Sunday, December 23, 2012

"My Grown Up Christmas List"

Christmas is only a few days away.  Have you purchased all your presents yet?

Just asking you to consider making a difference this year with your Christmas giving...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I Wonder What Is Worse...

It is easy to jump into something when you know the outcome... but what if the future is a bit... hazy... unclear... uncertain?  Making changes is never easy.  Making life changes is plain terrifying.

As I am standing at the edge of my life as I know it looking onto the other side is not easy.  How will everything work out?  What if something goes wrong?  What if it is not how I imagined it?

(a quick glance back)... maybe I should not attempt this?.. maybe I should get back to the life I know?..  At the very least I know what to expect from my life...

(a quick glance forward)... but how will I ever know?  What if the other side is not terrifying at all?  What if it is indeed as I had imagined?  What if crossing over will truly help me make my dreams come true?

I wonder what is worse - the fear of the unknown that fills your heart at the first step?.. or the ever-increasing fear that you had missed your chance?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Give This Christmas Away

Once again it is December and we're approaching Christmas. 

In the hassle of shopping and looking for that perfect gift for someone - be reminded today that you can bring joy not only to your family and friends but also to those who so desperately need it.

I found this song by Matthew West and Amy Grant on Bryan's Pandora station and I loved the message of the song.  Please take a moment to watch it.

This Christmas let's be intentional in our faith and in our giving. Ask yourself what can you and your family do to make this Christmas meaningful?

Sponsor a missionary?
   Bake cookies, make hot cocoa and find some homeless people to share them with?
         Volunteer at a local soup kitchen?
                  Share Christmas by inviting someone over who would otherwise be lonely?

Whatever you choose to do - do not get so caught up in decorating, baking, and shopping that you miss an opportunity to share hope... bring life... be the light... show the world how different Christmas really is.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

There Is So Much Good In The Worst Of Us

I'm listening to this song today

It is playing as a background to my facebook surfing... to tell you the truth, I can't even tell you what the song is really about (I enjoy the tune of it so I let it play)... and then... this line... "There is so much good in the worst of us, so much bad in the best of us".

And it hits me with truth... I can't shake this sentence off my mind... and I don't even know what the rest of the song says.

The neighborhood I work in is full of homeless people, meth addicts, and people I would have previously labeled as "strange".  Over the course of my few months there I have met and gotten to know some of these people... and I've grown to miss them when I don't see them often.  As Christians, we are quick to offer help to those we consider "needy" and "broken" but so often this help only extends to those we're comfortable with.  It's so easy to close our eyes to those we consider "undeserving", those who (in our not so humble opinion) have brought this suffering upon themselves, those who may take our "hard-earned" money and use it on drugs or alcohol.

I beg you today to be different from those who are rushing past with a disgusted look on their faces.  I beg you to see (even if just for a moment) past the addiction, past the smell, past all those exterior things - and try to see the good in those people.  I promise you - your life will be enriched by their stories and their friendship.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Finding Truth... So Many Questions

As a child I grew up in the Soviet Union.  Without going into many specific details - allow me to simply say that there's so much about my culture and my point of reference that is great and so much that is not so great.  

One of the things that I am being confronted with today is that I never learned to ask questions. There was only one true political system... there was only one way to live your life... your political leaders knew what they were doing and any difficulties you may have faced in your life were due to circumstances beyond their control.

Even after the Soviet Union fell - that mentality stayed.   In over 20 years of independence my home country of Belarus has only had ONE (!) president who has been in office for the past 18 years. In the newly found religious freedom most Christians were taught never to question their leaders.

Why then I am sitting in front of my computer now... at 30 years old... struggling to understand some inconsistencies of my Christian experience... trying to find the real biblical truth behind Sunday School lessons?

Every time I found myself asking difficult questions I bumped into 2 kinds of people - the cynical hard-hearted disillusioned people or the gossipers... I want to be neither. I just want to find the truth.

I want to know what it really means to love your neighbor.
I want to know what it really means to submit to my husband.
I want to know what the duties of a pastor are... and how much say should a pastor have in my life.
I want to know what to teach my daughter about being a woman in this modern world (and as much as I hate to admit it - she'll do most of the learning by watching me so I better get to it).
I want to know what the church is... and what the service should look like... and if worship is defined as obedience then why is it equated to slow songs... and what would God want from our children ministry...
I want to know what evangelism looks like to Jesus... what God really thinks about legalizing gay marriage... or being gay in general... or sex outside of marriage... or gossip... and when is gossip a gossip and when it is not... or pride...
I want to know about grace... and where that almost invisible line lies between freedom to sin and do whatever my heart desires and being forgiven of my mistakes and letting go of guilt...
I want to know what "having a relationship with God" really should mean...
I want to know about decision-making...
I want to know about politics and God and whether church and state should be separate or not...  what freedom really means and how to protect my freedom without infringing on the rights of others... and how not to let others to infringe on mine.

DISCLAIMER #1: I know many of you have a strong feeling about some of those questions and I know the responses will vary... I don't necessarily need to know your opinion - for it may be faulty [gasp]. This is my journey - I want to know the truth - straight from the heart of God... so even while I welcome an honest discussion over a cup of tea or coffee from those of you who personally know me - I do not want this post to provoke angry debates in my comment section.  Can you please do me a favor and follow a simple rule every mom should have taught her children - "If you got nothing nice to say - don't say it at all"?

DISCLAIMER #2: I believe in God.  I believe in Jesus, the Messiah.  I believe in the hope, in the forgiveness of sins.  Of that I am certain.

When you look at the beliefs you hold - why do you believe what you believe?  Have you ever asked yourself that question?  How much of your world view is shaped by your family?  your church?  your school?   your friends?  your social and cultural background?

Have you learned to accept your point of view as correct?  Or do you find yourself asking some difficult questions... questioning the very truths you once held unwavering?

Today I resolve to think for myself.  Today I resolve not to let myself build my opinions on what others (no matter how knowledgeable they may appear) say.  Today I refuse to blame my culture, my church, my family or my upbringing.  Today I promise to admit that I am not sure what I think on certain issues. Today I promise not to choose sides based on religious affiliation but to dig for the truth.  Today I resolve to sift through my convictions and be responsible for the ones I choose to hold on to.  Today I choose to be me.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cry For Help

It breaks my heart every time I go outside.  Far Rockaway.  The area where I spent the last 7 years doing Sidewalk Sunday School.  The people whom I saw almost every week.  Struggling.  No power, no heat, no phone… in many places still without gas or running water (even though gas and running water have been restored to some areas but not everywhere still).

I HATE SANDY (the hurricane)!!!

On Saturday I was in Far Rockaway again doing the relief work with Metro Ministries.  As I was standing by one of the trucks I saw a woman I knew from one of my Sidewalk Sunday School sites (mind you we’re at least 38 blocks away from where she lives). She cried and told me they lost everything…

I wish you could see this with your own eyes.  People still staying in the apartments with no heat (some apartments closer to the ocean had broken windows).  Many apartments on bottom floors (1st and 2nd) got flooded destroying every piece of clothes and furniture and mattress and blankets these people had – how can one get warm with no heat and no blanket?  Many apartments got looted.  One of my dear families lost everything not because of the flooding but because they returned to the looted home.  They have no clothes, everything of value had been carried away, their mattresses slashed to find hidden money (as if they had any).

And now as if that weren't enough struggle - a snow storm hit NYC yesterday.

on my way home from work - a snow storm

It’s killing me to not be able to do much. The organization Bryan & I volunteer at has done amazing job at going out into the affected areas of Red Hook, Coney Island, and my dear Far Rockaway and handing out blankets, food, and water.  There is still so much need.

I wish I could help that family.  I wish I could buy those girls new clothes and new mattresses but I can’t.  We gave them our sleeping bags and some towels and things… but it seems so little…

Last night I wanted to write the post and ask you to send money so we can buy some clothes and mattresses for this family and others.  But I realized that even though it is important – it is more important that you ask yourself this question – “What can I do to help?”  I assure you the need is huge.  What can I do to extend God’s love to these people who are getting more and more desperate now with this snow storm that fell upon the city?  Can I send money?  Can I send clothes?  Can I pray?  Can I send blankets?  Can I… options are endless as to what you can do.

This morning I am not asking you for money.  Sometimes it is easier to write a check than to allow God to break your heart for the suffering of the people.  Beware of that danger. 

I am asking you to get involved in whichever way you can.  I am asking you to seek God and do whatever you can to help these people (whether it involves sending money or not).

The Scripture I’m about to quote is often used in reference to two people getting married or two friends.  I urge you today to read it as brothers and sisters in Christ – family to those who you may not know personally but who so desperately need your help.  Many of them are all alone in their trouble now.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor.  For if they fall, one will lift up his companion.  But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.  Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone?”  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11)
The snow storm has hit NYC - and many people are still struggling
without water, heat or basic necessities

Attitude Adjustment

I am in my apartment. I’m cold.  I have warm pajamas and a sweater on as I crawl underneath my blanket and want to stay there until spring.  I’m annoyed by all the little rodents that are trying to find their way into my home now that the weather is terribly cold outside and in the basement.  I’m making some tough decisions right now.  My internet is out which means this post would have to wait to get published until I get to Starbucks. I’ve dealt with a few people’s problems yesterday and they made me feel like nothing I say ever matters so why bother trying to help people. It is snowing outside and did I mention that I wanted to stay underneath my blanket till spring?

Yet, as I look at my tiny inconveniences they all seem ridiculous. Tiny, puny, and insignificant little issues that can easily be reversed with a little attitude adjustment.

I have an apartment.  I remember when we looked for one and could not find anything within our budget.  This apartment was a blessing from God that allowed us to stay in New York and continue doing what we do.

I’m cold.  I have warm pajamas and a sweater on as I crawl underneath my blanket and want to stay there until spring. But I have a sweater to put on and my heat as weak and broken as it is is better than nothing.  And did I mention my blanket and my warm pajamas?  Those fuzzy socks are sure coming in handy right now. This is more than most of my friends in Far Rockaway can dream of.

I’m annoyed by all the little rodents that are trying to find their way into my home now that the weather is terribly cold outside and in the basement.  Ok that’s a tough one.  I hate mice and I hate them even more when they are trying to share an apartment with me without contributing to the paying of the bills.  I can still be grateful.  I can be grateful for the fact that I have a husband who’s trying to get rid of them.  I can be grateful that he’s dealing with that and not me.  If I try to focus on the right things – I can still be grateful.

I’m making some tough decisions right now. I’m grateful to even have options to choose from. 

My internet is out which means this post would have to wait to get published until I get to Starbucks. Really? Come on, Helen!  Firstly, it’s just the Internet and it’s not like I don’t have a smart phone.  Secondly, did I mention Starbucks?

I’ve dealt with a few people’s problems yesterday and they made me feel like nothing I say ever matters so why bother trying to help people. Because one day either it’ll click or they will be left speechless when God holds them accountable for their thoughts and actions.

It is snowing outside and did I mention that I wanted to stay underneath my blanket till spring? I’ve covered that already.

My circumstances never changed.  The situation I find myself in – here in my apartment typing up this post – has not changed.  My attitude did.

My prayer for you today is that when you find yourself in a situation where your heart is growing whiny and discontent – that you would be able to reverse it with an attitude adjustment.  We do have so much – let’s be grateful.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Love In The Midst Of The Storm

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to minister to the needy and broken.  I wonder if I am making a difference  I wonder if bringing a truck and a piece of candy to a kid who is living in a tough situation is really making a difference.  Yesterday I realized that it did.  In fact I didn't need a truck, or a fancy story, or toys, or games, or candy... all I had was an eleven month old baby in a pink polka dotted snow suit. 

Yet playing with that baby brought joy to children who have been living in darkness (literally!) for four days.  

Our Sidewalk Sunday school site is between the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay, the entire peninsula is only a few blocks wide..  Due to the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy much of this peninsula was flooded, leaving residents without power, water, or heat.  Hundreds of people were lined up outside in the cold waiting for food, water, and other supplies from the Red Cross.  When it came, it came in armored vehicles. 

But as I was standing there watching people get their supplies I was reminded why kids were happier to see us than the army trucks, why they were happier to see a little girl in a pink snow suit than bottles of water.  There is one reason - LOVE.  I realized that LOVE is what resonates with kids when we come every week.  God's love is what we are really giving them.  And that it a reason to keep ministering to the hurt, the needy, the lost, and the forgotten in this world.  Because God's love is the only thing that will really make a difference in their lives.

all cars that were left parked in Far Rockaway are damaged beyond repair -
many were washed over by the ocean and wind from their parking spots

many areas are completely covered in sand - this picture is taken in a playground
that is right next to where we do Sidewalk Sunday School every Friday

Please continue praying for the residents in Far Rockaway and many other areas that are still without water, gas, heat, or electricity.  If you can do anything to help - I urge you to get involved. The need is so great that every little bit counts.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Real Change

Over the course of the past several months I've had many conversations with many different people from many different walks of life (Christians, believers of other faiths, and non-believers, vegans and omnivores, democrats and republicans, Americans and Europeans).  We all want the world around us to be better... we really do... even the most cynical of us wish things could have been a bit different.

Ever since I was really little I have resolved to spend my life trying to make the world a better place for everyone.  I entered ministry at a very young age helping out the American missionaries in Belarus, slowly graduating from interpreting for ministers to ministering myself.

(children are listening to the lesson at our Sidewalk Sunday School site)
If there is one lesson that I have learned during my years in ministry it would be this - Real Change Comes From Within.  If you convince people to change from the outside in - they will sooner or later lapse back.  If you're losing weight for a special event - you will gain it right back plus some when the event passes.  If you're staying away from all the major "sins" like getting drunk, having sex without being married, no drugs - but you have not developed a personal relationship with God - it is only a matter of time before you slip again.  If a child has learned to obey the parent to get something out of them you can be sure that when the incentive fades they will start disobeying again.  I'm sure it's easy to get my point and the list of examples is endless.  

I'm sure all of us have someone in our lives that we're frustrated with.  We want them to act differently, to speak differently, to be different.  And while sometimes our discomfort does not equal the fact that the person needs to change (yay for diversity), whenever we speak of destructive behaviors - it is always true.  There are people in my life who I've poured into and invested in more than most others would get... and they  chose to walk away from God.  Why?  Because they were not changed from within.  They loved spending time with me, they loved the attention they got at church, they loved attending all the events, they loved having somewhere to be and something to do... but they did not love God.

When people around you seem to stumble - do not get frustrated or angry.  Be an example.  Be there for them. And most importantly - pray that God will bring the change from within.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Living In Plan B (or C or D or... Z???)

I have become a master in adapting to new circumstances.  Oh don't get me wrong - I often go kicking and screaming - but I manage to find contentment eventually.

Recently I was coming home from a late night shift.  I was tired and somewhat discouraged.  I kept thinking about the Sidewalk Sunday School ministry teams that worked hard all day to prepare for going out on the streets again while I spent my evening in a coffee shop... yeah...  As the night settled over Brooklyn and I navigated my way home through the weird smells and the distant sounds of arguments, police sirens, and many other noises I asked myself if that is what I signed up for.

Often times we find ourselves in the situations that do not look like the first choice.  They do not even remotely resemble the hopes and dreams we had for the future.  We look around asking ourselves how we ended up where we are and whether this is really all that life is about.

I remember the first time I felt that I was called to ministry.  I had great visions of international success, conferences, training, missions trips... It has not quite turned out how I had hoped.  I was wondering if God knew about this all along and maybe He's been working on my character or something.  After some years passed other things came into play.  I had to make the decision to leave full-time ministry (in the "American" understanding of that word).  I had a child who needed taken care of.  I had bills that needed to be paid.  And so now I work at a what you would call a "secular" job.  Even the "plan B" seemed unlikely at this point.  I felt like with every choice I made I moved farther and farther away from the original "plan A" that I had in mind.

Until I realized this one thing... There is no such thing as plan B... or C... or whatever... God knows every decision we had made and will make in the future.  He has crafted a beautiful plan for us that takes into consideration everything that happens to us.  I thought of a typical Sunday School story of Joseph.  I personally had told it so many times before.  A little boy with great dreams... slightly unwise at the time... a terrible turn of events... favor... prison... his life was taking all kinds of turns and none of them seemed to bring him any closer to his vision.

Do you feel like this sometimes?  Like what you hoped and dreamed for is getting farther and farther away from your reach?  If so - be encouraged by the story of Joseph.

Joseph did see his vision pass.  He might have wanted to avoid certain experiences (as we all would looking back at our own lives).  But God's grace had brought him through it all and at the end of that he could look upon his brothers with love and say, "So now it was not you who sent me here, but God".  (Genesis 45:8)

We know the end of Joseph's story but we do not yet see the end of ours because we're still living it out.

"The Lord will perfect that which concerns me."
(Psalm 138:8a)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Hate Chores

It is early in the morning (3.20am) and my mind wanders.  I tell my mind to stay focused on what I'm thinking but without warning it jumps into an entirely different part of my life, bringing to memory unrelated thoughts...

But there is indeed one thought that I must get out - before I forget, before it becomes hazy with the demands of the day.  Here it is - Spending time with God is NOT a chore.

I don't know about you but I used to hate chores as a kid. I would have no problem cleaning out the entire house if my mom asked for a favor (because I loved her and I wanted her to be happy)... but I would stubbornly resent doing anything that I had to do simply because I had to do it.

Is this familiar at all?

I have realized today that I carry this mentality into my Christian life.  As I grew in my relationship with God (because I love Him), I was reminded by all the things that I had to do as a "good Christian" (whatever that term is even supposed to mean).  I learned that a "good Christian" is supposed to read their Bible daily, pray every day, go to church every Sunday, tithe, preferably be involved serving in the church... oh yeah and always smile... am I forgetting something?

And herein the problem lies.

I have tried everything: devotional books, YouVersion (a great app by the way) reminders, not going on facebook or any other websites until I've had my time with God, fasting computer, fasting food, Bible reading plans, accountability groups, etc., etc.  It has not worked. I kept failing and my spiritual life pattern often reminded an ECG  (can anyone relate?).

And then one day I grew unsatisfied.  Unsatisfied with how things were.  Unsatisfied with my progress.  Blaming my church no longer worked.  Blaming my husband no longer worked.  My soul was laid bare.  I finally faced the ultimate catalyst for change - a realization that you have no one but yourself to blame.

And the realization came - all this time I viewed spending time with God as a chore... when it was never meant to be that.  Not by Him at least.  And that's when the change came.

When you open yourself up to the Lord - bare and vulnerable - when you show Him your raw places - healing will come.  When you open yourself up to the love of God - the change will come.

I still hate chores.

I am in love with God.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Having the Little One taught me a lot about reading non-verbal cues... you know, one indeed can tell simply by looking into babies' eyes whether they are really angry, or scared, or in pain... you don't always know it right away and you don't get it right 100% of the time... but after a while you just know.

It's easy to see pain in another person if you know what it looks like.

Working in a non-ministry environment has opened my eyes to a whole new level of need in the city.  So many people who walk through the doors are simply tired of figuring life out and they are looking for a safe place - a safe place away from work and away from home... a place where they don't have to pretend.

We - humans - pretend all the time.  We perform... for our spouses... our children... our boss... our families... our friends... often even for God.  We feel insecure, we are afraid to be vulnerable with each other for the fear of being judged or misunderstood.

This must not be among Christians.

The people in this city (and your town) are growing weary of pretending... are we ready to embrace them?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Would I Want To Forget?

The Little One is turning 10 months next week.  I (Helen) have had this post saved in drafts for almost a year now.  I wrote it before she was born.  I just couldn't bring myself to share it.  Couldn't bring myself to peel the bandage for fear that it is still too raw.  Wondered what would happen if I just put it out there?

So many things have happened since this post was written.
1) We got blessed with a beautiful daughter (a.k.a. The Little One).
2) We went to Belarus for like ever (i.e. 3.5 months) - and now that we're back in the States again - I miss my mom terribly.
3) I have graduated with honors and am now proudly putting "Bachelors degree" on my resume.
4) Oh yeah - about a resume - for those of you who didn't know (even though many of you who read this blog also follow our adventures on facebook so you're in the loop) - after 10 amazing years as a full-time staff at Metro Ministries I have chosen to resign and stay on as a volunteer.
5) This change also means that I have a different job now - as of today I am officially employed by Starbucks (and 'yes' I love you but 'no' please don't ask me for free stuff when you come see me at work).
6) Our family will still continue to minister at our Sidewalk Sunday School site in Queens (on a voluntary basis).

Now that you're somewhat updated... allow me to take you back to November 2011.  My reason for finally posting this is that it may bring healing to someone else's raw places. So (holding my breath) here it goes:

As I am counting down to the final days (or possibly even hours) up to her arrival - I must look back at the journey that I took to get here.  

All throughout my pregnancy I was wondering whether I would ever forget...  

Forget how it feels like being empty...  Forget what it feels like going through dozens of pregnancy tests and still getting the same negative result...  Forget what it feels like convincing myself that I am no less a woman...    Forget what it felt like fighting to still have hope...

I was also wondering if I could ever forget what it felt like to know that the little one who once lived inside of me lives no more... what it felt like asking God for answers and explanations... what it felt like not knowing why...

Though most people want to forget their painful experiences (as sometimes they should) - some of our pain should not be forgotten.  There're precious lessons we learn in the midst of our pain.  And our previous losses make us ever so grateful for the current blessings.  How dare I forget the perfect joy I experienced once my current pregnancy went over the week when I lost my previous one?  How dare I forget the overwhelming gratitude that flooded my soul every time I realized the Little One was still there - inside of me?

I remember not being able to write any more.  Tears streaming down my face.  Tears of joy mixed with tears of sorrow.  Tears of hope mixed with tears of sadness.

I do not know your journey.  I do not know what you are going through or have gone through or will go through.  But these 2 things I do know.

1.  I never want to allow painful experiences to shape my view of God, the world, and people around me.  For a man's vision is always distorted in the darkness.

2.  I never want to forget my journey... if for no other reason but to be able to connect with those who are struggling still.

Do not be afraid to be vulnerable.  Do not be afraid to reach out.  You never know who needs to know that they are not the only ones struggling today.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A New Woman Is Born

A new woman is born today.
She is strong.  She is determined.
Inspirational.  Powerful.

She knows her strengths and her talents.
She is aware of her shortcomings and weaknesses.
Yet she is not afraid to face them.

She is not afraid to look her age.
For her age is her experience.
Her witness to the life she had lived.

Her wrinkles and gray hair are a reminder of years well lived.
Of smiles and of tears.  Of laughter and of sorrow.
Each year leaving a trace on her body.

Her scars and stretch marks are a reminder of the joy of  motherhood.
Every hug and every "I love you"
Are forever ingrained in her body.

She will refuse the shame and fears of her past to have the victory.
She will move on. One day at a time.
A new woman is born today.

- Helen -
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