work, prayer, and a day off

9 06 2013

Last month I attended my first presbytery meeting here in Ukraine.  After Russian class, I took an overnight train out to the meeting, which was all day that Wednesday.  Because there aren’t as many churches in the presbytery as my home presbytery in Chattanooga, there was time during the meeting to hear a report from every church and then someone prayed for that congregation.  That may seem like a simple thing, but I was deeply moved to see the work of the church being done through prayer—a reminder that its ultimately God who builds his kingdom, everywhere, by his grace.  When we pray, we’re reminded that we’re dependent upon God to change us, to make us more like Jesus, to make us the best friends, neighbors, and citizens possible.

at a L'viv cafeThe day after presbytery I took a day off in L’viv, along with most of the guys from my team who’d been able to come to the presbytery meeting.  I’m thankful for the time we had to get to know each other a bit more.  Our team had time for meals together, conversation, coffee, and some strolling around the center of L’viv.  One of my colleagues, Alister (pictured with me at a cafe), and I got to explore the clock tower in the center of the old city square.  God gave us an absolutely gorgeous day for our visit.

Of course, it was back to work Friday morning.  We caught an early taxi to the train station, and took a high-speed train back to Kyiv, so I could make it to my Russian class, and my teammates to various meetings they had in the afternoon.  The train hurled across the countryside at speeds topping 160 kilometers per hour (99 miles per hour).





on life-giving letters

9 03 2013

I just found a quote from Henri Nouwen Latin American Journal that I typed up when I read it, but never actually posted here.  On January 9th, 1982 (p. 105), he wrote,

Letters are gifts, often greater than the writers realize.  Ever since I left the United States, I have experienced a deep hunger for lifegiving letters–letters from very close friends who have little to ask and little to inform me of, but who simply speak about bonds of friendship, love, care, and prayer.  I am overwhelmed by a letter that says: “We think of you, pray for you, and we want you to know that we love you.”  I have never experienced the power of such letters as strongly as during these last months.  They directly affect my spiritual, emotional, and even physical life. They influence my prayers, my inner feelings, and even my breathing and heartbeat.

“The Word was made flesh, he lived among us” (John 1:14).  These words by St. John received new life for me during my last months here.  A word of love sent to me by a friend can indeed become flesh and bridge long distances of time and space.  Such a word can heal pains, bind wounds, and often give new life.  Such a word can even restore a faltering faith and make me aware that in the community of love, the incarnation of the divine love can be realized wherever we are.

The letters I’ve received here have been a huge encouragement, perhaps even more so than the emails.  Is that because the physicality of ink on paper echos Jesus’ incarnation more directly than pixels on a screen?  When I’ve taken time to send handwritten thank you notes or letters, I come away from that hour or two deeply grateful for the people who’ve partnered with me in prayer, in giving, in friendship.  Or to use Pauline terms, writing brings people to mind, and when I remember them I give thanks for their partnership with my in the gospel of Christ.  How appropriate it is, then, to encourage one another with the incarnation of our words on paper.





time to play

23 02 2013

Yesterday there was a group of school kids on the subway platform, waiting for the next train.  As they boarded, I noticed many of the adults who were close to that subway car’s door walked further than usual to get onto the next subway car, to avoid the noise of that class of children.  I followed the kids onto the train, to observe and catch whatever phrases I could understand.  Most of them were playfully interacting with each other, and I’d say they were probably between 9 and 12 years old.  A few had smartphones, interestingly the girls who had smartphones were using them in groups–one group of three playing an electronic Uno game, another group taking pictures of each other and laughing a lot, whereas the boys tended to be using their phones by themselves.  When the train crossed the bridge over the Dnipr river, most of the kids turned looked out the window at the river, at the shore, at the world around them, except for one of the boys who had his nose stuck in his smartphone the entire time.

I reflected on my love for kids, for playing with them, and for helping them understand God’s incredible love for us in Jesus Christ.  I miss singing songs with the kids at my church back in Chattanooga, and miss my friends’ kids.  In Henri Nouwen’s South American journal, he said that for most of his adult career in seminary, in university, and in his teaching positions, he wasn’t around kids–from his 18th year until his 50th year, when as a missionary he moved into a roof-top room with a poor Peruvian family.  He reflected in his Thursday, January 28, 1982 journal entry:

The children always challenge me to live in the present.  They want me to be with them here and now, and they find it hard to understand that I might have other things to do or to think about.  After all my experiences with psychotherapy, I suddently have discovered the great healing power of children.  Every time Pablito, Johnny, and Maria run up to welcome me, pick up my suitcase, and bring me to my “roof-room,” I marvel at their ability to be fully present to me.  Their uninhibited expression of affection and their willingness to receive it pull me directly into the moment and invite me to celebrate life where it is found.  Whereas in the past coming home meant time to study, to write letters, and to prepare for classes, it now first of all means time to play.  [My grandpa’s margin note here says, “Beautiful!”]

In the beginning, I had to get used to finding a little boy under my bed, a little girl in my closet, and a teenager under my table, but now I am disappointed when I find my friends asleep at night.  I did not know what to expect when I came to Pamplona Alta.  I wondered how the poverty, the lack of good food and good housing would affect me; I was afraid of becoming depressed by the misery I would see.  But God showed me something else first: affectionate, open, and playful children who are telling me about love and life in ways no book was ever able to do.  I now realize that only when I can enter with the children into their joy will I be able to enter also with them into their poverty and pain.  God obviously wants me to walk into the world of suffering with a little child on each hand. (Nouwen, p. 123) [Here my grandpa wrote, “Let the children come to me & don’t let them get cut off because God’s reign belongs to those who are like children – Matt 19:14.  Beloved we are already children of God – I John 3:12.]

I’m thankful all the other families on my team have kids.  Last night I had dinner with my team leader’s family, as I often do Friday evenings.  I love arriving at their house  and hearing their son Zachary’s enthusiastic greeting, “Joel is here!” as he runs from the living room or kitchen to the entry-way to give me a hug and start telling me about whatever he’s doing.





in Russian class this week

24 01 2013

Wow – we’ve finished the Prepositional Case, and begun the Genitive Case.  At the end of class today, with my head swimming with new grammar and unsure whether I would retain it until I could review it and use it in conversations, my teacher reassuringly said, in Russian, “Joel, you already know the Prepositional Case.  We’ve just started the Genitive. Its hard because it has many exceptions and endings, but you’ll learn it.”

My classmate Helen has been gone this week and last, and she’s returning Monday.  Yeah!  Solo classes are good, but exhausting, and sometimes its nice to have another person who answers half the questions.  Plus, Helen’s return means we’ll back up a little to catch her up, and I’m looking forward to the review to solidify what I’ve been working on.





предложение пойдешь

16 01 2013

предложение пойдешь… that’s the prepositional case, or what I’ve been trying to learn the past couple days. I’ve got Russian nouns and adjectives mixed about in my head, homework exercises to do, vocabulary and word-endings to memorize to try and straighten everything out, so that I can actually use the prepositional case when listening and talking with people.

If it sounds difficult, that’s cause it can be, but mostly that’s because its new and not my native language. Pray that I keep focused, study hard, rest well, and enjoy time with new friends every week. Ask God to give me understanding of the language I’m acquiring through the work I’m putting into learning it.

спасибо большое!      spasiba bol’shoye – many thanks!





Advent snows

3 12 2012

Today began with slushy rain.  By nine or ten o’clock it was turning to snow, a wet, slushy snow, but snow.  Around the world Christians are celebrating Advent, reflecting on the prophecies and promises fulfilled in Christ’s first coming, while we anticipate his return.  By late-afternoon, this is how things looked in my neighborhood of Kiev:

2012 Kiev First Snow from Joel Swanson on Vimeo.

A friend asked, “Why do so many people love the winter’s first snow?”  Perhaps the cold windy snow gives us eyes to appreciate the warmth and cheer of hearth and home, and the company of good friends.  Perhaps its the anticipation of the coming of Christmastide.  Many of our Christmas carols reference snow, such as this:

See, amid the winter’s snow,
Born for us on earth below,
See the tender Lamb appears,
Promised from eternal years.

        Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
        Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
        Sing through all Jerusalem,
        Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies:
He who, throned in height sublime,
Sits amid the cherubim.

Say, ye holy shepherds, say,
What your joyful news today?
Wherefore have ye left your sheep
On the lonely mountain steep?

“As we watched at dead of night,
Lo! we saw a wondrous light;
Angels singing, peace on earth,
Told us of the Saviour’s birth.”

Sacred Infant, all divine,
What a tender love was thine,
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this!

Teach, O teach us, holy Child,
By thy face so meek and mild,
Teach us to resemble thee,
In thy sweet humility.

Whatever the reasons, I love the first snow.  Its a time to pause, to celebrate the goodness of our God who demonstrates his steady love from season to season, sending both snow and sun, cold and warm, day and night in their appointed times.

Lift your mug of hot chocolate or mulled wine: here’s to the unchanging goodness of our faithful, covenant-keeping God!





Sinclair on the gift of the Spirit

2 12 2012

On page 71 of his book, “The Holy Spirit” (IVP 1996), Sinclair B. Ferguson reminds us of the incredibly close connection between Jesus and his Spirit:

We have seen the same point made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:45. Christ has become ‘life-giving-Spirit’. Having the Spirit is the equivalent, indeed the very mode, of having the incarnate, obedient, crucified, resurrected and exalted Christ indwelling us so that we are united to him as he is united to the Father.

It is in this sense that John sees the difference that Pentecost signals in the ministry of the Spirit. Now, as the bond of union to God, the Spirit indwells all who believe as the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a development of epochal proportions. The Spirit who was present and active at Christ’s conception as the head of the new creation, by whom he was anointed at baptism (Jn. 1:32-34), who directed him throughout his temptations (Mt. 4:1), empowered him in his miracles (Lk. 11:20), energized him in his sacrifice (Heb. 9:14), and vindicated him in his resurrection (1 Tim. 3:16; Rom. 1:4), now indwells disciples in this specific identity. This is the meaning of our Lord’s words, otherwise impossible to comprehend: ‘It is for your good that I am going away’ (Jn. 16:7).

Or as the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.