Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday footprints

This month we wanted to share this stirring and Gospel-filled video with you.  It's from Pastor Eric Ludy of Ellerslie.  Be sure to take a few minutes to watch this.  It's so worth it, girls!

Praying you'll draw even closer to Christ this weekend!
Joanna, Krista, Megan, Emily & Victoria

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Introducing: Counted Worthy

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I first heard about Leah Good and her new book, Counted Worthy, via The Rebelution.  My interest was piqued and I wanted to know more.  Then I knew Leah's book was going to be amazing when best-selling author Brett Harris had this to say about it:

“Every generation must discover it’s own storyweavers. Leah Good is one of ours and we are fortunate. Counted Worthy is a thrilling work of inspirational fiction that perfectly complements the message of Do Hard Things. Grab a copy for yourself, grab a copy for a friend, and help spread the word about this phenomenal debut. Counted Worthy belongs in the hands of every Christian teen and story lover in the country. It’s that good.” Brett Harris, Author of Do Hard Things

Counted Worthy is Leah Good's first published book and it definitely is an incredible debut.  Leah's writing style is easy to read and quickly pulls you into the story.  Pretty soon you realize that you're not simply reading the book, you're living it along with the characters!

Here's the synopsis:

Heather Stone lives in fear of repeating the past, yet she continues doing the one thing that could trigger another disaster. When the police trace an illegal Bible to her house, Heather’s world begins to crumble.

Her father’s life hangs in the balance. No one with the power to help knows or cares. If she tries to save him, she could lead her friends to their deaths. If she does nothing, her father’s fate is certain. Can she evade a hostile police force and win public sympathy before it’s too late? (synopsis and picture from Leah's site)

Reading this book was especially poignant as my church recently participated in IDOP (International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church) and we heard true accounts of believers being marytryed for their faith in Christ.  So when Heather (main character) realizes that one Bible, which is outlawed by her dystopian government, could cost her everything, it reminded me of believers today.  I don't want to give away any spoilers, but it's such a great book about the reality of persecution and faith in Christ and one girl's journey.  I have to agree with Brett Harris - every Christian young person needs to read Counted Worthy.
To read chapter 1, click here.
Then go buy it on amazon or Leah's site!


Plus, because Counted Worthy really is such a worthy read (no pun intended!) and we're celebrating our birthday (Bloom! is eight years old this month!  More on that to come!), we're giving away one free Kindle copy!  To enter the giveaway, please enter the rafflecopter below.  International readers welcome!  Giveaway starts now and ends on December 4, 2014 at midnight EST.  See the rafflecopter below for ways you can earn entries!  Please note that if you simply do the ways to enter the giveaway like commenting below or sharing on facebook, but you don't enter the info onto the rafflecopter, your entry will not count.  So make sure to use the rafflecopter as you do entries.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Alina's story, part two

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(This is part two of Alina's story of how God used a shoebox in her life.  For part one, click here.)

Growing up, we continued to attend the church, going to Sunday school and learning more about God. God spoke to me and I received Him in my life as my personal Savior at 17. Then I started working with children every Saturday in a small village close to my home town. The kids were from poor families, mostly not Christian. Every Christmas, for the 5 years I worked there, we had Christmas celebrations in the little church where we were gathering, singing carols, putting up dramas, reciting poems, and Bible verses.  A Christmas message was always shared with all the children and parents invited for the occasion. At the end of the program, every child in the room received a shoebox. I still have pictures from those days. The smiles on the children's faces in the pictures remind me always of my little brother's smile, that Christmas when we received our own shoeboxes.

After college, I got a job at a bank in a bigger city. First I thought that it was a lot of money and an amazing career but after 3 years I realized that it wasn't was I wanted at all. I decided to quit my job and come to the States to visit some family friends, for 6 months, mainly to get away and find myself. It was a good break from everything and a good time to think about my priorities and what I want in life.

When I got back to Romania I started working for a Christian charity organization that was helping abandoned children living on the streets and poor families. They were also the main distributors of shoeboxes in Romania. We received each year around 300,000 shoeboxes from England and Germany.  These shoeboxes were distributed in orphanages, hospitals, kindergartens, village schools, poor communities, Gypsy communities and so forth. The trucks loaded with thousands of shoeboxes usually arrived at destination (usually a church or a warehouse) before Christmas. This way, there was enough time to set up a Christmas program and invite children and their families. If the program was held in a church, school, kindergarten or in an open space, it usually had a Christmas play performed by children and carols followed by a short Christmas message empathizing the real meaning of Christmas. 

At the end, the distribution teams would hand each child a shoebox. You could feel joy in the air, and see happiness, literally see it. Distributing shoeboxes to children in hospitals was the hardest part for me. Each time I was so overwhelmed by the mixed emotions while seeing terminal cancer children patients open their first shoebox, not under a Christmas tree, but in a hospital bed, tied up to a machine, but still, with that same smile on their faces.

In poor communities or Gypsy villages the distributions were always chaotic because of the culture. A “traditional” Christmas program doesn't work there. Because of so much poverty and despair, sometimes children and parents holding children in their arms would almost tip over the distribution cars trying to get a shoebox. Most of these children were barefoot, in the snow, wearing just a shirt, sometimes not even underwear. They would wait in the cold, just like that, until they could embrace their own shoebox and return to their shacks with a huge smile on their dirty faces.

I was blessed to participate in shoeboxes distributions two winters in a row. I was able to see the smiles again, the wide open eyes, the curious faces...and joy, a moment of joy, while each child was holding his shoebox like it was the most precious treasure in the whole wide world. And it was their own!

When I first visited the States, I met Jesse, who three years ago became my husband. We kept in touch over internet and five years ago he came to visit Romania and stayed for 7 months. When he went back to the States for a job interview, we realized we never want to be apart again, and I packed my bags, well, all my life actually, and moved to San Francisco to be with him. 

I started searching for volunteering opportunities, because my 3 years at the Romanian charity were still so fresh in my mind and I couldn't just sit around not helping the ones in need. I guess it was already in my system. So when I came across the Samaritan's Purse (SP) website, it was an answer to my prayers. I knew SP, I knew what they were doing, I knew their projects, because they were our organization’s main partner in Romania. I contacted Angenette, the OCC area coordinator for San Francisco and we first met during the collection week at the Crossing Church in Belmont.

I volunteered with OCC as a Church Relations team member for over a year and now I am focusing on my little ones as a teacher at the Christian preschool where I have the opportunity to work. I look forward to packing as many shoeboxes as possible this year and send them overseas, to children like the ones I met in Romania, children in need of hope and the acknowledgment that they are loved and somebody is thinking of them, that they are not forgotten.

Why I choose to do this? I think that my story says it best, and also because I know how it is at the other end of the chain. I had the privilege to see it and be a part of it. I have seen starving children, I have seen abandoned children living on the streets, I have seen abused children, I have seen sick children, and I have seen what God can do when the tiniest door is opened and when a single person lets themselves be used as an instrument in His hand.

Packing a shoebox is opening a door for God to change hearts, lives, and bring a smile and a little bit of hope in a child's life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Alina's story

It's that time of the year again - shoebox time!  As the national collection week for Operation Christmas Child approaches on November 17-24, we thought it'd be a great opportunity to share how God works through this fabulous ministry.  Us Bloom! ladies love packing shoeboxes and pray that the Gospel will be made known through each box.  Krista talked with her friend Alina, who graciously agreed to share her story of how God used a shoebox in her life.  This is part one, with part two coming tomorrow.

 photo Alina_zpsfbe3223b.jpgMy name is Alina. I was born 32 years ago in a little communist country in Eastern Europe called Romania. It is a beautiful place, with gorgeous mountains, valleys and the Black Sea. The people are very welcoming but they walk the streets with sad faces, looking like they are carrying the burden of the whole world on their shoulders. There is a lot of poverty and desperation.

During communism, people were forbidden to attend churches. The communists used to burn down Orthodox churches and exterminated all Catholic churches during their regime. Protestant churches never openly existed. People used to gather in somebody's home, always in fear to be discovered, heard or suspected by the people hired by the police to spy. If they infiltrated one of these informers in one of these church meetings, all the people would go to jail for life, tortured or executed, together with their families.

In my first eight years of life, I don't remember ever going to church. I think my parents wanted to protect us. I don't remember hearing about God... At school we praised every morning our leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, whose pictures were all over the classroom walls, then sing the communist national hymn and just after that we started classes. Of course all the books were filled with patriotic communist songs and poems that we were forced to learn by heart, as well as love and gratitude for our leader. Parades and huge patriotic meetings were organized in his honor very often, being considered and acclaimed like a god. 

I remember that all the children around me were wearing the same kind of uniforms at school, same color, same cut...and us girls had to have our hair up in two ponytails, tied with two big white bows. I remember being very skinny...but every other child was skinny. We didn't have much food, and not much variety. My brother and I, when we were really hungry and waiting for mom to come home from work, used to turn on the water in the sink, take two loafs of bread, wet them and then put sugar on top and just eat that...we loved it! We rarely ate meat, eggs, milk...and never candies or soda. The food was rationalized by the state and each family received each day a controlled amount of food.

In December 1989, a revolution started, that put an end to communism after 41 years. On the 25th, my country celebrated Christmas, freely, for the first time in almost half century. We shined our shoes, put them in the apartment's window and waited excitedly for the morning to come and see if we were good enough to receive a Christmas present.

It was in December 1990 when the first shoeboxes came to Romania. I've seen videos of the first convoy and the first distributions in orphanages. I cried. Seeing hundreds of children in one place, suffering from malnutrition and mental retardation mainly due to lack of affection and abuses, opening their shoeboxes and eating chocolates with the wrapping on, because they didn't know what that was. It is an image that will be stuck with me forever. 

I received my first shoebox in 1991, at the age of 9, my little brother was 6. My mom started attending a small Baptist church that first year of freedom and that is where I got it. We participated in a Christmas program, after which the pastor distributed shoeboxes to the children present there. The children were gathered from the streets and neighborhoods. And we were there too. I still remember the excitement of holding that colorful and shiny shoebox in my hands! I couldn't get home fast enough to open it under one of the first Christmas trees we ever had. 
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What I saw when I opened it was beyond my imagination. Never had I seen so many sweets all in one place, a pink scarf, pink gloves and pink bows for my hair. I have never seen pink bows before since at school they made us wear only white ones. And I was beyond thrilled. The winters are very cold in Romania. Most of the times we had to walk to school in -4 degrees Fahrenheit. So, the new, warm and beautiful things I got were so much appreciated and loved. I also received a small doll, that became my baby... and hygiene products - my own ones.  Being a little 9 year old girl, that meant the world at the time.

Another sweet memory that I have from that night is about my little brother. Right after my country became free, my dad left for Italy, to find work. We remained at home only with mom, who was working to be able to take care of us. So, after school, I was taking care of my little brother. I was getting him out of kindergarten at noon, took him home, fed him and play with him until mom got back from work. 

About a year after my dad left my brother stopped speaking. I remember him sitting most of the time in dad's big chair, just staring into nothing. I don't remember him smiling or playing anymore. It was very hard for me seeing him like that, because we were very close and I always felt so protective of him, being the older sister. Mom was becoming desperate, and I remember her writing to my dad to come home, but he couldn't. He just found a job picking up grapes at a farm, and just started putting together some money to send home. My sweet memory of that Christmas, beside my colorful first shoebox, was the image of my brother, opening his own shoebox with wide eyes and a curious expression on his little face...taking every little item out of the box and running to show it to me, with a huge smile on his face, and joy in his eyes shouting “Look, look, I’ve got a teddy bear, and cars, and candy, look!”. That was one happy day and our own Christmas miracle!

(Part two of Alina's story is coming tomorrow!)