Keeping up with the Joneses

Do you live in one of those neighborhoods where it seems like each guy is trying to outdo the rest of the block with his lawn care?

You know what I mean.

“I noticed Jim and Nancy put in some fresh bark chips and a row of boxwoods. I think I better go ahead and put the lighted fountain in that I was planning to do last year.” “Honey, make sure to use solar powered lighting like Russ and Deb have. We want people to know we care…. well, about the environment and all.”

As I fell asleep a couple nights ago, I distinctly heard God ask me to study Nehemiah. Not read it, not skim through and look for “life verse” to put on the fridge. STUDY Nehemiah.

I’ll get back to that.

The Johnson clan has been on the road for the last couple weeks, sharing the vision of Wide Awake International.

I left Kim and the kids in Montana, with my sister, and took a little jaunt to Colorado Springs to share with our dear friends at New Life Downtown and to attend a Missional Leaders Meeting with our group of churches.

I have been surrounded by beauty all week near Garden of the Gods.

I have truly met some amazing heroes. One couple, named Paul and Kristen, have been loving on orphans with special needs in Bolivia. They take them in to their home, get them medical care and love on them. They have been doing this for years, under the radar. Absolute heroes.

Another woman has been taking physical therapists and piles of wheelchairs into Kazakhstan, outfitting people with wheelchairs that fit their body and help them be mobile. Fantastic!

While we have known Tri and Nancy Robinson with i-61 Ministries, I have had the joy of meeting Sergio and Michael, who tirelessly work to mobilize people, passion, resources and the education needed to address injustice across the world. Intensity!

I wish I would have taken a picture of these folks and so many more. I want you to see the fire in their eyes. These people have given up everything to bring Dignity, Hope and Love to the marginalized, counted out and the broken. Heroic!

Well back to Nehemiah and the Landscaping.

On my first read through the book, I wondered if all the different families were just trying to keep up with the Joneses as they started to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem.

“Did you see Eliakim and his kids out there this morning? I can’t leave my section of the wall all tore down if they are gonna build their section. What will the neighbors think?”

Who knows? That is why I am studying the book, I guess.

All I know is that as I have been meeting all these amazing people, I have realized there are many people like Kim and I who have sold everything to address the inhumanity that spans the globe. There are people, just like us, who won’t wait another minute to do something about the injustice that breaks the heart of God.

I have met the “Joneses” that I want to try to keep up with. I have seen the hands of Jesus in the hearts of great people who are loving their neighbor.Β  They are heroes, each one.

All In.

Home again!  The National Vineyard Leaders Conference was basically amazing awesomeness wrapped up in wonderfulness.
Best.Time.Ever.  I loved every second of it.  

Truth be told, I was a bit nervous heading into this conference.  I may, or may not have shed a few tears over it in nervous anticipation.  Ha!  I wanted Jed to be the one to represent us, but he had to work, so he sent me instead.  He’s the “connector extraordinaire”.  I’m usually too busy herding kids to do much connecting.  But, God definitely had a plan for me this week.  I’m still reeling in the wonder of it all.

This is an absolutely amazing time to be a part of the Vineyard family.  God is calling the Vineyard out in the areas of justice, mercy, and compassion like never before. 

“If we’re Kingdom people- believing that God’s kingdom is coming to earth right here and now- than we should be the frontrunners in justice, mercy, and compassion ministries”  
Tri Robinson

YES!!!  Oh man, I loved it when I heard those words spoken.  To see a room jam packed with Vineyard folks wanting to know how their body can better serve the lost and forgotten did my heart good. I won’t soon forget it.  

The theme of the conference was “All In”.  “All In” has two meanings.  One meaning is that all ages are “All In”.  All are needed for God’s full purposes to be accomplished.  We don’t just need the young- forgetting about the wisdom of the old.  We don’t just need the older- forgetting about the energy of the young.  No.  ALL are needed in this movement.  We honor what each age can bring to the table.  Everyone gets to play.  

The second meaning of “All In”, is that we are ALL IN.  Not just dipping our toes in the things of God, not just testing the waters. 
No.  We are ALL IN.   

“We believe that if the pursuit if the Kingdom of God is worth anything, it’s worth everything.”  

-Phil Strout (National Director, Vineyard USA)

He is worth everything.  EVERYTHING.  
Why not?  
What have we got to lose?  

One speaker that I loved was talking about the fear of the Lord.  He said that what we fear most is what we love most, what we want most in life.  We should fear losing sight of Jesus more than anything else.  More than fear of failure, fear of change, fear of losing my kids, fear of giving everything up…we should fear the Lord above all else.  

We’re giving up just about everything to move to Ukraine.  We’re all in.  But what do I fear?  I find myself fearing how my kids will do.  I find myself wondering if our kids will hate us for this decision.  I find myself fearing failure.  But, why?   If my kids are perfectly safe and comfy, but I have lost sight of Jesus, than it’s all for not.  We must step outside of our coziness, our need for safety and control and fall into His arms.  ALL IN.  Fear losing sight of Him over fear of losing control, fear of being unsafe.  Jesus never called us to safety.  He bid us come and die.  Only then will we know true life. Oh boy, I want true life so badly.  I want to be all in- holding nothing back.  What have I got to lose?  If He is my reason for being…why not spend myself for Him?  

All In is saying yes.  Step, by step, by step we say Yes to Him. Comfort, my expectations, safety, all move aside in order that I might keep Him in my sights.  

β€œAnyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 10:37-39

Will you dive ALL IN with us?  What if you stayed on the same path you’re on for the rest of your life?  Would it lead to Him?  What if? What if you said yes to Him today, and the next day, and the next day?  What have you got to lose?  Whatever it is, He is worth it.  


After leaving MTU today, I just had to walk.

My brain was going a mile-a-minute.

I just finished teaching a seminar on Vicarious Trauma (the cumulative impact of hearing many traumatic events in the lives of the people you help).  It is a serious issue for those who work in the Helping Profession.  
I also attended the funeral of a deeply loved pastor who was integral in the work MTU started throughout the Zhitomir region.
As I walked through my new city, the place we will call home for at least the first year of our lives in Ukraine,
I was trying to reconcile a  part of the training I deliberately skipped over.

I hadn’t plan to skip this part, in fact, I intended to spend some time on this theme.  But as I looked out at the teachers, counselors, therapists, nurses, and staff I could not tell them that a sign of Vicarious Trauma was connected to their ability to see the world as a good and safe place for themselves and those they love.
Now, before I get too far down this road, I believe this world is full of amazingly good things and good people and safe families and safe environments.
In the US, our biggest business is pain avoidance.  We prescribe, self-medicate, anesthetize and pasteurize our lives from as many problems and as much pain as possible.
At the drop of a hat we start to blame God, country and anything around us when our lives become anything less than ideal.  I’m speaking at myself here.
How could I tell these people, who not only see so much suffering, but experience it too, that the world is a good and safe place and you have a serious problem if you think otherwise?  They would laugh me out of the room.
I wasn’t ready to talk about this part of Compassion Fatigue (aka, Vicarious Trauma).
I needed to go for a walk and think about all I have been experiencing on this trip to Ukraine. 
“God, help me to understand this culture and people.  Help me to see the world through their eyes and support them as they work with the most vulnerable in their community.”
After a cup of coffee and some quiet time I had a clear thought. A sign of Vicarious Trauma fatigue is the inability to see the good that is around us and trust people in our lives.  It’s a slight change from the “everything’s coming up roses” worldview that is easy to have when you are hiding behind a shit-ton of missiles and medication.

Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.  The right to rule over sickness, death, sin and darkness had begun it’s reign on earth.  
He didn’t stand afar off and point at all that was wrong, Christ came and made wrong things right.  He became one of us and took the full weight of all our bad so we could walk in freedom and goodness and life.  See Isaiah 53:5.
As helpers, our job is to be like Jesus.  To stand in the places where the pain is most severe and cry out for God’s Kingdom to come and when we see healing and wholeness and life and freedom we celebrate it as a sign of God’s Kingdom here on earth.
We must take care of ourselves so we can serve from the overflow of God’s presence  and power in our lives.

I had the honor of speaking at MTU’s morning devotions and I shared from Mark 7:31-37 as model of care for those who work in the helps field.    

Read the passage and think of Jesus’ actions more like sign language than a mysitcal ritual.  
Jesus honors this man by taking him aside.  He tells him, through sign language, that he is going to heal his ears and speaking. He looks up to the Father, so the deaf man would know where the healing was coming from.
When it’s all said and done the entire community said, “Jesus does all things well!”  Or translate, He does all things completely.
Our work as helpers is usually partial healing: bandaging, counseling, listening, soothing, containing, informing and befriending.  But, as Christ followers, we can appeal to His finishing work and say;
“Father in Heaven, make your name great!  
Just like it is in Heaven, let it be here on earth; In my life and in the families and people I serve.  
Give us this day, everything we need to live lives of freedom in you.  
Let us be forgivers, people who give out love and kindness freely and without reservation, as we have been forgiven and loved much. 
Papa, let me learn the lessons I need to learn without going through the fires of temptation.  Don’t let me be so self-focused that I miss your sweet comfort that guides me in the way of peace.
You take all the glory today and I will bathe in the warmth of I life lived near your heart.

Warm Buses and Warm Hearts…hehehe

It’s a well-known fact among my real-life friends and fam that I’m an extra warm-blooded person.  I rarely wear a coat, and Jed constantly bemoans the fact that I’m passing that trait on to our kids.  Who needs a jacket?  They’re so bulky!  I’d much rather run from the house to the car to the store and back, than to be suffocated by a bulky jacket.  Don’t even get me started on the suffocation factor of scarves.  I get it that they’re cute, a little pop of color for an otherwise bland outfit, but am I the only one that can’t handle the strangulation?  Just the thought of a turtleneck makes me feel like my airway is about to close.

All that to say, warm weather and lack of airflow is a major downfall to my suitability as a missionary.  If you’ve ever traveled overseas you know what I mean.  Think warm bus, no windows down, stalled in traffic.  I have to talk myself down from the ledge.  “You actually won’t suffocate.  There is air available, just breathe deeply.”  
The vent right above my head…doesn’t work. 

Where am I going with this?  I have no idea.  I just had to talk it out because as I write this we’re on a fairly warm bus headed back to Zhitomir.  I’ve been sweating for the past 12 days, and so it continues today.  (I’m a Bittner.  We sweat.) Anywayssssss….I just needed you to feel my pain for a sec.  I feel better now.  πŸ™‚

Now, on to more pleasant topics that don’t involve sweat and strangulation.  
This past weekend was loads of fun!  We drove back to Kiev on Friday afternoon with our friend Oleg who happened to be heading that way.  He dropped us at the metro and we headed to the church where they were having a concert to reach the unreached.  We took the metro to the stop we knew was closest to the church and then hopped off.  It’s like a 20 minute walk from the metro to the church, and Jed, with his bat-like sense of direction, led us straight there without a hitch.  What a guy.
Jed promptly filled in on the bass and we got to see lots of people we love.  It was a good time.  
After the concert we went home with our friend Sergei.  We had the BEST time staying with Sergei and Alyona.  Seriously.  Being around their kids made us miss our babies something fierce, but we managed.  πŸ™‚  
Alyona cooked for us and fed us nonstop.  Yum.  Who am I to complain?  Her love language is feeding people, and we’re eaters; a match made in heaven.  

On Saturday morning we met Jim and Marianna Peipon (remember Olya and I went with Marianna to visit the baby at the hospital?) at their flat to tag along with them to a picnic.  Fun, fun, fun!  The picnic was for a coalition for children at risk.  Basically, a group of people consisting of Ukrainians, Americans, Russians, and Mexicans, who work with children at risk in various ways around Kiev got together to fellowship and eat together.  They welcomed us with open arms and we had a great time.  It was so fascinating to hear about what others are doing to help kids and how God led them to Ukraine.  We made some new friendships and some good connections.  Who knows what God plans to do with those relationships in the future?  We are open, and excited to find out.  Thank you new friends for making us feel so welcome!  We’ll see you again soon with kiddos in tow!
Saturday afternoon and evening we hung out with various friends and laughed a lot.  
Sunday, oh I loved Sunday.  It started out with Alyona feeding us some more delicious food, and ended the same.  Hehe
We headed out to church by taxi after the frantic rusharound of your typical Sunday morning.  It was hilarious to talk (sign/google translate) with Sergei about how Sunday mornings are the same for families all around the world.  “Hurry up!  Eat your breakfast!  Stop hitting your brother please.  Grrrrr.”  Then you get to church “Hallelujah….”  Yep.  Sunday morning in Ukraine is just like Sunday morning in Salem.  Why is that?  Hilarious and true.  If your Sunday morning isn’t stressful, let me in on your secret. πŸ˜‰ 
After a great time at church we joined our friends in their typical Sunday afternoon hangout.  Everyone takes the marshrutka to our fave: Puzata Hata!  Puzata Hata is a cafeteria-style Ukrainian restaurant.  Delish and cheap with plenty of space for hours of chattin’ it up.  As our friend Andrei says “Sunday afternoon is for relationship.”
Sunburned…my bad.
After the deliciousness of Puzata Hata we walked for a bit, talking more, till we got to the metro and parted ways.  Sergei and Alyona went to go buy their kids a pet mouse (yep, that’s totally not happening at my house) and we went with our friend Elvin to chat more since we won’t see him again before we leave Ukraine.  
After that it was home again home again jiggety jig.  Alyona fed us some more, and Jed and Sergei drooled over guitars online- just your typical Sunday night when you live with a musician.  

Anya and I did this:
I give this past weekend two thumbs way up.  We are so blessed to have good friends in Kiev who love us.  The feeling is so mutual.


You Can Never Make Enough New Friends!

Well hello there!

I have had such an interesting time here in Zhitomir so far.  As I walk around town I find myself trying to memorize everything I see, like I’ll be tested on it later.  Which, I guess I kind of will be tested on it, say, come November?  If I see a nice store I try to lock it into my brain and remember the sign.  If I see a nice park with kids playing I tuck that one away for later.  I take notes in my phone of bus and marshrutka prices, grocery prices and what food you can find where.  Who knows if any of this will really help later on, but it makes me feel better, so don’t knock it.
Yesterday morning I woke up with absolutely no idea what we were going to do that day.  (Remember the whole staying awake stewing till 1:00am?  Ahem.)  I woke up at like 7 and called Jed on skype.  
“What are we going to do today?  If we don’t make contact with anyone will the day be wasted?”
Jed, being ever wiser than I said “Just go outside, walk and pray.  That’s the most important thing you can do.”  What a guy.  
So, I headed out the door, headphones on, walking and praying for our new city.  I want to see these people the way God sees them.  I want Him to completely have His way in our lives and in Zhitomir.
I had been walking and praying for a while when my phone rang.  It was Tammy Swailes, one of the contacts I had hoped to make here in Zhitomir!  Okay, funny story: back when I was a kid my parents had a friend named Mary Jill.  I think maybe she was from Alaska, and I’m pretty sure we met at least once. (Hi Mary Jill!) Throughout the years I would hear her name, but I never really knew her.  Anyway, when we started to tell people we were moving to Ukraine, my uncle and my dad told me that Mary Jill was now a missionary in Hungary.  “You should connect with Mary Jill!  Maybe she knows people in Ukraine!”  Hmmm, maybe?  So, at one point we connected with Mary Jill, and when she found out we were going to be living in Zhitomir, sh told us that lo and behold one of her dearest friends lives near, and works in Zhitomir!  Enter Tammy Swailes.  πŸ™‚

Tammy called me as I was walking and praying and asked if I was up for a coffee.  Hint: I’m always up for a coffee.  So, she swung by, picked me up, we picked up Olya and headed for a place in Zhitomir that Tammy said I needed to know about.  While we drove we tried to figure out how we were connected.  Funny how small the world is and how the foreigner population in Ukraine is even a much tinier world.  I love it!  
Oh my, was Tammy right about me needing to know about the absolute gem she took us to!  Thank you Tammy!!  I am forever indebted.  She took us to “Global UA”, basically a huge shopping mall with a ginormous grocery store called “ΠšΠ°Ρ€Π°Π²Π°Π½” (Caravan).  It also has a big electronics store, a second hand clothing store, and all the other more expensive type stores that malls usually have.  The second hand will come in handy (haha) since clothes here are so expensive.  We looked around and then had a coffee together.  Tammy has lived here for like 12 years.  Wow!  I just found my how-to-live-in-Zhitomir mentor.  Are you up for it Tammy?  πŸ™‚  
For Addy, look!

We had the greatest time.  Tammy is so warm and comfortable.  Olya and I both agreed that we are big Tammy fans.  So, thanks Uncle Steve, Dad, and Mary Jill for making that happen!  God is so good to look out for us and bring friendship from the least expected places.  

After coffee Olya and I said good bye to dear Tammy and decided to browse a bit more around the mall to see what we could see.  A few minutes later my phone rang and it was Alla, the second contact I was hoping to meet here in Zhitomir!  At this point I just had to laugh at myself and my pointless worrying.  I’m sure God already had a good chuckle at it.  I would love to say I learned my lesson that God has everything planned out and I don’t need to worry, but I have a feeling my learning is just beginning.  πŸ™‚
Alla is Ukrainian, and she is a part of a small group here called Bible Orphan Ministry (BOM).  BOM does great orphan outreach and I’ve followed their blog for quite some time.  All this past year I thought they were located in Kiev, but I was really happy to find out they live in Zhitomir!  I had no idea that Zhitomir is kind of a “hub” for orphans with special needs for this region- and even other regions.  Hmmm…curiouser and curiouser… πŸ™‚  Fascinating that God would plant us here, eh?
Olya and I met the BOM team, Misha, Alla, Nadia, and Oksana at their church and then we set off for an orphanage about 30km away.  Every Friday they visit this orphanage and teach the older kids about Jesus.  The Director loves them and totally allows them to preach the Gospel.  We went on a Tuesday because they were going to do the final class for the kids who are “graduating”, or we like to say, aging out.  This week they will leave the orphanage and who knows what their futures hold.  

Three of the kids will go to study at a trade school a ways away.  A few of them have families, but they are pretty poor, so they won’t have the opportunity to pursue any studies.  At least one of the boys can’t read, so that’s not an option for him anyway.  Some will be on their own.  
There are several people we know of who focus ministry on typical kids who are aging out of orphanages.  I always knew this work was important, but never felt a particular passion for it.  I definitely felt a passion for the disabled who age out to mental institutions, but honestly hadn’t given a ton of thought to the typically developing teens.  All I needed was to meet some of them face to face and that all changed.
These kids are babies!  They are just babies!  The BOM team gave them gifts of bedding, a cooking pot, a bowl, and a spoon.  The kids were ecstatic.  Such treasures!  
After BOM shared with the kids and gave them gifts they asked me to introduce myself and let the kids know why I was there.  Oh my, how humbling to share just a bit with those precious kids.  How is it that I have the life I have and they have theirs?  How is it that I was raised by parents who loved me and taught me to love?  How is it that I have the choice to move here and care for others, when these kids have no choices?  Why them and not me?
Great gifts mean great responsibilities; greater gifts, greater responsibilities!  
Luke 12:48 (MSG)
Humbling.  Wow.  Praise God for people like Alla, Misha, Nadia, and Oksana who spend their lives equipping these kids who have so few people rooting for them.  Alla told me they make it a point to often tell the kids that Jesus loves them and He created them special.  They are precious to Him.  May that truth dig deep into their hearts and settle there for good.  
After we left the orphanage we went out to eat and chat.  The BOM team got comfy with Olya and I and we had some good laughs.  Eating together does that.  Don’t you love a good laugh over dinner?  
Don’t buy the serious face.  Misha’s a joker πŸ™‚
So, for a day with absolutely no plans, God managed to fill it up quite nicely!  Ha!
Today I said good bye to Olya (boohoooooo) since she needed to head back to Kiev for work.  I explored Zhitomir, did a thorough investigation of available foods at the big grocery store at the mall (gluten-free pasta!  Who knew?), and skyped with family and friends.  Tomorrow I’ll spend the day at MTU and hopefully look at some apartments with the realtor.  
Best news?  Jed is on his way to the airport and tomorrow night he’ll be with me!!!!  I am so ready to have him here.  I hope the day passes quickly until he gets here.  πŸ™‚
That’s all I got for today.  Off to bed now, dreaming of my babies at home.  I miss them a ton, but God is so gracious to help all of our hearts.  Thank you family and friends for loving on my babes.  Knowing they are with people who love them dearly keeps this Mama from becoming a hot mess.  THANK YOU!
I’ll leave you with a glimpse of the cuteness that is my babies 
(minus Addy and Ez because it took me a minute to figure out how to take a screen shot)

Lucky me.