Thursday, December 19, 2013

Some pictures

These are pictures from the month of December.  They're not really in any particular order.  Life is busy, and sometimes I forget to post pictures and posts as often as I should.  Here are a few pictures to keep you up to date with our Pilgrims. 

Our youngest Pilgrims, Marta, plays with a stuffed bear that her great-aunt Debbie sent from America for Christmas.  How thoughtful of Debbie! 

This is the picture that we didn't use for our Thank You cards.  I love how silly our staff and their families can be - I love working with these people and value their dedication so much.  It's great to be part of such an amazing team! 

We start and finish Pilgrims in small groups.  It helps with our space issue, because at the end when things are a bit more crowded, we can use both rooms.  We broke along gender lines this night, but thankfully Pastor Volodya's wife was willing to mix things up a bit!  At the end, the small groups pray together to end our time.  

The girl's group! 

And a few of the guys even joined them - even though this looks like a middle school dance - we all like each other! 

At Pilgrim's this week we learned how to search for things in the Bible, how to guess where a scripture might be found, and how to remember the order of the books of the Bible.  A lot of our new students don't know how to find the scripture, so this was fun and helpful.  Do you use God Eats Pop Corn/General Electric Power Company to remember Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Collossians?   Well, that acronym doesn't work in Ukrainian, so today the students came up with an acronym of their own - it translates to "God Energetically Paints Everyone" ... which is a really cool way to remember the order of these epistles.  It's awesome to have such creative students.  

Over Christmas break, the four staff members are in competition against the rest of the Pilgrims to see which group will read more verses of the Bible!  It should be a great challenge! 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Some photos

The protests continue in Ukraine.  It is hard to keep up to date with all that is happening.  Things are moving quickly, and yet things are moving so slowly.  Some days are scary and some days are victorious and some days are both.  Here are a few pictures of the protests here in Lviv. 

Almost every evening thousands of people gather to support the protesters in Kiv. 

One of our Pilgrims and her friend. 

Children play in the snow.  In Lviv, whole families come together to show their support. 

Sometimes we just stand together and watch the news on the giant screen.  The people of Lviv love their country so much. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Protests in Ukraine

This article from the BBC is well written and unbiased.

Only a few days before Ukraine was to sign important agreements with the EU, the Ukrainian government has halted the process.  The European Union considers Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister - currently serving a long prison sentence, to be a political prisoner.  Some reports claim that the EU is demanding that she be allowed to receive medical care in Europe and some report a demand for her release.
Thousands of people, young and old, are crowding the streets in protest against the decision to halt the European Integration process.  Mass rallies are happening all over Ukraine.  On Sunday there will be a mass rally in the capitol city's main square.  Allegedly the government has stopped buses from Lviv to Kyiv and has stopped selling train tickets.  The government fears mass protests like those of the Orange Revolution 9 years ago this week.

This weekend, across Ukraine, people will commemorate the forced famine of 1932-33.  Between 6 and 10 million Ukrainians died as a result of the forced famine.  My best friend's great-grandfather led a caravan of 40 wagons of food to the border and was turned away by the Soviet authorities who insisted that there was no famine.  The forced famine of the Ukrainian people is perhaps the largest act of genocide the world has ever seen - and it is almost entirely lost to history.  This weighs heavy on the hearts of many Ukrainians as they fight for further integration with the European Union.

This is a complicated and difficult situation, and I am always afraid that perhaps I do not understand everything that is going on.  Ukrainian politics are messy and complicated - and I generally stay almost completely neutral.  I'm not Ukrainian.  Although I love this country and translate poetry from Ukrainian to English, I am an outsider.  My students are so passionate and so united about this cause, that I simply must join with them.  They truly see no other path forward for their future.  For some of my friends, EU integration is their only chance of a normal and productive life.

I will be at the central square in Lviv often during this time.  I will be showing my support and my solidarity with my students and friends.  Please pray for safety for all involved and for a peaceful resolution.  Some are calling for another revolution.  The most common thought that I hear among my friends is that if "we start this, we must finish it."  People were left disheartened after the Orange Revolution fell apart following the global economic collapse and party infighting.  If it comes to revolution, may it be a peaceful one.

students gather to remember those who died in the forced famine

The rally in Lviv

Thousands gathered near the monument of Taras Shevchenko

During the rally, many ordinary people stepped up to speak.  Lviv's mayor spoke eloquently.  The rector of the University, Vokarchuk, who is being forced out for political reasons spoke beautiful words.  But it was the common folk who really touched my heart.  One man stepped up with a very strong speech impediment.  He spoke directly from his heart and brought many of us to tears with his words.  This has been an emotional week, and there is certainly more to come.  Please keep Ukraine in your thoughts and prayers.  I will try to post often and keep people up to date on what is happening here.

- Michael Airgood

Monday, November 18, 2013

Introversion, ministry, and self-care.

I'm an introvert.

I don't know why this simple fact is so hard for people to understand.  I'm shy around new people, especially when I have a crush.  There are times when I'm happy to be in a small group and times when it terrifies me - it depends on a wide variety of factors.  My job requires that I be bold and up front and outgoing and I do that to the best of my ability.  I'm terrified of speaking in front of crowds, and I'm exhausted after preaching.

This is the nature of being an introvert in ministry.

Extroverts draw their energy from the crowd.  It recharges them to be around people.  Introverts give their energy away to the crowd.  We have to go away by ourselves to recharge.

Introverts in ministry chose to give of ourselves all day.  I'm in ministry because it's a calling.  I've explained to God hundreds of times all of the reasons why I'm not very good at it and why I'm not qualified to be in ministry, but I haven't changed God's mind on the matter yet.  I keep getting called to be in ministry - in uncomfortable and painful places, with people with whom I disagree, in situations that scare me, in languages that I'll never fully understand, with people whose problems are far greater than my own, and in ways that I never expect - the call to ministry continues.

As an introvert, each interaction takes a small bit of me and makes it no longer me.  You give one spoonful away at a time, and hope that the bottle doesn't run out before new supplies arrive.  You make it through the sermon and you collapse and try to recover.

I love people.  I love old people and teenagers and children and conservatives and liberals and Ukrainian students.  I love people, and I love being in ministry with people.  I love leading worship and I love preaching and I would never trade the late night conversations and the impromptu marriage counseling sessions for anything.  I love being in ministry.

And ministry is messy.  And John Wesley charged us to keep the world as our parish and my ministry has never fit inside of church walls.  And a person in ministry's work is never done.  It's never finished.  There is always something more that can be done, that should be done, that needs to get done.

But that is why Jesus is the Savior and we are the saved.

As an introvert in ministry, I have to step aside and make time and space for me to recharge.  I need to talk with a close friend about non-ministry things and sort through all the thoughts in my head and my heart.

And this is ok.

This is the hardest part about self-care: you have to give yourself permission to take care of yourself.  For me, I have to shut down and walk away from the crowd and be alone or spend time with someone who understands my boundaries.  I have to not answer questions about English and not speak Ukrainian sometimes.

Self-care is vital in ministry because without it you don't stay in ministry very long.  There is no way to keep everyone happy - and as long as that is your goal you will not be in ministry very long.  Self-care is about realizing that Jesus calls real people into ministry.  We aren't machines and a call to ministry doesn't make us machines.  We are people with feelings and emotions and triggers and baggage - and that is ok.  As a person in ministry, you need to take care of other people - and yourself.

The world is your parish, but you are your parish, too.

While you certainly should have a good network of great clergy friends and mentors, you need to give yourself to permission to take your own advice and find some rest.

When I have less to give, I need to recharge more often.

I'm not making any excuses and I'm not making any apologies - I'm just stating some facts to help people understand.  Ministry is a wonderful journey.  Introverts make tremendous pastors and missionaries.  Some of the best ministry people I know are deeply introverted.  We need to make space for all people and all giftings in ministry.  As long as God calls all types of people, we need to find room for all types of people.

Introverts included.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Vacation in Odessa

I finally got to take a vacation in Ukraine.  I have wanted to go to Odessa for years now, and finally found the time to make the trip.  I had planned to go alone, but luckily one of my best friends who moved from Lviv some months back just happened to be coming to Odessa for work and we got to hang out for the weekend.  It was a really great vacation.
Den joined me in Odessa for the weekend.

Odessa is a weird city.  This is a Santa Claws pup.

It was still warm weather in Odessa in mid-November!

The cat zoo - there were stray cats everywhere - and in with all the animals. 

If you're going to ride a camel, this is the way to do it.

I'm going to miss all this sunshine!

I wasn't the only one to get in the water!

The sailor's uniform is quite common in Odessa. 

And even a Karcher shop for dad. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

what God continues to write

 My fifth grade year was a living hell that I don't like to remember much, but during that very difficult time - I had one place of refuge.  

Betty Lou Gervais was the fifth grade Sunday School teacher at Kane First UMC.  I don't know what experience or credentials she had, or if she had ever taught anything before in her life, but I thank the goodness of Heaven that she volunteered to teach our class.  We did lots of crafts - and not just junk to throw away, but high quality stuff that my mother still proudly displays around the house - and we listened to the Bible stories that Betty Lou told us.  She spoke the book of Genesis, telling the stories in the fashion of a soap opera.  For weeks we sat on the edge of our seats waiting to find out if Sara would survive her captivity in Egypt, we felt the great betrayal, we showed up week after week to find out if she was really pregnant and if she could really have a baby at her advanced age.

A few years later, in an English class, our teacher asked if anyone knew one of those stories from Genesis - all seven of us in that classroom who had been taught by Betty Lou raised our hands in unison to tell the story.  The whole class got an ear full as we compared notes on the finer points of the story.  The proof is in the pudding.

There are really only two ways to look at the Bible.  There are those who see a book written thousands of years ago - a book that can be studied, dissected, and ultimately proven and understood.  And then there are those who learned from Betty Lou and the millions of Betty Lou Bible teachers around the world - there are those who see the Bible as a book that God continues to write on our hearts - a book that is meant for us and for our lives, to give meaning and purpose to an otherwise senseless world.

One of the girls from that Sunday School class got engaged to her partner this year, and as Pennsylvania inches toward becoming another state to get on the right side of history - I think that she'll get married fairly soon.  I don't know Betty Lou's political position on such things, but I know her great love.  I know the way she loved the Lord and I know the way she loved all of her students.  I'm glad that we had a teacher who taught us about God's great love, a love that passes all understanding.  It's helped shape and form all of us into the people we are today.

There's a big brouhaha about a retired United Methodist Bishop who will be officiating at a same sex union this weekend.  It is a bold and prophetic step in a grand march that began decades ago and will likely continue for decades to come.  The Bishops who have sided with institutional security and the law over grace will soon seem like relics of a distant time.  In the same way that I can't imagine what kind of Bishop sided with segregation, I'm sure that many will wonder what our Bishops were thinking.

Of course our problem is that we elect politicians to high office and not prophets.  We need more people known for their holiness and preaching and spirit to lead the church instead of people known for their policies and procedures.  We need more leaders who are willing to follow God's still small voice and to ignore the megaphones of our pundits and politicos.  We need Bishops who lead.

Well, I'm sure that there are many who will see this wedding and bring out their holy measuring tape and hold it up against their holy textbook divided into columns and they will pronounce it disgusting and unruly.  But my heartfelt prayer is that some will hold open their hearts, that God may continue writing the greatest love story ever told.  Someday we will be a church where all are accepted, supported, and loved.  Until that day, we must do all that we can to live into God's vision of a reconciled world.  We must preach that Gospel for all, we must minister to all and especially the least likely, and we must teach the Bible as a living and gracious book - because that is exactly what it is and that is exactly what we are called to do.    

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ancient Gypsy Stereotypes Alive and Well Today

Perhaps you've read an article about the mysterious case of the "white angel" of Greece.  It seems that all European media outlets are obsessed with the fair skinned princess kidnapped by gypsies.  I have heard that media attention is equally fixated on the story back in the states.

The couple who were holding her, who DNA tests have confirmed are not her biological parents, really might be terrible monsters.  While their version of the story is within the realm of possibility, the truth might be far more sinister.  They might be the sort of people who are just evil.  Perhaps they felt no remorse in kidnapping this child.

But let me clear one thing up.  The fact that these people might be monsters and the fact that these people are gypsies are not related.  Their Roma-ness ( which might best translate to "humanity" in the Roma language) has no bearing and no relation to this story.  Lots of people are monstrous human beings.  Many people kidnap children.  It just so happens that these two (possible) monsters are Roma people.

We cannot allow ancient stereotypes to continue to repress an entire people group.

When I was in the gypsy camp back in the spring, Pastor Volodymyr was showing me pictures of different teams that have come.  I pointed to two white children and asked which team they were from.  I was genuinely surprised that American or European parents had brought their children to the village and risked exposure to untreated diseases.  Pastor Volodymyr looked down at the picture and then back up at me.

"Those are our children.  They're Roma children.  I was there when they were born.  They're really ours."

I had struck a nerve I wasn't aware of.  I hadn't read of fair skinned Roma children and had never heard whispers of gypsies stealing children.  I apologized, but went back later and apologized again once I had read and understood the terrible social stigma that follows Roma communities with fair skinned children.

In Ireland a child who didn't look like a gypsy was taken away from her parents and only returned after DNA tests confirmed that she was their daughter.

Stereotypes harm people.  This is a stereotype that we must end.  We must look beyond ethnicity and see that all people are different.  Ted Bundy was a white man, and yet no one is accusing me of being a serial killer because of my whiteness.  The fact that so many willingly accept a connection between this couple's monstrous deed and their gypsy identity just shows how much more we must fight for acceptance and love of all people.

For further reading, you might look at this excellent piece written by Slate's Joshua Keating.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The table seems so long as we pass sushi from one end to the other.  The birthday boy sits yelling distance away, but there isn't any need to yell.  The live musicians play music fitting for a classy party, and I am struck by how wonderful the people present are.  I love their adult lives: their jobs, their relationships, their children, and their travels.

They are all Pilgrims - their lives forever shaped by Fred and Stacy Vanderwerf and David and Shannon Goran and all the other mission interns and teams that have walked this road over the years.  They live out the Gospel that they heard over and over again.  They live in Christian community together.  It's a beautiful thing, and near the end of the table - I am just overwhelmed by the beauty of how God has worked and continues to work in their lives.  

At our student center, we are beginning the process of forming a group of new students.  If all of the school students and first and second year students came on the same night we would have 15 or more new students, but they are hit or miss and generally uncommitted.  It's the way that things begin and we are just thankful for  the opportunity to be there on the journey with them.  We have the love and support of our long term Pilgrims - of those who graduated years and years ago and still show up every week to lead worship and disciple new students and of those who pray for us and show up on the off chance that their work schedule allows them a free Thursday - and we certainly couldn't embark on the journey of reaching out to a new generation without that support.

The sushi restaurant where we gather for the Birthday party perfectly captures the city we work in.  In a quite alleyway that used to be filled with a few unique restaurants, over two dozen options present themselves for where to eat.  The sushi shop looks perfectly plucked out of Japan and placed in our European fort-city.  This city is changing fast, and we must have the courage to move with it or we will be lost in it.  English language outreach doesn't have the pull that it did even three years ago.  Dozens of new schools pop up each year, and cult religions bring in increasingly large numbers of American young people to bring in young people through English.

It is exciting to see our core leadership, an open and enthusiastic group of young servants, make the decisions that make this ministry what it is.  On Wednesday nights we gather and pray, plan, and clean.  Our prayer time is eager and honest and our cleaning heartfelt and sincere - it's wonderful to see their servant hearts in action.

Please keep this little ministry in your prayers.  We have faced unparalleled challenges in the last year and a half and it seems that new tasks present themselves every day.  Doing this remodeling job in a legal way has been more work and taken more time than anyone could have ever dreamed - offer up an extra prayer of thanksgiving for Pastor Volodya and his tremendous work of guiding our community on the narrow and treacherous path of legal reconstruction.  Please continue to pray for our new young students - pray that they will continue to find community and joy in this group and that they will be called back over and over again to join with us in worship and fellowship.

And please keep me in your prayers.  This has been one of the hardest times in my life.  I never asked for this job, but God continues to give confirmation that I am right where I should be.  I am thankful that God is faithful even when I am not, and that our wonderful local leadership picks up the slack in all the areas that I am just not capable of doing.  It is wonderful to see the Gospel being lived out by such a dedicated group of people.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Marysville First UMC OHIO

About a year ago, I got an email from a church in Ohio asking if I could Skype with their youth during Sunday school. It was a busy Sunday, but I roped one of our High School students into joining me for a chat with their students.  They asked Vitya questions and I translated both ways, and we all laughed a lot.  The students asked great questions.  It was a lot of fun, and they asked how they could help.  

They sent Christmas gifts for our leadership team - beautiful clothes and jewelry for the leadership girls and DVDs and other great gifts for new students.  They also included a gingerbread house kit in a box.  The box arrived a little bit after Christmas (it got stuck at the border, which is common!) so we decided to make the ginger bread house at a later date.  Someone (not me!) had the bright idea of checking the "best by" date and we found that it would soon expire - so we planned a Christmas in October English Club.  I mean, Christmas decorations are already out at stores in the states - so we're not that early.  

Erica Oliveira leading a small group discussion.

We were precisely 77 days away from Christmas when we compared and contrasted Christmas traditions, ate Christmas food, listened to a Christmas story, talked about the ideals of perfection, and built the magical ginger bread house. 

Almost finished.

English Club students gather around the finished ginger bread house.

It was a fun activity for all of the students, but the children of our adult students liked it best.  It was a good activity to bring together all the ages that our open and free English Club brings in.

Fiercely proud of their creation
And then we ate it.  Now, I've only made a ginger bread house once and that was straight out of the oven and I don't think we even finished building it.  This one was pretty tasty for a box kit sent last Christmas.

Hopefully edible

Thank you, Marysville First UMC in Ohio for making our October Christmas festivities a real hit!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Dr. Fred Smith complained to us once about the way that information travels at the speed of light these days.  When his mother and father-in-law went to present day Cambodia as missionaries, their possessions were shipped in crates designed to be used as their coffins.  He and his wife took six weeks to get to their first place of assignment and there was a monthly telegram drop.

I'm never more than 24 hours from anywhere it seems.  I'm always a phone call away.  And this changes things.  This complicates things.

The saddest part about serving overseas is death.  It hurts to be so connected and yet so removed when someone dies.  I think Facebook will one day catch up with this - it will handle the death of a loved one cautiously.  Perhaps in the future you will have an approved list of people from whom you would like to hear bad news and only those posts will come up first.

When Jonathan died, I found out from the post of a person I just really didn't like.  He wrote, "I never knew you Jonathan Pound, but you seemed like a cool dude. Sorry you died." I'll never forget those words, or how deeply they cut when I first read them.  I had called Jonathan the evening before and was angry that he didn't pick up.

I knew that Bob was in his final hours, and I'm grateful that I learned of his passing from a friend.  It makes everything easier and more pleasant.

This is one of those small things that people don't think about when they talk about mission.  Missionaries miss all of these milestones.  Nowhere ever feels fully like home.  Family gets a new meaning.  Goodbyes mean everything and nothing all at the same time.

I confided in Bob once that Ukrainians hate it when people call their country THE Ukraine, but that according to the rules of English grammar the article should be used.  From that point forward every conversation centered around THE Ukraine where I served.  Bob hated mandatory adjectives.  He hated the way he felt compelled to say "... and his LOVELY wife."   If he just referenced her as so-and-so's wife it would be rude - and he wanted just once to say, "... and his TRAINWRECK of a wife."

I had planned to fly from Illinois to Washington DC before flying out of Dulles this last time in the states.  But for whatever reason I didn't buy my plane ticket in time.  I rented a car and drove instead.  I had time for a lovely stop in California, PA to eat at a greasy diner with Bob and Ruth.  Our previous meal had been a vegetable medley over a mound of quinoia.  We ate a meat lover's pizza and drank giant sodas.  Ruth got fries drenched in all kinds of creamy sauces.  It was a perfect meal.

On my drive, one thought kept crossing my mind over and over again.  "If you fill your life with remarkable people, your life will be remarkably full."

I live such a full and rewarding life - and this is precisely because I have filled it with people of character and integrity.

Going the Distance.  In His Grip.  For the Win.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

A lazy Saturday

I'm never ready for winter.  While I yearn for three seasons during the others, all year long I dread winter.  I dread the snow and the ice and the arthritis in my hands and feet flaring up for months on end.  Sometimes at night I pray that God will eventually see fit to send me somewhere warm, but I keep ending up in places that are wrapped in white tinsel for nine months of the year.

My prayers will continue to focus on an Indian summer sneaking up on us in late September, but in the meantime I am mentally preparing myself for the first snowfall anytime this week.

I wore my flipflops today and a too big sweater, but I refused a coat and a decent pair of socks.  My last protest against the winter went as well as most of my protests do.  The foot-prisons are coming.

And Valya, with her big coat and floppy artists' hat led the technicians and Olya with her short hair and cute beanie hat stepped to the front of the crowd and welcomed everyone to the film festival.  Rain cancelled the center square venue, but it was just as well to sit on the large porch of the palace of arts and generate electricity by bicycle.  How hipster is a bicycle powered film festival, right?

It seems that hundreds of hipsters line the porch with their oversized glasses and ill-fitting clothes.  You can only tell genders by beards or lack of beards.  That's the trend these days.  And the movies are delightfully quirky and the bicycles are restored antiques and the wine is warmed with exotic spices - and everything is so perfect.  I wish that autumn could be suspended in time and last forever.  The sights, the smells, the conversations.

And the night ended in the Indian restaurant around spicy curries and flat breads.  Nikita almost died a year ago from massive head trauma, but all that remains is a slight slur of words.  Yura looks like the boy scout that he is.  The conversation flies from topic to topic.  Seagull, cameraman, organizational - these are the words that I learned in Ukrainian over dinner, these were the only words that I didn't know.  It's at some point between the spicy soup and the spicy lamb that I am simply struck by the beauty of everything - by the scars from Mikita's multiple brain surgeries, by the grammar and vocabulary forcibly stuffed into my head, by the common grace of sitting around a table and enjoying something out of the usual.

I read someone's wall post encouraging the YOLO attitude that defines my generation that used to be packaged as carpe diem and defined generations before mine, and I was struck by the simplicity of it.  Don't have regrets. If it was good it was good, if it was bad it was experience.  And I'm not there yet.  I'm not a  YOLOer by any means, but I am struck by how often fear keeps us from new experiences.

And I still won't be ready for winter in time.  It will still surprise and befuddle me, but I think I'm going to stay warmer this year.  I'm going to keep people close and share in new experiences and laugh too loud and drink mulled cider more often.  I'm going to wear whatever sweater I want, and not apologize for showing up to the university dressed like a homeless person.

I'm going to survive this winter.  I'm going to thrive this winter.  

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Success is found in faithfulness.

When I think of the most successful people I know, I tend to think of people who are happy.  I don't have many friends with millions of dollars.  I don't know many executives at fortune 500 companies.  Yet I know many, many successful people.

People who have held fast to God while the storms of life swept over them time and time again.  Prophets who continue to do what God calls them to do even when it is not popular.  Pastors who choose to preach the Gospel rather than family values or other attendance boosting topics.

Pastor Volodya and I had a conversation today about faith.  It has always come easily to me.  I've always held faith and doubt in the same hand.  My mother always gave such a strong example to live by faith.  There was always enough, and there would always be enough.

I have a hard time dealing with people who don't have any faith.  It frustrates me when people lack the basic understanding that God will take care of it, whatever it may be.

These conversations in the church, these conversations about how pastors and churches have to have "vision" where "vision" is a marketing term for bigger, better, shinier - these conversations bother me.  It always amuses me when they pull out that one verse in the Bible that in some translations supports their concept of vision.

Because instead of vision we need to have faith.  We need to be able to see past today, to see past the "death tsunami" that is coming, to see past the sinner crumpled on the floor and to see what God sees.  To see that we will have freedom from our sins.  To see that our churches will recover.  To see that God has a plan and to see that God's plan stretched beyond next year.

I think of my most formative moments in the church, and often those moments happened in times of struggle and grief.  I saw pastors become real.  I heard them cuss.  I've seen them cry.  I learned so much from them and the way they handled these situations.

Some lament small churches.  Because I grew up in a small membership congregation, my pastor ALWAYS had time to meet with me.  I'm glad that I didn't grow up in a big, fancy church.      

I'll always remember my first scotch.  I was staying with Lee and Nancy Paige, and Lee had been the senior pastor of one of the first mega churches as they emerged in the seventies.  He had written books on contemporary worship that now seem so dated and out of place.  He invited me to join him for a night-cap, and he told me that he has served churches of 80 and churches of thousands and that the real ministry only happens in the little churches.  He passed away some years ago and his wife took over the little church he had been shepherding.  Her sermons are great.  I've always trusted his prognosis about "real ministry."

To have faith is to know that God will take care of some things.  To know that God is working out the details in ways that will surprise and delight us.

Let go and let God.


Monday, September 2, 2013

The frosting was made from a pudding packet and a bag of sour cream.  No one was more surprised than I by the fact that it actually tasted good.  The occasion was the surprise visit by ten visiting young people from Kyrgyzstan.

My mother always laughs when I throw together a meal for a large group of people.  When her closest friend comes over she is paralyzed for the entirety of the preceding week with the dread and fear of hosting.  What will she prepare?  Which towel will she lay out?  What if a tornado hits and we don't have enough bottled water for our guest?

My sister and I have always excelled in hospitality.  It's equal parts all-in bravery and our absolute lack of concern about what others think of us.  Where our mother frets about the stain on the carpet, Rebecca would just place a pillow over it and explain that she's doing the Indian thing now.

I've always loved throwing a party, and my philosophy is always, "the more the merrier."  The trick is to always cook for thirty and either eat leftovers for a month or buy more bread to stretch it a bit depending on how many show up.

I remember the year that mom slaved away to make a cranberry chutney for thanksgiving.  She painstakingly minced all of the ingredients, eager and excited to try a new dish.  She was afraid of anything going to waste so she just made a sampler sized portion, with a promise to make more next year if it was well received.  She explained the ingredients and what chutney meant at the dinner table, and took a spoonful and passed the bowl to her right.  Grandma Airgood held the little green glass bowl in her hands and said, "There's not enough here for everyone to eat it."  Before passing it to the next person without taking any.  We all dutifully passed it to the next person without sampling any.  We never heard the word chutney again in our lives, it became one of the cuss words we weren't allowed to say.

My gift is hospitality, because I am really good at being hospitable and also really good at receiving hospitality.  There have been months where I lived entirely off of the kindness of others.  I couldn't have survived and made it on my own without gladly accepting hand-outs and hand-ups.  Like the month I just ate at the Methodist church in Toccoa.  Showing up at lunch time and looking for a group nibbling on sandwich halves might seem humiliating, but I was poor and people were kind and generous.  The ladies knitting group never questioned my presence or the fact that I took leftover home with me.  Grandma Alma gladly paid my Wednesday night meal ticket after that one mean old man complained that I hadn't paid.

I think that I'm good at hospitality because I had to receive so much of it.  It makes me wonder about the other gifts of the spirit.  It makes me wonder if we would have more of them if we only needed and experienced them more.    

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I stood in the dirt-paved alleyway.  Mud-brick homes loomed on all sides, surrounding the half-dozen Roma families gathered for worship.

No translator had been found, and it was deemed that I would preach anyway.  For at least an hour.

I am less and less afraid of public speaking, and less and less unsure of my Ukrainian - but this opportunity terrified me.  I was a little bit angry at God for bringing me to this situation that I was not comfortable with.  Vitya promised to read the Bible passages if I would preach, because of his speech impediment he had never read aloud before - so we were taking big steps together.

I began in Luke 7 and decided that I would just preach story by story until they let me sit down.  I preached about faith and worthiness.  I mixed up cases and genders and endings at least fifty times.  I told the story of how I came to faith, I shared about Rev Cindy Bloise, I used an Henri Nouwen metaphor.  I think I only cussed once, and only because I didn't know a nicer way to say whore, and only because I hate the way that they describe her as a sinner and leave it at that, and it didn't seem to phase anyone.

Twenty minutes in, the geese gave me a pleasant distraction to catch my breath, say a prayer of thanks, and check with Vitya to make sure that people could understand me.  All was well.

I preached through the entire chapter, said a quick Amen, and sat down.  I was still scared - and well I should have been.  Pastor Volodymyr then began a twenty minute conversation with me, in front of everyone, to complement the sermon (which had only lasted forty minutes!).  So, not only did I have to preach in Ukrainian, but I had to pass an exam about my own sermon, too!

Vitya and I laughed uproariously on the bus home talking through each mistake I had made, and just the shear ridiculousness of being forced to preach.

I sometimes forget about all the privilege I have.  Apparently we created quite a ruckus among the Ukrainians by sitting in the gypsy section of the bus instead of the front where white people sit.  It reminded me of one of my favorite moments with my mom.  We went to Hoss's in Dubois and I parked against the fence where employees park and my mom said, "Michael, park where the people park."

Even with Vitya, I am reminded of my own privilege.  In my childhood, I had a terribly strong speech impediment, but at school we worked to correct it.  I can learn these languages and speak publicly because people invested in me.  Vitya was thought an idiot and shoved to the margins of his classes until he dropped out of school.

At twenty, he starts his final year of school on Monday.  I'm thankful that there is an alternative school here in Lviv where he can study.  He's reading Pushkin for fun and proclaiming the Gospel in Gypsy villages.

I think that God uses our fear and our weaknesses.  God doesn't pick the very best and treat them as the most worthy - instead God chooses the least and the lowest and does a great work.  And our fears become part of our faith.


Saturday, August 24, 2013


I have returned safely to Ukraine.  It is a wonderful feeling to be home, or what has become home, again.

To sit with friends and hear the stories of what I missed.
To tsk at the dating decisions some have made.
To have a big barbecue and watch a movie on the lawn with a dozen close friends.
To make new friends.
To see that all is well, and that our local leadership team rocks.
To know that all will continue to be well as we grow this amazing little ministry into the future.

It is wonderful.

It fills me with wonder.  It's one of the funny things about being in ministry.  You can work and pray everyday for something.  You can fight for it.  You can plead for it.  You can get so frustrated that you want to cry.  You can push and push.

And then when you step away, God brings it to pass.

I return to find that one of my closest friends has made a huge step in his walk with the Lord.  I return to find that several of my university students loved English camp and are joining us for Pilgrims.  I return to find that my co-director just continues to step up as a thoughtful and gracious leader.

One of the biggest struggles of the American church is for us to accept that God's timing is greater than our own.  Our whole culture is so time obsessed.

There are two cultural values at play: time driven value or event driven value.

If an American wedding is planned to start at 12:00 and it's 12:05 everyone gets very nervous that the whole thing has been called off.  We are a time based culture.  We are driven by schedules and timetables and meeting times.

In Latin America, the wedding begins when the bride gets there and stands at the back of the aisle.  If you're not the bride, you better get there before her.  If you're the least important person you better show up early because no one will wait for you.  The culture is focused on the event happening even if it is delayed by hours.

And I think that God's value system is more Event driven than Time driven.  That's an odd statement to make, but it seems that God rarely cares what my scheduler says but that God is always faithful to accomplish what needs to happen.

Tomorrow we celebrate one of our own going off to seminary.  My dear friend Olia Kryvycka will be moving to Belfast, Ireland to attend an Interconfessional Bible College for a year long seminary training.  How long I have prayed for her to respond to this call, and how overjoyed I am for her to continue exploring what God would have for her to do.  

With Olia I have openly shared every joy and heartbreak of being in ministry.  She has celebrated with me in resurrection times and cried with me in the tomb.  I shared with her the ugly mean things that happen to people in ministry.  Every. Single. Time.  And, yet, she has responded to God's call.  This is one of the proudest moments of my life - I am so proud of the person that Olia has become and the work that she will do in God's great name.

I know that wherever she goes, I will be right there with her in spirit.  I will be holding her up in prayer.  Her mission will be my own.  Her struggles and disappointments and joys will be mine as well.

It is my most sincere hope that others will respond to this call.  To come and die.  To take up their cross.  To follow to the ends of the earth.  To walk in the shoes of others.  To laugh much too loud and awkwardly mangle words.  To go and tell the others.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nudists and Methodists

Yes, here is the post you have been waiting for.  Here is the post where I compare Methodists and Nudists.  Because we are basically in the same boat. 

NBC News posted this very interesting article with a few almost NSFW photos and a few shocking sentences - I mean, it's about nudists ... so ... read with caution, I guess.

For those who don't have the time to read a whole article or who are too afraid to click on a link about nudists while still at the church office - here are the opening paragraphs:

Traditional nudist Methodist groups are trying to re-brand their wrinkled public image by swapping out some of the older faces in online marketing pictures and replacing them with fresher looks. Yet their numbers are shrinking as former flower children slip into senior years. Since 2008, membership in the American Association for Nude Recreation United Methodist Church (AANRUMC) has dwindled from 50,000 to 35,000, says spokesman Tom Mulhall.


Some say the decline may be partly because some clubs and resorts in the gray end of the movement are inept at using social media to replenish lost members. But young nudists Methodists also say they don't always feel welcomed by the old-timers at traditional clubs churches - and many, frankly, just can't afford to patronize cushy clothing-optional resorts catered dinners and fellowship outings, so they stick to shedding their threads spending time with friends for free at open-air venues: beaches, hiking trails, remote lakes, small ponds. 

Do you see what I did there?  With these simple changes, doesn't this feel like an article that could grace the pages of any United Methodist publication trying to address the very serious issue of denominational decline and fleeing young people? 

This article continues with a formula that has become too routine for this reader:

  • complaints by young people in the organization about the lack of social media savvy
  • evidence of attempts to seem more hip
  • comparisons to similar organizations that attract younger audiences
  • reflective thoughts on the nature of the organization
  • a quote by an optimistic - but not entirely idealistic -young person who believes in the cause
Does this rundown seem familiar to you, too?  I've read a few too many articles about the decline in my beloved denomination. 

But here's the other thing that connects nudists and Methodists - we're not going away. 

It's not like young people don't think about being nude anymore.  Sixteen year olds are sexting suggestive pics to one another, so obviously exhibitionism is huge for these generations.  The reality is membership in an organization is sliding. 

In my generation, I find no lack of interest in issues of faith.  But, I sense quite deeply the utter disinterest in membership and organizations that my generation feels.  I don't blame them. 

The article about nudists touches on the idea of a loss of rights and power.  This theme is often hinted at in articles about denominational decline.  As the United Methodist church recedes, we lose the level of power and influence that we once held.  How sad that we think this matters.  What an indictment against us and against our future that we think this is important. 

We are Christians.  We follow Jesus the Christ who laid aside every scrap of power he deserved, knelt at the feet of his disciples, and then hung on the cross to die the most humiliating death imaginable. 

We cannot save a denomination for the sake of saving a denomination.  We must set aside the inherent power of being the denomination of politicians, businessmen, judges, and doctors.  We must strive for downward mobility, to scrape the very bottom of the barrel with people who desperately need to hear the good news.  We must save this denomination because we really believe in the good it has done for the world by the disciples it has formed - and because we have the resources and connectivity to do so much more.

There are many great articles floating around right now about the church and millennials.  Many stress the importance of authenticity, and this is absolutely correct.  

We must strive to become a church of nudists.  We must work to be a church that is open and honest. "Warts and all," as they say.  When we can put all of our "dirty laundry" out in the open and own up to our mistakes and failures we will become the authentic church that my generation craves.     

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Short-term medical leave

Hello friends,

I haven't updated my blog very much these last few weeks as I have been traveling around the states and rarely have a chance to sit and think and write.

I have been through almost a dozen states on this journey, preached almost a dozen times, taught more than a dozen hours worth of classes and Bible studies, met hundreds of mission supporters, and raised thousands of dollars for the new student center.  I am exhausted.  And I am slowing down.

In early May I found a tick three days after I had been in the woods.  When I began to have flu like symptoms a couple of weeks later I went to the infectious disease clinic in Lviv and convinced them to test me for Lyme disease even though it wasn't familiar to them.  The test came back negative.

When I returned to the states, I still had flu like symptoms, arthritis in my joints, and sever muscle pain - so I went back to the doctor and a blood test confirmed that I had Lyme disease.  The antibiotics were brutal, but I was thankful to be getting better.

I will be staying in the states a few more weeks as we continue to do some testing to make sure that the antibiotics took care of the Lyme disease.  Also, there might have been some damage to my nervous system and fine motor skills as a result of the Lyme disease and I will have further testing and lab work to see what can be done about that.

My hope is to be well enough to return to Ukraine in mid-August and be there as we finish preparations for the coming semester.  It is a great joy to have a Ukrainian co-director, Pastor Volodimir Prokip, who has handled everything perfectly in my absence and who I trust will continue to do a terrific job managing things until I return.  Also, our mission intern Erica Oliveira and planning coordinator Olya Hapich are busy at working planning a fun schedule for our students this coming year and I'm sure that everyone will have a wonderful time meeting and connecting to the student center through these events.

I will be spending the rest of my time in the states resting and relaxing in Illinois with my family there.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Joining Jesus in His Mission

It's always a really glorious moment in he Gospels when someone decides to try and trick Jesus - when someone thinks that they have come up with a loop hole or a way to get around the challenging teachings of Jesus.  It's so wonderful, because Jesus always handles the situation so perfectly to turn it upside down and to teach the questioner what the Kingdom of Heaven is really about. 

Today we are joining Jesus in His mission.  We have been joining together these last few weeks looking at what it means and what it takes to be a vital congregation.  As a missionary, I get to visit a lot of congregations - and I've been involved with the life of Methodist churches and church planting in many different countries.  I've had the joy of working with and studying vital congregations, and the misfortune of walking into really terrible dead churches which will shut their doors soon. 

Talking about vital congregations is a little bit like trying to capture lightning in a bottle.  It's easy to point to the mega-churches in growing suburbs and try to make every country parish follow their example - but this denies the fact that God is missional and in mission we worship and serve in ways that fit the people.  We here in Kane are different than people in Ukraine and we are different than people in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and what makes one ministry vital in one of these places might do nothing in another. 

I'm going to start today by talking a little bit about the really terrible non-vital congregations - because they all have a few things in common.  Here are a quick list of factors that all dead and dying congregations share:

- a dying church expects its pastor to be superman and to do everything that must be done in the church.  When a dying church receives a new pastor, it's a little bit like a Miss America pageant as everyone comes out to measure up his or her worth - and in the end a dying congregation will always be disappointed.  If we are waiting for our next pastor to be our savior, we will be sorely disappointed because our Savior is Jesus. 

And here is something that is unique about the United Methodist church - our pastors are appointed by the Bishop and District Superintendents.  People who love the church, our church, the pastors, and our pastors choose which people would fit which churches best.  It's a messy process, but we believe that God's hand is at work throughout the entire process.  This ensures that little churches in little villages always have someone serving them - where in churches that call a pastor can wait years before someone answers the call to serve there.  But here is our end of the bargain, we choose to accept whomever God sends our way.

Rev. Sharon Schwab told me once that she used to ask churches what they wanted in their next pastor - but after hearing the same list of demands from every church she would ask - and would you prefer him to be taller than six foot three, or is shorter ok. 

Usually they prefer someone taller than six foot three. 

While visiting Madge Adams some years ago, she said that the problem in our churches is that everyone feels it's their job to judge the pastor.  She said that pastors used to come and go at a much faster rate - and it never mattered who the pastor was, you always supported him.  Some could preach and some not so much, but you never said a cross word about the pastor.  You respected him and you understood that God had called him to this church for such a time as this.

I know of a vital congregation where every sermon the pastor preaches is a lead balloon.  But the congregation just loves him and supports him and lay people just make up for it by making sure that the Bible studies are super.  Dying congregations expect the world from their pastors and judge their pastors when he isn't Jesus Christ.  Vital congregations take responsibility for their own congregations and pledge to make up for any of the pastors' perceived shortcomings. 

If you want this church to be vital, don't ever let a cross word cross your lips about a pastor here.  If you hear someone start, cover your ears and start shouting.  You'll never hear another cross word.

- Dying congregations try to hold on to what was.  Vital congregations wonder what God could have in their future.

-Dying congregations settle for less than the best.  They allow their churches to fall down, to be dirty, to be outdated.  Vital congregations work together to make the best of a bad situation.  Grace UMC had wood paneling in every room and bright orange carpet, and room by room they are updating and renovating to become a cool place where people enjoy hanging out. 

These are things that I wanted to share with you, because this is my home church and I love you all - and these are things that your pastor cannot say. 

Did these last few minutes make you feel uncomfortable?  Did they hit a little too close to home? 

In our scripture today, a legal expert stands up to test Jesus - to try and find a loophole. 

And from that question, Jesus begins what is perhaps his most uncomfortable parable. 

And Jesus tells this story, a familiar story of a Jewish man robbed and beaten and left for dead along the side of the road - and with each character introduced - the people expect that that character will be the hero. 

This is a story about being a good neighbor.  A good neighbor does the right thing.  First it's the ____________.  And you can hear Jesus building up the suspense as the _____________ stumbles upon this man.  And it's like the longterm boyfriend who keeps getting down on one knee in front of his beloved only to tie his shoe an get back up. 

And then, certainly the next character will be the hero.  The _______________ will certainly stop and help!  The suspense builds.  Jesus share a bit about this man's character.  People think of their own beloved______________________ and they know that he will save the day - and like the football team that punts instead of going for the touchdown - he crosses to the other side of the road. 

And then Jesus introduces the next character.  The Samaritan. 

When we share this story in Ukraine, we might retell it with a gypsy helping the young man.  It is met with shock, disbelief, and horror - but in the states we don't have that guttural disgust of gypsies.  I've heard this story told with someone from the opposing team's high school being the neighbor.  But none of these capture the awkwardness and shock that fell from the slack-jawed mouths of Jesus' original audience. 

The Samaritan's were half-breeds.  They were muggles.  They were in-bred, un-clean, and they missed the entire point of the Jewish religion - they mixed it and molded it until it became something else.  You didn't go through their part of town.  You didn't stop and ask them directions.  The Samaritan is a person who strikes fear and disgust into the heart of the listener. For a racist this might be a black person, for a homophobe it might be a transgender person, for a church goer this might be an atheist. 

But Jesus get's to this final character - the despised one - and when the Samaritan stoops down, the crowd assumes he is going to rob or beat the man some more.  When the Samaritan lifts this man up, the crowd grows angry at this blasphemous insinuation. People yell.  Jesus' piercing eyes ask the question,  You want a hero - here is your hero.  Your enemy. 

Landa Cope, a mission theologian once said, "Do you want to know who your neighbor is?  He's a muslim.  He's a terrorist.  He's queer. He's got AIDS.  He's got a bomb strapped to his chest and he's walking toward you to blow it up.  This is your neighbor.  This is how Jesus defined your neighbor." 

You can hear the anger in the man who had tried to trick Jesus.  When Jesus asks who had been a good neighbor, he mumbles a lame reply because the man can't even bring himself to say the words "the Samaritan".   

We talk about church vitality and what makes a church vital and what helps a church to grow.  And this is it. 

Vital churches have people in them who really believe what Jesus said about our neighbors and who really go out and love their neighbors. 

When we as a congregation choose to join Jesus in His mission, we go to our neighbors.  Our filthy, disgusting, no good, very bad neighbors and we offer them Christ. 

Did you hear the directions I gave to the children during the children's moment?  It's that simple.  It's that hard. 

This is what it will take for us to become the vital congregation God is calling us to become.  Are you ready? 

God forth this day and share the love of Christ with someone unexpected. 


Friday, June 21, 2013

Spending time with Baby Hemi

Life is a wonderful thing. 

I love being an uncle, and I think that Hemi likes having me as an uncle.  He's so little and so perfect. 

I'm having a great time out in Illinois with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.  I'm beginning the long and painful process of healing from the Lyme Disease I picked up in Ukraine.  I'm tired and often in pain, but luckily - in this house - naptime is a thrice daily requirement!  I just take my naps with a baby in tow, which is fine by me. 

I'm hoping that this recovery doesn't keep me from returning to Ukraine right on schedule, but I certainly won't return until I'm well enough to do so - life and work in Ukraine really takes it all out of you, and at this point I don't have a lot to give!  But, I trust that I will heal quickly and be back in no time. 

Next week I head to Florida for a few days of vacation with my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin - and then back to PA for some visiting and then off to Mission U! 

Life is wonderful, and although I miss my friends tremendously - it is nice to function in my own language and eat at buffets and get average American fat!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Annual Conferences are Coming!

“The people of God… must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world.” - Paragraph 130, 2012 Book of Discipline. 

“Our best days are still ahead of us. I really, truly believe it, and I’m going to keep saying it until it happens. Our theology and DNA is perfectly poised to reach the next generation.” - Pastor Adam Hamilton

Annual Conferences are beginning.  It's that time of year, when around the world the people known as United Methodists will gather to evaluate, reflect, and change for the future.  I read this report from the Detroit Annual Conference and it really made me think.  Because, Detroit is one of those places in America where everyone is getting out.  Just like my home conference, people are fleeing to warmer weather and better jobs.  My adopted conference is in the fastest shrinking country in the world.  

Adam Hamilton explained that the United Methodist church will bottom out in the next ten years.  Bishop Bickerton as referred to it as a church decline tsunami.  In ten years we will have to weigh all of the facts and figures and make the decisions that need to be made.  

As a young person, I'm not much for waiting.  After our tragedy, our wise and humble bishop sat me down and told me that nothing would look or feel normal for at least a year.  My boss at GBGM sat me down and explained that real recovery wouldn't begin for at least a year.  I didn't want to believe them.  I wanted to fight that notion and press full steam ahead.  As almost always happens, wisdom won out over impatience.  I still have the occasional four hour conversation with a student from our ministry who is trying to sort out the theological and personal implication of the tragedy.  Every month I feel that things are moving more and more in the right direction, but I feel that we still have a few months to go before we will be back to "normal."  

But what is extraordinary, what is the life blood of this moment, is that in this "tsunami" - in this "bottoming out" - we have grown, and developed, and changed.  When things were going great and attendance was up, we didn't have to ask the hard questions.  We could rely on easy sermon topics and momentum to carry us through.  We weren't constantly stretched and pulled from place to place.  

It is in the crucible of death, that change can become a reality - and it is in the reality of change that we may find our hope in Christ and not ourselves.  

As I think about the future of the United Methodist church, I am filled with great hope.  I've had the unusual privilege of worshiping with United Methodists in eleven countries.  I've worshiped with Methodists from far more countries than that.  In my lifetime, I've probably worshiped with more than 500 congregations.  And in those contexts and ministry settings, I have seen the challenges and problems.  But I have seen the warm hearts of the worshipers and the swift movement of the Holy Spirit.  I have seen the tremendous hope of the future.  

And at Annual Conferences around the world, we will gather and discuss our challenges, failures, successes, and opportunities.  And hopefully we will see and heed the need for change.  And hopefully in all of this mess we will find the living Christ who is our hope.  


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Can a country die?

Today I read a very interesting article about the slow death of a country.  Go ahead and read it.  I'll be here when you get back.

It was interesting, right?

Now, I consider Ukraine a very unusual choice of country to highlight.  With "only" 43 million people is my adopted homeland really on the verge of extinction?  Many Eastern European countries have fewer than 10 million and have a similar shrinking problem.

On Sundays I sing with the older adults who gather near the monument of Ukraine's great bard.  I love the way they sing.  It's much throatier and meaningful than the way young Ukrainian's sing.  There's this one woman with platinum blond hair who might be 50 might be 80 - and she opens her mouth so wide when she sings.  I follow along with her, because I can always tell what word she is singing.  This group grows smaller and smaller and there are no other young faces to take their place.  I ask my friends - my truly patriotic friends - if they know these songs, and they don't.  And I wonder who will sing these songs when they are gone.

Oh, the cancer gets many.  It's a symptom of a below average health care system and a possible side effect of Chornobyl.  The scientists say that there was no rise in cancer risk associated with the meltdown, but no one believes them.  Death is a fact of life here.  Working with University students, I see mostly the deaths of grandmothers and grandfathers.  In the gypsy village, most only live into their 50s - many don't reach the retirement age in Ukraine: 55 for women and 60 for men.

It seems that those who beat death up until that point are excessively good at tricking it.  Like the obituaries in the Mission Monthly (Gertrude Elizabeth Oglethorpe, ___insert impossibly advanced age___ almost died of cholera and dysentery as a missionary in Africa in her 20s, but after surviving that, nothing was going to take her out.) it seems like those who survive truly thrive.  The elderly here have the edge on many things.  Not just singing.  Shoveling snow for example.  I don't think you can legally shovel snow unless you are 80, or at least look it.

The birthrate here is lower than any other country on earth I've been told.  1.3 children for every married couple.  They literally pay women to birth children here.  They pay you to raise your children.  They give you years of maternity leave.  And yet it seems that multiple children are a sign of great wealth of terrible planning or both.  When multiple families share a one room apartment, I wonder how children happen at all.  There is no economic certainty, and few people see a way to get their heads above water.  Even though many of my friends have stable jobs, none of them have more than one child.

And every time another friend leaves for the states, rumors swirl that he or she is planning to immigrate.  It causes me great pain to see the best and the brightest run away from an impossibly broken system to try to make their way in another broken system.

A true patriot will have many children (for Stalin, for Hitler, for whomever is in charge of propaganda) but this case falls apart in Ukraine for political reasons.  I wish the article would have explored these political forces in more depth.  They are powerful, and at least for Western Ukraine, they hold the answer to this riddle.

But, this country is filled with life.  Economic growth is a little slower than inflation, but it is happening and will speed up soon.  My married friends talk about having babies in the plural.  Some want three or four.

At a picnic, they asked those in the circle if they could only have 10 children or none which they would choose - and every Ukrainian answered 10 children.  It was purely hypothetical (and, to be fair, there were more Ukrainian men than women answering the question!) but it is telling.  I think that our young people see a way forward.  Yes, they want jobs and careers and to be successful, but they care deeply for the families they will create - and they care deeply for the country they will live in.

They give awards for families with many children.  In a televised acceptance, a haggard mother of eleven brushes her gray hair away from her eyes and squints into the light.  How does one prepare an acceptance speech for such an honor as this?  Her brood fidgets in a line from tallest to shortest as she tries to sound educated in front of people who seem to think she's an idiot.  In the end it seems she is only defending her alternative lifestyle.  This is her choice, and she is happy with her decision.

Long gone are the large farm families where each child is an insurance policy against poverty in old age.  Only gypsies and the truly devout eschew birth control and the choices it ensures.  But perhaps, as Ukraine finds its financial footing, more and more women will make the choice to grow a large family.  In support of their beloved country.  In deference to their own mothers who just want more grand-babies.  Or, perhaps, because that is just what they want to do.          

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The move

I'm one of those people who believes in filling a home with lots of laughter and good memories.  I have loved the apartment I've had for the last year and a half.  When I think about it, I remember the 1AM Ukrainian lessons Nazar and I had when I was suffering from jetlag and he was suffering from a Master's thesis back in my first months here.  I remember when Mefodyi was a kitten and crazy.  I remember sitting in the hammock and watching the day fade into night.  And dinner parties with friends, and staff retreats, and Masik showing up on death's door and being brought back to life, and Thanksgiving fun, and all of the other good times.  

But it was a hard year and a half.  My home was filled with frustration and hurt and sorrow as well. There were problems with the house,too. The bathtub was too small, and the hill too steep, and the walk to the grocery stores very far, and the neighbors were mean and sullen, and I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing.  

I'm good at making a house a home.  It broke my heart that after so many months, it still just felt like an apartment I was renting.  When the landlord came with lots of excuses and wanted to raise the rent - I knew that I could do better.  

My realtor is really wonderful.  She puts up with so much from me - this is the third or fourth time she's helped me find something for different reasons; and she always finds something just right.  I told her I wanted something that cost less than I was paying, was near the center, and could handle a dog and cat.  She usually finds three options very quickly - but this time she found only one option.  

It's much smaller than my current apartment - but it feels a bit like home already.  The yard is filled with fruit trees and gardens.  My hammock is hung between two trees.  Masik runs outside all day and Mefodyi is quietly stalking every corner of the house.  It is really just outside of the center - and most of my friends live much further out.  It's on the road to the biggest suburbs and is surrounded by dormitories.  It's the smallest house on the street, and is surrounded by monstrous mansions.  There is a big stone patio out front which has already been filled with great people. 

Moving has been an extreme inconvenience - especially over the Easter weekend.  My brain is just fried from trying to remember where things are, but it is slowly coming together.  

And I believe that this will soon be a home.   

Thursday, May 2, 2013

I continue to wrestle with all of the new things God is teaching me about the Roma people.  I signed on to joining a team of Americans to explore Roma ministries in Slovakia with some reservations.  While I love traveling, I hate crossing borders.

In an official first world problem post, I have no more room for stamps in my passport.  The thought of crossing into and out of Ukraine in the same week makes me exhausted.

But I couldn't pass up the opportunity to travel with Diane Miller again.  Diane is the reason that I ever had the chance to start traveling, and the reason that my family had the courage to send a 15 year old to Russia.  Diane led my sister on a trip to Russia the year before I went, and helped organize many of my travels.  Mom and I traveled with her to Nicaragua, and I was thrilled to travel with her to Slovakia.

Our goal was to learn more about the ministries that work with Roma people in Europe - and we certainly did.  I think deep down I also had the goal of getting answers to some of my harder questions - in that goal I failed miserably.  I ended up with many more questions than when I started.

  I was surprised to meet anglo pastors serving Roma congregations.  I guess that it is certainly no more strange than my own appointment to a community of a different tongue and culture than my own.  But, it felt strange and complicated.  Part of working with Roma communities is banishing unfair stereotypes.  This goes for the people who work with them as well.

Pastor Svetlana is young by United Methodist clergy standards.  It's an odd thing to write about a United Methodist pastor, but she is refreshingly United Methodist in her theology.  One might be surprised by the number of clergy in Eastern European UMCs that exhibit almost no signs of Methodism.  Svetlana has worked to bring stability and order to a number of mission sites spread out around Slovakia.  She has a sharp mind, and an authoritative tone to her voice.  Her husband acts a bit like Mr. Bean until it's time to pray, and then he's dead serious.

Svetlana merged one congregation into two.  I don't want to use the term "church split" because our new church plants in Eastern Europe take so much time to firm up into a real community - I think that Svetlana saw that there would be problems in the future, and corrected mid-course.  She saw fear and trepidation among slavs about worshiping with gypsies, and she saw a hunger for a different worship style among the gypsies.  She is still actively working on planting the Slovak speaking congregation - but has successfully planted a Hungarian speaking Roma congregation.

We worshiped with a Roma congregation that Svetlana had pastored and handed off to a new local pastor.  It was wonderful to worship in the Roma style.  It was good to see so many children and a clear love between pastor and congregation.  Svetlana has visited the church 3 or 4 times in the four years since she left to plant new churches.  The congregation is only 12 miles away from her new church plant site.

Pastor Svetlana has invited short term American missionaries to start English language programs.  The last one had to to teach in a bigger city 40 minutes away because the schools just weren't open to having an American from this strange Methodist church come and teach.  When they heard that I guest lectured at a university, they were willing to let me come and teach.  By the end of the day, they promised that the Methodist church could send any American they had to teach.  It helps to not be crazy, I guess.

My most interesting conversation of the trip came with the vice principal of the school.  She is also the head of the English department, and it was interesting to get her very honest opinion about the Roma people.  During the class, I asked students what they enjoyed about their town.  One student loudly said, "It's a nice place, but there are too many gypsies."  I waited for the teacher to quite him down, but I found every head nodding in unison in agreement.  I followed up and asked some hard questions, and got some very interesting information from the teacher.  We talked a lot about opportunity and laziness.  It was a challenging but fruitful conversation.