Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reflections on Poverty

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1.27).
This weekend, my six Literature students are writing reflections on a recent service project we completed as a class in the downtown area. I decided to actually do some of the same work I assign my students and join them. My class completed two service projects (three students went to one; three to the other): I want to write about my girls' trip downtown to visit the Women's Life Center*, an education and mentoring program for mothers in poverty with young children.

As Women's Life focuses on long-term mentoring, my students and I traded hands-on service (such as cooking something or cleaning something) for a more formal orientation to the principles that make the center work. The director walked us through Dr. Ruby Payne's analysis of the resources needed to get out of poverty, then through the curriculum materials that clients complete with their mentors. After that, my students got to meet several of the clients for a short Q&A session on life in poverty and their time with Women's Life. Finally, they had the chance to talk with the center volunteers directly .

Tomorrow, I'll receive my students' reflections and find out what they learned and how they were changed or challenged by their visit. Till then, here is what I took away from the experience.

Americans in general and evangelicals in particular tend to approach poverty with broad, simple solutions: Get the poor off welfare. Get them jobs. If they don't want to work at a job, they don't get out of poverty. Simple as that. So widespread is this belief that the volunteers, Christian women active in their churches, confessed to this attitude when they started: the idea that the primary reason for poverty is bad decisions about jobs, family and money, that the primary fix for poverty is good decisions. Through the grace of God, the volunteers discovered that this solution was, in the words of H.L. Mencken, "clear, simple and wrong".

Personally, I felt that the visit corrected oversimplified thought about poverty (including my own) in two key ways:

Poverty is more complex than we think.
During the orientation, I asked the director about whether the clients and / or their husbands (partners) are able to find and keep work in the area. Turns out, that's a hard question to answer.

The first answer is, "Yes". My city has a relatively low unemployment rate (unfortunately, most employment is in difficult retail jobs but still - employment!), and managers will hire people that want to work.

Then the director qualified that "Yes" in detail. To someone in poverty, working a steady job takes a heavy toll on her family and on her finances. A job, of course, means that employees need to get themselves to work on a regular basis at the scheduled time. Kids spent little time with their working parents, probably less time than the kids of middle class parents. In the middle class, parents can afford to leave their children at daycare or at a neighbours' house, then pick them up at the end of the day. In poverty, that doesn't happen. Daycare is too expensive, and neighbours, the director told us, may be untrustworthy or abusive. One parent resorted to driving her kids out of the city every time she worked; they spent several nights a week at their grandparents' homes and very little time with their mom. Interestingly, jobs also take a toll on a family's finances. If parents try to pay for babysitting, that eats up money. Work uniforms may eat up money. What eats up the most money is, of course, the cost of fuel commuting to a job (or leaving the kids with family). A $7 / hour entry-level job may not make the costs of commuting feasible. In fact, one of the students in our group recently had a co-worker turn in her notice because working actually cost more money than not working.

I realize that there are readers who believe the $7 / hour jobs are not designed for parents to make a living on, or that the poor should simply go out and get higher-paying jobs. Unfortunately, the very poor do not have the education to get a better job, nor do they have the time or money to get the education. Without a job and / or daycare, they have no access to education. Without education, they have no access to a better job or daycare. Poverty, unlike people imagine it sometimes, is not a one-way route from "lazy" to "no money". For many people, it is actually a vicious self-sustaining cycle that lasts for generations.

In light of this situation, welfare looks pretty appealing. People (including politicians) react to the cycle of poverty by thinking, "Oh, those poor people! We need to give them something!!" As the director explained, however, this solution is also "clear, simple and wrong". The poor desperately need a sense of individual power and responsibility to escape the cycle: Because their circumstances have controlled them for so long, they need to know that they have some control over their circumstances in order to improve their situation. Short-term handouts are often much needed: To the woman who finds herself unexpectedly homeless, to the people whose homes were burned to the ground or swept away in Sandy, immediate handouts are a lifesaver and a sign of God's love and compassion. Yet long-term handouts rob a person of a sense of power. The director at Women's Life stressed that the center tries very hard to avoid this problem. Women are only allowed to purchase items from the store (stocked with donated baby clothes, toys and women's clothes) with Mommybucks that they earn from attending mentorship programs regularly and taking other steps to improve their situation; they cannot use real money. The point is that because the Mommybucks are earned, the women feel as though they have earned the purchase and thus feel more capable of long-term, lasting change in their lives.

Arguments both for and against welfare, both condemning and excusing those in poverty, abound in our culture (especially a few weeks ago during the recent election). My visit to Women's Life provided a healthy dose of caution against buying in completely to any one of those arguments: The situation is far more complex than political or social argument would have us believe, and we must be wary of simple solutions. A dragon does not die because insults are hurled at it.

Solving poverty is about short-term goals, not long-term ones.
In spite of the warning against simple solutions, I still expected the Women's Life volunteers to offer a well-argued solution for the situation in which the clients found themselves. After all, why bother helping if nothing is ever going to change? If we know what's wrong, can't we do something about it? I wanted to hear a clear plan outlined to solve poverty, an idea or an outline or a project to start helping anyone who lacked the resources necessary to succeed financially. I wanted to hear the women at the shelter speak of progressing out of poverty towards the middle class.

I didn't hear that.

Yes, one woman wanted her son to go to college, which seems like a fairly middle-class move to make. However, she wanted him to graduate from high school first. Another simply wanted her children to have a happy, healthy childhood, because she herself didn't: Her husband was working at a local fast food chain; she was caring for her babies, and she was the happiest she'd ever been in life. A third simply wanted to live and be around for her children well into their adulthood, because her own parents had died early. A fourth wanted a crib for her new baby.

Given the complexity of poverty and the often damaging assumptions we make about how to fix it, I think we do wrong if we approach poverty (or really, any social ill) as essentially a problem to be fixed. Sometimes, life does not need an academic solution. As a dramatic academic, this is hard for me to say: I see a problem, and I want to quantify it, describe it, analyze it, evaluate it, solve it. I want to study it. But how do you quantify the progress out of poverty when there's one woman sitting in front of you with her baby, talking about how happy she is? How do you quantify the stories that are told?

As believers, "the desire to give is blessed". Academic solutions, however, do not make good gifts. Perhaps this is partly what James meant when he warned us against wishing that people "be warm and well-fed" but doing nothing practical to help. To truly give (whether the need be financial or emotional, or the needy one be in poverty or wealth), we must put away the desire to quantify and control experience. Instead of focusing on theories, we need to focus on people: to see that individuals are indeed warm and well-fed, that that they are loved.

T.S. Eliot warned his praying readers,
"You are not here to verify / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity, Or carry report. You are here to kneel/  Where prayer has been valid."
Here, much the same warning applies. A worshiper cannot come to God as to a Theorem, expecting to "instruct himself" on the nature of the divine or "inform curiosity" about religious experience. Just so, we cannot come to social work expecting to "carry report" and publish papers or to "verify" the truth or error of claims about poverty. The best work is done when we forget the reports and verfications and theories (or at least push them to the back of our mind, to be studied later) and focus on people.

In Conclusion
Last spring, my students were assigned the short story, "A Wall of Fire Rising". In that story, a Haitian man was confronted with the reality of the social cage that his poverty placed him in: In spite of his intelligence, in spite of his ambition, the only job available to him was temp work cleaning toilets. In spite of his young son's intelligence, his son would be lucky to end up with a job in the sugar mill. Guy ends the story by stealing the mill owner's balloon, a symbol of freedom and fulfillment, and then falling (or jumping?) from the balloon to his death.

Commonly, students react to this story by condemning Guy, the Haitian. "He should have been content," they say. "He had a wife and a son." "They had sugar water and bananas to eat!" "At least he could clean toilets every now and then," they say, as if that was the fulfillment of all Guy's ambition.

Let me be clear: I am not condoning suicide in any circumstances. Yet my students' responses (and other students; a quick Google search shows that theirs is not a limited problem) lacked something: A sense of compassion or understanding for the difficulties that drove Guy to make the decisions he did. As a student this semester pointed out, an interpreter is on dangerous ground if she tries to condemn (or vindicate) Guy without having walked in his shoes; she has never had to confront his reality of a life of poverty. To recommend with ease that Guy simply "be content", from someone who has no personal experience of the challenges of poverty, is to recommend a solution which is "simple and wrong". 

T.S. Eliot writes that "As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated". In fact, recognizing complications in one's understanding of life (the 'pattern' that Eliot refers to) is in fact not only a product of growth but also a mark of it. Let me illustrate with a lighthearted example: A child who dislikes vegetables may not believe that anyone could possibly like lima beans or green peppers or tomatoes. As an adult, she may still dislike lima beans, but she will understand that other people love them because she has met people that do. The "pattern" of her life has been complicated, to a good end.

Apply that now to the literature of diversity: A child reads Guy's decision to steal the balloon and jump as inconceivable, utterly wrong. An adult may still recognize that his is the wrong decision, but because she has more experience with people in depression or people trapped by poverty or other social circumstances, she realizes how very troubling the circumstances are that led up to that decision. To put this in biblical language, St. Paul warns us that as adults we must "put away childish things" (I Cor. 13.11), among them a belief that we always have a perfect answer for a difficult problem.

Visiting Women's Life challenged me to put away simple answers. As a philosophical person myself, theories and argument are clear and important, but I was reminded that people are more important and that sometimes (not always) the theories do not matter. I hope that my students also learned that, in some way, "the world is stranger" and "the pattern more complicated" than they first believed.

*Women's Life: Not its real name; changed to protect privacy

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Ice Cream

My last post, on the balance of power in the Christian church, was philosophically heavy. My next one, on the medieval writer Lady Julian of Norwich, will also be philosophically heavy. I want to take this post to share something more lighthearted.

Last week was stressful for me: I had a run-in with a few people, taught an extra writing class, received thirty papers to grade, and sat through a few long meetings. Thursday night, I arrived home exhausted from a grading session, pulled out nice things to eat and drink, and crashed in front of the Internet for an hour.

At 9.45 someone pounded on my glass screen door. My first reaction was annoyance: I was just getting ready to move from the table to the couch for the remainder of the evening, and here I had to answer a knock at the door. My neighbour's cable guy sometimes confuses whose sliding glass door is whose and has inadvertently knocked on mine before. I imagined that I was fielding another visit from the confused cable guy and got up to send him around to the neighbours'.

My visitor was not the cable guy.

It was two close friends. They grinned at me from the  dark, their hands cupped in little tents as they leaned against the glass to see inside. I pulled back my safety bar, pulled back the blinds, unlocked the door (yes, my father taught me security) and let them in.

I then saw they carried goodies: a bag filled with three little pints of ice cream. These, they promptly unloaded on my counter and started searching for the spoons. I, on the other hand, was stunned into inaction and speechlessness: I stammered, told them to pull out the spoons they know, and started washing a few leftover dishes (a favourite recourse of mine when confused or placed in an awkward situation) while I repeatedly instructed them to help themselves to whatever items they needed out of my kitchen.

Gracious enough to ignore my confusion, they offered me my choice of ice cream pints (mint chocolate chip vs chocolate chocolate chip - what a choice!) and handed me a spoon. (At this point, my reaction was happiness!) For the next thirty minutes, we all circled about in my kitchen, digging into our respective ice cream pints and sharing the stressful stories from the last week. I shared about my week, then my two friends each took their turn venting about the various troubles and concerns that pile up at this point in the semester. When we put the ice cream, half-melted in their e pint cartons, back into the freezer, someone made tea and we kept talking as we sipped. Not until 11.15 did we look at the clock, decide that Friday was indeed a work day, and say our goodbyes.

When I was still an undergraduate student, a few friends and I met every weekend for tea: Our tea sessions served much the same purpose. We met late at night, brewed tea in electric hot pots, and sat on the hard floor to talk about what had been troubling us and what had been going well. Neither a Haagen-Dazs session nor a tea session actually solved the problems, but ice cream and tea, and particularly friends, absolutely make troubles more bearable.

I think there are two aspects of these experiences that makes them so refreshing (Yep, analysis. I'm an English teacher. I do this.) It's important, first of all, to have someone who will simply listen to your problems - listen, plus nothing. In Christian circles especially, conversation partners sometimes want to say something and not just listen: Perhaps they want to fix your problems, or perhaps they want to help you see the silver lining and be content about your problems. Trouble is, stressed-out people are often not immediately ready to fix their problems or even reach contentment. What stress needs, first of all, is an emotional outlet. Think of stress like electricity: While electricity should be controlled and managed so it can be productive, it needs to be made safe first. Long before the light bulb was created and used regularly, electricity was discovered, made safe and studied by scientists. Problems are like that: Eventually we'll reach a solution and (or?) contentment with that stress, but before that happens, we need to find an outlet for the stress. I have been and am still grateful for the people in my life who've volunteered to be an outlet for my stress, and I try to be an outlet for theirs as well.

It's also important to have people who will encourage and build you up. I think sometimes we formalize "encouragement" too much. Perhaps it's an American thing: We have special "Secret Sister" events around the holidays, meals and gatherings with our church or employer, mentor relationships made through the church or another organization that meet regularly, at least once a week. All of these events are good, but not all encouragement needs to happen through an event. My half-pint of ice cream and four listening ears (two friends) were very encouraging. A colleague at work received an anonymous gift of chocolate, and that also was encouraging. Even the Apostle Paul depended on seemingly-insignificant encouragement: Luke kept him company in Rome, and Timothy brought him a coat towards the end of his imprisonment. Encouragement doesn't need to be a grand, organized event. Sometimes a coat, or a dish of ice cream, or a cup of tea, will do the trick quite nicely.

Liquid Encouragement. Drink with abandon.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Looking back at the blog, I realize that it's been a month since I posted last. Whoops.

My second year teaching at my current location has, in many ways, been busier than my first: I know my job responsibilities now and so I'm working on both short-term and long(er)-term projects at the same time; I'm spending more time tweaking my projects and grading carefully than last year, where I spent some nights scrabbling to stay up with lesson planning. What this means is that I've had less time for blogging. Last week, however, was rich with thought-provoking material begging for a blog post.

Realization: At the heart of most of the world's religions (including Christianity) is the search for power. As in Lord of the Rings, men and women desire power above all else, and they have learned to exploit beliefs about moral behaviour and about the after life to supply this power.

Consider the biblical example of Simon the Sorcerer: Paul showed up casting out demons, and Simon tried to buy, with great sums of money, what he thought were Paul's professional secrets. It's easy to misread this gesture as Simon thinking that casting out demons is 'cool' or Simon misunderstanding the gospel. In fact, the gesture is somewhat more manipulative: To command the spirits was, at least in that day, to command people as well. The visible displays over power over unseen elements likely would have sealed Simon's political control of the island. To Simon, religious practice was simply a doorway to unimaginable power.

Besides Simon, countless other religious people have confused faith with a power source. Kings claimed to be gods in order to secure the people's loyalty: It is easier to die in a war that you believe is for your god than simply a quest to gain a few more acres of land. Ancient priests, including those in Egypt and South America, held the power of life or death over their citizens; they could spare them or sacrifice them with a word. In The Prince of Egypt, the Pharaoh's priests sing of the power they hold over Moses and the power they (think they) hold over Moses's God. Medieval Catholic priests pulled all the strings of most of Europe's governments, and not until the Renaissance did the kings finally start to break free of this control. Especially in a poverty-stricken feudal system, the priesthood was one of the few tickets to wealth and comfort, and the influence that comes with lots of money.

Mixing religion with power is not, of course, something that died out with the Knights Templar. There are, of course, the more egregious examples: Jim Jones, fundamentalist Mormon sects repressing women, extreme Independent Fundamental Baptist churches demanding a long list of strange moral and social responsibilities from its members. In each case, religious power is simply a method by which the leader bends the people to his own will and so secures from them whatever he desires. Yet the thirst for power runs deep, and other less obvious examples abound. In some circles, believers share "messages from God" with specific brothers or sisters: While well-intentioned, the divine intervention gives the messenger a certain prophetic power over the recipient. In other circles, worshipers suggest that to walk with God and believe His promises of happiness is to take the first step out of hardship towards wealth and comfort. A conservative variant of this belief suggests that God may punish his children physically for some egregious sin (a car crash, for instance), and so good behaviour and religious practice becomes not a matter of loving Christ but of taking control of life, at least in some degree.

Yet the faith authored by Christ is not a faith of taking power; it is a faith of giving power. Luke 5 records that "the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick". Yes, Christ had all the power of God. This power, however, was not used as the Pharisees used theirs: to demand honour and respect, to control the behaviour of those around them. Instead, the power of Christ was used to give power to others, in this case by restoring the sick beyond hope to a normal and fulfilling life. Indeed, the New Covenant itself is about the distribution of power: Whereas the Old Covenant kept men restricted under law (as a child, in Paul's analogy, is kept restricted under a tutor, the New Covenant removed the law and gave men the power to make their own decisions and hopefully the power to act for good, as an adult has power to do much good by virtue of making their own decisions. Even in His death Christ gave power to others: He who could have called down ten thousand angels gave human beings power, in order that they may kill him and salvation be accomplished.

A speaker at the college where I teach recently pointed out that the Christian God is not a glory-taker but a glory-giver: I would add that our God is also a power-giver. I see two possible applications from this fact. First, we who follow Christ must be on our guard against forms of our religion that seize power in any way whatsoever. Any form of religion that is about control is not derived from Christ; it is dangerous and must be avoided or at least reformed. Second and more importantly, we who follow Christ should also follow him in giving power to other people, of enabling them to live richer and fuller lives. To give other people power does not, of course, mean to agree meekly with others' opinions and to go along with all their ideas. I think it was C.S. Lewis who once pointed out that it is more polite to have and express an opinion about an activity than to submit, martyr-like, to an activity that you do not like; he suggested that such politeness inevitably ends with a whole bunch of people doing something that no one really likes.

Yes, to surrender the power of choice to people around us is to imitate Christ, but that is not the only way to do so. Indeed, there are many ways to grant power to others. Consider secrets: To tell someone a secret, something about our spiritual walk or our struggles or our frustrations, is to grant them power over us. Yet sharing secrets is essential for our psychological and our spiritual well-being. So, we take a step towards godliness and give a trustworthy soul this power over us. Consider too how we enable other people: Even in situations that do not involve power struggles we may still be Christlike by helping people live a better life. As a teacher, when I present my lessons in a way that enables my students to master the material and (hopefully) develop into clear, loving communicators, I am enabling them to live a more complete, Christian life and thus I am being Christlike in my job. An administrator that frees up his employees to make their own decisions (and then stand or fall by those decisions) is a Christlike step. A parent that lets her children assume responsibility for their own actions is also taking a Christlike step. In short, wherever we can resist the allure of having power and instead responsibly give that power to others, whether power over ourselves or over life decisions, we are behaving in a Christlike manner.

As Christ gave the ancient Jews certain powers, so He also gives us the power to know Him and walk with Him and live righteously in a way that we could never do on our own. It is a good step in us to grant such power, of similar kind though not degree, to others.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, argues that TV shows are detrimental because they weaken people's ability to handle extended analytical thought. Instead, TV shows supply the viewer with all necessary background knowledge about the story line and characters and so convince the viewer, at least subconsciously, that no prerequisite knowledge or extended period of learning is necessary for real education.

It occurred to me today that a second fault can be laid at the doors of TV shows: They convince the viewer, at least subconsciously, that failure (or at least long-term, extended failure) is impossible. Even being wrong is a rare occurrence, at least according to television shows. This is not healthy assumption.

Please don't get me wrong: I don't intend to give up TV (or at least rewatching old shows on DVD, which is about all I ever do). I would be lost without Stargate: Atlantis or Firefly (my newest discovery!) to help me unwind in the evenings, especially after stressful days like the one I just had today (in about 30 minutes, I'm going to finish this post and watch Firefly.) But it's still important to recognize the faulty assumptions that TV shows coax their viewers to accept and guard against these assumptions.

Just as TV shows write episodes to stand alone for the viewer, so they also write episodes to wrap up quickly. Most shows introduce, build and then resolve tension in the space of an episode or two. Even the shows that have ongoing story arcs are segmented into small, stand-alone stories. Take the first season of Stargate: Atlantis for an example: While the entire season deals with a group of people stranded in space and unable to return to earth, there are a number of small and quickly-resolved stories within that season: the military takeover of their city, the bad dreams of one of their crew members, an unexpected encounter with a particularly vicious enemy. Each of these is resolved quickly. The main characters are successful within an hour. Even if the characters are momentarily unsuccessful, they swing back to being successful almost immediately: far more quickly than in real life.

Moreover, the individual stories of each episode are usually resolved with little or no harm to the actual characters. Star Trek's "Redshirt" term proves this: It is the unnamed and unimportant crew member (not an officer) who dies, never one of the major crew members. Obviously, killing off unnamed crew members was a much more viable choice for the show writers than killing off (and replacing) major characters. Game of Thrones is perhaps the only TV show (and book) that regularly kills off favourite characters. The main characters have their adventure, watch the unimportant Redshirt die, and then head off to live long and prosper.

In other words, the main characters are always successful nearly immediately and are rarely injured or hurt in the process. Even their guesses or solutions to the problem are usually right, even if they take all of ten minutes to hit on the correct solution to the problem.

In TV, this works fine. In real life, this is wildly unrealistic and harmful if we don't realize that TV unconsciously sells us the assumption that all our problems will be wrapped up neatly and successful in a very short time.

In fact, most of our conflicts will not be resolved in the space of 45 minutes, let alone the space of 45 days. Some conflicts will last years. Individual success is never guaranteed, and huge swaths of the Bible are devoted to helping believers to approach failure with the right mindset. In Psalm 73, the author writes that there is no point in all his righteous behaviour: The wicked are successful, and he is not. The Bible is not TV.

Nor is real life. Take me, for an example: I am starting my fifth year teaching (including graduate school). The last two weeks have been perhaps the most frustrating and disappointing start to a semester in all of the last five years. I have revised my plans already, not ten days into the semester. According to TV, I should be sailing off towards the horizon (or warping off towards it, given the examples I've used in this blog post). Five years in, I should be smooth sailing. At the very least, I should see the conflicts that have appeared so quickly in the last ten days disappear equally quickly. Neither one is going to happen. This will probably be a hard semester. I hope to resolve some of the conflicts, but I have little hope that they will all satisfactorily resolve, as if they had never existed. With some students my efforts to resolve conflict and teach material effectively will be, always, completely unsuccessful.

This is why TV is dangerous: Were I inclined to believe the TV, I would feel even more disappointed and even more like a failure than I already do. Since I don't believe the TV, I recognize that the feelings will pass and I go read Psalm 73 again. Even when the world is falling apart, there is still eternity to look forward to. My conflicts may not resolve in the sweet, nicely-packaged 45 minutes that I wish they would, but they will be resolved in eternity, and I know the God who is in control of eternity.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go numb my frustration by watching Firefly. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Camp Post

Last night, I noticed that I haven't posted in five weeks. Oops.

So, here is the long-expected English camp post that you've been waiting for, and waiting for, and waiting for. (About the last five weeks: I went home to photograph a dear friend's wedding, and my parents replaced the upstairs carpet while I slept in the basement below. And so, as Hamlet said, let "the rest be silence"!)

Generally I don't enjoy summer camp. I like having regular time alone during the day; I like to get to sleep at a decent hour, in my own quiet room; I dislike silly songs and games; I eat a lot of salads. Camp is not kind to people with these preferences. Like something my mother would say, though, these preferences meant that camp was good for me.

And it was. I did in fact eat a lot of meat and potatoes (and no salad) for a full week; I played (and watched) a bunch of silly games; instead of going to bed in a quiet room, I lay there and listened to the floor above me creak and squeak (and read Harry Potter by flashlight while I waited for it to quiet down). And it was good for me.

In chemistry, a catalyst must be actually dropped into the solution and disappear in the chemical reaction. (I think; chemists, please correct me if I'm wrong!). A chemist cannot hope to simply set a catalyst on a shelf and preserve it, and still complete the reaction. Either the reaction goes, or the catalyst does, and when the reaction is complete, the catalyst is gone.

Thanks to a language barrier, my role at camp was again that of a catalyst, like the week I spent at Hradec Kralove. My Czech extended to the useful phrase, "I am cold" (used a lot that week!); my students' English, to the less-useful phrase, "Do you have pets?". So we talked about animals, and we talked about the weather, but it was much more difficult to talk about Christ in any meaningful way. I left the direct work to those who shared a language with the students and spent my time dropping myself into the solution of people at camp, so to speak, helping Czech believers forge relationships with Czech campers.

Here are a few stories:

Early in the week, we scheduled an evening dance and constructed paper masks to wear to the dance. If I am not a camp lover, I am also not a crafts lover. My decorating skills are limited to hanging pictures on the wall. Nevertheless, I took my camera and snapped some photos of the campers spread out across the floor, decorating masks; then I set the camera aside and made a few masks myself, spreading glue and glitter liberally across the masks. Come dance time, I discreetly left my mask in my room (it had little strands of glue hanging from it, and it was difficult to hold up to my face), and I discreetly left my dignity there as well. We "danced" (in other words, swayed and bounced and bobbed our heads) to everything from "We Are Young", the unofficial camp song of the week, to the "Macarena" more than 90 minutes later. I ended that evening sprawled out on my bed in extreme exhaustion.

Making masks
Crafts were a daily event that week, and so several days later I joined a clothespin-decorating workshop (Yes, you read that right)! Again, I snapped a few photos, then picked up a few clothespins myself and started daubing bright oil paints liberally across the pins. I took my clothespins out into the sun and sat there with a few Czech girls, just painting and talking a little bit as we could. I painted four or five clothespins while we sat there, in order to spend more time with people instead of sitting indoors pasting paper on the clothespins. Incidentally, the pins themselves turned out quite prettily and are on display at home now.

My entire week was like this: I joined Frisbee game after Frisbee game, sat next to Czech campers at all the meals, hiked with them, and told elephant jokes the last night of camp. My goal in telling you these stories is not to exhibit myself as an exceptional camp staffer (I'm not) but something far different: At camp, I (re)learned the value of sacrificing in order to spend time with people.

Painting clothespins
Americans are caught up in a culture of consumerism and entertainment, far more than many other places in the world (including the Czech Republic). The Olympics were punctuated with ads presumably supporting the athletes but in fact using the athletes and their performance to sell a product (Hello, Visa). Even FM radio stops programming every ten minutes or so for a series of ads. And everything seems to come packaged as "fun", including ministry opportunities for believers. Prior to my trip to the Czech Republic, I stumbled across, a website in which you "win" rice to donate to hungry people by answering knowledge questions correctly. Yesterday, a Christian organization sent me an invitation to a supper in the area as a way to support the needy around the world.

I don't want to suggest that organizations like "Freerice" or suppers to support the needy are themselves bad: If a website or the promise of food helps drum up support for the poor, then so be it. It's good to feed the poor. But something is wrong with us Americans if the only way we can be coaxed into helping the needy is through entertainment.

Christ did not mean for ministry to be done from a distance, whether from our supper table or through the chill impersonal quality of a computer game about rice. He meant us to sacrifice our personal bubble and our time in order to get "down and dirty" with the people around us; certainly He did so.

Yes, camp was difficult for me. But it was also rewarding as I developed relationships with the campers and had hope that the Czech staffers would continue these relationships long after camp ended; it was challenging as I realized how rarely in the States I bothered to crawl out of my comfort zone and how rusty some of my people skills were.

It is not necessary to go to the Czech Republic, or Africa, or Haiti, to sacrifice ourselves for other people; it is not even necessary to move to a large city. I live in a small Midwestern city, and still there is a significant underclass living here which needs people to reach out to them with supplies and with love. My goal this year is to find some way to reach out to such people. I challenge you to stop playing Freerice and do the same.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Prague: Europe Vs America

Yesterday at this time, the Chicago Passport Control stamped my passport, and I walked back into the United States. Last time I returned to the United States, I pronounced English words according to Czech pronunciation rules and was baffled by the light switches (the Czech light switches are little boxes, not actual switches). Here's what I've noticed this time. The first and the last are things I like about returning to America; the middle ones are things that frustrate me about America.

Air conditioning is wonderful.
In Europe, A/C is a rare find. In the mountains, summers are rainy and cold, so a warm blanket is more important than A/C (I spent the last week in the mountains, two blankets on my bed at night.) In the cities, summers are hot but short, and so Europeans open their windows and wear a lot of dresses. 

I, however, am a wimpy American. As Czech people turned out the lights and comfortably went to bed under huge blankets even in 80 and 90 degree weather, I stripped off the sheet, piled the comforter at the foot of the bed so it didn't even touch my toes, and sprawled out in an attempt to be cool. It didn't work that well. I moved lower in the house where I stayed, from the top floor to the first floor and finally to the basement. 

Then yesterday, I arrived home in the middle of a 90-degree heatwave. My home was warm and directly in the sun, not shaded by any trees. And I turned on the A/C and slept off some jet lag in perfect cool, underneath a sheet. Yes, I am thankful for my air conditioning. 

Americans are big.
And I'm not talking about weight. 

My last day in the Czech Republic, I traveled from a tiny skiing village in the northeastern tip all the way to Prague, crossing more than 2/3 of the country, in approximately 3 hours. During that time, I passed through one large town (Pardubice) and at least three smaller towns (at least 10,000 inhabitants). I also crossed two rivers and went through a small mountain range. 

The next day, I landed in the States. Like my trip to Prague, my trip home from the airport also took three hours. But instead of passing through several towns, across two rivers, and through a mountain range, I passed through cornfields. And more cornfields. And more cornfields. And an occasional podunk town of 500 people. Woot.

The same holds true with the cities. My town in the US has perhaps 50,000 inhabitants; by car, it takes 20-30 minutes to cross, depending on traffic. In Europe, it takes 20-30 minutes to cross a city of 100,000 people. With all the space we have in this country, we build out not up: Few buildings (especially houses) are more than two stories high, every business and store has a lawn and a huge parking lot, and a large house holds a family of two or three. In Europe, they put their cities on a diet. American space just looks large to me, now that I'm back.

Americans love their little comforts.
Last night, I walked into my apartment and immediately noticed how soft and squishy the carpet was, a welcome relief after twenty hours and more of travel. The thing is, I'd never thought of my carpet as particularly nice before. If anything, my carpet is not particularly nice: Though serviceable enough, its light blue colour is bleached in a few spots, and it's short and a tad rough, not soft and downy. 

Floors in Europe, though, are considerably less luxurious. Many homes use tile or wood throughout the house. Even when there is carpet, there is rarely thick carpet or even a carpet pad: European carpets are thin and brown and quite plain: Imagine the kind of carpet you'd find in a city county office or a library from the early 70s, take away the pad underneath the carpet, and voila! You have just imagined a European carpet.

Amazingly (or not; sarcasm alert), Europeans live happy and fulfilled lives without thick, soft carpet. Even I didn't notice the difference in carpet until I returned last night. I think the carpet is just part of a larger feature of American culture: We Americans go out of our way whenever we can to make ourselves more excessively comfortable. Europeans like to be comfortable too, but the "comfort bar" is set a little lower there, perhaps because they, unlike us, have people still living from the wars and from the Communist era who know what it means to be truly uncomfortable and unhappy. Hint: It's not thin carpet.

Americans are loud.
What I wanted most when I left the airport yesterday was a big dish of ice cream: I'd been suffering from a sore throat the entire ride home, with water and juice hard to come by unless the stewardess showed up, and ice cream is so delicious on a sore throat. 

So, we stopped at the first oasis on the toll road and toodled inside to the local Baskin Robbins. I stood up at the glass case and contemplated the 31 flavours (peanut butter ice cream? chocolate? vanilla?). Then out of the blue, a man beside me bawled something to his girlfriend. He was standing close enough that I and his girlfriend could have heard a loud whisper, but his near-yell startled me and probably half the oasis as well. Today, I walked into the mall with two guys fifty feet behind me. In tones that carried across half the parking lot, they assured each other how hungry they were and how they had skipped breakfast this morning. 

Europeans are more likely, though not always, to adjust their voice for whoever is around them. (There are exceptions: Sports and music are two of them.) In the Metro, for instance, it would be impossible to make out someone's conversation from opposite sides of the same car, let alone from fifty feet away. Europeans believe that Americans are "loud"; it's one of the first stereotypes that they list. It's true. We are. 

Don't take English for granted.
About a week before I left the Czech Republic, I had to travel by train to a town two hours from Prague. My train was delayed, and then at the very first stop, every traveler got booted off the train for what was (to me) an incomprehensible reason: The conductor came on and spoke some Czech, and the only two words I recognized were "bus" and "stop". Everyone got off, and so I followed them off and then . . . stood in the middle of a train station with an overstuffed backpack at my feet, like a lost puppy. 

I tried to ask about a new train, but the ticket lady spoke no English and no German, and I spoke no Czech. We spoke our native language s l o w l y. We gestured at each other. We wrote stuff down. We cupped our hands behind our ears. We tried one-word sentences. I finally got a new ticket and information on when the next train left, but I have a feeling I didn't need the  new ticket. And I still don't know why the train stopped in the first place. 

When I arrived in America yesterday, I changed out my Czech crowns: The woman behind the counter spoke perfect English; there was no guessing. I stopped and picked up water at McDonalds. Again, perfect English. Great communication. It was wonderful. 

The fact that the people around you speak the same language is a beautiful thing: Enjoy it! 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Prague Week 4: Paris

Paris is always a good idea. ~ Sabrina
France had never been high on my priority list of European countries to visit: I reached Rome and London long before I even decided to go to France. Returning this summer, though, I wanted to visit someplace new and was inspired to see the City of Light. So, I arranged for lodging with a friend of a friend, bought a plane ticket from Prague to Paris and ordered a handy Rick Steves travel book. 

From the top of the Eiffel Tower, the city stretches almost as far as the eye can see, radiating outwards in all directions. Had I spent a month there, I would still be discovering new things about the city. I had three days. So, I made the most of it and saw as much as I could. Here is what I discovered:

The Effects of History
Probably I learned in high school that Paris was originally a tribal city, then conquered by the Romans. I forgot this, however, and so it was a surprise to me to reach Paris and continually discover Roman ruins tucked away in the museums. In one of the churches (St Pierre de Montmartre), Roman columns are used to support the structure. Near the Latin Quarter, an entire museum is built around an old Roman bath, its ceilings stretching upwards nearly two stories. Perhaps most interesting, Notre Dame sits atop a crypt with ruins from the Roman period, from the medieval period and even from the 1700 and 1800s. Ruins were mixed into ruins: Unlike today, the builders did not completely sweep away the old buildings but instead built on top of old ruins and sometimes simply used the old ruins in the new building. 
St Pierre-Montmartre
This mixture of ruins, spanning more than two thousand years, suggested visibly the integration of history. Today, divided from the past except as we encounter it in museums, we like to think that we are independent of history; we are less racist and more democratic than our ancestors and are free from their old sins. But the ruins of Paris suggest that it is perhaps more difficult to shake off the influence of our ancestors. The Parisian buildings were, quite literally, influenced by the buildings and decisions of past years: The avenue to the old Notre Dame church became a hospital and then a tourist attraction; the Roman baths became a medieval cellar, and so one age influenced the next. In the same way, the Parisians themselves, like anyone else, were shaped by the people who lived before them: We do not live in isolation, as a series of individual houses built on clean new ground, but in the great city of history, one house built on top of and influenced by the one in the age before it. 
A Roman bath; the street to Notre Dame once led on top of the bath.
The history of Paris also taught another lesson. Among the tourist attractions I visited, the Conciergerie was a surprisingly interesting one. I visited this prison simply because it was open, and the church next door which I had intended to see was closed for lunch. The Conciergerie began life as a medieval palace for the French kings; it was transformed into a holding cell for political prisoners, including Marie Antoinette, on their way to the guillotine; it finally oversaw the fall of Robespierre himself. Probably the French kings thought they were invincible in the splendour of their palace. The French Revolution leaders probably thought they were equally invincible, having toppled the monarchy and established a new government. Then they started killing each other, and a few years later, Napoleon came along. If the Conciergerie demonstrates anything, it is this: What we do in this world is temporary; very few human actions endure for all the ages.
Conciergerie; the old dining room of French nobility
Even what does endure for the ages is sometimes of no significance at all. Among the collection in the Louvre are ancient cuneiform tablets from Sumeria and Babylon. Some of these are important: the tablet that is the oldest announces a military victory. Some, however, are utterly unimportant: they give orders for managing the city latrines. The Roman ruins are also unimportant. A "Roman ruin" sounds exotic and fascinating, until you realize that what you're looking at is essentially a Roman toilet. Imagine a historian coming a thousand years from now and discovering our civilization. Although we might expect our technological advances (computers and tablets) and our drive for charity to be highlighted in museums and history textbooks, future generations would be just as likely to showcase the porcelain toilet in your bathroom or your grocery list. 

The hole is a Roman toilet.

Cuneiform tablets giving directions about the latrines
Art in Paris

I am not an art museum person. Some people can spend an entire day in an art museum, wandering slowly from painting to painting and feeling the emotional rush with each new artwork. This is not me. Excessive artwork is, to me, redundant: Hey, look! Another painting! And another! And another! And . . . 

So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Paris's great art museums, the Orsay and the Louvre. If I were to describe everything for you, I would sound like a bad art history professor. So, I'll just touch on one item that I particularly enjoyed: the Oriental art.

In the Orsay, one room was devoted to "Oriental" art: not Chinese art, but French paintings of Northern Africa and the Middle East. The painters included people such as these:
  • Gustave Guillaumet, who painted Arabs praying in the desert, surrounded by their brown peaked tents, and the mummified skeleton of a camel lost in the Sahara desert
  • Leon Belly, who painted almost exclusively Arab subjects
  • Etienne Dinet, who painted this picture of a loving Arab couple. The Internet reproduction does not do it justice; in real life, the stars sparkle. 
The "Oriental" art was interesting because it represented the changing culture of the mid-1800s. In the 1800s, Europe was taking its first steps towards becoming a global society, something it had not been since the Roman era. The paintings, all set in otherworldly places, reflected this expanding interest.

What's Next
My last project before leaving for home is English camp. I have training from July 4-July 6, then English camp from July 7-July 14. "English camp" is a popular way here in the Czech Republic to reach out to the Czechs practically, giving them a chance to improve their English and perhaps one of the few chances they ever have to hear and learn about the Bible. I then fly home early in the morning of July 15. I do not expect to have Internet (or at least not easy access) after July 4, so likely you will not hear from me until I return Stateside.

Here are a few prayer requests for my last week and a half on this side of the pond:
  • meaningful, enjoyable English camp lessons: I am in charge of teaching six lessons to lower-intermediate English camp students. I have lessons prepared, but please pray that they will run smoothly and that the students will find them interesting.
  • good relationships at camp: I am not a camp person. I love living alone, not living with a hundred people for seven days and participating in endless activities and staying up late. Although I believe in the value of English camp, I'm worried that its busy schedule and close contact with people will turn me into a grouch. Pray for patience and a little bit of quiet time in the day (also sleep. I like sleep.)
  • smooth travels: Camp is somewhere in the Czech boondocks. I leave the Czech boondocks on July 14, then take 3-4 trains back to Prague to arrive in the late afternoon right before a very early flight Stateside. Please pray that I will make all the connections smoothly and that I will not be stranded at a whistle-stop station where no one speaks English. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Prague, Week 3

This week, I returned to Prague to pitch in with the end-of-year schoolwork.

My Week
Monday, I dived back into the files. I shuffled papers around, dividing "confidential" from "non-confidential" information, and both from "completely irrelevant" information (old algebra tests, notes about kids who stayed home with sore throats). The non-confidential, relevant information went into a stack to be scanned into a computer, backed up in case of emergency or fire. The confidential and irrelevant information went into a different stack, for a permanent school employee to sort again come August (Lucky them!).

Tuesday, the files were still unfinished, but I could not muster the energy to spend the day sorting papers again (Thank you, God, that I did not grow up to be an accountant or a lawyer!) Instead, I started in on a new and exciting job: revising the school's Crisis Manual. The Crisis Manual is critical document that spells out crucial information such as how to act in case of an emergency, such as a playground injury, an earthquake or a pandemic (bird flu, anyone?). Also included in this manual was the address for the school's "safe house" (a place where the students can go if the current location of the school becomes unsafe) and how the students will get there. Until Tuesday, I didn't even realize the school had a safe house. Every time I read the words "safe house," I felt like a character prepping for action in a Bourne film.

However, the manual did not read like a Bourne film or any other kind of spy movie. It read like a manual. For me, the revising project was still interesting because it was a revising project: very similar to the kind of projects and papers I produced for two years during graduate school. I re-organized the document to make better sense, found and marked inconsistencies in the document, and plugged holes in information.

A Serious Note
Probably the most important hole I filled dealt with child abuse. As any missionary will tell you, English-language schools that offer reduced tuition fill a crucial need in the community. But missionary schools are more vulnerable to certain abuses than similar schools in the US, which are subject to greater scrutiny; in particular, such schools are more open to the physical and sexual abuse of the students. African boarding schools in particular are known for a dark history. To avoid that history, today's missionary schools take extra steps to keep their staff accountable and to keep them watching for signs of potential abuse in the students they serve.

To that end, I created a new appendix within the Crisis Manual listing some signs of potential abuse. The appendix, of course, belongs to the school, and I cannot take it out and post it on the web for all to see. But I can include here a list of signs of potential abuse. Please do not think that abuse is only sexual, or that abuse only happens outside of the church. Abuse takes many forms (including emotional abuse and neglect), and it happens inside the church as well as outside. I urge you, especially those who work with children regularly, to read through the list and keep it in mind.

My Social Life
Among the six weeks I have spent here, this has been the one in which I have caught up with old friends from last year. In the space of five or six days, I

  • joined a friend and her new husband at the park after school to talk and eat peaches
  • watched a number of old "Sherlock Holmes" TV episodes in the evenings with another friend
  • joined yet another friend for lunch on Wednesday
  • participated in a Wednesday night Bible study
  • helped a friend carry her bags to the airport on Thursday
So it's been a busy week. 

As I've caught up with old friends, I've realized that one of the things I like the most about living in a community of expatriates is the proactive nature of the relationships. In the States, people have a set group of friends, and (except for college students), can be fairly certain that this group of friends will be around for five years or more. The stability of these friendships, and their potential to grow over time, is delightful, but such stable social circles have a hard time accepting someone else into the circle. People here describe how their friends move home (to the US or the UK) and spend years trying to make friends, because the social circles of small-town life are so set that it's hard to bring in another person. People aren't trying to be unfriendly; they're just not aware of it, because they are "stuck in their ways", so to speak. 

Expats, on the other hand, know that the relationships they have will not last long, a few years at most. So, they go out of their way to guarantee that they spend extra time getting to know the people that are important to them. There is no chance, no time, for them to get stuck in their ways. 

A story from church this morning illustrates how this works. At Bible study Wednesday night, I met a woman here from Zimbabwe. I saw her again in the bus leaving church, and I went over to say hello. She was sitting with a young man (a friend of hers, not a boyfriend) from the States. We swapped locations, and he turned out to be from my home state and a graduate of my alma mater in the exact same major. We spent the next three minutes swapping stories about favourite professors and telling the Zimbabwean woman that one of the English professors there looked just a little like the professor from Back to the Future. (It's the eyebrows.) Then, we got off the bus. I have no idea when I will return to Prague, so I am unlikely to see my Zimbabwean friend anytime soon. Nor will I see the young man from my home state: He is hoping to take a job in the Middle East next year. We said goodbye and left. 

Now, three minutes on a bus in Prague 5 does not make friends or really even acquaintances. But my point is that we had those three minutes on the bus and had to take advantage of it: Ignoring someone on a bus is a waste of time in a community where people sometimes move continents from year to year. I don't think this means people (especially introverts) need to be ultra-social and talk to everyone we see, all the time. That would work horribly for me, and in fact I ended the week rather tired. But I do think it's important to take advantage of the time we have and go out of our way to form relationships. Americans tend to approach love like some kind of accident: We watch movies, at least, where the characters fall in love with as much forethought as they would fall in a pit. And sometimes we do friendships this way, too. This is something we cannot do any longer.

Next week, I am taking a personal trip. Please pray for safe weather (there's "Rain / Thunder" predicted for the day my flight leaves, which doesn't sound good, but I have my fingers crossed!) and safe lodging. I'll update you when I return.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Prague, Week 2

Last week, I was on loan to a church in Hradec Kralove.

For those of you who don't speak Czech, the town name is pronounced like this: "HRAH-dets KRAH-loe-vae". Hradec is about two hours by train from Prague, in the the northeastern part of the Czech Republic. In Hradec, I joined a local evangelical church with a city outreach. We offered English conversation classes to the local elementary schools and to the adult community, all taught by a Native English Speaker: Me.  

What I Did
Essentially, I led elementary- and middle-school children and adults (thankfully not together) in conversations that ranged in topic from pastimes and the weather (yes, really!) to reviews of American literature and Czech politics. 

Much as I enjoyed the elementary students, I am going to tell you about the adult ones (I enjoyed the adult groups more). A little background: We formed two groups (an Intermediate group and an Advanced group), and each group met three times, each time at the church. The classes were always a mixture, perhaps half believers and half unbelievers; the goal was for the unbelievers to begin to feel comfortable with the church's presence in the community and with the church members, so that they would be willing to come again in the future. Especially with the Advanced class, conversation took off and directed itself, because the "students" were confident that they knew what they wanted to talk about, and so I often found myself ditching the beautiful lesson plans I had drawn up in favour of reviewing practical terms (in the case of the Intermediate students) or simply chatting with the students.

Perhaps the best way to give you an idea of these classes is a story: My Advanced group had been discussing Czech culture and history when suddenly one of the women leans across the table towards me. Irene was a middle-aged woman with dark hair, glasses and a passionate expression; she was an English teacher in Hradec, and so her English was quite good. Completely derailing the earlier discussion, she asks, "Do you like Twilight?" Being the blunt person that I am, I replied, "No." She then went on to describe why she, in fact, liked it: She thought Twilight was good reading for teenagers because Edward and Bella had a romantic relationship in which they postponed sex, which was a good example for the teenagers in the Czech Republic. (Incidentally, Irene is not a believer and lives with her boyfriend.) I countered that Edward is a controlling, manipulative and peeping-tom boyfriend, and valuable as postponing sex is, controlling people make bad boyfriends. Another night, we discussed unusual jobs, and one of the women told us about her position at a local hospital, testing for birth defects; Irene told us about working in the States at a hotel and accidentally saying something completely inappropriate to her boss because her English was still poor at that time (Thankfully, he was an older gentleman and responded kindly). 

What made these classes, Intermediate and Advanced alike, so valuable was the way that each one was an "icebreaker": building relationships between the women of the community and the women of the church. In a way, my role in Hradec was that of a catalyst. In a chemical reaction, the catalyst itself is unimportant; the catalyst is the matchmaker who brings two people together but herself is unmarried. In Hradec, my English classes and I were only of limited inherent importance; the church did not expect the English classes to end with or even include a full gospel presentation. English was the "matchmaker" between the church and the community, a way of bringing two people (or groups of people) together in what would hopefully become a longstanding and valuable relationship. 

Where I Lived
Although the original plan was for me to stay in a hostel in Hradec, I wound up staying with the family who originally invited me to help out at their church; I also ate several meals with other members of the church. It was a week of learning to be Czech, which can be summed up with the following stories:  

Perhaps the most delicious, representative Czech meal I ate was Friday lunch. I had spent the morning at the nearby elementary school, and then my Czech guide and I swung by this woman's house for lunch. Lunch began, as is traditional, with a soup. She served a variant of chicken broth, but I have also seen lentil soup, Mexican bean soup, and spinach soup served as the first course. Each one is served with a large soup spoon in a large, shallow bowl; the remainder of the meal is not served until everyone has eaten their soup. After we finished up the chicken broth, our host brought roasted chicken and potatoes to the table; there was also a bowl with washed lettuce. The bowl of washed lettuce sat untouched while our host piled potatoes after potatoes onto our plates (thankfully fewer on mine) and added a few pieces of chicken. And still the lettuce sat there ignored. Not until the chicken was completely eaten and the potatoes vanished did people help themselves to the lettuce.

Honestly, the food was delicious: The chicken was tender and not overcooked, with a sauce of rosemary and garlic and perhaps a little onion; the potatoes, covered in the same sauce, were equally delicious. But I felt like I waddled a little bit as I left the table, after a week of eating lunches of the same size and content as that one. In many ways, the Czech Republic is still "Old World Europe" and its eating habits have not adapted to the health food kick of the Western world; it prefers beef and chicken and rabbit (Yes, I ate rabbit while I was there; it tastes like chicken) to salad and vegetables.

Perhaps the most challenging part of my Czech experience was the shower. Czech bathrooms are often not as carefully constructed as American bathrooms, with their elaborate shower heads and clear shower doors. Most Czechs also shower in the evening. I chose to keep showering in the morning, but I learned to deal with the Czech shower while I was at it. Essentially, the "shower" is a bathtub with an extendable shower hose and head attached to the faucet; there is no shower door or even shower walls. My first morning there, I decided the best way was to put my face to the one bathroom wall and my back to the bathroom floor. The result was Lake American Traveler beside the shower, one that I used up more than two towels in mopping up. After that, I put my back to the one wall and directed the shower stream in the other direction; this was usually a more effective plan.

So many more stories remain of my week there. I talked about the Roma (Gypsy) people with my hosts, talked about Stargate Atlantis with the elementary students, met many believers eager to share their testimony, and so much more. But it's almost midnight here, and so I bid you a very fond, Dobrou noc


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Prague Summer: Week 1

I trust everyone. It's the devil inside them that I don't trust. ~ The Italian Job

I was reminded of this quote on Wednesday, at a Bible study I used to attend and which I revisited. One of the women attending recalled this Oswald Chambers quote: "Our Lord never put His trust in any person. Yet He was never suspicious, never bitter, and never lost hope for anyone, because He put His trust in God first. He trusted absolutely in what God’s grace could do for others". In the Gospels, it looks like Christ trusts people: Again and again, He forgives them and releases them to the world, to their family and friends, to keep living life as the broken and sinful people that they were and still in part are. He trusts them to "be good" after meeting Him. But this is only partly true: Yes, the people who meet Christ will "be good", but they are not good because of some inherent will to change generated from their meeting with Christ. They are good because it is Christ who works in them, "both to will and to do". Christ knows this, and it is His good work that He trusts, not our imperfect righteousness. 

Essentially, this is the (ideal) attitude of the Christian educator (whether they are working at a state university or in a Christian school). An effective Christian teacher tries to give students grace in the middle of academic and personal struggles, whether that grace takes the form of make-up work or extended deadlines or even forgiveness for academic errors that the student has made. In the past, I always imagined this as me giving my students an opportunity to organize her life and meet her responsibilities: in other words, the opportunity to grow up. But hopefully, my students will do more than just "grow up"; hopefully, they will grow in Christ as well and let Him work in them. 

This is not to say, of course, that rules cannot be enforced. I do not, for instance, accept papers submitted willy-nilly at the end of the semester without explicit permission. But I do work with students who acknowledge that they're having trouble getting a paper ready to submit, and I will continue to work with them, because I expect them to grow in Christ and experience more of His grace in every trial, including the academic ones. 

It's been a busy week here in the Czech Republic. On Monday, I toodled in to school and said my hellos to people. I got a lot of double-takes from people who didn't know that I was coming. On Tuesday, I headed in again and got put to work reviewing material for the school board manual. On Wednesday, I started reorganizing the student files, and after that, on Thursday, I brought my iPod into work for more files. 

The student files are stuffed full of, in some cases, seven years worth of records; the records include everything from excused illnesses to standardized test scores. It's a big job and will likely take several more days for me to complete the student files. But the fact that the files need reorganizing is in itself good news: CISP is reorganizing the files in preparation for beginning the process of ACSI accreditation. The school has been waiting to begin ACSI accreditation for years, and in fact, they've even started down that road a few times before running into new roadblocks. Hopefully, some of these roadblocks have been cleared away, and the school can begin the process in earnest this time.

So, tomorrow morning, I'm back to "doing my bit" and organizing some more files. I'll turn up my Avatar soundtrack and wade right in.

Future Events
Next week, I'm off to Hradec Kralove for some short conversational English lessons. Please pray for smooth travel and lodging (I believe, but am not sure, that I will be staying with local believers), as well as good connections to the other people in the town.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Back in Prague

So I find words I never thought to speakIn streets I never thought I would revisitWhen I left my body on a distant shore.

In "Little Gidding," Eliot envisions a poet he considered to be his master (usually identified as W.B. Yeats) speaking to him in a Purgatorial vision from beyond the grave. I find this line rather appropriate now, though I am admittedly taking these words out of context. 

I am back in Prague, in "streets I never thought I would revisit," less than a year after I left. 

Sorry I didn't let you know sooner! I meant to write a blog post the last week in May, but with all the packing, time slipped away, and I was boarding a plane and listening to automated reminder to turn off all electronic devices. 

So, here's what happened: Last year, I somehow did not use all the money that I raised for support; more was paid into my checking account by my sending organization than I actually used. In an effort to use the money (originally given for missions) responsibly, I set it aside and planned to take a short-term trip over the summer. I looked into going to China, India and Brazil, but it worked best for me to return to Prague and volunteer here. 

I will be here for five weeks (It's going to go by so fast. Five weeks is a blink of an eye compared to the six months that I stayed last time.) During that time, I will volunteer at the school where I worked last time (various organizational and clean-up projects, I believe). Also, I will spend time teaching conversational English at a church plant about an hour from Prague. In early July, I will spend about ten days working at an English camp with the same church plant. 

Prayer requests:
  • Safe travels. I will be bouncing around the Czech Republic quite a bit, as you can tell, so please pray that I get from Point A to Point B (and sometimes Point C and Point D) without a hitch. 
  • English lessons. In the years since I've started teaching, I've come to rely heavily on knowledge of my students to tell me whether what I'm teaching is profitable, or over or under their heads. In teaching conversational English, I know the ages and approximate ability levels of my students. Please pray that what I teach will be relevant to their level, not exceedingly dull or exceedingly difficult (Knowing me, I'm more likely to accidentally teach something exceedingly difficult.)
So far, the weirdest feeling has been how familiar the city feels. My first memories of new cities (Beijing, Berlin, and Prague the first time) always include a distinctly alien element: the script-like lettering of Chinese and the unusual signs, or the brilliantly-neon flashing ads in Berlin. Entering Prague this time, I recognized words, store names and places that I had been. 

About the blog: I plan to post more while I am here; however, with all the traveling, I'm not sure how often that will actually be. So bear with me: I promise to gather more stories and pass them along to you. 

Thank you for your prayers.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Every kid, as she is growing up, complains about what she considers to be the annoying habits of her parents, vowing to do things differently "when she's all grown up and has a house of her own". 

For me, this was frequent housecleaning. You know that old saying, "Vote early, and vote often?" My mother believed in cleaning early, and cleaning often. Before we left on trips, we cleaned. After we got home from trips, we cleaned. Before family came to visit, we cleaned. After family left, we cleaned. Before we set up the Christmas tree, we cleaned. After we took the tree down, we cleaned. (True, part of the reason we cleaned so thoroughly around the tree was because we had a real one and didn't want dead needles jabbing us in our bare heels as we walked across our own living room carpet.) But still.

At first, I was completely on board with my mom's cleaning. The first time Mom asked me to clean the bathroom, I bent low and buffed water stains off the bathroom faucet. I once spent an hour and a half cleaning the kitchen floor because I kept going back to get dry spots that I might have missed. 

And then my clean streak palled. I started to wonder why we cleaned so thoroughly before grandparents visited us. After all, they were family; we didn't need to impress them. Why buff water stains off the bathroom faucet? But, right over my protests, Mom assigned more cleaning duties, and so I buffed and scrubbed and vacuumed before every major event. 

I'm grown up now, and sure enough, my place is not sparkling clean. I do clean before my own mother comes, but this mostly consists of a quick vacuum and floor scrub. In fact, my mother actually scrubbed down my kitchen on a recent visit, just because. My mom is a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to her house. I'm not. Recently, my mother pointed this difference out to me and suggested that I was less of a perfectionist than she. Her observation took me by surprise. Outwardly, I agreed outwardly. Inwardly I was thinking, "Really? Really? I've always thought of myself as a perfectionist!

And I am, just not in terms of my house. My area of perfectionism is my accomplishments. 

Last Friday, the school year officially ended for me with a series of financial meetings. I started this week with high hopes of making big strides on some projects: I was going to plan two writing classes, write the rubrics and assignment guidelines for these classes, write a blog, work on another writing project, read a book about photography, and do some research on conversational ESL classes. So far, I've written a blog (you're reading it!) and created a rough draft for two writing classes, in large part due to a kind friend who squashed my grandiose schemes for a remedial English class. Now, I'm toying with another substantial change to the other class. That's all. I've made no progress on the other goals.

As an intellectual, as a producer of thoughts and of material things, I am caught in the Charybdis of perfection. Always thinking, "I can make that just a little bit better!" I look backwards to a previous project and do not make progress forwards. 

I hem and haw about grades before submitting them, reading most papers twice and some papers three or four times to get the grade perfect. I have spent an hour typing and retyping a question for Literature class, to get the wording just so. I spent four hours on my last blog post in order to get my reviews of the books razor-sharp accurate. Even if books are piled in neat little stacks across my living room and dining room floor, and there are five pairs of shoes scattered across my entryway, I want what I produce intellectually to be just so. 

My concern is not only intellectual accomplishments, but accomplishments in general. Several Christmases ago, I made a pan of cinnamon rolls. They were beautiful: deep veins of glistening dark cinnamon criss-crossing the top, their doughy frames golden in the oven. Then, coming out of the pan, they fell to pieces and started unrolling. My family didn't mind in the slightest; they picked the pieces up, slathered them with icing, and ate them happily. I was crushed: My beautiful accomplishment, the work of my hands, was not so beautiful any longer. 

The lesson from this? Every single one of us has an area that we want to be just so. I thought my mom was a perfectionist for wanting the house perfect. Turns out, I am subject to the same character tic. To some degree, this is healthy, a valuable character trait. That well-kept house I grew up in was wonderful! Taken too far, though, the quest for perfection, however each of us pursues this quest, is dangerous. I feel tonight (a Friday night) as though I have partially wasted a week, planning and replanning two classes that could have been pulled together in a day or two had I kept my mind on my task and not indulged myself in seeing how many different ways I could rearrange the calender or the exact wording of my plagiarism statement.  

In grad school, some of my fellow students had a saying: "Better done than perfect". It's a good saying, and relevant here: At times we (I) need to let go, remember that the project is done, and move on to the next one. 

 If you'll excuse me now, I need to go work on my fourth draft of the English Comp class.