Saturday, June 25, 2011

Generally, I steer clear of purely theoretical subjects in my post. Perhaps because I am leaving Europe in the next four days, though, the theoretical has suddenly become practical: How do I make sense of the six months spent here, in terms of God's larger plan for my life? For that matter, how does anyone make sense of God's will for their lives, looking at short-term assignments - assignments such as temporary jobs, trips and studies abroad, or missions?

I want to clarify what the question is, deal with a commonly wrong way to answer this question, and in exchange, suggest a possible answer. Please feel free to chip in with your own answer: More than anything, I am exploring the question in this post, not offering a definitive and exclusive response to it.

The Question
Here's what I mean by 'making sense' of short-term assignments. Although it's common knowledge that people need some kind of meaning for their lives, this need seems both more intense and harder to satisfy for short-term experiences.

Harder to satisfy, because a few brief months does not allow time for visible evidence of meaning to build up. Although career missionaries point to years of service on the field, short-term missionaries have it more difficult. Much as I enjoyed my time, I remember a few students befriended, some 'deeper' spiritual conversations that perhaps involved Dante or some future post-high school plans; twenty weeks of Bible study. That's all. As with any short experience, there is no large buildup of concrete, visible evidence to signify meaning.

More intense, because we who travel or do missions or other short-term assignments are moving on to something else: It's important to know that a few months teaching at a small school was a good choice, that spending a year at an unexciting job achieves more than just keeping the electricity on, that a summer in Spain does more than give us an appreciation for gelato. Lacking clear long-term evidence of meaning, we also lack a sense of purpose in short-term assignments.

A Bad Answer

Ok, so not all bad. But the most common answer is also an incomplete one. Primarily, we American Christians tend to anticipate that the meaning of short-term assignments will be visibly revealed in the weeks and months and years to come after the experience itself ends.

Here are a few possible examples, the way the question is raised and the common but incomplete answer:

Question: Why did I spend six months teaching in Europe?
Answer: Perhaps in the future, I will take students of my own over here and push them to teach in Europe.

Question: Why did you get that humanities major in college, when you're in the military now?
Answer: Probably because you will teach that subject in the future.

Question: Why did you spend a summer studying abroad?
Answer: Maybe you will meet someone from that country, and use the language and culture to share Christ with them.

Whatever the scenario, we believers are continually trying to pinpoint a specific event or situation in which our previous short-term experience bears visible fruit and thus proves itself meaningful.

Perhaps an analogy is a better way to think of this exercise: In many ways, the imagined Christian life is like climbing a mountain. Perhaps we cross a stream. Perhaps we turn left, then in five minutes, right again. All of this turning is quite confusing at the moment. But then we reach the top of the mountain, look down: Lo and behold, the left turn protected us from a rock slide; the right turn advanced us five yards further up the hill. And suddenly it all makes sense.

Like climbing a mountain, we believers expect to 'look down' at the previous weeks and months and years of our lives and have them make sense; we want to articulate how each turning of life actually helps us. Thing is, we never reach the top of the mountain in this life. Ever. And because we are still 'climbing' metaphorically, some of those metaphoric turnings never do make sense to us.

The Answer

Perhaps the best answer to this problem is to throw out the 'mountain' mentality, to stop hunting for scenarios in which short-term experiences take on new meaning, stop trying to clearly articulate the purpose of certain brief moments in life.

Imagine a quiet stroll through the mountains. At times, the peak is visible; other times it disappears again. Maybe you walk up a hill towards the treetops; five minutes later, you're headed down again towards a stream and a patch of orange flowers. No one stop on the way leads into the other or has any visible purpose, so to speak: In other words, the orange flowers do not make a glimpse of the mountain possible. Had we turned back down the path without seeing the mountain, the flowers would still be just as beautiful.

Like this mountain path, the experiences of life are meaningful as we are in them, experiencing them now. Just as the orange flowers can be enjoyed without seeing the mountain top, so we can enjoy short experiences without knowing what they lead to, what comes next, whether they make any subsequent experience possible.

My own six months here have been immensely enjoyable, profitable for me and (I hope and pray) for those around me. My friends have taken on jobs, done graduate study, done summer trips that never clearly led into anything else, but each of these experiences - job or study or trip - was itself meaningful while they were in it.

It is not in some future happenstance or concrete, visible event that God works. He works in the immediate present in us, and it is that immediate present, detached and invisible from both past and future, that He invests life with meaning.

Eventually, every brief experience and also the great entirely of life itself, will take on a clear and articulate meaning. Paul assures us that "we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord" (II Cor. 3.18). Those words 'being transformed' suggest a continual, never-ending work: In other words, every momentary experience, every day, even every breath we draw takes us believers a step nearer the place where we see and
are seen in Christ's own image.

Until that time, though, it is our responsibility to live in the present and to draw meaning from the present workings of God.

Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
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.

~ T.S. Eliot, 'The Four Quartets'

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My next post, I think, will center on something deep. Something mysterious. Something philosophical. Probably something like the will of God. Are you ready?

Actually, I'm not quite ready to pry open that can of worms (almost, but not quite). Let's stick to something more basic for today: the faces of the Christian International School of Prague - the faces of people that have taught me so much in my six months year, people that I hope I have taught as well, people that I will miss next year.

Faces of Students

Unfortunately, I don't have photos of every single student. Here are a few of the photos I do have:

My students Amy and Jessica B. Amy rocked her To Kill a Mockingbird project (Amy, are you reading this?), and Jessica B appreciated The Great Gatsby. What more could I ask for as a teacher?

My student Jessica D, headed off for a Stateside university in the fall. What stood out to me most of all about Jessica D (as about some of my other students) was her sweet, caring spirit - always inquiring after her fellow students and even her teachers, encouraging and supporting them in whatever they do.

Hope and Valerie, who remind us to have fun.

Wendy, one of my 11th grade girls (or possibly a friend of hers). This photo reminds me of one of the most important lessons I've learned this semester:

What we as human beings, whether teachers or students or neither, need most of all is not brilliance. It is not spiritual sermons or chapel messages. It is not wise advice. It is love: the love of God, consistently demonstrated in His body.

Faces of Staff

Again, I don't have pictures of every single staff person. Nor do I have room on this blog for the photos I do have. Here is what I will remember from the staff:

Work hard. Minia agonizes over the tests that she creates, checking and rechecking them to make sure they suit what the students have been learning, that they're worded in the least confusing way possible.

(I just know someone is going to ask: No, Minia is not Muslim. It was really windy when I took this picture, so the scarf is to reduce wind.)

Play hard. (Yes, I know that I'm using slang. It just happens that the slang goes along with the pictures.) Sport a face just like Melanie's:

Enjoy just being with people. Probably all of you readers know someone who you can just sit with, someone you don't have to talk to every single moment that you're together. Kate S is like that: She's great at just stepping up and being encouraging without saying a word.

Read God's word together. After a while, friendships bottom out and encouraging, affirmative talk sounds like a Hallmark Card unless it is rooted in the truths of God's word.

Concluding Thoughts

As I get ready to return to the States (only 13 days! sniff, sniff!), I've remembered that all too often, American Christian relationships tend to center on doing stuff: Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening service, a few service projects, a Sunday school, a community service activity, and the list goes on.

All these things are well and good, but six months hanging with the students and teachers at CISP has given me a different angle on the American vision: What is most important is not the service project, not the special midweek service, not the choir performance. What is truly most important is that we spend time with God and with each other, not necessarily doing anything; that we affirm each other and speak God's truth into each others' lives.

This is what it means to be the body of Christ.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

This week has been one of ending.

The End of Spirit Week
Spirit Week began with the science show and included a formal dress day, a sports day, and a dress-as-a-CISP teacher day. But on Friday, Spirit week went out with a bang (not a whisper): an all-out Seventies day, with dress and music to match.

I glanced in my closet that morning and found neither bellbottom jeans nor a paisley top, so I turned up in a 2010 pink polo with my camera and compensated in other ways. My 11th and 12th graders got to listen to the only 1970s music I'm actually familiar with: John Denver. Later, there was a 1970s party and choir performance: nothing elaborate, just some music on a CD player; a few songs from our choir. I (still wearing my pink polo) appointed myself official photographer and captured a few images of the fun.

It's hard not to rock along to the Seventies music, and so the kids indulged their inner dancers, together:

And separate:

Even the teachers got into the spirit:

Later, they did the Hokey-Pokey. I actually joined in this one (thanks to my student Jessica, who dragged me over to the circle), but there was no one to take a picture of my feet.

Everyone enjoyed the choir performance:

Half the audience snapped along as they sang, 'I'm a Believer'.

And 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' was also wildly popular with the audience.

Perhaps embarrassingly enough, I am not acquainted with any of these songs through my parents (hence the John Denver in class). I know 'I'm a Believer' because it was continually piped through the True Value Hardware store I worked at after high school, and 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' because it was on Remember the Titans.

The End of Czech

A fellow teacher asked me, on Friday, an unusual question about my plans for leaving. Rather startled that I was leaving after six months, she asked whether anyone here at the school 'drove me away', whether I had been made to feel unwelcome. I assured her that this was not at all true.

Every day, I feel how much I will miss bits and pieces of my life here, here at school and here in Europe.

In regular life here, I will miss people-watching every morning on the Metro and the deep royal blue of the sky at 9:30 PM when I am walking home from Bible study. I will miss seeing the castle spire on my way to work in the morning and the Charles Bridge on my walks in the evening. I will miss traveling: the rich ancient ruins in every city I visit; the people (all of them wise, it seems) that I meet and with whom I stay city by city. I will miss the European chocolate.

At school, I will miss yakking with my fellow teachers after a long day or grocery shopping together after church. I will miss the regular Bible studies we have, with delicious Mexican food and conversations that go on far longer than anybody intends them to (9:30 PM is early for us). I will miss the sudden gasp from a student that tells me they just got the symbolism in The Great Gatsby, or their attempts to rabbit-trail me if class is a little dull that day. I will miss the little 4-person class I had with the 11th graders, where I sat on the table and we all drank tea.

But Not the End of God's Blessings

A friend of mine in Spain shared a story with me about two European friends of hers, both sisters: one happily married and living in San Francisco, the other finishing up her university degree a little later after a couple years of traveling through Europe. My friend pointed out that both sisters envied each other's lot, just a little; both had to learn that God blesses them independently, that whatever we have - now, in this present moment - is God's gift to us.

In Psalm 16, David reassures himself of God's promise of continual blessing: "Thou wilt shew me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore."

I'll be honest: there are times when I wonder whether I'll be able to live in the States again and be happy there. Probably there are times when you have similar thoughts. And I've learned to just live, for now with a lot of this uncertainty.

What is resolved, though, is the goodness of God. Although His goodness may not be revealed in physical blessing, He is nevertheless actively engaged in blessing His children. It is God that 'shows' us the true path of life, its true pleasures and true ways; the word 'show' is an active verb, suggesting that God is personally involved in our lives, personally caring for us rather than leaving our circumstances to chance.

Moreover, the the blessings of God are not elusive: they are 'in [his] presence and 'at [his] right hand' - convenient for the believer, already indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Wherever I go, God's Spirit is with me, and so wherever I go, the blessings of God are with me as well.

Finally, the blessing of God is permanent: they are my blessings 'forevermore' - as long as this world shall last, and into the next one. My God is continually blessing me, regardless of geographical location or temporary job.

Ever since my college days, this Psalm has been a favourite of mine. I have a feeling it will continue to be a favourite in the weeks and months to come. I have been blessed in my six months here, physically and spiritually blessed. I will continue to be blessed as I return to Iowa this fall.

The sense of continual, unchanging blessing is captured earlier in the Psalm. There, David points out that '[t]he lines [as in boundary lines] are fallen to me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage'.

In other words, wherever God has chosen to set the boundaries of our life is good. For me, what this means is that whether my boundaries are in the Midwest or in Europe, it is good. Perhaps for you, if your boundaries are in the Middle East or Middle America or the American South, it is still good. If those boundaries are working your 'dream job' or asking people about fries, God is still good. If the boundaries are single or married, that is good too.

Wherever I am (or you are), whatever we are doing, God is being good to us.