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[don't crawl off the altar]

Don’t crawl off the altar.

That was a phrase our youth pastor mentioned in his sermon on Sunday. During the entire service, I finally felt like I am there for a reason, after a long drought period. And the sermon was the culmination. It wasn’t that he said something nice, which made me feel all fuzzy inside. Instead, he talked about the troubles in our lives and how God uses them to shape our character.

If there are no trials, how can we grow?

This is a time of trial for Ukraine.

The political situation is quite dire at the moment, and some say we are on a brink of a civil war. I am hoping and praying it won’t come to that, but I don’t know the future. For more information on what’s going on, you can read this and this article. Suffice to say, my country is in an uprising.

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Me on the left and a few guys from Sam’s Church were at the Maidan (c) Yevgen Shatalov

As with most of the conflicts, I tried to avoid it because I simply had no idea what is the right thing to do (besides praying).

On one hand, the first reaction is to go out there, join the multitude of people, and protest against the injustice of our government.

On the other hand, a passage where Paul talks about earthly governments comes to mind.

Anyone who is against the government is really against something God has commanded. Those who are against the government bring punishment on themselves.

Romans 13:2 ERV

I avoid conflicts because I hate answering “I don’t know.” Especially when I am asking myself. I think, that was the original motivation behind reading so many books – I wanted to know all the answers. Oh, if I were Eve, the serpent would be able to sway me even faster than he did her. The knowledge is my strength and my incredible weakness.

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Future Mr. and Mrs. Gimon / These days known as Sam and Zee

So what is a Christian to do in a situation like this?

A situation where you cannot find within yourself enough strength to pray for the men who turned into animals and brutally beat up peaceful demonstrators.

A situation when the government is saying they got rid of people in the main square because “New Year is coming, and it’s important to get the city’s Christmas tree and ice-skating rink installed.” (Seriously, that was their explanation why security guys attacked people.)

I fought with these thoughts for several days. Poor Sam got to bear the brunt of my frustration on Saturday, and that only added to mine – not only I was mad at myself for not knowing the answer, I was somewhat angry with him for feeling passionate about this whole thing and then extremely sorry for being short with him the entire day. It wasn’t the easiest day we had in all the time we’ve been together. I know it won’t be the last, but still.

During the weekend, I felt the need to pray for wisdom about what to do. I was tired of being unsure and wanted to finally have an opinion that was based on His will. And God answered in the form of a sermon.

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought.

James 1:2-6, MSG

Don’t crawl off the altar.

Paul calls us living sacrifices. When we give ourselves to God – completely, truly – we give Him the power to do what He wills. Well, I guess it would be better to say, we acknowledge His power to do His will. So when we are on this altar of a sacrifice to Him… we should trust Him to do what needs to be done.

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.

Romans 12:1-2, MSG

I still panic when I am in a crowd, but it felt good to be among 1.7 million of other demonstrators on Sunday at the main square in Kyiv called Maidan Nezalezhnostee (Square of Independence).

And while I don’t cheer for the fact that there are people who were hurt in the process of these demonstrations, I cheer for the fact that we are still alive and care for what is going on in OUR country.

There is a quote from Dune that I often am reminded of at times like this.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear.

Maidan Nezalezhnostee (Square of Independence), Kyiv, Ukraine

Please keep Ukraine in your prayers.

Specific needs:

  • It is cold right now in Kyiv, and those demonstrators are there 24 / 7. So pray for health and places for people to get warm. Already numerous cafes and restaurants downtown are offering free tea and coffee to protesters as well as places to sit down and get warm.
  • Please pray for peace. The main thing about the demonstrations is that they are supposed to be peaceful, and that’s what all the politicians are reminding people of daily. However, there are a lot of provocations from the politicians at power as well as from the “bought protesters” (i.e. people who are paid to protest… yes, there are those too, and it’s not even a secret.)
  • Most importantly, pray for a godly leader for Ukraine. It is one thing to get rid of our current president, but what is even more important is to have a leader to replace him who will take proper care of the country and not just want to get all benefits for himself / herself.

Thank you.

[BOOK REVIEW: God of the Underdogs by Matt Keller]

I don’t know about you, but I can say about myself there were many times when I felt like saying, “I want to do something meaningful, but who am I to do it?”

As a girl, as a youngest member of the Church board, as a youngest family member, as a job seeker… “I am just me. I lack qualifications for that kind of job. There are people who are smarter and wiser and more qualified than I am for this kind of job.”

_225_350_Book.943.coverIn the book God of the Underdogs, Matt Keller explores nine excuses that people utilize to basically say “I don’t want / am afraid to do it because…”

Taking well-known Bible heroes, the author explores the odds against them, how they overcame their fears and worries, and how they became those whom we know – heroes. All of them were underdogs, even Jesus. This lesson is something I enjoy sharing with kids at the camps or elsewhere when they might say “The other team is stronger.”

One of the other things I have enjoyed about this book is that pastor Matt shares his own personal story about how he and his wife went on a journey to plant a church and all the trials they went through: not knowing anyone, being a young family, having no support from elders… Yet, as they faithfully trudged forward, God gave them a vision how to help other ministry leaders who are in the same position.

The book is based on Bible stories, and the way they are retold helps to see the well-known personalities from a slightly different angle. It is a great book, in my opinion, and I would highly recommend it to everyone – especially those who feel like they are stuck in a rut spiritually-wise (and not just spiritually).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Michael Skinner and Masha Galisevych Miroshnichenko

[on joy and choices]

You know the feeling…

When you are going through a mental battle with yourself, trying to figure out what to do and what on earth is going on…

And then find out that someone has thought along the same lines.

It is a freeing realization, in a way.

You realize you are not alone in your war.

On Sunday, a friend of mine preached at Church.

I have known him since he was 2 years old. His parents, his older brother, and he came over to Ukraine as missionaries seventeen years ago. Much has changed in that time and this year Michael graduated from high school here in Kyiv and moved to the States to attend a university; his parents moved to Hungary, and it was generally a year of changes.

This Sunday, however, the entire clan was at our Church. His mom and all three brothers were in the worship team, his dad shared some thoughts before the sermon, and then Michael got up to speak.

I listened to him and, considering that we have spent quite a lot of time together as kids, I was proud of the man he has become.

He spoke of our identity in Christ.

He spoke of suffering that comes as price for being with Christ.

He also spoke of joy.

The topic has been on my mind for several weeks now, especially since that Bible study group meeting I shared about.

Joy…

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7

There is a reason joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit.

You cannot simply have joy in light of dire circumstances. Our minds and hearts don’t work this way.

But, however impossible it seems sometimes, joy can be found in any circumstances.

While talking about suffering, Michael also mentioned something that has been on my mind for a long time.

In a way, being persecuted for being a Christian is good.

It makes the choice between right and wrong clearer.

  • Preach the Gospel and you might die.
  • Don’t preach the Gospel and you might live.
  • But we are called to share the Good News, so the right choice is obvious.

There are times when I wish, in a way, that Christianity still was banned in Ukraine.

By that I, in no sense, mean that I wish for parents to be separated with their kids and people going through terrible sufferings…

But it does clear up the choice options – as well as weed out people who are in this just for money or fame or something.

Also, people really know what they believe.

It’s not just God-the-being-out-there-somewhere.

It’s not just we-go-to-Church-on-Sunday-it’s-a-tradition.

It’s not just we-pray-before-eating.

It becomes more than a habit.

It becomes a relationship.

And then it is possible to truly rejoice because we really know what is going on.

Because we know the One we believe in.

Because we start really identifying with Christ… even though the sufferings, even in spite of the hardships.

Our youth pastor also spoke about joy two Sundays ago.

Joy is not just an outward emotion, but also an inner confidence that hope and faith provide.

When you see it as such, it is easier to “rejoice always,” as Paul has told us.

Inner confidence.

Joy.

Whatever the circumstances life may throw at us.

If there are anything good in New Year resolutions, then this is mine: to remind myself each day of “rejoicing, praying, and being thankful.”

May your 2013 be filled with rejoicing!

iphone-Rock-Sand

[ostrichism]

We’ve all suffered from it at one time or another. I don’t think I know anyone who have never had a “bout” of ostrichism.

os·trich·ism noun |ˌchizəm, |ˌji-

It is the deliberate avoidance or ignorance of conditions as they exist. Just like ostriches, we sometimes want to stick our heads into the sand and pretend the world and the problems around us don’t exist.

But they do. (And standing with our heads in the sand is not very comfortable, either.)

The other day the kids at Church and I were singing a song about two builders. Yeah, the ones who built their houses on sand and on the rock.

These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.

But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.

Matthew 7:24-25, MSG

Something that I have never thought about before…

We know the “sand man” is an idiot because who builds on sand… And the “rock guy” is the smart one because he knew what to build on.

But notice one thing: they both have finished their buildings.

Yes, one was destroyed to smithereens by the storm and the other one survived… But they have both built their houses.

I wonder how often God has allowed me to have my own way because I “knew better” how to build houses… He knew that it won’t survive, but I wanted to do it my way. And I might’ve even put the finishing touches on that building… I might’ve slapped myself on the back and thought “Hmm, I did it my way and I got my house.”

I did get my house… but not for long.

A few Fridays back, we were discussing self-deception with my friends and we talked about the times in our lives where we thought that this is absolutely what we should do. Everything seemed so perfect for the occasion… There were some minor drawbacks, but who pays attention to those? Carpe diem!

And we’ve dived into those things head-first… only to meet the rocky bottom and think “Oh, yeah, I knew about this part.”

Ostrichism, or self-deception, is perhaps one of the most dangerous things – especially when we start to believe our own “white” lies.

So here’s to rock foundations for our houses!

[Book Review: A SHOT OF FAITH (to the head) by Mitch Stokes]

If you like philosophy and you are good with logical thinking – this is a book for you. As the headline says, [this book will help you to] Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists.

Mitch Stokes has done a good job explaining away the most common misconceptions about Christianity and the principles – as well as the questions that arise that at a first glance seem like a contradiction. However, my problem was comparing it to the Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Kreeft and Tacelli. While all these authors discuss similar ideas, Stokes’ book was a bit too philosophical and at times confusing.

That said, when I shared one of the examples that Stokes used (the “future resembles the past because the future resembles the past” one) with a friend of mine, he looked excited and could easily understand what was going on in the reasoning. My guess – it all depends on the way one’s mind is built – either it’s philosophical or not.

It is a useful book for those who find themselves wondering about the questions like “If God created everything, who created God?” and other logical fallacies like this one.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

[Christ is risen!]

Have you heard?

CHRIST IS RISEN!

*Grinning widely* I’m guessing that a lot of you are reading this now and wondering if I am on a different timeline here.

Rest easy, the “official” Easter is not here until April 15 (yes, we celebrate it according to the Orthodox calendar since the country is Orthodox).

However, last night, my pastor, a couple of my friends, and I were walking home and all of a sudden, my pastor tells me:

“Christ is risen. Христос воскрес.”

I looked at him: “He is risen indeed. Воистину воскрес.”

We laughed and I passed on the greeting to another friend who just caught up with us.

“Christ is risen!”

She stared at me: “Huh?”

“Christ is risen!”

She still didn’t get it: “Why?”

“Why what? Why He rose? You’re the main Sunday School teacher, you tell us.”

When I came home, I decided to do an experiment. I posted the phrase as a status update on Facebook.

It was so fun to see people’s reaction to it.

“I am confused.”

“But He did rise!”

“Nice. A preemptive strike.”

“You’re a bit too early.”

“Already :) Truly risen.”

“He is risen indeed.”

People got confused by the fact that I reminded them of something that happened about 2,000 years ago.

Christ does not literally rise every year (and sometimes twice a year). He was born, lived, died, and rose a long time ago.

So why are we so keen on observing the dates?

Does that majestic and awesome deed of His only matter to us for one day in a year? Does He rise only when we are done with Lent readings? Is He born only after we are finished with our Advent activities?

I hope not.

Christ is risen.

The salvation plan was finished. His sacrifice has blotted out our sins (if we allow it). He is once again seated at the right hand of the God Almighty.

Let’s keep this thought alive in our minds at all times.

Just for the fun of it, join me in greeting people with “Christ is risen” this Sunday?

[timely reminders...]

It is the first day back at work after the 17-day vacation.

I did wake up in time, I didn’t feel sleepy during the day, yet my mind was tired by the day’s end.

The old doubts came to torment again and I felt helpless in the face of this storm.

So God decided to remind me.

First, with a post from Duane Scott… (which for some reason I missed when it was just posted…)

With crushing reality, the world sways and I realize how foolish I am to believe that a God who holds the stars and the moon couldn’t hold my dreams and I am tempted to fall against the cold earth floor and offer to Him everything.

~ Duane Scott, For When We Live with Clenched Fists

Second reminder came when I finally decided what I wanted to watch before going to sleep.

I got this movie over three months ago – Luther with Joseph Fiennes. I wanted to watch it a couple of times, but the timing didn’t seem appropriate. Today it felt right… and with tears in my eyes and a grin on my face, I realize that the timing could not be more right.

I’ve no idea whether Luther preached this sermon word for word. However, whoever wrote the script surely knew what he was doing, for the words speak to my heart and mind.

Those who see God as angry do not see Him rightly, but look upon a curtain as if a dark storm cloud has been drawn across His face. If we truly believe that Christ is our Savior, then we have a God of love! And to see God in faith is to look upon His friendly heart.

So when the devil throws your sins into your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know the One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God. Where He is, I shall be also.”

~ Martin Luther, Luther

I don’t really have anything else to add, but I hope those words will speak to your hearts just like they did to mine.

God bless!

[different]

Weaving through the aisles of a grocery store, we talked of favorite authors and books.

“This gal came to speak at the university once. She is a Christian writer. Growing up in a tough family situation she overcame a lot. At the lecture she cussed a bit – the students loved it…”

The talk happened over a week ago, but that bit of the conversation stuck in my head.

Another time, another person, another talk. This time we discussed music.

“They are a Christian band – but in one of their songs they used the F-word so they would be accepted in mainstream music circles.”

I have no idea what band it was. Neither did I care to clarify.

The principles are the same.

Don’t appear too holy or else you’ll not be accepted or listened to.

Those two conversations keep coming back to me. The surroundings, the intonation of the voice, questions in the eyes. And I myself start to wonder.

I work with people who say they believe God is there, but don’t yet trust Him. I have non-Christian friends – some are agnostics, on their way to find out what on earth and in heaven is really going on.

Some simply don’t care, living in this moment, the “here and now.”

And sometimes I still wonder – how should I behave around them?

Should I appear to be “just like them” or should there be something different about me?

While I am not completely against the emergent church, the bit that worries me most is they want to be considered “not too holy to be normal” so to speak.

On the lock screen of my iPod there is this picture of Jesus.

He sits there, maybe contemplating the fate of the world, probably communicating with His Dad, perhaps thinking of His own future. This picture was taken by Michael Belk, a truly great photographer and a Christian who started the project “Journeys with the Messiah.” I know this is not the picture of real Jesus. However, I have no trouble to imagine the real one sitting wearing a similar expression.

He stood out.

He was different.

He did not cuss in order to make people feel more comfortable around Him and feel as if He was one of them, a rebel. Yes, He danced and laughed and [oooh!] even drank wine with them. Yes, we often talk about Jesus as God who came to earth to be one of us. But He was still different. So odd in the eyes of some, that He was killed.

But notice this one thing.

When He spoke, everyone listened (not everyone agreed but boy, did they listen).

It’s difficult to be different. It takes an enormous amount of guts.

And it’s an act of extreme balance – while being “not of this world” yet not terrorizing everyone by our difference but somehow, at the same time, being different. Not being “holier than thou” but striving to be holy – set apart for Him and His work.

I want to be different.

(Special thanks to Duane Scott for help in editing this post and just for being a great friend)

[being ready at all times]

It was the first day of the camp. The kids were still full of energy were sitting impatiently, waiting for the evening program to start. The sea’s soft whoosh of waves hitting the shore could be heard from time to time.

I sat expectantly. I was “briefed” about the speaker by my mom and the “briefing” wasn’t too optimistic. However, considering that mom and I often differ in our opinions toward various people, I tried to keep an open mind, I wanted to come home after the camp and talk about the cool guest speaker we had and how mom maybe just didn’t understand her well enough.

The lights dimmed and the guest speaker came up front. (I’ll call her Elsie though it’s not her real name). She asked the kids, “What is the way to heaven?”

A few kids raised their hands.

“Yes, YOU!” She pointed rather rudely.

“Um,” the kid wavered, confused by the tone of voice she’s been addressed to. “You have to follow what the Bible says.”

“Wrong answer.” She pointed at another kid, “How do I get to heaven?”

“You go to Church and read the Bible and pray.”

“Wrong answer.”

She strutted around the hall, and I was starting to understand what my mom meant when she told me “Beware of her.”

“HOW DO I GET SAVED?” Elsie stomped the ground.

By now, the kids were semi-frightened and did not want to answer. One brave boy raised his hand.

“Yes, you.”

“You listen to God’s voice and follow Him.”

“How do I listen to God’s voice?”

“With your heart.”

“My heart does not have ears. It just goes ‘thump thump thump’,” she motioned the heartbeat.

I was seething. How dare she treat my kids like that?

She proceeded in telling that we all didn’t know anything and the answer was clear in Romans 10:9.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

“This is the only answer and the only way how you get saved. The rest won’t help you.”

If you know me in person or have read my blog for a long time, you probably know that I can be quite stubborn when I disagree. Especially when the person who tries to prove something to me did not gain my respect beforehand. Elsie did not have my respect and she completely ruined all her chances of getting it. Oh, I was almost raving mad. I was holding myself together for the sake of my kids who were stealing glances at me as we sat together in the meeting room.

After all that, she proceeded to talk about an altar call and the leaders of the teams was supposed to go out with the kids who wanted to accept Jesus. I reluctantly went out, muttering comments to God on my way because I was one unhappy camper. As my kiddos gathered around me, I felt something close to despair. This wasn’t the way I thought it would be. I did not want them to be scared into accepting Jesus. I was lost for words. Yet, since I was the oldest of three counselors, I had to lead. I remember telling kids that being a Christian is great. I remember warning them about the fact that this is all very serious. I remember trying to muster up the confidence, to create the atmosphere, to help the kids to feel the warmth of my love toward them. I remember pleading with God telling Him that I am not ready…

As I was thinking about that today, I thought…

I have to be ready at all times.

I have to be ready to share Christ with others whenever the chance presents itself.

I am ashamed of my feelings back then because I was pouting that it did not go as I thought it should (as in, the altar call in the end of the camp…)

I knew that my feelings were sort of justified because I really was mad at how she treated my kids (and I was in a mama bear mode), but that ain’t no excuse for not being ready for the Prayer.

Are you ready? If a person comes up to you on a street and asks you “How do I get saved?” – Are you ready to respond?

*Afternote: I wasn’t the only one who did not enjoy Elsie’s teaching methods and in the evening next day, as I was dreading the upcoming program, good news came – she was no longer a guest speaker, and my pastor took her place. He was great and gentle as always, speaking in love, and although I don’t think kids suspected that anything was wrong, it was like an ointment for my soul. Everything was okay again. Yet, I learned my lesson – I needed to be prepared and ready at all times.

blog2008-trinity-sunday

[where do you fit in?]

A pastor from Michigan, Darrel Harvey, has shared this idea today as we got together for a leadership / W&W time and it was too good not to share.

The idea is Darrel’s, the reflections are mine.

The picture below is famous Trinity by a Slavic artist Andrey Rublev.

Where do you fit in?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Or, perhaps, the better way to say it is “How many times have you asked yourself that question?” Remember choosing the table to have lunch during the break at school – maybe you were nervous when you came for the first time – “Will anyone there accept me? Will anyone save a seat for me? Where will I fit in?”

Sharing food is very important in our minds. If you want to make someone feel welcome at your home, you cook the best dishes and use the best tableware. Sharing a lunch with someone at work or school or someplace else is also important. I have a habit – whenever I buy something to eat, most of the time I buy a bit more than I can eat just in case I’ll have the opportunity to share with someone else. I am not sure where that habit came from, I just think that eating alone is quite boring… and sharing a meal is fun.

We aren’t really taught that in Sunday School but when God created man, I think [these were Darrel's thoughts] that it was like in that icon above. The Trinity was enjoying the communion so much that one “moment” He / They decided to add another chair to the table.

“How about We create us some company?” (my paraphrase of Genesis 1:26)

And God went to work: He / They created the man from the dust, breathed life into him, placed him into the Garden of Eden, and made him the ruler of everything in that Garden. In other words, God gave the man three things: Life, Place, and Purpose.

One of my favorite parts in the Story of Beginnings is imagining God strolling alongside Adam and Eve and just talking… perhaps laughing at giraffe’s neck or the trunk of an elephant… or maybe just enjoying the view sharing a comfortable silence. Which, as I imagine it, means that God added a couple of chairs to Their dinner table and they shared meals together.

I have tried to fit in for many years of my life as I have mentioned in another blog entry the other day. I tried fitting in with people my age, with people who are younger, and people who are older. I tried to fit in with Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, Americans, English people, those from Scotland… I have tried to fit in by using the languages that I know. It worked for some time, but I was still yearning for MORE.

Those thoughts that Darrel shared today really hit home when I realized that it’s exactly what I have been experiencing in the last couple of years. I finally fit in because God told me that He saved a seat at His / Their dinner table for me. I finally fit because I gave up the struggle to fit in. It’s a freeing experience.

And another thing, on a funny note… I suspect God knows that when I am hungry I am easily irritated by everything, but when I am fed I become pink and fluffy :D

There’s a chair at His table for you too. Shall we all go share a meal together?