Friday, December 31, 2010

At the start of this post, I want to mark a momentous occasion: this one is the first published overseas. On December 29th at 5:30 in the morning, I walked out the garage door of my parents' home in Kansas, and December 30th at 10:00 a.m. local time, I touched down in Prague - my new home for the next six months. Let me share a few of my first experiences in this country with you.

My first thought, as the plane taxied towards the main Prague airport, was that a mistake had been made mid-air and landed me in Siberia. The tarmac was covered with little patches of ice and snow, blown about by the wind, and a thick freezing fog filled the air. It is so cold (even in the tunnel between the plane and the airport) that you gasp a little, and your breath continually billows around your face. This morning, it is cloudy again and 16 degrees Fahrenheit, according to weather.com. I have a feeling that the sweaters and slippers I own will be very, very handy (thanks to my sister for the new sweater you bought me for Christmas!)

Also, Prague is not so filled with castles and ancient churches as online pictures perhaps lead people to believe. On the drive in from the airport, I kept hoping to see the great castle that pops up whenever you search Google for "Prague", but no such luck. After 24 hours here, I have yet to see any castle at all and have seen nothing more historical than a hunter-orange coloured house. The paint colour is in fact historical: the Communist government preferred that houses be painted in drab browns and greys, but when that government fell, its decorating tastes fell with it. No more dull colours, all too suited to the dull, cold weather patterns here. An orange house, however eye-popping a colour, is a sign of freedom for people living here.

Perhaps the greatest adventure so far has simply been traveling in a car. Partly to ward off jet lag, I ran errands with my hosts yesterday, and on a stop at the local mall, we parked in the garage. This may have been a mistake. A silver-coloured Czech car entering the garage inched desperately towards the side of our car, as if he'd T-bone us to the side and then simply drive through the opening created. Inside of the garage, the adventure continued: the garage was packed, and so drivers who spotted the white glow of a reverse light parked mid-lane and waited, blocking cars behind them. A BMW tried this tactic yesterday and held up four or five cars behind him, a line that snaked back to the garage entrance. At the back, the driver in last place did not like this at all. He honked once, nice and loud, to express his frustration; then he followed this up with a whole series of honks, in case the first hadn't been heard. A few seconds later, he started honking again. Apparently, the Czech drivers are extremely aggressive, and so I have made a New Years' resolution: I will no longer practice my Chinese habit of simply crossing the street whenever I feel like it.

Three stories for twenty-four hours seems sufficient, so I think now I will move on to a few more serious, ending notes. First, thank you for praying for my travel plans. All my flights went as smoothly as I could have hoped, from the time I entered security to the time I landed in Prague. During the entire 20-hour traveling period, the longest delay I had was thirty minutes. My greatest challenge was trying to get comfy on the 8-hour transatlantic flight without flopping over onto the shoulder of the fellow sitting beside me. (I must admit I was tempted, especially when my cramped knees started killing me). Now in Prague, I'm quite thankful for God's travelling blessings. I'm halfway over jet lag today and ready to start settling in and preparing for class.

The night before I left, I read Psalm 139 for my devotions. Psalm 139 has long been a favourite of mine, ever since I had to memorize the first eighteen verses for a German class. This week, I have again found in it reassurance and blessing, and I wanted to share some of that with you before I end. The significant verses, for me at least, appear right in the middle of the poem:
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me.
My last semester at Bob Jones University, my relationship with my roommates was terrible (to this day, they are still the roommates from hell, although I have no doubt that I contributed to the problem myself some). At that time, I looked at this passage and I saw God's mercy. I had "made my bed in hell" that semester, antagonizing my roomies and being antagonized by them in turn. Certainly, that room was for us a 'hell' that semester, one that we had 'made' ourselves, but God remained with us, supporting us in His grace.

Now, the situation is quite different: I am in the Czech Republic and quite excited to be here; certainly, this is no hell such as I experienced that semester at Bob Jones. But as I teach this semester and begin thinking about the upcoming semesters (I am not at all sure what happens after my six months here), I still fear the mistakes that I make. I may mis-teach a book or a story, or I may fall out with the roommates I will have next semester, or I may make the wrong decision for what-comes-next after my six months here. But these mistakes are not new to human beings, and in fact, David makes his own mistakes in this Psalm. What is 'making your bed in hell', if not a terrible and deeply-regretted mistake? Why else would he call for the 'darkness [to] fall on' him, if not to blot out the record of his past wrongdoings and shield him from God's anger? And yet, He is never hidden from God, nor does he receive the brunt of God's anger for his mistakes in the passage.

In the midst of our mistakes, we find something entirely different from a God who is upset with our human errors. We find a merciful God, always with us and always leading us out of each mistake into a close, peaceful relationship with Him. David writes, "I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made"; these words appear directly after the stanza in which he acknowledges his mistakes, and so David implies that, whatever mistakes he makes, God's working in his life (whether the initial creation of David's body, or subsequent workings), is always supreme, always visible in spite of his mistakes to those who look on. Verse 18 is the capstone, and in the German it reads Am Ende bin ich noch immer bei Dir. Translated, this is, "At the end I am always with You". At the end of what? At the end of the trip to heaven, or the trip to hell, or the covering with darkness, we are completely, entirely with God. The word 'immer' in German means eternal, and so David's point is this: the Eternal God is eternally reaching out to us human beings, working with us and showing us His love whatever errors we make.

For me, this gives me hope as I move into the next six months and beyond. I am praying that God will grow me spiritually, and help me to encourage other people (especially my students) spiritually, and to know that God will be eternally with me in this endeavour is an exciting prospect. Stay tuned to the blog, and I will share the results with you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

At this moment, this very day, exactly two weeks remain before I fly out for Prague; today is Wednesday, and two Wednesdays from now, I will be (God willing) en route to Chicago, Frankfurt, and last of all Prague.

I'm writing this note from my old office at the university, with Christmas music playing in the background. Above me on the filing cabinet towers a stack of exams and papers from my literature class, all graded; and in front of me, on yet another filing cabinet, sit two huge stacks of graded Expository Writing papers. All that remains for me here at the University is to submit the official grades, clean off my desk, and turn in the keys.

Knowing my own taste in deep, philosophical thinking, I realize how easily this post could become maudlin, a melodramatic reflection on 2 1/2 years spent in the zoo that is a college town, years that swung wildly between frustration with my work and satisfaction in my work. And so, I refuse to muse on for eight paragraphs on the ebb and flow of life (plus, I have no idea whatsoever how I could possibly fill all those paragraphs on such a nebulous topic; not even English majors can write on forever). As I say goodbye to students and old friends here, and prepare to meet new students and new friends halfway around the world, I only want to celebrate New Year's a tad early: a celebration that reflects on the good my time here has brought me, and looks forward to the blessings to come.

As I left Bob Jones, there were certain things that I missed most of all: the literature classes that ended with more than 100 pages of computer-typed notes, speaking in German with friends there, the stunning Shakespeare performances (one of the only times I've truly enjoyed Shakespeare). Here too, there are things that I will miss, remembered now as
snippets of stories.

A professor last semester taught Hegel and Kant with illustrations of algae, ducks and lasagna, and another (my very first year in graduate school) patiently allowed her first-year students to queue up outside her door, long lines snaking down the hallways, while she critiqued our papers before we turned them in.

A student this semester asked for help regularly on her papers, and in exchange, gave me random biology facts (antibacterial soap is actually bad for us humans, since it teaches bacteria to resist our medicines), and another student e-mailed me his personal interpretation of "The Most Dangerous Game", one that was unique, creative - and correct.

A group of friends, who spirited me away to the self-serve frozen yogurt place (Orange Leaf, which was delicious) as a treat and loaned me the Percy Jackson series for some serious light reading this semester. Also, my friends listened to (perhaps 'put up with' would be a better word choice) my chatter about Orson Scott Card.

All of these stories (and more!) I will remember from my time here at the University, which is swiftly (almost too swiftly) coming to an end. But, as T.S. Eliot points out,
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
As I end my time here at the University, I am also beginning my six months in Prague. I promise, for every story included here about the university, I will have more about Prague. For now, though, I simply ask for your prayers in the following areas:

Please pray for a safe and timely flight. As many of you know, the last time I flew to Europe my flight was rerouted from a direct Kansas City-Newark-Berlin flight to a more indirect one: Kansas City-Cleveland-Newark-Lisbon-Frankfurt-Berlin, thanks to mechanical issues and weather issues. I would prefer not to have such an indirect flight this time, particularly since I will only have about five days to get over jet lag and prep for the first day of class on January 3. On Sunday, the weather was freezing cold but gorgeous - blue skies. I am praying for just such a day on December 29.

Please pray for my Stateside preparations. So far this month, I've graded . . . and graded . . . and graded a little bit more (literally hundreds of papers pass through my hands between the beginning of December and the end of the term). All this means is that I've spent less time than needed on Prague preparations, and there's still so much more to do. Pray that I will be able to get everything done, and done well, before the flight takes off.

Finally, please pray for the classes I will teach. Again, many of you know that I volunteered for the local homeschool group this semester and taught American literature. As we worked through each of the books, from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, we integrated biblical truth and literary studies, and I hope to do exactly the same thing as a teacher at the Christian International School of Prague. Pray that God will give me wisdom and creativity as I present each work to the students, and that they too will grow not only academically but also spiritually over the next six months.

In the end, this is what New Year's celebrations are about, looking back at all our blessings and looking forward with expectation and hope for new ones yet to come. Given the looming economic crisis and the political upheaval, the next year is certain not to be pretty or peaceful, but it is certain to bring with it God's goodness and blessing. As I prepare to leave for Prague, it is good to remember particular experiences and blessings from the last 2 1/2 years at the University and to look forward to a new stage of life, and to new divine workings.

See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which . . . loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
~ T.S. Eliot, "Four Quartets"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Among my favourite Bible verses is Romans 12:1-2:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
In fact, I like this quote so much that I believe I've talked about it on this blog before, but a reminder never hurts. So often, we believers emphasize action as the fundamental part of a faithful lifestyle. As children, we grow up learning that we are to obey our parents and not to lie to them, that we should read our Bible, and that we should never hit our brother or sister. As adults, we no longer need to be told not to hit our brother or sister, but the story is much the same: we should respect our superiors at work, attend church regularly, and be kind to our co-workers. All of these things are quite true, and quite important, of course. James demands that believers "be doers of the word, and not hearers only" (1:22). At the same time, it's easy to forget that doing Christian things, valuable as that is, is not at all the key part of the Christian lifestyle. The key part of a Christian lifestyle is the mind.

In Romans 12, Paul encourages us believers to be transformed - in other words, to act differently, to live life differently than we would if we were not believers. And, of course, living life differently includes things like kindness towards colleagues and not hitting our brothers or sisters. But Paul is not content simply to exhort the Roman believers to be transformed, to be different; he does not stop there. He goes on and demands that these believers seek "the renewing of [their minds]" - in other words, a new way of thinking that precedes and makes possible a new way of living. A 'renewing' of the mind implies that this new way of thinking is not simply an alternative way of thinking. After all, secular thinkers and writers do that all the time: Freud gave us a new way of thinking, and so did Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Neither are particularly good role models for believers. But we Christians are not to happily accept a new mind; ours is to be a renewed mind, one restored to its original strength and perfection, an original clarity of thought that has been lost in the thousands of years since the Fall. It is a clarity of thought that stems from the truth of God's word and Christ's Incarnation on this earth, a exchange of human patterns of thought and accepted beliefs for the ancient patterns of thought laid down in biblical history and revelation.

And here is the crucial part: to renew the mind to a place where biblical revelation and truth defines its thought is to take the first step towards that action which James demands and which we emphasize so much in the contemporary church today. A human being's actions are always, always driven by what they believe to be true, by the way they think. To give one example, modern educational theorists often recommend that teachers take a back-seat role to students, not so much asking the student to recognize facts and adopt positions of thought known to be true (the traditional pattern of education since Socrates, when teachers were after truth) but encouraging the students towards self-discovery and supporting those beliefs which the student prefers to hold, whether or not they are true. And contemporary teachers do not take this backseat role simply because they want to undermine students' future abilities, nor because they are lazy teachers. Teachers adopt this position because they genuinely believe that self-discovery is preferable to a truth which does not exist and cannot be known, and so their belief drives their educational practice. All of life - our professional career, and our personal beliefs and decisions - works this way: What we believe and think is the foundation for our actions.

Now for the practical part: Given the mind's importance in shaping behaviour, it is of the utmost importance that we believers accept only what is genuinely true and test all thoughts, all trends, all commonly-accepted ideas to make sure they are aligned with the Word of Christ. The apostle John commands us, "do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (I John 4:1). Normally, when we think of a false prophet, we think of someone like Brigham Young or Mohammed - someone, in other words, advocating a faith clearly opposed to the Gospel. But false prophets are much subtler than that: in biblical history, a prophet was simply someone who revealed truth (I should know; I wrote my Master's thesis on prophecy!). Anyhow, if prophets are those who reveal truth, then it follows that false prophecy is simply a seeming revelation of truth. And contemporary society, like all previous societies, are filled with false revelations.

I want to focus on just one false revelation in this blog post (my next post will cover an additional false revelation): the idea of carpe diem, or seizing the day, making the most of all opportunities. The Western fascination with carpe diem has been well-established ever since Andrew Marvell penned his famous poem, "To His Coy Mistress" and demanded an immediate sexual relationship with the poor woman he was wooing, citing the passage of time as his excuse:
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Although we readers condemn the sexual relationship, the poem is enjoyable, and the picture of Time and Death stealing up on us gives urgency to our actions, an urgency that we today call carpe diem. And this urgency is one that often determines even believers' behaviour.

For instance, I recently priced tickets to visit a friend living in Houston over Christmas break. I could get cheap tickets and squeeze the visit in between the end of finals and grading here at Kansas State University, and my planned departure for Prague on the 29th of December. Oh, and I'd also fit Christmas celebrations with my family in there somewhere too. I'd leave one day, stay the next in Houston, and return the third day. After all, I reasoned, one of us will get married or move even further away somebody; we'll have jobs and we won't be able to visit each other on anything like a regular basis anymore. I should take advantage of my freedom, take advantage of being only twenty-five and between jobs at this point and visit my friend. It sounded great, and then I remembered how much I actually have to do: grade literally hundreds of papers, give a final exam to my literature students and grade the exam, record all grades, move home, pack, get a hair cut and a cavity filled - and the list went on. And, above all, I have to prepare for teaching in Prague.

And then it occurred to me: carpe diem is not actually a biblical idea at all. Sure, we pretend it is sometimes and we cite verses such as Ephesians 5:15-17:
See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
The thing is, this verse has nothing to do with taking advantage of missed opportunities because Death and Time are creeping up on us. Certainly, we are meant to 'redeem' the time, to take advantage of it, but the reason given is far more serious: take advantage of the time, Paul tells is, because "the days are evil". In other words, encroaching Time is not even a consideration in biblical revelation. Encroaching evil is. Moreover, we believers are not simply taking advantage of time and pleasuring ourselves with time, wooing 17th-century women like Andrew Marvell or visiting friends halfway across the country like me. We believers are charged to redeem the time - in other words, to buy it back or restore it to its original purpose. Put all of this together, and the biblical charge is not to enjoy ourselves with time, but to make use of time for spiritual purposes, to use time in a way that allows us to grow closer to God and fulfill our God-given responsibilities.

And so I made a decision: I will not visit my friend in Houston, because (much as I want to see her) taking advantage of an opportunity is not a sufficiently good reason for all the added stress I would receive in return. Instead, I will take advantage of the opportunity for other, often-overlooked purposes: I will attend my home church, spend time with my family and sister (who is far away at college), and prepare more fully for my ministry opportunity in Prague this semester. I will put this time to good use, instead of simply using this time for my own pleasure. In the end, carpe diem is only a twisting of a genuine biblical concept: the redeeming of time to pursue those good things which God promises to those who love Him.

In other news: Plans are still underway to leave on-time for Prague at the end of December. Please keep me in your prayers, as I prepare to teach a lot of stories that I've never read and certainly never studied myself (such as Lord of the Flies). Also, please pray for safety traveling out and for a quick, non-delayed flight. I will be arriving in Prague about five days before schools starts again, if everything goes well, and I would prefer to have as much time as possible to get over jet lag and pull everything together for the first day of class.

And, of course, I promise to keep you updated with pictures and blog posts while I am there.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

As I have published "Czecherboarding" over the past few months, I've taken a unique English-major delight in its intricacy and careful level of thought; have tried to pour into this blog some of the same precision that I put into writing a literary paper. And I've had people comment on its intricate style, telling me that they enjoyed reading the thoughtful analysis or sometimes reminding me not to be too academic.

Tonight, however, is different. Academic befuddlement is something I do not have time to create tonight. I am too tuckered out by carefully grading essays on why news comedy is not actually news, on the dangers of a 'black market' in Adderall, and (most interesting of all) why Americans should add insects to their diet. I am smack-dab in the middle of preparing to teach my Intro to Lit students about hegemony and direct domination tomorrow (thank you, Dr. Dayton) and the allusions to Locke and Demosthenes in Ender's Game. So I will make this post short and sweet, with more academic befuddlement to come later on.

I will be leaving for Prague on December 29, to spend six months teaching high school English at the international Christian school. Late last month, I learned two things: first, that I had enough support to purchase my plane tickets and second, that a staffing need at the Christian school made my presence in the spring a necessity. Put the two together, and I was on my way to the Czech Republic.

My thanks go out to those of you who have promised, or given, to my missions project financially. Without you, it would be impossible for me to serve at the Christian International School of Prague, even for this spring when another English teacher is so desperately needed. I appreciate your generosity and your consistent interest in this work - God's work - more than I can say. My thanks also go to those of you who have been praying for me, and I ask for your continued prayers as I finish out the semester here at Kansas State University and then depart for the other side of the world - a departure coming up in a mere seven weeks.

At this time, it is far too early to know whether I will be able to return in the fall for a full year of teaching. It is not too early, however, to start getting excited about teaching there this spring. I am looking forward to joining the staff of the Christian school, reaching out to the students and to the Czech people with the love and wisdom of Christ our Saviour. John Milton (see, I had to talk about something academic!) wrote that "The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents [Adam and Eve] by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love Him, to imitate Him, and to be like Him". As a teacher, I am responsible for the 'learning' of students, factual information and critical thinking about literary skills and rhetorical techniques. As a teacher, however, I am also responsible for the 'learning' of my students on a spiritual level, reaching new insight about who God is and growing in their love for Him, and it is this responsibility that, I hope, will be heart and soul at the center of my time in Prague.

Nearer to my departure, I will be sending out a more informative blog post with details about my planned arrival and describing possible financial needs. For now, however, I am glad for the opportunity to serve Christ for six months in the Czech Republic, and thank you for your prayers and support and interest with me over the past ten months.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, September 17, 2010

As I type these first words, it is 10:36 P.M. I have just finished an old Star Trek TV episode ("Who Mourns for Adonis?") online and was planning to go to bed and read Percy Jackson and the Olympians until I could stay awake no longer. But the post I was planning to write in the morning will not wait until then.

Before getting off the Internet, I re-checked a favourite news blog of mine. For the past day or so, this blog has been abuzz with theological controversy. It started with a naive comment by one frequent writer, that Glenn Beck must be a Christian because of his passion for his faith - despite the fact that he was a practicing Mormon. Like meat draws flies, the post drew comments, which in their turn drew more comments, until the controversy came down to this: Is it worthwhile for believers to debate theology so fiercely, so viciously; to call a fellow believer out for the theological mistake of blurring the line between the Mormon cult and the Christian church, or should believers let God 'judge' an individual's salvation, and concentrate on love and social issues instead?

As I read, and now as I write this, the very existence of the controversy is troubling to me. Although I appreciate the need for social engagement, and the preference for Christian love instead of judgmental behaviour, the increasing tolerance of Mormonism as simply another denomination, another branch of the Christian faith - and, in turn, the religious pluralism that this evinces - goes against the grain of what Christianity is meant to be, biblically.

C.S. Lewis writes that there are 3 kind of human beings: those who live for pleasure, and those who live for responsibility and duty - among those duties, a duty to the will of God. Many religious people, he implies, belong to the second category, and indeed, which of us does not find ourselves in that category all too often? It is the third kind where the heart of Christianity is to be found: the human being who has a will neither for pleasure nor duty, the human being whose will, Lewis says, is Christ's. Here is the secret of our Faith: that we have (or are trying to) surrender our will wholly, daily to Christ's - to live, in every relationship, every responsibility, every action, not as if we must do that which is commanded, but (quite simply) because we want to do these things - an entire, supernatural altering of our very selves. A convicting thought, indeed. How many times recently have we behaved in a "Christian" way simply because we ought, not because we wanted to?

At this point, the argument ties back to Beck and to the role of theology in the Christian life. Based on Lewis's observations, Christianity is not simply a matter of behaviour: we are not Christians because we are Republicans, because we support a crisis pregnancy ministry or go on a summer missions trip during college, or because we have elected to study for the pastorate rather than business. We are Christians because, deep down, we have elected (or, perhaps more accurately, have been elected) not only to accept Christ intellectually but to daily accept His will as our own, and to accept His mind as our own.

Matthew records in his Gospel Christ's reminder to His followers: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!' (7:21-22).

Mormonism can do its wonders, among them the cultural change that Glenn Beck is currently spearheading. Christianity can do its wonders as well, including the numerous social developments and improvements of the past two millenia, tied as so much development is to the Christian faith. However much these "wonders" benefit us, however, they are no sure guarantee that a Mormon - or even a Christian - is saved. At the heart of the matter is not the ministry that someone is involved in, but the merging of their mind and heart and will with Christ's - a moment which requires at once theology and action. Theology matters. Action matters. And, in the end, the crux of salvation is much plainer (and much more difficult) than any of us could have imagined: "Enter by the narrow gate", Christ commands His followers, and He then asks them to "do the will of My Father in heaven." As C.S. Lewis said, "Back or on we must go." There is no middle ground.

UPDATE: At this point, I have raised a little over $1000 / month for my ministry in Prague - about half of what I would need to be there full-time. However, added to the one-time gifts I have received, this totals (so the missions board informs me) nearly 4/5 of what I will need to go from January to June of 2011. Although a half-year is not what I had originally intended, it is very important that I leave soon, and the school there has written to urge my departure as much as possible.

How can you help? Please continue to pray that others will be led to support me, either as a one-time gift or as a monthly supporter (either will help me get to Prague in a timely fashion). Let me know (via email is fine) if you know someone who may be interested in hearing about my trip or possibly supporting me. I will be sending out information in the near future with more details about my plans, so keep an eye out for that. Most important of all, remember that "to live is Christ".

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quick - what do you expect I will address in this post? Will it be (yet another) deep and theoretical English lesson? A keen spiritual insight, perhaps taken from Augustine again? Are you skimming this post, getting a quick "Czecherboarding news fix" and then back to your daily life, or are you preparing to read deeply and enjoy this post? Either way, your expectations for the post are already setting your attitude towards reading it and even the way you do read it.

Lately, I have been alerted in a new way to the power of expectations. As a teacher, I have been told that my expectations for students will actually affect their performance in the class, that having low expectations for them produces correspondingly low grades. Maybe I don't call them "stupid" (let's hope I don't!), but if I start thinking, "they're not college material", or "they're just not writers, you know?" - well, then, they'll act like that. Already in my classes I've taken steps to ward against low expectations. On Monday, I met my classes for the first time and told them that I had high expectations for them - and, more importantly, that I knew they could fulfill these expectations. On Tuesday, I noticed that only about one-third of my students had submitted their Introduction Quiz (ungraded) and caught myself subconsciously lowering my expectations. Oops. Better keep those expectations high, I tell myself.

English aside, however, I have been thinking about another set of expectations: the expectations for believers raising support for overseas ministry. Eight months ago, I hoped to leave for the Czech Republic in August. I expected to raise my full support - as most of you know, more than $2000 / month - in time to go this fall. Rather idealistic, of course, but I personally knew people who had raised support in a similar amount of time and so hoped that my own experience would be no different. My experience was obviously quite different - in part due, perhaps, to other expectations.

At the same time as I began raising support, I began paying more attention to others who were doing the same thing - and I noticed the startlingly-long amounts of time required. One family has spent 3 years raising support, another 4 - and neither is quite finished. More discouraging still, a third family devoted two years to raising support, gained fifty percent - and then decided that (given the lack of finances and their budding family) they could no longer remain in full-time missions. And I wondered, Will this be me in three years? Will I be raising support forever . . . or even have to quit? A scary thought, indeed.

I think perhaps that in recession-bound America today there is an expectation for missions support: that most missionaries will require two years (and even more) to raise sufficient funds before they can depart. It's normal, we tell ourselves, and it can even be a period of great spiritual encouragement and growth. Certainly it can, but it can also be physically and emotionally grueling and delay important ministries overseas or here in the US. For missions schools, the expectation of a two- or three-year deptuation is even more difficult. A school is, of course, responsible for normal ministry demands: bringing glory to Christ and introducing others to Him. A school, however, is also responsible for educational demands: providing its students a consistent education that will serve them will as they go on to a job or to college. In order to uphold this responsibility, the schools require missionary teachers - such as myself - and when the teachers cannot come for the school year, there is a gap in the school's ministry.

The situation for schools, then, stands like this: although most of us expect missionaries to take 2-3 years or more to raise support, a school has great difficulty in waiting that long for its teachers to arrive. Imagine a woman applying to be your child's new high-school English teacher. Perhaps they're a great teacher, perhaps they graduated with all As from college and excelled in their student teaching and have a body of stellar references. However good this woman is, she could not tell the school, I really want to work for you, but I can't be there for another two years. The school would say, Forget it! and hire somebody else. In my situation, there are classes that I was scheduled to teach that now require a long-term substitute (usually a student's parent, from what I understand) because I was not able to raise enough support to go. As you think and pray for me, then, please do not picture me arriving in Prague in 2012 or 2013. Picture me instead leaving this January, which is when I would like to leave if I raise the requisite support. My support is currently still at 41%. I need another $1300 / month before I can leave.

If I am expecting to leave in January, will I go? Perhaps. I intend to work that way (I have several contacts to follow up on this week, and more to work towards in the coming weeks - please pray!) For now, that's all I can say. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

As a teacher, I thought I would devote today's space to an pedagogical hot topic: the valedictorian who called in her speech for educational freedom, ideologically, from exterior control. Most of us, at first glance, assume this sounds great. After all, we believers are vastly outnumbered in the public sector these days, our political and religious stances all too often help up to public scorn. Her ideas, however, overlook one of the fundamental roles of education: to train students in the beliefs and traditions (for my philosophical readers, the metanarratives) of their community - whether social or religious.

For those of you unfamiliar with the speech, the valedictorian Erica Goldson writes here that the educational system in which she grew up does not challenge its students intellectually; it does not even train its students in practical skills. According to Erica, the foundational emphasis of contemporary education is that students are "are trained to ace every standardized test. " As students take tests (and more tests, and more tests), they develop not into free-thinking adults but into "great test-takers". At the bottom of all this is "an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated" and, ideologically, instills in its students "the inhuman nonsense of . . . materialism". What Erica sees in high-school education is not an intellectual challenge or practical life preparation but an ideological threat, in which students are taught to work for money and "to mindlessly accept other opinions as truth.".

So far, the deepest problem with Erica's speech is its rather hysterical tone and exaggerated claims. A valedictorian speech need not be an academic paper, and the over-the-top tone is - as many commenters have pointed out - quite typical of an 18-year-old writer. The real problem comes in Erica's solution. In favour of a Big-Brother style educational bureaucracy, she supports an educational system that strives to support its students in a personal quest for "the uniqueness that lies inside each of us" - a quest that signals the ideological emptiness underlying Erica's vision. In postmodern America, the central worldview is this: that reality is not objective but subjective - created and recreated, defined and redefined by every individual. Metanarrative (the attempt to explain the world on a large scale) is replaced by personal narratives scripted by every single individual, each of which is just as true as the next. It is these personal narratives that Erica demands the public school system uphold.

Here, Erica's argument falls short. A strong education is not one that simply releases its students into a freewheeling intellectual experience but guides their thinking along established thought, acquainting them with community traditions and beliefs and within this framework allowing them freedom to develop as thinkers. It is all well and good to argue that students should be made completely free, intellectually, but the truth is that each and every student (however much Erica ignores it) is already bound to the confines of a communal worldview. Is the student a feminist Democrat? A Goth? A traditional Muslim? Each of these identities bears a worldview as strong as the corporate one that Erica seeks to avoid, or the Christian one that many educational leaders today seek to avoid. For a teacher, then, it is impossible to entirely release students; they will never create their own worldview but will choose succeeding political and religious ones - right or wrong. The goal is simply to guide them to the point of decision. For a Christian educator, the goal is even greater: to guide the student to the point where they are able to independently choose to belong to the intellectual community of Christians.

Of course, this responsibility does not require students to "shut down" their mind nor slavishly accept every doctrine that their Christian teachers and leaders foist at them. As Milton reminds us, a "fugitive and cloistered virtue" unexposed to alternative points of view is no virtue at all, and an intellect sheltered from other opinions and beliefs is non-intellectual. A Christian thinker can challlenge ideas and form strong personal opinions as freely as anyone. Indeed, intellectual growth is crucial to spiritual growth, which requires that the believer "be transformed by the renewing of [the] mind." The key word here is "renewing": the reshaping of the mind to better understand and uphold a biblical worldview, the only correct worldview. As long as students will accept some worldview, as long as they are searching for a worldview, we as teachers must guide them towards the narratives of Christianity. There alone can students experience a breadth and a richness of thought, discovering in the end not their own "uniqueness" but Truth itself.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

This summer, I have been reading St. Augustine's Confessions - albeit in fits and starts, a little here and a little there. Amid the just-for-fun books such as Xenocide and All Creatures Great and Small (quite delightful after graduate school), the record of Augustine's spiritual experience comes back to haunt me and to challenge my own spiritual growth.

Perhaps the most memorable vignette so far involves Augustine's mother, Monica - grief-stricken over her son's slide into heresy and his impending move to Rome, a symbolic move away from the Christian faith of his Carthaginian childhood. Augustine remembers that she follows him down to the wharf as he prepares to leave for Rome, that she guesses he is departing even though he lies and tells her he is only seeing off a friend. As Augustine slips away in the middle of the night, Monica is up praying desparately for her son's return - a prayer that God denies.

Augustine, however, does not conclude that God denied her prayers out of spite - something that cannot be attributed to our God. He does not conclude that God does not desire to provide for her nor even that God wished her to suffer through this period of division from her rebellious son - this final conclusion one that would perhaps be similar to conclusions that some contemporary believers draw. Augustine writes that God "saw deeper and granted the essential of her prayer", that He "did not do what she was at that moment asking, [so] that [He] might do the thing which she was always asking" - bringing Augustine to salvation, something that only happened once he reached Rome.

As believers, we notice when God apparently fails to answer prayer and we conclude that perhaps He knows that what we ask would not be good, or perhaps He wishes us to experience a period of suffering - both acceptable, and often true, conclusions. At a deeper level, however, perhaps God does not answer prayer, not because He wishes to deny us something, but because He wishes to grant us something good. Monica's desire that her son remain in Carthage flew in the face of her deeper & greater desire that Augustine be saved, and so God denied the one and answered the other. As human beings, we have many desires - for a job to pay the rent and grocery bills, for specific direction in every decision, for peace in our relationships with others. Although these desires are all good, as Monica's was itself good, these expectations may well hinder what should be our deepest desire: that we grow closer to God and become more like Him. And so, when God denies our everyday desires, we can rest assured that He is working to bring about those things that we truly desire most.

My plans were, of course, to arrive in the Czech Republic this August - to teach literature there, supporting the work of the local missionaries and mentoring my students in their relationship with Christ. This prayer God denied. What the succeeding months will show is what greater prayers He is answering through this one denial - prayers for those in Prague, and those of us here in the States, and our individual relationship to Christ.

In more specific news, I have seen 3 new monthly supporters join my team - bringing my support up to just under 40%! Additionally, I have received my Czech visa (I just need to send off for it through the mail). My hope is to be in Prague in January, thereby finishing out the school year & these steps show good progress. Thanks to those of you who are supporting me through prayer and finances at this time.

Friday, July 9, 2010

In recent news:

1. My support level reached 27% yesterday - hurrah! Although this is good progress, it is (of course) not enough for me to purchase my plane ticket & leave for Prague just yet. Please be in prayer as I continue to discover who God would have to support me.
2. I accepted a job at Kansas State University, teaching writing and literature there for the fall semester. No word on what happens after the fall (with any luck, I'll be in Prague), but until then, I'm looking forward to using this time to prepare financially for my missions trip and especially to work on my educational skills.
3. Finally, I promise not to regale you all with a theoretical justification of English - important as that is! Today's post is a story.

Many of you know that I taught Introduction to Literature at Kansas State University last year. Although I enjoyed teaching at KSU (and will be returning for the fall semester), I did feel some of the discomfort that comes from being a Christian in a secular environment. Last semester, however, was different.

Many of last semester's students were religiously skepticial, preferring to espouse animal rights or mixed-up ideas of justice or heroism or faith. There was one student, however, who was a believer. About five weeks into the course, she turned in a paper about hope after death, and I suspected. A few weeks after that, we had a chance to talk one-on-one (she was considering changing her major), and she told me her faith was important to her and that she was a believer - actually active in one of the student ministries on campus.

As the semester progressed, we had a chance to discuss her concerns about changing her major and the abilities she demonstrated in my class. I offered to pray for her, and she expressed her gratitutde. I also noticed her effort to speak up and defend her religious perspective in the class. Her presence in the class was an encouragement to me (as I hope mine was to her!) - a neat opportunity to experience the mentoring student-to-teacher relationship that is sometimes difficult to reach at KSU, and a good preview of what I look forward to at the Christian International School of Prague. Many of you have heard me say this before, but it's still true: in education, the relationship and not the facts matter. A teacher should support her students emotionally and spiritually as much as possible, not just academically - which is what I aim to do at CISP.

What do you think? What makes the teacher-student relationship a success, besides academics? How do you know you've 'made it' as a teacher?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Is English Worth It?

I have a cousin who likes to argue that English classes (particularly at the university level) are worthless. As evidence, he submits the composition and literature courses he took – three different classes, at three different universities including West Point, all of which he claims taught him nothing at all. These classes were not even intellectual: academic discourse in English is apparently easy to mimic (although I find the real thing difficult enough, when done right). According to my cousin, English literature is interesting – and little more. It is certainly not an acceptable college major.

My cousin studies history, and so I like to remind him first of all that any claim levelled against a liberal arts major such as English redounds upon his major as well. At a deeper level, however, these claims trouble me deeply. Academics in particular demonstrate a peculiarly navel-gazing tendency when studying English literature. Honestly, does the world really need a novel about a physically-handicapped and dysfunctional family of circus performers? (Please note, this book actually exists in the K-State university library). My cousin claims that his instructors accepted the most ludicrous arguments with a straight face in his composition courses. Although the individual instructor may be blamed in part for both errors, the state of the English major is not reassuring.

At the same time, I would major in English again. I would encourage students to enroll in compsition courses or to take literature courses as electives, even at a state university. I would advise interested students to major in English, even without a secure job waiting at the end of graduation. And (most importantly), I would defend the consistent study of literature and writing in high schools today. Although partially corrupted as an academic major, the study of English holds the key – in my experience – to higher-level thinking and even to maturity and growth as a believer.

Think for a moment about what a book is. It is not just a stack of paper bound together with thicker paper. Nor is it (usually) a story that someone made up for the fun of it, or a story that someone made up with the deliberate intent to deceive someone. A book is instead a record (fictional or not) of the way that someone sees the world, a record of the truths and experiences prominent in the world – a record that we as believers would do well to know.

A favourite professor of mine told her classes that “all truth is God’s truth” – that everything correct originates from one who is himself Truth. Any truth discovered between the two covers of a book is a stepping-stone towards a deeper knowledge of the true God. Anything that is not true in a book has a reversed benefit: by comparing falsehood to the truth of Scripture, we recognize divine truth more clearly and grow in the knowledge of God. My first year in graduate school, I enjoyed Underworld by Don DeLillo. The author speculated that faith battens on and develops from signs that are essentially empty: words that have no tangible meaning, pictures of saints that do not correlate to actual saints. According to DeLillo, this essential emptiness makes faith beautiful and worthwhile – hope amidst a hopeless situation. According to the Scripture, faith does in fact develop from signs such as words; however, these words are filled with meaning. Christ is Himself the Word: both the sign and its meaning, the perfect communication of God in human form – a truth I realized out of studying (and exposing) the theological difficulties of a novel.

I see in my cousin’s experiences some of the problems plaguing the study of English, but I look at my own experiences and see a reason to solve this problems – not to throw in the towel. At the high school and college level both, studying English offers the believer a lens that focuses the truth of the gospel and aids in distinguishing between truth and untruth, mixed-up as they are in the contemporary world. Boiled down, English (to me at least) has the following benefits:

1) It exposes readers to multiple spiritual perspectives and worldviews and therefore prepares students to encounter these in the “real world” after high school and college.
2) It encourages students to appreciate alternative perspectives. Much as we are tempted, laughing at or mocking other worldviews is not an effective testimony. As students encounter unusual perspectives, they can also develop a mature, biblical response.
3) It encourages students to develop their own worldview in response to others. As I reached new biblical conclusions about faith subsequent to reading Underworld, students should respond to unbiblical positions with their own, more refined arguments.
4) It exercises under-used brain muscles and introduces students to new activities. Amidst the Internet, video games, and the increasing demands of mathematical subjects, students have less time for reading than ever before. Although one course in literature may not make a lifelong reading convert out of a student, it can at least introduce them to the pleasures of reading.
5) It demands professional language in writing and speaking. Many writers like to begin sentences with the word “which”, as in The dog chased his tail. Which made the girl laugh. More writers forget how to use commas in writing, and nobody knows how to use a colon mark correctly. As believers, however, professional language usage is crucial in our testimony to the world – and writing and literature classes can help improve that.

Are there any items that you would add to the list?

I provide this list as an ideal: not what English classes do, but what they can do if taught correctly. I also provide this list as a set of my own goals as an English teacher. My time in Prague is not intended as a unique overseas experience (I could get that by going to China), nor is it purely an educational experience. It is an opportunity to share Christ with my students by teaching English – a subject that I believe uniquely suited for the opportunity. Please help me to achieve this goal: I appreciate your prayer & financial support, as God leads.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

UPDATE / BREAKING NEWS:

A new monthly supporter has come on board, bringing my grand total (percentage) up to 24%! This is my first new supporter in two months (the previous two months were made a little busy by defending my thesis and graduating, important stuff like that).

As I reflected last time, God is always at work even while we are "still", perhaps especially while we are still. At times, His working may be invisible and quiet, but wait long enough, and His hand is evident in the circumstances of our lives. As I take another "baby step" closer to the ultimate goal of teaching in Prague, I believe His hand is evident here, showing us - showing me! - that He indeed is God.

Please continue to pray with me that God will bring together the remaining prayer / financial supporters necessary for me to leave for Prague - perhaps you will be one! :) Whether you are or not, I appreciate your prayers at this time, so stay tuned for the next edition of "Czecherboarding" - coming soon!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Welcome back! As you are still reading on the second post of "Czecherboarding", I hope that the adventurous tone of my blog, so well captured in the -ing ending, grabbed your attention, that you've returned for the second installation in the gripping story of my progress towards the Czech Republic.

Well, here it is: the only difficulty with writing dynamic blogs such as "Czecherboarding" is that the writer - in the case, me - prefers to update people on events and progress that is actually exciting. I would like to tell you that I've finished raising support and am on my way to Prague, or even that I've purchased my plane ticket. I would like to tell you how ministry paid off as my students have committed themselves to a lifetime of walking with Christ in His plans for them, and not their own. And I do hope to share these things with you some day soon . . . but not today.

What I would like to update you on today is much more subtle and muted, a mere whisper of an update. As Elijah learned, though, it is in the whispers that God speaks. As many of you know, my personality is an active one: I prefer to plan my schedule well in advance and take every effort to see that it is carried through, to actively seek out opportunities for jobs and ministries to keep busy, to direct and lead and not to follow. After all, I do climb mountains for fun (more on that later). As I learned long ago, however, sometimes the drive to accomplish something, to secure the future, needs to take a backseat to steady working of God.

My junior year at Bob Jones University, I directed a film for the Modern Language Club - a project that brought my active, organized personality to the fore. Writing the script, casting the parts, finding a support crew, organizing rehearsals - all of these was quite fun for me. What was not so fun were the hiccups in my project. A few hours before rehearsals, actors emailed me to say they couldn't make it. My response was, quite naturally, to panic. I sent out frantic emails trying to reschedule the film shoot or to schedule a different film shoot and waited on pins and needles in my dorm room to hear back. I often did hear back within a half hour - occasionally from the actor that had sent me the original panic-inducing email, saying they could make it after all. That semester, I learned that no matter how hard I work on something, how hard I try to fit everything to one perfect schedule, my own plans will change . . . and behind the scenes, working everything out as needed, there is God.

A verse meaningful that semester at BJU, Psalm 46:10 returns as a good reminder for me now (and indeed, "Be Still My Soul" is still one of my favourite hymns). There, God commands us to "be still and know that I am God". Notice that "be still" is a command, somthing to be obeyed. As I filmed the Modern Language Club piece, I had difficulty with this command, and often realized too late that had I done nothing, God still would have resolved my problems for me. Now, I look back to this experience and remember that though I cannot predict the future, though I cannot force my way over to Prague, God is still at work. Indeed, in this very stillness the Lord shows that "I am God" - that He is in control, working, when we can do nothing. As much as this stillness goes against the grain of my personality, it gives me the opportunity to share with you the most exciting update of all: that God is at work, as much in the quiet as in the busyness of everyday life.

And now, a few more detailed specifics about that work. Since I last wrote you, I have established several new contacts for my support team and made several appointments to share my ministry with fellow believers. Also, I have begun a short-term summer ministry at our local crisis pregnancy center. As I have been told, a soul in need is a soul in need - whether at the Christian International School of Prague, or here at the Salina pregnancy center. My official responsibilities there are termed "office work" - a rather generic title, imposed by the the necessarily wide range of work I do. I answer phones and assist clients with paperwork, but I am also working on special projects - currently, researching the requirements for an organizational Facebook profile. I am excited about the ways to participate in Christian ministry, even while I wait to leave for Prague.

As I close, I would ask for your prayers: for the Christian International School of Prague, as many teachers return Stateside for summer break; for the crisis pregnancy center, as it develops a strong online witness to families faced with unplanned pregnancies; for my own support-raising process, as I invite people (perhaps you!) to join me in prayer and financial support. And finally, pray that amidst the stillness God will work, showing Himself - as always - to be God.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hello all -

Welcome to the first post of Czecherboarding! As an English major, I would like to point out that the -ing ending at the end of the blog name signals action and movement - an adventure, if you will. Although Prague is still months away, the adventure of getting there sparkles in front of me.

All this simply because the original name - "Czecherboard" - had been taken.

As many of you know, I am planning to teach high school English at the Christian International School of Prague for two years. I intend to keep my friends updated on my progress using this blog, first as I raise support and then as I teach in Prague. Additionally, I also intend to let my English side spill over - perhaps a tribute now and again to Milton, or to T.S. Eliot. I will likely update the blog once every two weeks (or slightly less frequently) until I leave for Prague, at which point the posts are likely to increase.

For now, however, thank you for your interest in my plans for ministry. I want to leave you on this very first post with a story, about why I am pursuing this opportunity. Three years ago, I spent a summer assisting missionaries in Berlin. Any future plans were still hazy at that point, a mere wisp of cloud on the horizon. A church leader there challenged me to consider devoting significant time to overseas ministry (as opposed to a Stateside job), reminding me of Romans 12:1-2, which reads:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
All my life, Christian leaders have reminded me that having been redeemed "by the mercies of God" my entire life - body and soul - belongs properly to God as a sacrifice. In recent months, however, this verse has returned to inspire me - and with it, the memory of the challenge that my friend Dan gave me in Berlin. What God expects of us as believers is to "present" ourselves as a "sacrifice" - ready to give up our plans, our talents, our entire being for Him. What makes this possible is "the renewing of our mind" - a process in which we learn to think the way God does, trading the priorities of the world for the priorities of God.

All of us have opportunities to flourish physically and financially, here in the world (I have had these opportunities as well), but the question - the one that Dan left me with, that hot day in Berlin - is what course of action best supports our relationship with Christ, and His work in the world. Whether the choice is one aligned with the world's priorities as well, or not, this course of action is the best to take. And that is the course that I have tried to take, in committing to two years at the Christian International School of Prague.