Thursday, November 7, 2013

Finding Joy in Ukraine-by Elly West

Finding Joy in Ukraine

There is a difference between happiness and joy that one can only truly appreciate, having experienced before what true joy feels like. I am talking about the joy that can only come from the Holy Spirit, the joy that martyrs have when facing severe persecution. The joy that is wrapped up and hidden in the hope of Heaven, the treasure that awaits after this life has ended. I am not claiming to have lived that joy completely, but I think I saw a glimpse of it during the month I spent in Ukraine. What I felt there was not happiness, though at times I was happy. Since happiness is based on circumstances, there wouldn't have been much to make me happy. I was overseas, away from and without communication to my family or my soon-to-be fiance. I was not "serving" in the location I desired when I began raising money for a mission trip. I was dirty every day, allowed to shower maybe once a week. The food was pretty gross, in all honesty, and I was hungry often. I was tired -- physically tired from lack of sleep, and emotionally tired from having to be patient with the constant needs and companionship of the kids.

So for the first couple of days, it was pretty natural to grumble and wonder what we all were doing in this summer camp with these orphan children. It was overwhelming how much they needed our attention sometimes. I was assigned to a group with the oldest teenagers at camp, and that was something else I didn't appreciate initially. Most of them spoke very little English and would often point, giggle and whisper to each other in a way that made me self-conscious that they were making fun of me. Some of them were rude and rolled their eyes; some were overly clingy and always hanging on my arm or calling for me outside the dorm windows.

But I soon began to love the sounds of their voices yelling my name during the afternoon rest time. I needed to sleep, but I couldn't help it -- I had to throw on my shoes and run down to the dusty soccer field for another game with them. Soon I was waking in the mornings with hungry anticipation for that one dry piece of bread we were always served at breakfast. Soon I could care less about wearing my same old dirty clothes every day, and tying my greasy (and lice-infested, as I later discovered) hair into a ponytail or braids again. There was something like joy in my heart.
I think true joy, aside from being something only the Holy Spirit can give, comes from the knowledge of your purpose for this life. As a Christian the purpose for this life should have very little to do with circumstances. Money and jobs can be lost or taken away; people can be selfish and hurtful; things and beauty -- they fade and become worthless. All of these things that make up the circumstances of our life can only bring temporary happiness -- not genuine joy.
In Ukraine I learned that I didn't need things or perfect circumstances to spend each day with joy. I fell in love with the faces of those children, and I carry their faces with me. I still hear their voices in my head, now over ten years later. I remember vividly the day Sasha sacrificially gave me his Snickers bar, and how I could see his smile as I ran to hug him in gratitude. I remember that cherished moment when Alona handed me her gold necklace, how she pressed it into my hand, tears in her eyes the night before we had to say goodbye. I remember that precious conversation with Stas on the bank of the river when he asked if we would see each other again; and how I told him I pray that we will in Heaven. And in all my days, old as I get, I will never ever forget my beautiful friend Luiza. Hers was the goodbye that cut me most deeply. She pleaded with me not to go, she pounded the windows as our bus drove away... forever.
I knew joy those hot July days. I woke with a sense of my purpose -- that today God has called me to love these children who have experienced so much pain in their lives. Today God wants me to demonstrate to these kids the love that He has for all of His children. We had long walks through the woods, staring up into the giant trees; and I dreamt of the beauty of Heaven. I thought of it there more than I ever had before; I imagined how it would be to see these beautiful faces again. I cried all the time for their circumstances; I was humbled again and again with how generously they gave of their very few possessions. Those kids taught me that showing God's love to those who need it most is what brings real joy. I was created -- not for acquiring
possessions or grand accomplishments. Striving after wealth, beauty, status, approval or recognition will always only bring temporary satisfaction. I am a creature not of this world, and so the circumstances surrounding me in this life will never give me joy.
Joy is in walking with the Holy Spirit, leaning in to His whispers and faithfully following the path set before me. Joy is in holding the hand of a teenager everyone else treats as an outcast. Joy is in playing soccer with children who all their lives have been in want of a parent's loving, undivided attention. Joy is in letting them braid my hair, laugh at my accent, ask me questions I can't understand -- just because I am spending time with them and showing them the love of God.
Joy is in the dreams of Heaven, the place of my true belonging, where I hope to see their faces again.

Written by: Elly West

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