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.

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