26 December 2009

Lifted up and thankful. A postscript on Christmas.

I explained to a friend just a few weeks ago that it feels as if I am being lifted up by the Lord right now - possibly by the scruff of the neck - as my feet continue to run in place. It's been a time of "live right now in this moment - and listen to what happens" as opposed to my "Scooby Doo" lifestyle (a play off the words "go.be.do" - and one of many nicknames my hubby uses to describe me).

What has living in this moment looked like so far? Of course, it's included food - cooking and baking for others in the midst of celebration and pain. It's included sitting in the backseat of my own car so someone else can enjoy the best view of the Christmas lights in heated seat comfort on a cold Oklahoma night. It's included redefining birthday celebrations to ensure amazing people aren't forgotten. It's included coffee with someone who won my heart before she ever knew my name. It's included finding lap blankets in just the right colors to make wrinkled faces light up. It's included weeping with a stranger who longs to adopt children abandoned and alone, and holding a friend who feels as though she's the abandonded one. It's included smiling more and laughing more and being a little more quiet. It's included praying - because there's always time to pray.

What have I heard in the midst of the moments? "You would have missed this had your feet been touching the ground."

The go.be.do. list is still full. And should the Lord allow, there are some very exciting things in store for 2010. There's much writing to do. There's a language to learn. There's design magic ready to happen. There's school to attend. There's a business to launch. There are orphans to help. There are friends to love. There's a family to cherish. And there's skydiving mixed in there somewhere. Whatever gives Him glory...

Perhaps the best quote of the season this year came from my "cup of coffee" moment. Posted on her blog, http://thesimplypeachy.com/, it cuts to the core of my heart. I'm thankful for a God who so passionately loves me. I'm thankful for a the grace of a Saviour, the hope of the Christ, the peace of our Lord. He is life in my veins.

“I’m tired of being a skeptic, I’m irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don’t want to hear it anymore. I couldn’t care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water." -Elizabeth Gilbert

12 December 2009

A letter for you. Yes, you.

Every year, I craft a Christmas letter full of updates and pictures. This year, the letter included in our seed paper cards (yes, I did say seed paper) is a bit different. Warning: there is an invitation included in the text. If you read it, I do ask that you prayerfully consider it. We've received a few requests, but to be perfectly honestly, I'm praying there are at least a few more.


Amazing, isn’t it, that you would be receiving a Christmas letter so early! Even if you’re not big on the whole “holiday letter” thing, I do ask that you read this one, because you’ll be answering my prayer when you do!

I would write on and on about all the amazing things that have taken place this year at CasaRock, but I wonder how much would sound like every other year. We work, we play, we are blessed to get to minister and travel some and spend at least a little time with friends and family. With others, we’ve walked through the absolute joy of new life, and have walked through the painful yet hopeful journey of death. We’ve been inspired and challenged to take risks and grow, personally and professionally. There are amazing days and boring days, all edited together into a perfectly imperfect life. Gosh, I love that imperfection, because it reminds me of how precious and beautiful life is when it’s wrapped up in the Lord’s grace and mercy.

OK, so I guess I’d better get back to the whole “you’ll be answering my prayer” part of the letter, shouldn’t I? Perhaps it’s because of that imperfectly beautiful life we’re living, or perhaps it’s because I celebrated a milestone birthday; maybe it’s because I’ve spent more time than ever with the fatherless and forgotten, or maybe we’re just tired of feeling guilty about throwing away used wrapping paper, but Brad and I have decided not to celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense this year. Rather, I’ve dubbed this season “Christ-giving” – beginning the week of Thanksgiving and continuing on well beyond Christmas Day. You see, we’ve been blessed beyond measure. We’re rich in what counts, and we’ve got more than enough to get us by. So, we are not purchasing Christmas gifts for each other this year. In fact, if our family and close friends agree to it, we’re not purchasing gifts for them either – because at the end of the day, we all have everything we need and more besides. Instead, we invite you to help us do something different.

Tell us about people who could really use a gift this year.

The person could be someone in your neighborhood or at your church – a single mom struggling to put food on the table, or a family fighting to keep things afloat due to a medical crisis. Maybe someone needs a warm coat or a home-cooked meal. Gosh, maybe someone just needs a kind word and a smile, or a cup of coffee and a listening ear. And if that person is you, that’s OK too. Just send an email to givechristmas@gmail.com, with some details. Don’t worry - this is a private email account, and the emails will be kept that way too.

We certainly don’t have a ton of resources to share, but I keep being reminded of lyrics to a Hillsong United tune, “I know I’m filled to be emptied again, the seed I’ve received I will sow.” So, we’ll do what we can to help all we can. We’ll wrangle others to help us if needed (if you’d like to be “wrangled,” let me know). And we’ll definitely be praying for each and every person, because we believe in and have witnessed its amazing power. In fact, it’s prayer that got us to this place in the first place. We’re not that “holy” or cool – we’re just convicted to look at things in a fresh light.

I realize I’ve not been completely honest in saying we want no gifts this year, because we would like one gift from you, our family and friends. Time. Nothing would give us greater joy than to simply spend a little time with you – enjoying a good meal or relaxing on the boat or taking in the sights on a roadtrip or talking till the wee hours of the morning. We know physical time can be tough, so whether it’s in person, by phone, via email or chat or Skype, or in a real paper letter, we’d love to live just a little more life with you. We want our “Christ-giving” to last throughout the year. So let’s put something on the calendar, in ink. Seriously.

I’ll close with a commentary written by Matthew Henry – it’s about Isaiah 9 (you know the scripture even if you don’t read the Bible: “Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” the inspiration for “Hallelujah Chorus”).

(Jesus) was born for the benefit of us men, of us sinners, of all believers, from the beginning to the end of the world. Justly is He called Wonderful, for He is both God and man. His love is the wonder of angels and glorified saints. He is the Counselor, for He knew the counsels of God from eternity; and He gives counsel to men, in which He consults our welfare. He is the Wonderful Counselor; none teaches like Him. He is God, the mighty One. Such is the work of the Mediator, that no less power than that of the mighty God could bring it to pass. He is God, one with the Father. As the Prince of Peace, he reconciles us to God; He is the Giver of peace in the heart and conscience; and when His kingdom is fully established, men shall learn war no more. The government shall be upon Him; He shall bear the burden of it. Glorious things are spoken of Christ's government. There is no end to the increase of its peace, for the happiness of its subjects shall last forever.

It’s our real, gut-level prayer that you will get to know Jesus. He’s more than a baby in a nativity scene, and He’s more than a name used at the end of prayer. A lot more.

A most merry and joyful “Christ-giving” season to you.

Ronne (with a hearty endorsement from Brad)

P.S. If you want to keep up with our comings and goings, you can find us on Facebook and on Twitter (@LoveWriteCook and @bradleykrock). And if you’d like to read about the journey of a gal who loves to tell stories, you can find my blog at http://christstumbler.blogspot.com.

18 November 2009

Looking in the Mirror.

In a city with a median age of 32, it’s easy to feel ancient at the ripe old age of 50. The moment we moved to Austin, I immediately became older, more conservative, and not as green. The strange thing is, nothing about me really changed – the earth beneath my feet simply shifted. And I have to admit, there are moments when I look in the mirror and say “Wasted.”

I reflect back on the days, when as a kid, we would drive in the big shiny, never-more-than-two-years-old-because-dad-loved-new-cars Cadillac from Oklahoma City to Jonesboro, Texas, to see my grandparents. They lived on a farm in a dot of a town that, according to my grandfather, was a booming place with stores and a post office and even a brothel until Indian raids put an end to the growth in the 1800s. I tried to imagine the old abandoned buildings as they might have been back then, all painted and filled with people and life. When I asked my mom what a “brothel” was, she said it was a place where “ladies of the evening” lived and went on special dates with men. So, I was particularly interested in that building – and tried to picture myself all dressed up for a party and having tea with a man doused in Old Spice. It made me a bit sad that the ladies had to stay in that house, and couldn’t go to a movie or get a hot fudge sundae instead.

Jonesboro was one long, grasshopper-filled, grain-silo smelling summer day for me. I’d take long walks down the dusty limestone roads past fields and mesquite trees to the combination gas station/grocery store (the only one in town) that I called “Mr Mayhews” because Mayhew Glover was the owner and only person who ever worked there. He would let me purchase candy on credit and get Big Red sodas out of the cooler all by myself. And he didn’t mind if I sat and talked to the old men who would sit in front of the store, dressed in overalls or those cotton jumpsuits that looked more like adult onesies.

Those men would sit for hours and reminisce about the good old days, when life was simpler and people were kinder and things didn’t move so quickly. I loved to hear their stories because I could close my eyes and see them in my mind like scenes from a television show. And I would always grow a little sad when I would ask about their “now” lives, because the answers were always the same. “Well, I’m not good for much these days – too old, too feeble, too…” I knew I didn’t want my life to end in the past, because sitting on a bench in front of a gas station/grocery store in a tiny Texas town didn’t look like a place I wanted to end up.

Maybe it was there, in that lazy town that seemed to die long before its time, that I became hell-bent on the idea of being fully alive. It was at the Jonesboro feed store/post office I announced I was going to be an archeologist and adopt older kids who needed love. It was on the sunporch at my grandparent’s house that I split my chin open attempting to fly, or perhaps it was float, off a feather bed. It was even standing in the orchards in the back of the farmhouse that I learned to love the smells and colors and tastes of fresh veggies and fruit, and would conjure up ways to share them with others.

So it seems strange to think I now identify with those old men. I certainly don’t look back on life and think things were better at some other point in history. To be sure, I love how beautiful and messed up things are in the present. Nothing is perfect now. Nothing has ever been perfect. But things are richer now – the colors are brighter and the fragrances are deeper and the stories are more complete. My identification comes when I look in the mirror and say the dreaded words, “If only I was (you fill in the blank here – I use things like “younger,” or “smarter,” or “more talented,” or “more disciplined”), I could have made something more of my life.” Wow. I’m 50. And I feel like I’ve got on that adult onesie already.

I’m glad Noah didn’t look in the mirror and say “Dude, maybe 600 is a bit too old to be jumping on a homemade boat with your family and a bunch of animals. Maybe you should just give it up and let someone younger take over.” I need to be reminded the Lord’s plans aren’t governed by calendars or position. My purpose today is as meaningful as it was when I was a kid on those limestone roads. My impact today, as the earth shifts below my feet, is as great as it was when it felt like nothing moved at all. When I look in the mirror, I should say “Waste not.”

That mirror will certainly say “No onesie for you today, thank you.”

17 November 2009

Words without Speaking.

I’ve always loved to drive. Well, let me clarify – I’ve always loved road trips. OK, let me further clarify – I’ve always loved road trips when I’m behind the wheel. Road trips to see my grandparents or cousins were never like the road trips I now take. My dad believed in three cardinal road rules:

1) The only time to stop for a potty break was when HE needed to take one.
2) The only place to stop for a potty break was a Stuckey’s (or “Stuckey’s on the highway” as my mom used to call the combination gas station/trinket store/snack shops that dotted the roadways for decades)
3) The only items to be purchased while taking that potty break at Stuckey’s were pecan logs and plastic sandwiches. Pecan logs were a sticky, sugary confection rolled in nuts, and plastic sandwiches were my personal name for those pre-made, pre-sliced, tasteless things sealed up tight in a little triangle container. I always got ham & American; dad was a pimento cheese guy. All plastic sandwiches were made with white bread.

Road trips now allow me the opportunity to experience new places and new foods and new people. They are my personal role-playing adventure game. I am Dora the Explorer. For me, the journey is as much fun as the destination.

This road trip has been no different – it has been an adventure.

There was the late night EZ Mart stop in New Boston, Texas, where my friend, Courtney, and I felt extremely underdressed (or perhaps it should be overdressed) when encountering a most confident woman wearing what appeared to be a yellow sweater and white stiletto patent leather boots. I’m still wondering if the sweater was meant to be a dress, or if she simply got busy and forgot to throw on a matching skirt. My husband said a lot of people in that area work for a chicken processing plant, so I’d like to think she was a poultry cheerleader.

Hampton Inn in Bryan, Arkansas offered up its own tale of mystery and intrigue, as we smuggled my dog, Millie, passed the “no pets allowed” sign. Sometimes we hide her in a pillowcase or tuck her away in a coat to sneak her into dangerous territory; this time we actually remembered her “bedroom,” which isn’t either a bed or a room but rather a soft-side pet carrier that looks more like a duffel bag. Walking past the front desk with her peering out of the mesh, I imagined my phone ringing and a low voice on the other end saying, “Well done, agent.” I forgot to mention that Millie isn’t one of those little “purse-friendly” things – she’s a Cocker Spaniel. And she’s the most snuggly 20-pound pillow anyone can sneak into a hotel.

We’ve enjoyed sweet tea and deep South cooking, which everyone should experience at least once – creamed corn, turnip greens, black eyed peas, sweet potato casserole, fried okra, hot buttery cornbread – and we’ve passed towns named Bucksnort and Friendship and Fernvale.

As I look at the sentence, “this road trip has been no different,” I realize it’s incomplete. This time, the most amazing adventures haven’t been in the doing – they’ve been in the “being.” Yesterday, neither Courtney nor I spoke for 6 hours as we journeyed in the rain. We wanted to savor life without talking. It was precious and rich. There were moments of laughter and tears, moments of pure awe.

A beam of light streaming from the back of an 18-wheeler. The shaft of light illuminating the ground it passes is visible only because of a torrential downpour. The sheets of rain that make the road so treacherous provide the perfect palette on which that light is so strongly painted. The light would be diffused if not for the storm.

Perfectly timed sunlight. There is a sweet syncronicity in nature when it dances with the divine. The trees, the grass, flocks of birds, the skies all move to a symphony we are too busy to hear. The sun winked through the clouds in time to a musical refrain, just to remind me.

The mist-covered fields in Arkansas. I’m reminded of the lyrics to a song, “I can feel You all around me, thickening the air I’m breathing…” Oh, to feel the presence of God in the same way I feel the salty air of the ocean or dewy fog or the heaviness of clouds ready to blanket the earth with snow.

The silhouette of quiet trees. The trees are yielding up their leaves – doing so without a fight, without a fuss. There is beauty in the loss, and greater beauty in the branches that reach to the Heavens. The stark silhouette may appear dead, but life is churning within. Refreshment and renewal is taking place. Healing is happening. Those trees will again give life, again bear fruit. But there is beauty in the season of stillness. May I remember that always.

The beauty of gray. So often, people associate shades of gray with gloom. The color is accused of washing out and washing away brilliance. But a beautiful thing happens when gray enters into a world. Some colors become more saturated, richer. Greens become greener – they actually glow. It’s as if the Lord says, “there’s life you’ll only experience in the gray – take it.” There’s beauty beyond the boundaries.

Stories, shared by God Himself, adventures He wanted us to experience that we would have completely missed had we been caught up in conversation. Every story He shared has life – every story holds more stories.

Oh, that I might be silent more often, to hear words without speaking.

02 November 2009

The Beautiful Goodbye.

I’ve never been fond of goodbyes. There is always something just a bit awkward about them. The words don’t flow as easily, the hugs feel cumbersome. And there always seem to be one of two emotions churning in my soul, both wrapped up and tied around the word “time.” More often than not, I tend to put a bow around the “just not enough of it” side of things. And a little piece of my heart that is taken with that goodbye.

But I have come to know a most beautiful goodbye – a farewell that brings with it joy and hope and life. I experienced it again Friday night, under large oak trees and a sky filled with stars. I saw it in the candlelight and the smiles, the dancing and the kiss. I heard it in the cheers and laughter. I smelled it in the flowers and chocolate – and even in the barbecue. The beautiful goodbye was in the eyes of all who gathered.

Erin and Ty, thank you for reminding me again of how precious life is. Watching you hug friends and family, take each other’s hand and run through the crowd to the waiting car – to your new life together as husband and wife, is a gift. It floods my mind and heart with love songs and words and phrases – all saying “this goodbye is not the end – it’s really only the beginning.” All speaking to this moment and so many more to come.

That is indeed most beautiful.

27 October 2009

Grace like rain.

It rained today – that soft, steady rain that soaks the ground and fills the lakes. I woke up to the sound of it pattering against the rooftop as if to say “Arise, oh sleeper. I have a story to share with you.” It drew shapes on the glass and blurred everything into a collage of deep green, rich blue and solemn grey. It played its own sweet rhythmic melody. The rain brought healing, hope, inspiration. And it brought something more - a picture of something profoundly precious.

Grace like rain, pours down on me. And all my stains are washed away.

Grace rained down today. Like the steady downpour, grace whispered “You are precious, you are prized, you are beloved.” Like the rain, grace drew shapes of redemption and worth on my heart, and blurred away the scars of rejection and abuse. It brought healing, hope, inspiration.

And grace played a Heavenly melody that, unlike the rain, knows no beginning or no end.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.

Grace, like rain, pour.

12 October 2009

Life as Worship.

I do believe in a God who has things under control, who designs our moments for His glory and who is, as John Piper says, “most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” So “Called to Worship” by Vernon Whaley has proven to be the perfect companion as I recently traveled to both Guatemala and Russia for orphan care ministry. I am reminded so eloquently , I am indeed worshiping when I am serving others in need.

With detail and diversity, Whaley walks through scripture to reveal the power of worship for and to God. I must admit, I was reticent to select this particular book for review, anticipating it to be a dry, disconnected academic study rather than an enlightening journey that would challenge, convict and inspire. But I was gladly proven wrong.

Whaley paints a picture of worship as a way of life rather than a single act. And no form of worship is left ignored. From meditation to song to prayer and lifestyle, as Whaley puts it, Our worship should be a natural response to His provision for you.”

With that said, I must ask myself the question – “is my worship a natural response to His provision? Do I see worship my day-to-day life? Do I view my actions correctly? Do I recognize my home as a place of worship?” “Am I allowing myself to be distracted and throw a precious opportunity away?”

Though Whaley’s book is written in a style more reminiscent of a school book, his purpose reaches deeper. His goal is discipleshp – being consumed completely by the Lord’s all-consuming fire. It is a book I will pick up again and again as I need encouragement on my purpose in this life.

09 October 2009

It's happening again.

“We are not just interested in money. We want a good relationship. For the past year, we have these programs – bible studies and the graduate program. It is good. Our hearts are open. Please come anytime.” – Vladimir, director at Tolamchova orphanage

It’s happening again. That “just one more day” feeling is overwhelming me as I pack my bags. I’ve got a notebook full of stats and scribbles, 300 new pictures on my iPhone, a few videos on the camera, and eight mysterious bites on my body from some bug that obviously wasn’t impressed with my visit to one of the many orphanages. And I’ve got a head full of questions, ideas, thoughts, and ramblings. Tomorrow we will spend a few hours being bonafide tourists, then we’ll board a plane to London. Sunday afternoon we’ll be back in the United States. Maybe I’ll celebrate with a turkey burger and sweet potato fries, like I did the last time I returned from this precious country. But right now, all I want to do is hug my son and daughter-in-love, spend a few precious hours talking to my dearest friends, and share what I have seen and heard.

We load in the van for this last full day in Russia, and set out to the countryside. The landscape is dotted with farmhouses – many old and in need of repair. The red, gold, green and blue of the homes matches the trees and fields and sky. Farmers sit on the side of the road, bundled to brave the cold, selling their fruits and vegetables, We venture to Tolmachova, an orphanage on the outskirts of a town called Luga. There are 51 orphans there, but the director predicts they will be at capacity (65) by winter. He says it always happens that way. The children range in age from 3 to 18, and the facility has received some renovations due to generous contributions from a family in the United States with a heart for the fatherless. Some of the bathrooms have been updated, and an all-purpose room has been outfitted with a small kitchen so the orphans can learn basic cooking skills. New windows are being installed in some of the rooms to block the bitterly cold air. And the government-mandated fire detection system has been retrofitted into the ceilings of the rooms. The evacuation signs are ready, but they are in St Petersburg – someone from the orphanage will have to meet the signmaker along the road between the bustling city and the poor farming community. Sending money and having the signs mailed is too risky.

Orphan Outreach has been working with Tolmachova, and has a social worker on staff there to help the graduates who attend tech school. Recent graduates are learning gardening. A new school model, combining tech school and university, has been launched in nearby Luga, but it is too early to tell if it will be successful. The director explains that, for his orphans, it is often wiser to graduate in 9th grade rather than continue attending school. Unless they are extremely motivated and intelligent, their chances of attending university are limited. And waiting until 11th grade to graduate also severely limits their options for technical training. So the Orphan Outreach social worker counsels the 14-year olds on life beyond technical school – on getting and keeping a job, budgeting, managing time and resources. I think about my own life at the age of 14, and try to imagine on my own.

One young lady has defied the odds at Tolmachova and is now attending St Petersburg University, a first for the orphanage. Receiving a degree from the university will ensure her a good-paying job. But because the university doesn’t have a subsidy program in place for orphans, she is struggling to get by. Her government stipend of 1500 rubels - $50 US dollars – a month doesn’t pay for much. There is concern that, without additional help, she will give up. The director shares, “It would be a shame if, after all she has done to further her education, after all her hard work and risk, she would be denied. We will do everything possible – we will do the impossible – to keep her in school.” Petitions to the university on her behalf are discussed by the team.

We tour the facility, and meet volunteers from a Baptist Church in Luga who are doing crafts with 8 children too young to attend school. They visit each week to encourage the orphans and offer bible study. And they help with activities like birthday parties, collecting gifts from others in the community so each child receives something special.

After leaving the orphanage, we drive into Luga. Though we had been told a visit to the baby home there would likely not happen because the director was considered “difficult,” we were granted an invitation. One of three baby homes in the Leningrad region, it is home to 65 children under the age of 4. Unlike the other baby homes, this one receives additional help from the municipality, and has social workers dedicated to reuniting babies with their families if at all possible. Adoptions are also common. But visits and humanitarian aid are not. The director graciously welcomed our team – and said her staff would love more visits.

Driving back to St Petersburg, the team discusses what can be done for the orphanages we’ve visited. The conversation continues through dinner. There are needs as simple as diapers and as big as heating systems. There are opportunities for visits to orphanages and opportunities for adoption. And there is a huge opportunity to help this generation of orphans in Russia be history-makers in their country by learning to live healthy, independent adult lives. I wonder what that Russia would look like. I pray I get to find out.

08 October 2009

A Little More in Love.

I think I fell a little more in love with St Petersburg today. Perhaps it’s her shy laughter I find so attractive. Or perhaps it’s because, despite the 9-hour time difference and the huge language barrier, we really are more alike than we realize.

We wound through urban streets this morning, then carefully drove down something much more like an alleyway than a road. The baby home was nestled in a grove of trees hidden away from the bustle of the city. This would be the first visit to the baby home for everyone on the team; it is now home to 36 of the children who used to live at Lomonosov, a baby home outside the city limits. The Russian government decided the orphanage, a former sea captain’s home with lots of acreage, would be more profitable serving something other than children. With the stroke of a pen, the orphanage closed and the babies were shipped to other locations. The baby home, already serving more than 60 children, would grow exponentially because of that decision. And it would learn quickly how to care for HIV-positive children, something only Lomonosov had done prior to the close.

The head nurse, Galina, was reserved at first as she shared basic information about the home. There are more than 100 beds here, and most of the orphans there are considered “social” orphans – they have been removed from their homes due to alcohol or drug abuse, and parental visits are encouraged. Her reservations faded away as we walked through the essential items needed by the children – baby wipes, diapers, baby oil and lotion, clothing, underwear, bibs, blankets, teething rings, bulb syringes and developmental toys.

Galina proudly showed us the facility she has been serving since the early ‘80s. Babies rested in large wooden playpens as caregivers quietly tended to their needs. A few goofy faces and “peek-a-boos” later, there were smiles and giggles from the little ones. The toddlers greeted us enthusiastically, holding our hands and sharing their toys. Valushka, a precious girl with a congenital heart defect, watched Reb intently, carefully mimicking his every move. We then walk into the HIV area, where one of two powerful air purifiers had been installed. Sixteen more are needed for the baby home – sixteen more at a cost of $350 each.

We talked about the benefits of Desitin ointment and the practicality of plastic bibs with pockets, the best digital thermometers, and how chilling teething rings helps to reduce pain. We lovingly talked about what it feels like to get to wear new clothes and how much fun it is to purchase them for a little one. And we shared knowing smiles with the caregivers feeding little ones warm cereal – trying to keep inquisitive eyes focused on breakfast rather than all the excitement around them.

At that moment, we weren’t a team taking notes or a team of orphanage workers. We were simply friends – moms, grandmoms, aunties.

The St Petersburg sky was a crystalline blue, and the sun’s warmth made an afternoon of respite and relaxation even more special. We laughed our way through negotiating with street vendors near the Church of the Spilt Blood, and then toured Peter and Paul Fortress, a powerful and awe-inspiring presence on the banks of the Niva River, The picture-perfect day was made complete by the four wedding parties we saw – the brides in flowing, ruffled white, surrounded by her well-appointed groom and his attendants. In front of the cathedral at Peter and Paul, the photographer snapped photo after photo of a young couple kissing, while a videographer circled the couple, his camera shooting every angle of the embrace. With so few churches, weddings are a common thing every day in St Petersburg. But the beauty of the brides and grooms was an instant “joy-maker” for all who saw. Old couples, young children, even a team from Texas found themselves caught up in the moment.

At dinner, we were joined by Anytoli, a gentleman who has served orphans for what seems like decades. His distinguished silver hair and scruffy beard were a nice foil to his black turtleneck and jacket. He shared story after story of caring for kids, preparing them for life beyond the walls of the institutions they lived in. He talked of taking a wrong turn and ending up in Moscow in the middle of the night during a military crisis, surrounded by police and military as he pleaded to simply return to his orphanage – his van full of donated honey he had travelled 1100km to receive. His Ford had no radio, so he was unaware of what had just taken place in the United States. A kind police officer heard his pleas, and escorted the van to the road to St Petersburg. It was only after returning home he discovered what had taken place in the United States – it was September 11, 2001.

Anytoli talked about the teens who had graduated the orphanage over the years, and their challenges in trying to survive. He talked about the teens desperately needing shoes to be able to attend school or go to work, and waiting patiently for shipments of new donated shoes to arrive since the orphanages had no money to purchase them for the children. In some ways the conversation, though, could have been one held over a dinner table in the United States. “The kids, they don’t understand how to take care of themselves. They are used to having someone else wake them up, someone else fix them breakfast,” he said. “And they don’t know what to do with the money they make. They forget they have to purchase their own food and pay bills.” He says he wishes he had spent more time teaching the graduates about life, that perhaps he could have found different words to say to get them to understand how tough it is to take responsibility when there aren’t others around.

At that point, we weren’t missionaries or a former minister of education. We were simply parents.

St Petersburg smiled a little bit more today – as if to say “we really are alike, you know. We make mistakes, we mess up priorities. And most of us don’t care much beyond ourselves. But some of us do want to see kids smile. We want to see teens laugh. We want to see weddings and blue skies. We want to feel the kindness of strangers. We really do want to be loved and valued.”

Yes, perhaps we are simply the same.

07 October 2009

From Line Drawings to Masterpieces - Russia Vision Trip Day 3

I’ve been told I write in color. I do admit, I am fascinated by word pictures and believe every moment has a story captured inside it, just waiting to be told. And if I was to paint today, it would begin as a stark line drawing. Slowly and carefully, that drawing would be dappled with subtle hues that, upon close inspection, may not appear lovely. But stepping back and gazing upon the finished work, it would be seen as a masterpiece.

The Line Drawing

I was reminded today that some orphans are not born through alcoholism, drug abuse, neglect or abandonment. For some, the moment happens in a rush of shattered glass and twisted metal, flashing lights and sirens.

Our van joined a seeming unending caravan of cars and trucks on the highway leading out of St Petersburg to Tikhvin, a three-hour drive. The highway would quickly shift from two lanes to four lanes – then back to two – with little warning. The aggressive nature of the drivers added to the feeling of chaos as we swerved and swayed. In the distance, we could see brake lights and police cars. There had been an accident. As if in slow motion, we passed the two mangled vehicles – one a sedan and the other an SUV. Ambulance workers were tending to the injured on the right side of the road. Those who did not survive were on the left – their lifeless faces a reminder of how quickly things can change.

The Subtle Hues

We arrived at Tikhvin shortly before lunch. Because of its distance from St Petersburg, few groups and organizations visit or offer care for the lone orphanage in the city of 60,000. The director, considered to be one of the finest in the country, welcomes us with open arms. There are 53 children living at Tikhvin, ranging in age from 8 to 18. Seventeen of the children are eligible for adoption, but their older age makes them unpopular in a world that prefers babies or toddlers. For many, life at the orphanage is the only one they have ever known.

The director tells us about her most recent graduates – 4 young teens who have all chosen to attend technical school to become skilled laborers. Their chances of finding a job are greater if they choose to live in St Petersburg, because the economic crisis has resulted in significant job loss in Tikhvin. Though many orphans choose to graduate from school after the 9th grade, she does what she can to encourage her students to continue their education through 11th grade – university may be an option at that point. There is great interest in Orphan Outreach’s graduate program – the director has heard some of the success stories already, and hopes the program can provide her graduates with the support and care they need to truly succeed.

To prepare her orphans for life, she makes sure they are involved in improvements made to their “home.” When financial contributions are received from donors, the older children even get to participate in the shopping process – comparing quality and prices. More often than not in day-to-day life, however, the caregivers themselves pay for school supplies, training materials, paint, and other needs.

There are two computers at Tikhvin, used as a reward for positive behavior. The orphans do receive some training at school, but there is no opportunity to practice computer skills at the orphanage. They would love to purchase computers, but there are more pressing needs. Showers and toilets. Mattresses for the beds. Repairs to the floors. Warm coats and clothing for the children.

As we leave the orphanage, the director braves the blustery cold to stand by our van as a symbol of her gratitude and trust. We depart the city, visiting a nearby hotel to make sure there is room in Tikhvin for those who will return someday. I look at Reb, an amazing man from Austin who raised the funds for our vision trip by reaching out to business associates and friends, and say “Feels like home, doesn’t it?” “Yes, this feels right,” he responds. It does indeed.

The Masterpiece.

From Tikhvin, we traveled to Volkhov, once the capital of Russia but now a community caught in economic hardship. The orphanage here is different than many – it is the only rural orphanage that focuses its efforts on children with special needs. There are 77 children in total here; the youngest is 2 and the oldest is 19. Because of the unique role the orphanage plays in helping children who are developmentally delayed or learning challenged, the government does provide some additional subsidy. And the director has a good business head about her – she has garnered sponsorship support locally to help pay for some recent improvements to the entry way and dining room. She is fortunate to have received plenty of clothing for her orphans. Her list of needs is small, but with winter approaching, it’s urgent. The heater needs to be repaired, and new windows need to be installed on the northern side of the orphanage to keep the icy cold air from blowing on the children as they sleep. Like Tikhvin, she also needs repairs to showers and new toilets.

We tour the facility and see friends we had met in November 2007 on a Shoes for Orphan Souls trip. While we visit the kids and keep them entertained with glow sticks, candy, and picture-taking (even showing some pictures from our previous visit), something like a miracle is taking place in the director’s office. I believe anyone who goes on a mission trip ends up carrying at least one image of a child with them – for me, there are three: Ulla from Lomonosov, Verohnika from Louphinka, and Josabeth from Antigua, Guatemala. For Reb, the image was of two boys from Volkhov. Those two young men – both gypsies – opened his heart and eyes to the plight of orphans in a powerful way. And today, he met with both boys to learn about their lives, their desires, their needs. The conversation was candid and honest as the boys shared their pain, their fears, and the “home” provided by the orphanage. Working with the director and Orphan Outreach, Reb was able to find ways to help them personally and stay in touch with them to encourage them over years. The most telling moment of the conversation was when Roman, a 12 year old boy with sky blue eyes and jet black hair, slipped on the sweatshirt and baseball cap provided by Reb. He then reach out and hugged him as tears started to flow. In that single moment, standing outside in the pouring rain to get photographs of the three new friends, the world was flooded in warmth and color. Reb’s smile said it all. This had been a most valuable journey.

06 October 2009

Nyet and Dah and iPhones.

Nyet. There’s something about “no’ in Russian that sounds so strong, so final. And today, the word seemed to spring up everywhere. Certainly I’m not going to discount the beautiful moments we encountered, like exploring a 100-year old building or feeling the mist of the fountains at Peterhoff or losing ourselves in the bustle of Nevsky Prospekt as the sun set on another day. But because of “nyet,” my heart is heavy.

We maneuvered winding, potholed pocked roads to Loupohinka, a rural orphanage about 2 hours outside of St Petersburg. Rather than spend time with children, our goal was to talk to the director – about needs, about groups wanting to travel to the sprawling, aging facility, about working with recent graduates to provide them with the best chance for success as they entered the workforce. She greeted us at the door with a wary look on her face – she seemed cynical and tired. Quickly she pulled out stapled sheets of paper, each filled completely with financial needs. There were lines for clothing and boots and coats for the kids. There were lines for toothpaste and shampoo and ointments. Donations are limited here – visitors don’t come often. And there were other lines – for a heater and kitchen supplies and a government-mandated sprinkler system. Inspectors come to see what progress has been made, but without money, the director is left simply to plead for more time. She has been able to cobble enough funding together to install sprinklers in the rooms where the 56 orphans sleep, but has no more money. There are no businesses nearby to help, no sponsoring companies willing to take care of the problem. And the government offers no stipend. In fact, because of the economic crisis in Russia, all but money for food and salaries has been removed from her budget. And winter is fast-approaching.

The organization we are traveling with, Orphan Outreach, offers suggestions on ways to help. Working with church and business partners in the United States, they have been able to provide money for a stove for Loupohinka. And a group of people passionate about the plight of Russian orphans will mean other much-needed supplies will arrive in a few weeks. The director seems appreciative – until the topic changes from money to gifts of time and talent. Her staff is doing well. Her children are doing well. Guests may come during limited windows of time – but she doesn’t have much time for them at Loupohinka. Other members of the staff, including her husband who teaches wordwork to the children, are jovial and engaging, but the director seems uncertain of the help others could truly provide to her children. She’s even seen the benefits of visits from groups like Grand Parkway, a Texas-based church that has fallen in love with the orphanage and its children. But her skepticism is strong.

We later learn that, when she visited the facility and was asked to become the director of Loupohinka, the director retreated to the forest for two days to pray and weep. The task was so great – she didn’t think she had the strength to do it. Her hard veneer hides a heart so driven to protect the orphans from harm that it keeps love at a distance.

From Loupohinka, we traveled along the Gulf of Finland to Lomonosov, where we eat a simple lunch of borscht and salad with a local pastor who ministers to the poor and fatherless in the area. The third floor of his church houses young men who are struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse, and his church is always open to meet the needs of the community. He himself has fostered children from orphanages in the area, and his team visits the children of Loupohinka to offer encouragement, read from the Bible, and pray. That is, they were – until funding ran dry for those people. They meet with us, hoping to hear good news. But it is confirmed a US-based organization who has supported their efforts for years has chosen to go in a different direction – and is ending the financial support of their ministry. Alternatives are discussed - perhaps one of the many churches that feels empassioned about the plight of orphans in Russia will step up with assistance. And in the midst of the troubling news, the faces of the pastor and his staff simply glow. They are thankful for all they do have – for help from friends and for the love of God they are able to share with so many. They show off the new beds they have purchased with financial gifts given through Orphan Outreach and its partners, praising God for His kindness.

After a short stop to Peterhoff Castle to stand in amazement at the solid gold statues adorning massive fountains that flow to the Gulf of Finland, the delicately manicured lawns and gardens with ornate designs drawn from flowers and shrubs, and the gold-roofed structure standing on the side of hill overlooking it all, we traveled back into St Petersburg to visit Hospital #15. Unlike hospitals in the United States, this old battered building offers medical respite to orphans. It smells of medicine and sickness, and the sofrt-spoken workers do their best to keep the facility clean despite its age and condition. The last time many of us were at the hospital, we visited older children including one young gypsy boy dying of AIDS. With no family support, the hospital had become his only home. Today, we were introduced to seven toddlers – each being “evaluated” to determine whether or not they should be designated orphans by the government. In the United States, 2/3 of children removed from their homes will be reunited with their families. In Russia, only 10% will return home. The rest will be placed in orphanages around the country. Our sweet little newcomers were bewildered by their surroundings. Most couldn’t yet speak in complete sentences. Dressed in the hand-me-downs donated to the hospital for the children there, the seven were a rag-tag team. They sat in a small room and were fed apples, cookies, and marshmallows by the workers. The room was quiet – hauntingly quiet. Then Brad pulled out his iPhone and showed a video of Steven Curtis Chapman and Geoff Moore singing “Listen to our Hearts.” The lyrics cut through the silence, and a small red-headed boy began swaying to the song. Then a stocky blonde boy joined him. Smiles began to fill the faces of the kids as we then watched Mat Kearney videos. We all took out our cameras and phones to take and show pictures, and laughter came.

While some of our team videotaped the “grandmothers” who come each day to hold the precious babies at the hospital, we took our seven new friends to another room filled with toys. Though many of the toys were broken, many had batteries that had long since died, the children snuggled up next to us to play. “MaMa,” one dimple-cheeked angel said every time she wanted me to hold a new toy or play a song on the xylophone. Hearing those words cut to the quick. Wanting to take her home, to show her what life would be like with a real mama and papa and big brother and beautiful sister – the tears flowed. Brad and his “band of boys” played with blocks and cars, and used a violin as a make-shift guitar to play airband.

We packed our things to leave, saying our goodbyes to our little tiny team of seven. The smiles disappeared as the children realized what was happening. “PaPa!” whimpered one of the boys as he reached out to Brad. The little red-headed musician clutched his violin, bottom lip quivering. And my dimple-cheeked angel began to cry. We were the first to visit them. And we were now the first to say “goodbye.”

So my heart is burdened tonight – sleep is interrupted by the sound of that word. “Nyet.” I want these orphans to hear “dah!” – YES – with good care and safe environments and bright futures. I want those who want to care for them to hear “dah!” – YES – with funding and support and helping hands. I want those in the United States who feel a kinship with the people here in Russia to hear “dah!” – YES – with open arms and attitudes that say, “we love your friendship.” And for those orphans who can be adopted, please Lord, let there be one “dah!” – YES – after another.

05 October 2009

Tick-tick-tick. There is life here.

The metronome ticks. St Petersburg is alive.

The sun rose over the Niva River as we journeyed to Orphanage 60 to speak to teens preparing for graduation. 60 is one of many government-run facilities in St Petersburg with numbers for names. Somehow it just makes sense here…

The smell of fresh paint and wood filled the air when we opened the door and walked up the steps to the office where the director and assistant director waited to meet with our team. We learned the orphanage had been recently renovated to become a public school – a school of close to 600 that just happened to still accommodate 45 orphans. Their rooms lined one short corridor, next to lecture rooms and offices. Their kitchen and eating area paralleled the larger school kitchen. When the other students went home at the end of a school day, the orphans stayed. They ranged in age from 12 -17, with stories of abandonment, abuse, financial difficulties, and more. Some would graduate at the end of their 9th grade year and pursue trade school education. Others would hold on until 11th grade in the hopes of being selected by a university. The dreams are big at Orphanage 60 – electrical engineers, civil aviation, forensic specialists, police officers, videographers and designers – all dreams requiring admission to school and a place to sleep.

Yes, a place to sleep. You see, the government offers orphans an extremely low-cost collegiate education. All the child needs is a safe place to call “home.” But what does home look like to a teen who has no family to live with? And if that orphan found a place to live, would they know how to cook, to manage their money, how to grow things and and craft a resume and look online for job openings. When asked that they wanted more than anything, several of the boys responded, “We want to learn to cook. We want to learn to speak English.” With a monthly stipend of only 350 rubels a month after graduating (that’s a little over $13 in USD), the struggles to survive without some type of support are strong. Transitional homes in St Petersburg are few and far between, and word on the street is that a couple of homes are being closed at the end of the year due to a reprioritzation at a US-based ministry. Several of the boys voiced their concern that their government had predetermined their vocation by making it so difficult to be accepted into schools that offer dormitory housing. Orphans overall seem prime candidates for trade school, which offer no additional benefits.

As the interview continued, a few of us toured the upgraded “school with built-in orphanage housing” to see what new facilities awaited us. A large commercial-grade kitchen was being built. The classroom would accommodate 12 students, and an orchard and garden assured fresh fruits and vegetables would be available months throughout the year. Developing a curriculum of heatlthy, easy to prepare, fun items would be simple enough – barring complications with conversations and ingredients. In my mind’s eye I could see pieroigi stuffed with mushrooms or beef, poached chicken in walnut cream pesto sauce., soups and salads. And of course there would be cupcakes. The headmaster of the orphanage beamed when we discussed the concept, and asked if other children suffering from siginificant poverty might be able to join the class.

We also visited a newly equipped computer lab. Fift-six computers were in the room – most in boxes. And a handful of young women played games on the computers rather then use to learn business applications. More instruction was need – more tutors were needed.

The final conversation revolved around English. In order to graduate school, standardized English comprehension tests are taken. The students receive limited lessons in Enligh, and hunger for a tutor who will work with them on an regular basis, teaching both Oxford and conversational English.

We said our goodbyes as we pondered the possibilities for “LifeCamp” done at the orphanages, Taught by volunteers with a passion for orphans and skills in their selected area, LifeCamp could provide a greater sense of independence for recent graduates. Our concept was received well by our in-country team, the students and even the faculty. The spark in their eyes said so much. They had a voice, and they had needs. And someone was willing to listen.

Our van drove us for a while, and then stopped shy of some imposing steps taking us underneath a major traffic circle. We followed them to a beautifully haunting World War II Memorial honoring the Seige of Leningrad. It showed in imagery and artifact the raging battle against the Nazis in the 40s. Hitler wanted Leningrad wiped from the face of the earth – he considered it the “heart” of Mother Russia. More than 250,000 bombs were launched and some say no structure went untouched in all of St Petersburg. Churches were used to store the dead and mass graves were used in an effort to quell disease. There was no electricity, no way to get food to people. In order to drink, people took saws to the frozen waters of the Niva River. More than 60,000 died of starvation alone. Of every 10 men who went off to fight the battle, less than 3 returned.

Haunting music played on radios and through loudspeakers each day during the heart of the war. The music alerted people to information to be shared. And then there was no information, a solemn “tick – tick – tick” of a metronome broadcast to everyone that ‘St Petersbrg was still alive.” We walked silently through the memorial, reading the inscriptions illuminated by candlelight. “Tick-tick-tick” the metronome resonated.

Rain had begun to fall as we departed the memorial and drove through historical buildings to Orphanage 2. Known by all as a precious gem in the city, this orphanage has children aged 3-12, living in small group settings. Our time was one of celebration for the orphanage, for Sasha had received gifts from her “forvever family,” a mom and dad and brother awaiting her arrival in a few short months. Two other children currently being considered for adoption received gifts from families in the United States. There were cheers and candy for everyone. Lots of smiles. But my heart wanted to cover a young landy named Sasha. With dark eyes, a huge smile and deep dimples, she could make any heart melt. And she wants so badly to be adopted. He has a little brother, and Buckner is trying to keep the sibling group together. I pray her day will come soon. There’s also Andre – a talk, shy tender young man who wants to sit and talk. He too wants to know the love of a family. My heart breaks as it fall more and more in love with these kids. We give hugs and kisses one last time before leaving, and I walk around the orphanage, I hear the rap on the window above me as Sasha stands and waves. She runs from window to window, stopping to rap, wave and smile. Oh, how I wish I could simply open that sash, and take her with me!

We drive away as night falls on the city. I hear the “tick-tick-tick” reminding me of life – and I pray that life is good for this city, for these orphans.

04 October 2009

Treasures in Junk Drawers - Russia Vision Trip Day 1

The room is dark, save for the glow of the two laptops and iPhones syncing music to prepare for the day. “Tear Down the Walls” by Hillsong United is playing as the day’s anthem.

“Your love is glorious - glorious. Your love is changing us.”

It’s 6:21a in St Petersburg, and the sun has not yet started to rise over the river that flows outside our window. We are at the Hotel Moscow, just steps away from the resting place of Tchaikovsky. The Nevsky Prospekt begins here – a winding road full of exclusive shops and restaurants and theatres. The Church of the Savior on the Spilt Blood is blocks away. The city is alive with new construction – high-rise condos and more shopping centers and highways. Despite the cold gray skies thick with moisture and pollution, summer has not yet given up her hold on the city. The medians are lush and the trees are just beginning to welcome the wash of gold and red on their leaves. Even petunias are in full bloom, in powerful explosions of fuschia and purple and white. The city seems to have readied itself for its visitors. Things are dusted and pillows are fluffed.

But as pretty as St Petersburg may be today, she forgets that we know about her closets and her junk drawers. We have walked past her cathedrals and palaces where she stores her treasures. And we have discovered treasure far greater in her “throwaway things”, in the 900,000 orphans who are tucked away in nondescript buildings hidden within apartment communities or in crumbling buildings on unmarked roads in small towns. And that’s why we’re here this time – to see those treasures again, and to see how we can polish and shine each one so they can shine brightly as a beacon of true and everlasting hope in Russia.

“Tear down the walls, save the world, is there something we have missed. Turn from ourselves, look beyond, there’s so much more than this.”

We’ve been told our visits to the orphanages could be met with some resistance. Russia trusts no one, even those who have shown her love over and over again. So we pray for every meeting, every interview, every single photograph and frame of video shot. We pray for favor, and we pray for transparency. We pray to be welcomed into the orphanages as we talk about technology and life skills camps and construction projects. We pray for discernment at each orphanage, to see yet unshared needs. And we pray for the children – oh, how we pray for the children. We pray for a generation to be raised in Russia, treasures from those closets and junk drawers, shining with a light that comes from truly understanding what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made.

“We will see Your spirit rising, as the lost come out of hiding. And every heart will see this hope we have in You.”

Our journey begins.

29 September 2009

A Quiet Conversation - and Distant Thunder

NOTE: Yes, this looks different than my normal blogs. It's a book review. You'll see them pop up from time to time. Enjoy. And if it moves you, read.

“I feel written.”

The story slowly unfolds, like a lazy morning. Like life, actually.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is a story about stories – about the distinct moments of life we so often take for granted that define and refine us. It’s a story about life, and whether that life will be memorable or meaningless. Written as a meandering walk through his own experience of transforming his life story into a movie, Miller captures the essence of our own walks through the day-to-day as we stumble to find purpose.

Miller’s voice is as comfortable as back porch conversation during a rain shower, yet provides moments that, like a sudden thunderclap, shake the ground – and a person’s core. “People love to have lived a good life,” he shares, and we all nod in agreement. “But few people like the work it takes to make it happen. Joy costs pain.” A distant rumble sounds.

Miller is a word painter, but not like the imagery painted by Max Lucado or other more mainstream authors. Rather, he washes words with familiarity and humor and self-deprecation. When he references the movie Rocky, it’s easy to envision the beautiful frailty of the main character long before he became a hero. When he writes about his failed efforts to write a fiction novel, the struggle between author and character come to life. He writes of ambition and wrong turns and dishwashing liquid and bicycles and how pain makes a story rich and full.

Perhaps this book resonates with me in a unique way because of words spoken only recently to a group of teenage girls in an orphanage in Guatemala. They had heard my personal testimony of sexual and physical abuse, and cried as they saw the story as their own. Yet the story didn’t end. The girls listened intently as the story moved to redemption and restoration – of a loving husband and a family and an adventurous life ministering to orphans just like them. “Each of you is a book, waiting to be written. The question is, who will hold the pen and craft the words of your life? You can attempt to write your story. Or you can give that pen to the One who knows the life you were created to live. When God takes that pen, your story is forever changed. You are given hope that does not disappoint.”

“The truth is, we are all living out the character of the roles we have played in our stories.” In his latest book, Miller shares a depth of character found only in living life fully. And he challenges us to do the same. Take the time to sit and listen – to both the conversation and the distant rumble.

19 September 2009

Dancing with Orphans

I’m home, in my own comfortable bed in my own comfortable home, drinking Starbucks and snuggling with my pup. For the first time in a week, I’ve slept more than 4 hours. For the first time in a week, I’ve not bounded out of bed to travel to do work with orphans. And I must admit - it’s awkward, like the feeling you get after being on the water for a while. Being here, in this comfortable life, feels like anything but that right now. Last night, as I wept, I asked my husband, Brad, if it would ever get easier. He smiled and responded, “I pray it doesn’t.” So this morning, as I rest, I close my eyes and think about dancing with orphans.

Yes, dancing. You don’t have to be around me very long to know how difficult it is for me to be still. Dancing for absolutely no reason at all is natural. Dancing for any good reason at all is complete joy. And in Guatemala, there was dancing. Oh yes, there was dancing.

Looking back at my blogs, my story from Manchen is a bit incomplete. You see, as the team left our makeshift prayer room and turned right to walk to the girls behind bars, I turned left. It wasn’t that I wanted to be by myself – one of the girls we had prayed for was leading me. Holding my hand, she walked over to the concrete ledge surrounding the courtyard, motioned for me to sit, and then snuggled in beside me. She spoke no English, but her desire was clear – she wanted to be held. We sat for a few minutes, my arms wrapped around her, singing to her softly in my very broken Spanish. Two girls who had heard my testimony and received prayer walked over and asked to join us. Then two more girls came and sat on the ledge. We hugged and smiled – and the questions started.

“What does your husband look like?”
“Is your son handsome? Is he single?”
“Where is Texas?”
“What do you do in the United States?”
“Where have you been in Guatemala?”

We sat together, huddled around my iPhone, looking at photos of my family, our pets, our home. I showed them pictures of the foster care kids we took waterskiing earlier in the summer – and though I stumbled through my explanation that the girls in the picture were orphans from the United States, all the girls understood. We looked at pictures of sunny days and snow and friends. And they saw pictures of Cerecaif and Cabecitas. We stumbled through the conversation, with so many “how do you say/como dice” moments mixed in. And then, the question was asked “What music do you like?”

And the dancing began. My small group of beautiful girls and I laughed and danced together to “Jai Ho,” the theme song from Slumdog Millionaire.

Fast forward 24 hours. The team has traveled back to Guatemala City, and has delivered Happy Meals and humanitarian aid to the 13 children at the Buckner Baby Home. We’ve seen Danny, a precious boy who wants so much to have a forever family – his two friends are being adopted and he now asks if anyone will love him enough to take him home. There’s Milagro, a tiny girl who wasn’t expected to live – now walking around with a huge smile on her face. There’s Crystal, dumped at a hospital with severe medical conditions. She’s laughing and speaking in English and Spanish. The children at the home are well cared for, receiving medical treatment and lots of love. We’ve gone to the grocery store to purchase everything we need to have a cookout and bake cupcakes for the teens and house parents at the Buckner Transition Homes. And the “host” home is now filled with the fragrance of chocolate in the oven and burgers on the grill.

Our special guests arrive – each one an orphan who has “aged out” of the system and given an opportunity to go to university or trade school while living in a safe and loving environment. I recognize at least a half-dozen girls from our visit to Manchen last year. They are literally “glowing,” so grateful for a home and friends and support and freedom. The kitchen fills with teens, and with Brynn and Stacey’s help, frost and decorate the cupcakes – a new treat for many of them. We set up the buffet for hamburgers and hotdogs while “Grillmaster Jim” works busily outside with his assistants, Christi and Mandy. Phyllis and Denny Scheminske, friends who live in Guatemala City and are helping our team, bring plates of tomatoes, onions, guacamole and cheese to the table. More than 60 people – teens, young moms, house parents – are being served. Courtney prepares bouquets of roses for all the house moms, talking to our interpreter, Melissa, and Oscar, one of the young men who is now in trade school. Patrick tries to capture every moment on camera while Ryan plays soccer with the guys. This is a party.

The house is filled with that wonderful blend of talking and laughter and sports on the television– and soon, a new sound is added. Music. This isn’t a party – this is a HOUSE party. On the patio, the girls are showing everyone their dance routine to “Single Ladies” by Beyonce. The music is an invitation – a bridge that crosses language and culture and age. I look around, and there is dancing everywhere. Joyful, unfettered dancing. From toe-tapping to full-out spins and twirls, we are all dancing with orphans.

So again, here I am now, resting in my uncomfortable comfort as I reflect on our time in Guatemala. And I laugh a bit as the tears flow – my foot is moving to the sound of the music in my mind. There’s such sweet liberty in the dance. It’s in that dance I feel truly free. Thank You Lord for that freedom.

Thank you to my amazing team: Patrick Lockerman, Mandy Cortina, Christi Uckerek, Courtney Nowakowski, Jim Shields, Brynn Paine, Ryan Nowakowski, and Stacey Yellen. Thank you Phyllis and Denny for joining us on the journey. Thank you Victor and Andrea for interpreting in Xela. Thank you Berta and Melissa for your tireless care for us. Thank you Buckner for your work in Guatemala. Thank you to those who contributed through prayer and donations. And thank you Guatemala, for opening your arms so we could serve.

16 September 2009

Words fail.

It’s difficult to think that I – a person who always seems to have something to say – am at a loss for words as I reflect on this day. It’s not that I don’t have the desire to tell the story of Manchen; rather, it’s that, despite best efforts, there are simply not words adequate to describe the awe-inspiring moments we shared with the girls who live there.

For those of you who don’t know about Manchen - it is a teenage girls’ home in Antigua. There are currently 100 young ladies ranging in age from 10-18 living in dormitory style housing. Many of the girls have fled abusive situations, and some have been living on the street. There are a number of pregnant girls or young moms. One mom, only 13, was removed from abuse – Manchen is considered to be a safe place for her and the tiny baby boy she holds in her arms.

For months, I had been praying about how we should spend our time with the girls. Searching for teaching materials proved futile – everything designed for teens in the United States approached challenges from an upper-middle class point of view. My sweet friends didn’t fight over clothing or who had the cutest boyfriend or nicest car – they struggled with the pain of sexual abuse and gang violence and drug addiction. When I thought about Manchen, my heart focused on one word: treasure.

These girls needed to be told they were indeed beautiful – a prized possession of incomparable value. They needed to know they were God’s treasure. And they needed to know they are not alone – there are other broken and beautiful people who have experienced healing and redemption. That passion to share led to a bible study written just for Manchen. “A Treasured Life” walked the girls through a journey of hope. From designing charm bracelets to help them see they were like jewels or precious silver in the eyes of God to talking about what being treasured feels like – and then honoring people in their lives who have encouraged, loved, and supported them, each element of the lesson allowed the girls to not just listen but interact with the concept of “treasure.” Even a special time of painting fingernails was used to reinforce the importance of inward beauty.

All of the activities were written around a bible study focusing on three main points:

Christ is our most prized treasure
The Bible is a wonderful treasure given to us by God
We are God’s most prized treasure

Personal testimonies from members of the team would be shared when we got to the third point. The stories shared with the girls wouldn’t be the usual fare – my own personal history of sexual and physical abuse would be told, and I prayed there would be a testimony for each of the three bible study groups at Manchen. I felt the Lord saying “the walls will be broken down when the girls see they are not the only ones.” And God, being truly wonderful, ensured that two other women with stories were on the trip.

We arrived at Manchen at 2pm, and were greeted by the sounds of cheers when the large wooden door was opened. Those who had been to the orphanage before found familiar faces, and those who were new quickly found friends. The magic lens of the cameras served as instant ice-breakers. The chant “Photo, photo, photo!” transformed the courtyard into a pep assembly. Gathering the girls all together, we introduced ourselves and shared what the afternoon would hold. We asked how they defined the word “treasure,” and the answers were shouted out “jewelry, money, gold!” We then gave our own definition:

“Anything or any person who is highly treasured. A thing or person of incomparable worth.”

We showed the girls a gift we had brought to them – a frame adorned with a hodge-podge of items that had been donated and dug out of junk drawers back home. Jewelry, beads, old computer parts, keys, scrap metal, pieces of broken china, toys. The frame helped them see the amazing beauty in a tapestry of both things of value and things discarded.

The girls were then split into three groups: pink, turquoise and purple, and the teams rotated from one activity to another. I wish I could say the transition was smooth – but all Hell broke loose. We didn’t have enough translators, several of the girls rebelled against wearing the bandanas and joining in the teams – with a team of nine, we were clearly outnumbered. I looked at Brynn and Christi, my partners on Team Turq, and said “I know God is here. Now it would be nice if He would show His face.” I looked around and other team members were praying as we all worked to calm the chaos. Then, as if a gentle breeze swept over the orphanage, the chaos ceased. Every girl listened attentively. They asked questions and shared stories. Even those who at first didn’t want to participate ventured over. On their treasure sheets, they wrote down names of friends. They wrote down names of family members. They wept as they remembered life with a mom and dad. They carefully threaded each bead as they made their special bracelets, many of them snuggling up next to the team and asking for help. Team members held babies so the young moms could participate in the activities.

Let me interject here that this seems so much more like a diary entry – again, I find myself failing miserably at finding words. But this was not a “day in the life” moment. This was a miracle in the making.

As we shared the bible lesson, the girls were quick to share “Jesus is a treasure,” and “The Bible is a treasure.” But then the tone changed. They leaned in with piercing eyes, holding each others’ hands as the testimonies were shared:

“My step-brother sexually abused me.”
“I had an abortion.”
“My alcoholic father only told me he loved me once.”

We spoke of Christ’s redeeming love, of His remarkable ability to heal, to restore innocence, to truly love in a way that doesn’t hurt. We spoke of our lives then, and our lives now – and how He has taken every broken piece and written His name on it, saying “This one is mine.” We talked about being a masterpiece, like a fine work of art in a museum or the best music ever written. Girl after girl said “your story is my story – please pray for me.” We prayed, and held each sweet girl so tightly – the young girl who just found out she was pregnant and the precious teen who had been removed from a brothel and the beautiful teen who had run away from home and just wanted to see her mom again. Tears flowed. Lives were changed.

We said our goodbyes to the girls, bringing out the frame we had shown earlier – now with a mirror mounted inside so each of them would be reminded of the treasure inside them. As we prepared to leave, a special needs girl ran to our interpreter, Melissa, pleading “I want Jesus, please pray for me!” Peeking her head out of the computer room, our teammate Courtney yelled “Everyone, please come inside – we need to pray!” The young prostitute sat inside. “She has decided she wants to live her life in Christ, and she needs prayer for healing.” That computer room became a room of healing and restoration, not only for her but for at least a dozen young ladies. They waited patiently outside as we prayed for each one. The line continued to grow and grow. I held one young lady who simply wanted to be a “difference-maker” and end the curse of abuse and violence. Her warm tears fell on my arm as I hugged and whispered “Jesus te mo” to her.

We had noticed earlier a group of girls behind barred windows in the corner of the orphanage. Berta, our Buckner trip coordinator and interpreter, asked if we would go and speak to the girls. “They are the very tough ones – the violent ones. But they can be redeemed, and they keep crying out for prayer.” The team responded, and held the girls hands through the bars. Four precious girls asked Christ to be the Lord of their lives. And bracelets worn by the team as examples became the perfect number of gifts for those girls. In total, more than 10 girls made decisions for Christ. Dozens received prayer for healing, deliverance, restoration.

God was indeed there. And everyone saw Him.

Precious Pain

It’s Tuesday night – or to be perfectly honest, it’s very early Wednesday morning. Though I should be asleep, my head and heart are full as I reflect on a painfully precious day. It’s Independence Day here in Guatemala, and in every city, town, and village, the celebrations have been taking place for days. Concerts, fireworks, torch runs, marathons, festivals, dances, parades – it seems the entire country joins in the festivities. That liberty, however, wasn’t celebrated in the places we served.

We returned to Cerecaif, our van filled with bags of supplies. A small army of boys ran to our van, and then carefully carried the duffel bags and sacks into the orphanage – one smiling and singing “Leche! Leche” when he saw large bags of powdered milk. Part of our team completed a painting project we began on Monday (see “Beauty for Ashes”) while others distributed humanitarian aid, school supplies and groceries.

The heartfelt gratitude of the workers was precious. Saying “goodbye” to the children was painful.

We travelled to Antigua, where we visited the Hogar de Ancianos– or the Cabecitas de Algodor , loosely translated as The House of Cottontops.” Three of us had been to the home for the elderly before, and each had special memories of residents there. For Courtney, it was a former architect, disabled after a construction accident, who loved to draw. For Stacey, it was a wheelchair-bound gentleman with a passion for good conversation. And for me, it was a 102-year old woman who loved Jesus and loved to tell everyone she met about it.

The heavy wooden door opened into the entry of the home, and we stumbled over two beds that had been set up where plants and a bench had once been. Large piles of clothing, old mattresses, and wheelchairs dotted the walkway around the small center courtyard. Something had changed.

Courtney immediately saw her “boyfriend,” who greeted every woman on the team with a sweet kiss on the cheek. She presented him with a portfolio of draftsman tools, and his eyes filled with tears of joy. Stacey’s gentleman quickly engaged in a deep conversation about history with Jim, himself a history buff. And Ryan was introduced to the now 103-year old woman was sitting outside her room. Other familiar faces sat in chairs or shuffled across the courtyard as we gave away the slippers and caps. Many shared stories of days gone by, of careers and families and life in other places.

As we neared the rooms, the stench of urine and feces was overwhelming. Rooms that once held two or three people now were filled with six or seven beds. Most residents were in those beds, many unable to walk or care for themselves at all. Some beds had sheets and blankets ; many had nothing to cover the bare mattress. We learned that two other homes had been closed, and residents from those homes had been transported to the Hogar des Ancianos. Some newer residents had simply been “left” by family members. With little to no financial assistance, the House of Cottontops has been struggling to keep its residents fed.

Holding the withered hand of a sweet grandma was precious. Knowing that grandma has no family visiting her was painful.

So, I lay here – my heart aching for the fatherless, no matter their age. Knowing the Lord God Almighty says “I’ll be your daddy,” and wanting desperately to comfort each and every one. I’m so thankful for those who are here in Guatemala, caring for the fatherless day in and day out. I’m thankful for the amazing team here with me this week, living out their faith. And though it’s sometimes difficult to say, I’m thankful for the painfully precious days – it’s through them I am centered, refined – and focused on Christ alone. And it’s through them I’m reminded He is Lord, He is Healer, He is Comforter.

14 September 2009

Beauty for Ashes

It’s Monday – our first full day of ministry in Guatemala. Our journey takes us to Cerecaif, an orphanage 20 miles from Xela. The orphanage was founded by a Mexican family, and serves children who have been removed from abusive environments. Seventy-two children, ranging in age from 2 to 16, live at Cerecaif, and receive very good care and education. Unlike the government orphanages, this “home” is staffed with volunteers who give their time 24 hours a day – their only payment is room and board. Nine workers, in addition to the orphanage director, serve the children. The cinderblock and stone building sits on sloped land in the shadow of tall mountains. There is no playground or park – the children play behind the orphanage on land also used to raise goats, chickens and sheep. It’s a very unassuming place on the outside. The kids wear hand-me-down clothing, play with donated toys, Inside the simple structure, though, there is evidence of “beauty for ashes;”

At first glance, a girls’ bedroom is a bouquet of pink flowers, ruffles and dolls. Look more closely, and the transformation reveals itself. Cabinets used for clothing are recycled cardboard boxes. Bedspreads are crafted from fabric remnants. Even the beautiful floors are designed from scrap tile. Things others would quickly discard have become treasure for boys and girls. And we would be given the opportunity of assisting in the very transformation process - as we paint walls and borders, letters and numbers and borders and butterflies. There are hearts and flowers and baseballs, soccer balls and footballs. And all the painting coordinates perfectly with those fabric remnant bedspreads and cardboard closets.

Our time at Cerecaif doesn’t end with painting. Time spent with the children singing, praying, studying the Bible, practicing their memory verse – “Fear not for I am with you” – and designing special t-shirts transform a cold, rainy afternoon into a joy-filled time for everyone. The children’s smiles and hugs, their willingness to accept us and embrace us, are true beauty. The transformation is within us now, our hearts at once crushed by the plight of the fatherless and filled to overflowing with love to share with each child. Watching our team minister, I’m reminded of a Shane & Shane song that seems right for this moment.

Beauty for ashes
A garment of praise for my heaviness
Beauty for ashes
Take this heart of stone and make it Yours

I delight myself in the richest of fair
Trading all that I've had for all that is better
A garment of praise for my heaviness
You are the greatest taste
You're the richest of fair