Friday, February 22, 2013

Third Birthday of St John's UMC

St. John's United Methodist church of Lviv celebrated it's third birthday in late January.  It is such a blessing to work and serve with these people.  We are grateful to have survived all of the setbacks of this last year, and we are thankful to be a community. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Staff meeting

I just love working with these people.  Pastor Lyubomir, Pastor Volodya, Andry and Erika gather around a computer to finalize plans for the remodel following our staff meeting.  We will be publishing a finalized plan soon for supporting churches.

Friday, February 15, 2013


I have been afraid of enrolling in seminary for a long time.  I took 30 hours of Bible classes in my undergrad, and it was a pretty terrible experience.  Maybe I'm just one of those hippies who doesn't want "book learnin'" to ruin my relationship with God.  I am especially thankful for the professor who stated, "Do you all realize that everything you know about God adds up to something less than God?"  It was a good and helpful revelation.  

I had played around with the idea of entering the Moscow United Methodist Theological Seminary.  Many of my friends and co-workers graduated from the school, and its modular program fits my schedule well.  The president of the seminary invited me to join the program, and I am glad to say that I have finished my first session.  Although my Russian is sorely lacking, the other students are very kind and helpful.    

Here we are gathering for a meal together after our closing worship.  It's a fun group of young people, and many of us are serving communities across Eurasia while we study.  It's a great opportunity.  

Tuition is covered by the generous support of United Methodists around the world.  I wouldn't feel right taking tuition dollars that could support Eurasian young people - so I am raising support to cover costs.  If you would like to support the seminary and my education you can give through The Advance and list my name in the notes.  Let me know.  I will cover the balance of what I raise and what is due out of pocket.   

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

Lent snuck-up on me.

To be fair, this isn't even my lent anymore.  In Ukraine we use a different calendar, and our religious holidays often line up in odd ways.  I don't know what day Ash Wednesday will be here - I'm sure it will sneak up on me as well.

I was sitting with a close friend, and I asked him if we celebrate Ash Wednesday in Ukraine.  I'm almost certain that we do, I just can't remember specifically going to a worship service and having a cross of ashes placed on my forehead.  I can't remember riding a tram filled with older adults with smudged foreheads.  I feel like I would remember these things.

My friend isn't religious, and his family hasn't been religious for generations.  Almost all of my friends are deeply religious people whose families are steeped in generations of faithful service to the church.  His confused stare and cocked head let me know that he wasn't following my line of thought.  I explained that I was asking about the holy day when people go to church and the priest puts a cross on their forehead.  I reached out my hand, and made the sign of the cross on his forehead.

Our conversation had moved from my inability to remember dates to a conversation about faith.  I didn't have a good answer for why we do it.  I confessed that it is the Christian holiday that I don't fully grasp.  I mean, I understand the reasons we give - but I don't understand why we do it.  Why we really do it.  My friend nodded his head in appreciable agreement.  My guess is that he feels that way about most of the religious things I do.  He understand why I bow my head for grace at home and why I work on a sermon for hours every week - but he sometimes makes it clear that he doesn't understand why I really do these things.

And maybe this year, in celebration* of Ash Wednesday I'll only mark the sign of the cross on this one forehead.  I'm not a pastor** and I won't be serving in a worship service of this sort.  But, one forehead is enough.

As for me, this holy day has always been about an outward sign of an inwardly penitent heart.  The ashes are a sign that we are forgiven.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

And in the simple conversation that we had, that was the story that I shared.  I'm forgiven.  Nothing more. Nothing less.  

* commemoration? supplication? transubstantiation? - I'm really at a loss for words about this holy day. 
**I am a pastor, but I'm not.  I'm a licensed local pastor not currently under appointment in the Western PA conference and I'm under appointment but not a licensed local pastor in the Ukraine Moldova annual conference.  I genuinely don't know if I am clergy or lay at this point.  I consider myself a lay person, and I lead the student center as a lay person who is considering  ministry.  This seems the closest to the truth.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The baptism of Jesus

 So, the baptism of Jesus is celebrated as a major feast holiday in Ukraine.  I had never celebrated it before with any of my friends' families.  This year, my friends Olia and Taras invited me to their family home in the village for the feast.  It was a huge feast, and a lot of fun.  I ate way too much!

The Salo family gathered around the table.
After the feast, Olya and I took a night train to Kyiv.  I was on my way back to my first week of seminary. 

Olya and Zhanna at McDonalds.  The breakfast of Champions.
On my way back to seminary, I also visited a few friends.  I hadn't been to Kyiv in more than a year, so I was glad to reconnect with old friends. 

We walked on the ice, but for the holiday, many people swam.

Dima and Yana are two great friends, I wish we could see each other more. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

thinking and sermonizing

My normal process for writing a sermon is messy.

In my heart, I feel that good pastors and missionaries must write sermons in a better fashion.  Certainly pastors of large churches have some system where they pick scripture months in advance, do exegesis on Monday, write an outline on Tuesday, finish the sermon on Wednesday, pray about it on Thursday, and put finishing touches on it on Friday so that they can go fishing on Saturday.

This is the idea that I have, and it is the way I wish I did things.  I spend about an hour preparing for each minute of preaching time.  I read the text out loud, I scribble some notes, I write a sentence and a story and then I wait for the rest.  I jump from side to side to break things loose in my head.  I paint or translate poetry.  I cook a big meal for friends and play with ideas.

When my sister and I spell words out loud, we always spell the whole word in one pass.  Most people break it up into syllables and pause intermittently.  We've always done it this way.  After ten or more hours of thinking and scribbling, I will usually sit down and write the entire sermon in an hour or two.

I have a friend who writes his whole sermon on Sunday morning.  I have a friend who fits his entire sermon on one regulation size post-it-note - five words and no more.  I had a pastor who meticulously wrote each sermon word for word before memorizing it entirely each week and stepping into the pulpit without a note.

These are things that would kill me.

If I have time, I spend an hour or two going over my sermons line by line with a fine-toothed comb looking for things that wouldn't fit culturally.  I excise idioms and restate complex sentences.  I take out sentences that highlight differences* and think about possible cultural illusions I may have missed.

When I preach in the states, I spend these last few hours removing pronouns in reference to God** and look for alliteration and other devices so the sermon sound sweet to the listeners ears.  

All of this happens at completely unscheduled times.  Scheduling a block of time to complete a sermon is a strong guarantee that I will not get anything accomplished.  This is one of the most frustrating things in the world for me.  I always keep pen and paper handy, and if I was less self conscious I would keep a tape recorder handy.  When I was in the states, I would often call my sister and ask her to type something I dictated while I was driving - or I would pull over and send myself a text message with the idea.

I feel like "real" pastors have a much cleaner system for these things.  I had a pastor who would write up a whole sermon and then each week the Holy Spirit would guide him in a different direction and he would walk away from the manuscript entirely.

I occasionally preach a sermon in Ukrainian these days.  At the student center, I will always preach in English with translation.  The students like it that way, they like hearing a translator do her thing, and it is so much easier.  At the Sunday morning service, we decided that sermons should be in Ukrainian.

I sit with my language teacher and henpeck the Cyrillic letters on my keyboard.  First I say a sentence in English, then I guess at how I would render it in Ukrainian, then my language teacher helps me put it in the right structure or gives me a better word.  Often the way I want to say something just doesn't work in Ukrainian and we think about how to say it better.  It is a time consuming and challenging process.  I limit myself to five new words per sermon - everything else has to be a part of speech that I have learned and should be able to use in Ukrainian.

I think what is hardest for me, is that I am incapable of being creative in Ukrainian.  In English I love to play with words and sentences, and that's just not possible in my second language yet.  I frequently have to stop and switch to English to work out problems and to see where I am going next.

I practice all of my sermons out loud at least twice.  It's only when I hear the words with my own ears that I am sure that I really believe them.  I often get to some sentence and realize that it doesn't fit my theology at all and I take it out or replace it.

I try not to read my sermons, but to preach them.  I try to just keep the manuscript there to prompt me.  If I only practice it once, I end up reading the sermon instead of preaching it.

I spend a lot of time praying about sermons - but my biggest prayer times come long before I write and after I am done writing.  I pray my way through the lectionary and pray for guidance in planning out sermons weeks or months ahead of time.  And before I preach, I always pray one final prayer, "Lord, that thing that you do between my lips and their ears, do it again today." Amen.

*at the family center, a mission site for troubled families and teens who live on the street, one American seminary student's sermon included the line, 'you shouldn't spank your children, you should send them to their room'

**I think that God transcends our notions of male and female and that our pronouns are much too limited to encompass all of God, but in normal speech and writing I often use pronouns without thinking about it - in Ukraine I use all the pronouns because the grammar doesn't allow for gender ambiguity of any sort.  Fun fact.  If you meet someone and you aren't sure if they are male or female you have to pick a gender and go with it or completely bypass the past tense. Awkward.      

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My mother keeps pleading with me to post.  It just seems that life gets so busy and there is little time to blog.  The pastoral leadership sat down and planned out a sermon schedule so that none of the three of us would be overwhelmed between our two worship services, the large amount of administrative needs, and our Senior pastors full-time employment.  We ended up needing to shuffle a few things around, and now I am writing two sermons simultaneously - one in English and one in Ukrainian!  

Our student center laptop was the only computer I used that had a SD card reader (which I need to upload pictures) - a little over a month ago that laptop was stolen from the student center - so it is a big hassle to upload pictures now.  I am working on finding a way to do so - and I hope I can soon because I have some great pictures to share.  

So, take this as a promise of things to look forward to. 

St. John's UMC celebrated it's third birthday since starting weekly services.  

My second week of seminary sessions was a rousing success. 

I spent the third holiday feast of January with my friends family in her village. 

I took in a shelter dog.  His name is Masik and he only has three legs and he is adorable. 

Pictures and stories coming soon friends!