Friday, June 28, 2013

The Weight of "Good Bye"

We have been back in the US for a few weeks now. The dust is settling and we are finally getting some time to think about all the transition that we have just gone through (and are presently in) . One thought ever-present in my mind the last few weeks in Moscow was how hard it was for me to say the words "good bye".

When I would see someone for what I knew to be the last time I would get to that awkward moment when I had to part with them and say something to seal the final parting. Sometimes it was with an acquaintance, sometimes it was with a dear friend. I would smile, fumble my words, stutter a bit and force myself to look them squarely in the eye and dare to say those two words. Good. Bye.

Except, I couldn't do it. 

The English phrase expresses such sad finality. It feels as if I am saying to them "I will never see you again, I hope that as your life goes bye that it is good." I would look friend and acquaintance in the eye and say to myself "say it, say it!" Then I would stall and the child-like monosyllabic "bye-bye" would tumble out in its place.

I'm not 5 years old. I can say good-bye. Except I couldn't.

That's when I began to realize the profundity of the Russian parting "До Свидания" (Do Svidaniya). It literally means until appointment - or more loosely "Until next time". 

Despite all the pessimism and fatalism of the Russian soul, embedded in their language is the hope that no matter what, no matter whom, we will see each other again. 

This made parting in Russia easier. I could say Do Svidaniya and mean it. I could honestly say I hope to see you again. With some it was harder, with others it was a mere formality. But with all it felt appropriate and optimistic in a time which for me was quite difficult. 

Looking back now it was very kind of the Lord to give me that insight; to let me see on my way out that there exists much more hope in Russia than I can sometimes see. 

Therefore, to all of my Russian friends and acquaintances I give a hearty and hopeful Do Svidaniya. Until I See You Again! Thank You!


Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Great(er) Story

How do you reach people who don't think the Bible is relevant to their life? How do you encourage someone to read the Bible who has no interest in it? Do what Paul did. When he was in Greece he observed how they behaved, whom they quoted and what they valued. Here in Russia we've noticed that Russians love a good story. The famed author Nikolai Gogol once said that a Russian cannot resist a good story.

With that in mind - and by the request of a few students - we put together a 6 week Bible discussion wherein we would look at some form of media (art, music, TV, literature) and then look at the biblical inspiration for that story. As I looked for stories to relate to the Bible I was encouraged by how much Russians know and love culture. Further it is not just their own culture they know, but a wide breadth of culture from the East to the West. The Humanities major in me rejoiced at this task as I finally was able to put my education to work!

For those interested this is first of the four studies I put together. Feel free to use them or tweak them or add to them. 

Adam & Eve and Homer & Marge 

I took the approach of wanting to point our students to the various covenants God made with the Israelites and how each of those covenants were a foreshadowing of what God had planned all along: the New Covenant Jesus mediated between man and God. I then looked around for cultural references to those covenants and came up with a few discussion questions. Then we would look at the biblical passage that inspired that media and discuss it further. 

The first week we watched an episode from the Simpsons. In this episode the family is at church and they all begin to fall asleep and have different biblically themed dreams. The first one is my favorite: Marge dreams that she and Homer are Adam and Eve and that Ned is God. (If you want to watch it it is season 10 episode 18.) In this vignette Marge/Eve is smart and caring and careful to not disobey God. Homer/Adam is goofy and careless and just keeps asking for more from God. Homer/Adam devours the forbidden fruit without a second thought and then blames Marge/Eve. Marge/Eve gets kicked out and Homer/Adam tries to sneak her back in, but he gets caught in the process (and God's unicorn, Gary, dies trying to help them). In anger God kicks them out into the wasteland. There are a lot of funny moments in it and I recommend watching it if you can find it.  

Obviously it does not stick very closely to the text, but our students didn't know that. We asked them what they thought of this episode and the responses were varied. Some liked it, some were confused, many of them thought that this really is what happened. Here are the questions I had for us to discuss:

Simpsons Questions

What was the Garden of Eden like? Describe it.
Why did God (Ned) forbid them from eating the fruit?
What was the relationship between God and “Adam and Eve” like?
What did the snake do? Did he force them to take it or suggest it?
Who ate the fruit first? Who was to blame for that action?
What is God like? What are Adam and Eve like? Describe their character?

Then we read Genesis 1:26 - 31; 2:4 - 3:23 and discussed these questions:

Bible Questions
How did God create man? (2:7) Is that significant?
What does it mean to be created in the image of God? (1:27)
Why was Eve created? What was her purpose? (2:18)
What was Adam and Eve’s relationship like before they sinned? (2:25)
What was their relationship with God like?
What was Adam’s relationship with the created world like? (2:15, 2:19-20)

There were two trees in the Garden of Eden, what were they called? (Life, Knowledge of Good and Evil)
Which one did God forbid Adam from eating? why? (2:17)
Could Adam have eaten the other one?
After they ate from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil what would happen if they then ate from the tree of Life? (live forever apart from God - in their sin)
Why wouldn’t God want them to live forever in their sin?
Was it merciful or cruel to banish them from Eden?

What role did the Serpent play in all of this? (3:1-5)
How did the serpent undermine God’s authority? Was he lying?
Why did Eve eat the fruit? Where was Adam? Whose fault was it? (3:6-7)
What did they do wrong? (they did not trust God)
What were the consequences for
a) the serpent (3:14-15)
b) Eve (3:16)
c) Adam (3:17-19)
How did this affect the relationships between
a) people and God (3:8-13)
b) Man and Woman (3:7; 3:12; 3:16)
c) people and the earth? (compare 2:15 to 3:17-19)
Do you see these consequences today in this world?
(I got most of these questions from )

Discussing these questions was really insightful for me because I thought everyone knew basically what the Adam and Eve story was. In truth, most of them didn't. Two issues I pressed pretty hard during this discussion were that 1) the sin they committed was not believing God - a sin to be repeated by God's people throughout the Bible. 2) God had to kill an animal - sacrifice something - to clothe Adam and Even when they left. I then re-read the part about the serpent bruising the heel of Eve's offspring and the offspring crushing the head of the serpent. Then I showed them the opening scene from the Passion of the Christ and explained that Christians believe this is the first prophecy regarding Jesus in the Bible. 

I finished the studying by making the point that every story in the Bible points in some way to the cross. The cross was the ultimate plan of God and each story is another plot twist on the way. Next week we talked about Abraham and Isaac and looked at Rembrandt. I'll post that discussion soon. 

If you have any comments or questions or ways to add to the study please add them in the comments below.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Leading With a Limp

Years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Dan Allender speak before a group of men. He is unassuming on stage. He does not gesticulate, he does not roam around working the crowd, he does not vary his pitch from a whisper to a shout to prove his point like other pastors do. Instead he sits mildly on a stool, hands in lap, neck craned toward the microphone and yet he is the most engaging, edge-of-your-seat, can't-wait-to-hear-what's-next speaker I have ever seen. He is a masterful storyteller with a dry wit and impeccable comedic timing. He had us rolling in laughter one minute then still in reverent silence the next. Several of the stories and principles he shared with us that day stay with me even years later.

With this memory of him in my mind I gladly borrowed "Leading with a Limp" (2006) from a friend. (by borrow I mean I said to my friend while in his office, "this looks good, can I read it?" as I placed it in my bag over a year ago...sorry Russell, you'll get it back shortly)

Dr. Allender uses his storytelling abilities and adventures as the president of Mars Hill Graduate School to add life experience to the idea of leadership. His premise is that unlike what we see on TV and imagine in our minds the greatest leaders are the ones who fully embrace their weaknesses and are blazingly, unashamedly open about it with their family, staff, friends and colleagues.

He uses a grid that shows the typical challenges of a leader and the typical ineffective responses.

The responses are: Cowardice   Rigidity   Narcissism   Hiding   Fatalism
The challenges are

He says that a leader will experience all of these challenges. Depending on the kind of man/woman he is he/she will be tempted to respond to varying degrees of the above mentioned responses. The good leader will consciously choose to respond with the following instead:

Effective solutions: Courage   Depth   Gratitude   Openness   Hope
Now imagine all the Bold lettered words in a grid with the responses on the horizontal axis and the challenges on the vertical axis.

Using personal stories and examples from the Bible Dr. Allender takes the reader through the challenges of leadership and shows how we can choose courage over cowardice, depth over rigidty, gratitude over narcissism, openness over hiding and hope over fatalism. I was personally challenged by his insights and admonitions throughout the book and was forced to reflect on myself and my leadership tendencies both as a husband, a father, a friend and a co-worker. Do I respond with courage or cowardice? Do I respond with hope or fatalism?

The book was not a gripping read and some chapters seemed unnecessary, but overall it was an excellent answer to the typical "Be Better, Smarter, Effectiver*, Awesomer* Leader Just By Reading My $20 Book". Allender shows us that God's way is often the opposite of our ways. Rather than looking for appearance he looks for character (Saul/David), rather than looking for results and numbers as criterion for a leader he looks for the meek and mild (Gideon). Rather than defeating Satan as a conquering hero with an army at his back he came as a baby and died a condemnable death. God's ways and means of leading are quite different from ours. Allender's admonition is that we embrace that way, embrace our limp, stop hiding and begin living and leading as God made us, warts and all.

I would say read this, especially if you've read one too many books on leadership and are looking for something different.

(* These are not real words)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Praying Like My Son Walks

For the past several months I've been reading through John Calvin's the Institutes of Christian Religion. It's been a surprisingly great read. I thought it would be...I dunno...too Calvanistic for me. What I mean by that is that most of the time people who call themselves Calvinists have very firm lines drawn about a few specific points on theology, predestination being the predominant one. It can dominate conversations, Bible studies and even friendships. Now, I happen to agree with a lot of those theological points, but the vibe some Calvinists give off in writings or conversations can be a hard one focused too much on the tree and missing the entire forest. To my pleasant surprise Calvin was not too Calvinistic for me.

In fact, the entire book is a worshipful one that leaves me at the end of nearly every chapter more aware of God's greatness, goodness and worthiness. Not once have I seen the T.U.L.I.P acronym, instead I've seen sound logic, pleas for holiness and the constant reminder to lift my eyes to the Lord.

As I was reading the most recent chapter a metaphor appeared in my mind that I wanted to write down. This section was on prayer and how far too often people in the 1500s would approach prayer glibly and  without focus. That gave me some comfort actually. It's not just our distracted generation that can't maintain a simple line of thought when it comes to prayer, other generations, 500 years ago wrestled with the same thing. Calvin urges the Believer to prepare his/her heart and mind for prayer in order to be focused and reverent when praying. He adds: "we must understand that the only ones who prepare themselves for prayer adequately are those who are so impressed with God's majesty that they can be free from all earthly worries and affections." (Part XI, chapter 20:5) Whoa, that was convicting and enticing. I want desperately to be free from earthly worries and affections and, no, I don't usually prepare myself for prayer. It is often hasty, distracted and a motion I feel I must get through before I can move on to something more interesting.

The next part was when the metaphor came to me. He talks about relying on the Holy Spirit to help us concentrate and pray for the things that really matter. This reminded me of when I volunteered with the middle school youth group. At the end of each meeting our small groups would take prayer requests then pray for each other. One guy would always have us pray for the Blackhawks because they weren't playing hockey well that season. We'd ask what else we could pray for, but that was all we ever got. Sometimes I wonder if the things I pray for today are similar to asking God to bless the Blackhawks so that they could play better so that I could feel better about myself because I am aligned with them.

It appears I got distracted, how did that happen? Moving on... Calvin's exhortation to us to rely on the Spirit in prayer encouraged me. "Because it is hard to reach the high standard God requires, we need help. As the eye of our mind should be fixed on God, so our heart's affection should follow. But both fail in this and go in the wrong direction. To help us in our weakness, God gives us the guidance of his Spirit in our prayers, to show us what is right and control our desires, because 'the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.' (Rom. 8:26)" (Part XI, chap. 20:5)

This is when I thought of  my son, Charles. Just last week he took his first stumbling, independent steps. Two at a time then a lunge forward to my outstretched arms. Then three steps, a giggle and a lunge to his mom. We often walk with him around the house holding on to his outstretched arms while he runs everywhere he can.

This is similar to how the Spirit helps us pray. We can barely walk on our own, but by holding on to the Spirit we can pray with more direction, more concentration and pray for the things that matter most (even if the Cubs could use some deliverance one of these years).

This encouraged me to intentionally ask the Spirit to help me as I prepare my heart and mind to pray; to use that image of my son walking with my help as a metaphor for how God is helping me to talk with him.

What about you? What helps you to pray and what does leaning on the Lord look like for you as you pray?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A New Semester

A New Semester

Our team gathered this morning for a first and a last.

It was the first real staff meeting of the semester. It was also the last time our team, in its current format, will meet this year. Dan and Rachel are heading back to the U.S. for a few months as they wait for the birth of their next child, affectionately and temporarily named "Blueberry". They get back in mid-May, but Kim leaves for furlough in early May. So, as crazy as this sounds, this is the last time all of us will be around for a staff meeting this year.

Despite the nostalgia of "one last time together" we were able to hammer out some plans for the semester and I'm really excited about them. Whether you are a student involved in our English clubs or one of the several people who pray for us, or just some stranger that stumbled upon this blog I'm excited to share the plans we have for the Spring Semester.

English Clubs

We're going to continue with our English Clubs. It was a hit last semester and we want to grow in depth and breadth this semester. We brainstormed some topics to touch on and came up with some really exciting ideas. We hope to talk about things like authentic masculinity; romantic relationships and marriage; developing a career; what is right, wrong and just different; justice and maybe more. We also hope to bring in some guest speakers and recruit a few students to take up the mantle of leadership this semester. Like I said, we're excited to see it grow.

Dan talking about the Christmas story during our latest English Club

Civic Assistance

Personally, my favorite thing we did last semester was partner with a local non-profit called Civic Assistance and (it's all in Russian, but google has a widget that can translate for you). We wanted to connect the students we were working with at the English club to the refugee children who receive tutoring from the volunteers at Civic Assistance. We hosted two different events, one focused on nutrition and healthy-food choices, the other on self-esteem and who we are as individuals. The third event was a New Year's Party that was pretty hectic and crazy, but still fun. One of the big goals in every event we did is that we don't want to patronize the kids, we want to empower them.
One of our students dressed as "Ded Moroz" at the New Year's party

This is derived from the very way that Jesus served us. He didn't pity us and just give a handout then walk away. No, he got his hands dirty and entered into relationships with people, giving of himself rather than giving spare change. Sure, material things are needed sometimes, but that doesn't affect a life in the long-run, only relationships provide the avenue for life-change. That's what we're hoping for. We want to empower, not entertain; restore dignity, not enable. I think the kids we worked with were responding to that. At least I hope so. It's still in its infancy stage, it's a trial run, so we'll see how we develop it this semester. I'm also really excited about seeing where God takes us in this relationship this semester.


We are also hosting a couple special projects this spring and summer. A group of students from the University of Utah are coming in March and a larger group from all over the US are coming for a month in June. These always take a lot of work on our part in set-up, visa applications, housing, etc. But, they are a lot of fun once they get going. The students bring a fresh perspective and refreshing energy with them that is always well-received. We're currently thinking of ways to best use their talents and time when they come. It should be great.

The Coats family during a Christmas party

We've lived in Moscow for three years and have hardly taken advantage of the theatrical offerings the city holds. It is one of my hopes for the semester that I make time to go see the play "Uncle Vanya" by Chekov. I've read it in English and liked it, but it seems like it's a classic play that I need to see. So that's on the list. I'd also like to take in a ballet showing this spring if we can afford it and maybe even a hockey game.
Of course, we both want to deepen our relationships with our friends here and the students we work with. That's a major focus for the semester: investing in people, building relationships, loving others like God loves us.

On a final note

As alluded to in our latest newsletter, we know that change is coming for us. Over the last several years I (Dave) have gravitated more towards mercy ministries and administrative roles. I've found that I can exercise more of my spiritual gifts (mercy, administration, teaching) and strengths (arranging, significance, activator) when serving in those capacities. What that change is exactly (in terms of a new role) we're not sure and where that might take us in the long-run we don't really know yet. We are open to whatever the Lord might have for us and are praying about it. We want to invite you into this and pray through this with us. We do know that our "calling" hasn't changed. That calling is to love God and love people by living intentionally and building God's Kingdom using all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. That's not changing. We are asking God what changes He might want to bring our way this new year. We'll see where we go from here.

Thanks for reading and thanks for praying!


Monday, December 17, 2012


Like many people I'm shocked and terrified by the recent shooting in Newtown, CT. As a new father events like this make the world seem like a more unpredictable, scarier place than it was a week ago. While riding on the metro the morning after the news broke and contemplating the various bombings that have happened here in Moscow both in the metro and in the airport I began to pray about the myriad of feelings swirling through me. Fear, disgust, hopelessness, anger, confusion all swam around me. As I prayed these words came to mind.

I do not hope in gun laws
I do not hope in the protection of a weapon
I do not hope in princes who fail
I do not hope in the wickedness of the human heart
I do not hope in anything this world offers

I hope in the innocent one who suffered cruelly for the wickedness of man
I hope in the one who did not trust the words of men, for he knew what was in their hearts
I hope in the one who conquered death and its sting
I hope in the one who promises to turn evil into good, ashes into beauty

How will he do it? I do not know
When will he do it? I do not know

This I do know, wait on the Lord, be strong, let your heart take courage
Wait on the Lord

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Update since August(!)

Wow, it's been a while since either of us have written. Things got busy with a staff conference in St. Petersburg and then never really slowed down. Here's a quick list of things that have happened in the past several months.

- Staff conference in St. Pete with all of our Russian staff (encouraging time, especially seeing our friends from all over the country)
- the Lawsons, our dear friends and leaders, left for the U.S. for good. They are now raising support to move to the Boston campus ministry team. For weeks it felt like we were in mourning after they left.
- We went away as a team for a planning weekend and formulated an exciting new vision for reaching the city of Moscow.
- Our new STINTer (intern) joined our team. His name is Zach. He likes bicycles, NPR and board games. He fits right in with us.
- We began an English club at one of the universities and it is growing weekly. Praise God!
- We've begun reaching out via social justice ministries to the poor and refugees. We're trying to get students involved with us in these outreaches. Pretty exciting too.
- Charlie continues to grow and amaze us with his personality. He has the seriousness of his father, but also the playfulness of his mother. We're not quite sure whose personality he has more of at this point. However, judging by how unafraid he is of strangers and how much he likes playing with other people I'm guessing he's more like his mom than his dad.
- We celebrated 6 years of marriage in December. We went to a new art gallery to celebrate while Zach babysat Charlie for us. It's called the Institute of Russian Realist Art and it was amazing. check it out at
- We continue to find joy and hope in the resurrection, especially during the dark wintry days of Moscow. As I write this it is 9:42 am and the sun isn't even up yet.
- We've also launched a facebook page for students and friends to follow along with the new and exciting things we're doing. Check it out at

We hope to write more soon. I've read some great books that I want to record some thoughts on and we've got other things on our mind that we want to put on here. But, we'll have to wait till we get a slight break to do that.

Jess leading our English Club in a game of hangman

students and staff using pictures to describe life and God

Zach, center, studies some lyrics from a song with Russian students
Jess and Dave at a recent reception for the teachers and staff of Hinkson Christian Academy
(Dave is on the school board this year)
Charlie grows bigger in size by the day and with that grows his personality. 

Until then keep praying for us and let us know what's new with you and how we can pray for you.

Dave & Jess & Charlie