Saturday June 26

We attended our first church service this morning. Pastor Sveta leads the congregation that we’ll be doing the work for. They currently share space with Kiev First Church on the main level of the building we are staying in. The order of worship was liturgical with a rhythm of scriptures and songs throughout. We knew all the songs and it was interesting to sing them in our language as the congregation sang in theirs. Pastor Sveta preached and her daughter Zena interpreted. The service lasted about an hour and 45 minutes.

After the service we had lunch with everyone who was there. Borsch with bread and some delicious desserts. It was very good and the tables were a mixture of Americans and Ukrainians. There was much laughter and conversation.

After lunch we loaded the vans and headed to a section of The Lavra where there is a monastery and the Church of the Trinity. Monks came to the area in the 12th century. At that time they would live in caves that they dug. In the 1740’s a young man came hoping to join the order but he was not welcomed in. Over the years many people came to see the young monk because he listened so intently and gave such good counsel. In 1744 Empress Elisabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, came to see him. The monk was so helpful she gave orders for the monastery to accept him into their order.

In time the monk became ill and as death approached he instructed the others not to wash or prepare the body, just bury him. They did as he wished. Later the Church of the Trinity was built in his honor laying the church’s cornerstone near his gravestone. Many came to visit the site but one day a woman came and declared that this young monk was her sister. The only way for her to serve the Lord was to become a monk and therefore she disguised herself.

We arrived at the Church of the Trinity just before services began. A number of the faithful as well as the resident priests, monks, and those preparing were in attendance. The bells rang. The incense smoked. The priests sang…and oh did they sing. I have never heard anything like it. I don’t know what they were saying but it was heavenly.

We then went up to the Friendship Arch where a crowd had gathered to watch the world cup. There were also inflatable games, rides, and activities for children. We walked around and took photos of each other looking over the Dneiper River.

On our way to dinner we stopped at Lybid (swan) a monument to three brothers, one being Ki and their sister Lybid. They are credited with founding Kiev (the city of Ki). They were visigoths and came down river finding the high ridges suitable for living and good for defense. Kiev is the oldest major city around at 1500 years old, compared to Moscow at 800 years old and St. Petersburg at 300 years old.

Lastly we gathered at a restaurant for a traditional Ukrainian family style dinner. There were three different kinds of salad, homemade bread, borsch, and something similar to what some call ‘pot-stickers.’ A few of the guys were going to Josh and Robin’s house to watch soccer but I thought I’d be asleep before the game started so I came back with the group.

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Friday in Kiev

June 25 – Friday
We began the day by visiting the worksite. It is a 2200 sq/ft basement space that will be the location of Svetlana’s church. There are two main objectives. First we are to remove the debris from the floor so we can pour a new level concrete floor. Second we are to jackhammer three windows out of one foot think cement. Honestly it was a very intimidating visit. The rubble will need to be carried out in buckets and I have no idea how we will bring in the new cement.
Next we went to the Dniepor River where we will be conducting a VBS. There is a large walkway above the park where we will set up. The church we are helping with this is only a few apartment buildings away.
For lunch we went to Dream Town, the largest mall in the city. From the outside it looks very old and rundown but inside it is very modern…like anything you’d see back home. We had lunch in the food court working with our interpreters to help us order. It was very western and there wasn’t any Ukrainian food to be found. The funniest restaurant was a chicken place called McFoxy’s, kind of what you get when you cross McDonald’s with Buffalo Wild Wings and the 70’s.
After lunch we rode the Metro to the WWII museum. Before we arrived there we passed an old building called the arsenal factory. It was peppered with bullet holes from the 1917 revolution. It was a civil war that took place when the Bulshavics took power by sending in Russian troops from the east. Bob Skinner gave us an incredible tour through the museum. He explained so many things about the events and the effects of the war on the Ukrainian people. He said three things build a framework in understanding the people of Ukraine: Orthodoxy, the war, and communism.
The museum is a progression from the good days in the early 20th century, the attack of the Germans and the German occupation. The German’s not only took all the livestock and grain back to Germany but they also loaded up the top soil – some of the richest in Europe – and took that too. The words “raped, pillaged, and plundered” come to mind. The museum continues to wind it’s way through the battles at the eastern front and the turning point at Volgagrad. The Soviets chased the Germans all the way back to Berlin. D Day was the nail in the coffin.
60 million people died in WWII. 500,000 Americans, 5 million Brits, 7 million Germans, 8 million Chinese, but 30 million people from the Soviet Union lost their lives. 1 in 4 Ukrainians died. They have a saying here, “Everybody lost somebody.”
The war still effects people today. Every village in the former USSR, no matter how small or how big has a war memorial. They are committed to not forgetting. After every wedding ceremony the bride and groom go the village war memorial and have their photo taken. They know when they arrive at the wedding feast they will be asked by the grandmothers and grandfathers if they did. Students learn to fire, clean and reassemble weapons as wells as bandage wounds in school. Why? Because “we lost 30 million people once and we won’t do that again.”
Outside the museum stands a statue of Mother Russia which is over 300ft tall, a small replica of the one in Moscow. Kiev was the capital of ‘little Russia.’
We then returned to the ministry center where we had another huge meal prepared by our gracious hosts. The local pastors and leaders joined us. I had the privilege of speaking to the group after dinner. I did my typical Rublev message but it was different. I had to work through an interpreter, Volva my new pastor friend from Keiv 1st church. And second the people knew Rublev and seen his trinity in the orthodox churches. I also shared with them the old saying, “You are not my friend until your feet have been under my table.” I thanked them for allowing us to be their friends and stressed the importance of having a large table and inviting others to it.
To end the night some of us walked the half mile to the McDonald’s. It was great just to chat in a place that seemed somewhat familiar.

Update from Kiev

I have been writing each day but between catching up from jet lag, the unpredictable internet connection, and sharing power adaptors it is more difficult to blog form the Ukraine than I thought.

If I could take five snapshots of my time thus far, they would be these:

We visited two Orthodox churches. The first was St. Michael’s which is an active church filled with worshippers during our visit. The interior was ornate and every inch covered with icons. I bought some candles, lit them and prayed for the people I love most. It was very moving and meaningful for me.

A monument is erected outside the church in honor of the 4 million (some sources say 10 million) Ukrainians who died in a famine in the 1930’s. The troubling fact is that the famine was created by Stalin as a means to further the oppression of these people. Their national story is a tragic one of dominance, war, oppression, and struggle yet I find these people to be open and pleasant.

This statue of the liberator Bogdan (which means ‘God gives’) stands in the square. He led the Ukrainians in war and won their freedom from Poland. The sad irony is that he went from hero to goat, being blamed for making it possible to be oppressed by Russia. “You freed us to become slaves!” There is much to explore here in the way of metaphor and I’m sure I’ll write more about this later.

St. Sophia’s church is the oldest building in Kiev. It was built in 1017, before the schism between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy which was in 1054. It is also the only building to survive the invasion of the Mongols in the 12th century. We spend a few hours exploring the grounds, cathedral, and the bell tower. To stand in a place where God has been worshipped for nearly 1000 years was amazing for me. Yet it is now a museum…another metaphor that deserves more pondering.

We finished the day with dinner on the patio. It was prepared by our Ukrainian hosts.

Back in the USSR

Tomorrow I will be leaving for a mission trip in Kiev, Ukraine with 20 other people. Our group will be doing some construction at church and providing a Vacation Bible School for children. I will also have the privilege of meeting with some young pastors and be preaching in three different churches.

The last time I was preparing for a trip like this I was 17 years old. I was going on a mission trip to Belize with 20 other people, most of whom I didn’t know. It was my senior year in high school, the season of transition between what was and what will be. The trip was only a year after the passing of my dad and I’m sure I was still grieving that. Emotionally I felt safe but I was unsure of my future. Most of all, as I got ready to fly to Central America I had the sense that God had something in store for me, not just while I was out of the country but for trajectory of my life.

Even though those memories are 30 years and 6 months ago, the parallels to this trip are uncanny. Stepping into the unknown…check. Period of transition…check. Grieving a loss…check. Experiencing a strange mix of security and uncertainty…check. Anticipation of God doing something different in me…check.

I’ll do my best to post every day and will put up as many pictures as possible. If you are of the praying persuasion, please pray for our travels, our health & safety, that we will show God’s love, and that we would each hear from Him exactly like we need to.


The Mistress

Ben had been around her most of his life. He knew her name and she knew his. Acquaintances, that’s what they were. The two were cordial in public and congenial whenever they were in each other’s company. But behind the pleasantries and under the surface she aroused strong emotions in Ben. At first it was hatred. There were seasons, even years, when she repulsed him with her quirks and dysfunctions. Sometimes her actions and attitudes made her look just plain ugly. “How could anyone go near her? Who could love her? Why would anyone give her a second glance?” he would say with disdain. During that period Ben didn’t want to be in her vicinity, pass by her corner, or look in her direction.

I’m not sure when it happened, it’s very hard to pinpoint, but Ben’s outlook changed. Like the swing of a giant pendulum his hatred became infatuation (love’s twisted second cousin). She was now intriguing, fascinating, and beguiling. Instead of contempt, he began to see her broken and in need. A strange compassion and attraction began to stir in him. Others recognized it and a few even encouraged it.

Ben told a few trusted friends about how his sensibilities were changing and they assured him what he was feeling was right. Without caution or boundaries he pursued her. I suppose it was a relationship that could have existed appropriately, but in his youthful idealism lines were crossed. Eventually, he gave himself to her. Steeling away late at night or early in the morning was common. Ben often sacrificed sleep, money, and friendships to serve her or be with her.

He described her allure as strong and innate as the pull of a light to moths. Ben became short-sighted at best and dishonest at worst. He was under her spell. She made him feel competent, smart, and valuable. She showed him respect and seemed to return the love he gave her. Ben fluttered and flew and banged his head, just like the moths, as he yielded to her magnetism.

Unfortunately, Ben was not on this journey alone. He wasn’t just chasing an innocent obsession. Ben had given his heart and promised his devotion to his college sweetheart. She was a wonderful person; smart, tender, and perceptive. She was also hurt and unhappy because she began to sense what was going on and feared to speak the words out loud, “You’ve fallen in love with another.”

As life became more compartmentalized and loyalties were obviously divided Ben’s wife mustered the courage to confront him. “It’s her or me,” she said in a tone which could only be described as anger mixed with pain. Ben didn’t deny the relationship but attempt to reframe it as proper. He also tried to deflect his wife’s emotion and promised to comply with her “unfounded” ultimatum. And so he left their conversation a bit bruised yet hopeful that this storm had passed.

For a while Ben kept his distance from his mistress. He did his best to set up a parameter around his heart and mind. He tried to remind himself that his identity was to be found in his savior, his intimacy was to be fulfilled in his spouse, and his value came from his Father. But even today, years later the voice of the mistress still calls to him. She often whispers her enticing words when busyness robs the couple of conversation or when Ben is uncertain of his worth. At times she is so bold she shouts her provocation at him and makes promises she cannot keep.

Eventually, Ben’s words, demeanor, and posture had to change. He had to make it clear that he was through with her. He was not open to her flirtations. He defied her advances. He took back the keys to his identity, masculinity, and confidence that he had let her hold for so long.

Anyone in any vocation can become a workaholic. But for those in ministry the church can become a mistress. We will rationalize doing things with and for ‘her’ that would never be tolerated in other relationships. Without prayerful diligence, we can fall into a twisted and codependent relationship that can rob us of our physical and spiritual well-being, rendering us little help to anyone who we long to love.

The Porch

Next week I will be in Indianapolis. I’m speaking at a camp for teenagers Sunday night through Thursday noon. The older I get the more of an honor it is to be asked to participate in weeks like that. When I was 25, I had a lot to say and people needed to listen. When I was 35, I thought I had a few things to say and hopefully some would hear. Now that I’m in my late 40’s I’m not sure what I have to say and pray that God will tell His story through me.

I love going to Indianapolis. My people are there. Two very close friends live there. When camp concludes on Thursday I will point my car toward Ruckle Street and land at one of my favorite places on earth: Larry’s porch. It is a place pregnant with seeds of life. Not existence but true life where you feel genuine concern, receive critical push back, and are reminded of your true identity. How is it that such an ordinary place can be so sacred?

Larry’s front porch has hosted some great gatherings. Several miss-matched wooden rocking chairs and two porch swings form a circle that can be easily enlarged. Rich conversations happen there. We have processed theology, relationships, beginnings and ends there. We have argued and laughed. We have wept tears of joy, frustration, and pain there.

I remember the first time I visited Larry’s home and took a seat on the porch. It was Labor Day Weekend 2008. My marriage was over. I had just moved out. I was experiencing things I never thought would happen to me. So I headed to my friends home to be with people that were safe and whose nature was healing. I sought out the people who had walked with me through frightening possibilities which now had become a painful reality.

Since then I’ve experienced all that the porch encompasses with my sons, my daughter, my best friend, and a number of new friends…fellow pilgrims. We each need a porch. We need a place to be silent and still. We need a place where accountability comes from relational equity rather than positional authority. We need a place where we plant ourselves and yet the location of our seat is an invitation for conversation.

I believe there is something deep within us that craves a place to be and people to be with. So my question is: Why is it so rare to experience what I’ve described?

  • Past wounds? Life, love and community all require us to risk being wounded again.
  • No time? It seems like I can find time to do the things I want to do.
  • Lack of friends? Pray, even though it sounds like a Sunday school answer, pray. God wants us to live our life connected with others.

What’s your porch story? I’d love to hear it.

The Wet Hitch-Hiker

I was working at a church in a small central Florida town. It was summer time when the heat and humidity is only broken briefly by a afternoon thunderstorm. We often had transients stop at the church who were in need of help. One particular afternoon, right after the predictable storm, a young man – maybe 30 years old walked in. He was soaking wet. His long reddish brown hair was parted in the middle and hung wet and stringy to his shoulders. His denim jacket and jeans were saturated and his duffle bag was dripping on our foyer carpet.

“Is there any where I could dry off and do some laundry?” he asked. That was not the question I was prepared to field nor was it one I had ever heard from someone passing through. I was braced to hear a story of needing gas money or a far away funeral that needed to be attended. But no, just a simple and uniquely refreshing request.

I lived about a mile from the church and knew no one was home (just in case he was a murderous psychopath). I offered to take him there. We went out to my pale yellow Nissan Sentra station wagon and made our way through the winding streets beneath the sprawling live oak trees and azaleas to my house. When we arrived he managed to find a few dry items at the bottom of his bag. We took the rest of his things to the little cement block building which was our laundry facility. The spiders and palmetto bugs scattered as I pulled the cord hanging from the bare lightbulb. All his stuff fit in one load so we returned to the house where I showed him where the bathroom and towels were. Then I made him a sandwich and got him a drink.

I don’t remember how long we sat at the kitchen table. It must have been over an hour for the load to wash and dry. I don’t remember much of what we talked about. I imagine we swapped stories of traveling and the people we had met. When the laundry was finished and lunch was over I took him out to the main road. I don’t remember if he headed east toward Daytona Beach or north toward Jacksonville. He just smiled, waved, and stuck out his thumb fishing for his next ride.

I don’t remember a lot about that day but I do remember thinking, “That wasn’t a big deal but it was good. It seemed normal. That was exactly where I should have been, what I should have been doing, and who I should have been with.” The thought may be a no-brainer to you, but I can get in stuck in seasons of seeing events like that as interruptions rather than opportunities.

I can’t think of anyone (including myself) who had more to do in such a short span of time, than Jesus. He had only three years to announce the kingdom, demonstrate what it means to be in a relationship with God, prepare his followers, die, resurrect, and hand over the keys to humankind. Yet I see him stroll in and out of people’s lives, villages, and situations with urgency but not hurry, grace not impatience, directness but not hostility. I don’t see him use people selfishly. I don’t see any evidence of him recruiting anyone to further his organization.

In Leonard Sweet’s book, So Beautiful, he says, “It has been said that there are only two plots in fiction: A stranger comes to town, and a human sets out on a journey. In the story of Jesus, both plot lines come together.” Jesus would not only welcome the wet hitch-hiker…Jesus was the wet hitch-hiker.

One of My Favorite Stories

I have decided to post some of my favorite stories over the next few weeks. They may be a bit longer than my other posts but hopefully they are worth it.

Standing Room Only

For my oldest son’s 14th birthday he had only one request. It wasn’t a party. It wasn’t a gift he’d had his eye on. He just wanted to take some friends to a Detroit Tigers game. It seemed like a great idea and I agreed to his request. I checked the schedule and they had a home series against the New York Yankees the first week of July. It was almost ten years ago now in 2000, the inaugural season of Comerica Park. The Tigers were woeful so I didn’t buy tickets ahead. Surely there would be seats available.

He selected his friends. The day arrived. We loaded his buddies and his brother into the minivan and headed south on I 75 toward downtown Detroit under gloomy skies. Inside the vehicle they were giddy with excitement which became irritating to me as the rain began and then increased steadily. I was gradually losing the battle with my attitude and by the time we reached the park my state had blown right through crabby and was headed for surly.

We found a parking spot and started walking toward the ticket window. Confidently I approached the bullet proof glass where a lady with half glasses sat. I barked my request through the four inch porthole covered with a stainless steel grate, “I need 8 tickets, what do you have available?” She laughed. She really laughed. Right in my face. “The only tickets I have are standing room only or few $150 box seats.”  I looked over at the pack of boys laughing and punching one another oblivious of our situation. The birthday boy was smiling wide. The box seats were out of the question. “How much for standing room only?” I asked. “$15 each,” she said. “$15 a person to stand out beyond the right field fence….in the rain!” I didn’t say that out loud but I’m sure my face was shouting it. I pulled out the plastic and bought the tickets with an attitude going from bad to worse.

It was early so we found our designated area. I stayed put and the boys went exploring. Have I mentioned it was raining? Every once in a while they would circle back to check in and then disappear back into the milling crowd. I don’t know how much time went by when I started to notice a very large uniformed man walking slowly through the standing room only area. He’d walk and look, look and walk. I was sure that those boys had done something wrong and he was searching for the adult responsible for them.

I watched him closely trying to figure out what was going on but tried not to appear obvious. All of a sudden he approached me. “Yep, he’s figured it out. I’m the one supervising those hooligans.” “Where are your seats?” he inquired. “We don’t have any…just standing room only,” I answered. “Big spender, huh?” he shot back. “How many in your party?” he asked. “8,” I said. By then the boys had seen the large man in the security jacket talking to me. They must have figured I did something to get in trouble and came running.

The large man asked, “Do you know who Mr. McHale is?” “Nope, sorry.” “It’d really help if you did.” “Sorry I don’t.” “Well,” the man said, “Mr. McHale is the president of the Detroit Tigers and I am his personal body guard.” “Oh, nice to meet you,” I said still wondering what this was all about. “You see, before every home game he gives me his personal tickets to walk through the crowd and find someone to give them to. So do you want to stand out here in right field or would you rather go sit behind the dugout?”

The man finally cracked a smile unable to contain himself for the sheer joy of this part of his job. We were all speechless. He led us down the corridor along the first base line. We made the sweeping right hand turn to round home plate. Then he led us down the stairs until we were shown 8 seats priced at over $150. It was only then that I realized it had stopped raining.

We watched the ball game in seats I could never afford. We saw all the action from a vantage point far better than I had ever experienced. Everything from my attitude to my bank account was evidence that I didn’t deserve to be where I was. Yet there we were somewhat numb and still astonished, enjoying ourselves more than we could have ever  dreamed because of the generosity of someone else.

When I think of the word grace, that’s the scene I picture.

Grace is such a powerful and beautiful thing. Unfortunately it sometimes gets lost in religious jargon, is trampled in theological debate, and can be wrung out of meaning in our attempts to define it. But sometimes we get glimpses of what it really is, which are far more vivid than any word study could be.

  • I believe God loves to sneak up on us and surprise us with His goodness even (or maybe especially) when we’re pouty, sour, negative, and distracted.
  • I believe God loves to move us in from out in right field, bringing us into the action to experience life differently than ever before.
  • I believe God loves to give us a new perspective, His perspective.
  • I believe God does all this with sparkling eyes and a big grin.

I think if Jesus would have been with us that night at Comerica he would have said, “The kingdom of God is like a father who took his sons to a baseball game…”

What’s in the case?

Friday I was working at the coffee shop and one of the regulars came in. She works next door and stops by at least once a day. Sometimes she brings a book or her Bible. Occasionally she’ll bring in her violin rather than leaving it in her car. Friday she walked in with the familiar case under her arm. But something was different. There was an air of giddiness about her and a perma-smile was plastered on her face.

I soon found out this was not her ordinary violin case and the contents were nothing close to ordinary. Inside was a 600+ year old violin. Can you believe that? Six hundred years old! It was truly from another world. This instrument was being played nearly 50 years before the printing press was invented by Gutenberg, almost 90 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, and over 100 years before Martin Luther’s Ninety-five theses and the Protestant Reformation.

Kim took the violin out and began to play. She masterfully danced between classical pieces to down home fiddling and back again. It was beautiful…not just the music but the entire experience. I tried to imagine the places this instrument had been and all the people who had pulled a bow across it’s strings. It may sound strange but I was in awe. This violin was a marvel of craftsmanship and care. Someone skillfully made it and then others had stewarded the violin with the utmost regard.

As Bach, Brahms, and bluegrass filled the space we were standing in, I was reminded that I live in a world of instant gratification and disposable products. I don’t expect things to last a long time. I don’t think they’re even designed to. And honestly, I’d rather play Guitar Hero than take time to learn to play the guitar. That’s the sea we swim in…a sea whose rip tides pull at my/our spirituality.

I want to grow quicker. I want a prayer life that is deep and rich immediately. I want patience now. I don’t realize how unrealistic that mentality is until I encounter something so other…like Friday on the other side of my counter…only a few feet away…a slice of history was still fulfilling it’s purpose for existing. Not just functioning mind you, but rather the tone, resonance, and warmth have increased over time and attention.

I loved Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, but I loved it before I even read one word. For if his title becomes our aim; the timbre of our lives will become sweeter, a quality of other-world’ness will be about us, and it will be obvious the space we inhabit is sacred.