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.