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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Jesus Made Me Whole Again!

Elena Sokolova is one of our friends. We first met her at church soon after she came to the Social Center for Homeless People, which is operated by Cornerstone Church. It has been wonderful to see the changes that faith in Christ have made in her life. Here is her story

I am Elena Sokolova. I was born in Leningrad (St Petersburg) in 1963 on 10 October. My stepfather was a soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. I was the only child of my mother. In 2004 I got in a car accident and lost both of my legs at the knee.

In St. Petersburg I was kidnapped by Moldovan gypsies, and I became their slave. They brought me to Nizhny Novgorod, and I sat in the crowded places and begged. All the money was turned over to them. This lasted one and a half years.

13 September 2008 some young people came up to me and began to say that there is another life with Jesus who is the Lord of salvation. After talking with them I agreed to go to a social rehabilitation center called "Helping Hand.”

At the center I met other people who had been living on the street who had now found a new home and a new life. I found people whom I could trust and who genuinely cared about me. My heart began to open and I was learning many new things about God, the Bible and what it means to be a Christian. One day at church I publicly repented of my sins and asked God to give me a new life. Over the next weeks and months I began to grow in my faith.

In 2009, with the help of people from Cornerstone Church, God restored to me all the documents which I need for identification that had been stolen by the gypsies. Without these documents I am a ‘non person’ in my country. This was a great miracle of God because this is an impossible task. In 2010 I received my new legs and got up from my knees to my feet for the first time in years. I now walk on my feet that God gave to me and I praise Him with my whole life. From the broken fragments he made a new creation. Now I live with the Lord and serve him with my life, a gift which He gave back to me.

I live and I enjoy life and faith. The fact is that when people can not - God can. I lost everything in life, my mother, two sons, and I thought that I was of no use to anybody and I did not want to live. When Jesus came into my life everything changed! I was born again!

God saves and forgives all those who need it! Without God we lose everything, and with Him we find it. Jesus gives us faith, hope and love. Love in the Bible comes first. Read God's Word and seek your salvation like I have found. Glory, honor and praise to our Lord Jesus Christ!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Homeless people and the image of God

A Homeless Woman - Sochi, Russia

Recently while watching the local news I saw a story about three homeless men. Two were dead; lying near the sidewalk while the third was talking to the news reporter. Seeing homeless people who have died here in Russia is not unusual. Stories like this are on the local news at least once a month. I still remember walking to the train station one day and seeing the body of an obviously homeless person lying on the sidewalk as people, going about their normal business, walked by. Today, while walking home I saw a homeless man eating from a pile of rotting fruit behind a fruit and vegetable stand.

A Homeless Drug Addict - Nizhny Novgorod

The roots of homelessness are not easily understood. The hard-core homeless person often prefers the street to living in a shelter. Some are self deceived into believing that they are free from the bondages of society. Homeless people are an inconvenience to any society. They are an embarrassment that no one wants to deal with, and they are often treated as trash. Society wants to sweep them away and clean up the streets. They are labeled as lazy, worthless, criminals and troublemakers.

Homeless men, Moscow - from "PravdaOnline"

Homeless people are often addicted, many to alcohol, others to drugs or a combination of the two. Many of the hard core homeless suffer from mental illness. On the streets of any major city in America you can see those who are obviously mentally ill and living on the streets. The same is true in Russia. Here extreme poverty, broken families and lack of education are the hallmarks of many of the homeless.

The homeless individual, that “bum” on the street, is a valuable human being. He or she is valuable to God and he or she is valuable to each of us. When we recognize the broken yet very real image of God in such a person, we recognize that the image of God that we carry is also broken and in need of redemption. The image of God in the homeless may be more broken than the image of God that you carry, but the truth is that the image of God is marred in all of us. As we serve those who need help to restore their place in society, we also work at restoring ourselves. The poor, the broken the crushed are not to be objects of our pity and charity, they are to be the objects of our love. In loving the poor, the broken, the outcast we love Christ.

Mikhail a graduate from the Social Center for Homeless Rehabilitation with Pastor Artyom

As Christians it is our responsibility to see those who are less fortunate than we as fellow human beings, created in the image of God. Those who say that they believe in Christ must see the image of God in every human being, and be ready to help each human being see in themselves the same image of God.

Jesus said that if we are the “righteous” it will be evident in how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger and the prisoner. Salvation is the free gift of God received through faith, yet that faith must be evidenced by the way we treat “the least of these”.

One of the Ladies on her graduation day

When I see another dead homeless human being lying in the street, when I see the broken body of a drug addict who leaped to his death out of despair, when I see the dead broken body of an elderly person who has killed themselves from depression and the burdens of poverty and failing health I grieve. I grieve for what could have been. I grieve for the destroyed life. I grieve for the church which missed the opportunity to bring salvation and restoration, often because we are too busy doing “spiritual” things.

At the same time I daily see the joy that helping the homeless brings. I see the joy on Vera’s face as she worships God with reckless abandon, after being saved from the streets. I see it written in the crags and wrinkles of Vasya’s face as he introduces us as his friend’s to those who are new at the homeless shelter. I see it in Lyuba’s face as she gives to Karen a pair of used jeans as a “blessing” for being her friend and mentor.

Vera - formerly homeless, now serves others

We have dozens of formerly homeless, friends. These friends are men and women who are learning that they are made in the image of God and that they are valuable human beings, not trash to be swept from the street. We deeply value their friendship.

We serve here, both in joy and in grief. We long to see the day when the Kingdom of God will come in fullness of power to finally bring the restoration and redemption that every human being needs.

With some of the brothers at the Center for Social Rehabilitation

Monday, June 14, 2010

Giving and Indigenization - Somewhat Random Thoughts

Russian Countryside

Almost every week we visit the drug rehabilitation center located outside of the city of Balakhna . The center is an outreach ministry of the new church plant in the tri-city area of Balahkna, Gorodets & Zavolzhe. There are typically about 12 people living at the center in various stages of rehab. I usually teach here every Tuesday and then Karen, Sveta and I go to Gorodets where Karen teaches in a house group.

View from the Center

At the center on area of spiritual discipline which is taught is fasting. Every week there is at least one fast day and often there are extended periods of fasting. We have noticed that at times the fasting is done because there simply isn’t always food available. Cornerstone churches operate their rehab centers by faith. There is some income coming in from those who can afford to pay a fee for the rehabilitation course, but others attend for free. There is also income from part-time work which some of the centers find. In addition to this most of the centers have gardens to raise food. However this still at times doesn’t fill all the needs, so people fast.

Karen and I are committed the principle of an indigenous church, one which is self-supporting, self-reproducing and self-led. With that in mind we try to not upset the balance of things by providing things that the churches can provide for themselves. At the same time we at times have resources which we can share which are helpful but do not detract from the indigenous nature of the Cornerstone movement.

We of course teach and preach, but we try to avoid positioning ourselves as the needed “experts”. We occasionally give financial gifts towards projects, if we have the available money. With the help of those who support us we have been able to purchase hundreds of Bibles and books, and we are currently in the process of printing 1000 copies of “The Cross and the Switchblade” for prison outreach.

With all of that said, last week we saw a need and decided we should do something. We purchased several large bags of basic foods and delivered them to the center in order to help them out a bit. We will probably be doing this once a month for the next few months just to get them through some lean times.

The Scriptures teach that if we see a brother or sister in need and we don’t do something to help with that need then we have sinned. There is still a delicate balance between helping with a need and creating an unhealthy dependence upon outside funding. May we all find that balance.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Discipleship and Mentoring in a Russian Context

Preparing for a cookout - Russian Style

Karen and I came to Russia with the plan to church plant. Our desire was to plant a church that would reproduce itself and hopefully spark a church planting movement. We were surprised when the Lord changed our focus from ‘our plans’ and brought us alongside an existing indigenous church planting movement. Within the context of that movement our primary ministry is discipling young believers.

Discipling young believers has both a formal and informal component. The formal typically comes though times of teaching, observing ministry and helping hone ministry skills, one on one mentoring and giving books and other study tools to developing leaders.

Informal mentoring and discipleship is more of a natural process of sharing lives together. In Russia this means drinking lots of tea, going to the banya and other relational activities. Shared meals, and ministry trips together are also ways to mentor/disciple young believers. Often in these settings we are asked just to share from our years as living as a Christian couple. During these times we seldom see immediate evidence of our ministry, but often we later hear comments about things we said which touched people’s lives challenging or encouraging them in their walk as believers.

Last week we had our regular schedule of formal discipleship times, teaching at 3 rehabilitation centers and one house group. During the week Karen asked some of the leaders in Balakhna/Gorodets if we could plan a cook-out / banya day. Everyone thought it was a great idea, so went to work to make it happen. We bought meat, prepared some salads, brought along some pickles, jams and relishes that we made last fall.

Pastor Oleg cooking shashlik

Just enjoying our friendship

The cookout took place at the recently opened Gorodetski Social Center. This is a typical Russian village home which the church has rented as a shelter/rehab for homeless people. As is common with most village houses there is a garden behind the house and a banya. When we arrived the brothers were starting a campfire for the cookout, and the wood stove in the banya was heated and waiting.

Pastor Oleg after the Banya

Karen made pasta salad, and American style cole slaw. These are always a hit with our Russian friends. Most Russians who have not tasted these look at them with a “what is this” look, but after a taste they quickly load their plates. There was enough shashlik (Russian Shish kabobs) so everyone could stuff themselves.

We enjoyed the day sharing our food and our lives. After the meal, over a cup of tea and cookies we discussed the possibility of organizing a children’s neighborhood evangelistic outreach. The weather was wonderful, warm and sunny. After dinner we all gathered in the house for a couple of hours of music and worship together.

Anya and Ira

Natasha playing with the resident kitten