OK, so the retreat part of the trip.
We drive 40 minutes out to nowhere and see this beautiful lodge in a totally serene setting. You get a little peek at part of the area in the picture above, along with three of the staff of Last Bell. And there were kittens living under the building in the background of the picture! We fed them every nite and loved on them. I was in heaven.
So we are meeting most all of the staff for the very first time as we arrive on the scene of this retreat which we are to be facilitating. “What are we doing?” and “How did we get here?” were the two questions that kept going through my mind, and what Megan and I kept asking each other. I wanna say this was their first all-staff retreat. And we don’t even speak Russian…
Now we had prayed much over this time that had now come. And I mean that–not just thinking about praying, but really conversing with God, and asking what He would have us do during these few days. We took this very seriously. We had also skyped with Andrey before leaving the States, and presented what we felt God put on our hearts as to what would be most appropriate for their staff from what we know of where they’re at right now. We did not want to go over as the mighty, superior Americans with all the answers, nor did we want to give them a nice dose of “information overload” which we can be so very good at.
What we presented to Andrey was taking the staff through an exercise in writing their spiritual narrative. This is like your spiritual autobiography I guess. Writing your story with the intention of seeing God at work more clearly in the big picture of your life, as well as bonding to one another more deeply. (We did this in Ripple Effect a year or so ago, and it was an incredible experience.) This seemed to us to be what they most needed right now–to be known, encouraged, and celebrated. Andrey loved the idea. He thought it sounded perfect. It felt very good to be on the same page.
Back to Ukraine.
We got started that Tuesday afternoon. It was different working through a translator, but seemed to go well. I started off with a heavily Russian-accented English, as Andrey had jovially requested, but our translator, Olga, wasn’t having it. She said Andrey would have to translate if I was gonna do that. Back to my midwestern drawl. Sorry Olga. I’m just blazin’ outta the gates here, aren’t I.
We started them off brainstorming, and everyone actually got into it. It was a good first day.
Then the second day.
We continued onward but felt some disconnect around midday. Perhaps the cultural differences became a little barrier, or the fact that this was new for them, this spiritual narrative thing. One of the staff basically voiced at one point, “We don’t really need to do this, to look back over the past. God works everything out for good.” Oh boy. Houston, we have a problem. Ellen sensed that maybe they were not understanding what we were doing, and that we needed to give them a little something more from us. Some more from our own work with youth.
During the break, we decided we would share some of our own stories in the afternoon and open ourselves up a bit. Ellen, Megan, and I went off separately to find solitude at this break time and, as we all found out later, prayed almost the exact same prayer. We each cried out to God, feeling unworthy, and asking what He would have us do. We came all the way out here, and are feeling a bit like failures. As I continued to pray, I “reminded” God that we came out here with no real agenda, but to listen to and encourage these wonderful people. To listen to the Holy Spirit, so that if He told us to do something else we would do it. And as I increasingly surrendered to God’s will and none of my own, I told Him, “I trust You. I choose to trust You in this. And even if I look like a fool out here, I submit to You and trust that You are at work in a bigger and better way than I can see. Please help us and keep us focused on glorifying You no matter what.”
Back to the afternoon sessions.
We shared some of our hardest stories from Outreach and took their curious questions. This opened us up more. We all felt that it was good and right to push through on their spiritual narratives because of what it will accomplish for them as a staff. We felt it would be much more valuable than techniques or methods. Finally, we gave them time to write a portion of their story, preferably a part the rest of the staff probably does not know.
Andrey volunteered to read his first. And he hit it out of the park. It was cleverly written and heartfelt. He spoke of losing his father at age 11, his grandfather a few years after that, and his constant search for God. He opened himself up a lot to everyone as their leader, confessing it was harder to read his story out loud than it was to write it. There were definitely some not-so-dry-eyes amongst the staff. We then invited everyone to speak a word of encouragement and affirmation to Andrey. His wife was emotional, as she affirmed him beautifully. Olga, out translator, was in absolute tears as she shared how moved she was to remember to always spend quality time with their own children, never having another day guaranteed.
Oh this is good.
Three more shared their stories that afternoon, and guess who was always one of the first to volunteer words of encouragement to everyone after they read? Yep, the dude who was feeling this wasn’t really needed. It. Was. Beautiful.
All the next day we heard their stories. They were all deep, and the words spoken over one another were sincere, loving, and life-affirming. At one point, one of the guys said, “I wish we had this all on video so we could remember everything.” They shared near-death experiences, strange coincidences, healing, you name it. You could see the joy on everyone’s faces as they were heard and encouraged.
This is what we came for.
At one point, Olga’s husband, Rouslan, told me that he was thankful we came and that “We Ukrainians need encouragement. We are strong on discipline, but forget we need encouraging. So thank you.”
Wow. If that was not an answer to our prayers.
Thankfully, they negotiated an extra nite at the lodge, because we needed all the way up until noon checkout Friday to hear the last few stories. Oxsana was hoping to hear about some of our mistakes and lessons learned from working at Outreach before we left, but that would’ve wrecked the spirit of the moment I feel, and was not meant to be. I told her we can write that in a letter to their staff that they can share at their convenience.
We ended by praying together, joined in a big circle around their Spirit-filled leaders (yesterday’s picture). Some of the prayers included thanking God for this new closeness. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for this. That’s all we felt You wanted us to do–to encourage them, celebrate them, and do our best to help them bond more closely. What a time. And what a beautiful ending.