Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Russian Gathering and Yuliya

Tonight, I attended a small group gathering in Perm. It was a church much like mine back home: they rent out a facility on Sunday evenings at 5pm, and they meet in a house during the week to share a meal together, pray, sing and worship, and go through scripture. When I arrived, I was put right to work chopping apples, oranges, and slicing bread. Some of the people spoke English, and it seemed like these people truly knew one another. There was a big sense of family there.

When we were in the living room, apparently my friend Dasha had informed the pastor, Peter, that I played guitar and sang. So he had me lead the group in worship tonight, playing a few songs. It was one of the most humbling experiences I've ever had...that God would allow me to use such a gift to lead a foreign people in worship of Him. I sang in English, and they sang in Russian, and it made me think of what heaven must be like...people lifting up praises to the Lord in all tongues, languages, noises, sounds! I felt so much joy in those moments playing on the couch. I can't describe it...the Holy Spirit was surging within me.

The awesome part though was when we were in the Word. These people were so enthusiastic, excited, and on fire for Jesus. Their zeal while we were in the word-- 1 Samuel, nonetheless!- was so encouraging and invigorating. We were there for about 3 hours total, and it amazed me how much they tasted the Word and saw that it is good. Having a passion for God's word, like Psalm 19 says, that it is more fine that gold, more sweet than the drippings of the honeycomb...these people lived and spoke like they believe that.

Last night I led a small gathering of Russians in the basement of a local church as well. There were 7 of us in all, and we drank tea, had snacks and sat around talking and sharing stories. It's awesome how God allows himself to slip into conversation. My key necklace and tattoo continue to be topics of interest, and I praise him for allowing those things to bring glory to himself. I was nervous going into the evening, in that usually the night is led by Brad and his American team of missionaries there...but they are all out of the country until Friday, so I was the lone American. It went super well, though, and I was thankful that God was faithful in the evening there.

Last but not least, the picture above is of the sweet 5 year old girl who is living in my flat right now. She and I don't speak the same language and can hardly communicate, but we are crazy about one another. We have so much fun together, and I'm blessed by the joy God allows me to have with her around. It's weird, because I have been missing my students so much, and God has given me this little girl to bring that life back into my life.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Encouragement from John 12

Yesterday I was skyping with my boyfriend back home, Andrew, and told him a lot about how although I feel so blessed in being here, and God has ordained and planned this so beautifully, there are a lot of things about being in Russia that are really difficult. I sent the following to a girlfriend of mine, and after sending it to her I felt compelled to post it on here. I feel like you should not only see or hear about the things going well, but also the things that are a bit hard, and how in and through those hardships, God is my strong tower and refuge of strength. I know he has me here not only to proclaim the good news, but also learn to further die to myself, always a difficult but rewarding process of furthering sanctification.

Before I do, though, I want to share with you scripture that Andrew shared with me from John 12:24-26
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

My response to him was this: I need to remember that in order to be more like Jesus, I...have to be more like Jesus! And one of those things is dying to myself, taking up my cross and following Him, here, wherever, when he calls me to do so. I feel like I am experiencing a lot being here, a different way of life, culture, and belief system than in the states, and I am thankful that God has called me here, not only to humble me, but he trusts me to be a vessel for his kingdom and bear fruit. Me! God has called me to do that for his kingdom and not only that, but he gives me the strength and ability to do so through himself! Wow. I don't deserve to do that for him, but he allows me to, and I am blessed by that...I don't have the right words to express gratitude that he loves me and allows me to share in his sufferings, so that I may also share in his glory and spend eternity with him.

I feel so honored to be a part of this, and I only pray that I can do this for him well and be a good and faithful servant. I pray that I can continue to let go of myself and stop worrying about things, letting him take it all and surrendering to him completely.


So here is a bit of both the good and the challenging:

Everything is different from Texas life; I feel like often, I don't know how to operate, since everything is written and everyone is speaking in a foreign language that I don't have half a clue about. It's hard for me to even go to a store and buy something, I don't know what the packages say and I don't know what the check out clerk is asking me...I told Andrew last night it feels like I am a refugee that needs people to take me around and go places with me because I don't know how to get on the right tram somewhere, how to find the right foods in the grocery store, how to go to the bank. It's so weird...I feel like I'm learning how to live life all over again in a city where the people don't smile at you, cars nearly hit you everywhere you go, EVEN if you're on the sidewalk, and where girls dress up in high heels and short fancy dresses everywhere you look-- as I am as casually dressed as you could get. Ha, it has taken some getting used to, and feeling somewhat helpless in that I can't go to a food place for 1) I don't know what kind of food it is because I can't read the sign, 2) I don't know how to read anything on the menu and I can't just point at something because there's no pictures or translations, and 3) it seems like people don't EVER eat out in Russia anyway, so I seem like a freak if I tell the friends I'm with that I'm hungry and we stop's SO different! I seriously am missing Texan food, let me tell you that.

More than that, though, what I love in Russia more than I care about the other things is the people I'm getting to meet and spend time with. Russians on the street do not smile and have no sense of politeness or common courtesy, but when you spend quality time with them they are very deep and relational people. They are very blunt and honest people as well, so you know what you're getting 100% of the time with someone...nobody just is nice just to be nice. They tell you and act how they really feel or what they really think! The girls/women I have gotten to spend time with are incredible. I am blessed to have encountered and been able to start building so many relationships already. The girls are mostly open to talk about Jesus and it's so awesome how God has intervened in this way. It's been almost seem-less how I've been able to meet people and spend time with them...little to no effort on my part...God has just provided them in my life and here we go. It's different than home-- I miss you, Andrew, my family and community of friends there-- but the people here are really trying to help acclimate me to Russian culture and help me try to get used to my surroundings. I spent the past 10 hours with a girl named Dasha; I spent the last several days, about 6 days with women named Olga, Tanya, and Lena; and I've gotten to meet so many more and have my calendar full! Tomorrow I am also leading the Tuesday night meeting, where Brad (the man I'm staying with/and his family) and his missionary team has Russians meet I believe for English classes and teaching, as well as some spiritual discussion and Bible reading. Brad and his team are in Turkey right now until Saturday, so I am going to the church and leading it up alone! Kind of scary, but it's cool how Brad trusts me, and I don't have to make it formal-- it's more of a hanging out, talking time with others. I have some women who already promised to be there, so I know I'll at least have about 4 or 5 people come :) It excites me how much I've already done and have yet to do here.

It's been a flawless process it seems, but not without it's hardships. I miss home quite night I feel alone, which is silly because I know I'm not. I am really having to lean more on God and spend more of my alone time talking with him, reading, etc. I have been far more prayerful the past week than I have in months, talking to God more, especially at night while I'm laying in bed not being able to sleep! I have not found a successful sleeping schedule yet, and I seem to toss and turn for hours each night. When I wake up in the morning, I feel like I just got hit by a train and the last thing I want to do is get up. I don't know how to get over this yet or make it work. I also miss my students quite a bit. I frequently scroll through pictures of them from this past year at night when I can't sleep and pray for them, that they are doing well and their summers are fruitful. I had such a connection with my class this past year, it is hard to go through my days without them.

I know, though, that God is purposeful and his ways are the best ways; his thoughts are the best thoughts; and I will go where He sends me. Being faithful to this call requires endurance, patience, strength, and perseverance, just like any call to go and do ministry does. I do not want to make it seem like I am some sort of saint or something...nothing I am doing is worthy of anything apart from Jesus, nothing. I am so thankful that God has chosen me to go and come here and further His kingdom. Thank you, God, for deeming me your servant!

Until next time...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Privet from Perm, Russia!

"Doors of Happiness"...and I am welcoming you to my updated Russian blog to say...privet!

"Privet," pronounced pree-vyet, is "hello" in Russian. Which I have desperately been trying to learn since I arrived here! Actually, I started to try to learn the Russian alphabet and some basic phrases when I was in the airport at JFK, having met a Russian woman who did NOT understand why I would try to go do ministry in a country where I didn't speak the language. Whoops.

Since I've arrived in Perm, my life has drastically changed. It is so different here, so interesting, and nothing, nothing at all like I expected. Nothing. Perm is a city of about 1 million people, 9% of which live in the outskirts in the more forest-y areas, and 91% of which live in the city, where I currently am residing. It is jam packed with people, everyone you walk, drive, and go. The streets are full of cars that don't obey traffic laws like "pedestrians have the right of way"-- nope, CARS do! Watch yourself or you're gonna get run over, seriously. They also don't care about right-of-way rules; they just go as they please, cut people off constantly, don't wait on others. The general attitude of the Russian people is "me-first"; it is their mentality and the way that they operate in anything they do. Nobody holds doors open for each other (I've had several slam in my face!) and people speed-walk next to you and walk right in front of you; people are always trying to be the first in line, first in the door, and so on. It is unlike Southern Hospitality/Southern Gentleman mentality that exists in Texas! That has definitely taken some time getting used to.

I am living in an apartment, or a "flat" they call it, right outside the center of the city. Everyone here lives in an apartment, there are no houses except in the forest areas of Perm. The city is literally lined, street after street, with tall apartment buildings. People in Russia are very poor, and the city is crowded and there is no room or need for houses. People here really live off of the least they can-- minimal living is quite a theme here. It's interesting because for as little money as they have, there are a lot of people outside all day everyday, walking in their best clothing and high heels, shopping! The people here dress up mostly; some are dressed casually, but most people are dressed in very tight skirts or dresses and very tall shoes. The men are dressed differently though-- I saw many wearing the nike running shorts that are so popular for women in the US-- and they are all big fans of bright, neon colors and short shorts. It's definitely interesting to see the women so fashionable and trendy just to go to the store, where the men are dressed so casually, and sometimes/often are shirtless walking around, in the cyHePmaPket (supermarket!). For the most part though, the city is very modernized. You don't see women walking around like little babushka women as I had pictured...some do, older women do, but not many.

It has been really awesome to get to meet and spend time with Russian girls while I've been here. I have spent most of the past several days with a few wonderful women. Tanya, who is an English teacher (and this past week was awarded English Teacher of Perm Award!) is a volunteer tour guide for the "White Nights" festival that has been going on in the city of Perm for the entire month of June. The reason it is called White Nights is because the sun does not set in Perm during the summer until midnight or later! It also rises at 4 a.m. or around then. It is crazy looking out the window right now at 11:45pm and it still being somewhat light outside! Tanya has taken me on what she calls several "excursions," to extremely exotic contemporary and modern art museums, to Russian Orthodox temples, to the beloved Kama River that put Perm on the map.

(Russian Orthodox church head coverings...I had to put one on to go inside the exhibit!)

Tanya has been extremely helpful during my time here so far-- getting me from point A to point B as I try to master the trolley/tram system here; helping me go on my first grocery shopping trip, which was quite an adventure that the women I spend time with STILL talk about how I didn't know how to do anything there; and keeping me quite entertained while we've been here. Lucky for me, Tanya also is very interested in dance shows, which is like a dream come true! We have seen everything from Russian Traditional dance, to belly dancing (women AND men), to kids shows to break has been quite a fun week with Tanya!

From left to right: me, Olga, Tanya, Lena.

Tanya says she is a believer but seems very closed to talking more openly about it. I feel good, though, because God is the one in charge of salvation-- not me!-- and so I pray with her, talk openly with her about scripture I read that morning or about how God has changed my life, answer questions, etc. but she still is a closed book. I am praying that God continues to allow us to have time together and that it continues to be intentional.

Other women I've spent time with include a woman named Olga, who has accompanied us on our excursions and who is helping me with the worship at our home church tomorrow. The family I am staying with, the Hornes, hold a Sunday "home church" gathering at 3pm where they meet in the different homes of the missionary team that is here in Perm. This Sunday happens to be here in our flat; however, Brad and his family are out of town in Turkey, so guess who Brad trusted to go on with the show? Yes, me. I am headed to the grocery store tomorrow for snacks and preparing lots of hot tea tomorrow for the guests we will have in our home church. I cannot speak Russian sadly, so Olga is going to help me pick songs for worship time and lead the Bible/Book study that the group has been going through the past few weeks. I am very blessed that Brad trusts me enough to have people in his home and help lead them in a service of community and worship.

Dasha and I in the modern art museum.
Another girl I have spent time with is a girl named Dasha, who quickly became my closest friend in Perm :) we spent all yesterday together, from about 1 pm to 7:30 pm, and she speaks really good English because she lived in the states for some time. Dasha loves the Lord and was a great encouragement to me yesterday. We walked for hours talking together, and she joined Tanya and I on some museums and exhibits. We are spending time together again on Monday, where she is going to cook for me! Dasha is a very capable and talented photographer as well. Many of the pictures from yesterday were taken by her...hence, if you happen to look on facebook at them, there seems to be too many of me. She kept wanting to take them, and it felt rude to say no! I am glad that God has given me someone like her to spend time with and get to know and encourage one another.

"Galleria," or Art Gallery, containing old relics and Russian Orthodox art. Extremely fascinating.

Another woman is Elena, or Lena I hear the others call her. Lena is quiet and seems hard to read, but she is always smiling, which is very contrary to the Russian culture! She is Tanya's best friend and always joins us when we go places. For some reason, God has put Lena on my heart since I've been here, and today God opened a lot of doors for conversation. Bless Madi Greer for her key necklace that captured me two summers ago, because when I wear the key necklace I have around my neck, it is a constant conversation starter about Jesus. Lena asked me today what the key was for and I was able to explain to her what it meant, and I did share a short version of Madi's story (if you do not know who this is, do not is just a great story of redemption, how God is our ultimate father and the key to our lives, the key to every thing in life...happiness, joy, success...). Lena seemed really interested and we continued to talk together the entire tram ride home about it and what God means to us. I asked her what God meant to her, since she told me she was a believer but does not practice anything very often. I was able to speak with her about my story and testimony when I was 18 about how God became more real than ever to me, rescued me from myself and my sin, and chose to show his love to me...and how because of that, I just want more of his love. I want more of him, I want to know more, see more, feel more of him. She seemed very intrigued by what I was saying, and although she did not say much, she was intently listening. It came so naturally, in that we had built a friendship the past week together and the conversation felt natural and not forced. I am excited for further interactions with these women, and feel that as we continue to be friends and trust is built, that things are bound to happen...I spoke with my dad tonight afterwards, and he was very comforting with his words: that God will open the hearts of those whom he chooses, and thus I can only speak truth into people's lives and pray that God touches them and uses my words for his glory.

Did you know Wooly Mammoths were discovered in the Perm region? Yeah, they even found a 7 month old one frozen in the ice. But here are some cool bones. :)

Other than that, I have enjoyed getting used to the city. I have met many girls and exchanged phone numbers with them and plan on making plans with them this upcoming week. I spoke to 2 girls that go to the university here a few days ago, and they work in the tourist office. They told me they would love to spend time with me and practice English, which seemed like a great opportunity to get to know them and eventually share Jesus with them. I am excited to see what progresses and feel so blessed by Brad, in that he has gotten me set up with so many girls already; and mainly by the Lord, in that he has placed people directly in my life to share my time in Perm with.

This is the center of the city on Lenin Street, where I have been spending most of my time with my friends...AND, it is a great thing to recognize when I am uncertain of where I am :)

I am missing home, and sometimes feel anxious about what is to come when I return, so I ask that any prayers would be to settle anxiety about things at home or things that will come with the new school year. I want to be fully focused and all here, and I want to not be so nervous about such things to where I lay in bed at night already planning and trying to be in control! I also ask that you continue to pray for my safety. The city feels safe, and I am now navigating the streets alone, and I just pray that continued safety and understanding will be with me as I try to read Russian street signs and remember where my flat is :)

Oh, and did I mention that I absolutely LOVE the Horne family? They are so completely amazing. Hospitable, kind...the children are so precious (if you call them children...16, 14, 12, 10). Jenna, the youngest, is my roommate, and she made me breakfast in bed on my 3rd day here. And did I mention they have a fat grey cat named Asher? Yeah, I'm pretty much obsessed. And he has orange eyes!

Baka ('bye' in Russian) or Do svedanya until next time... :)

Whitley ("Rebecca," as many Russian friends also know me, as it is easier to say!)