Monday, August 31, 2009

Christmas Sanity Plan - just under the wire.

So, here it is, 9:00 on August 31 and I have yet to post anything this month regarding my Christmas Sanity plan. Well, to be honest, nothing was being done, thus nothing to post. But, in an effort to do just one thing for my “Christmas all year” project I reviewed my options.

In assessing the possibilities, my first requirement was that it be easy, as I was indeed running out of time. I thought I could perhaps buy a few gifts, but, truth be told, I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired in that arena. And, a party seemed like a daunting thing to pull together in a couple of days. So, there wasn’t much left to choose from, EXCEPT, the job of addressing the Christmas cards.

In July, I found a great deal on self-seal envelopes so my supplies were ready (at least I thought). I even had the stamps and return address labels. (See February’s post.) All I really needed to do was update my database with address changes and I’d be set to print. For a few short moments I contemplated actually hand addressing my envelopes this year, but the ease of the printer won out again. I’m never really sure why I think this is easier. It rarely works out that way. And sure enough, this year was no exception.

All was going well. I managed to create the mail merge (which I seem to need to re-learn EVERY time I use it), the envelopes were running through the printer nicely and I mistakenly thought to myself, “Hey, I think I’m finally figuring this whole thing out.” I should know better than to get cocky. Two minutes later the printer decided to eat an envelope, requiring me to stand on my head, and fit my fingers into miniscule places to clear the jam. Once that was over, the computer seemed to take on its own personality and just started spitting out blank envelopes. It even told me at one point that the photo paper needed to be turned upside down to complete the print job! (But I’m not printing photos!) Seriously, who do discipline when the printer is talking back to you?

Eventually everything seemed to be back on track. I was just 18 envelopes away from being done with the printing when the warning came up, “You are out of black ink. Please replace your cartridge.” Aargh!!! The printer offered me the option of using the colored ink to complete the print job, which meant, basically, that it would mix all the colors together to create black ink much like a young child does with finger paints. I guess the printer was feeling badly about its earlier behavior and decided to offer some penance.

So, task completed. The envelopes are ready to go, complete with stamps and return address labels affixed. Yes, there was a bit of stress involved, but knowing that I had three and a half months to remedy the situation allowed me to handle the stress without a significant rise in my blood pressure. And that, after all, is the ultimate goal.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Under the Overpass - book review

In May I was in downtown Portland, Oregon. I got out of my car, put money in the meter and headed towards the store I wanted to visit. Just as I turned away from my car, I saw a man look around, reach into the garbage, take the top off of a coffee cup, throw the lid back in the garbage and start drinking the cold, stale, coffee inside. It all happened so quickly, that I couldn’t even think, but my heart still breaks when I think of it. The encounter (or lack thereof) reminded me of a book I’d heard about which had been on my “list of books to read” for awhile - Under the Overpass. It was time to read it.

I read a lot of books. I enjoy lots of different genres but there are three books that have made a significant impact on my life; Safely Home, a novel by Randy Alcorn; Same Kind of Different as Me, a true story by Denver Moore and Ron Hall; and my latest read, Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski.

Under the Overpass is the story of Mike, and his friend, Sam, who decided to enter the world of the homeless in America. They both come from Christian homes, and have attended private Christian colleges. Money wasn’t the reason they chose to be homeless. Mike made this decision one Sunday after hearing a sermon that challenged what his faith really meant to him. Sam felt God’s call to join Mike in his journey.

I knew the premise of the book before I started, of course, but when I came to the section where Mike describes the phone call to his parents, informing them of his plan, I sat up and took notice. As a parent of three boys I can say that none of them have ever come up with any idea as stupid as living on the streets. Thank God! I give Mike’s parents a lot of credit. I might have used handcuffs and brain-washing to change my son’s mind, given the same situation.

To their credit, Mike and Sam did have a plan. They did research, had advisers, and, most importantly, an end date. What they ended up with is one incredible story, and a faith deeper than many of us will ever know. Check out this video to learn more about their story.

Under the Overpass changed the way I think about the homeless. Most of us have heard the advice, “don’t give money to the homeless, it only encourages their drug and/or drinking habit.” And, I think Mike would agree, in general, with that advice. But that doesn’t mean they are to be ignored. I am embarrassed to say that my decision not to hand over cash has turned me into a person who walks past with my head turned the other direction because I don’t want to stare and I don’t know what to say. I remember a few years ago, when we were in Vancouver, WA, I saw a homeless man with a sign that said, “let me tell you my story.” Even though John was with me, the sun was still up, and the street was crowded with people, I still didn’t take the time to stop. That sign, and the vision of the man holding it, still haunts me.

Interestingly enough, Mike says that Christians are the worst offenders when they encounter a homeless person. Isn’t that a sad state of affairs? As a result of Mike’s story, I’ve determined that I can never again look away. (When my mother reads this, she’ll think I’ve gone off the deep end again, but she’s getting used to me doing crazy things.) I’ve purchased some Subway gift certificates, and put together Ziploc bags with water, granola bars, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and shampoo to give to the homeless. In God’s incredible timing, this idea was sent via email from WHILE I was reading Under the Overpass. My mom will be pleased to know that I’m not actually going out searching for homeless people . . . yet . . . though I might should those granola bars near their expiration date. But, should I encounter someone in need, I want to be prepared to offer some food, some clean water, a smile, and a little hope.

Under the Overpass is a life changing book. It will challenge the way you think, the actions you take, and your faith as you know it today.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I Won't Forget

This is my last blog about our mission trip to Russia. Before I said good-bye to the kids and workers I asked the translator to teach me how to say, “I will never forget you” in Russian. If I remember correctly it sounds something like “ya tibea nea zuboodu,” but don’t try that at home without checking it out first. I tried to say it to a few of the orphanage workers before I left but at one point I needed one of the other workers to translate my bad Russian into good Russian. It was pathetic really, but at least I tried, and I meant it. It will be hard to ever forget the amazing people I at Yablonka Orphanage in Kaliningrad, Russia. Here are just a few.

I won’t forget how Visilli greeted us at the van each morning, shook our hands and said hello, in the formal, respectful, Russian version of the word. Such a gentleman.

I won’t forget Tonya, who, after watching me make a feeble attempt at robotic dancing, teased me all week. She’d say “Noncy, Noncy,” smile, and wave her hands in a mocking, but loving, way.

I won’t forget watching John fall in love with Alena. He so wanted to bring her home and I had to remind him that he'd be nearly 70 before she graduates from high school!

I won’t forget Zena, with her infectious smile and beautiful, black, curly hair. I wanted to bring her home, but I’m only a few years younger than John!

I won’t forget Sasha and how he selflessly gave me his treasured Spiderman super-hero card. The kids have so little that is their own, so I felt honored that he’d want to give up something to me. What a sweet boy.

And, of course, I will never forget, Tolvic, the sweet, sad, 13-year old boy who lost his mom, and needs someone to love him in the worst way. Oh, to be able to hug him again.

I can’t possibly forget Marina, the cook whose heart softened right in front of my eyes. What an amazing woman who works tirelessly in an itty bitty kitchen to feed twenty kids week after week.

And, forever etched in my memory will be the last look I had of the orphanage workers and kids. As we drove away they stood on the sidewalk in front of the orphanage, waving good-bye with tear-streaked faces. I didn’t want to take a picture. I just wanted to let the scene sink into my breaking heart. What I said to my friends was true; I will never forget you.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Squeezing It All In – August 10

Our trip home started this afternoon but we still time had time this morning to see a couple more sights. A few of the workers from the orphanage met us at the hotel in the morning and took us to a Cathedral. The Cathedral was built by the Germans when they possessed this part of Russia (formerly Prussia.) It is now a Lutheran church and much of it has been remodeled. We weren’t able to see the inside, which I was disappointed about, but apparently, it’s mostly used now as a concert hall and there was a choir inside practicing.

When we got done at the Cathedral a few of us went to the market place. We’d been told by our interpreter not to talk, but if we saw something we wanted to buy we were to point it out to her and she would negotiate the price for us. She thought we’d get a better price if the merchants didn’t know we were American. We eventually got separated as one team member was doing some serious shoe shopping and needed her more than the rest of us. I was looking for shirts to bring home to my boys. Why I do this, I don’t know. I can’t even buy shirts they like when I shop in the United States! But, I enlisted the help of a younger, cooler team member and he found a shirt that I was certain Scott would like. I bought it and later realized that it was an Arrow shirt, which I probably could have bought at a local department store for half the price. Essentially, I bought an American shirt in Russia and paid to ship it both ways!

On our way out of the market place I pulled out the camera. I figured since I was done buying things I could safely let them know I was a foreigner. As I walked along I took pictures of the different goods and food items being sold. I accidentally bumped a young boy’s arm and in my Minnesota nice way I said “excuse me,” only in Russian. Apparently, my Russian has an American twang to it because he stopped, looked at me and said, “oh, hello!” Busted!

After lunch we headed to the airport (where I kept my camera carefully tucked away lest I get into any more trouble with the Russian officials). I am ready to get home but a part of my heart will always be in Kaliningrad, Russia.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Anniversary in Russia – August 9

Today is our 34th wedding anniversary. When we woke up this morning I asked John if, when we got married 34 years ago, he could possibly have imagined that we’d be spending one of our anniversaries in Russia. Truth be told, if he’d said to me on our wedding day, “In 34 years, I want us to take a mission trip to Russia,” I would have said “see you later, dude! I’ll look for a more sensible man.” It still amazes me how God can move a person’s heart!

This morning we went to church. We were told to expect that the service would last longer than an hour. I have to admit that I was not excited at the prospect of sitting in church, for longer than usual, listening to a service in a language I couldn’t understand. But, the truth is that church was awesome! John and I were both moved to tears more than once. I’m trying to find the words to describe what it felt like to stand there, with people from another country worshipping the same God. Somehow it seemed like a glimpse of people from all nations one day standing and worshipping together before the throne of God. I was shocked to look at the clock at the end of the service and find that over two hours had passed! It probably helped, too, that the interpreter translated the whole sermon for us.

When church was over the women of the church invited us into a room for tea. There really wasn’t time in our schedule but it would have been rude to refuse, so we had tea, AND cookies, AND candy, AND all the makings for sandwiches! Russians know how to do tea!! And from there we went to lunch! The team had been promised pizza and after a week of Russian food, no one wanted to miss that!

We had a little bit of time after lunch to do some souvenir shopping. We found a plain silver ring that has a cross on it and says “save me and protect me” in Russian. I don’t normally wear my wedding ring on mission trips primarily because I don’t want to lose it, but also because when working with impoverished people, you don’t always want to flaunt a diamond in front of them. So, for $11 John bought me the ring for our anniversary. That’s why I love him. He’s so extravagant! Truthfully, it’s perfect for what I need it for and so far, my finger hasn’t turned green. I even made John put the ring on my finger like it was our wedding day. It was oh so romantic right there in the mall with people all around us.

Dinner was at a cafĂ© along the river where, apparently, a lot of families take walks in the evening. I saw more strollers in the short time it took us to have dinner than I’ve seen the entire time we’ve been here. On our way to dinner we walked over a bridge called the “love lock bridge.” When a couple gets married they have a padlock engraved with their names and wedding date on it. They go to the bridge and lock it onto one of the rungs. Then, they throw the key into the river so they are “locked together forever.” How adorable is that?

John and I wished that we had brought a lock with us for our anniversary. I think though, that after 34 years, it’s safe to say that our love is pretty well locked together for this adventure called life, with our without the padlock.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Last Day with the Kids – August 8

Just a few days left of my Russia trip blogs. Thanks for reading.

This was my fourth mission trip and has, undoubtedly been the hardest one I’ve ever been on. Being sick, of course, took its toll. My diet of the past three days has consisted of bananas, rice and chicken broth – oh, and Coke, but that has to remain a secret from the cooks. They think that Coke is bad for an upset stomach, but both my mother and I would disagree. In addition to being sick, I’ve done more physical labor than on other trips (though some of my team members might beg to differ); and when I could eat, the food was most challenging (although tonight at supper I was finally able to eat and it was amazing!) But, all of that said, this trip has also been the one with the greatest rewards.

Today, we went to the Baltic Sea. It was a very long ride, on an incredibly hot bus. We thought it was funny that they passed out motion sickness pills AND plastic bags to all of the kids before we left the orphanage. And, when a couple of the kids did start to feel sick I suggested that perhaps opening the vent a bit more to get air to the kids would help. The teacher told me it would be too cold for them. Apparently, Russians like it HOT!

We made a couple of stops along the way at the “Dancing Forest” (which was beautiful) and a place called the “Sand Tower.” I choose not to make the long walk, with lots of steps to the sand tower so John and I stayed back at a little shopping area while the rest made their way to see the view. At the shopping area we met a woman who was selling hand painted pictures of the sea for 300 rubels, which is essentially $10. It was amazing to me how much we were able to communicate with our limited amount of each other’s language. We ended up buying a couple of her paintings and then took a picture of her. There was a mentally handicapped man at the next booth and he so enjoyed watching us take her picture that I asked him if I could take his picture. He was thrilled! It just warmed my heart to see him so excited when I showed him the picture. Ah, the joy of digital.

Anyway, after what I think was nearly four hours, we finally arrived at the sea. Most of the little ones have no swimsuits so they just stripped down to their underwear and went straight into the water. And still, they were more decent than many of the tourists on the beach! To see the smiles on the kid’s faces, and hear their laughter as they swam and splashed, just made my day. As I stood by the water and saw the footprints left by the kids as they ran along the shoreline, I thought to myself, “I wish I could capture this because these kids are leaving such a huge footprint on my heart.”

The ride back was faster, thankfully, and the kids were exhausted from the fun in the sun so most of the kids, and many of the adults, were fast asleep. My heart melted as I saw one little boy’s head fall onto our team member, Nate’s, shoulder.

As I expected, our good-byes tonight after dinner were filled with tears – on everyone’s part. The kids were crying, the team was crying, and even the orphanage worker’s were crying. Right before we left tonight I played Uno with a few of the kids. One of them, Sasha, is an adorable little boy, about 11 or 12. (He’s the same one who fell asleep with Nate on the bus.) I think he hugged me no less than six times and even climbed into the van to give Nate and I one last hug. Let’s just say there was some serious sobbing going on in the back of the van.

The hardest goodbye for me though, was with Tolvic. He’s the little guy who arrived at the orphanage on our first day here. He’s the one whose mother just died and father is in prison. Though he did not want to cry in front of us, he had tears welling in his eyes as he hugged us good-bye, and then he went inside to be alone. I know that many people would expect me to want to bring home a little girl, since God has already blessed me with three boys, but the truth is, if I could pick one child to bring home Tolvic would win. I hope our time with him eased his entrance into the orphanage system. (Tolvic's picture borrowed from Nate.)

Even though my heart is breaking tonight, I wouldn’t have it any other way. To be able to be used by God, and to see him work in these kid’s and orphanage worker’s lives is amazing. I am humbled to be used in such a way.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Best Day So Far – August 7, 2009

Thanks for reading this blog and allowing me to re-live our mission trip to Russia. It all went so quickly so I feel like I get to re-live it a bit through this blog.

This was, for me, the best day so far. We have, without a doubt, spoiled these kids rotten this week. Basically, we’ve been the American grandparents coming to have some fun, all with a purpose. Today though, we got to spoil the workers at the orphanage. In the morning the girls on the team did manicures for the women who work at the orphanage. They were almost embarrassed to be treated so kindly and take time off of their work day. But, they totally loved it! We explained to them that we wanted to do this for them to show them how much we appreciated what they did for the kids and to let them know how much we love them and how much Jesus loves them. We all had fun, and once again, I have found another career that I’m grateful, I didn’t choose. Let’s just say, American women paying for a manicure might not be as gracious as these Russian women. (Photo borrowed from Dan - his was better!)

After lunch, we got to spoil the workers a little bit more. We put on a tea for them. We had brought gifts, especially for them, and we purchased cakes, cookies and candies like we were expecting a huge crowd. The girls on our team sat at the table and talked to the workers as the men served. The women LOVED that. They said that there is one day every year set apart for the women in Russia when the men serve them. I’m thinking it’s akin to our Mother’s day, only for not specifically for mothers. Again we told them that we did this for them because we wanted to share our love, and Christ’s love with them. I didn’t see it, but one of our team members told me that she saw tears in one of the worker’s eyes as she heard this. That one moment, even if that had been the only one (and it wasn’t) made all the money we’ve spent, the time we’ve invested, and even the time spent not feeling well, worthwhile.

I was able to share my testimony and tell them that even though I had been a Christian since I was 16, it took me nearly 30 years to fully understand how much Christ loved me. Now, it is my passion to share His love with women around the world. Let me just say, though, talking through a translator is more challenging than I could have imagined. I have enough trouble keeping my train of thought going when I don’t have to stop after every sentence for interpretation. But, I loved it all.

Of course, we did have plenty of kid time today, too. This afternoon we put on a beach party for them. We had a sea of blue balloons, lanterns, a blow up pool, beach balls, and an underwater scene that spread around the room. We had a short time inside and then went outside for some water fun. They loved the water balloons, the water games, the squirt guns, and eventually took to turning on the hose and filling the buckets and water bottles to dump on each other. Even the orphanage director got into the fun! All the kids were drenched which is a sure sign of total success.

Tomorrow is our last day with the kids. We are taking them to the Baltic Sea. But, at the day’s end we have to say good-bye and I can guarantee there will be a boat load of tears.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back in the Saddle . . . Sort Of – August 6

I didn’t feel great this morning when I woke up, but I wasn’t going to miss another day. I spent a good portion of the morning painting trim around three windows. Not really trim so much, as a border to highlight the window.

Unfortunately for me, and my not so calm stomach, these windows were right outside the kitchen window. I wasn’t sure what they were making but, by noon, I knew that eating it would be a bad idea. I sent word via the translator that I would not be able to eat lunch because I was sick (It is important not to offend the cooks by not eating, which is a challenge for me on a good day.) The cooks were so gracious and made me chicken broth, which didn’t taste much like Campbell’s, but I ate as much as I could. It seems that by the end of the day, due to my still

upset stomach, I was able to get out of having liver for lunch, and fish and beets for dinner. I never thought I’d say this, but thank you God for a sour stomach!

We had a great time with the kids today. While the little girls slept, we did nails with the older girls. They LOVED it! We even had some special silver and black liner polish so some of them got creative and drew flowers, or tips on their nails. Even the little girls got some cute pink bags with lip gloss, pens, and lotion. One of the youngest girls told me that she loved her bag! It gave her a place to put her “women” things. Cracked me up!

After we finished nails we did a craft project with the girls and some of the boys who wanted to join in. They painted with fabric paints on hats or caps – their choice. They all had fun and we had trouble getting them to stop. The little boy who arrived on our first day there (whose mother had just died) joined in and really seemed to enjoy himself. He is so sweet, and incredibly gifted both artistically AND in sports.

One thing that surprised me today was figuring out that one of the children who was there when we arrived on Tuesday had already moved on. There was another new girl, but apparently she just comes for the day and goes home with her parents at night. I don’t quite understand why, but I think it’s because they are too poor to feed her.

After our time of Vacation Bible School tonight, Pastor Alan (our pastor from River Valley Church who is leading the trip) told the older kids they could meet him outside if they wanted to talk. I don’t think any of them refused! They had a great discussion about what it means to forgive someone. Many of them have resentments towards their parents who have abandoned them.) Many of them have accepted the Lord as their Savior this week. I wish you could have witnessed the change in these kids.

After dinner we played outside with the kids. There are a couple of little girls who talk incessantly. Of course it’s in Russian, so I haven’t a clue what they are saying. It doesn’t stop them though. I love it! One pulled me out into the yard tonight to spin her around by her arms. I was totally worn out in about three seconds! One thing is for sure, as much as I’d like to take some of these kids home, I am way past my prime parenting years!

A warm shower, a little more Advil, a good night’s sleep, and I’ll be all set for tomorrow!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Tough Day – August 5

Our second day with the kids. Or, in my case, not.

I woke up in the wee hours of the morning with a vice grip around my stomach, or so it seemed. Yes, indeed, I was sick; sicker than I’ve been in years. I’ll probably never know if it was from the food, or something I caught from one of the other team members who had also been sick. Being sick isn’t fun; being sick away from home is less fun; but being sick in a foreign country is downright miserable. Where do I go to get soda crackers and how do I explain to someone that is what I need? Clearly, I needed more Russian lessons before leaving home!

Admittedly, I wasn’t sad to miss the painting portion of the day. I’m not even sure I’d have been much help there, but I was sad to miss the kids. Our time with them is so short. There is one little boy who arrived at the orphanage on what was also our first day here. His mother died recently and his father is in prison. He was so sad most of the day but in the evening he joined in with some of the games going on. He will have many sad times I’m sure, but it was great for a few moments to see a smile on his face.

My illness lasted until mid-afternoon, and though I can’t say I am great at this point, at least the worst of it is over. So, since I don’t have much “orphanage news” to report for the day, I thought I’d share some funny incidences from Tuesday.

During our art project I wanted to ask one of the girls what her name was. She really looked too old to be one of the orphans, but still was quite young and was enjoying the finger painting. One of the girls (Kaitlyn) on our team, who joined us from Ohio, was born in Russia, and adopted by the man who is now the director of Fund Pycholka (the organization we are working with) when she was 12. Kaitlyn was sitting directly next to the girl whose name I wanted to learn and heard me ask Kaitlyn how to say, “what is your name?” When I turned to her and repeated the question I’d just learned how to ask, the girl looked at me with a smile on her face and said, “My name is Veronica.” We both laughed and then Veronica told me that she is one of the teachers. It was fun to be able to get to know her better and I was thrilled to give her a chance to practice her English!

Later in the day I was holding one of the little girls, Alena, in my lap. Alena had been rather shy all day and was warming up to me. She’s adorable. As we sat there Alena looked at me and said, very excitedly, something in Russian. I had no idea what she was saying, but I was able to put into practice the small amount of Russian I’d learned and say, “I don’t understand.” She immediately got closer to my ear, and, in a louder voice, repeated what she’d just said. I laughed as I repeated, “I don’t understand ……..RUSSIAN!” Apparently, speaking louder, and with more emphasis when someone doesn’t understand you, is an inborn trait!

Reports from the day I missed indicate that there was a whole lot of painting going on with more to do tomorrow. Yippee!! They also installed benches and trash receptacles, which I understand was quite the process.

The craft project I had planned for the day was a success and there was some awesome ministry going on with the teen boys. So cool!

I was especially sad to miss the team visit to a piece of land that Fund Pycholka is looking at for a Youth Center. Our church is partnering with Fund Pycholka to help build the Youth Center. As a private center, free of government regulations, the Youth Center will be a place where Christ’s love can freely be shared with the kids. The possibilities are limitless!