Like many of you, I receive a two-page email from David and Olivia Nelson every Monday afternoon. The Nelsons are Legacy’s missionaries to Kharkov, Ukraine, the ones Carrie-Anne and I traveled to see a couple of weeks ago. The weekly email is a prayer request list. Two pages of names and circumstances that David and Olivia would like for us to lift up to our Father in intercessory prayer.
Confession: I have always just skimmed the email.
I’ve always just looked for the highlights. I look for two or three big things — by my definition of big, right? — and I pray about those. And then I print the email and stick it in the Legacy Morning Prayers folder for the other ministers and elders until the next list comes the following Monday.
The email came yesterday, right on schedule. And I must have spent 45-minutes on it.
After spending eleven days in Ukraine with these brothers and sisters in Christ, they’re real to me. After spending a week-and-a-half over there with these people David and Olivia know, these folks with whom they’re sharing the great news of salvation from God in Christ Jesus, they’re real to me. This weekly prayer request list from six-thousand miles away in Kharkov is no longer a black-and-white ledger of names. It’s a techni-color, HD, 3-D, surround-sound, IMAX presentation of the power of God in his people. These names have faces now. And families. And stories. And dreams. These people have history and heartache and hope. They laugh and they cry and they work and they worry. They have funny accents and peculiar habits and quirky customs.
And God is doing something with them. With all of them.
I look at this two-page list of emailed prayer requests and I see Andrei’s name. But it’s not Andrei’s name anymore, it’s Andrei. I see him. He’s the funny little guy who looks like Billy Crystal but thinks and speaks like he just stepped out of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He was baptized in the McDougle’s bathtub on a Lord’s Day last fall. He took off work to personally walk me through Liberty Square. He showed me the 500-year-old cathedrals. He got me into the second-largest Jewish synagogue in Europe. He beat my back almost bloody with some kind of a ceremonial branch in a Ukrainian sauna. We talked together about leadership in the Church. He’s pushing their group to get involved with a local orphanage. Andrei. I love Andrei. Not a name. A great man whom God is saving.
There’s Victoria’s name again. But it’s not just a name anymore. I know Victoria. I’ve shared wonderful meals with Victoria. Of course, she just stared at the walls and didn’t say more than two words the times we were together. She asked me about Texas and then quickly looked away while I told her about 12-lane highways and 900-member churches and sprawling metropolitan cities and suburbs. Victoria. Shy. Bashful. An intelligent teacher of elementary school children. David and Olivia are studying the Old Testament with her. God is working on her.
Valerie. As Costanza would say, Valerie is a “well-proportioned young man.” He looks like he could walk on and play ball right now for your alma mater. Red hair. Big dreams. He says he wants to preach. I’ve seen that he already does. His English is as good as his Russian. He translates for preachers and teachers all over Ukraine. He works with disadvantaged children. He translated for me as I preached upstairs in the Hindman’s apartment last Sunday night. I waited while he figured how to communicate my American-isms like “wrapped around her finger” and “jump for joy.” He talked with me afterward about how he had no Russian word that spoke to Christ’s love that “compels” us. We also talked about his long-ago marital problems and separation from his wife Julia. And about how God brought them back together. Restoration. Reconciliation. Gospel. God’s preparing Valerie to do something huge for the Kingdom.
Kevin. I travel halfway around the world to Ukraine to meet a guy from Japan with an American name. Kevin’s in Kharkov getting his Master’s degree in sports management. I taught him how to throw an American football in an American spiral. He calls me coach. He leaves to go back to Japan in three months. I’ll probably never see him again. And I have no clue what God is going to do with him.
Alexander. He’s a dentist and an oral surgeon. He told me in front of everybody that drinking diet soda was bad for my teeth. He’s very deliberate in word and deed. He knows the Bible. He speaks pretty good English except when he uses the word “naked.” When we were reading Genesis 3, he kept saying “nak-d.” One syllable. He never made fun of me when I mispronounced “Ochin Priatna” (nice to meet you). So I never laughed when he said “nak-d.”
Yelena. David and Olivia’s Russian language teacher. Faked being impressed by the six words I knew. Taught me how to say “love” (lublu). Laughed with Carrie-Anne and me as we learned about “choot-choot.”
Vlad. Huge smile. Super quiet. Unless he’s singing. Very loud and wonderful when he’s singing.
Robert seemed to understand every single thing I was preaching that night. Gene knows all the differences between our English NIVs and his Russian text of the Scriptures. Katia is a tireless servant. Masha is an energetic fire-ball. Sasha looks Asian, talks like a California valley girl, volunteers with the Peace Corps, and can’t manage the Kharkov trains system. Valeria, Olivia’s doctor, is a generous and compassionate care-giver in any setting. Sergei, who once served hard time in a Ukrainian prison, is now preaching the Gospel in the northeast part of Kharkov with a ten-year-old congregation of about nine souls. He shook my hand and said, “Please tell the brothers and sisters at Legacy ‘hi’ for us and that we are praying for them.”
These are real brothers and sisters. These are real flesh and blood children of God. I have worshiped our Father with them. I went there to encourage them. But, instead, they encouraged me. They moved me by singing “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Lamb of God” in Russian. They honored me by sharing with me the bread and the wine. They thanked our Lord that we were there and prayed for our safe travels. They opened up their homes and their hearts to us.
That burden of the church I feel just got heavier. I care about these people. I worry about these people. I love this little growing group, this little community of faith, God is constructing six-thousand miles away. And now I need much, much more time with David and Olivia’s weekly prayer requests.