Yana: July 24, 1983- March 14, 2012

•March 14, 2012 • 1 Comment

My heart is exceedingly heavy. This morning, I learned of the unexpected passing of Yana Ishchenko.  Yana was not just an excellent translator, she was a dear friend.

I first met Yana about six years ago while visiting Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine.  My wife and I we were seeking to adopt a very special girl in what we thought was an obscure part of the country.

Yana had once been employed at the orphanage, where she was a trusted caregiver.  Caring for orphans came naturally for Yana, probably because she had spent much of her own life without a father.  Empathy can truly enhance certain abilities.

When Yana left the orphanage to resume her studies, she kept up with the kids from the orphanage. Yana never judged the kids, but she wasn’t fooled by them when they misbehaved.  They accepted her correction.  When we would arrive at the orphanage with Yana, the kids would flock to her.  The girls loved catch her up on the latest news, and comment on the latest trend she was wearing.

Yana had some funny quirks in her behavior.  Going out to eat with Yana was always fun, because she loved sweets.  She would eat them while the rest of us ate entrees.  Her favorite dessert was a bowl of fruit with cream.  Yana’s laugh was infectious, and it was pretty easy to get a laugh out of her.

I will never forget one snowy visit we paid to a local official, who had a document we needed.  I was encouraged to bring a box of chocolate as a “thank you.”  I opted for the big box.  When we arrived at the building, there were other local people who were also waiting to meet with this official.  Yana suggested I hide the candy, so that it would not look improper.  So I shoved the box under my coat.  It was a long wait, and every time I moved, the cellophane wrapper made a loud noise and the people stared.  She could not stop laughing.  I am sure we looked like a couple of nuts, because nobody in Ukraine laughed that much.

For those of us who adopted kids from Zaporizhzhya, Yana was indispensable.  Her ability to translate was impressive, and we demanded that the facilitators hire her.  She always knew what to say and how to say it to people in various parts of the process we endured.  Yana also helped comfort me at a time when my new daughter was terrified of me, and the uncertain life that awaited her half a world away.

As you read this, pray for the mother and brother that Yana left behind.  There was also a group of students, pictured with me at the top of the page.  Yana taught them English, and they thought Yana was cool for bringing Americans to talk with them.  Of course, they loved her.   She never earned much money, but those relationships pulled her back to them twice a week for several years.  The void that Yana left in the lives of those children will be felt for quite some time.

Yana, we love you.  We will miss you.

Isaiah 55:6

Dude, Your Dreams are Weird

•June 25, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I am not sure why, but lately I have been thinking back to my life as a boy. Perhaps it is because Father’s Day has just come and gone again. Nonetheless, in an uncertain time zone, I am awake while others sleep on the plane. I do not sleep on international flights, I just think a lot.

I remember many nights of lying in my bed and just talking to God. Frankly, some of it was mechanical; saying prayers because I should have. But I distinctly remember that I repeatedly asked God to make me a man after His own heart. At age eight or nine, I had no idea what I was really asking. I thought to be a man was to linger on the edge of growing old. Even as an adult, I find it hard to pinpoint what it is to live after God’s own heart. But I had read about David in the Bible, and he did some amazing stuff in his walk with God. They were tight. That’s what I wanted life to be. So in my own way, I told God that I was in. I figured, “Why not?” Besides, I could pray that way because innocence lost had not yet given rise to cynicism. My prayers were, well… childlike.

I am forty-one now, and I long to go back to that time. No, not the wishing I could still run forever, or quickly metabolize five thousand calories as I could back then. I am talking about the dream. The kind of dream, to walk closely with God, that is not uniquely American, or corporate, or shiny. The dreams that God whispered into our souls before advertisers mounted their attacks on us, prompting us to DVR everything. Call it self-inflicted A.D.D. Insert your favorite guilt-wielding example here.

And so it hit me just now, that the dream is alive because of the work of Christ in my life. I love Ephesians 2:10, which says, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance that we should walk therein.” Analyzing dreams through this lens reveals that God takes us on adventures which the “American dreamers” think are nuts.

And they are nuts if we think we can go about paving on our own way of “doing something for God.” Can you picture Adam sitting around the garden, surrounded by yet unnamed masterpieces, trying to create something?!? He was just supposed to hang with his Creator. The creative influence rubs off on us.

Now, Skills for Orphans, is my own walk in the garden. I am trying to steer clear of the trees of “awareness,” “social responsibility,” and other code words that just mean that I want to be liked and admired for caring. I am not opposed to making others aware of orphans, nor do I strive to be irresponsible. The aim is to bring God glory in ways that only make sense by following God.

On Father’s Day and Being Fatherless

•June 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

dad, anderson,meIt has taken many years for me to understand just how deep fatherhood is.  At age 41, I am just beginning to scratch that surface with five children of my own.

Philosopher John Locke was famous for saying that, “The mind is a blank slate, on which, experience writes.”  I am certainly not a PhD, nor do I espouse much of Locke’s worldview.  However, I will agree that the experiences I had with my father left indelible imprints on my own slate.  Thankfully, most of my experiences were positive; almost all were constructive.

When I was a child, it might have been difficult for me to say exactly what my father was to me.  I might have said something like, “Dad takes care of our family,” or, “Dad makes sure that I behave.”  I would have been right.  Whatever the case, I just knew that he was supposed to be there, and he was.  I thought that he loved me, and he did.  I believed that he would have given his life for our family, and he would have.

But there was more to his fatherhood than even those things.  He gave me something to live up to; expectations, not pressure.  My dad taught me that there was a way to behave in treating people with respect.  My father had a disdain for laziness, and he would not tolerate dishonesty.  And I wanted to please him.

Sometimes the lessons he taught me were tough, but did not involve “the rod of discipline.”  One day I had been out riding my bike with a friend.  We were miles away from our house, when my friend and I stopped at a convenience store to get a soda.  The guy behind the counter gave me too much change.  I knew it, but I put the money in my pocket and rode home.  Dad overheard me bragging that I had picked up some extra money along the way.  Very clearly, he told me to get back on my bike, ride back to that store and return the extra change.  I had ridden a lot that day, and I was exhausted.  Somehow, I ended up in his car instead.  The only conversation was me telling him where the store was.  I went in and returned the money to the same guy behind the counter.  I never forgot that lesson, and it has served me well from that point forward.

There were other times when dad would load me into the car to face someone I had wronged.  He never let things like that slide.  I would face the offended person and make restitution, which was usually just an apology.  To this day, I do not care for confrontation.  However,  I can and will act when I know confrontation is needed.

What my dad ultimately gave me was an example for the Christian faith.  I followed Christ at an early age.  But it was my father who would teach me the way, and not with a litany of “thou shalt and thou shalt nots.”  He was like a set of bumpers at the bowling alley.  I was free to bowl, but he was there to make certain that I did not end up rolling into the gutter.  I am so glad that he led me to the One who is “closer than a brother.”  God is the one I call “Father.”  God is more than enough.

This is my fourth Father’s Day without my dad.  He went to heaven after a massive stroke he suffered during an outpatient procedure.  There are times when I would like to ask him questions about life, or just engage in conversation with the older and wiser person that he was.  But as I continue in my walk with God, I am understanding more of the Father that He is.

The deeper effect of dad’s influence in my life is the unshakeable feeling I have that things should be a certain way.  Call it justice.  For example, I cannot accept that there are orphans (more than we know) who do not have access to anything with which I was raised.  No love, no security in relationships, no examples worth following…no hope.  I cannot reconcile that there are countless people who live to exploit children in unspeakable ways, knowing that they cannot defend themselves and have nobody to defend them.  Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice TO the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause (emphasis mine).”  When I read that, I say, “YES!  That is what I should do.”  By the grace of God, I will.

I am not responsible for however many millions of orphans there are in the world.  God knows how many there are, just as He knows how many hairs are on my head.  I am, however, responsible to reach out to those He has put in front of me.  This truth is what drives me to board a plane on Friday for Ukraine.  Six years ago, God put those orphans in front of me.  By God’s grace, we will all know the same Father.

Radical Together

•June 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

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This is a new friend, Dima, Pastor of Grace Evangelical Church in Kiev.  I was introduced to him today by Oleg, our partner from International Leadership and Development Center.  I am giving him a copy of “Radical Together,” which was written by my pastor, David Platt.

Today we met so that I could share my vision of helping orphans fulfill their God-given purposes through Skills for Orphans.  I explained my own struggles of having seen too many American teams come to Ukraine and reach out to orphans with material things; stuff.    I told him my desire to see the local church embrace Ukraine’s orphan population that is teachable.  I asked him to challenge families at Grace to join us.

I was amazed at this man’s transparency.  You see, I am a pastor’s son, so I am not impressed with that title.  I have shared on this blog about my dad’s impact on my life, but he was a human like the rest of us.  Anyway, Dima talked about the complacency that has infiltrated his congregation.  He shared how people come to church out of routine and obligation, with no passion for God.  It was far too familiar.  He told me that last week, from the pulpit, he said that he did not know why some people even bothered to come to church.  That is a man who is facing discouragement.  Pray for him.

Dima, however, is not defeated.  He is in a position of humility before God.  I am not sure if he has always been there, probably not.  The important thing is that he is humble now.  Grace flows from humility, and God can use that.  When God gets us to a place of humility, He can more readily trust us because our hearts are in the right place.

The reason I shared this book with Dima is because  it was written on the grounds of a place where humility has swept in like a gale-force wind.  By God’s grace, our church is being used, more than ever, to reach the nations.

To be “radical” is not to be legalistic.  For the Christ-follower it is a heart response of, “Jesus, you are right.”  The rich young ruler could not say that to the point where he was willing to follow Jesus because his heart was with his wealth, not the Savior.  He was complacent.  He had no real passion except to further his own status before men…a recipe for disaster.

Our meeting ended on a note of encouragement.  Dima gets the idea of spiritual duplication.  If God’s people represent the hands and feet of Jesus then results will follow.  Guaranteed.  I hope we can be radical together.

Not All Orphans Want Help

•January 29, 2011 • 5 Comments

I have sat on this post for weeks.  It is a hard truth to communicate and I hope I get it right. Here goes…

What I have realized about orphan care is that, far too often, people go into it without proper expectations…much like they do with adoption.  Before you adopted or ministered to an orphan, tell me if you have ever thought something like, “They are finally going to feel loved.”  Or, “We cannot wait to change their lives.” Or, “We must rescue them.”

I am not trying to shame anyone; I said all of those things too.  And like many people, I said them out of a heart of wanting to do the right thing.  Either hearing someone sharing their experiences, or spending time in the Word compelled me to help orphans.

But time and experiences of my own have taught me that many orphans (CERTAINLY not all of them) just want your stuff, and if they must put up with you for a while, so be it.  Here’s the thing, it is not their fault.  Many poor countries are flooded by marketing.  Everywhere orphan children turn, they see that stuff equals significance. Sometimes, if we are not careful, we can unknowingly validate that conclusion.  Have you ever pulled out an iPod or a Nintendo DS at an orphanage?  I have. The result was something like ants on a melted ice cream; kids running from everywhere to touch the cool gadget.  If those things were not so great, then why would we have traveled five thousand miles with them?

I have even gone a step further.  I have bought some orphans their very own “significant” items, resulting in too many issues to go into here.

The truth is, without the power of Christ in me, I would be just another bitter orphan advocate who curses all the broken systems that fail these kids.  James tells us to visit orphans.  Isaiah tells us to defend them.  I know it is easier to massage their pain by sharing our shiny things with them, but we must be wise, like Peter the Apostle.  What they need to see is genuine love. Sometime love is tough and is always risky.  Had you been betrayed and abandoned by all who were supposed to care for you, would you sign up for tough and risky?  Not without some convincing.

So what to do with those who do not want help?  Love them, visit them, let them see you helping those who want it. Maybe leave the laptop at the hotel.

 

Ande Underwood is President of Skills for Orphans, based in Birmingham, AL.

Once a War Orphan, Now a Fighting Hero

•January 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Last week I read the compelling story of Sam Han.  At six years of age, Han was orphaned during the Korean War after he was displaced from his parents in Seoul.  Over sixty years later, Mr. Han is giving his life (literally) to help those in North Korea who ,without families, are walking the same roads he did as a young boy.  Wanting to know more, I searched for his foundation and emailed them for an interview request.  Less than thirty-six hours later, I had a response from Mr. Han himself.  I asked for fifteen minutes.  He graciously gave much more.

From the start, I expressed my sorrow about his cancer.  He related the long and painful journey he has traveled since his diagnosis in 2002.  His last procedure had been just a few days prior to our conversation.  Mr. Han’s sense of purpose overshadowed his difficulty of battling a life-threatening disease.  Indeed, Han says that, “God has allowed me to survive to do his mission.”

Fascinated by the turns his life had taken, I asked Sam how he decided that he wanted to help orphans.  “Long story,” he said.  He talked about being a World Vision volunteer while he was a college student during the Vietnam War. As Han sent in donations, World Vision relayed reports of how his donations were meeting the needs of children in poverty.  Each gift began to sow seeds of a vision to help orphans in North Korea.

Like many of us, Han finished college and began life in the corporate world.  He was very successful with a major chemical company, and made it to the top of the ladder.   Han began to manage major company operation overseas.

Then his “vision was rekindled” in 1995 when he visited North Korea for the first time since his early childhood.  As many as 200,000 orphans were created there by a catastrophic flood.  It was in the destruction in North Korea where Han came face to face with the seemingly insurmountable issues orphans were facing. However, the demands of upper management drove him back to life in the corporate world.

When Han was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, he said that he, “Did not want to meet God without fulfilling his vision.”  Han decided that his last days on earth would be lived with the purpose, or mission, to help North Korean orphans. Part of that mission, has manifested in the form of proposed legislation, Senate Bill S.3156, more commonly known as the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act.  This Bill would allow American families to adopt North Korean refugee children.  Mr. Han described how thousands of North Korean children are crossing the borders into neighboring countries in search of refuge.  In reality, North Korean orphan refugees live an indefinite life of danger and uncertainty while in hiding.  “The passage of this Bill is the most important thing in my life right now.”  Because conditions in North Korea have made it so difficult for relief to find its proper destination, Han hopes that more and more orphans can find the life that he did here in America.  In 1961, the Orphan Adoption Special Law was enacted to protect orphaned and dependent children adopted by families from abroad.  Han was the first Korean child to enter the U.S. after the passage of this Bill.

Please take the time to print the petition for the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act.  Pray for those whose lives are in danger because they have no voice.

On Simplicity and Modest Living

•January 2, 2011 • 3 Comments

I love coming to Ukraine.  I began visiting here in 2006 to see children we were planning to adopt, so the context of my visits has always been with the poor and helpless.  After ten visits, I feel very at home here.   I love the people and the food.  I can do without the bone-chilling weather.

At the risk of sounding pious, I love the simplicity in which I have been living here.  Call it a benefit of representing a brand new organization.  Yes, I eat more carbs than I would back home, but I do so much walking.  I wear the same set of clothes for three days straight.  I eat what I can carry.  I try not to check bags on the airplane.

Simply put, I have learned that I do not need to translate a Western mentality of consumerism and material wealth with every choice I make for daily living. As an American it is assumed anyway.

I am learning that older orphans are driven to materialism because they have a perception that material things will fill the holes in their lives that were dug by the shovels of abandonment, betrayal, abuse, and disappointment.   But as I analyze my time here, I come back to the reality that I have been able to focus more on people (and even some work) because I do not have all of the creature comforts of home at my reach.

This is not a treatise on what people should and should not have.  But I will say that those of us who care about and visit orphans should be very careful when we open our bags and pull out all manor of technology to entertain and placate these children.  In our minds we are sharing the love of Christ.  Maybe so.  But at the same time, these kids find themselves wanting to be like us for the wrong reasons…because of the shiny things we have taken the trouble to carry five thousand miles across the world.  I am sitting next to a five-foot mirror as I write this.  I like my Flip camera and my iPod.

When I arrived at my place of lodging on Wednesday, I was told that there had been a scheduling glitch and I needed to find another place to stay after two nights.  When the time came for me to leave, I was out in ten minutes.  In a sense I felt free, but a bit impoverished.  It took John Wesley 20 minutes to move his entire house.  Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”  Perhaps He was on to something.

I am thirty-six hours away from getting back home.  I hope I can apply some of this experience.

 
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