So, it's been a while since you've heard from me on one of these updates. I'm sorry for that.

Like every American and every current or erstwhile New Yorker, I am still recovering, and know some things have changed for good.

But life does go on, and life in Minsk during my last months here has been challenging and joyful as always. It's also been full, and complex. I've found that more and more my days and weeks seem to be part of an intricate work of art by an unseen genius Artist, and I have only the slightest clue what the final result will be.

So, it was Thanksgiving... I spent mine with a few Americans, but mostly with irish folks who were coming through Minsk on a sort of humanitarian aid tour. Our "Thanksgiving" celebration attendees included a French-Canadian, four Americans, about 20 Irish folks and some Belarusians. We had Belarusian cookies and candies, hummous and pita, sugar cookies in the shape of Hebrew letters, and plenty of other goodies... But absolutely no turkey to be found.

I did have a chance to tell the Irish folk how thankful I am for all that God has taught me through the people here, and all He's done in my life since I've been here. I'm thankful for all of the threads in this intricate tapestry. I thought it appropriate to share with you some of the things which I've been thankful for lately, and have reminded me that I have a Daddy in heaven who likes to give good gifts to his children.

Though it hasn't been an easy season by any means, I am thankful for this Fall. Fall is the Jewish high holy day season and we had several festivals and outreaches throughout September and into October. Each of them spoke to me of a different aspect our relationship with God. For Rosh Hashana, we blew the ram's horn ("shofar") as a reminder that we need to turn to the Lord and be alert and active spiritual warriors. This was only a few days after September 11th, and the message hit home well for me. Yom Kippur was a day of repentance, forgiveness, and intercession... Not to mention fasting without food or liquid for 24 hours. It was good to see Belarusians (who generally don't particularly love Americans) praying strongly for victims, for wisdom for our leaders, and for our changed world.

We celebrated Sukkot -- the Biblical harvest festival which is echoed in Thanksgiving -- by throwing a free youth concert with the band New Jerusalem. This is a local Minsk band who are hugely popular all over the Former Soviet Union and have played a few tours in the US as well. The band members all got saved several years ago, and now attend a church here in Minsk. I've loved this band for years, and was thankful to get to play percussion with them just a little bit during a "coffeehouse" event we threw as a follow-up for the concert attendees.

I've been thankful for the chance to percuss! I've been playing at all-night prayer meetings, random youth gatherings, and during our weekly services. More and more, playing music has become truly worship and intercession for me, and I am thankful that I've been able to bang on drums and tweet on tinwhistles with good and patient teachers.

Two of the "good and patient teachers" are Valodya and Yulia, the husband-and-wife leaders of our worship team. Yulia has written dozens of gorgeous and powerful songs that we sing as a congregation, and she's been kind and patient with me. I feel priveleged to know her.

Valodya, meanwhile, is considered the best flutist in Belarus. Several years ago he gave up the opportunity to join a prestigious philharmonic in Western Europe, so that he could stay and serve the Lord here. God has blessed him in that. I've been told that he plays the flute now with even more genius than he did all those years ago. My station playing the djembe during our services gives me the best seat in the house to watch and hear Valodya play from just a foot or two away; I've caught myself standing there watching him with my mouth and eyes wide open several times. He's always humble, though, and is constantly encouraging the rest of us to be attentive, free, bold, and inventive as we worship God together. Playing the tinwhistle while he plays the flute is about the most intimidating thing I can think of doing, but he's encouraged me in it several times and I'm learning to overcome my fear.

A freak accident last week, though, left Valodya's right hand severely burned. He can't play the flute now, and the doctors aren't sure when he'll be able to again. On top of this, Yulia and Valodya's new baby has a serious bone condition which is probably easily treatable in America, but is tough to deal with here. I'm praying hard for this whole family now. And I'm very, very thankful for them.

I'm also utterly thankful for my rabbi and rebbitzen here. They get these emails too and I don't want to embarrass myself too much when they read what I write about them. But I am most grateful to get to learn from these two. They are my bosses in a manner of speaking, which means I've been able to spend some good time with them in the last few months. I am trying to learn from their example. Stewart, for instance, has peace which definitely passes my understanding... I've seen this very clearly in the most insane and difficult situations. And he always seems to be able to pass on that peace to a distraught Alanna (or even to a recently inspired Alanna, which probably takes just as much patience).

Chantal, meanwhile, is involved in a million different ministries and always pulled in a million different directions, but all of her activity comes from simply caring for and looking after people. One moment from several months ago seems to sum it up: it was a snowy day and we were unloading boxes of humanitarian aid from Western Europe. Chantal was shuffling through papers, giving directions, being the Humanitarian Aid Director who was coordinating and overseeing it all. And then some boxes came, full of little bottles of something white. When it got down to the basement storage room, Chantal asked, "Which of these boxes have lotion and which have shampoo?" Nobody knew. And so Chantal knelt down in the dirt and started opening bottles and sniffing them. She laughed and handed the bottles to a few other noses for confirmation before she determined which was which. Chantal is a servant. She was the boss in that situtation, but she was also sniffing little plastic bottles, because she knew that knowing the difference would be important to recipients of this aid.

And so, even organization-monger Alanna is learning that the people are more important than the schedule. A recent trip reminded me of this; I found myself in Ukraine again this month, and spent roughly two weeks in Kiev, Zhitomir, Berdichev and Odessa.

When planning the trip, I knew I needed to schedule in pencil rather than in ink. Sure enough, many of the things I had planned to accomplish I was unable to do, due to "technical difficulties" (always a likely obstacle here).

The other side of the kopek, though, is that several unexpected opportunities arose. One example: In my pencilled schedule, I figured I would go to Berdichev on a certain Sunday, because that was the most efficient way to do it with train schedules. I would get on a microbus from Zhitomir, where I was spending the first part of the weekend, and then spend the day in Berdichev before getting a night train to Odessa.

Just before I got to Zhitomir, however, I found out that there was a big festival being planned by the Messianic congregation in Berdichev, and guests from Kiev and Zhitomir would be attending. The festival was planned for... Sunday! This meant a ride with friends to Berdichev, and meant that I was able to witness a huge festival about the restoration of Jewish identity in a town that was about 75% Jewish before World War II. Now there are hardly any Jews in Berdichev, but I think almost every one of them were among the 1000 or so people who packed out the biggest hall of this little town.

I had altered my pencilled plan already to go to the first full Messianic Jewish Bar Mitzvah in Odessa in at least 100 years or so. That was on my last day in Odessa, Saturday the 17th. I snapped some photos with a borrowed digital camera. Soon, by the way, I hope to get a few digital photos of Ukraine and Minsk up on keywriter for you all to see.

That's one of the many things I'd like to accomplish in the next seven weeks before I go. But my tasks are generally written in pencil (well, not all of them...). Mostly I'm thinking of the people I've grown to love here. So many friendships, for which I am also constantly thankful, seem to still only be in the beginning stages, as in this country it does take time to develop deep relationships of trust... Especially when you don't speak the same language. But I'll miss them. It seems that in a global mobile society, you're bound to miss someone wherever you go. Distance doesn't make us any less a part of one another's lives... It just changes. Things keep changing in the symphony. Keeps it interesting, maybe. Keeps it intricate.

I am thankful, believe it or not, that I'm going back to America soon! I am ready to see my family and my friends. I'm ready to spend an extended period of time in an environment where I fully understand the language. My current plan, just so that you all know, is to return to the US via New York on or about January 9th. I will then live in Philadelphia with my parents until I have paid off my student loans -- probably several months. After that, I think I'll either come back to this part of the world, or go back to New York.

The strands are constantly unwinding and showing themselves. I have been reminded that I am not really directing my steps, but that it's God who is doing that. Whether I'm spending my time with people, or writing, or trying to figure out something on someone's computer, or travelling... Whether I am distraught or inspired... Though it's as hard to see the detail-work sometimes as it is to see the big picture... I know that the Arist is weaving something good.

- 23 November 2001

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