Friday, March 25, 2011

As usual, I woke up about 5:45 this morning; my alarm was set for 6:20.

Unfortunately, this early rising is a rather regular occurrence in the Czech Republic: we are so far north that the sun is teetering on the horizon before 6:00 in the morning. In summer, I'm told, the skies will begin to lighten at 4:30. And as usual, I rise with the sun (I've inherited the early-rising-gene from both my parents). What this means is that my project for next week is to run to IKEA on the outskirts of Prague and replace my lacy curtains with dark red ones, or a similarly dark colour.

In spite of my increasingly early schedule, it's been a good week, one marked by the chance to get to know some students better and to moderate some deep theological discussions in class. Let me share a few of these stories with you.

NOTES ON SCHOOL

Alex's Story

At noon every Monday and Wednesday, I toodle down to the lunchroom to keep track of lunch attendance. At
first, I stood in the hallway and simply marked off student names as they entered the cafeteria; more recently, I've made a deliberate effort to take a cup of tea and sit on the lunchroom myself and chat with my students. And I've made a deliberate effort to have deeper chats whenever possible.

Last Monday, I had one with Alex. Alex (or Alexandra, which is her given name) turned to me, perched beside her on a table, and asked whether I'd always planned on becoming an English teacher. I hemmed and hawed a bit (As a 13-year-old, I'd wanted to teach Christian fiction, and as a college student, I deliberately avoided an education degree), and then turned the question back on her: What did she want to do, after graduating next year? Alex confessed that originally she'd intended to be a dentist, but she wasn't sure she wanted to spend her life shoving her hands in people's mouths.

And so we talked about life choices: I encouraged her not to stress out about having her life planned to a T in 11th grade and told her I'd be praying for her. I shared with her how radically God changed some of my plans (two years ago, I thought that in 2011 I'd be starting my first year of a PhD program). Alex shared some of her own experiences: She hadn't intended to come to a Christian school at all, but God led her here when her plans to attend an intensive high school in the Czech Republic fell through. Looking back, we both saw how God had directed us to a good place, how all His plans are good.

Rachel's Story

My 10th grade class includes a student named Rachel, a sweet 17-year-old that moved from the States to the Czech Republic late last year. Her family and I are the "newbies" here at CISP. A few days back, I caught her after class just to chat, but as the other student filed out, I could see that Rachel was visibly upset. As we talked, she shared with me how difficult it was for her to make her opinion and voice heard in English class.

As a teacher, I suggested a way to rearrange the classroom to encourage Rachel to speak up more often and more comfortably (moving her place in class closer to my position at the front of the room). I high-fived her when she spoke up in class last time. But I also got to talk with her on a deeper level: She told me that in her Bible class, she had deliberately chosen to do an assigned presentation on Psalm 121. There, the Psalmist "lifts up [his] eyes to the hills" and asks "where does [his] help come from"; ultimately, he concludes, his "help comes from the Lord". Rachel told me how comforting she found this verse, knowing that God alone was her help.

I like this verse as well, particularly after climbing four mountains in Colorado over the past few years. What I love about it, I told Rachel, was that the Psalmist asks a question in the first portion: the question indicates that he has no clue at first where help is going to come from. For the Psalmist, this moment is one where he feels utterly alone, staring at the hills and wondering how in the world there will ever be help for him. And
even in these moments, I told Rachel, God is still with us, is still our help.

A 12th grade story

My 12th graders read Martin Luther's "95 Theses" as part of their Renaissance literature unit. I'd planned a class of reviewing the various arguments Luther made and debating when to get involved in theological debates, and when to let sleeping dogs lie. But the 12th graders had a different idea, and our class took a far deeper turn.

A question about whether Luther was "Catholic" or "Christian" prompted a mini lecture in church history, explaining that until the 1500s all Christians were Catholic; there simply wasn't any other option. Luther was originally Catholic, and then as his views on Scripture and on faith strengthened, he gradually broke away from the Catholic church. To assist our discussion, we compared current Catholic and Protestant differences (prayers to the saints & Mary, the importance of baptism, the role of priests, etc).

At this point, another student complained about "Catholic hate": he felt perhaps we were being unfair to Catholics, condemning them too roundly and too universally. Of course, the point of doctrine is not to hate people at all, and so I explained that what we as believers must be concerned about is not Catholicism / Protestantism per se. What we must be concerned about is bad doctrine, wherever such doctrine appears. If it is in the Catholic church, we must correct such doctrine (praying to Mary, for instance). If it is in the Protestant church, than we must correct that too (such as the current universalism debate that Rob Bell ignited).

As student debate started to wind down (or reach a stalemate), I tried to wrap up our discussion for everyone.
What the gospel boils down to, I told my students is this: Christ died and rose again, and in Him alone are we saved. After that, as we love Christ and grow in Him, we will gradually correct our doctrine and our behaviour to fall in line with His expectations.

As I've taken the effort to deliberately engage myself in students' spiritual lives, I've enjoyed the chance to get to know each of them and to encourage both those who are believers and those who are not. Recently, someone told me that the spiritual life is a journey: though there is that point in time when we are converted, Christ is still working in us before and after that point, always drawing us closer to Him. As my students and I talk, I get to help them walk along their journey closer to God; occasionally, they encourage me in my own spiritual journey.


NOTES ON CZECH

I want to share my love of Czech architecture with you today. A friend told me, as we were walking through Prague, that I was 'such a photographer'; I'd been fussing about not having my huge Pentax with me to snap photos of clouds scudding across the sky over the Vltava.

As a photographer, though, I am in love with light. And so I love the lampposts adorning the streets and bridges throughout Prague. Let me share a few photos with you. Some of these have already showed up on my Facebook account, but I think they're worth showing again:
















Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'm listening to John Denver tonight on iTunes ('Sunshine on my Shoulders') and writing a short post, bringing you up to speed on recent school events.

NOTES ON SCHOOL

Last Saturday, CISP held a charity fundraiser: parents and kids donated books and clothes and knick-knacks, volunteered to run games, sold food, and ran an auction to raise money for an orphanage in Belarus and the European version of Ronald MacDonald house.

Originally, I'd signed up to help sell the donated clothes, but it turned out that the booth did not really need me to sit behind it. So I broke out my camera and started taking pictures of some of the crazy goodness there. If you've been on my Facebook page, you may have seen some of these already; this time, though I provide commentary!

The event (which we called 'March Madness') was a success, we were told: We raised over 75,000 Kc (about $3000 USD, which is a significant sum over here). I have to wonder, though, whether we bought half the stuff ourselves.

Here, some of the middle-schoolers get into the clothes-shopping action:

















And our 10th grade science teacher gets ready to enter an ugly-sweater contest with something she found in the donated clothes:






















If we weren't buying stuff, we were fooling around with it. My 10th grade students Aris, Ana and Amy latched on to the typewriter, trying to figure out how it worked. They asked me to give them a hand, and I had to confess that even I was too young to really know how a typewriter worked.

















Besides the bazaar with its ugly sweaters and ancient typewriters, we also had an auction. The local youth pastor Jimmy got in on the auction action. Turned out, he was quite a good auctioneer: he wheedled his roommate (our Bible teacher) into bidding on prints for their man-pad, and he coaxed the menfolk into a competition of who-loves-his-wife-enough-to-buy-a-restaurant-coupon contest. Most of the restaurant coupons went for more than 500 Czech crowns, and some were nearly 1000 crowns - very good prices, in general.
















Perhaps the most interesting of all our fundraisers involved a goldfish: We lined up glass jars on a table (with the pictures of 10th grade students, the PE teacher, and the youth pastor) and asked people to sponsor one of these people to swallow the goldfish. All the money put into the jars went directly to charity.
















At one point, I walked over to this row of jars and jingled the 40 Kc or so in my hands, wondering which jar I should donate to. Personally, I wanted to see a student swallow the goldfish (does that make me a bad teacher?), but still I hesitated. At least, I hesitated until my 10th grade student Helena came running up and demanded that I donate to her jar - in other words, that I put her 40 crowns closer to swallowing a goldfish.

At this point, those of you who keep up with me on Facebook know what happened next.

Jimmy (the youth pastor) got the most money in his jar.

But he pulled 1000 crown bill out of his pocket -

- dangled it in the air a moment, in front of the whole crowd gathered for the auction -

- hesitated, -

- and dropped it in Helena's jar!

Up she came, and down went the goldfish - the whole thing.























Impressive, really. I'm told her brothers were jealous.

Fun as the event was, it had an even more important purpose: Working together (and donating a Saturday) taught the kids the value of showing generosity towards people who are in need. Perhaps for a missionary kid, whose family is very often on the receiving end of charity, this kind of lesson is particularly valuable. An event like March Madness provides a good 'training ground' for students enthusiastically practice charity and giving, donating a Saturday (or favourite clothes, or the heeby-jeebies associated with swallowing a fish) to mature as generous, Christ-like individuals.

NOTES ON CZECH

My life has been inexplicably busy recently, all the more so as I've started splitting week nights between suppers with my roommate, Bible study with fellow teachers, and tea (or cake) with my language partner. And so, for this post only, the 'Notes on Czech' is cancelled.

Perhaps in the next update, I will sing the praises of the Czech lamp-posts (one of my newest cultural fascinations).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Probably, many of you have never heard of Lilias Trotter. A few of you have, most likely because I've recommended her biography or her writings to you.

Lilias Trotter established one of the first Muslim missions in the early 1900s, working in northern Algeria and taking multiple trips down into the Sahara to reach out to the tribes there. Amidst her journeying and teaching and speaking, she penned several devotionals which still speak to readers today. About two weeks ago, I shared her writing with the school staff during morning devotions, and over the past several days, she has been speaking to me personally. I want to share what I've learned with you.

In Parables of the Christ-Life, Lilias observes the life of plants: in particular, she watches them grow and then slowly die away as the seed matures and is itself replanted. In this process she finds a picture of the Christian life itself. To the plant, Lilias points out, one thing is of utmost importance:

All gives way to the ripening seed. In the grasses the very root perishes by the time the grain is yellow, and comes up whole if you try to break the steam. They 'reign in life' above through the indwelling seed, while all that is 'corruptible' goes down into dust below. They have let all go to life - the enduring life: they are not taken up with the dying - that is only a passing incident - everything is wrapped up into the one aim: that the seed may triumph at any cost. Death is wrought out almost unconsciously: the seed has done it all.

Already you probably see where Lilias is going with this analogy: the importance of of making Christ our sole desire and delight, of letting go of all earthly desires in the hope to know Him more. And indeed, this is exactly what she says:

Can we not trace the same dealing in our souls as, slowly, tenderly, all that nourished that which is carnal is withdrawn, giving way to the forming of the Christ life in its place? His thoughts and desires and ways begin to dethrone ours as the aloe seed dethrones its leaves and casts them to the ground.

Here, I want to add one more thing: Not only must Christ's "thoughts and desires" dethrone ours, His grace must also dethrone our own efforts and self-sufficiency. Only when our self-sufficiency has been cleared out of the way will there be room for His life to grow within us, and to be visible to others.

Let me explain what I mean. Here at CISP, we glimpse God's blessings every day: a visa for our 5th grade teacher and for our middle-school English teacher, an wedding planned this summer and a new IT teacher in the fall, a new student or two added to the Wednesday night Bible study.

At the same time, so many prayers are unanswered. No building yet, no second grade teacher. Our music teacher has also not received her visa. My own teaching plans have gone wildly astray once or twice in the past week, making me wonder some days whether my students are learning much of anything.

And here Lilias' words come into play: All too often, we assume that we are somehow necessary to God, that without us His working (whether in the Czech Republic, or in the States) would fall to pieces. If we only had a building, we reason, then we could do God's work so much more effectively. If I were only a more masterful teacher, I think, my students would be distracted less and learning more, and (of course) learning more about God.

But there is an error here: It is not our skill that God seeks but the Christ-life within us, where alone we can know God and make Him known to others. What is essential is not a "heavenly energizing" nor a "conscious equipment for every service", according to Lilias. For me, her words suggest that I cannot expect a continual supply of positive answers to prayer: Perhaps there will be no building, no music teacher. Perhaps I will have days when I forget everything I've ever learned about being a good teacher. It is in this lack that we best glimpse Christ, at work in us.

Paul himself writes in I Corinthians that he "was with [the church] in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling". Apparently, he lacked that charisma, that magnetism so often associated with a strong teacher or leader; moreover, he lacked the "excellence of speech or of wisdom" presumably necessary to convince the Corinthian church of the gospel. Elsewhere, he complains of a thorn in his flesh (likely, a physical deficiency) that seemed to hinder his ministry. Clearly, Paul lacked certain characteristics we consider important to a successful life and ministry: strong people skills, persuasive speaking, good health.

It is in this lack, though, that Paul sees most clearly the hand of God. At Corinth, Paul writes that he "determined not to know anything . . . except Jesus Christ and Him crucified". Later, in Philippians, he declares that "what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ". Like Lilias, Paul determines that all his skills and accomplishments - every spiritual gain, every academic success - must go, so that he may know Christ, and that Christ may work in Him.

What we must learn from Paul and from Lilias is this: we are inessential, but Christ is essential.

Nothing but Christ matters. In our relationship with God, we cannot endear ourselves to Him through any particular display of devotion or spirituality. All that matters is Christ in us, His life gradually replacing our own carnal concerns. In ministry, it is impossible to accomplish much of anything based on our own resources and accomplishments. What matters is that Christ be gracious to us, working through His body to reach the surrounding world.

Please note, I am not saying that our efforts and accomplishments are unimportant: Were I to cease planning lessons and studying, for instance, I would be twisting God's words, using them to excuse mere laziness. Our own efforts are valuable to God; they are simply not the crux of ministry. It is Christ that is the crux.

Nor am I saying that we are unimportant to God. In fact, we are inexpressibly important to Him, beloved by Him, treasured by Him, a constant part of His attention. But we are not needed by Him.

In this end, it comes down to this: "I must decrease, but He must increase."

May the Christ-life ever increase in me.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

After you readers indulged me in my love of Dante last time, I think you readers deserved a more lighthearted post. And so, today I am treating you to some pictures from my students' most recent project and a cool new food discovery.

NOTES ON SCHOOL

As a teacher, there are always parts of my job that I don't like: grading homework, for instance, or keeping track of attendance (both of which I have trouble actually remembering to do!). At the same time, these minor inconveniences are outweighed by the perks of teaching, perks far more significant than marking a bunch of reading questions or paragraphs written for class.
I got one of those perks in my 10th grade class: a successful group project, one that demonstrated deep thought and even (I think) generated excitement in students.

Recently, the 10th graders studied Romantic Poetry (as in, 1800s social revolutionaries). Along with a partner, each student studied one Romantic poem in-depth throughout the unit, locating the various characteristics of Romanticism in that poem and choosing images from magazines to represent the poem. Last week, we put it all together: I blocked out two days, brought in some cardstock (what passes for posterboard here in the Czech Republic) and gluesticks, and turned the students loose.

And the results were fantastic. My university classes never really 'caught on' to the idea of a collage, though at several times I gave students the opportunity to create one for an assignment. There, the most memorable one was a bad one, notable for about eight pieces of paper smushed over a bright orange piece of cardstock as a collage.

Here at CISP, the students' artsy sides are coming out in the best way. I haven't even finished grading the collage work, but I'm already impressed by what students are doing.

















More importantly, I was impressed by some of the more intangible results of the collage. A creative project (as opposed to an analysis) helped students to appreciate the 'deeper' themes of the poem more closely, even students who are generally uncomfortable in an English classroom. A few more detached students 'stepped up to the plate' for a more active role in this project, demonstrated an increasing interest in the English class.
































And then, because I've put a bunch of student photos up, you get a candid shot of me. Somehow, pictures of me teaching always show me with my mouth open:
















Nothing is perfect, of course: My Lord of the Flies reading schedule has been adjusted a couple of times, usually every time I wake up and realize that I'm teaching 9th graders instead of college freshmen.
Occasionally, the 11th graders still give me funny looks when I ask them to give valid reasons (in a debate) why someone might not teach Huck Finn at the high-school level - or, to be more colloquial here, to censor it. But the Romantic Poetry unit gives me hope, both for myself as a teacher and for the students - all intellectually curious, and full of potential.

NOTES ON CZECH

My dad (as many of you know) is a chocolate devotee. For much of my childhood, our house had a constant supply of Hershey's Kisses, which were doled out one at a time on special occasions. Also, our families always make some kind of chocolate dessert at a holiday, to complement the more traditional confections. Apple pie for the 4th of July? Got it, and we've got brownies too! Homemade pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving? Naturally, and don't forget the Betty Crocker Devil's Food cake.

Several years back, my dad asked why nobody ever made chocolate yogurt. Yoplait makes chocolate-flavoured 'Whips' but those things have all the texture of cardboard. Better yogurts came in strawberry, vanilla, blueberry, and even 'Red Velvet' flavours - but no chocolate flavours. Until now.

Presenting: chocolate yogurt, European-style:























The Czech Republic boasts a wide range of chocolate flavoured yougurts. Besides regular chocolate, there is straciatella (another name for 'chocolate chip') and nugat (Nutella-like yogurt). Nor is this restricted to one particular brand. Besides the Albert brand and the Florian brand featured in my photos, at least two other brands produce some kind of chocolate yogurt.


















And if chocolate yogurt wasn't enough, the Czechs also invent ways to eat chocolate granola with their yogurt in the morning. My own muesli I prefer in hazelnut-flavour, like this:























Now, imagine a chocolate version of that, for breakfast. It's the Czech version of Cocoa Puffs.

Actually, I'm quite sure that most Czechs do not eat chocolate yogurt with chocolate muesli for breakfast. The fact remains, however, that they do make these culinary delights. Perhaps I should confess, too: Although I'd never eat chocolate muesli with chocolate yogurt, I do in fact eat chocolate yogurt occasionally (with hazelnut muesli!) for breakfast.

Dad? I guess I've inherited your love for chocolate. And I wish I could bring some back for you from the Czech Republic. But it's not gonna happen.