Olsztyn & Erika

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Today we had to make a tough decision – go with the people from Israel and the interns to the local Baptist church, where a couple of them would speak, or accept an invitation to travel with George to a church in a nearby town where Ben was asked to share a bit of his testimony.  We asked Andrzej and April (the camp directors) what they thought we should do and they thought that the church in Olsztyn might benefit from some visitors.  So this was our choice and we are glad that we went.  Ben was able to share a few words (audio file below), we enjoyed wonderful fellowship and were invited to the pastor’s house for lunch afterwards.

Obiad at the home of Marcin & Basia Zwolińska with their son Benjamin

We greatly enjoyed the amazing food his wife prepared and our conversation with them.  We also discovered some of the dreams he has for the church to become more involved in the community that we think we might be able to help them turn into reality.

Before we left the camp this morning, we were able to read Erika’s story.  She is the woman who had told me that her eyes caused her great pain and she has no peace in her heart.  We found out that she desires for others to hear her story – to let the world know and not forget what happened.  So, I will close by passing it on to you.  Keep in mind as you read it that the “Christian” orphanage  would have been Catholic, so although Erika believes in God she has a great many questions and confusions about faith.

Erika was born in Bratislava.  When the war broke out, her father placed both her and her mother in a Christian orphanage to try to keep them safe.  Among the orphans there were 13 Jewish children in hiding.  Erika’s father was caught by the Nazi soldiers and was tortured to make him reveal the hiding place of his family.  He didn’t tell them where they were, and had to pay a high price for this, as he was sent to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen.  After a while the hiding place of the Jewish children became known to the Nazis anyway.  They came and took all of the children to a checkpoint for Jews being held to be transferred to concentration camps.  This happened when Erika’s mother was out for evening prayer.  When she came back and was told what had happened, she went to the checkpoint herself.  She did not want to be separated from her daughter even if it meant she would also be sent to a concentration camp.  Together they were sent to Therensienstadt.  They survived the war, and were reunited with Erika’s father in Bratislava, but lost all other family.  Erika tells that the memories of these years, the beatings, degrading words and treatment of the Nazi soldiers, have never left her.  For her entire life she has been living in the shadow of these memories.

Beauty for Ashes

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Today began with a worship time with Dave, Sandy and the interns.  Kendra lead the devotion, using the story of Rahab to talk about how God picks us out of the filth of our sin, loves us anyway, and makes us His.  She led a song I had never heard, but fell in love with.  Beautiful Things.  I’m attaching it at the end of this post. If you haven’t heard it, you should listen to it.

Our friends from Israel spent today going out on another boat ride and visiting the homes of some local families here in Ostróda.  Ben and I decided to tackle some work.  I cleaned, he mowed, and then we took on the remodel of the fire pit.  When I joined him in shoveling out the old pit, he solemnly commented that back at home he probably wouldn’t think anything of the ashes, but here…

His words echoed in my mind, and I found that I had to distract myself while we worked, because I just couldn’t think too much about that, but not before God brought to my mind these verses from Isaiah 61.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

This afternoon, I spent a little time reading a book I brought, What Women Fear.  It is written by a woman (Angie Smith) whose daughter died just a few hours after birth.  Although this book isn’t specifically on that topic, she refers to it in the chapter I read today saying “There is great sadness in the valley, and there is confusion, but I can say with certainty that I trust Him more than I did before having and losing Audrey.”  I can resonate that statement.

The theme continued when we met with the interns for some sharing time this afternoon.  We finished the sharing of each person’s testimony and I thought back over the things I had heard.  Every one of them spoke to a time of being brokenhearted, in darkness or mourning.  The death or near-death of someone close to you, divorce, a terrible event or circumstance…. it’s part of every life.

But He gives beauty instead of ashes, joy instead of mourning, praise instead of despair.  He makes beautiful things out of us.  Please pray with me that he will work this miracle, as only He can, in the lives of these people.

“Beautiful Things” by Gungor.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new
You are making me new

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new

Szabat

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I crashed today, sleeping three solid hours after breakfast while everyone else went shopping. I still feel worn out and like I’m in a fog, but I’m glad I got some sleep.

Today was the beginning of Szabat – the Sabbath day. It begins at sunset on Friday and ends after dark on Saturday. It is very important in the Jewish culture and focuses on rest, holiness and joy. Everyone was dressed in their best. They read Scripture from Genesis in Russian, Polish and English.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning–the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.
Genesis 1:31-2:4

After dinner there was a session in which many people shared poems, songs a dancing. My favorite was when George sang “How Great Thou Art” – some of the people from Israel joined in and we sang along in English. Beautiful. Sandy taught us (the Americans) a traditional Jewish dance, which we performed. Yes, you read that right… I danced … In public. There is just no end to the new things I’m experiencing on this trip!

It was also the first round of games for the Euro cup, so there were a lot of “Polska!” shirts and flags, and a few who were checking in on the game during the Szabat dinner!

I’m going to try to go to sleep now. Good night.

My Heart Does Not Have Peace

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George Bajenski

Today the barrier gave way and I was able to interact better with the Jewish people. Shortly after breakfast we loaded into cars and traveled about 50 minutes to the Ostróda-Elbląg Canal (totally awesome feat of engineering that my fellow science geeks should check out). We rode with George, who works with one of the organizations involved in the camp (Impact Europe). George is an amazing man who has traveled the world. God’s love and joy flow from him so much that I cannot imagine anyone leaving a conversation with him unchanged. Ben saw me snap this picture of George today and said “You just think he’s adorable, don’t you?” Yes, I sure do. His joy is contagious, and I think he is full of knowledge and wisdom. We had good conversations in the car and I’m looking forward the drive back to Warsaw with him as our escort.

I didn’t have a lot of conversation on the boat, but I did when we lead crafts after lunch. One lady sat with a blank memory book in front of her. At first I thought she was just thinking about what she wanted to do, but when I came back and saw her book still empty, I asked her if she needed anything. She spoke pretty good English and told me she needed money. She said that she needs money and she needs to have peace in her heart. “I have no peace in my heart,” she repeated. She told me about her eyes – that they hurt her and no doctor could help her. That was why she was not working on the craft. So I sat with her and made one for her. She thought this was great. I made a little envelope pocket in the front for her to put keepsakes from her trip. She said it was for a “secret note,” so I wrote her one and gave it to her at dinner. I told her that my heart was full of love for her and that I’m praying for her eyes to heal and for her heart to find peace. I quoted Numbers 6:24-26 (the Scripture reference for the song I wrote about singing to my kids)

“The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

I’ve heard those verses so many times, but when I looked them up for her letter, I noticed the verse before them.

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons – this is how you are to bless the Israelites.”

Wow.

Ben sharing about why we are here.

In the evening session Ben was able to share a few words about why these two Americans are following them around everywhere. He spoke eloquently about his grandfather’s experience in WWII and the impression it made to hear him talk about it – including the fact that what he saw was so terrible that he didn’t talk about it at all until late in life. He talked about feeling drawn to the Jewish people and to Poland and about coming to serve three years ago. He said that his experience then was so great and that he wanted to return with his wife to be with them and to serve them in any way we can. I was very proud of him for his willingness to address them and how well he chose his words.

It is absolutely time for sleeping. Thank you to all who have been praying for healing from my stupid cold. I did feel better most of the day, but I’m pretty miserable right now. Please pray for peace for my new friend and that Ben’s words will help them be open to our presence.

Ostróda

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Today I am sick. I was fine yesterday and today I have a horrible head cold, sore throat and even feel a bit feverish. I napped when I could and medicated myself all day so I could be as engaged as possible and felt decent during the afternoon, but please pray that God make me better! I don’t want to miss out on time with the Jewish people because of a stupid cold!

Ben and I in downtown Ostroda. The scarf I’m wearing is a gift from one of the guests.

We had a morning session with music and an activity to help them get to know one another.  I’m attaching a file of the music.  You’ll love it.  Then we rested and had obiad (lunch, which is their biggest meal of the day).  We traveled with the Jewish people into downtown Ostróda for some shopping and relaxing around the beautify city center.  It was a beautiful day for this, the warmest it’s been since we arrived.

Each evening’s session will include a couple of the survivors telling their stories.  Tonight we heard from an adorable man who is so full of love and joy.  He is the one who immediately grabbed me when he greeted me and kissed both of my cheeks – quite a spirited little man.  But he told his story saying that he wanted to talk about happy things, but he was to tell about his life and it isn’t a happy story.  He talked about being moved to the ghetto and then to a concentration camp when he was nine years old, walking 42 km in winter to get there and watching people die who couldn’t survive the walk .  He talked about how they weren’t given food, water, warmth or medical attention and how most died of starvation or cold.  He said he could tell a lot more about this, but it would ruin our evening.  40,000 died at that camp and he was one of only 256 survivors.  When he and his mother returned to their home, it was just a hole in the ground.  I am amazed and inspired by a man who can show so much joy when he has such horrible memories.

We also heard from Kazik, who is the founder of the Holocaust survivors camp.  He was a young adult, already in ministry when he asked why his mother always carried around a picture of the Jordan River and learned for the first time that he was Jewish.  He decided that his ministry would change, and he would serve God by reaching out to his brothers.

Tomorrow we will travel with them to a canal where we will ride a boat for an hour or so.  With the help of an interpreter, I hope I can have a chance to talk with them personally.  I’m also leading our craft time tomorrow, so that is another thing that you can pray will go well!

Thank you all for your prayers and your encouraging posts.  It helps to know that there are some of you out there following this and enjoying being a part of our experience.

They’re Here!

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Wow.  What a day.  I’m very tired, so this will be shorter and probably far less profound than yesterday’s post.

Flowers from Students at the Elementary School

Today we taught lessons at the elementary school. I think it went very well and we seem to have succeeded in establishing a good connection there.  The teacher seems willing to let the interns return and said it was a good experience for her and for the students. I have received wild flowers from the students both days we visited the school, as well as hugs.

Although I did a little to help out, while most of the team was continuing to work on the grounds I had the opportunity to meet Iwona.  Ben and I shared our testimonies as individuals and a couple a few nights ago, which included talking about losing our daughter, Grace.  Sandy pulled me aside afterwards and told me of a friend of hers here in Poland that had been through such a loss as well quite recently.  E-mails were sent and today I was able to meet this lady and talk about the grief of infant loss.  Please pray for her.  Her due date was this coming Sunday.  I am frustrated with myself for not praying with her today, although I certainly have prayed for her.  I am hoping that I will see her again on Sunday at church and can find an opportunity to pray do this.

When all was ready we waited patiently for the arrival our honored guests.  And arrive they did!  Within minutes I was greeted, hugged and kissed!  We helped them to their rooms and ate dinner. It was somewhat chaotic, but wonderful. The language thing has certainly become more complicated.  Just as I am becoming comfortable with a few Polish greetings and phrases that help one get by in public, let’s add Russian to the equation!  The survivors are coming from Israel, but originally from Europe and speak Russian.  In a short evening session there were introductions and some information about the week. Much of it was translated from Polish to Russian for the Israelis and then quietly to us in English by another interpreter.  I have never been surrounded by so many languages.  When people meet they first have to figure out what languages they each speak and how they can communicate.

I must go to bed.  It is late and the sun will wake me in about four hours!

Shalom

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First a few details about the day, then what is really on my heart.  It is likely to be long, but if you stay with me to the end, you may just gain some of the new perspective I did tonight.

Today I had the privilege of spending a good portion of the day at the elementary school just down the road from Ostróda Camp.  I think I may have had a smile on my face the whole time as I watched the children.  Though their styles and customs are different, they are so very much the same as the children I see in our own elementary schools.  They were fascinated by our presence and I very much enjoyed being with them.  Tomorrow we (myself and three soon-to-be teachers) will return and teach three lessons in their English classes.  I’ll selfishly ask for a couple of prayers about that since I still really only know about 5 words in Polish, and that’s if you count “usta!”  The goal is to establish a positive relationship between the camp and the elementary school, which may lead to future possibilities of bringing the children to the camp and ultimately to Christ.

Ben spent the day working hard around the grounds – whacking weeds, mowing, burning stuff (his favorite part) and apparently doing nothing about the corpse of a bird that is lying out there.  I joined in the work when I returned from the school by cleaning bathrooms and taking care of trash.  The team did an amazing job today of preparing this place for tomorrow’s guests – the Holocaust survivors…. which leads me to where I really want to go.

Tonight after several inspiring testimonies were shared, Sandy talked to us a little about the study and experience she has concerning this unique group of people.  I knew going into this trip, from Ben’s last encounter with the Holocaust survivors, that our sharing of the gospel would have to be subtle, cloaked really.  There are many reasons for this.  As I wrote in the blog introduction… they are the Chosen Ones, and we are gentiles. Many of them hold to their Jewish heritage, but walked away a lifetime ago from putting faith in a God that they feel abandoned them – allowing their families to be taken from them with such violence. In fact, as sickening as it is, much of the horror that occurred during the Holocaust was done in the name of Christianity.  Many want nothing to do with God, and they certainly don’t want to be told that the Messiah came two thousand years ago and died for their sins.  So, when you mention Jesus, the wall goes up and you’ve lost your chance to show God’s love.   I understood this, but there was still a part of me that had a hard time because it felt like we were hiding Jesus in a sense.  I heard today that they were going to replace or cover up the cross on the chapel with a sign reading “Shalom” so as not to offend the guests when they arrive.  I know that it is just a symbol, but what it symbolizes is the most crucial element of all.  Though I knew the reasons (and certainly trust that those making these decisions are far wiser in this matter than I), I was wrestling with the concept all the same.  That light isn’t supposed to be hidden under a bushel!  (whatever a “bushel” is).

But Sandy’s explanation helped me see this from a completely different perspective.  I doubt I will share it as well as she did, but I’ll do my best to paraphrase her insight.  She talked about Joseph in the old testament and the ways in which his story parallels the story of Jesus. I’m eager to explore those parallels more, but for now I’ll skip to the point.  After his brothers sold him into slavery and he was taken to Egypt, Joseph rose to a place of great importance where he was able to provide life-saving grain for the people in the time of famine.  When his brothers came to get grain, they didn’t recognize Joseph.  Why?  Because he looked Egyptian to them.  Here’s the connection…. although Jesus is one of them, he has come to look like a gentile to the Jews.  Think of the images and impressions we have of Jesus – do you see him as a Jew?  They don’t recognize him as their brother and they don’t see that he is their salvation.  They fear that accepting Jesus as the Messiah will make them gentiles at the sacrifice of their Jewish heritage and faith.  Combine this with their history of having lived through the hatred of the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism that is still very strong in Poland (click here to read an article published last week that will show how strong the hatred still is).  How can we reach them?

The bottom line is that we cannot on our own.  As Sandy described, we must pray that Jesus will reveal himself to his Jewish brothers just as Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.  The goal of Ostróda Camp during this week of minstry is to strip Jesus of the gentile facade the world has put upon him, so the Jews can see who he really is.  There will be no crosses on display (Ben and I took off our matching cross rings as soon as we got back to our room tonight) or any other symbol or words that could serve as a barrier to them.  What seemed to me as actions that obscure Jesus, may be the very things that reveal the true Jesus to his chosen people.

Pray with us that though our words and outward signs are subtle, God will shine his LOVE through us in such a way that it will soften their hearts to consider who Jesus is.  Shalom means “peace” and “completeness”.   The Jews use it as a greeting and a farewell.  I’ve decided that when I hear it spoken or read the banner that is replacing the cross, I will take a moment to pray that this week will bring the peace and completeness that comes from knowing and accepting Jesus.  When become aware of the absence of my cross ring on my finger, it will remind me to pray that nothing I do or say will keep them from seeing who Jesus really is.