Saturday, April 23, 2011

Six days ago, my school started Spring Break (planned to coincide with Easter). Five days ago, I left for a trip to Spain. My story today comes from the very last day I spent in Spain.

Along the northwest side of Madrid stands an Egyptian temple dating from the 2nd century B.C. It was moved to Spain several decades ago, a gesture of gratitude for Spain's assistance in preserving the historical temples threatened when the Aswan Dam was created. Now it stands in Madrid, facing the east and the sun sinking behind it.

Every day, tourists pass through the doors into the mysteries of the Egyptian's ancient faiths. Into the walls are carved picture upon picture upon picture of the old gods, Isis and Osiris and Amun and Horus. Most of the gods are engaged in rituals with their human worshipers, either accepting food as an offering or bestowing a blessing upon the Pharaoh. In the last twelve centuries or so since they were first carved, the outlines have largely vanished: sometimes all that can be seen of a particular god is the crest of their crown, or the bowl of fruit they are carrying; tourists have to rely a great deal on the inscriptions to understand exactly what they are seeing.

Further in stand several rooms for offerings, each smaller than an American closet.

I plastered my rear end against a wall for some stability while I was taking photos like this one, and I got a firm reprimand from a security guard (don't touch!) for my pains.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the Temple was how dark it was, and how the temple grew darker as the priests moved further and further in. The innermost sanctum was shielded in almost total darkness and would have been relieved only by the lamps of the most privileged priests. In the center of this darkness sat the stone-cold statue of the Egyptian god Osiris. My photo is light only because Spain has tucked lights into the recesses of the walls, to help tourists like me take photos. Imagine this room without any light at all, and you'll have the idea:

To a Western mind, darkness symbolizes mystery and uncertainty. A secret meeting is carried out in darkness; an unknown political candidate is a 'dark horse', a wild card in the election. Ancient Egypt, then, had a faith almost the reverse of what we consider true faith today: Rather than celebrating and teaching what they knew about the spiritual realm, they confessed inadvertently by the surrounding darkness how much they didn't know, the confusion of spiritual things, the difficulty of ascertaining any real truth.

Adding to such uncertainty were the restrictions placed on the temple. A tourist sign pointed out that only the high priests were allowed into the inner altar of the temple; it was the priests that carried the statues of Osiris and Amun to their individual rooms in the temple. The greatest treasures of the temple were tucked away into secret crevices in the foundation, hidden away from all sight. Symbolically, such secrecy again suggests what a reversed faith Egypt had: Most faiths teach their followers truths; Islam teaches a five-fold way to God, and Buddhism a path to avoid suffering. Not so in Egypt, where whatever truth (or even lies) the priests had was deliberately and consistently hidden from the worshipers.

Easter celebrations generally begin with reflection upon Christian history: retellings of the Palm Sunday and Good Friday story, flowers and crosses and pictures of the open tomb on Easter day; for the kids (and for the kid in all of us), chocolate eggs might be thrown in as well. (My personal favourite are the Cadbury cream eggs).

But for me, visiting the Temple of Debod is an equally valid way to prepare for Easter: its darkness and secrecy highlight the tremendous importance of the light and truth of the Christian story. Like the Egyptian temple, the tabernacle and later the Jewish temple initially involved darkness and mystery. In the innermost portion of the building stood the Holy of Holies, which must have been quite dark and which only the priests could enter. Its secrecy symbolizes, we know, the impassable gulf between humans and a holy God.

But this darkness is not central to the Christian faith, as it is to the Egyptian faith. Matthew 27 records that at the moment of Christ's death 'the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom' . The most holy place in the temple would suddenly have been flooded with light and made public to every worshiper in the temple, the gulf between God and man suddenly bridged.

In the darkness of the Temple of Debod, there is an Easter parable. On our own, we human beings are just as dark as the inner sanctum of that Temple. Paul tells us that the unconverted mind is dark, that it cannot understand the truth of the Gospel. That we create such backwards faiths as the Egyptian one testifies to the darkness and confusion of our spiritual philosophies.

And all this darkness makes the Easter story particularly special, because that was the moment when the truth and love of God was made public for the world to enjoy. Christ himself says, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12): His death and resurrection a spotlight into the gloom of spiritual truth, and the lamp by which we can know God.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My last post was too long. It's an occupational hazard, I suppose: detailed description and storytelling simply goes along with being an English teacher. But I have tried to scale back today's post, breaking it up into two short stories:

My 11th grade students just finished a unit on Modern Poetry, which including readings of Eliot and cummings and Auden and other old favourites. But what we closed the unit out with was the best: an abridged version of T.S. Eliot's post-conversion 'Four Quartets'. As I read the poem aloud, my students listened in silence. It was silent a moment more when I'd finished, and then Jessica raised her head and announced that 'Four Quartets' was her new favourite poem.

Gorgeous as it is, the poem is even better when clearly understood, and we took more than twenty minutes to walk through some of Eliot's rich imagery and allusive style, in passages like this one:
Prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
As I pointed out to my students, the 'fire' here alludes to the fire of Pentecost, the moment in which the Holy
Spirit descended on humans; the moment in which God communicates Himself directly to the individual believing heart. And so, this 'communication . . . tongued with fire' pictures the believer's hope: that God will steadily reveal Himself to them personally, unexpectedly.

All this is really deep stuff (I swear, I haven't told you the half), and I wasn't sure how my students would react to it. Later that night, though, I got on Facebook and discovered that Jessica had updated her status, with this quote, which pictures the eventual reunion between God and the church in Heaven:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
I was thrilled for the rest of the night. Partly, it's exciting to see them falling in love with a poem that I loved in graduated school.

But it's also exciting to see them falling in love with a poem that is so spiritually rich. As they identify with quotes such as the one above, so they will retain and identify with the deeper truth of the poem: that as we human beings let go of human logic and error and rely on God, so He will eventually reveal His truth to us.


In July, our middle school teacher Kate is getting married, and so we who are at the school and the Bible study threw a brunch shower for her. A bunch of girls pitched in with the food (egg bake, tea, coffee, mini scones with lemon curd), everyone brought a gift, and we had a really great ninety minutes of chatting and eating and opening gifts.

About ten of us were there; all together, we fit nicely into my living room:

The shower started with recipes (I gave Kate my recipe for Potato Soup). I asked her to read the titles aloud, which means that now I have to lay hands on the 'Banana-Chocolate Cupcakes with Ganache' recipe or on the 'Yummy Mexican Thingies with Cheese' recipe.

And we talked a lot, particularly about our students. One of the 11th grade students has been very clearly growing in her faith (so exciting!), so that dominated the conversation before gifts.

Kate received a number of useful gifts, including this potholder that says 'I Love Prague' on it. Obvious, but very fun!

With the wrapping paper scattered around the floor, the women started to give advice for the upcoming marriage: enjoy each others' interests; keep your marital fights to yourself, instead of talking about them with friends; resolve differences before going to bed, devote the first year to your marriage and to each other, instead of taking on lots of extra responsibilities. Honestly, I think some of us single people could have started taking notes! As the shower finished up, we prayed for their marriage and for their move back to the Czech Republic as a couple in the fall. And here, I think, is the real ministry of a shower like this: All of us teachers and Bible study people came together as a community, supporting each other (and particularly Kate) with tangible gifts such as oven mitts and prayers and spiritual advice.

As I look back on this post, I realize how different the two stories are that I've shared: a classroom experience, formal and teacherly on the one hand; on the other, three hours spent comfortably among friends, encouraging each other. And yet, both experiences are equally part of my ministry here in the Czech Republic. Perhaps these differences are the crux of Christian service, for each of us (not just for those overseas): Real ministry happens in the blend, the boundary between formal and informal; between personal and professional; it happens both as we deliberately instruct each other in God's truth and also as we demonstrate His love to others.

Even with my students, I walk this line. A few days ago, I was their teacher reminding them that forgetting to do homework is unacceptable. Sunday night, though, I put on my informal hat and attended an evangelistic concert in which another student was performing (my version of attending the school football game). And as we build that relationship, we (both students and teachers, and teacher with teachers), have the privilege of ministering Christ to one another, as members of His body.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Looking back to last semester at K-State, I remember the many nights I holed up in my office with a foot-high stack of papers to grade; besides that, church, and the occasional 'soup night' on Friday with friends, I didn't have much of a social life. Looking back to the beginning of the semester, I also remember many nights munching on a salad at home and planning lessons. Now, I am away from home for supper more often than I am there, balancing Bible study and roommate dinner and English conversations with a Czech language partner. Although I know that my primary responsibilities center on the school, I've also found that a great deal of ministry happens outside the school and even outside my relationships with students as I develop other relationships with Czech people and with fellow believers here. In this blog post, I want to give you a glimpse into the goings-on outside of school.


Czech Partner Story

About six weeks ago, a SEND leader set up me with a Czech language partner: a university student who wanted to practice conversational English with an echte English speaker. What we wanted, of course, was a chance to introduce the student to Christ and share our faith with her. At that time, I also wanted to stretch myself beyond the four school walls, and so I agreed. Mike set me up with Sarka (actually pronounced Sharka), a PhD student in agriculture and ecology at a university on the northwest side of Prague.

In early February, Sarka and I agreed to meet up at the Dejvicka Starbucks (primarily because I felt that was the easiest place for me to find); we were to meet at 6:30 P.M. on the first floor, right after we walked in the door. I was to know her by the purple coat she'd be wearing. At 6:30 sharp, I hurried through the Starbucks door, located a table directly in front of the entrance, and waited. And waited. Five minutes passed, then ten, and still she did not show up. Finally, I decided to check the upstairs level: I trotted up the stairs, and there at the top of the stairs, was a young woman in a purple coat. She'd been sitting there exactly as long as I had, since in Europe the 'first floor' actually means 'the first floor off the ground, as distinct from the ground floor'.

In spite of the confusing start, we've managed to build a stronger relationship. Last week, we actually met in Sarka's dorm room on the university campus (its decor is super-sparse; think hospital room sparse) instead of in public, drank tea and ate grapes. As we've met eat time, we've talked about her work and her environmentally-conscious beliefs, her dream of marrying her boyfriend and living in the country with a
horse, and the corruption in the Czech government.

A great deal of ministry here in Europe centers on strong, long-term relationships; people are not interested in five-minute gospel presentations from someone they hardly know. It's important that we do meet regularly, that I build a friendship with her instead of simply trying to convert her. As I get to know Sarka week-by-week, I hope to move on to more spiritually-meaningful topics and share my own faith with her. At this time, she seems marginally religious and not particularly interested in religious matters, so do pray that God will open the 'channels of communication' in regards to spiritual matters, beyond the day-to-day business of work and studies and teaching and walking in the countryside.

Bible Study Story

Every Wednesday, ten women (or so) from the International Church of Prague hold a Bible study; every week, this Bible study is preceded by supper. Usually, the food is delicious, so much so that one of our participants
has facetiously named it the 'Get Delicious Recipes Every Week Bible Study'. As a group, we've made pasta bakes, crepes, cinnamon rolls, tomato soup, toasted cheese, broccoli cheese soup, and French toasted for each other, and enjoyed every bit of it. I think for each of us, eating supper is a good time to lay aside the stresses of the week and enjoy each others' company, a sort of mini-Sunday in the middle of the week.

Last week, I led our Bible study for the first time. I planned a nice little word search on 'teach' and created beautiful handouts listing important verses; I printed the handouts and laid them aside in a useful place. That afternoon, I got home and discovered that I couldn't find the handouts and that all I had was a list of verses on the computer. And so I improvised: I scrawled the verse references onto a tiny square of scratch paper on my desk, tucked in in my pocket, and headed off to Bible study.

At Bible study, I pulled the square of paper out of my pocket and read the references aloud. The first verse was Psalm 25:8-9:

Good and upright is the Lord,
Therefore He teaches sinners in the way.
The humble He guides in justice,
And the humble he teaches His way.

Being a teacher, I'd planned what I wanted everyone to get out of this verse: that just as God is a 'good and upright' teacher, so we human teachers are also responsible to be 'good and upright' in our behaviour, that we cannot expect to teach others Christ unless we ourselves are walking with Him. And so I asked, 'According to
this verse, who is supposed to be teaching?'. My Bible study peers, like 5th graders, all responded in unison: God. Talk about a discussion fail! Eventually, however we moved on to deeper revelations: not only that we believers should be walking with God as we teach, but also that God is good to us, that He is continually teaching us and leading us, that we too need to be humble to receive His teaching.

And this is perhaps what I find so crucial about Bible study: As long as we teachers are supposed to be guiding our own students in biblical truth, it's vitally important that we are learning truth of our own from each other, that we are encouraging each other to walk with Christ and to live in Him day-to-day. At Bible study, we have the chance to offer each other prayers and encouragement and so contribute to each other's ministry across Prague. A few weeks ago, we studied the spiritual gifts (something I haven't done since junior high), and this is what we took away from that study: Whatever our personal gift happens to be, the most important thing is this: that we love each other as Christ - a genuine, unconditional, active love.

Perhaps this love will be expressed as we eat together and talk together and pray together in Bible study. Perhaps it will be expressed in other ways: This Saturday, for instance, we are holding a bridal shower for my friend Kate, who'll be getting married in July this year. Either way, the point is that we continually reach out to each other, lifting each other up in thoughts and kind, Christlike words and actions.

I've noticed that I tend to create "Notes on Czech" based on what I actually have photos of. Given my busy schedule, I don't really have time to go out and take extra photos. So this week I have pictures of parks, and you get a note on "Parks in Prague".

I arrived in January to a frozen tundra, and now, the leaves and flowers are coming out on all the trees. It's absolutely gorgeous here. I was also told when I first arrived that Prague is known for mini-parks all over the city; Jill Dagan pointed me towards a mini-park just around the corner from their house. It's a common experience to simply stumble across a large park on a walk from Point A to Point B. Near the school, there's a park with a fantastic view of the city and the castle. Go there on a warm day, and you'll see Czech people sprawled across the lawn munching on a snack, drinking beer, or simply soaking in the sun (sometimes they're making out too, in which case you simply hurry the other way).

In the city, there are intentional parks, parks that are planned and part of the city's national heritage. Around the castle there are a number of parks that are opening for the spring, and offering gorgeous views of the city:

I love how you can see the castle in the background here:

Sometimes, you simply 'happen upon' the park. It's a park without a name, a tiny patch of green and trees and leaves tucked away into a busy corner of the city. This park is a little corner between a busy street right of Malostranska, down in the hubbub of the tourist section of the city. Along the benches you see echte Czech sitting and enjoying the day, and tourists munching on corn-on-the-cob from the local food stand:

A well-known park near my house is "Letensky Sady' (I think 'sady' means 'park'). One warm day in March, I took a long walk there with my camera; about halfway through, I took off my coat and stuffed it into my bag and trekked along in just a sweatshirt. As you can see, Letensky Sady is up above the level of Prague and offers gorgeous views of the city below. I love the colours in this photo:

Last Sunday evening, I took a walk down in the "Little Town" and happened upon this park. It's tucked away between a restaurant and a tourist store selling tableclothes and postcards. The park dates back to the 1200s, when local monks started an orchard there; today, the trees there are the descendants of those orchard trees, and large peacocks inhabit the park. I unfortunately did not have my camera with me that day, so no pictures of the peacocks . . . yet. I'm planning a return.