Strengthening the Church through Education

May 1st is considered a special day for our family since it is the day we celebrate God giving us our only son Jonathan 20 plus years ago. This year, that day also significantly represented the date of Orthodox Easter—a time to commemorate God’s sacrificial giving of His only Son 2000 years ago.


Why is Russian Orthodox Easter different from when the U.S. celebrates Easter? The Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar to determine the date for their Easter while many western countries use the Gregorian calendar which tends to place Easter on an earlier date falling around the time of the March Equinox. I thought it would be fun to share some Russian culture tidbits, so I did some research and discovered that Easter is NOT a Russian national holiday!

Although it may not be recorded as a national holiday, according to an article in Russia Beyond the Headlines ( reprinted from the Moscow Times original (,  “it is the most important religious holiday in the country and the third most widely observed holiday in Russia overall, after New Year’s and birthdays, according to a 2003 poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation. In fact, for the vast majority of Russians, celebrating Easter is not so much a question of faith as it is one of national identity. Preparing for it requires the proper fulfillment of certain customs -many of them religious, but more of them from folk traditions.”

From March 1st, the first official day of Spring, to the Thursday before Easter, called “Чисти Четверг” or “Clean Thursday,” a transition occurs nationwide as weather warms and Russians begin spring cleaning. Garbage previously hidden in mounds of snow and ice is bagged; sand (specifically in our area) gustily blown everywhere is swept into piles; playgrounds, curbs, rocks, and even trees receive a fresh coat of color or whitewash. On “Clean Thursday,” everyone cleans their homes, prepares the dough for kulichi – tall cylindrical cakes,  and dyes eggs.

The painters who painted our stairwell and outside of our building with whom we have conversed and expressed our gratitude for their service.


Although Easter is not considered a national holiday, May 1st is actually recognized as the national holiday for—Labor Day.

“May 1 was a symbol of class struggle in Russia for about 100 years (1890-1990). Workers held annual protests on this day from 1890 to 1917, demanding better work conditions and higher wages. In 1918, May 1 became an important public holiday, known as the Day of the International Solidarity of Workers, in the Soviet Union. Most Soviet cities had parades and obligatory workers’ marches on this day until 1990. The Russian Parliament renamed the holiday as Spring and Labor Day in 1992.”


Because Easter is such an important part of the culture, it opens up evangelistic opportunities. Those who attend our English club were receptive to Art showing a video called “Watch the Lamb” and interacted in the discussion afterwards when Art explained what we believe about Easter. Our church’s choir traveled to the village of Zaegraevo to be part of a public concert that shared about Christ.  As the choir stood in the hall 15 minutes before the concert began, it was mentioned that only 5 people had come.  By the time we lined up on the stage, about 50 adults and children were in the audience.

The choir also sang in the special Thursday evening service held at our church and on Sunday. People who do not regularly attend church, like the unsaved husband of one of the ladies in the choir, attended these services.

Pray for the nation of Russia to not just experience external transformation but also internal, spiritual transformation. II Cor. 5:17-18 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”


The last Sunday of March was our turn to do Sunday school. We were asked to plan gifts the kids could make for Easter (May 1st here) to give to patients in an invalid hospital where our church has ministered. Since a large group of the children and some parents were also participating in an annual regional S.S. weekend program held in Chita, a city several hours from UU, we weren’t sure how many students to expect. We also weren’t sure how many gifts were needed.  Flexibility and alternative options are necessary for survival here while trusting the Lord for peace that things can work out.  With only one older child, about 3-4 middle group kids, and a few of the younger ones, it was decided that all would be combined and do the craft I had prepared. Several adults stayed to help the younger ones including a woman who has started attending with her grandson. Even with the wide age range, I felt led by the Lord to share His Word not just to do the craft. The children read I Cor. 15:3-4, John 3:16-17, I John 4:14-15, verses printed out in Russian for them to glue to the craft,  and I explained the gospel,  our hope of salvation through Jesus’ work on the cross and life eternal because of His resurrection.   The passage Romans 5:6,8,10 (we were still without strength) especially in Russian connects the desire to give the patients hope and encouragement through God’s Word. Sharing how the lesson went with a friend, she informed me that the young grandmother who had stayed to help was an unbeliever who had recently been asking questions. Please pray for the Spirit to open her understanding and for the opposition she is receiving from family members.


As we have mentioned, Mr. Art and Mrs. Lisa try to make school interesting, but last week we were outdone when a surprise guest secretly slipped into a lunch box. Our students began pulling their sandwiches and apples out when Anneka screamed, “It’s a rat!” We were all, of course, shocked to see her pull the tiny, live rodent out of her box instead of food.

Anneka’s version:  At math time, I really wanted it to be lunch time because I knew that my dad would be bringing my pretend lunch which was my new pet rat in my usual lunchbox.  My real lunch was in my backpack, but no one knew.  Then, at lunch time, I pretended to scream, “It’s a rat!” when I opened my pretend lunchbox. Everyone stood back and was super scared. It was so funny to see their surprise!

Not limited by verbal parameters, music is a language that communicates uniquely and internationally. Our choir director offered to cancel practice Monday so that those who wanted could attend the philharmonic’s season opener. Ulan-Ude isn’t necessarily much of a tourist attraction, but the opportunities to enjoy the Fine Arts are numerous and of high quality. We enjoyed the musical talent of two young men, the same age as our two oldest children, as they expressed through the piano and cello the meaning intended by the composers.

Life doesn’t always go according to plans.  It sometimes has its little surprises and hopefully has its times of sweet melody, but we know that it always is under the control of our loving Lord.


March 1st is the official start of spring here in Siberia. Although we don’t get our hopes too high as we slide around on the thawing and refreezing layers of hard, packed snow altering into ice, we definitely brighten at the increased hours of daylight and warming temperatures.

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March 8th is nationally revered as Women’s Day. The ladies of the churches our team works with hosted a special afternoon service to encourage, congratulate, and share Christ with the women who were able to attend. Art and I were given the opportunity to be part of a different Women’s Day celebration. One of the ladies who attends English club invited us to attend a party with her dance group.  Art was a bit tongue tied at the impromptu invitation to join the men as they imparted words of praise and congratulations to the women.  The women were tickled.  It was definitely a different cultural experience for us.  We have appreciated “S” faithfully attending English club, teaching us about her Buryat and Russian culture, and bringing new guests with her.  Please pray for this dear Buryat lady.  Her cousin who is in the medical profession is also now attending English club.  She has also invited us to a party.

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Life at school may not seem like a party every day, but Mr. Art and Mrs. Lisa do try to make it interesting.   With the warmer days, Art tries to take the kids out at break time to the playground if everyone is healthy and the ground not too muddy.  In class, our youngest student and I have been enjoying a simplified version of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.  It is a reader I used when we homeschooled our children that has suggested activities to help the students understand how Robinson had to create his life on the island.  The student basically makes a miniature display of the story adding new parts each day as Robinson builds his own furniture, grows and grinds his own grain, hunts and domesticates animals, etc.  We planted our own little garden, made our own pottery, and even shook cream into butter. Since a team meeting was coming up, Anneka agreed to give a presentation about her project and thought it would be fun to share our “homemade butter on some fresh warm biscuits.”

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One more little tidbit shared to encourage us that our ministry has impact.

“I was talking with Ike tonight about when he’ll be in the MK school one day and how you told Leif you’re looking forward to having him as a student.  He smiled and nodded his head and then said quite certainly, “yah, they’re my best friends”.

Ike took a turn helping us shake the butter.


Thank you for your help and encouragement which make it possible for us to serve in Ulan-Ude, Russia.

As we have stated before, we have our day-to-day job, but also minister in other ways like Art mentioned in our last post.  Sunday, both Art and I served in Sunday school.  Art did a drawing craft with the older students while I had the middle age group. We had an exam!  Yes, the teacher was tough on them even on the weekend.  How well would you do?   Question one:  How long are you able to wait, especially if it involves food? Question two: Are you always obedient?   Well, of course, we had a wide range of answers to the first question, but not so on the second although one young lady humorously declared she is obedient all the time.

The middle group has been studying the progression of the Israelites from Egypt into the wilderness. As a review and to incorporate a bit of English using something they were already familiar with, we discussed Exodus 16. First, I asked the students questions, and then they read the chapter from their Bibles.  Next, I used one of my favorite Bible resources, Read-Aloud Bible Stories by Ella K. Lindvall, which has big pictures and a very simple version of the Bible stories. Excited at the enthusiasm of the kids, I started reading and then they parroted, or some were even reading ahead of me! That was all fun, BUT I’m infamous for helping the students use all their senses during a lesson.  Given that our story was about the Israelites complaining when their food was all gone….. FOOD–Manna—What is it?  Since the Lord didn’t share His recipe for manna, I had to come up with a substitute wafer, the smell of which caused mouths to water as they really discovered how long they could wait.  Sadly, I was not able to take a picture of the class or the students helping me make the wafers, but here is a picture of the “wafers” themselves.

IMG_20160301_205511 After Sunday service the past couple of months, I have had the privilege of joining a ladies group doing a Kay Arthur inductive Bible study on the book of James. While we were in the U.S., I attended a Beth Moore James study with a supporting church. It was a great source of encouragement during the busy and challenging last part of our home service. Learning that the ladies here were also studying James felt like a gift and golden opportunity from the Lord to reconnect on common ground and to practice Russian with a familiar topic.  The ladies have been gracious and patient, relationships have been deepened, and the rich Russian language has brought new incite and perspective.

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Praise the Lord:

-For His Word and the freedom and strong desire to study it

-For relationships with Russian believers

-For language to communicate although it may be limited

-For strength of mind, body, and soul to serve our Lord

Pray with us:

-For our friend Lena and her brother Sergey who was missing for several days. They have found him and he is considering seeking the help of the rehabilitation program.

-For Art and I as we prepare our lessons for Sunday school at the end of each month especially the next couple of months before Russian Easter. They want the kids to make gifts for an invalid hospital.

-For us as we evaluate and prepare for the next school year-which children will attend, what curriculum to use, etc.

-For our son Jonathan who has been having such severe abdominal pain that he has had to go to the hospital twice over the weekend, but the doctors still don’t have a clear diagnosis.

Opening our home for ministry

Time keeps marching on and we have had so many things going on that stopping to write has fallen by the way.  This will be a merger attempt to inform you about events in both January and February.

IMG_20160124_154333_editWe wanted to have a ministry to a group of men who are part of our church’s drug rehabilitation center that is housed on the church property.  The Lord prompted us to invite them over for a special Christmas meal which was delayed until mid- January due to busy holiday church events.  We welcomed these seven men and the two men who oversee the program to our home after church for a traditional Indiana meal.   Lisa made homemade noodles and mashed potatoes, which is always good.    After the meal, each of the guys told their story of how they had come to this spot in life. Each story was sad and difficult but had hope.   The program is church based and relies heavily on Scripture reading and discipleship.   As we have seen, not all the men who come stick it out, but for those who do their lives change.   That said, at this point only three of the seven who came to our meal are still in the program; the others chose to leave- to seek after sin as the director told us.   It was still a great time to show the love and light of Christ to those who could easily be overlooked.

IMG_20160127_192129Throughout the month, we have been involved in an English Club organized by Nettie, our teammate. When she left on homeservice early in January, we opened our home to host and maintain the club’s meetings hoping to continue the relationships and evangelistic opportunities Nettie had started until she returns in the summer.  It is a little unpredictable; knowing if we will have one person or five is anyone’s guess.   We usually have a discussion about a general topic and sometimes one that leads directly to talking about faith, but not always.   We really try to share our lives and build a relationship, not to corner people but to show them Jesus.    We have had several strong conversations which hopefully have not scared people away.   Pray for wisdom in balancing evangelism, just helping with English, and how to show genuine concern for the lives of these people.

At the very end of January our team participated in the SEND Day of Prayer.   Once a year across the mission each team sets aside one full day to meet together and pray for the needs of our missionaries, staff, and leadership.   Art was asked to organize the day, which he did.   At the beginning we watched a video of a sermon about prayer being God’s church planting strategy from Sam Hildenbrant given at Pleasant View Bible Church’s mission’s conference last October. We used several different venues of prayer throughout the day including a brief time outside to pray over Zaegrievo, a small village where we had our meeting and where our teammate Inka works in a church planting team with Russian nationals.  The day was filled with worship, songs, but most importantly we purposefully prayed.   Let me encourage you to try it. Carve out a day- or if it is too much at first, an hour- to climb up into the Father’s lap, sing praises for His grace, and whisper your requests into His loving ears.  It may just change your life.

Helping with Sunday school is also still important to us. We have begun again to participate once a month with a craft lesson since our return. Art brought the supplies to make a game with the children.   It was called guards and usurpers in English but the rules and instructions were translated for the children.   With beans and cardstock, we made a game for each of them to take home.   Art tried to illustrate the concept that we have a way of escape from temptation, but we must have a plan so that we don’t miss the way to victory.

February is already  gone and spring is just around the corner– written with hope.   We still keep our day job of teaching the MKs going and don’t overlook the role that plays in shaping lives for eternity.  We do need wisdom to do the best we can to not only provide academics but also empower each of the families to fulfill their ministry.  We have many decisions that need to be made about the coming school year and will need God to show us exactly what the school should look like for us and our school families.



Cold day

IMG_20151224_095043_hdrRecently we had a “cold day,” not just like every day in winter in Siberia, but because it was cold enough that we canceled school.  When the temperature dropped to a mere -35°C (-31°F), it seemed like the right decision.  We do have a limit when waiting for the bus, which arrives sometimes irregularly in cold weather.  So we enjoyed a little time inside and tried to catch up with those that follow our ministry.


Last Sunday was also a true Siberian winter day with thickly frosted windows and negative temperatures. It was not only freezing outside, but also inside our church because the boiler heating system was not keeping up. I imagine in America we would have stayed home or canceled church, but not here as members huddled, retaining their coats or wrapped in shawls. This is not unusual nor is it a regular occurrence. The message was from Psalms 107:22-31 and Matthew 14:22-33 about the storms sailors face and the storms in life we all face yet turning to the one who controls even the wind and sea. Midway through the message in staggered a bedraggled man. Was he a homeless man seeking warmth? Protection from life’s storms? At the end of the sermon, one of the men who lives in the drug/alcohol rehab center came forward to repent. And then, the late comer went forward expressing his desire to pray – “Lord save me.” Maybe some in the congregation watched with uncertainty as he prayed yet joined him with their prayers over a soul coming before the Creator. That moment warmed hearts and souls to the one Who, not only calms storms, but can calm hearts and guides them to Himself and His haven. I later learned he was homeless and had been invited a couple of weeks earlier by a lady from our church as she walked to church from the bus stop. She talked with him after the service that day, and he expressed his desire to seek help at the rehab center.  Please pray for this man and for the lady who shared with him as she continues to share the warm love of our Creator, Christ Jesus in this physically and spiritually cold place.


As you know our main purpose in being in Russia is to encourage the families on our team with school-aged children.  Recently, the Gustafson family posted this paragraph on their blog. We pass it on to demonstrate how our role as teachers empowers them for their ministry.

We’ve had a full fall. Some of the extra things beyond our normal ministry roles have been in the realm of schooling for the kids. It began with homeschooling Anneka. It was sweet to get this extra time with her and to watch her learn and grow. Ella started kindergarten 5 days a week and has been thriving there. She is a happy little girl and is very social and likes to be with her classmates. We switched Ike to a new preschool that is more suited for his linguistic needs, and already we see a difference in his Russian speaking and comprehension. Anneka has been a part of a theatre program and is kept very busy! This holiday season she has practices every day and will be in six performances. While this was beyond what we anticipated, she is learning through it to draw her strength from God and is watching Him answer (like in miraculously helping her to learn all of her lines in a day!) In regular school, her teachers have returned from America, and she really loves being a part of the one-room school house. Her teachers are excellent and help to free us up in ministry.IMG_3889

We truly pray and work to help these students feel loved and labor to give them the best education we can offer.  It is a calling God has given us; it is also a great blessing to watch Him do great things through us.

Stay tuned in we will need a couple of more blogs to caught up with January events  so more coming soon even in February.

A Time to Celebrate

IMG_20151213_110213This season almost naturally leads us to celebration.   We have had reason to celebrate throughout the year.   We have enjoyed rich times with family and endured deep sorrow, yet through it all we celebrate. For sake of this post I define celebrate according to Webster as to honor (as a holiday) especially by solemn ceremonies or by refraining from ordinary business.  So as we see, it can take on a deeper meaning. It involves honoring the things that matter to us and giving them our time and effort so that our heart priorities are our life priorities.

IMG_20151015_194929Our celebrations have been a little different this year.  We have already written about weddings and even funerals which are celebrations that cover both highs and lows of life.  Let me begin where I last wrote. October 15 we celebrated my birthday early with my siblings in Michigan. October 17, we celebrated my favorite holiday Thanksgiving with our adult children including the newest members.   My brother Wayne, so crusty and prickly on the outside and so loving on the inside, went home to glory on Oct 21.  Although we flew to Russia before the funeral service, we were able to share in the time via Skype and through thoughts I left behind to be read.  Toward the end of that I wrote, “So, for now my world is a little smaller, a little darker and a little lonelier but not forever; I’ll see you in the morning.” IMG_20151022_120907  The hope we have in Christ lets us celebrate life as we mourn a death, yes, and feel all the pain yet with a great hope.

Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean around the International Date Line, Lisa and I celebrated 28 years of marriage (Oct 23-25).   The day was shortened by the travel to Russia and for us was only a few hours long.  We celebrated not with ceremony but with togetherness as we sat in Peking waiting for our final flight to Ulan-Ude. IMG_20151024_093620  Honoring the most important  part of life, except our walk with Christ, is not just a party but it is also the day-to-day choices to love especially when you’re tired of traveling and just want to be selfish.

After 4 long days back in Ulan-Ude, we headed off to Thailand for the SEND Russia conference. It was a good time to connect with teammates from other parts of Russia.  As we arrived in Thailand there was one quiet celebration, Lisa’s birthday Nov.1.  Lisa is quiet about personal events, and we had responsibilities to take care of; so there was no cake but definitely ice cream plus a time to think and talk about life and our children.IMG_20151101_123912

We had one week watching two of our students while their parents attended meetings. Then a week to relax and enjoy the warmth and the sea, followed by a week of meetings to take care of SEND business.  In its own way, the conference was a celebration: of life, of work, of the ministry we are here to do.IMG_20151104_150002

Now we are getting into a little of our routine for just three weeks before we celebrate Christmas. Once for the US time December 25 and once for the Russian time January 1 and the official Orthodox date January 7.   In all of the parties and services we do hope to celebrate, not  just by having a good time, the birth of a Savior Jesus Christ.IMG_20151210_150344



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