Trip I Almost Didn't Take

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith-- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:6-7

Sometimes life catches us with me. I had decisions to make, bills to pay coupled with another move in less than a year, and I just didn’t feel like I had enough time to raise the support to return to Russia. After much prayer and discussion with the Lord, on “one more thing” He was asking me to do, I made the telephone call to the Ann Fuqua our team leader in the East West Ministries office. “I don’t think I’m going to go. I can’t take on the pressure of returning to Dallas, owing money for the expenses on the campaign. I’ve just got too much on my plate.” To which she quickly replied “what if that was not an issue.”

We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 1:3

How many times have I heard, read and joyously sung the phrase “God will make a way when there seems to be no way, He works in ways we cannot see, He will make a way for me”? Did I really believe it? Are they just empty words until I actually experience first hand a miracle? While I would like to deny such feelings, the fact of the matter is when things are going along in a day to day fashion, it’s easy for me to sing with enthusiasm. There is no “way” that He needs to reveal. I am on a steady path with few potholes in the road. But during those times of stress and pressure, the song lyrics ring empty. “Yeah, I know Your ways – they are never the ways that I would chose and they are seldom ways that I understand!”

Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19

When I gave up trying to complete His work under my strength, He answered me immediately. There was no waiting period whatsoever. The obstacles that I perceived I would face in making the decision were removed. I wish that it were always that easy.

You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:11-15

The accommodations are never four-star. Our team of Americans and Russian interpreters would be traveling to the outskirts of the Voronezh region to visit the six orphanages near rural and remote villages. In an effort to maximize our time, and to cut down on the hours spent traveling from place to place, Ganaty Petrov arranged for us to stay in Burturlinovka at the orphanage for the disabled we stayed in last year. The orphanage was not able to accommodate all of the team, so other arrangements were made for some of the Russian interpreters and the men in our group. While we stayed in the relative comfort of cots at the orphanage, the rest were split between a small hotel, and a factory that was being built. (They actually walked through scaffolding to get to their unheated rooms!)

Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. James 5:10-11

In the Hands of the Potter

The Return to Burtalinovka

Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

Working at the orphanage in Burturlinovka is a challenge. The children that we do the program for range in ages from 5 to early twenties. Most of these have Down syndrome and various levels of retardation. The kids have a great time. We are a colorful bunch with lots of fun and unusual playthings. The game station is always the favorite. The autumn days were not too cold and the rain had given us a reprieve for the time being.

On the second day, while the rest of the team went on to the orphanage at Semiluki, three of us stayed behind to visit the bedridden and autistic children. Out of the three hundred and sixty cared for at the orphanage, our program is for only one hundred and twenty of the most able. The rest are in conditions that are seldom seen and little discussed outside the walls of the building they are in.

The autistic children are in two large rooms with mats on the floors. There were few toys and very little signs of any effort made to stimulate the children. They sat on benches rocking back and forth, their clothes nothing more than tattered rags. There were several attendants, but not nearly enough to give them a proper environment. One girl with cerebral palsy has been placed with this group. She remembered us from last year and excitedly showed off her new necklace and earrings. She struggled through the spasms, trying to communicate her obvious delight at our return.

There are roughly forty children housed in a strictly hospice situation. How they have managed to survive under the circumstances with such little medical care available to them I wonder. Many suffer from severe deformity in their limbs. Muscles atrophied, bones twisted into unimaginable poisitions.

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this? '"Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? Romans 9:20-21

It is a scene not easily forgotten. As I moved between the beds, fighting to hold back tears, I prayed for their comfort, I took joy from their smiles, and I thankged God that He was in this room long before I got there and that He will remain long after I am gone.

As I struggled with the condition of the children, I found strength in the workds of the Lord to His servant Jeremiah.

But the pot he was shaping from th eclay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. The the word of the Lord came to me, "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter dones?" declares the Lord. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand..." Jeremiah 18:4-6

These children could be viewed as broken, disfigured, worhtless, but the Creator of the universe is still molding and making them (and me) into the image of His pleasing. I see only what my eyes allow most of the time, but on rare occassions I consider it a holy privilege to see things through the eyes He has given my heart.

Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the Lord delivers him in times of trouble. The Lord will protect him in the land and not surrender him to the desire of his foes. The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness. Psalm 41:1-3

An Empty Bed

The Death of Little Stephen

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God Acts 7:55

Last year during our visit to the children in the ward at Burturlinovka, the team leader took moving video footage later used for a film geared toward churches explaining the orphanage outreach of East West Ministries.

One of the last images on the video is team member Vicki Mullins holding what appears to be a child of 3 or 4. We later learned that the boy, Stephen, was in fact 10 years old, his size affected by severe malnutrition.

Of course this year when we returned to visit the children in the ward Vicki was searching for Stephen. Longing for a chance to hold the face she had seen so many times on the video, and whose heart and soul she had never forgotten.

We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:8

Her desire would go unmet. Stephen went home to be with our Lord in August. And though there were tears shed for his passing, there was also a great joy in knowing he has gone to the house the Lord prepared and into the loving arms of his heavenly Father.

On our last day at Burturlinovka, I went back to say goodbye again to the children. My interpreter Katya, followed to translate the smiles. As we were waving goodbye on our way out, one of the children clearly spoke out to us. I asked her what he said. She told me his words, “See you next year.”

You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. 1 Thessalonians 2:1