Yulia had been close friends with Vlad since childhood, and even jokingly said during a sleepover at my apartment, “I have a boyfriend for you! He knows hardly any English; you know hardly any Russian. You guys will never argue. It’s perfect!” She never told me his name when she said that, but I later learned that she was talking about Vlad.
When we met, the only sparks that were flying were the ones filling the sky that night. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed each other’s company; it just wasn’t love at first sight. But surprisingly, I do remember the first thing Vlad ever said to me: “I very want learn English.” (…with a huge smile and those adorable apple-cheeks of his that I didn’t notice at the time. How did I miss that?)
I chuckled a little and told him I would help him, with a grin of my own. He made me laugh almost the whole night with his limited English and unlimited jokes. I had met many people in Belarus since January who sincerely wanted to learn English, and I sincerely wanted to help. Vlad was another person to add to my list, although I wasn’t sure when we would actually see each other again. I didn’t think much about it after that night.A few months later, I saw Vlad and his sister, Katia, at a local English club. He came a couple more times before asking if he and his sister could come to the Bible study I had at my apartment on Friday nights. Of course, I was ecstatic! Two people were asking for an opportunity to build a friendship and study the Bible. That’s what I had been praying for since I first arrived in Belarus! He came for the first time in December 2014, right before I left for the states on Christmas vacation.
When I got back to Minsk, guess who showed up again? And again, and again. His English was improving, and he desperately wanted to understand the Bible. He began reading it for himself, and asking lots of great questions.
Meanwhile, the more I got to know him, the more he stood out to me. There were moments I remember standing in my kitchen on Friday nights, thinking, “This guy is different.” I would watch the way he cared for people on Fridays—always making sure everyone had a drink and that I was never stuck alone doing a pile of dishes. As we spent more time together, I saw him in a variety of contexts—helping older women up the stairs from the metro, visiting a friend in the hospital, arranging chairs at English club on Sunday nights, break-dancing in my living room, and laughing with family around the dinner table. I couldn’t deny there was something there, but there was also a huge barrier: we were not on the same page spiritually! I couldn’t even go there in my mind, and I was determined not to.
I kept praying that God would remove him as a distraction, but it was nearly impossible in my schedule. I saw him at English club on Sundays, Bible study on Fridays, and once a week at English classes. He definitely wasn’t going anywhere. Instead of asking God to redirect my heart (which I had done for a few weeks), I redirected my prayers. Every time I thought of Vlad, I asked God to save him. After becoming such good friends, the thought of Vlad living apart from Jesus forever, haunted me. First I prayed weekly, then it became daily, and eventually it became multiple times a day. The love I had for my friend and the love I had for my Savior left me with an obvious solution: pray, pray, pray.
In late 2015, I met Vlad on his lunch break a few times to go for walks—first, out of loneliness during the long fall days before night classes. Then, out of mission. My time left in Belarus was short, and one of my best friends was still trying to understand having a relationship with Jesus. I encouraged him to ask questions, and he did. I didn’t always have the answers he wanted, or even answers at all, but by the grace of God, I tried…and prayed, and tried. It was so hard to feel my heart getting attached to someone who was “off limits.” Yet, I couldn’t cut him off…partly because I knew how much he needed Jesus and how close he was to having Him and partly because I really enjoyed our friendship and couldn’t imagine my life without him.
By December 2015, I think we both realized just how strong our connection was. When we had conversations of me leaving, I would tear up, and he would tell a funny or stupid joke, depending on if he was nervous or not. No matter what, he always tried to make me smile—and he almost always accomplished his goal, except for December 19, 2015.
I had spent some time with Anna and Vlad that day in downtown Minsk, walking the streets that I had come to love over my two years living there. Day turned to evening, and it was time for me to get back and finish packing for my flight the next day. (Sidenote: You can never overestimate the time it takes to pack and move internationally from a place you lived for two years in two suitcases…hello 3 a.m. after a week of trying to pack!)
Vlad said he would walk me home, because he’s a gentleman, and never let me walk home alone at night once we became friends. This walk was different though. It felt so final. We had shared so much life in the short course of a year. He understood me in a way no one had before, but again…it couldn’t go anywhere. I remember walking that evening with tears rolling down my cheeks and my arm hanging in his. I was sad—sad about leaving my second home, sad for the lost opportunity of “us,” and most of all, sad that my best friend there didn’t yet know the joy of Jesus, and wasn’t guaranteed to ever know it. He said, “Let’s just appreciate every step.” He started counting the steps as we made our way from the bus stop to the Davidson’s, where I was staying my last night. The numbers never went high enough. I hugged him goodbye, not sure if I would see him again.
Well, I have some sneaky friends. The next morning (at 5 a.m.), they surprised me with goodbye signs and hugs at the airport. I was almost out of tears at that point, but somehow a few managed to escape. My teaching contract was up; the ticket was purchased; the plane was waiting, and so was my family. I was going home to America for Christmas—for good.
Let’s skip the annoyingly long flights and cryingchildren on the plane (no hate, mommas—I can’t imagine what that’s like! I had just been up for two days straight and couldn’t handle any more emotion with all my own rolling around). I had promised to keep in touch with my friends in Belarus, and I was really intentional about keeping in touch with Vlad. I’ll admit, my heart was attached at that point—and more than anything, I wanted him to experience God. I prayed for him even more than I did when I lived in Belarus, and we Skyped almost weekly.
By March, I realized that I just couldn’t do it any longer. I had fallen in love with Vlad. My emotions were all in; yet biblically, I felt I was out of line. I was between a rock and a hard place. I desperately wanted my best friend to know Jesus, and I desperately didn’t want to lose his friendship. But I also knew that our continued friendship would lead to deeper attachment, that was unhealthy in our situation. After praying about it, seeking counsel from my most trusted advisors, and reading God’s word, I couldn’t continue. I decided to call Vlad and explain that we needed to step back. It was a hard decision, but I knew there were people there praying for him and ready to help him on his faith journey.
That week, God kept bringing to mind the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, but God spared Isaac once he saw Abraham’s heart was in the right place. He had no other gods before Him. In this sense, Vlad was my Isaac.
The day I called Vlad to explain everything to him, he said, “Hey, I have to tell you something. I went to International Church today, and we were running late. But right when I walked in, they were reading the verse about Jesus standing at the door and knocking and if you open the door and invite Him in, He will come in. And you know how you asked me why I can’t say yes to Jesus? Every other time, I’ve had a reason. For the first time today, I realized that I have no reason not to. I decided to start a relationship with God.” You can imagine the tears that followed and the overwhelming prayers of praise. God had answered!
That very same day, I went to church in America (5,411 miles away and 8 hours apart), where the topic of conversation was none other than Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” My mouth almost hit the floor when the pastor starting reading.
Of course, I still had a lot of questions after our conversation: Is this for real?! So what does this mean, God? Do I need to step back so he has time to grow? Is he doing this because of me? (I’m not sure if Abraham had so many questions.) Time would tell though, and it did. There was a peace that came with Vlad’s decision—for him and for me. I knew that my best friend knew Jesus, and that if he had nothing else in this life, he had everything he ever needed. I can’t tell you how good that felt.
But I also couldn’t deny that my love had grown for him even those few months since I had left. We continued Skyping once a week, and later it became twice a week. With every conversation, I was more sure that we were headed in the right direction. We never pretended to be anything other than who we were—good days and bad days. We laid down our rose-colored glasses and had some pretty hard conversations. He had walked with me through all my ups and downs since I left Belarus, and trust me—there were a lot! (He’s an amazing listener.) We realized the next step would be seeing each other again, and this time, Vlad wanted to be on my turf.
Enter November 2016. (We will skip all the months of visa applications, me complaining about long distance, and endless planning for the trip.) Vlad arrived on November 12th. He was supposed to exit and see me standing there with his special sign that I made him. Instead, I was told I was at the wrong terminal; proceeded to another terminal, only to find out I was at the right one all along. I made it back up the elevator to discover Vlad wondering around with his gray backpack (yes…his luggage was nowhere to be found! That’s another story.) and a lost look on his face. I ran up behind him and surprised him. My guy was finally here! And God had done so much since we had last seen each other.
Those three weeks provided all the clarity we needed. We had time to enjoy the excitement of seeing each other again, the reality of how hard it would be to continue in an international relationship and marriage, the ups and downs of language and cultural differences, and an abundance of miles on the road and endless adventures. Throughout those three weeks, my heart said yes a million times over. This was the guy I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
He was never the one I imagined, and I guess what threw me off most was that he wasn’t an American. (I’m not sure why that was such a shock for me…maybe because it was never on the “list” of ideals I was instructed to make in middle school youth group. It was just an assumption that my husband would be an American.) Though in many ways, Vlad is nothing like the man I imagined I would marry, he is so much better. God is a good Father, and He knows exactly what we need. Vlad’s patience and faithfulness toward me continually point me to Jesus. The grace he extends reminds me of my Heavenly Father. The way he serves makes me want to be a better servant; his endless optimism cheers me up on even my worst days; and his quick wit catches me off guard in the best possible way. (Plus he can dance! P.S. That short list doesn’t cover it all.) I know he’s not perfect, and I don’t expect him to be; but he’s the one I choose to live this imperfect, unpredictable life with.
If five years ago, you would have told me that I was going to teach English in Belarus (a country I’d never heard of) and marry a man from there (who barely spoke a lick of English when I met him), I would have laughed. There is a quote from John Piper that sums it up perfectly:
“God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”
I never imagined that my “yes” to Romans 15:20-21 nearly four years before would lead me to another “yes” on December 3, 2016 when my man from Belarus got down on one knee as my boyfriend and got up as my fiancé. That wasn’t the only day I said “yes.” It had been my answer many times before—all the “yes’s” to morning devotionals, to choosing to move to Belarus, to wrestling with God in prayer about marriage and dating, to begging for Vlad’s salvation. God had given me grace for so many “yes’s” before, which all led to this one.
I won’t ever forget that day at Bok Tower Gardens. That red ruby ring of his grandma’s that he presented contrasted perfectly with the black shirt I had unknowingly chosen. It was a reminder of the stain of my sin and the covering blood of Jesus— only possible because God humbled Himself to become a Man and extend the greatest proposal in human history. He asked us to spend our lives with him. He chooses us—again and again. His mercies are new every morning!
The road ahead for Vlad and I won’t always be easy, but I trust that God hasn’t led us this far by mistake. If there’s anything He keeps saying in this season, it’s, “I’m with you. I’m for you.” And my response? Yes, Lord, you are. Yes!
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. James 1:17