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.  🙂

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.  🙂  
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. 😉 
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.  🙂

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 “Караван” (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?  🙂  
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.  🙂
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… 🙂  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 🙂
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.  🙂
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.

Pass the Tissues…

So last night I laid in bed awake till almost 1:00am with a brain that wouldn’t shut off.  What was I thinking about, you ask?
-What will we do tomorrow?
-I have to take advantage of every moment.  What if none of my contact hopes works out for tomorrow?  Will it be a “wasted” day?
-Is Mission to Ukraine (MTU) expecting me to come in tomorrow?  Hmmm…I better check in with them first thing.
-There sure are a lot dogs barking.  Kinda makes me feel like I’m in Kosovo.  🙂
-I hope Jed gets to Zhitomir okay on Thursday.  He won’t have a phone…how will I know when to meet him at the city center?
-How will I fit all my kids on the tiny marshrutkas they have here in Zhitomir?
-I kind of wish I had ice cream right now. 
-How will my kids make friends here? 
-Will we be lonely? 
-What will we do tomorrow?????  Surely God has a plan, right?
Yeah, my mind was spinning and I was kind of worrying…about everything.  People tell me all the time that they could never do what we are doing, or getting ready to do.  How do we do it?  How are we so brave?  Hahahahaha!  Now you see.  🙂  We are nothing special.  Sometimes we look like deer in headlights.  We cry (well, not so much “we”, more “me”). We fret.  We keep ourselves awake worrying about things we can’t do anything about.  But, in the end we just put one foot in front of the other and praise God He’s not afraid to use cracked, imperfect vessels like you and me to be His hands and feet.    
It kind of reminds me of our time fostering.  People would always say they could never foster; that it would be too hard to let the babies go after you start to get attached.  Let me tell ya, it was too hard.  It was impossibly hard.  But, God called us to it and He gave us grace for what He called us to.  It doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt like crazy.  It doesn’t mean we didn’t ever cry ourselves to sleep at night because of the heartache.  It just means that when He calls you HE gives you every single thing you need to accomplish His purposes.  And because of that I would do it all over again in a second.  
This is scary.  This is wonderful.  This is exciting.  But trust me; we are not anything special.  Talk to our close friends and family.  Pass the tissues, ’cause we all got issues.  We worry about all the same things you would worry about if you were in our shoes, but we know He will give us every single thing we need to accomplish His purposes.  We just need reminders of that every 5 minutes or so.
That truth is not only for us!  I don’t know who all is reading this, but I know that God wants to remind someone about this truth today.  
He is enough.  He will make the way.  He will smooth the path.  His word does what it sets out to accomplish.  He doesn’t expect you to be super strong or super brave or even a little bit perfect.  He asks you to be willing, and the rest is up to Him.
Step out!  Act on the dreams God has planted in your heart.  Tell Him you are willing and watch what He does.  Don’t let fear hold you back.  Love fully.  Live fully.  Trust.  (I’m preaching to myself today too!)  
Isaiah 55:10-13 rocks my world: 
“For your thoughts are not my thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares The Lord.
As the heavens are higher than then the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” 

Oh, but it gets better.  Listen to what happens when we trust!  This is the best:

“You will go out in joy and be led out in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands.  
Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree (Ha!!!  Yesssss!) and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.  
This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed,” 

It is my joy; it is your joy to partner with The Lord in His work.
Trees clapping, hills singing…bring it. 
It was sunny, but consider yourself winked at.  🙂

Blind Date on Sunday

Warning, I’m in a bit of a mood.  Not a bad mood, just a quirky mood.  An I’m-not-sure-what-will-come-out-of-my-mouth (or fingers) mood.  You’ve been warned.  Now feel free to read on.  🙂
Today was loads of fun.  I laughed a lot today.  Don’t you love days like that?  
Today I got to go to Kiev Vineyard!  I love that place so much.  Jed was super jealous, and you all should be jealous too because it’s a wonderful place to be.  Hehe

Last year when we walked into Kiev Vineyard we felt right at home, and I felt that even more this time.  I feel like I can just “be”.  I don’t have to be “on”.  I don’t have to be a certain anything.  I am loved just as I am.  I may not understand a lick of the worship or teaching, but I understand the heart, the passion, the love.  Our hearts beat the same as the other hearts in that room and that’s enough.  

After church my friends Anya and Sasha walked me to the metro because I had a blind date with an American couple.  Anya and Sasha were pretty afraid to leave me to navigate the metro alone.  What? Me, alone in a city of millions of people I can’t communicate with, on the metro, alone?  What’s to worry about?  Ha!  I wasn’t worried at all.  

They wanted to come along, but I promised I would be fine. After I finally promised to call Sasha when I arrived, they let me go.  I felt so loved!  🙂
The metro is a people-watcher’s heaven.  Seriously.  Old people, babies, people in a rush, people taking their time, people with flowers, people with guitars, Babushkas with big grocery bags.  I just want to squeeze those cute little grandmas!  They’re so stinkin’ cute!  
Annnnnd I made the trip without a hitch!  Aren’t you all proud of me?  

I met Kevin and Debbie Nelson on my blind date and just had the best time.  I can’t say enough.  I love them!  The crazy thing is, I got their info from my friend Kim who’s been praying for them for a long time now, but she’s never met them.  Jed and I thought we shouldn’t turn down any possible connection so we emailed the Nelsons and arranged the date.  Then I was talking with a co-worker at the hospital a week before I left for this trip and she told me she has a cousin in Kiev and I should meet her.  Well, the cousin just happens to be the one and only, Debbie Nelson!  Ha!  Destiny’s child I tell ya.

Kevin, Debbie, and I went to my fave restaurant, Puzata Hata, so I was instantly happy.  We proceeded to spend the next almost 3 hours chattin it up about life in Ukraine and what brought us all here.  I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of the Nelsons because they are just fabulous.  They are real, funny, wise, and faithful.  God first took them to Russia where they served for several years, and now they’ve been in Ukraine for the past 8 years.  They gave me advice on everything from prayer support, to visas, to apartment choosing, to appliance voltage, to grocery shopping.
(You all know I was thankful for that one in particular!) 

I would totally consider a second date with Kevin and Debbie.  Too bad it can’t be tomorrow!  🙂
I managed to make it home to Olya’s apartment without getting even close to lost, and came home to an apartment filled with friends.  Success.

Tomorrow Olya and I head to Zhitomir to check out the future Johnson landing place and to meet with a realtor.  It should be quite the adventure.  House Hunters International anyone?  

Good night all!  A special good night to my Mom.  Love you Mom!  Happy Mother’s Day!  Here’s your present! 

(She wants more pictures of me on the blog, just like I can’t get enough pics of my babies while I’m gone.  Once a mommy, always a mommy)  🙂

Celebrity Sightings

Today I had a celebrity sighting, Ukraine style.

Ever since this journey began in 2010, we’ve been on the lookout for people in Ukraine doin’ the stuff.  “The Stuff” being, outrageous obedience to God.  We’ve been on the lookout for people who are living lives Wide Awake, lives that don’t make sense to the world, but make perfect sense when you’re talking The Kingdom.  Lives lived on the edge of their seat…awaiting the Fathers voice.  
About 2 years ago, while on the lookout for such people, I stumbled upon the Malone family.  Chris and Mary Malone first had 4 healthy biological kids, and then their 5th child, Ethan, was born with an extra chromosome and their lives were changed forever.  Their eyes were opened, like ours, to what life is like in Ukraine for orphans born with Down Syndrome, like Ethan.  Since then they have adopted 4 precious kiddos from Ukraine, all with Down Syndrome.  My kind of people!
After I’d been following their story for a while I read that they were moving their family to Ukraine!  Okay, definitely my kind of people!  Last year Jed and I tried to meet the Malones when we were in Ukraine, but they had just recently moved and the timing didn’t work out.  Well, today it worked out and it was seriously like a celebrity sighting!  🙂  

God has opened the doors for Chris and Mary to be able to minister to other local families who are raising children with disabilities.  He has provided a wonderful home where they can welcome mothers in and encourage them as they navigate raising their special children.  What a breath of fresh air!  Absolutely brave and beautiful and humbling and awe-inspiring.  

Olya and I got to meet up with the Malones and attend a special Easter program for kids with disabilities and their families.  Puppets, cartoons, singing, beautiful children free to be who God created them to be, smiling mothers relieved to see their children accepted and embraced.  We loved it!

Thank you Chris and Mary for your obedience to do what may sound crazy to a lot of people.  I think it’s radical and amazing and I can’t wait to join you in the craziness. 🙂
You can follow the Malone’s journey here: http://malonesinukraine.com/

After the program we headed to Chris and Mary’s house to chat and meet some other pretty special celebrities!
Randy, Cephas, and Lucia Kacirek.  

I can’t even tell you how happy I was to see those faces in the flesh.  
I’ve been following the Kacirek’s adoption journeys (yes, plural) for some time now.  I love Tina’s heart and her writing.  Talk about people living on the edge of their seat!   
Randy and Tina just adopted Cephas and Lucia from an orphanage here in Ukraine. Randy and the kids have been staying with the Malones as they await their flight home.  
I wish I could adequately explain the beauty.  Cephas and Lucia were both “laying down” children.  Both unable to walk, they laid and waited for years and years.  Now they are chosen!  It is unbelievable.  The Kacireks met Cephas and Lucia in 2010 while they were in Ukraine adopting one of their sons.  They fell in love.  In the fall of 2012 the kids were moved to a different facility and Lucia made sure the caregivers knew she wouldn’t be there long “My parents are coming for me”.  When Tina asked Lucia if she ever worried when many months had passed and they hadn’t returned to Ukraine for her.  Lucia replied “No, I wasn’t worried.  I knew you would come.”

To read more about Lucia and Cephas I really encourage you to read these two posts (at least):
You will not be sorry. 
Their stories are of the amazing redemptive work of God.  He’s always rooting for the underdog.  He’s always behind the scenes: moving hearts, making ways, smoothing paths.  How did Lucia maintain such hope- despite her hopeless circumstances?  She was literally adopted in the knick of time.  She was about to age out and be lost in the system for the remainder of her days.  Yet she knew.  She had faith.  Both Cephas and Lucia have such life in their eyes.  Cephas could talk your ear off in a minute flat.  He doesn’t miss a beat!  Lucia was telling Olya her story, and about how she so happy to have a family now, with a mommy and a daddy- every child’s dream.  
Thank you Randy and Tina for keeping your hearts Wide Awake.  It was worth it for those two treasures.
I wish each one of you could just spend 5 minutes with Cephas and Lucia Kacirek, with Ethan, Matthew, Micah, and Eliana Malone.  Six beautiful children created with purpose and destiny, now called son and daughter, sister and brother- all because some people said yes.  The Malones and Kacireks would tell you they aren’t celebrities, or superstars (though I might beg to differ), they are just people who said yes- Wide Awake.  
Please don’t turn away because the need is overwhelming.  The need is great, but God is greater.  We can’t respond only to need.  We see the need, our hearts are broken, but we respond to His voice.  

If He says pray, pray!
If He says give, give!
If He says go, go!
If He says adopt, adopt!  
Every yes is valuable.  Every yes is beautiful.  Just say yes to your yes!!!  DO IT!  
 Olya has a new friend 🙂