Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Reflections

Dear partners and friends,

We are very happy to be here in Kiev, but it is not without its occasional melancholy moments.  This will be our first Christmas without at least one of our children with us.  That realization (typically accompanied by a nostalgic Christmas tune on our stereo) brings a momentary surge of sadness along with moist eyes and a very palpable sense of an unwelcome swelling in the throat.

If you are sentimental like we are, it only takes a familiar note in a song to trigger a cascade of memories of Christmases past—and the emotions that their elusiveness triggers.  Some fun, others funny—but all of them frozen in time and far away. Why is it that so many Christmas songs define Christmas as being “home for the holidays”,  decorating Christmas trees, sitting in front of an “open fire” (very few people in Kiev even have a fireplace), and being with family and close friends as we watch our children eagerly tearing open gift-wrapped boxes?

Surely not all of our past Christmases were as fond as our sanitized and idealized recollections would have us to believe. Forgotten in our sacred Hall of Christmas memories are the ghosts of Christmas meal disasters, innumerable hours spent on “easy to assemble” toys, the tragic absence of batteries; snowless Christmases, bickering children, and untimely bouts of the flu bug.  (How about some of those experiences in the next Christmas hit song?)  

Ironically, our biggest problem with our memories—are our memories! We focus on a few family traditions and forget that the best is yet to come. Nothing wrong with remembering the past—as long as we keep our eyes on the future.  And that is where things really become exciting.  If you know Jesus Christ, you can take your best Christmas experience ever, multiply it by infinity, and you still can’t touch what is coming. All because our God keeps all His promises. That is what makes this Christmas so special for us.

We are finding that keeping busy and having others over who are away from family really helps. On Friday night (December 23), we had 4 Kyiv Seminary students over for a meal. One is from Kazakhstan and is a bit homesick for her family (In fact, she lives with us and is like a daughter to us) Her boyfriend  has no surviving family members. They both are missions majors and in fact may very well end up in Kazakhstan serving the Lord together one day (at least that is something they are praying about). The other two are a married couple from Far East Russia. They are almost 6,000 miles from home—and it has been three years since they have been there!  

Our common separation from family and loved ones coupled with our common commitment to the Gospel in the Russian-speaking world made for a sweet evening of fellowship. Who knows? Maybe this will become a tradition.

So wherever you are, just know that the message of Christmas deserves more than a wish for a repeat performance of some idealized past memory. It is worthy of something  bigger than waiting in line for hours to have a chance to buy a pair of special edition Air Jordan basketball sneakers. It is in the category of an off-the-charts ecstasy that can hardly be contained.  We are not quite there yet. But we are fighting for it. “Even so come quickly Lord Jesus.”

Because he left His home in heaven to make us a home with Him,

Jerry and Kellie Benge

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

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Teaching Ministry in Full Gear

Dear partners in ministry,

With language school behind us, ministry is now in full swing. Last week (September 5-10), I flew with friend and ministry colleague Artyom Kluchnikov to Kemorovo, Siberia to teach in a biblical counseling training module co-sponsored by International Faith Initiatives and Overseas Instruction in Biblical Counseling. This was my fourth opportunity to work with these two organizations which are partnering together to advance the cause of biblical counseling in the Russian-speaking world.  I had the opportunity to teach on several topics and thoroughly enjoyed the 35 enthusiastic students and their passion for the personal ministry of God’s Word. Artyom and I departed on Saturday, encouraged that biblical counseling is making significant progress in this part of Russia.

Shortly after returning to Kiev, I began teaching a course on Pastoral Ministry in a two week module with 4 hour per day classes (similar to American J-term classes). While the format is a bit tiring, the opportunity has been exciting thus far. I have a small class of 7 students which allows for more discussion and greater opportunities to really get to know the men. It is a privilege to share with them the truths that God has taught me over the years through many godly mentors in my life.  My passion (and prayer) is that God will use this class to help these men grasp the great privilege and awesome responsibility they have to shepherd God’s flock. Please pray that God will give me strength, wisdom, and sensitivity to the cultural nuances so that these men will grow to love Christ more deeply, embrace His Gospel more fervently, and care for His sheep in a way that produces a healthy sheep whose lives make the Gospel attractive to the lost.

Thank you your support of the Gospel to the Russian-speaking world,

Jerry Benge

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Brief Update and Requests

Dear friends and partners in the Gospel,

Latest Update (9-7-2011)
Just heard from Volodia that Zechariah is at home now. When they took him to the intensive care unit with their newer equipment, they redid all the tests and found that he was fine. The only problem is that he was on medicine that he did not need for 10 days. Volodia and Oksana are praising the Lord, and we are too. Thank all of you for your concern and prayers. The doctors said he would probably recover much sooner at home.

When Jerry got to the airport Monday afternoon to leave for Siberia, he called Volodia one last time to check up on Zechariah. They moved him to an intensive care unit in the hospital and decided to redo the tests they had done before. The tests on his kidneys came back normal, so that is very good news. The other part of the hospital where Zechariah was has old equipment, and so the tests were not accurate. He is still in serious condition, but the good news is that his kidneys are not failing. Please continue to pray for Volodia, Oksana and Zechariah to have strength and God's grace throughout this ordeal. They know that many people around the world are praying for them. Thank you for your faithfulness and love - Kellie

Original Post:
I am sending out this brief update on our friends in Ternopil, Volodia and Oksana, and their son, Zechariah. Volodia informed me that Zechariah has taken a turn for the worse. Apparently his kidneys are starting to fail. I have no additional information because Volodia could only speak briefly. So please continue to keep the family in your prayers: Zechariah for healing if God wills. His parents for strength and hope in God's wisdom, love, and sovereignty. Oksana has not left his side since this ordeal began over two weeks ago--and she is exhausted beyond measure. Pray especially that God would be glorified and that the Gospel will advance through all this. They have already told me of situations where they have been able to speak about their faith in Christ.

Pray also for me as I leave today to participate in a biblical counseling training module in Kemerovo, Siberia. Please pray for safety as we fly tonight and strength as begin teaching tomorrow morning with little rest.

For the Gospel in the Russian-speaking world,

Jerry Benge

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Important Request

Dear friends and partners in the Gospel,

I recently received word about a dear pastor friend of mine who serves in Ternopil. His name is Volodymyr Kostyshyn (and his wife is Oksana). He is a faithful and humble servant of Christ who has been laboring in Ternopil for the past 10 years. I have known him for a few years because one of my supporting churches (Lakes Baptist in Walled Lake, MI) also supports his ministry and has underwritten a major part of the cost of a new building which is being dedicated in October. My point in writing, however, is to ask for prayer for their 6 year old son, Zechariah. He is profoundly handicapped, most likely with a severe form of cerebral palsy. Since birth, he has required 24 hour care as he cannot move or help himself in any way apart from minimal movement of his hands and turning his neck. He has to be fed with a bottle and requires routine diaper changes. Through all of this, his parents have reflected the love and compassion of Christ. They call Zechariah "God's special gift to us." God has used this "gift" and his parent's obedient trust in God's sovereignty, wisdom, and love to impact their church and community. The church now has a strong vision for "invalids" and God is opening doors to other families in the community facing the same situation, but who have little or no hope. Volodia tells me that when he interacts with these families, they usually believe God has punished them for some past sin. Volodia has used this opportunity to share the hope of the Gospel--and people have been amazed and open about a new way of looking at this problem--and at life in general.

But now Volodia and Oksana are facing a crisis. Zechariah has been in the hospital with a dangerously high fever for the past two weeks. Given all of Zechariah's medical history, the odds (humanly speaking) have been against him. Thankfully, however, his temperature has come down somewhat for which they are thankful. But his white blood count is still quite high. Please pray that God might be pleased to heal him. Pray for wisdom for the doctors as they treat him. And pray for His parents that God would give comfort and hope through remembering God's promises and presence. Finally, pray that God will use this situation to impact their church and community in a way that advances the Gospel.

Thank you for your prayers,

Jerry Benge

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Trial and Error: Lessons from Russian Bloopers

Learning a foreign language in the class room is very important, but speaking the language is where you really learn to do it! Trial and error. That is what language acquisition is all about. It’s hard to appreciate the challenge of communicating to people in a different culture and who speak a different language until you have tried it—and failed a few times. As difficult and embarrassing as that can be, it actually has some important lessons:

1) Failure provides some comic moments for our teachers (and for us a few months later). Like the time my classmate was trying to say that he stopped by the store and bought water (vada) but actually said that he stopped by the store and bought hell (vadoo). Or the time another student was trying to say: I am paying (plachoo) but actually said I am crying (plachoo). Same word, different accent. Altogether different meaning. Maybe he was upset about higher inflation and just wanted to get across both ideas at once (When I pay, I cry)! My biggest blooper occurred before language school when I was visiting with a family in Russia. One of the children was showing me a family photo album with Christmas pictures. Of course in Russian folklore, Santa Claus is known as Father Frost. And he does not ride on a sleigh with reindeer, but is often seen with his granddaughter (Vnutchka). When I remarked about the picture of Father Frost and his Vnutchka, I made the mistake of adding one vowel and called her Vonutchka, which unfortunately means skunk, or a lady with a serious odor problem. Fortunately for me, the family was amused. I was glad this happened in March and not December.

2) Failure puts you in the role of being dependent on the kindness and patience of others and thus encourages humility. I have been corrected more than once with a smile and return of money when I misunderstood what the vendor was charging me at the local fruit market. Coming from a culture that values self-reliance makes this humble dependence on others all the more important. Humility is an essential trait for those conveying the Good News of Christ’s merit for undeserving sinners.

3) Finally, while failure can be amusing or humbling, in the end it reminds us of the responsibility to convey truth carefully and accurately. Bloopers in class or mistakes at the local market are one thing, but being an Ambassador for our Savior demands a dedication to represent Him well with our language skills. The medium may not be the message, but it surely is important!

Speaking for our King,

Jerry and Kellie

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Easter (The Challenge of Nominal Christianity)

 We received this beautiful picture in the mail last week. Those beautifully decorated Ukrainian eggs surround a very simple yet profound message in ornate Slavic script: "Christ Has Risen!"  If you didn't know better, you might think it was a Gospel pamphlet or an invitation to attend an Easter concert. But this picture was not sent from our church, or even one of the local Orthodox Churches here in Kiev. It is a circular advertisement from a Ukrainian version of a Mini-Mart or a 7-11, unashamedly reminding us of the most important truth in Christianity! Need I mention that the day, "Sunday" (Vaskrisyenye) literally means Resurrection Day?!

Think of the irony of being in a post-Soviet country where there seems to be more freedom to use explicit Christian words in public discourse than in my own home country. No debates here about the dumbing down of politically incorrect words into offenseless (and insipid) expressions. So why are we here in Ukraine instead of back in our increasingly secularized homeland? It might help to open up our little circular. Inside it has several tempting pictures of various foods and beverages (on sale of course) that are guaranteed to make your family Easter celebration an unforgettable (if not praiseworthy) experience.

Nothing wrong with a nice family meal. But a closer look at this and other religious celebrations reveals at best a form of godliness that has little if any connection to the reason why Christ lived, died and arose. In a country with the highest incidence of AIDS in Europe, "Christ has risen" may seem like a feel-good slogan, but hardly a personal reality.

The challenge, as always, lies with those of us who have the Gospel. God always mediates His Gospel through His people. But before we can be compelling messengers of the Good News, we must first be experiencing its transformative power.

Which brings me back to why we are are here. We are here to help pastors make Jesus their treasure and the feeding and training of His flock their passion. We are here to help Ukrainian churches to more deeply understand the message of the Gospel and to live out their union with the Crucified and Risen Christ who transforms selfish people into self-giving servants (Romans 6; Mark 10:45).

Our language preparation is coming to an end next month--but our ministry here is just getting started. And it is possible because we serve a Savior who is not only risen, but is finishing the work He began at Calvary through His Church (Phil. 1:6).

He is risen, indeed!

Jerry and Kellie

P.S. I (Jerry) have been out of commission for a couple of weeks with a nasty respiratory virus. Praise the Lord I am on the mend and getting caught up with responsibilities such as this blog! We will be sending out a Benge Bulletin soon with pictures and updates of recent events. Also, please keep Luda in your prayers. We had a good visit with her in March, but have not recently been able to contact her. And one final note. This is one of the few times when Easter here falls on the same Sunday as it does in the West. So we will be enjoying this one with you (if not a few hours ahead of you!)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Update and Prayer Request for Kellie

In our last blog, I (Jerry) related an unusual encounter that Kellie had with a Ukrainian woman that has gradually transformed into a friendship. In this blog, Kellie shares in her own words how this relationship began, how it is blossoming, and how you can pray!

I am kind of awed at what God is doing here in Kiev as I watch this relationship with Luda develop. After seeing her almost every day for 3 months and finally making eye contact, we were separated for the summer. When I started language school again this past September, I started seeing her again. I began to say hello in Russian and after about 2 weeks, she responded. We continued greeting each other until my break from language school for about 5 weeks over the Christmas holidays. My first day back to school in January, I was shocked to find her waiting for me with a big smile and a warm hello. She was like a different person. I didn’t even know her name, so we introduced ourselves in Russian(!) Since then, whenever I see her (usually about 2 times a week) we stop and talk. She likes to try out new English words with me, and I like to practice my Russian with her. I am beginning to understand her which is exciting. Jerry even got to meet her one day! She is about my age; we talk together easily. I just keep wondering what God is going to do in this relationship. She works every day, so we only talk when she is on the way to work in the mornings. This coming Tuesday, March 8, is a very important holiday in this part of the world – International Women’s Day, so she has Monday and Tuesday off of work. I have invited her over to our apartment for tea on Monday at 2:00 (which will be 7:00AM for most of you in the US). She seemed very excited with the invitation and readily accepted it. Please pray for me to trust that God has prepared me for this time especially with the language. She knows that I am studying it, and has been patient and helpful as we have talked in the mornings. I just want to get to know her and show her kindness. We will have tea, a couple kinds of dessert, fruit and candy. I trust that God will use this time to draw us closer and begin developing a relationship that will culminate in having a new Ukrainian sister in Christ. I will appreciate your prayers for God’s love to be evident and for my focus to be on Luda and not feeling self-conscious myself. I’ll let you know how it goes. It gives me great confidence to move forward knowing you are partnering in prayer. Thank you.

Your partners in the Gospel to Ukraine,

Kellie (and Jerry) Benge

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reflections on Reflecting God's Image To Others

We are missionaries. We would like to think we are missional. We have been in Kiev, Ukraine for 18 months learning Russian and preparing for our ministry of working with present and future pastors in Ukraine in order to see churches planted, strengthened, and mobilized to take the Gospel to parts of the former USSR. But what we are finding out is that it is less about our mission and more about the faithfulness of our Savior who is always on mission.

Our invisible God created the visible world to display His glory and then placed Adam and Eve in the Garden to visibly reflect His glorious character as they managed His Creation. But when they rebelled against Him and forfeited their mission, God made a promise which He ultimately fulfilled in His Son who came to seek and to save the lost. And when He came, He fulfilled every prophecy from God and every requirement that was necessary for man to be reconciled to God (Matthew 5:18).

And so here we are--extending Christ's mission to the Russian-speaking world. But as we learn the language, prepare for classes next Fall, and plan our strategies, we are continually reminded that God's mission starts with us. It's not just His mission through us, but in us. If God's promise was to restore that which sin had marred, that restoration must be evident in the messengers. If we are to be heralds of a Paradise Restored, our lives must take on the look of a movie trailer--providing tantalizing glimpses that evoke a desire to see the rest of the movie.

Jesus did that when He was on earth. And the thing that is most striking was that He didn't just do it through His miracles, but in some of the most mundane moments of life: like taking time for children and eating with people on the lower end of the social spectrum. Not exactly prime stuff for missional efficiency. Just ordinary "love God and your neighbor stuff." The kind of stuff that will one day permeate God's Kingdom.

Which brings me to a story that Kellie recently (and excitedly) shared with me. About a year ago, she noticed while walking to language school each day a Ukrainian women walking from the opposite direction. Several days a week, their paths crossed. Wanting to somehow show some kindness, Kellie began by simply trying to make eye contact (something not generally practiced in the former Soviet Union where the KGB had created an atmosphere of mutual distrust). At first, her efforts seemed to be intentionally ignored. But after about a month, this woman began to acknowledge Kellie by looking back at her. Emboldened by the progress, Kellie added a smile and began to greet in Russian with the words, "Zdrastvuytye." There was still no reciprocation from the woman.

These unscheduled rendezvous went on for several more weeks. Summer passed with no contact. Then in the Fall, they began again as Kellie returned to language school. Again more attempted greetings with no apparent response. Then came Christmas and a break from school. But after Christmas, the unexpected happened. On Kellie's first day back to school, she noticed this time that the woman was not only looking at her, but had been looking for her. There she was...waiting for Kellie! She ran up to Kellie and asked where she had been. Shocked by a voice she had never heard before, Kellie listened and then introduced herself to a woman named Luda. Now, every morning they meet and talk to each other. I know this to be true because I walked one day with Kellie and was also introduced to this woman who obviously feels an inexplicable kinship with my wife. We do not know what God's plans and purposes are for Luda. But we pray that God would allow Kellie to build on the kind deeds of a word and a smile, an opportunity to share with her the Good News of a God who loves and saves people like her. So pray for Luda. And pray for us that we will stay on mission with God's transformative work in us so He can work through us.

Jerry and Kellie

PS Stay tuned as we plan to be blogging twice each month with similar anecdotes and thoughts.