Sunday dawned clear and bright, as we slept in. The services at the English-speaking church Loys and Virgil attend don’t start until 1:00pm, so this was a nice change from our normal 7:30am start to Sunday morning back home!

Jason and Anya came to pick half of us up (Virgil drove the other half) and we made it to church about ten minutes before the service started. People were very welcoming. The church is a great mix of nationalities, with a lot of Malaysian people along with some Nigerians and a few Americans. Most of them are students, so the church has a very young feel to it.

Some of the people who came to church

Church banner – in Ukrainian. “Jesus – Bread of Life”

Church banner – in Russian. “Jesus – Lamb of God”

The service was . . . wonderful. The worship time was awesome, led by a praise band made up of primarily Asian students. They had a piano, bass, guitar, and some bongos, and another girl in the audience wielding the tamborine. We knew most of the songs (this was primarily contemporary worship), and sang on all of them. While the acoustics, music, powerpoint, etc would be considered a little rough by our polished American church standards, it’s been a long time since I was in a worship time as good as this one was. Everyone in the room was singing, and this congregation of perhaps 60 or 70 people rivaled in volume congregations many times larger that I’ve been in in the States.

One of the worship leaders

After the singing, the pastor delivered a message based upon the book of Judges and the endless cycle of Israel’s leaving God, suffering, repenting, and coming back to God. Molly wrote down the following quote, which I thought was very good:

“Victory is not overcoming my sin,

or the devil, or the world.

True, lasting victory is only found

when Jesus overcomes me”

It was a great service. The congregants were joyful and welcoming, the worship was blessed and had full participation, the message was to the point and impacting. We finished with a chorus of Blessed Assurance and church was over. At this point many of the students who had attended went to, I presume, catch a Marshutka back to where they live. Churches here don’t need big parking lots.

As I left the church the thought occured to me that this was a taste of heaven. I was worshipping the Father with brothers and sisters of multiple nationalities; all colors of the rainbow, all in one accord. I’m so used to being in worship services with people just like me. This was wonderful.

Following church, we went next door to the house that Anya and Jason are house-sitting, and they allowed me to call home over the free Vonage phone there. That was very nice, and I had a good conversation with my parents.

Then began the adventure of finding lunch. We drove downtown and stopped in at an italian place that had delicious smells wafting from it. We were in there for close to ten minutes before we realized they had just closed for the day (heh – they closed when a group of clueless Amerikanskis stopped in – coincidence? 🙂 We then walked back out into the square and travelled through a tunnel – complete with beer bottles and some vomit from the night before – and found ourselves in a Celtic restaurant, with kilt-wearing waiters. We made our way to some tables upstairs, but the menu was multi-page and poor Anya was hard-pressed to translate it for all of us so that we could decide what to get. At this point Loys suggested a place she knew of that had English menus. So we exited the Celtic place and began making our way to this third restaurant.

On the way, we came upon Father Frost and the Snow-maiden. Father Frost was announcing Happy New Year (“Snovim Godom!”) to the crowds to the beat of techno music. We stopped for a second to watch and it was at this point that I caught the eye of a Babushka who came over and began talking with me in, I presume, slightly tipsy Russian. I smiled and said “Ya Amerikanyetz”, to let her know I don’t speak Russian. At that, and with a big grin, she began dancing with me. We cut a rug for awhile right there on the square – now and then I would try to pull away as I repeated “Ya Amerikanyetz”, but that only increased her persistence in dancing with me. She was teaching me some form of a Russian polka, and had me in an iron grip, when Jill finally ran up and helped pry me away, and we made our escape!

Father Frost

The Snow Maiden. Andrew’s convinced we need to incorporate Snow Maidens into our own Christmas traditions in the U.S. 🙂

Dancing with the Babushka

The next place we made it to, the one with the English menus, was fresh out of English menus and, as the waitress told Anya, was in the process of turning itself into a beer joint with not much in the way of food. But Anya persisted and the waitress agreed that they could cook us some chicken and beef platters, and we had a fine meal, with a generous amount of rolls, mashed potatoes, a salad for Andrew, etc. It was quite good.

Anya and Lilly

By the time we left the restaurant, it was dark outside. It’s a strange thing to go to church and after-church lunch, and to walk out of the restaurant into the dark of night. Of course, our church didn’t start until 1:00pm, and we didn’t find a restaurant until 4:00pm, and were two hours there. And we’re in a place where the sun sets at 4:30 every afternoon in the winter.

We made our way back to the cars, and Jason and Anya dropped us off at Virgil and Loys’ apartment. We spent another cozy night eating popcorn and watching movies (The Incredibles and Narnia tonight). It was another good day.

Today we are heading back to Yalta to ring in the New Year.

Snovim Godom!

Бiг Теистi!

The title of this post is explained below

Yesterday (Saturday, 12/29) was quite a day! I’m still amazed at how much we’ve been able to do here in Ukraine in just a short time.

Loys and Virgil hired two drivers, Rafat and Adir, to take us on a trip to Yalta. It was a nice drive through the mountains and the falling snow made for some pretty scenery. Yalta is about an hour and a half from Simferopol, and half of us rode in Adir’s car while the other half rode in Rafat’s car. Neither man speaks English. They are both, by the way, capital fellows and they handled the three-sheets-to-the-wind Ukrainian traffic with calm and expertise.

In a somewhat (I say “somewhat” 🙂 humorous example of culture shock, the car that Andrew, Molly, Bethany and Nata were riding in (Rafat’s car) was tuned to a Ukrainian station that plays some American music. Evidently one of 50 Cent’s spicier raps (or, as Andrew put it, the most filthy thing he’d ever heard on the radio) got some airplay as they drove down. Rafat, of course, doesn’t understand the language and so was not tuned in to the subject matter.

We arrived at Livadia palace, which is the site of the famous Yalta conference that took place in February of 1945. This was a conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin which had to do with, among other things, getting Russian help in the war in the Pacific and deciding how to partition Germany after the war.

Livadia Palace

It was interesting to be standing on such a historical site, and to be able to see the negotiating table where these agreements were hammered out.

Negotiating Table

Also, as we’ve gotten more comfortable with Cyrillic, we worked on sounding out the transliterated names on the plates. The picture below shows Winston Churchill’s nameplate, and the rough phonetic transliteration of the Cyrillic is as follows: “Ooeenston Chercheell”.

Winston Churchill

The palace was beautiful but also a little sad. It had originally been built by Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. Pictures of him and his family were everywhere. They were all executed by the Bolsheviks in the revolution of 1917.

Outside Livadia Palace, by the fountain

After visiting Livadia, we set our course for that great destroyer of world cultures, McDonalds. Yes, they have one in Yalta. For an American, it is an interesting experience to be served at a Russian-speaking McDonalds. But Nata translated well for us, and the girl behind the counter (Natalia) did a good job filling the order.

The menu was, of course, in Ukrainian Cyrillic (which differs slightly from Russian Cyrillic but is pretty close). I’ve gotten in the habit these past few days of reading as many Cyrillic words as possible, because it’s common to find a word I understand – all languages share certain words, of course. But the McDonalds menu in Yalta was so amusing, because it is a straight transliteration of all the main McDonalds food items. For instance:

“Heppi Mil”

We also saw menu entries for other familiar items, such as the Бiг Mak (can you guess what that is? 🙂 and, the item I finally ordered: The Big Tasty!

Big Tasty!

It was big and, yeah, pretty tasty.

I mis-ordered Blake’s ice cream cone, using Nata as our translator (I think I just confused her so we ended up getting an ice cream cup with chocolate syrup). So we sent Bethany back up to try again, after getting some instruction from Nata, and she ordered a “Marojna Rajok” (ice cream cone). Of course, this being Bethany, she got it done perfectly.

The McDonalds is built on a harbor looking out on the Black Sea; it’s a really nice view. The McDonalds is also a stone’s throw from a huge statue of Lenin. Talk about a physical reminder of the great worldview clash of the 20th century!

Group in front of Lenin’s statue

Following this, we drove up into the mountains to visit a beautiful Eastern Orthodox church near Foros that was built on a peak back in 1892. It is a working church, but also a tourist attraction. We passed several people who appeared to have walked all the way up the mountain to visit the church. One such lady walked in, crossed herself, and kissed a picture of Jesus in the center of the church, then went to pray along the walls where there are candles lit to saints. The church is very ornate and small, with no pulpit or chairs; Nata explained that on Sunday the attenders kneel (I believe – kneel or sit) in a circle and the priest will bless them with incense or water.

We made our way to the back of the church which had a magnificent view of the mountains. I have to admit that we got a little carried away. Rafat, one of our drivers, came to the backyard of the church and began hurling snowballs at us. So . . . yes, I admit it . . .

We had a snowball fight in the backyard of one of the stateliest and most formal churches in Eastern Europe.

It didn’t last very long. 🙂

We headed back to Simferopol after this for pizza and movies in Loys’ and Virgil’s apartment. Laptops are wonderful things for watching DVDs (especially when you have a computer projector! Well done, Virgil!)

It was a great day.

Eastern Orthodox Church, built 1892

Candles lit to saints

Ornate church ceiling


Snowball fight!


. . . transliterated “Previet!”, or “Hello!” as we say in the United States.

I’m writing to you from Simferopol, Ukraine, where we are visiting Jill’s parents, Loys and Virgil, who are missionaries here reaching out to the Crimean Tatar people.

I must say, Ukraine is amazing. We left home on Christmas afternoon and arrived here on December 26th, with only a few mishaps (for instance, a lost bag – perhaps I’ll write of that adventure later). When traveling to the former Soviet Union, one of the first things you realize is how blessed we are in the United States. There are many people here who are living in poverty, day to day. The Ukrainians we have met have all been great people, and I could listen to them speak their beautiful language all day long. The kids and I have been having fun trying to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and some basic Russian words.

There are two main groups of Ukrainians here in Simferopol. The first group is native Russians. They are generally fair-skinned with brown or blond hair. The other group is the Crimean Tatars, who generally have darker hair, dark eyes, and more of a Mediterranean tint to their skin. The Russians tend to be Eastern Orthodox, and the Crimean Tatars are almost all Muslims, although both groups seem to be relatively nominal in their faiths. To the Tatars, being Muslim is part of what makes them Tatars, so it is rare to find a Christian Tatar. They are a beautiful people – Ukrainian women are renowned for their beauty.

Yesterday, our first full day here, we went to the University to sit in on the English book club that Jill’s parents run. We spent our time in three different sessions answering questions about the United States and asking questions of our own. The students involved in the book club are all learning English, so we got to converse in our own language. They were wonderful to us, and were especially interested in our Christmas traditions, how weddings happen, what music we like, US politics and what we think of Ukrainian politics and, in a somewhat random moment of the question-and-answer, vegetarians!

Some of the book club students. Our translator, Nata, can be seen sitting between my girls on the front row.

The University itself was once a military school, and still is adjacent to a Ukrainian military installation complete with lines of tanks. The school is in a condition that would generally not be tolerated in the US, but on the first floor there is a fantastic marble (or marble-appearing) floor with flowing Cyrillic script etched in it, and sculptures of famous people inset in the columns. I’m told the students designed it. One hall was also festooned with artwork from the students. I am no artist, but I will say that this artwork depicted realistic subjects (people, primarily) drawn with great skill, and I’ve decided already that if this is Russian art I like it a lot better than most of the art in the US, which seems to all be of the abstract variety.

Outside of the University is a monument which commemorates May 18, 1944, which is, as the students solemnly told us, a “very black day” in Crimean Tatar history. I will write more about what happened on that day in a later post.

The girls and Nata

Last night we went to a “youth group” meeting at Nata’s church. Nata is Loys and Virgil’s translator and is absolutely precious. She is an amazing servant and has been with us much of the time here. Here, “youth” encompasses college students as well, and most of the dozen or so students attending were from the University. We had a wonderful time. They taught us a Russian praise song, and we in turn showed them a song from our children’s services – Molly and Bethany led them in the singing and Andrew played guitar for them. They loved it! After that, we talked about “presents”, and the leader, Roma, talked about the presents we can give Jesus. As Nata directed us by translating, each of us wrote down a present we can give Jesus, and also a prayer request, and placed it in a gift box. Roma ended by praying a very earnest prayer in Russian. While we didn’t understand a word of it, it was beautiful to hear.

After this, we played a couple of games. The first saw us divided into limons, Banans, and Yablockas, or Lemons, Bananas, and Apples. It wasn’t long before I recognized the game; it was Fruit Basket Turnover from my way-back youth group days in San Antonio. We then played another game that I won’t describe, but it was also something I recognized.

Singing with the students

A thought popped into my head at this point. This entire youth activity, from the songs we opened with to the short message to the games we ended with, would be dismissed these days as hopelessly cheesy by most student ministries in the United States.

We’re a bit too cool for those things, you see . . .

But these beautiful young Ukrainian Christians were joyfully playing, talking, and participating. During fruit basket turnover they were laughing their heads off!

I’ll take last night over most of the student services I’ve been in – and I’ve been in a lot, having done student ministry as a volunteer for years and years, up until 2005. And this is not an indictment of what we do in the US. I understand the reasons why student ministry is done the way it is done here. But to see these beautiful friends, with not one thought to how relevant or cool they were, just having a joyful time in the Lord . . . well, it was refreshing.

I went to bed happy last night.

Today we met with Sergey, a friend of Nata’s who had also been at the service last night, and played some Futbol! Sergey is a professional soccer player for a team in Kiev and he and his thirteen year old brother-in-law joined with Andrew, Jill, Bethany, Blake and me for a great game of field soccer – in the snow! I haven’t had that much fun in ages. Sergey, who is in his twenties, and Blake, who is ten, really went after each other – in fun, of course – and it was a great game. After the game, Sergey told Blake that he has great technique and complimented him on his left foot, and encouraged him that if he wanted to persue a professional career, he should do so. What an encouragement! Blake really did play well, and I think made himself a little sick in the process – he now has a cough.

Sergey, Vlodie and Blake

Blake and Sergey going at it

Andrew, goalkeeping

Sergey with his lovely wife and Vlodie. The apartments they live in are in the background.

After this we went ice-skating at an outdoor rink, again with Nata joining us. Only Molly, Bethany and I skated, while the others sat inside and watched. It was awesome. I haven’t skated in awhile and I’m not very good at it, but we had fun, and enjoyed the New Year’s decorations. They really celebrate New Years big here, and they even have New Year’s trees, decorated just like our Christmas trees. They have Father Frost and the Snow Maiden too; Father Frost is basically Santa Claus. For those who celebrate Christmas, it is celebrated on January 7th.

Iceskating! Notice the New Year’s tree in the background.

After skating, Andrew, Molly, Bethany and I rode the Marshutcka bus with Nata back to Loys and Virgil’s apartment. On the way, Nata told me her testimony. It was a beautiful thing to hear. She was raised Orthodox but didn’t know Christ. She was invited three years ago to a camp by Americans who had come here and she saw the Russian language version of the Jesus movie. It was because of that that she accepted Christ, though it cost her much to do so; her parents are not supportive and her father nearly disowned her. But she has the joy of Jesus in her heart and serves with such humility and grace.

Marshutka bus!

We went to eat dinner tonight with Jason, Anya and their baby daughter Lilly. Jason and Anya are friends of Loys and Virgil’s. They are believers – Jason is American while Anya is from Ukraine. After dinner, Anya told the story of her conversion and it also involved having seen the Jesus film. I’m beginning to realize what a great impact that film has had on people around the world.

We’re now settling down for another night. It’s about 11pm here, and we’re looking forward to a quick trip to Yalta tomorrow. I hope to write more as our time here continues.

I love being in Ukraine.

A great day

A great day . . .

A movie with Jill, Bethany, Blake and his friends on his tenth birthday. At Studio Movie Grill, so we got to eat pizza while we watched.

Seeing Bethany both sing and act at her voice recital today. She did a song from Mulan. Truth be told, she wasn’t really up for doing the recital today. But she’s devoted to her craft, and professional about it, so you would have never known. She did great.

Going with Blake to pick out a flower for Bethany to give her after the recital. He helped me choose, and we gave it a decent amount of thought. I bought him a 20oz Sprite at the check out because, hey, it’s his birthday.

Driving to drop off Molly at an ABS party. Well, actually, she drove. And, yes, that’s a good thing, even for this nervous dad. She’s near getting her license and she’s a good driver. We listened to High School Musical 2 on the way. And I listened to it on the way home too. So there.

Watching two shows tonight with Andrew. One was that Tom Brokaw special on 1968. The other was Minority Report on DVD. Andrew and I think a lot alike and have a lot of the same interests, and he’s going to college next fall so every moment together is important to me. Please pray for him.

Reading an email that blessed Molly. She wanted me to read it because it was such an encouragement to her – it came out of the blue and wasn’t expected.

It encouraged me too.

Seeing Blake sleeping in his mother’s arms tonight. He’s ten now, and so this doesn’t happen very often and won’t happen much longer, but Jill insisted tonight. She’s that way, and that’s just one more thing I love about her.

Minority Report reminded me of how thankful I am to God for my kids. If you have seen it you know why I say that.

All our kids are in double digits now.

I just looked at the clock. It’s after midnight. It’s December 16th.

So I’m forty four now.

These are the days!

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17

Blake soccer highlights

Blake’s been on the same soccer team (CyFair Fury, baby!) basically since he was four. He turns ten today!

At the end of most seasons we put together a soccer DVD for the team, with clips of each player doing their thing over a music soundtrack. The one for this just-ended season was about 15 minutes long, and had a section devoted to each player. Below is the part of the video (about a minute) which highlights Blake’s work.

I know I’m his dad, and thus biased, but this kid has been blessed with some great talent. Take a look at this.

(Bonus points go to whoever can identify the soundtrack for this clip).