Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Vacation in ... Lviv

I had some vacation days that I didn't get around to using, but I really didn't feel like traveling - so I am taking a "staycation."  A staycation is one of those words coined to make being poor incredibly cool - the way shabby-chic is used to explain away the fact that all of your furniture is old and in poor condition.

It just so happens that I live in the most incredible city for a vacation, or a staycation.  Or ... whatever.

I love this city.  It is just teeming with things to do, places to see, coffee to drink, and amazing cafes to visit.  Oddly, my idea of a perfect vacation is to buy a cheap detective novel (or three), sit in a comfy chair and read for a week.  I decided to at least mix the two a bit, and have been testing out the comfyness factor of chairs in various cafes around the city.

I found a thick crime-novel at the book-market (in English!) for only 5 UAH - about 65 cents.  The only problem is that it is British English and not American English.  Other than spending five minutes trying to figure out what a kerb is (a curb for those keeping score at home), the biggest challenge has been trying to figure out the names of each unit within the police system in England, and the differing importance of rank for officers.  Apparently, rank is unbelievably important in their system ... and apparently I don't understand the order at all.  The author keeps making big references to rank and it is quite confusing.  This has given me a greater understanding of non-native speakers as they try to navigate all of the various meanings we have given to words and actions in the English language.

I have also spent a good deal of time working on translations.  My co-translator and I discovered a Ukrainian poet who wrote the most mesmerizing verses.  We've translated two of his poems into English so far, and hope to keep working on some of his other writings.  We hope to start publishing in 2013.  

I've also spent a great deal of time just walking around.  The weather has jumped above zero this week, and the snow and ice are melting.  Usually it's too cold for a long walk, so it has been nice to be able to enjoy this small comfort as well.

I hope that your Christmas vacations have been nice and that you have been able to enjoy your time of rest as much as I have.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Newsletter

Hi friends.

Here is a link to my Christmas Newsletter.

I hope that your Christmas is perfect in every way, and that you are filled with peace, joy, and hope.

Love, Michael

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Advent Thoughts of Thanks

My great aunt Mabel wrote a Christmas poem decades ago, and each year we read it together as a family.  The third stanza reads:
Now is the time to prepare our hearts,
Sweep every corner clean,
Dust out the cobwebs of fear and doubt,
Mop stains of sin when seen.
Make room for the Babe of Bethlehem;
Invite our Lord Christ in;
Give first place to him who died
To save us all from sin. 

Our Advent season here in Ukraine lasts for about six weeks.  Many of our students celebrate a fast during this time, giving up sweets or something more precious.  We wait together for this blessed holy day.  At the Youth to Jesus student center, our lives are filled with waiting.  We wait the return of our beloved friends David and Shannon and their exuberant boys.  We wait on government institutions and construction firms for the completion of our new student center.  We wait for some students to be led by God back into the fold of this ministry.  We wait for that sense of peace that only Christ can bring after an enormous tragedy.

My great aunt Mabel kept a small, ceramic, light-up Christmas tree in her living room year round.  In childhood amusement, I wrongly assumed that she was too lazy to put it away in January.  As the words of her poem ring through my ears, I understand her need of a constant reminder of the King's coming.  At the Christmas eve candlelight services of my childhood, I would stand on the pew and snuggle up against her wool jacket as we sang "Joy to the World."  Her arm around my torso, she would whisper-sing each word into my ear - each note a quiet prayer for me.  

As our students prepare their hearts for the coming King, we believe the words of that famous hymn: He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove,The glories of His righteousness,And wonders of His love!  During these last few months, we felt God's truth and grace as we faced each challenge.  We felt your prayers and received the glory of God's righteousness through your loving kindness. 

Thank you for being a part of this ministry.  Thank you for lifting us up in prayer, giving above and beyond for this ministry, and thinking of our students during this time.  We wait together this Advent season, knowing that as Christ showed up in the manger, God's love and grace for us will show up in the most unusual places and unexpected ways.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012


This Thanksgiving, I realize that I have a lot to be thankful for.  Although this has been a very hard year, it has been filled with life and love.  This is a tremendous blessing.  This year for Thanksgiving, I wanted to invited over some of the people who helped me get through these last four months.  In the wake of the tragedy, I needed a tremendous support system.  I needed strength and encouragement so that I could share strength and encouragement.  I needed some level of normalcy.  I found comfort, friendship, and a constant listening ear in these people.  I love them dearly, and it was a great joy to have them over for a Thanksgiving celebration.  

Olia Kryvytska is one of my closest friends in Ukraine.  She is a constant.  On the day of the accident, she was at work - and several times during the day I ducked into an alleyway and called her and asked her to pray for me.  She would take a "cigarette break" and step outside and pray for me over the phone.  I can't imagine the horror of that day without her prayers on the other end of the phone.  

Erica Oliveira (on the left)  is our new intern.  It was helpful to have someone new come from our organization so that there would be someone for new students to interact with.  Olia Reiter (on the right) leads an international film festival here in Lviv.  She is brave and strong, and being around her can cause you to catch the infection of courage.  I needed a lot of courage these last few months.  

The entire meal was a lot of fun to cook.  Everything except the corn was from scratch.  The turkey came from the village of Nova Skvaryava, and I picked it out last week when I was there.  The mushrooms came from my flatmates village.  I'm glad I learned how to cook while growing up! And my friends are glad, too.  

After the Thanksgiving meal, we set up Christmas decorations.  In this picture, the Americans grab a picture as we oversea the workers.  Haha.  On my right is Emily, who works in the country of Georgia, but has many friends here and flew here for the holiday. 

Valya (left) is someone I met back in 2008 in San Diego.  She was on the leadership team the first year I was here.  She has been a constant in my life for the entire time I have been in Ukraine.  She knows how to get things done, and often when I encounter a roadblock, one phone call to Valya will turn up someone she knows who can help.  She knows everyone in the city, and is a major trendsetter.  Den (middle) is a relatively new friend, but honestly one of my closest friends in Ukraine.  He can always improve my mood and help me through a difficult day.  Valya and Den both work for the international film festival Wiz-Art.  

Olya cleaning up a spilled drink.  Every picture of Olia is just a treasure!

The whole group together around the Christmas tree.  These are wonderful people to have in my life and I am so thankful for them.  It is nice to have the tree up and to enjoy it each day.  

And last, but certainly not least, Mefodyi greeted me at the door after every single challenging day these last four months.  He stole a turkey leg and ate the entire thing and went into a Tryptophan induced semi-coma.  Everyone played with him because he was so sleepy and droopy that he couldn't even respond to people.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I love serving this community.  Of course, these last few months have been some of the most challenging I have ever faced in my life; but in the end, I just feel so blessed to be with this wonderful group of young people.

Volodya, Andry(Erika's husband), Erika, and their daughter Marta.
Please continue to keep us in daily prayer.  There are still tremendous daily challenges, and facing them just saps our staff of so much energy.  My co-workers are so dedicated and so phenomenal to work with, and please especially pray for them.  Even though we are all over the map, and all doing different things - it is still a joy and we look forward to being all together again. :

Erica Oliveira currently in Poland trying to get her visa straightened out.

David and Shannon, Jesse and Jeremiah.  I love and miss these guys so much.

Pastor Lyubomir and family at Marta's baptism

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nova Skvaryava

I took some vacation days to go to the village and have a rest.  I read lots of books, took long walks every day, translated some Ukrainian poetry into English, and wrote a lot.  I stayed with my friend Valodya's family.   
Walking to church.

An ancient wooden church in nearby Jhovkva.

This is one of the best preserved wooden churches in Ukraine.

I went to the local school and visited English classes. 

I love village life.  

A dancing dog and Valodya's mom.  A perfect week in the village. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

My mom keeps writing me emails about things I could blog.  On the other hand, I've been trying to convince her for years to start a blog of her own.  She is a great writer, and I think a lot of people would follow her blog if she had one.  Maybe I'll blog when she does!

In the meantime, here is some of what she wants me to blog.

In the aftermath of the tragedy we suffered this summer, we have spent a lot of time in prayer.  To be honest, it has been tremendously difficult to pray some days.  There has been so much to do, and so much pain and heartache that prayer has not come naturally these last few months.

It seems incomprehensible that the accident happened less than four months ago.  It seems that we have all aged so much.  Our weather here has been so crazy, that it seems we have cycled through summer, fall, winter, and spring many time over these last few months.  Months of putting one foot in front of the other bring you to a different destination, but the journey is usually a blur.

We are slowly beginning to bring our focus back to the journey we are on.  At Pilgrims, we will begin a short sermon series on Micah 6:8.  And the book of Micah is set up as a giant trial.  This young prophet goes to the stone pillars where court was held and he begins a mock trial of the ages.

You can feel the crowd pressing in as he lays out the years and generations that have brought his people to this place.

I volunteer at Ivan Franko National University.  I teach translation studies majors.  It's a tremendous amount of fun, but from time to time I am asked to recite poetry in English.  Reciting poetry is big in Ukraine, and as much as I protest that it's just not something we do so very much - as a native speaker they really do want me up there.  This month I must recite some verses by Lord Byron's poem, "The Destruction of Sennacherib."  The poem feels a bit forced to me, and, honestly, it sounds like something an angsty teenager could have written.

But, theologically, the poem just grinds my gears.  Lord Byron might not have read Micah.  Or, more likely, he didn't read Micah with the knowledge that Micah was from one of the small towns destroyed by the Assyrians.  Byron's triumphant declarations of the destruction the Lord brought about is an odd companion with Micah's desperate, prophetic plea that someday, "They will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war.(4:3).   Micah, who lost his entire town, was able to see beyond the ends of war to see the goodness of God's great vision of the world.  Thousands of years later, Lord Byron is still looking for the wrath of God to defeat his enemies.

And Micah, a small town boy - just a refugee in the big city - stands before all of these important people begins the trial; the trial of his people's faithfulness before God.  And the climax of the trial is the famous verse, "He has shown you, O man, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God."

And this is the great moment in the trial when the prosecutor brings out the bloody knife with perfect matching fingerprints - and at the same time this is the great moment in the trial when the defense attorney grills a witness and gets her to confess to staging the whole thing.  This is that moment that makes court TV so intense, the reason we tune in to Judge Judy every day - this is one of those moments that rarely happen in real life, but always happen in scripted trials.

All of the case is before the jury, and the guilt is overwhelmingly obvious - and then this verse is pronounced.  It is a taste of the grace that Jesus (born in Bethlehem as prophesied by Micah) will come to fulfill.  Micah calls his people to renewed faithfulness to God.

Justice, mercy, humility.  If we lived with these three guiding principles, our churches would be packed each day.  Our gospel would be as irresistible as when Jesus first proclaimed it.  And our churches would be underground, despised, and persecuted.  You can't live this way and expect everything to stay the same.  These ideals - justice, mercy, and humility - they stand in direct contrast to what our world teaches.  In the last election, did you think about which was the most humble candidate before casting your vote?  In a society focused on justice, my home country would be paying for the atrocities of war we have committed for decades.

This is the point in the trial where everyone in the courtroom gasps in shock.

To a crowd of people who have been slaughtering baby lambs for generations to earn God's favor and to keep God's wrath away - the idea that all God requires from us is these three little things is a revelation of gigantic proportions.  To a crowd today who tries so hard to just be good enough for God's favor, for a group of young people trying to figure out what we did wrong to deserve this - these words are also a shock to the system.  They echo the Gospel of Jesus Christ long before he walked the earth.  They foreshadow his vision and his truth.  And to this day - these words continue to instruct us in how we may life.

We are called by our God to go forth into this world.  To act justly.  To love mercy.  To walk humbly with God.

But what do these three things mean?  What do these three things mean for us today? As young people in Lviv?

[Ok.  I went way off the path I had planned for this post.  I started writing my sermon for next week.  But, I think everyone will just be glad I blogged something :) and no one will complain!]    

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Dr. Helen Zorgdrager preached at Pilgrims last week.  Helen is a good friend and has stepped into the role of pastoral counselor for me from time to time these past few months.

Many months ago I was invited by a friend to attend a conference on human trafficking.  I wasn't sure how much I would understand, but I gladly accepted.  My friend didn't show, and within the first few minutes it was made abundantly clear that this would not be a conference one could sit through silently.  They made it very clear that everyone would talk and participate - and I would go first.  In broken Ukrainian, and very afraid, I introduced myself and fought for words to explain why. Was attending the conference.  A few people later, a woman introduced herself and in a very heavy accent said, "Mene svate Helen" and I knew that I was not alone!  She invited me to her class and I found that my dear friend Illya was one of her students.  Illya and I attended her lecture together.

Helen is a professor in the ecumenical studies program at the Catholic University, and a Protestant pastor from the Netherlands.  She is great fun and her kids are all about my age.

Ad she preached about Andrew.  It was a great sermon and very uplifting, but right near the end, it really hit home.  She talked about the idea that Andrew saw things through eyes that saw the Kingdom.  He saw through Messiah believing eyes.  He saw a boy's meager meal and be saw a Kingdom banquet feast.  He saw a poor, wandering carpenter and he saw the Messiah.

Helen called us to see our current situation through Messiah believing eyes.

And how these three months have been tough.  I put my back out a little over a week ago and had to cancel my vacation plans.  It broke my heart to give up my free time and the joy of southern Spain with good friends.  I am so thankful to have been at Pilgrims student worship on Thursday.  I was so thankful to be reminded of the Kingdom.

Our small community sees the world through Kingdom eyes.  We have suffered tragedy after tragedy - and yet when we stand and sing praise to God, our whole hearts cry out.  We have had so many first time visitors since the accident - and many of them keep coming back.  There is something so compelling about this small group with such big faith.  They are the reason I can get out of bed and face another day of paperwork and legal issues.  And in the midst of tragedy and heartache - God is still present with us.  God is comforting us.

And tonight in the service of commissioning for eight new colleagues in mission Bishop McLee said,
"If fear shows up on your journey, you show fear who you are journeying with."  His mother always told him, "troubles don't last always."

And as Helen talked about Andrew, the younger brother of Peter, I found myself identifying so much with Andrew.  Never the most faithful, the smartest, or really the best at anything - Andrew was the second sibling and brought his own gifts and graces.

When Bishop Vaxby asked me to step into the role of Interim Director of the student center, I offered up a few names of better options.  He shared with me that the community had requested me and he shared words that I will never forget. "Don't try and be big enough, or strong enough.  You just be Michael and that will be enough."

I think like all young adults in ministry, I struggle with the idea of whether I want to stay in ministry long term or not.  I can't imagine doing anything else, but everything else seems somehow easier.  And in these last few months I have seen anger and hatred like I had never seen before, and sometimes I wonder if I will make it another day.  But I have also felt such tremendous love.  I have felt encouraged and blessed.  The warmth of a thousand prayers and the warmth of an arm around my waist.  The whispered prayers of my mother's morning post and the whispers of kindness and gentleness from beloved friends into my weary mind.

And in end there is only the reminder that God is good and faithful. God has called me to this work, and God continues to call and tug on my heart. We either grow or we die. We either follow or we fall. God is good. God is love. Amen.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Three Months

Yesterday marked three months since the accident that changed our world.

Illya's mom came to Pilgrims student worship service on Thursday.  She introduced herself to our community and she apologized that she hadn't come sooner.  She said, "Illya always dreamed that I would one day come to Pilgrims and see this wonderful community.  I'm so sorry that I never came with him while I had the chance."

Illya's mom worshiped with us, and shared with the community her son loved so much.

And we face the reality of moving forward in the face of pain.  It is hard to look at pictures of the past, because they are filled with faces of those we have loved and lost.  It is hard to ask people to move forward into a new day until all have grieved fully.

Each person grieves differently.  I remember when my great grandmother died, I was so angry at my mother because she wasn't crying at the funeral.  I was seven or eight or even younger - but I had been to enough funerals to know that tears were mandatory.  As an adult, I understand how grateful my mother had been for her grandmother's life and that she had passed away peacefully after a very long life.  Each person grieves differently, perceives the situation differently, and processes in his or her own time.

I look on in wonder at the ways God has sustained our communities here in Ukraine.  It continues to amaze me to see the way that leaders have emerged and stepped up to lead.  God continues to bless these ministries in spite of all of our weaknesses.  Love and time heal all things.  Our wounds are slowly healing, and we continue to feel God's presence during this difficult time.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

David Bridge's article about the history of the UMC in Kaminitsa - what a good reminder for us during our trials here in Lviv.

THE Hotel Zakarpatie in Uzhgorod has always epitomised for me the nature of Soviet communism.  It was built at a time when holidays were something that trades Unions arranged for workers who had behaved themselves during the previous 12 months.  It looks like a pile of concrete pigeon holes into which the workers could be slotted.  I stayed there three times and even though the third was long after Ukraine gained its independence, elderly ladies still sat at the end of the corridors, doing their knitting and observing who came in and out.  One of the choicest pieces of news I was given during my recent visit to Uzhgorod was that the Methodists now renta room in the Hotel Zakarpatie for worship services. These were started two years ago and take place every week. They are already attracting congregations of 35 or more, many of whom are young people.  The minister of this “hotel church”is also responsible for a home for street children, of which, sadly, Ukrainian cities have many.
Uzhgorod is the capital of a region of Western Ukraine known as Transcarpathia.  Its history over the last 100 years has been remarkable.  At the beginning of the 20th century it was partof the Austro-Hungarian Empire but in the years that followed became successively part of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union.  On the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 it became an independent country and it remains so to this day.  
The story of the Methodist Church during this period of social, political and economic change is quite remarkable.  At its centre is Ivan Vuksta, a teacher, who was told by the newly installed government in 1945 that there was no place for Christians in Soviet schools.  He lost his job and the only employment he could subsequently find was as a builder’s labourer.
Ivan Vuksta and his wife lived in the village of Kamenitsa, afew miles from Uzhgorod.  There was no Methodist church in the village but there was a Methodist congregation, meeting in the homes of its members.  There had been a church in Uzhgorod but the building was confiscated in 1938. A large number of its members had Hungarian roots and when the Soviet government required Poles, Czechs and Hungarians to return to their country of origin, most Methodists left. The Kamenitsa congregation applied to be registered, in accordance with Soviet law on religious institutions, but registration was refused on the grounds that the congregation was too small.  
There followed a difficult time for the Kamenitsa Methodists.  Services continued to be held in members’ homes but these were frequently broken up by the police.  Young pioneers were encouraged to throw stones at the windows of the homes were services were held.  The venue of the services was frequently changed so that the misery of smashed windows was at least shared among all the members.  Eventually, however, the application for registration was successful.  The Soviet government had not changed its mind – that was something it rarely if ever did – but it was prepared to treat the Kamenitsa church as part of the Estonian Methodist circuit.  At a stroke this became the largest circuit in theworld, about 1,000 miles from Tallinn to Kamenitsa. Permission to build a church in Kamenitsa continued to be refused.
In 1987 I led a group of British Methodists on a visit to the USSR which included a Sunday spent in Tallinn.  An eveningmeeting was arranged to give members of the group the chance to learn more about Methodism in the Soviet Union.  The meeting was naturally attended by many local Methodists but also, to everyone’s surprise, by Ivan Vuksta who had made the journey in order to invite the visiting Methodists to visit Uzhgorod and Kamenitsa next.
Such a visit did indeed take place the following year and a party of British Methodists became the first people to enter Kamenitsa peacefully since the beginning of World War 2.  Something else happened of which the visitors were not aware at the time.  In advance of the visit, Ivan Vuksta had been called frequently to the local KGB office to explain what was going on.  “Who are these people,” “Why are they coming,” “How did you know them” were questions they asked repeated.  After we had left, Ivan Vuksta was summoned again. “Well,” said the KGB officer, “these people have come once and they will come again.  We won’t be able to stop them. It is shameful that after coming all this way theyhave to meet in a house. You had better build your church.” So it was that permission was granted for Kamenitsa Methodists to have a church of their own.
It was, of course, one thing to have this permission; it was quite another thing to be able to afford it.  Perhaps they could raise the money for the raw materials but they could not possibly afford a builder.  Where would they find someone with the skills of bricklayer, plasterer, joiner etc?  But they had only to ask the question to know the answer.  It was Ivan Vuksta who had spent his working life as a builder’s labourer.  “It was the will of God that I should be dismissed from teaching,” he said.  His moment had come.
Meanwhile efforts had begun to recover the Uzhgorod church which had been taken from its congregation before the war.  Eventually the authorities said the building could be returned if two conditions could be met; they would need to prove that their title to the property was sound and that there were at least 25 people who would want to use the church.  Probably the authorities thought they were laying down requirements that could not be fulfilled.  In the event the title deeds were found in the church archives in Prague, and house-to-house enquiries revealed not 25 but 50 people who claimed to be Methodists and would be glad to have their church back.  Transcarpathia now had two Methodist churches.  But this was not to be the end of the story.
Since that first visit in 1989 I have been back to Uzhgorod and Kamenitsa on a number of occasions but rarely has there been such a sense of growth as I found when I was there in August of this year.  The regular congregation in Uzhgorod now numbers 100.  I attended a midweek service in Kamenitsa at which about 30 people were present.  The young people’s meeting is on a Thursday and attracts between 30-35teenagers, virtually all of them from the village.  Many of the older people remembered our first visit and one of them introduced herself as the daughter of the woman in whose house the services were held on Good Friday and Easter Sunday while we were there.
I learned about the congregation in the Hotel Zakarpatie and the strategy which is to have a congregation in the north of the city, in the church, and another in the south, meeting in the hotel.  I was taken to the small town of Peretzin where a new church is being built with help from a church in Oklahoma, USA.  We went to a Roma village where a church that has existed for eight years has asked within the last two of them to become part of the Methodist family.  This is a family which consisted of one congregation throughout the Soviet era but now has five in Trancarpathia alone with another 20 in other parts of Ukraine.  Small wonder that I feel my visits to be less of a holiday and more of a pilgrimage.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

After two months, my heart was beginning to heal.  Sentences were painting a picture of the accident being something in our past instead of our present.  Pain was moving aside and hope flowed.

Last Wednesday we received word that our friend Maks had passed away.

Illya and Maks were best friends.  They looked the same and were often confused for brothers.  They were passionately Greek Catholic and passionately in pursuit of the fullness of God.

Maks was exceptionally filled with wonder for God's love and grace.  In the coldest days of winter he would wrap his arms around unsuspecting people and say, "Christ is Risen! Do you know that?"

During my time as an intern here, Maks was the most available student leader and the most willing to help me.  He started a yoga club and we began reaching out to all kinds of unconventional people.  Maks' laugh was unique and loud.

Every wound has been ripped open again.  All the hurt came flooding back.  Again our community is reeling.

This small community has buried two faithful members in the last two months.  Both of these men were younger than I.

I find it harder and harder to stand in front of this community and put words to our faith.  I don't need to. Our young people stop each other on the streets to pray for one another.  You see them sitting down and pulling out a Bible verse God has put on their heart to share with someone.  In this tragedy God continues to work.

In the midst of the pain, we see and feel God moving.  We put one foot in front of the other, and we allow God to do the rest.

Please continue to pray for us in the midst of this tragedy.  Pray that we would not waste this time feeling sorry for ourselves, but that God would use this time to teach our hearts to rely on God.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The youth group from Chernivtsi

Sasha, the youth leader from Chernivtsi brought a group of ten young people from the church up to Lviv to visit.  I really enjoyed my time with them, and I'm excited that they made the trip up to Lviv to visit us!
Sasha (on the left) and the rest of the youth from the UMC in Chernivtsi.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Green shoots of hope sprouting

This has been a long summer.  It felt a lot like winter, actually.  We had some cold days in August and on more than one occasion I was wearing my coat.  Because of the tragedy here, our summer was filled with a lot of stress and turmoil.  And now it feels like sprig. We are moving forward.  We celebrate the small glimpses of hope we see each day.  Here are a few pictures of hope as we move forward with the ministry here in Lviv, Ukraine.

Andriy and Marta Tatchyn enjoying the hammock during staff retreat!

Adam, Yulia, and Pastor Lyubomir with the altar cloth Yulia hand stitched.

An autistic boy strikes a pose with a patriotic candle display for Independence day.

Our new Intern Erica Oliveira and old friend Olya Kryvytska welcome you!

We rejoice in all the hope that God continues to share with our communities here. Although there have been tremendous challenges, our students and young adults are working very hard to restore the ministry and to begin a new day. The pastoral staff of the church and student center are fasting until Thursday as we pray about the needs of our physical space and the $70,000 we need to fundraise [Andvance #14055A *cough* hint*cough*] - would you care to join us in fasting and prayer as we move forward in hope?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Weekend of mixed emotions

This weekend will be hard.  That's just a fact.

Today I will preach a sermon at Pilgrims that David Goran and I wrote together.

We planned a sermon series for English camp, and after the accident I decided to preach through these sermons with our community instead.

As we prepared these sermons, they really felt like they would be perfect for English Camp.  In hindsight, I can't imagine preaching any of these sermons for new people.  They deal with the themes of tragedy, loss, death, and resurrection.  They are deep and poignant sermons that help us all search out the pain and sadness in our souls and to move past it.  David and I both wrote sermons and parts of sermons that are incredibly revealing and emotionally vulnerable for this series.

In this present state, each sermon fits perfectly with the needs of our community.  These sermons were written for such a time as this.  Today's sermon is mostly from David's point of view.  It's a hard and a sad sermon, but it is a sermon of resurrection as well.  It will be one of the hardest sermons I've ever preached.

An email reminder popped up in my inbox this morning that tomorrow is Illya's birthday.  On Saturday we will attend the service in commemoration of 40 days since his death.

On Sunday we welcome a new mission intern.  As we work toward normalcy, one of the normal things we do is welcome new mission interns.  We are very excited to have her join us and to receive her gifts and graces.  Her new face will help other new faces find a place.  This will help in the healing process.

On Monday we will have our staff retreat day.  We will begin planning for the future.  We will move forward with a future and hope.

This weekend will be very difficult.  It will have lots of joy and some sorrow.  We put one foot in front of the other and we celebrate who our God is.


Friday, August 3, 2012


One of the hardest elements of being in mission and ministry is defining success.

Working as a missionary in Ukraine is difficult because things don't get accomplished in the way I am used to.  A simple  process might be governed by half a dozen government offices which all have different yet similarly random office hours.  We shuffle from office to office patiently waiting stamps, seals, and signatures.  A more complex process might require going the whole way to city hall.

And in the business world and the corporate structure, being busy is valued.  Doing something is good.  Accomplishing something is better.  Our American churches reflect this cultural value by creating programs to hold everything.  Each thing gets a shiny, new program.  Our most dedicated volunteers end up making table decorations well into the night so that the sweetheart diner is a success.  But they are doing something and so we thank them and tell them that they are doing a good job.  When we see a need in our community our first response is to create a program to meet that need.  Being in ministry in Ukraine has helped remind me of the value of sometimes NOT doing something.

Often we plan, prepare, and kill ourselves to create a program or to design an event: and sometimes everything is perfect and we are so excited, and sometimes the weather is weird and it's the festival of the Holy Full Moon or something else not in our calendars and no one shows up and we feel the press of failure.  If God had called us to create programs and fill up calendars and to get people in the door - that feeling of failure would be well earned.  But God calls us to be in ministry.

In ministry we sit with people and cry with them.  We put aside our pain to celebrate something wonderful in a friend's life.  We eat ice cream.  We sit in courtrooms and waiting rooms and listen to painful conversations.  We sit and drink tea and get every ninth word corrected to the proper case and gender.  We swim in a lake that isn't clean enough.  We laugh our way across bumpy roads and we visit enchanting villages filled with gracious people.

At the end of a long day, we can answer the question, "What did you do today?" with an honest, "Nothing."

If we believe that our worth and our calling are found in being busy and in getting things accomplished - we miss the blessing of being in ministry with people.  When we sit and "do nothing" with people, we have the time and the space to learn, laugh, love, and to become one.          

Success is faithfulness.  Most days I don't have any idea what I'm doing.  I don't mean that they aren't planned - I mean that I simply don't understand the things that are happening around me.  Like a Ukrainian, I have a very high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.  Maybe I've adapted or maybe I burned through a few too many brain cells in college - but I love watching things play out and I love watching things fall into place.  I love watching people interact and step up and move beyond fear.  A week ago I sat with a friend on the bank of a lake for almost four hours.  I didn't accomplish anything.  We didn't have an agenda.  They were some of the best hours of my life.  Ideas and challenges came out of our conversation that I would have never dared to write on an agenda.

It's August.  In a student ministry in Ukraine - everything shuts down in August.  Even our students who live in the city find an escape to the village with a grandparent or distant cousin.  Our friends who are present work very full hours and come to events exhausted.  Especially after the exhausting flurry of activity that followed the tragedy in July, people feel guilty if they are "not doing" anything.  What is hard is for us to embrace the uncertainty and to "do nothing."  To choose to meet up with friends and to not steer the conversation in any direction.  To set aside our programs and to lift up people in every way we can.

 I'm a driven person.  I set goals.  I have an agenda.  I love a challenge and I love getting things done.  When I choose to place my whole heart in ministry, I have to lay some of that at the cross.  Casting vision is good and moving things forward in ministry is a joy - but sometimes being faithful means letting go and letting God. Sometimes it means skipping rocks for four hours.

Ministry is messy.  Faithfulness is hard.  Choosing to be still and know that God is God is much harder than "doing something" and holding a finished product in your hand.  My fear is that sometimes I get busy with activities because I am afraid of the silence and I am afraid of the uncertainty of simply being present with people and with God.

Sometimes I want to frame success in terms that I understand.  Getting things done.  The number in the pews.  The number of Amen's uttered during the sermon.  Sometimes I want to understand.

Success is faithfulness.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Relax, God's in charge.

Love and time heal all things.  This is one of those truths which in the abstract is undeniably simple, but in the concrete is almost unfathomably difficult to accept.  Love and time heal all things.  

I am teaching one of our first year students, Vitya, how to create the slides for our worship service.  He doesn't speak a word of English, but he is incredibly patient with my Ukrainian and it has been fun to see how much he enjoys contributing to worship in any small way that he can.  

Illya Onoprienko, the Ukrainian student who died during the tragedy in Ukraine, was such a strong leader.  At night I would pray that God would call him to become a priest so that the Greek Catholic church could benefit from his humble leadership like our student organization had.  

Illya prays during one of our Pyro - student prayer services.
Illya never considered himself a leader.  But he stepped up on the leadership team and was the pillar of support for our interns when they first arrived.  He coordinated the worship services on Thursday nights.  

While Vitya and I were going through slides, I found the slides from when the leadership team preached.  Everyone who spoke that Thursday night did a great job.  But, I think that many people had never heard Illya say so much.  He was quiet by nature, and this gave his words incredible power.  This is the slide he showed during his portion of the sermon.
The background on Illya's phone - and  his daily life reminder.
 Relax, God's in charge.  It's sarcastic and funny.  It's true and poignant.  Relax, God's in charge.

Illya had been teaching me liturgy for the last few months.  Greek Catholic churches basically always use the same liturgy - but in church people don't enunciate enough for me to understand everything.  I wanted to sing along when I attended Greek Catholic services, and I asked Illya to teach me.

Illya teaching me liturgy at a service at Ukrainian Catholic University.
We sang through it.  I went to worship services at his home church. And at his funeral I sang out loudly and clearly on almost every line.  I was so thankful to understand and worship through every word. 

Relax, God's in charge.  

As we try and move forward with our ministry here in Ukraine, these words are such a comfort.  They were so helpful to Illya and they are so helpful to me.  I don't like everything that is happening around me - but I trust that God is in charge.

(?), Max Semenov, me, Illya, Nadya Nadilna - at UCU for a worship service
Illya leaves behind such an incredible witness and testimony.  He loved fully, lived fully, and laughed often.  He took his own advice, and he chose to relax and trust that God is in charge.  We would do well to do likewise.  

Dear God, you heal our brokenness.  Our hearts are troubled and weary until they find their rest in you, O Lord.  Help us to live each day in the fullness of your resurrection life.  Help us to love others and to serve others unconditionally.  Help us to choose to lay our lives down for others.  We love and praise You. Amen.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Uzhgorod United Methodist Church

Before the tragedy happened in Lviv, I had the chance to visit some of the other United Methodist churches. I've already written about my experiences at the UMC in Chernivtsi.  Here is a bit of insight into the other churches I visited.  

The city of Uzhgorod actually has two United Methodist churches.  There is one which survived the soviet days, and there is one which was planted this year.  These are pictures of the new church plant.  

Pastor Joseph is a bold, energetic leader.  He is shorter than me, but about my size.  He runs a home for street kids.  He believes in new church plants.  

This church meets in a hotel.  I think that it was a low Sunday when I visited, I think that they usually have more people.  This service has a great feel and many young people.  Joseph helps young people who used to be addicts find meaningful leadership roles in the church.  It's a slow process - but it is tremendously important for the future of the church. 

You can see some of the diversity of this church.

Lots of young people in worship and leadership.

This is the least fuzzy picture I have of Joseph.  He just moves a lot! 

Serednje United Methodist Church

Before the tragedy happened in Lviv, I had the chance to visit some of the other United Methodist churches. I've already written about my experiences at the UMC in Chernivtsi.  Here is a bit of insight into the other churches I visited.  

Serednje is the newest member of our United Methodist connection here in Ukraine.  The congregation is comprised of Roma people.  People use the term gypsy - but this often has negative connotations.  On our way to the church, my translator and I stopped at a store on the way to the Roma camp village.  The shopkeeper yelled at us for helping "those dirty gypsies."  

Preaching at this church was one of the greatest honors of my life.  As a general rule I refuse offers to preach until I have visited a church at least once.  I don't like the fact that many churches will let any American in their pulpit - and I love hearing the sermons that our pastors preach.  But, our District Superintendent told me that I would be preaching at this church and then sent me out the door to preach!  During the ten minute car ride, I put together a sermon.  The church was wonderful.  The people were kind and open.  The pastor is so humble and gentle.  

Pastor Vladimir playing guitar. 

It is so wonderful to have church outside.  

The pastor blesses a baby as he prays for the sick children.

Kam'yanytsya United Methodist Church

Before the tragedy happened in Lviv, I had the chance to visit some of the other United Methodist churches. I've already written about my experiences at the UMC in Chernivtsi.  Here is a bit of insight into the other churches I visited.  

We have a cluster of six United Methodist churches in the Zarkarpatsky Region.  The congregation in Kam'yanytsya survived the soviet days.  It is our largest and most active United Methodist congregation in Ukraine.   The District Superintendent of the Western Ukraine District of the Ukrainian UMC gracefully stepped aside as pastor and encouraged his wife to become senior pastor of the congregation.  

Alla is a wonderful pastor.  She is caring, kind, and a true servant.  Her husband is a wonderful District Superintendent.  I wasn't able to attend worship at this church on a Sunday morning.  But - I have certainly worshiped here!  I went to the Friday night worship service, Saturday morning youth dawn prayer at 5 AM (!!!!), and young men's Bible Study on Saturday afternoon.  It is a wonderful congregation of loving and kind people.  The youth ministry is strong and comprehensive.  

The church building survived the soviet days, too. 

I sat with these two and it was like sitting in church with my own grandparents!

Pastor Alla is such a strong preacher and leader. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Saying goodbye to Bohdan.

When I first arrived in Lviv, Bohdan was the first Ukrainian student I met.  David and I were on our way to the student center and we passed him in the street.  He hadn't been around the student center in a while, but he was excited about introducing a new American to the city.  He helped me out a tremendous amount those first few weeks.  We have become good friends - and he has introduced me to some of my closest friends here. 

I'm glad that Bohdan is following his heart - but I'm sad that that means he will be leaving Ukraine and emigrating to Canada.  It is always sad when one of our best and brightest leaves our borders.  I hope that someday he will come back to help make Ukraine better. 

Pavlo and Kristina (the girl on the left) set up the banner for his surprise party!

The group waiting around to hide.

Bohdan with a big smile after a big surprise!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The baptism of Marta Andriyivna Tatchyn

Now that Marta has been baptized and all of her friends and family have met her in person - we're allowed to share photos online.  Here are some photos from the baptism.
Proud mother Erika with the screaming bundle of joy!

Pastor Lyubomir and Maryanna Shevchuk are the godparents

The beautiful wooden church

The baptism.
Marta's adorable little face! 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Everything is wonderful

I know that's not the blog post title you've been waiting for.

We have faced a terrible tragedy recently.  Everything was terrible.  For days my entire body hurt.  My head felt like it was much too heavy for my scrawny neck to support it.  We lost a beloved friend, a pillar of our community, and a truly good man when Illya died.  I spent a very difficult day with the widow of our American friend who died.  For 36 hours my dear friend David Goran was in a Ukrainian hospital without painkillers or antibiotics after a very serious injury.

Everything was terrible.

As we move forward, we see the great joy of living life in community.  Here are a few pictures of our Sunday morning worship service.

Everything is wonderful.  Even in these difficult days - we see God's great lovingkindess in abundance.  We see people growing closer to one another and to God.  We see true community.  

God is good and God is faithful.  My pastor (standing behind the altar table in the third photo) and I have shared so many good conversations these last few days.  We have experienced scripture in new ways.  He has read and re-read the Gospel of John as one long trial of Jesus.  I have delighted in God's words to Job.  

Everything is wonderful.  Our God, our theology, and our faith is big enough to handle death - especially the death of one who loved Jesus with all of his heart.  We rejoice that Illya is with his savior in heaven.  We look forward to joining them some day.  

We are moving forward - but we have a long way to go.  Everyone is grieving in different ways - and even one of his good friends just found out the news today.  But, the great joy is that we have our faith and one another to help us through these times. 

Everything is wonderful.  Tomorrow we celebrate the baptism of Erika and Andriy Tatchyn's baby girl.  They are thankful that their dear friend Illya was able to come and meet their newborn daughter before the tragedy.  They asked a priest how long they should wait during this time of mourning before they baptized her - and he confidently responded that they shouldn't wait.  It is always the right time to celebrate a new birth and a new child of God. 

I promised not to post any pictures of Marta's adorable little face until all of our friends have met her in person - but for now you can see her great hair and Erika's joyful smile! 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Priska and Florian - Adventures in Romania

Priska and Florian arguing in German.

Florian in front of the center-square church.

Priska enjoying shuarma.

Priska and Florian - I had such a great time with them. I love this picture.

They're actually not a couple - but they sure do look it!