Sixteen years ago, my family and I pulled up stakes from the land of Uncle Sam to replant and become rooted in Ukraine for a season. Our sending church entrusted us with pioneering a two-year Bible school for Messianic Jewish believers.
My husband and I were in our 40s. It was a huge undertaking in mid-life!
We had spent the last decade plus as pastors and leaders — very involved and committed in our home church. We served with an amazing staff of elders and had grown very close over the years. There was a tearing that happened when we were sent out. Although it was painful for both those who commissioned us to go and we who left, I don’t believe it was unusual. That’s what happens when you are in covenant relationships with others. It hurts when some are called away to do something important for the kingdom of God.
Despite the pain of leaving, we left in strength. We were serving and loving our lives, enjoying the American dream — that is the American dream from the worldview of believers and disciples of Jesus. He was first and foremost without compromise, but we still enjoyed the “fat of the land” so amply available in the western material world.
When I say we left in strength, I don’t mean we had arrived or were uber mature or spiritual. I don’t mean we didn’t have problems or areas of weaknesses. We were common believers whom God called to serve the body of Messiah in a church. We gave our lives to the Lord and each other, and we tried to be examples of our Lord’s sacrifices and commandments.
Sure, we made plenty of mistakes as ministers of the gospel, and we enjoyed a few triumphs as well. We prayed and planned and waited on God. And He led us through hills and valleys. A few things were resolved in life — and the main one being — we were on a road of knowing God and making Him known to the world. There was no turning back.
Maybe it is not always true, but in general church leaders hold the place of being the strongest links in the chain — because they rise to the challenge of pouring themselves out before God and man, representing the Lord to the people and the people to Him. Often we were only a half a step ahead of the flock, depending on God for every move. We prayed for vision and played a part in making it known. Those were glorious days of growing as a team, worshipping together, and reflecting the Lord on earth.
Suddenly when our family arrived in Ukraine, I found myself as not the strongest in the chain but the weakest. I went from being at the head to becoming the tail — on the bottom.
In my mid-forties, changes in culture, language, weather, and protocol overwhelmed me. Ukraine experienced the coldest winter in 25 years our first few months there. Our accommodations were meager and insufficiently winterized. It was freezing. The food was strange. I came to teach, but found that I must become a learner in order to survive — much less teach!
This was old-fashioned culture shock, and it was typical. But for some strange reason, I didn’t expect I would have to endure much since I had lived in Israel for three years on a kibbutz in my early 20s. I had studied Hebrew, learned a new culture and job and had done it quite successfully. I lived in difficult circumstances there too — in a wooden shack and took showers in a public bathhouse. We used a public outhouse! I conducted my work day in another language, and I became a leader and instructed others in Hebrew!
I had mistakenly thought I had paid my “cultural” dues.
In the early 1990’s, Communism had just fallen and the former Soviet Union struggled to become a free-enterprising democracy. Those were years of birth pains and suffering, much different from life under Lenin, Stalin, or Kruchev.
Communism had stripped the Soviets of their belief in God and trust in religious systems, whether Jew or Gentile. The vacuum of fallen government and struggling democracy made the people very hungry for faith, and more specifically God in the form of Jesus Christ. Those were glorious days of spiritual strides as we joined the ranks of numerous teams that flooded into the former Soviet Union preaching the gospel. Thousands came to Jesus and needed to be fed and discipled.
I remember those days as the most difficult of my life and the most rewarding. Each night my husband and I would fall into bed utterly exhausted, often bewildered by the culture, challenges, and problems yet joyful that we decided to go — even in mid-life with the unpaved, uncharted road of pioneering ahead of us wound into the difficult unknown.
We began the first Bible school in a fishing village 90 kilometers outside Odessa, Ukraine, in a Communist indoctrination youth camp. Much to our amazement, twenty-five eager students showed up. Another couple and their three boys joined the effort, so we were two families — four adults putting effort into pioneering the first Messianic Jewish Bible school.
Of the four, I was the weakest link. The cultural adjustments bothered me the most. I was shocked at my own reactions, even embarrassed. And… the battle seemed too intense, more suited for someone younger and energetic. The cold bothered me. Russian seemed much harder to learn than Hebrew. The people seemed like aliens, and they looked at us as if we WERE the aliens. In the small fishing village of the coast of the Black Sea, Myaki, some had never seen foreigners, much less Americans from the West.
I wanted to go home — even before our container arrived with all our worldly goods! We went days without heat, fuel, gas, often without water. We couldn’t even take hot baths and were reduced to old-fashioned Soviet washing machines! We hung our clothes on the line and they froze or soured before they dried. It was a real test of endurance, and I wanted to give up.
I was supposed to home school our daughter and couldn’t, because I was too emotionally distraught. She ran wild with the other three boys in the field everyday, carefree and happy to spend life playing instead of studying. I was losing ground and couldn’t get a grip.
I did give up at least once a day. My husband grew weary too, but he didn’t give up like me. Among the four, I was the quitter.
But I learned something vital. Although I was the weakest link, my contribution still became valuable. The others still needed me. God had still called me and felt I COULD handle this. I couldn’t give up. And in spite of myself, I stayed and pressed by taking painful, small steps. I continued to plant, sow, and water in the cold, off-the-beaten lentil patch in Ukraine, where God had place us. He brought a harvest beyond belief.
Now the MJBI has Bible schools in many nations, with Holocaust feeding and outreach programs, congregations, and humanitarian aid works. I can’t take credit, because I was the weakest link in all the plowing and pioneering, but God brought harvest anyway.
Life is funny. One day you can be the strongest in the chain of your calling or career or just everyday living and suddenly find yourself the weakest and ready to give it all up. The lesson is not to glory in your strength when you are on top, not to despise the weak — rather remember your own limitations in times past. It is a sign of true strength and maturity to bear the weakness of others and see their value when they are not up to par or on your level. It is the best leaders who help the weak with patience and faith.
I am glad the other three had compassion on me in my weakness, urging me onward.
In weakness or strength, the work belongs to the Lord of the harvest. He will not share His glory with any man, lest we think our strength has won the victory.
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (I Corinthians 12:9).