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Post Number 900: Life, Lessons, Learning

On February 3, 2005 I began this blog.  It has seen several transformations over the years and due to that, I have probably written well over 900 posts.  However, through combining blogs, writings, deleting some, I am now officially arriving at post 900!

I remember exactly why I starting writing this blog.  My supervisor at the time, Mick Stockwell, had asked me to go to Karaganda, KZ for a temporary assignment.  He had mentioned that since I was going to be in the country by myself that I should consider ways to get more people involved in prayer support.

Blogs seemed to be in vogue in 2005 so I decided to begin a journey that has led to 900 blog posts and countless words being written and expressed.  I love the written word (all that training at Daingerfield HS and Midwestern State University caused it!), even to this day.  One of the first things I do whenever I get on a plane is to find a newspaper!

So, when I was contemplating a move to KZ from UA, blogging seemed like a natural.  I have no idea how many people actually read my blog.  I know at one time, there were people from all over the world taking a look from time to time.

In order to write number 900, I looked back at some of my initial posts from February 2005.  That month, I wrote about my first impressions of KZ, Valentine’s Day, and the extremely cold weather.  It is always interesting to go back in time and see what spurred me to write what I wrote.

I wish that I had journaled all my life.  The first time I did it with consistency was in 1994, when I moved to Lugansk, Ukraine.  From time to time, when I am home, I pull out the spiral notebooks and take a look at what God was teaching me at the time.  I didn’t continue journaling after returning to the states to attend seminary and I still don’t do it with any consistency now.

Some day I would love to write a book of the wonderful journey I have been on since 1994.  I have changed so much since then, I hope for the better!  This journey has been one that I would not trade for any amount of money.

I think back to my life living in a small town (my Ukrainian friends would say it is a village) in east Texas.  I could have never dreamed that I would have the experiences I have had over the last 25 years.  God truly has blessed me.

That first winter in KZ was extremely difficult for me.  Here was a boy from Texas living in a place where the lows would drop to -40 F during the winter.  My first month there I literally didn’t speak a word in English.  I remember the first time Mick called me and how excited I was just to speak English!

But, even as difficult as it was, I would not want to change a thing.  God used that time to grow me into the person I am today.  I realize that I am a life long learner and hope I learn till the day I die!

Thanks to many of you that have been around for all 900 posts.  Maybe one day I will use these writings and combine them into a book.

Ukraine Spotlight: Tanzilya

During 2012, I hope to spotlight different people who have impacted my life in some way.  Today I would like for you to meet Tanzilya.  Tanzilya, or Tanya as some of us still call her, is an Uzbek immigrant to Ukraine.

Tanzilya was around 11 years old when we met.  I was living in Lugansk at the time and our youth held a retreat in the village of Zholtoye.  Early on Saturday I needed to take someone back to Lugansk and as we were driving through the village, there were lots of people at the bus stop.  The Lord prompted me to stop and see if anyone needed a ride.

Now, I would not suggest picking up strangers, but the Lord did prompt me that morning.  Out of the 10-15 people waiting, only two took my offer of a ride.  A mother and young daughter.

On the ride to Lugansk, we shared the Gospel with this mother and daughter.  They were only going to the next town, so they weren’t in the car long, but we learned that Larissa was an English school teacher in Zholtoye.  We dropped them off and drove on.

Later that day, I had to take all the youth back to Lugansk and it was going to take two trips.  On the return to pick up the second group, as I passed Alexandrovka, standing on the side of the road looking for a ride was Larissa and her daughter, Tanzilya.  I decided to pick them up.  (Years later, Tanzilya shared with me that her mom was a little scared of us after our first conversation and she was hesitant to get in the van with me!)

On the ride to Zholtoye, Larissa opened up and actually invited me to come to her school to share with the kids.  A few weeks later, my friend and interpreter, Olga and I drove to Zholtoye.  I was the first American in the school and the first American most of the students had met.  I was treated royally by the teachers and students.

After that visit, Larissa and Tanzilya started making the almost 1 hour trip to Lugansk every Sunday to attend services at our church.  It was amazing to see how God changed their lives.

Tanzilya and her mother made decisions to accept and follow Christ in early 1997.  I had already moved back to America, but Tanzilya sent me letters, cards and hand painted watercolors and crayon drawings.  I have all of them framed and hanging in my apartment in Donetsk.

Tanzilya has been very active in ministry.  She has taught Sunday School, teenagers, helped with interpreting, and many other things.

Since I now live closer to her, I have enjoyed immensely getting to know her better and to see the heart she has for the Lord.  She is a blessing to me.

Day of Joy

Sunday, December 11, I was in Kiev attending a couple of services with part of our CP team.  We attended services at Grace Church, where I attended for a couple of years while living in Kiev, and her daughter church, Spirit of Life.

Spirit of Life is full of young people and lots of them.  Their music was much to loud for my liking, and realistically, too loud for the size of room they are in.  It was incredible to see many young people that I have witnessed grow up in Grace church now leading and serving.  Probably, the biggest joy for me was to see Alyosha.

I met Alyosha in the summer of 2004.  He was a 16 year old drug user.  He attended our summer camp and we became quick buddies, along with his best friend, Kostya.  Over the course of the next few months, we met several times.  I tried to influence him to give up his drugs, all the while he told me he didn’t have a problem.

In January 2005, I moved to Kazakhstan.  A month later, Alyosha decided to go to rehab.  A few months later, he decided to follow Christ.  I cannot tell you what joy filled my heart!  After I came back to Kiev in June 2005, I drove out to see him while he was in rehab.  He spent almost a year in rehab.

Since the summer of 2004, I have had a picture of Alyosha, Kosta and me on my refrigerator as a reminder to pray for them.  Unfortunately, Kosta is in prison for a couple of years.  Please pray for him to see the need for Christ in his life.

Alyosha moved back to Kiev and has done a great job.  He now serves in the daughter church of Grace.  When he walked in last Sunday, joy filled my heart.  I saw lots of “old” friends last Sunday, but I can tell you none of them were as great to see as Alyosha.

3M: The Greatest of these

Another week, another wedding.  I got to the church a little late and couldn’t find a parking spot.  Cars were every where.  I knew this probably meant the church was full and it might be hard for me to find a seat. I was right!

Valerie Antonuik, vice president of the Baptist Union, had been invited to lead the service.  He did a great job of explaining the union between a man and woman.

After the ceremony, I was asked to go with the couple to take some pictures at a local park.  It is a tradition with most Slavik couples to take pictures around the city at the different historical or scenic spots.

Sergei and Sveta decided to go to the new park the city is building near the football stadium.  It is a beautiful spot, made the more beautiful with the colorful leaves from autumn.  It was quite cold in the park since the wind was blowing pretty hard.

Afterwards, we went to Donetsk Christian University to attend the dinner the parents of the couple were hosting.  The dining hall had been converted into a nice setting to host the dinner.

Usually, those in attendance are given the chance to say some words of blessings or encouragement to the new couple.  I didn’t really want to stand in front of all those people and try to share my heart in a language not my own, so I waited until we had a break.

For the last few months God has been really speaking to my heart about love.  Since this day had been all about the love that had grown between Sergei and Sveta, God brought to my heart 1 Corinthians 13:13 “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

It has been apparent between these two young people that their faith is strong.  Knowing Sergei longer, I have seen the hope and trust he had in the Father to provide the wife for him.  And in the last few months I have seen their love grow stronger for each other.

So, when my time came to share with them, I shared this verse.  The greatest of all things is love.

For me, it means that I must love God even more tomorrow than I do today.  And because of this love, it will spur me to love my neighbors even more than I do today.  I will be judged by the Father by how much I love.  I must strive to fulfill these greatest commandments.

Lost, then found

My father served in France and probably Germany during World War II.  Since I was born almost 20 years after the war, I never heard my father talk about his time in the war.  I have heard bits and pieces of stories, but never much.

During my recent trip home, my sister gave me a group of photos she found while going through some of our mother’s boxes.  My mother had lots of boxes and lots of photos.  She always carried pictures with her and she would pull them out to show a complete stranger.

So imagine my shock as I went through the envelope of pictures my sister handed me.  I didn’t recognize any of the photos.  Not one.  Especially shocking for me were the photos of my father from the war.  There were three of them.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I have no explanation why it took me 49 years to see these pictures.  I cannot imagine why mom never showed us these pictures.  My two sisters were confounded as well since they had never seen them either.

I have been trying to piece together my dad’s service record and these pictures help me understand a little more of what he went through during that time.  My dad grew up in southwest Oklahoma on a farm.  I am sure he was overwhelmed with all he saw on the ground in France and other places.

So, even though the mystery of the photos is not fully understandable, I am so glad to have these pictures.  My absolute favorite is my dad standing on the downed Nazi plane.  Found at last.

 

Weddings… Ukrainian Baptist style

Last Saturday, Sveta got married.  I got to know her this past summer as she interpreted for a couple of teams I hosted.  I knew she was bound for marriage the first day she interpreted.  She was constantly on her phone talking to her boyfriend, Zhenya.

Baptist believers have several traditions during the wedding day.  I make this distinction as I have never been to any other kind of wedding in Ukraine.

First, the young man comes to the house (or apartment) to pick up the young bride to take her to the church.  Ukrainian law requires them to have a civil ceremony as well, which is typically done before the church wedding. 

Zhenya picked up Sveta and her attendant, Toni.  Together with his attendant, they drove to Sharkhtorsk (about 1 hour from Donetsk).  Around 11 a.m. the flower girl and boy made their entrance, followed by the attendants and then the bride and groom walk down the aisle.

They had asked Stepan Ivanovich to preside over the service.  He is the regional pastor for Donetsk.  He did a fine job outlining the roles of both the wife and husband.  I enjoyed what he had to say to the couple and the responsibility of the family and church.

One of my favorites Ukrainian traditions is when the pastor lays hands on the couple and prays for them.  The pastor also had the parents of the the couple pray their blessing upon their children.

After the service, several pictures were taken around the church and then the couple headed back to Donetsk where they took pictures around the different cultural sites around the city, which is a Slavic tradition.

Then the parents hosted a very nice dinner at a local restaurant.  I was blessed in receiving an invitation.  After several hours of eating and enjoying the entertainment, they invited everyone to come forward that wanted and share some words with the couple.  Of course, I struggled to express my happiness for the couple since Russian is not my native language and I didn’t want Sveta to have to translate.  My weak attempt at a joke failed, so I guess I will have to call them later to explain what I meant.

Overall, it was a great day with weather to match.  I have two more weddings this month, so I will have a couple more times to expose you to a little Ukrainian culture.

A letter to my mom… 4 years later

I started writing a letter to my mom near the anniversary of her death.  Here is my latest…

Dear mom,

I guess it is true what they say, “time really flies when you get older.”  Older is definitely what I am getting.  I cannot believe that in just a few days I will be 49, which means the 1/2 century will be next!

I must say that the past year has been a pretty good one for me.  I have really enjoyed living in Donetsk.  I love living near Pushkina Boulevard and taking walks in it, especially during the summer and fall.  The ladies who take care of it do such a great job.  They work so hard and I know that they receive such little pay, but they do their jobs pridefully and it shows!

I have found a couple of cafes in town that I enjoy as well.  I have gotten to know Marat, who manages one of them.  He is into training and has shown me lots of photos of his training.  Since he works until 9 p.m. much of his training begins after 10 on the local playground where he lives.

Probably the biggest enjoyment I receive is going to the Shakhtar football games.  The team is pretty good and I sure enjoyed watching them go far in the Champions League, losing to the eventual winners.  I like to invite different people to the game so that I can “visit” with them on the way to and from the game.

I would probably eat out more, but there just aren’t many places that don’t cost a fortune.  McDonald’s is here, but isn’t one of my favorites.  They have great ice cream, but I don’t need to be eating much of that!  The other restaurants tend to be near $20 a person, so I don’t do that very often.

The flip side to this is that I have learned to cook more often at home and really enjoy inviting people over for meals.  There are a couple of brothers who are students in town and they are like my own sons.  They come over at times and one of them is always asking what I have to eat!

It is hard for me to believe that you have been gone 4 years.  There are still Sundays that I want to pick up the phone and call you.  I am so thankful that I was with you those last 2 days you were physically on earth and am grateful for my supervisor at the time, Don, for encouraging me to go home to be with you.  Little did we know that you would die 8 days after being diagnosed with cancer!

Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way that you can never say “I love you” enough.  I miss calling you and hearing your stories (although Aunt Velma has picked up the slack in that somewhat!! LOL).

Until next year…

Joe

 

A Big village

Donetsk doesn’t feel like a big city to me.  That’s why I really enjoy living here.  We don’t have the 20 or 30 something story apartment buildings like other cities of over a million.  So, I call Donetsk a big village.

I have had a REALLY busy day today getting ready for the team from AL, who will arrive Tuesday evening.  I got up early this morning and drove the Auchan Supermarket.  It is the largest store of its kind in Donetsk.  I always try to go there early because it can be really busy.  I didn’t think it would be today since it was a holiday.

I filled up the cart and had to wait until the lady checked some of my food before I could finish unloading.  I don’t know how people with large families do it overseas.  I guess they shop 2-3 times a week because our refrigerators aren’t big enough and neither is our storage space.  I have 4 bags in the floor of my kitchen since I don’t have anywhere else to put things in the kitchen!!!

Well, Auchan didn’t have parmesan or any good mozzarela cheeses so I knew I would have to go to another store, but decided to go home, unload the car (took me 3 trips up/down  3 flights of stairs).

While home I went ahead and did some cleaning.  It is amazing that I cannot find someone to come clean/ cook for me.  I even had a pastor ask around.  No luck yet.  So, I am having to plan and prepare all the meals for the team and so am trying to do casseroles and crock pot stuff!

About an hour ago, I decided to go to the other supermarket not far from my house.  I figured that it probably had calmed down enough that it wouldn’t be too busy.  BOY, was I wrong!!  My big village turned into a big city around Park Sherbakova, McDonalds and the supermarket.

I think everyone was there.  First of all, lots of young people were out front drinking and eating and leaving their trash (I feel bad for the supermarket having to clean that mess up!).  I bet they wish they didn’t build so close to the part as well.  The lines to use their toilets was incredible.  I bet there were more than 20 women standing in line!

The supermarket itself was packed as well.  I should have known from the overflowing parking lot not to go in.  But I figured, “Hey, I am here.  Let’s get er done!”  I was able to get everything on my list.  I found the mozzarela and parmesan I like, along with a few other items.  And I actually found a short check line.

Well, I guess it’s okay that my big village was a big city for a while.  It will make me appreciate even more the next time I am at that parking lot and the lot is not as full.

Life’s good…