Saturday, May 15, 2010

The King and I

"If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit."

My first trip to the Voronezh region in Russia was in 1998. Much has changed in these past 12 years, and yet much has remained the same.

Those early years, right after the fall of the Soviet Union were different. Foreign speakers were stared at. It was not just the way we dressed, how loud we spoke, or how much we laughed. The Russians we encountered always remarked about how much we smile.

I often use an unequal rope trick to speak about being different. They already see just how different I look, but as I keep hearing over and over, year after year - it is the smile they notice. We do that a lot by their standard.

Our expression of happiness.

I used to think it was a cultural thing. But I have come to see it is one of the fruits of the spirit; joy. Most foreigners who were initially coming to the Eastern Bloc were connected to the vine - we were His branches. We stretched across oceans of atheism and into land parched for the Word of God.

Our teams would drive hours across sparsely populated farmland, back into remote and far removed regions where institutions housed the unwanted, neglected, and orphaned of the broken Communist regime.

Even then, my story telling was a key element of the program. I took great delight in selecting children and transforming them from students to trees, flowers, bees, queens and kings. One day, during the program I had a classroom filled with children between 4-6. A tiny little blonde boy made for a perfect king. He was so small his tiny feet and legs barely reached the edge of the chair. He held his scepter proudly and with great authority. It made for a perfect picture.

In January 2007 (my last trip) our team was at a different orphanage, just as remote, but familiar. A young boy of 11 was following Care EE around the halls of the orphanage. I paused and took a close look at him. "Tsar(king in Russian)?" I asked. A big grin broke out across his face as he replied, "Yes, I am your King."

In the photo album I brought chronicling 12 years of ministry here, both photographs were there. One of a tiny tot holding a crown and scepter, and one a young lad 9 years later happy to be recognized.

Our last day of programs, Lori, Ann and Robert returned to Boguchar (his orphanage) to present a day training seminar on attachment disorder. One of the young men now living at Hope House with Ann and Robert is from that orphanage. We showed him the photos and he told us who the boy was in hopes they could find him.

When they returned, late in the evening they brought the good report and had photos to prove it. The king was found! Now a young man of 15 holding perhaps one of the few photos he has of his childhood. Evidence of the King's reign!

The train is rocking back and forth headed down the tracks towards home. It is past midnight and our arrival into Moscow is a short 6 hours away. The young men of Hope House followed us to the train station to see us on our way and help with boarding the "passing" train (it only stops 5 minutes). It was a good thing, the frenetic activity in trying to board held back the tears - just long enough to wave and wonder...

when will I see them again.

For tonight
It is still
The King and I
On the way back
With a tear soaked smile

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Cruel Edge of the World

The last three days have been packed with activities. Each evening during the time I typically share my recount of the day, I fall into bed (or the hard wooden frame with a small foam mattress serving as my sleep station here) and collapse from exhaustion.

Sunday, we attended church, then headed downtown for the May Day Victory celebration. It is the Russian Veteran's Day/Fourth of July/ Memorial Day combination actually commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany's invasion. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the closed off streets walking around enjoying the festivities and traditional Russian song and dance on various outdoor stages. The day concluded with a huge fireworks show we were able to watch from the end of Ann and Robert's street. A wonderful cultural event to witness and partake in.

Monday afternoon we prepared for a party with several of the long-time East West interpreters. It was a sweet time of fellowship, catching up and sharing old photographs and making new memories. That night we shared dinner with several of the Hope House young men. We sat around the table like one big happy family, talking about the happenings of the day, life in general, and concluded with each of our favorite verses in the Bible. What a sweet treasure to hear the young men share why particular words of scripture were meaningful to them. I shared my "Minor Prophet" Zephaniah 3:20, and told them this night was a good fulfillment of God's promise. One of them paused the round table move to the next person and said, "All those children you have seen know how much you love them. They will never forget you. We never did. God will bring them back to you." Yes, our God is good.

Tuesday, Robert and I picked up one of the local pastors and with our interpreter headed out an hour outside of town into the countryside. There, ten very elderly (ranging from 75-95) widows reside in remote rural town. I did dress up and take some stories to share with them. The first room we went into, one of the women (the oldest in the home) was sleeping but the other patted the bed for me to sit next to her.

There with my funny wild hair, bright clothes and glittered eyes I sat as she softly stroked my face, my hair and my eyes and repeated over and over again, "the children, the children." She has no living family, she has no one to touch - but that day she had me.

Robert and Ann had been there before and said the women were depressed and kept sharing, you don't want to get old, it is terrible." I went from bed to bed, they hugged me, they kissed me, they smiled and laughed at the stories.

In the end when I was preparing to leave, one said with a smile, "We are about to die, but we will see you again." I went up to her and opened my eyes wide and said, "Look deeply in my eyes so you will recognize me. We will have a new body in heaven so I want you to see me." One of the other ladies started laughing. She said, "Don't worry, we will know you. We will come looking for you, and certainly find you!"

"In perfect faithfulness You have done marvelous things, things planned long ago." Isaiah 25:1

Oh the things He has planned - we cannot imagine!

We returned to the city just in time for me to "de-clown" and prepare my heart for the testimony I would share at the "You Are Not Alone" club meeting that evening. I opened with the Message translation of the last verses of Hebrews 11, "They did not receive the promise, they lived on the cruel edge of the world."

Certainly each one of these young men and women have been to that cruel edge. Those who have the influence of the faithful may make it back from the edge, but countless thousands of other widows and orphans fall over the abyss of despair dropping into hopeless - unless someone comes and shares the Truth and shows the love of Christ.

After the club meeting was over, the young teen girls came for a Slumber Party. We had set up a jewelry making station, a manicure parlor, a foot bath and massager, mini facials complete with mud masks and bless Robert's heart (and back) he carried all the projector and sound equipment up three flights of stairs so we could watch movies!

What a sight we were with balloon hats, bedazzled nails and toes and black dead sea mud smeared on our faces. One of the English speaking girls said, "Only Americans think of such things."

Only God gives us the opportunities.

We have seen Him at work here hundreds of ways - but one hundred forty-six is a good number to sustain me for another evening.

"The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow" Psalm 146

Touched by His goodness

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Prayer for the evening

Tonight we will be sharing testimonies with the "You Are Not Alone" club. Afterward, we will have a slumber party with the girl orphans and shower them with some special love and attention.

Pray for our team to have wisdom and discernment to speak words that will minister to their hearts and brokenness. Pray for the Holy Spirit to administer a healing balm!

Update to follow!

Onward soldiers!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Whatever... have done to the least of these you have done so unto Me."

Youth of our times say to one another in a dismissive fashion, "Whatever!" It is an effort to communicate "if you think I am going to do that... If you believe that about ...that... Whatever"

For those of us enslaved by love, it is an expression not of disdain but surrender, hardly flippant, but sometimes breathless with suspense and passion.

The decision to embark on a journey to return to the orphanage in Burtilinovka for the severely disabled was concluded with that sentiment. "Whatever! Our time is in your hands Lord, we are ready, and we are willing no matter the outcome."

I donned a toned down version of a clown, just in case we were flagged down by the police or military. We loaded the car with gifts of games, diapers, chocolates and tea for the workers and "set our faces like flint" in the general direction of the town far far far away.

I was operating on two hours sleep, roused for a round of all night prayer. Robert had about five but two Red Bull made up the difference. As for the rest - Nastia slept soundly in the back seat, Ann took care of details, while Vicki and Lori dozed intermittently between potholes.

Not only did we set out like 21st Abram's from Ur (not knowing where) we had no idea if we would be allowed in the gate once we arrived.

Give it up for Google. Robert (aka. Bond James Bond) checked the satellite imagery of the town and thought he recognized a familiar configuration of buildings. The first time we pulled off the highway and Robert said he needed to "check the map," I thought he had just come up with a clever way to take a roadside break to visit the tree line. When he actually pulled out the map I started laughing uncontrollably (see reference above on sleep deprivation). The auto occupants curiously asked me what was so funny. I explained my confusion and added, "You are the first man I have ever seen actually admit to being lost."

After close to 3 hours of stops and starts, swerves and near misses we reached the town. Ten years later, none of us was confident we could recognize the road to the orphanage. Everything looked unfamiliar in a familiar sort of way. We pulled into a gas station and Nastia asked where the home for the handicap children was. The attendant knew exactly. We felt a flutter of angel wings.

Down the road, past a regular orphanage, and numerous grazing animals, we saw the gate to a place emblazoned on our hearts. The heavy iron door was cracked open and made us hasten to see this as a sign our journey was to be met with success. Robert drove passed and we talked of who should speak, if the clown should get out first, what we would say, would we take the gifts out of the car, and a thousand other details. On the third circle I suggested we just stop the car and pray.

A lamb grazing in the grass listened in. The Shepherd heard as well.

We poured out our hearts, we relinquished our ideas. We laid down our hopes and cried, "Daddy."

We turned the car back around and let our interpreter out at the gate to speak to the guard. She walked back out with a grin and told us we needed to park the car but the guard said it was fine to take our things inside.

Once again, the breathless passion of "whatever" overtook us. We stepped behind the green guarded entrance that took us back in time, and into a sadly very familiar world.
We spoke in hushed tones so as not to draw any attention to ourselves before we were able to reach a person of authority. Of course a covert clown is a bit of an oxymoron, but we felt as if we could just get far enough, act innocently enough...


Vicki noticed the house where our team had stayed ten years ago. The grass was high and the newly refurbished (at the time) house was not so new anymore. The buildings looked empty and abandoned but we knew their walls contained babies, children, and young adults cut off from the world because their physical condition was identified as hopeless.

The smell of dogwoods filled the air. And then we saw him.

Sitting at a picnic table, rocking back and forth was a young man and two others who appeared to be family members. There was silence. No exchange of greetings between us or them, no conversation with those seated. Only the steady and consistent rocking, and the sweet fragrance of spring.

Then several boys appeared out of the buildings, running and riding a bike on their way to somewhere. Nastia asked where they were going, "off to lunch" they replied and directed us to the office.

It was quiet, and empty but our hearts were still filled with hope. A nurse was sitting in the front office and welcomed us. When she saw me, she laughed and said, "Yes, yes we remember your visit. You are Americans of course come this way." By this time we were almost running.

We came to the office where three other "nurses" sat and once again, they smiled and greeted us warmly expressing their memories of when we had been before. Nastia was explaining why we came. Robert shared we just wanted to encourage the workers and thank them for their service. Things were still hope filled. They explained the children were napping until 4 (it was half past 1) and we should come back when they had a chance to call the director. We asked to use the facilities.

By the time we all took a "turn," hope took a turn too. A women who appeared to be the senior staff member hastily said, "later, later" to everything Robert was saying, and everything the other nurses said as well. I stood out in the hallway noting her agitation and trying my best to "smile" her down. It wasn't working. It went from an open warm invitation for us to stay in a larger room the 2 1/2 hours to, "get out."

She escorted us down the dogwood lined road we had just walked filled with hope. She went inside the guard house and began to shout at the man who allowed such access to a cherished memory. As we loaded the car, the gate slammed shut.


I experienced today, sometimes "whatever," looks like

Staying up all night praying to do the right and wise thing

Dressing in ridiculous clothes and a wild pink wig

Buying gifts unsure if anyone would receive them

Enjoying the company of the like-minded and laughing until we cried

Praising the Creator for the promise of spring

Seeing His handiwork in the broken and in the blossoms

Asking for directions

Asking for forgiveness

Praying for mercy

These were done "for the least of these..."

These were done to the King!

Last night six slaves tearfully said to our Master, "Whatever."


Still smiling in His service

Friday, May 07, 2010

Speaking in Tongues

To a "died-in-the-wool" Baptist, the phrase "speaking in tongues" always sounded a bit scary. The first time I experienced it was in California at a beach front church in the 1970's where the congregants were wearing cut offs and had long hair. "Hey" I thought to myself, "it's the way California worships."

In the many parts of the world I have traveled I typically use an interpreter to share stories, explain the tricks, and make the most of my jokes. I confess some things (like the southern use and overuse of the word "yall") just don't translate. At the recent Getaway for Wounded Warriors, my best friend lead a break out session on the five "Love Languages."

If you aren't familiar with the concept, theory, or practice you should be. It is how we all have a special "language" that communicates above and beyond verbal language. They are:

Words of Affirmation
Quality time
Receiving Gifts
Acts of Service
Physical Touch

Most people have one, or maybe two ways that love is communicated depending on upbringing, education and circumstance. I have found in cross-cultural ministry, there is a "speaking in tongues" that takes place deep in the soul.

Today, my teammates returned to the orphanage to speak with the physicians and caregivers on various aspects of Attachment Disorder. Primarily the goal was to encourage their work and offer simple yet effective ways to profoundly impact children brought up in an institutional setting.

I stayed behind.

I spoke in tongues.

The young girl who served as our interpreter yesterday came to the Hope House to help with the scheduled night's meeting of the "You Are Not Alone" club. She had time on her hands, and the Lord had His own plans for my time.

One of the young men who I have known for 12 years came downstairs and wanted help with celebrating the club leaders birthday. Well, the Queen of Hatmakers replied, "If you have a hat, we can have a whole lot of happy!" We spent the next several hours making celebration plans and creating a bing-bash-bang of a hat.

I asked if he remembered giving me his picture over ten years ago. He laughed, and replied, "You know children do silly things like that." I responded by saying it wasn't silly to me at all. I said that his picture is above my desk and everyday I tell him good morning. He laughed almost embarrassed. I said, "What you didn't hear me?"

Then he asked me to tell him my "story."

I talked and shared while my interpreter used the language he could understand. The Spirit assured me the story of my life and journey of redemption was one way the language of love was heard loud and clear in the heart of a young man who never had a mother's voice speak into his life any good mornings or good nights.

Still smiling
Still speaking with the tongues of angels

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Minor Prophets

Their books might have been only a few pages in what we call the Old Testament, but they were important men used to convey God's messages to His people.

Some of their names are barely pronounceable on our 21st century tongues: Amos is pretty easy but as for Habakkuk, Haggai, and Zephaniah, well... speaking in tongues or accents has never been one of my gifts.

I am thankful for the messages they left behind for our instruction and encouragement. I praise the Father that He is keeping those promises made countless thousands of years today.

"I'll bring you back home - a great family gathering! You'll be famous and honored all over the world. You'll see it with your own eyes - all those painful partings turned into reunions!" God's promise." Zephaniah 3:20 The Message

We arrived at the Semiluki orphanage late in the afternoon to join with the program arranged by Gennadiy and his team. As soon as we got out of the car, several children approached. Two young girls acting a bit shy, spoke to us from a distance. I kept looking at one of the girls. Her pageboy length hair was unfamiliar, and her voice was just barely above a whisper. Not many clues to signal who she was.

Until she smiled

The familiar dimples of one of my "queens" broke deep and wide across her face. I asked (through my interpreter Nastia) if she was the Queen? She giggled and nodded an affirmation.

Care EE ran over and hugged her BIG! "My queen, my queen, your loyal subject has returned."

His promise, "All those painful partings turned into reunions" was realized in the familiar embrace of a small girl, grinning

and glad to be remembered.

Many more to come
God's promise
Minor prophet
Major message
Thankfully smiling at both

Breathless Expectation

"We are uncertain of the next step but we are certain of God." Oswald Chambers April 29

We are finally here! After long flights, a subway ride, pizza in Red Square, another subway ride to the train and an overnight bumpy loud haul down the railway tracks we arrived at our destination. The young guys from the Hope House greeted us at the Voronezh train station.

It was great to have so many of them to help get the luggage maneuvered off the train. Our weariness showed, and made us self conscious in front of Vova, who was chronicling ever second of our arrival with his new Nikon camera. He was running around like a pulitzer prize winner, getting all the angles - and at our age, with this much travel under our belts, with bags under our eyes, most were probably unflattering. Oh but the reunion was sweet.

"Remember me? Remember me? The curious faces asked us. No longer the images captured years ago in various institutions, but now - young men eager to greet their childhood American friends.

By the time you read this, our American team of 3 (Vicki Mullins, Lori Jones, me (as Care EE the clown), the 2 in country missionaries (Ann and Robert Fuqua) and all the Russians who are hosting the program, will be at Semiliku Orphanage. In 2007 our American team built new beds for the children and did two days of programs there. (In the book "A Good Reason to Go" the story - The Dream of a Queen pg 153 is about two young girls there)

This city holds many memories for us. The hearts of thousands or orphans still beat in time with ours. What a blessing to reconnect with them on a whole new and deeper level. I shared with the young men of Hope House the photo album I put together of the 12 years I have been visiting. They laughed at how young they all looked. Vova (the young man in the original photo I sent out), feigned tears and grabbed a kleenex in grand gesture - but beneath the grandeur was a young man who knew he was not forgotten or alone.

We do not know what our next step is - but with Abraham faith, we set out "not knowing where we are going" but certain of our God.

Breathless and a bit tired!
But that could be from the stairs

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Running Towards the Battle

"As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone..." 1 Samuel 17:48-49

The fog smothering the DFW skies has lifted with the rising sun. Clear blue skies are beckoning the airplanes and passengers ready for take off. I would be counted in that number! I am not exactly running toward the battle, but the accelerated beats of my heart would make you think so. I am excited to return to Voronezh, Russia after a long three year absence.

When I first started in ministry, I typically made two, even three trips a year to the former Soviet Union. Today will be my 15th trip to the Red Zone. Three years has been three years too long. And while I don't feel that much older or different than I did my last visit, the teens associated with the Hope House and "You Are Not Alone Club" (orphans who have graduated out of the "system") are now, young men and women.

My prayer is for my spirit to remain like the warrior shepherd David. The spirit that sees the enemy standing taunting cruelly and yet knows God has given us this victory.

The children who are trapped in a system of institutional life, hear the Goliath voice saying, "You are not worthy. Nobody loves you. You were abandoned. You are alone. Where is your God?"

After serving state side as directors of orphan ministry at East West, Robert and Ann Fuqua realized the children they saw year after year would soon be "out" of the confines of the orphanage and "into" the world.

The statistics of what happens to these children is staggering. Hopelessness overwhelms them, many commit suicide. A large percentage are forced into criminal behavior, preyed upon by the opportunistic evil that awaits new victims. Very few become productive and contributing members of society.

I am sure Ann and Robert heard their own Goliath voice, taunting them with the odds of outsiders being able to effect or change the course of the battle. But like David, they knew who their God was. He was the same God who had traveled with them to places no American had ever seen. The God who helped them with thousands and thousands of pounds of luggage brought in through the years, filled with stickers, markers, Polaroid film, beanie babies, soccer balls and a whole lot of happy! He was the God who moved in the hearts of hundreds of willing short term volunteers to make the long journey to minister and practice "pure religion undefiled." He was the same God who called them out of their comfort zone to MOVE to Russia and open a transition home for orphans who were "aging out."

They ran toward the battle - against insurmountable odds

Certain of their God.

I am proud and pleased to have served alongside them for over twelve years. I have run towards the enemy under their leadership. I am off and running again today.

Reaching into the bag with a big smile,

Pray for travel mercies on both of our flights (Dallas to Houston, Houston direct to Moscow)
Pray for the LUGGAGE!
Pray for rest on the flights
Pray for good connections with the Fuquas in Moscow and the overnight train to Voronezh
Pray for the Russian leadership to be encouraged by our return
Pray for the young men and women to be ministered to in fresh and deeply powerful ways
Pray for the Director of the orphanage with disabled children to allow us to return
Pray for all the children we will see over the course of next week
Pray for the conference lead by our team member Lori
Pray for health
Pray for financial provision
Pray for boldness to proclaim the Good News and fulfillment of His promises

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