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Russia 2017 – Tsibanobalka class

Here are some pictures from the class in Tsibanobalka. We had 11 students in the class on Romans 9-16. It was a great week.


Russia 2017 – Saturday in Tsibanobalka

On Saturday morning, we wrapped up our study of Romans by discussing chapters 15 & 16. I said that compared to the rest of the book, chapter 15 is pretty straightforward and easy to understand with its emphasis on accepting one another and pursuing unity. I commented that we often skip chapter 16 because it is just a list of names. I pointed out the words Paul uses to describe some of these people—beloved, fellow workers, chosen, hard worker, risked their lives, approved, and fellow prisoner. Some are named and some are unnamed. Some of us may have ministries that are not remembered by people, but God sees what we do and will reward us for our service.

I concluded the session by asking what lessons they learned from Romans. I encouraged them to remember Paul’s balance in the book. Doctrine is not merely something to learn (1-11). We must put it into practice (12‑16). We must guard against false teachers who seek to divide the church and lead people astray (16:16-18).

In the class, we had one person going through a divorce not by his choice, and two alcoholics. You never know who you are teaching and what their needs are.

After finishing the discussion yesterday in Romans 12 on not seeking revenge but allowing God to bring justice for us, one said, “Mark, where were you in 2013 to explain this to me? I did something stupid and I am still paying for it today.” The truth hit home.

Igor and his wife, Lena, appear a happily married couple today, but it is only because of grace. Igor was a medical doctor who became an alcoholic and lost his license to practice. He divorced his wife and left his family. His wife and son, Vanya, who is the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Anapa, prayed for him for 12 years. He came to faith in Christ, remarried his wife, and is a faithful servant in the church. They have been remarried for 10+ years. His salvation and their marriage is a testimony to grace and the power of prayer.

We are now at the midpoint of the trip. Tomorrow we will worship at Holy Trinity Church in Anapa and drive to Krasnodar. On Monday, we will drive to Elista in Kalmykia. The second class begins anew on Tuesday.

Thanks for praying. I’m in your debt.

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Posted by on March 18, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Romans, Russia, Scripture


7 – Russia 2017 – Friday Night in Tsibanobalka

“So, when are you going to get to the practical areas?” asked John with a twinkle in his eye during the afternoon break. I spent most of the day answering questions about how many possessions are enough, how to forgive those who hurt you, whether or not we need to pay taxes on unreported income, and how to deal with those who are perpetually late to church. Needless to say, we had several very practical discussions today.

We started the day with breakfast at 9AM. We enjoyed pancakes, boiled eggs, yogurt, sausage and cheese, and juice.

Our morning class session went from 9:30-1:00PM, with a break midway through the morning. After lunch, class went from 1:50-5:30PM, with another break midway through the afternoon. During our day, we covered Romans 12:1-15:6.

We spent the first hour discussing Romans 12:1-2. What does it mean to be a living sacrifice? How do we avoid letting the world squeeze us into its mold? One person said he felt he had so many possessions—car, house, etc.—and some people thought he should sell everything and give to the poor, but if he did that, then he wouldn’t be very happy. We discussed his question in light of these two verses. The world might tell him to sell everything or it might tell him to keep it all for himself. The answer is found in letting Scripture transform your mind and understanding what Scripture says about learning to be content in all situations.

We also explored the myth that God’s will is designed to make us miserable. Romans 12:2 says that God’s will is good, acceptable, and perfect.

We ended our discussion of chapter 12 by talking about how to forgive those who want to hurt us. One of the group asked for a practical example of how to do this. I shared how I dealt with those who have criticized me during my ministry. I talked about how I had to come to the point of praying for these individuals rather than being angry and seeking to retaliate.

By this point, it was time for lunch. We enjoyed a Russian favorite, golubtsi or cabbage rolls, French fries, and fresh vegetables. Afterwards, many enjoyed tea and conversation until our afternoon session began.

Chapter 13 brought up another hot button discussion—how do you submit yourself to a government that you don’t like or disagree with? We covered the waterfront on this discussion but kept coming back to the issue of, can we trust God and obey his commandments? We talked about the fact the issue is not whether the government is good, bad, or indifferent, but the issue is whether or not we will obey God’s instructions. This led to a side discussion of whether or not we should pay taxes on unreported income. I gave a personal example of someone who got in trouble for not paying taxes when they were paid under the table.

During our discussion of chapter 14, we focused on how to deal with a weaker brother or sister. This led to wrestling with the issue of those who are perpetually late to church, as well as discussions about food, dress, and music styles. I also tried to explain the difference between those who are weak and need to grow and those who are “stuck” and refuse to change (Joe Aldrich called them “professional weaker brothers” in one of his books).

By 5:30PM, it was evident we were all running out of gas, so I called a halt for the day. After another sumptuous dinner of beef stroganoff, the Anapa folks headed for home and the Pyatigorsk group started watching a movie.

Tomorrow we will wrap up with a discussion of chapter 15 and 16. If we still have time before lunch, I have a couple of topics I can throw in for further discussion.

It’s been another very fruitful day of ministry, discussion, and friendship. Thanks for praying.

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Posted by on March 17, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Romans, Russia, Scripture


Russia 2017 – Thursday in Tsibanobalka

I’m sorry there are no pictures with this report. The internet is not allowing me to upload them tonight.


Day one of the Tsibanobalka class is in the books. There are 12 of us seated around the table discussing Romans. Four of the men drove 10 hours from Pyatigorsk (south of Tsibanobalka) to be with us. The remainder came from Holy Trinity Church in Anapa, where John Musgrave is part of the elder team. My translator, Lena, is also part of the Anapa church.

Only one member of the group is new to me. The other nine were part of previous classes. This allows me to build on previous relationships and go deeper with the folks. This was especially evident in the questions they asked throughout the day. They have left the surface level questions behind and are asking more penetrating, insightful questions.

I started the day by sharing about my family and ministry background. I explained that I spent much of my life wanting to be other people. It was only after discovering 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 that I learned it was ok to be me. (If you want to read more of that story, check out my blog on October 26, 2012. I also shared about the dictionaries I gave Amanda and Caitlin on their wedding days. You can read that account on my blog as well on February 8, 2017.

I started the study of Romans 9-16 by going over the assignment the students were given.

  • Read Romans twice
  • Review the outline of the book
  • In Romans 12:3-8, Paul gives instruction on how we are to use our spiritual gifts in the church. In 12:9-21, he speaks about our responsibility to one another. What is the relationship between spiritual gifts and the “one another” commands of Scripture?
  • What is the role of civil government (Romans 13)? Is it ever appropriate to disobey government? Why?
  • What does it mean to cause someone to stumble (Romans 14)? How might we do that?

After discussing their answers, I reviewed the outline and synopsis of the book. I figured it had been 12 months since our initial study and I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page.

During today’s discussion, we covered chapters 9-11, Paul’s theological discourse on Israel. I introduced the study by explaining that a tension exists between the topics of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Does God have a plan and is in control? vs Does man have free will? I explained that I believe both are true, though I don’t completely understand how to reconcile the two. Chapter 9 emphasizes God’s sovereign plan for Israel. Chapter 10 emphasizes Israel’s responsibility for rejecting Jesus. Chapter 11 explains that God still has a role for Israel in the future.

The group asked some thoughtful questions on these chapters. John Musgrave explained that there is a strong Arminian influence in this region which means they wrestle with the idea of God’s sovereignty in general and how Israel’s rejection of God led to the Gentiles receiving salvation in particular. They also struggle with eternal security which I emphasized last year and reminded them of as we reviewed chapter 8.

Tomorrow we jump into the practical section beginning in chapter 12.

Since the bulk of the group is staying at House of Grace, it means that we share our meals together. As always, John & Naomi prepare basic, but sumptuous meals. Today’s menu included homemade cinnamon rolls, spaghetti, barbecued pork chops, and chocolate cake with whipped cream. It also goes without saying that there was plenty of bread and fresh vegetables.

Thanks for praying.

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Posted by on March 16, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Romans, Russia, Scripture


Russia 2017 – Wednesday in Tsibanobalka

After four days of travel, we arrived in Tsibanobalka. We are a bit road weary and jetlagged, but none the worse for wear. Thanks for praying us here!

John & Naomi Musgrave, the missionaries I work with, started their trip by flying from Seattle to Boston on Sunday. I connected with them at Boston Logan Airport and we boarded the overnight flight from Boston to Amsterdam, arriving Monday AM. We were able to check into our hotel around 10AM. After taking a 3 hour nap, we headed into the city center for dinner and some sightseeing. On Tuesday, we flew from Amsterdam to Moscow. Today, Wednesday, we flew from Moscow to Anapa, on the northern coast of the Black Sea. After dropping off our bags at House of Grace in Tsibanobalka, we headed into Anapa for lunch and grocery shopping. We needed to purchase the food for the 7 meals we will prepare during the 3-day class.

Class starts tomorrow about 9:30AM and runs through Saturday lunch. At this point, there will be 11 students in the class, plus Lena, my translator, and me. Pastor Victor Semukhin and four leaders from his church in Pyatigorsk will drive some nine hours and arrive later tonight or early tomorrow morning. The rest of the group will come from Holy Trinity Church in Anapa, where John has served on the elder team.

My plan is to start with a review of the first half of Romans, chs. 1-8, which I taught last year. Then I will move into the second half, chs. 9-16. Along the way, I will share thoughts about my ministry, family, and experience so the folks can get to know me better.

Again, thanks for praying. I’m in your debt.



On previous trips to Russia, I’ve taken two days to fly from Boston to Anapa, with a short layover in Amsterdam and an overnight stay in Moscow. This year, I’m following the Musgraves’ recommendation to take three days, with overnight stops in Amsterdam and Moscow. The goal is to lessen the jet lag and speed up the recovery time.

Amsterdam is an interesting city, filled with bicycles, canals, history, beautiful buildings, and good food.

Tomorrow we head for Moscow. Thanks for praying.

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Posted by on March 13, 2017 in Amsterdam, Photos, Russia


The Mark of the Christian

In 1 John 2:28, the apostle John challenges his readers with the statement, “Abide in him.” That leads a thinking person to ask the question, “How can I know for sure if I am abiding in Christ?” John answers that question in 2:28-3:10 by explaining that one who abides in Christ will practice righteousness. Rather than continuing in a lifestyle of sinful habits, a Christ follower will develop habits and a lifestyle that pleases God.

In 3:11-24, John adds that how we treat other people will also reveal whether or not we are following Christ. A Christ follower will obey the command, “Love one another.” In 3:11-18, John says that we do this because of what Christ did for us on the cross. Because Jesus Christ sacrificed his life for us, we should demonstrate our love for one another.

John’s thesis statement in found in verse 11, “Love one another.” As he explains, this was something Jesus taught during his ministry on earth. It is part of the gospel (John 13:34). It proves that we are Christians (1 John 3:14). It proves we follow Jesus (John 13:35). It proves that Jesus was sent by God (John 17:21).

Love is one of those concepts where we all assume we know what we are talking about. In reality, we often have different definitions. Before describing what love is, John states what love is not.

Love is not murder (12). In contrast with love, hate destroys and kills. John mentions Cain killing his brother, Abel, without any details or qualifications. He simply says he belonged to the devil and that he murdered his brother.

Love is not hatred (13-15). John moves from an individual example to a corporate example. In the same way that Cain killed his brother because he was righteous, sometimes the world hates Christ followers for the same reason. Anyone who lacks love has a heart filled with hate. There is no middle ground. And hatred eventually ends in murder, as Cain proved.

Love is not indifference (17). While we may not have the opportunity to die in someone’s place, we can do the next best thing by helping others during a time of need. When we have resources but close our hearts towards others, we demonstrate we are self-centered.

After saying what love is not, John now defines what love is. Love is self-sacrifice (16). John points to the supreme example of love, namely, Jesus Christ. We know what love is because we have heard the message of the gospel.

Self-sacrificial love means a readiness to do anything for other people. It might involve giving up our—money, time, agenda, preferences, control, possessions, listening ear, vacation, desire to be right, desire to be liked—in order to meet the needs of others.

Ultimately, love is action (18). Love is not words or talk, but rather deeds and truth. Love is not merely a verbal profession, it is a vital performance.

Because Jesus Christ sacrificed his life for us, we should demonstrate our love for one another.

“Father, help me to see ___________ as you do. Help me to be willing to give up my __________ for others.”

This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Bible Church in Chicopee, MA, on March 12, 2017. It is part of a series of sermons on The Letters of John. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.