Friday, September 30, 2011

Goodbye to a dear friend....

One thing I've gotten pretty good at over the years is saying 'goodbye.'  Even though I perhaps have gotten good at saying the words, I can't say that goodbyes are ever easy! But it seems to be a big part of living internationally...the ever changing community.

This week we said goodbye to our dear friend Yulia who has served faithfully on my team for the past 5 years!  2 weeks ago Yulia married a great Christian guy from Lebanon and is now beginning her new life with him!!

We had quite the wedding celebration on September 17th which was a real blend of cultures.  A Ukrainian girl marrying a Lebanese guy, an Australian pastor, and an American event coordinator!  It made for a real international event and a lovely celebration.

Galina, Yulia and I have all worked together on the Gift of Adoption project (a project of Orphan's Promise) for the past 5 years.  Yulia has been a valuable part of our team and has quite the soft spot in her heart for the kids here.  She has taken nearly 30 kids to the US on hosting trips and as a result has developed meaningful relationships with countless children and has advocated for many to find families.  I have always been amazed at how she would invest in the lives of these kids, with regular phone calls and visits, and occasionally taking a child home for the weekend to get a break from the orphanage.  Yulia has been a fighter for the fatherless.

When I think of my years spent ministering with Yulia so many memories come to mind.  Numerous orphanage visits, our summers spent traipsing around Ukraine to various summer camps, organizing fancy conferences, talking on radio programs, drinking hundreds of cups of tea in our office (that could be an understatement) and simply sharing our lives together.  It is a gift to work along side dear friends who share a common passion and vision. Work no longer seems like work, instead we have been sisters in Christ, fighting in the same battle and coming before the Lord on behalf of his children!

You will be missed my dear sister!  But we know the Lord has exciting things before you as you enter this new season of life! I know you will go on to love whatever children God puts in front of you!  Thank you for the service you gave to us and for your friendship....

Yulia & Khalil on their wedding day.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Face of Tanya

With every orphanage that we go to and return to visit time and time again, I always seem to see that God puts one or two specific girls on my heart.  I think it’s all I can really handle.  When I look at the masses it is hard to connect. It is easy to just see them as a group of orphans and their needs can seem overwhelming. It seems easier not to get involved. 

But then God manages to take one face and have it stand out amidst the masses.  One story becomes a bit more personal.  One individual suddenly has entered your life and suddenly what you are doing seems to matter more.

At the Kalinenska orphanage that face is Tanya.  For three years now we have been visiting Kalinenska and putting on summer camps and then returning in the fall for fellowship.  For three years now Tanya's smile has greeted me each time I have crossed through those dreaded orphanage gates.  Tanya has an unspeakable joy that exudes out of her.  She has a laugh that is contagious.  She has eyes that speak life. Tanya knows Jesus, and it is evident.  Her larger than life smile and radiant joy are a stark contrast to the life she has lived.

She fantasizes about what home would be like if her mother didn't drink and wouldn't beat her and her younger brother.  The brother she has practically raised herself. A brother who carries visible signs of physical abuse he must have endured.  She knows home isn't a safe place, and yet she still dreams it would be better there- that perhaps her mother could know God, that things could change.

It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how wretched home life was for these kids, it still remains 'home.'   It remains the place where so many dream to return.  It might have not been good, but it was their normal.   Mama was mama, no matter what she did.   It isn't this way for all kids, but I have heard this story repeated too many times over the years.... wanting to return, despite the circumstances.

For at least 6 years Tanya and her younger brother have been in an orphanage, and it was at this orphanage in Kalinenska that she came to know Jesus.  Because our friends Anya and Boguslava regularly visited the kids and taught them about the Bible and Jesus, Tanya began to understand what it means to have a relationship with her Heavenly Father- a daddy she can trust.  She loves to read her Bible and could recite me long parables from memory.

Life for Tanya is not easy. She told me about how hard it is being one of the only 'serious' Christians in the orphanage.  She went on to say how much our time with her during the camp encouraged her faith and allowed her to trust Jesus more and want to grow.  She said it was nice to have people to talk through things with and get advice from-- to see people with a passion for God.

I told Tanya that she was my encouragement; she was my hero.  I told her that her faith was teaching me about true joy.  It is easy to smile when life seems easy, but to wake up in a village orphanage each day and to choose joy is a real testimony to Jesus living in her. 

I don't always wake up and choose joy. In fact there have been many days lately when I've had to give myself a real attitude adjustment.  So I try to remember Tanya, to pray for Tanya, and remind myself like the apostle Paul did, that joy is an overflow of what is inside.   There is a reason that Paul was able to say  "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances" (Philippians 4:11).    He was drawing his water supply from a living source, he was full of a joy that only Jesus can give.

Where is your joy coming from these days?  Is it harder to muster up because of your circumstances?

Go back to the source.  Pursue the giver of indescribable JOY. Perhaps your face may shine a little brighter.... a little like the face of Tanya.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace, as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Romans 15:13

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Gate

For the third summer in a row, we walked through these gates 3 times a day.  Behind these gates live the 65 children in Kalinenska Orphanage #2.  These gates have become symbolic to me over the years, because I hate these gates and everything they stand for.  I hate that a prison exists behind these gates and that the captives don't even understand that they are prisoners.

Children living at this orphanage have all been diagnosed with a mental delay. A diagnosis that was most likely given when they were going through a traumatic family disruption or loss.  Once this label is given it sticks.  There is no reassessment, instead the label will determine their future.  Because of their diagnosis the kids at this institution receive a sub-par education and do not complete normal high-school, which makes them unable to qualify for higher education beyond the normal trade school.

What kills me is that so many of these kids are smart, or could do very well with some assistance.  Instead they've come to accept their diagnosis and believe that they are incapable of ever achieving.  During a simple English lesson, girl after girl in my class would give up, saying that 'it's not possible' or 'I can't do this.'  

They've been conditioned to believe that this orphanage is the best place for them.  It was eery how many times I heard kids say, 'I like it here, it's good for me here, it would be too hard if I was somewhere else.'  They literally said it the same way, as if it was auto pilot, as if they were taught to say the same phrase.  Lie after lie after lie, that they have come to believe as truth.

I had a talk one afternoon with Marina, one of the older girls, who will be in the 9th grade for the second time this year- a bright girl who has lived in the orphanage her entire life with a label- one that she believes at her core. I tried to tell her about the power of belief systems, and that when we believe something long enough it becomes true-- and that is what the enemy wants-- he is the Father of lies.  I tried to give her encouragement and tell her that what she thinks about herself matters.  I don't know how deep it went in, but as I write this I am reminded again to pray for Marina and that the lies would be replaced with truth.

There is a spiritual heaviness that exists in this village- one that is difficult to put into words.  A village of less than 2,000 residents and yet 2 orphanages are located here.  Not 1 but 2!  2 prisons which hold these faces, faces which continue to haunt me.  This summer I learned that the land of this village used to be a thriving economic center of the region pre-WWII.  It also contained a large Jewish community.  During the war the Russians came in and all the Jews were murdered.  The villagers claim that their land is cursed.  I have to agree.  As I walked the streets of the village in the morning I prayed that there would be an out pouring of the Holy Spirit on these people and that they would turn to God in repentance and for the healing of their land.  

One morning in my time with the Lord, I was brought to Psalm 107. It was one of the moments where I felt like God was speaking directly over this village and each word on the page became alive.  It has become my prayer for the people there and for the children trapped in the orphanage prisons.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom
and broke away their chains.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
And his wonderful deeds for Men,
For he breaks down the gates of bronze and cuts through the bars of iron.
He sent forth his word and healed them, he rescued them from the grave.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love...
(Psalm 107:13-21)

Let it be so....