Monday, December 2, 2013

Undocumented, aka Our Brush with the Law

One of the many benefits of partnering with Educational Services International instead of teaching on an independent contract is the support and training you receive throughout the year. It was at training in July when I first heard the murmurings that the fall conference would be hosted in Turkey. Don’t let anyone tell you that being a cross-cultural worker doesn’t have its perks. 

The whole thing started off sounding just a bit too good to be true. It was a comfort saying good-bye to new friends at training because we knew we’d be seeing them again in the fall. Once in country I formulated an informal list of short-term goals, the chief of which was, “Survive until the fall conference.” Even the day before leaving I just couldn’t imagine what it would be like 1) to visit a place I had long wanted to see and 2) being in a place that wasn’t Karaganda. Despite the frequent reminders from our director that THIS WAS NOT A VACATION, I could barely contain my excitement. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it would be good.

We left straight from the language center, which meant I carried my luggage all over Yugovostock and Daryn and Centre, and the melting ice on the ground meant wet socks through the first two legs of our travels. The Karaganda airport was dark and empty when we arrived, giving it the eerie air of a bunker guarding the apocalypse, but we checked in, passed security, and boarded the plane to Almaty with no problems. An hour later we touched down in the Alma-ata, got a bite to eat (Parenthetically, goldfinch soup is chicken broth with potato starch in it. This is not delicious.), and found a bench on which to lay our heads to wait out our eight hour layover. 

This layover was pretty uneventful, except for the brief run-in I had with a resident of Shymkent who tried to converse with me through the language barrier and kept trying to touch my nose with a spit-covered finger. We parted ways when he started saying, “Money! Sex!” over and over. 

Two hours before our flight was scheduled to depart, we got in line for passport control. We each went to a different booth, and thus each had different experiences. I got yelled at by a devastatingly beautiful Russian woman, the young Kazakh officer in Bet’s line just pointed at the date on her registration card with a blank look, Teka sailed through customs no problem and waited for us past security, and David spoke with an older Kazakh woman who attempted to explain the situation with the little English she had. We stood in our booths for half an hour while our three officers made phone calls and conferred with each other. “I think there’s a mistake,” I kept saying. Apparently there was a problem with our registration card, but I remembered being registered when we arrived in August. We had five-year visas and letters of invitation, for goodness sake.

There was nothing they could do for us though. The date on our card showed it to be expired. We had overstayed our time in Kazakhstan by ten weeks. We were illegal immigrants. They put their rejection stamp on our registration cards, confiscated our boarding passes, and showed us out of the terminal. “Can we re-register? Is it possible to catch a later flight today?” we asked with some hope and desperation. “Go to the immigration office,” they told us. “You will not fly today.” The disappointment I felt was heavy. 

The team just moments after we heard, "You will not fly today."

We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. We were stranded seven hours away from home in a city we’d never visited. Our director from ESI was asleep. Our administrators at the language center (who had taken care of our registration when we arrived) were also asleep. (It was five in the morning, after all.) We weren’t sure what the penalty was for overstaying one’s visa. A fine? A night in jail? Where was the immigration office? What papers did we need? Would the migration police speak English? Should we stay in Almaty and try to get legally registered? Should we go back to Karaganda and get registered there? Should we throw in the towel on this whole Turkey trip? We had spent the whole night bumming around the Almaty airport and could not think clearly enough to resolve this issue.

Things turned a corner when David was finally able to get in touch with our administrators from the language center. They strongly recommended returning to Karaganda. If the migration police had made a mistake on our papers, it could be taken care of. So instead of boarding a flight to Istanbul, we got on a plane headed back to the very place we had just flown from. Our administrators met us at the airport, gave us some food, told us to sleep and then spent the day working magic for us. 

This was the issue:

1) It turns out our five-year visas require us to leave the country every thirty days. Because this visa is brand new (and also maybe because it says so nowhere on the visa itself), neither our administrators or ESI or anyone at all really knew that this was the case. Our administrators felt awful that they hadn’t caught this mistake when they registered us the first time, and now that we’re back from Turkey we have to get these visas voided and apply for new ones so that we don’t have to leave the country every 30 days.

2) Teka was fine. Because she’s Brazilian, her visa was different from ours, and she scored the standard one-year visa that the other ex-pat workers also have. And so at the airport she was waiting for us on the other side of security for half an hour, nervous that we had been taken into custody and she would never see us again. 

3) I wasn’t even in the database. When our administrators went to the migration police to investigate, insisting that there had been a mistake, the police had scoffed at them . . . until they went to pull up my record and saw that I was nonexistent. Considering I had a registration card with their stamp on it, that was kind of embarrassing for them. 

I don’t know what sort of voodoo magic (or bribing) was done to square things away, but once our papers were secured our administrators booked us another flight back to Almaty, and rescheduled the other two legs of our journey: the Almaty-Istanbul flight and the Istanbul-Antalya flight. 

And we thought that was that. But the three flights were spaced out over three days. We’d be arriving at the conference on Friday afternoon, when it was already halfway over and after Thanksgiving dinner. Our director thought the expense was too much, and suggested we stay in Karaganda, but when we found out that our language center was covering the cost of 1) the cancelation fees, 2) the two extra flights to and from Karaganda, 3) a place to spend the night in Almaty and Istanbul, and 4) the taxi to get there, we made the call. The Turkey trip was still on. 

I cannot even describe how indebted we are to our administrators from the language center. From 5:30 in the morning when they got our call until 10:30 in the evening when they put us on a plane back to Almaty they were working on a way to get us to our conference. They shelled out over a thousand dollars getting our flights sorted and booking us hotels, and I shudder to think what they paid in registration fees and punitive fines to make our legal problems go away. They took us to and from the airport and they gave us food to eat while we waited in our flat for a verdict. They even bought us chocolate and tea while we waited for check-in to open. We spent Thanksgiving Day in bewildering transit, but thankfulness for them was my greatest sentiment that day. Katya and Olyessa and Sergey did us a solid. 

Eight flights. Four airports. Five of our six days were spent traveling. A night in Almaty. Then a day in Karaganda. Then another (more pleasant) night in Almaty, this time in an apartment in Arbat instead of the airport. A night in Istanbul. Two nights in Antalya instead of the four originally planned. And then a night in transit through Istanbul, Almaty, and finally home sweet home in Karaganda. Never a dull moment. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Itty Bitty Bits and Bolts

When we first drove in to Karaganda in the middle of the night, I lay awake thinking about how what I had just seen of my new home was not so different from what I had left in the states. Magnum Supermarket, the variety of car brands, and the music on the radio were all reminiscent of the west. Karaganda is a modern and comfortable city, and learning the basics of life here has been only a small challenge. Now that we've been here a while, the differences are beginning to peep back out at me. Below are some comparative observations describing some small but maybe unexpected differences between how we do things in the US and how it's done here.

• Eggs come in bags. And they are not all uniformly shaped like in the US, but instead they are a variety of sizes and have farmyard junk still on them.

• The egg yolks are pale. When I make scrambled eggs the mixture is almost gray. A quick Google search tells me this is because of the chicken's diet and doesn't affect the nutritional value, so that's good, but the color takes getting used to.

• The milk is not refrigerated. Once you open it, yes, of course, you keep it in the fridge, but in the market the milk is kept next to the coolers, not in it. I guess this is okay because the milk is pasteurized?

• Spices are, for the most part, in cellophane packets, not shakers. Salt comes in a huge bag.

• Vegetable and corn oils are not very popular here. Mostly people use sunflower oil when frying things, and though I was able to find olive oil, it was kind of expensive. For the record, sunflower oil is awesome!

• They don't have lettuce here. I guess it makes sense, their soil isn't really well suited to growing it, and it's tough to import, I suppose, but "salad" here is of the mayonnaise-heavy variety.

Speaking of produce, let's talk about how freakishly large this carrot is.

• There is no real butter. Our administrator tells us there is one place in the whole city that sells 100% real butter and that it's very expensive. We only eat margarine. You can buy it either as slabs wrapped in cellophane, or branded and wrapped in foil. We get President brand, which boasts that it is 82% real butter.

• In the freezer section, they have huge bins full of frozen whatever, maybe a bin of breaded chicken patties and a bin of manti and a bin of shrimp, and you scoop however much you want into a plastic bag. You take it to a weigh station and they give you a sticker with the price. It's the same for produce and pasta.

• You have to pay for your meat at the meat counter, not at the cashier with the rest of your stuff. (This kind of grosses me out, because first the butcher weighs and bags your meat, and then he takes your money. I feel like there's cross-contamination potential.)

• In cafes, you don't order at the counter as you would in the US, but instead waitstaff comes to your table to take your order. (I don't know if this is true uniformly, because I haven't had the courage or the money to eat out often, but in each of my limited experiences so far, this has been the case. I observed this also in Europe, so maybe counter service is strictly a USA thing?)

• You aren't allowed to bring big bags into the market. They have lockers or bag checks by the door, and after you stash your bag there you can enter the market through a little gate. This appears to be very effective against preventing shoplifting. In the US I think you see this less often because our stores have more open space for easier surveillance. 

• You're not allowed to play cards in public. As it was explained to me, card games are for gambling and gambling is not allowed for children, so to prevent corrupting the youth, you can only play cards inside a designated gambling establishment. (I've seen many such places, e.g. FairPlay or Bet Club.)

• Kids are not allowed out and about after 11pm. They have a curfew.

• Kids go to school six days a week. Their only day off is Sunday. They have least have four vacations a year: three months in the summer, and then two weeks in the fall, winter, and spring. And they have to dress up for school, even public school, they wear suits (complete with ties!) and skirts and the like. 

• McDonald's isn't in Kazakhstan at all. Probably one of the few countries in the world boasting its absence. According to the internet, KZ is too big to support the supply chain logistics and freshness standards McDonald's requires. Which makes me question how there's a Burger King and a Hardee's in Astana, or how Kazakhstan's spin-off chain Mag & Duk exists. 

• At the end of a performance, people clap in unison. Instead of applause with everyone clapping with their own frequency, everyone kind of harmonizes to one beat, a little like a repeating forensic clap. We've seen two musicals at the theater here, and this has been the case both times. It's definitely a lot less tiring, but it also equips people to clap for longer, which leads to an awkward ambiguity of, "Okay, so, are we going to stop clapping now?" (But then, I harbor a healthy level of discomfort about ovations pretty much everywhere I go.)

• People infrequently type emoticons with colons, usually they just type three parenthesis marks. Like this, )))
That confused me for like two months. I thought Russian keyboards just didn't have punctuation marks.

• The government controls the heat. A vestige leftover from the Soviet era, when the weather gets cold the government flips a switch and turns on the heat district by district. There is no thermostat in any of the buildings, and often our flat is so hot that we leave our windows open. It was particularly brutal when we had a cold spell in September that made the heat come on, and then in the beginning of October it got back up into the 70's while the heat pumped on.

The courtyard behind Daryn

• People blow their noses on the ground. In a place where it's so cold all year round it stands to reason that runny noses are a common enough occurrence, and I guess it seems hygienic enough to drop that mucus on the ground, rather than carry it on a tissue in your pocket. 

• Drinking glasses here are small. I handed a "normal-sized" glass to a guest who remarked, "Whoa!" The glasses that where in our apartment when we arrived are like itty bitty doll glasses. They hold like two swallows of liquid. Even at restaurants, where they supposedly have big glasses, they're really more like medium-sized.

• It is so cheap to have a baby here, if it's not completely free. At the public hospitals it shouldn't cost you anything to have your baby, and we're told mothers are required to stay overnight after delivering. If you want to give birth at a private hospital, it can cost up to a thousand USD, which sounds like a great deal compared to the USA where it can cost between $7000 and $10000 easy.

• And speaking of things that are cheaper, higher education costs three thousand USD here, which is admittedly somewhat expensive considering Kazakh income, but many students with good grades are able to go to school on government scholarships, meaning few have to pay the ticket price. 

When I first arrived, I told a few of my students that I didn't feel as though life in Karaganda was dramatically different than back home. It's not as though we were eating tripe every day or dressing in full traditional attire. All the similarities made coping with the culture shift delightfully comparative, and I started expecting the familiar. I guess that's why now, as we settle in more, I am more attuned to these petty differences and diversions from what I am used to. It's strange to encounter the unfamiliar in a place that is beginning to feel more and more like home.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Trying to carry out the basics of modern life in a city where you don't speak the language is always a good time. Wednesday is adventure day for Bet and I. Neither of us have night classes on this day, just a class in the afternoon (she at the language center, me at Daryn), so we galavant without the couple on this day. Here are a few anecdotes from one such Wednesday.

Rainy autumn Kazakh adventure time!
One of the electrical sockets in our flat has not been kind to Bet's power adapter. After a day of wire melting it had a kind of questionable functionality and we determined it needed to be replaced. Bet asked our administrator at the language center what she should say upon entering the computer store, and our administrator did a double take. Surely we were not thinking of venturing on such an errand without a translator! The best thing to do, she advised Bet, was to take the charger (visibly frayed), point, and say, "эта проблема." I met Bet at City Mall and we entered together. Safety in numbers.

It wasn't busy inside, so we were immediately approached by a парень in an argyle sweater. Bet did as our administrator had instructed and handed him a piece of paper on which our administrator had written a question about the wire. I pointed to the right adapter in the display case, and realizing we spoke not a word of Russian, the associate whipped out a calculator and showed us the price both in tenge and USD. "I need more cash," Bet told me, and the guy looked at me expectantly. "Um . . ." I tried to remember the word for ATM. "One minute, банкомат!" We did a lap around the first floor of the mall, but couldn't spot one. I asked the lady at Ramstor's bag check, "извините, где банкомат?" And then she started giving me directions, not just a simple "there" or "to the left" or "on the second floor", but instead lots of words came out of her mouth, lots and lots of words. After we thanked her and walked away in the general direction she had pointed, Bet asked, "What did she say?" but I hadn't a clue. 

After some aimless wandering around all three floors of City Mall we located an ATM. And it was just our luck, the ATM had a big sign over it. "Do you think that applies to us?" There was only one way to find out. I guess it didn't because we withdrew cash without a problem, and were back in iPoint a few seconds later. As we waited to be rung out, the associate made small talk. "American or Canadian? Or Australian? Or German?" I don't know how he knew we weren't from the UK. "Students?" When we told him we were teachers he wanted to know where. I gestured vaguely, "Yermekov 49." There was another patron standing at the counter who clarified for me, "сорок девять." When she spoke, the associate started smirking. "She my wife!" he told us, and looped the display cabinet's key ring around his finger. "See?!" She rolled her eyes and said something to hurry the cashier (who was shaking his head) along. The cashier handed Bet a piece of paper and hesitated. He said something to the woman who turned to Bet and translated, "Signature." After Bet signed he handed the receipt to the associate who slipped it into the bag carrying the power adapter. "Good-bye!" he smiled teasingly and hid the power adapter behind his back. When the joking finally ceased, we left and Bet turned to me, "What just happened?"

I resolved in that moment to be goofy with foreigners; the best way to spare others of embarrassment is to embarrass yourself.

Picture frames for sale in ЦУМ. Someone tell Hilary Duff how beloved she still is in KZ!
We walked down the street to ЦУМ just to take a look around. I'm in need of a winter coat, so we stopped in a shop to take a look, and an ambitiously helpful clerk questioned Bet, who immediately broke the bad news of our Russian ignorance. Still, the clerk pointed at me and rattled something else off in Russian. All I heard was "понимать" and "тоже." I shook my head while affirming her statement, "да, I don't understand Russian either." This struck me as ironic, considering that for all intensive purposes I had indeed just understood what she had said. At that very moment, however, another patron of the store who appeared out of nowhere began translating. Through her were had a brief conversation about the coat I'd been looking at, she confirmed the coats were for winter, not fall. (Parenthetically, this has been super confusing for us. The coats meant for fall look like regular winter coats to me, but when I asked one of my students if the coat he was wearing was meant for winter, he laughed like I had cracked some outrageous joke. "Of course not, it is not [and he gestured to indicate a lot of missing padding, as though a winter coat ought to make him resemble the Michelin Man.]" Apparently there are coats meant specifically for winter, and you don't want to be stuck with the less warm autumn coat.)

I was astonished, as was the clerk, while this random coat store shopper made us intelligible to each other. One of Bet's students had aided her in the purchase of her coat, asking the right questions and translating when necessary, and we would have had zero shopping success without her. And here kismet provided another unrequested aid: a right place, right time, right skill set doer of good deeds. "Hey," I told her, still a little pleasantly surprised, "Thanks for translating." She nodded and walked away. I gave the shop clerk a little wave, "спасибо." She also looked a little intrigued by the convenience of what had just unfolded. I wished I could tell her, these nifty little "coincidences" happen to me every day.

Where we purchased our pumpkin.
We started heading home just as the light was beginning to fade, and when we stepped off the bus we were met with just one more adventure. The бабушек who sold produce and pickles by the bus stop had pumpkins! We spotted one that seemed right and asked, "сколько это?" Lucky for us it looked like it was etched into the pumpkin rind, 500T per 2kg. The бабушка took it away to weigh it and when she came back told us a number. All I caught was 2. "It couldn't be two thousand, that's too expensive." I passed Bet a wad of bills, neither of us had any idea how much it cost. I pulled a notebook and a pen out of my backpack, "Would you write for us?" She pointed to a bag of carrots near the pumpkin. "No, just the pumpkin." She wrote 460 on my paper and handed us our change, smiling at the relief and sense of accomplishment that spread over our faces. "пожалуйста," she nodded at us and we walked away triumphantly.

If I could issue a thank you note to each kind citizen who graciously endured our comprehension-less state, I would need to buy out a Hallmark store. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fall, rethought

I'm addicted to autumn in New England. 

One fall morning in college, walking back from clinical psych class, my friend taught me the word "petrichor," which refers to the smell of soil after rain. It's one of my favorite things about late September, how the leaves start to fall and rot into the ground, mixing with the rain and the dying grass to make petrichor, the smell that signals the changing of seasons.

It's hard to catch that smell here, being that grass is a little scarce, and there's a heck of a lot of dust, particularly in Yogovostock which is newer and less protected from the wind tearing in from the steppe by a barrier of trees. And there isn't the wide range of deep reds and brilliant oranges on the trees, but there's a delightful smear of yellow painting the trees, and when I walk under the canopy they provide on my way to school I feel so very Anne Shirley, tripping through an autumn wonderland. And it's not like New England, but it is so very fall, a fall all its own. 

The shaded sidewalk that leads to our language center.
Short-cut apple cider simmers on the stove, a handful of бабушек sell small pumpkins and winter squash outside the magazines, yellow leaves crunch underneath my boots on the way to the bus stop, and I pour some gingerbread syrup into my coffee. And of course, dang, it's cold. Scarves and sweaters and boots are not superfluous fashion accessories but actually 100% mandatory if you want to survive your walk down the wind tunnel created by the tall apartment buildings. 

And so, stripped of the things that usually endear me to this season back home, why am I still so charmed by the shortening days, the unrelenting warmth of the radiator, the mandatory dressage of beanies and gloves, the subtle shift in produce offerings, the steady ice cream consumption, and the increased presence of those medical masks on the faces of benevolent souls who are doing their part to limit the spread of the common cold? I love that fall is still fall even outside of my beloved New England, and that the city I am growing to love knows autumn in its melancholy beauty. 

My freshman year of college, I went to Boston in late October for a law school conference. (It was actually a NBLSA conference, but that's another awkward story for another time.) It was picture-perfect, Boston in the fall, catching a glimpse of the crew races on the Charles and Harvard yard in autumn adornment, squirrels packing away acorns like mad. I never dreamed that three years later I'd be across the world experiencing beautiful autumn in a country known for its frigid winters. Oh, Karaganda, thank you for this lovely season, this last parting gift before winter blows in.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A little bit about Daryn

As much as I enjoy teaching business English for upper intermediate students at our language center, what really adds spice to my week is the time I spend at the nearby Kazakh boarding school Daryn. At 13:30, while my teammates are finished up their lesson planning for their evening classes, I depart from our flat alone and grab bus number 7 (or sometimes bus number 07, which I have been assured is different) which gets me to school in just under ten minutes. Daryn is maybe 5km from our flat and situated just off the road that leads directly to Karaganda's airport.

Because it's a boarding school, it always smells like a cafeteria when I walk through the door. This smell makes my boss from the language center wrinkle her nose, but I love that many of its students live at Daryn (coincidentally, the Kazakh word for talented or gifted) because it means that I get to talk to kids from all over the country. One of my business English students tells me, "Ah, Daryn, I know this school. This is for kids who like studying." My eight graders inform me hat they hate reading and don't really care for school, either. True to smartypants stigma, though, it seems like all of my students want to be engineers or doctors when they grow up. 

On my way to the classroom I often pass a few of my students in the hall. "Teacher!" They gesture outside and look at me with begging expressions. I tell them they can play outside until class starts, but I better see them in their seats at 2:15. Faces exultant they rush outdoors. I wait outside of classroom 19, the biology room, as the cognate on the sign next to the door indicates. At 2:10 the bell rings and students rush out. This is the end of the school day, except for the poor victims of my class. I fiddle with the fancy smart board, and try to take attendance. As I try to say their names correctly, they giggle every time. 

See? You can sound it out. BEE-OL-O-GEE-YA. Cabinet is the word for classroom, I guess.
After class I sometimes walk to the bus stop with my students and they slowly teach me Kazakh. So far I have a tenuous grasp on the words for hello, good-bye, thank you, how are you, and Monday. The kids all speak Russian of course, but they think it's hilarious to listen to me stumble through the syllables, and as nationalism grows in this country so does my desire to make an effort at their language. And here I am on equal footing with my Russian students who know about as much Kazakh as I do. 

My students themselves are a total trip. The sixth grade boys love video games, particularly Minecraft and Assassin's Creed. The girls are feisty, alternatively yelling and rolling their eyes at the boys. Two of my eighth graders speak only in jokes, insisting that they are Italian and Guatemalan, and they they run a mafia within the school. Many of my students are my neighbors. If they don't live in Yogovostok in general then they live specifically within our apartment complex Tatimbeta or on the other side of our supermarket Norma. And the connections don't end there; one of the sixth grade girls is the niece of a former SBTC student who welcomed us to the country when we first arrived. We swap stories about her uncle and his girlfriend, who is a former teacher with my organization.

Through all the pizazz I enjoy from being someplace different each day, there are nevertheless some things that throw me for a loop while teaching at Daryn.

One is the level of my students. I got almost no practice teaching beginners during practicum because it was assumed I wouldn't have beginner students. So imagine my surprise when I conducted placement interviews for the sixth graders and most couldn't tell me what day it was. I count the lesson a success if the students seem to comprehend the meaning of one vocabulary word. To amplify the curse, there are a handful of students in both sixth grade classes who are much further along in their English mastery and they sit in the corner of the classroom looking bored out of their minds. I can't blame them. 

For another thing, there's the noise. Maybe it's because I failed to be strict the first week, but the classes are almost always at a dull roar. Students chatter constantly with each other in Russian or Kazakh, and insist on speaking to me while their classmates are speaking. I have tried separating students, trading games for worksheets, calling out the noisemakers, and even the Kazakh teachers' strategy: yelling. No dice. And if the students WITHIN my class were not noisy enough, fifteen minutes before class ends we are disrupted by students from other classes. My boss from the language center visited my class one day and was appalled to see students from other classes raucously fetching their things from the back of my classroom. Shushing is pretty much ineffective.

The administration also makes me nervous. Though the director of Daryn and the head English teacher know who I am, all other staff at Daryn seem stupefied by my presence. About once a week someone yells at me in Kazakh, as if to say, "Who is the girl and why does she think she can walk freely through the halls of this school?!" Various adults poke their head into my classroom with questions, and my students shout in unison, "Oна не понимает русский!" She doesn't understand Russian! I can't help but wish I appeared as a little less of an interloper there. On some level it must be the human aspiration for belonging.

The bus stop behind Daryn where I wait for the bus to the language center. Zhan's a lucky guy!

Some days, after struggling through a lesson, I look forward to taking the bus (either 01, 45, 43, or maybe 12 . . . from a foreigner's perspective the bus system has no transcendent organization) to the language center, and teaching a class of calm adult students who are nearly fluent in English and laugh at my jokes. There is a comfort and a calmness that accompanies rejoining my teammates at our language center. But if SBTC keeps me sane then Daryn keeps me engaged, and I would never trade my classes there because I always enjoy that there's never a dull moment.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Making friends

We have a pretty basic outreach model. It's making friends. Group affiliations, beliefs and persuasions, genuine community, it all flows and develops along relational networks. There's like a whole lesson about it in Perspectives. Outreach is relationship building, and showing love and loyalty towards others builds trust and credibility while demonstrating the same regard that was given to us.

Like, it sounds obscene when it's written out all clinical and theoretical like that, because I hate thinking of loving others like it's some kind of strategy, but, seriously. I write it because I believe it's true. They will know Who we serve because of how we love.

We've been here a few weeks, but I've already racked up a debt of gratitude to those who have brought us into their social spheres. As an outsider who can't even speak or understand the local language, I have been the beneficiary of so much hospitality, generosity, and kindness. They offer us rides, take us shopping, invite us into their homes, answer our never-ending translation questions. My heart melts every time someone invites us to do something with them; I had forgotten what a precious gift inclusion was!

And all this inclusion makes me wonder about the life I lived back home. For as long as I could remember I bemoaned my isolation; I begged to be put in school when I was ten so that I could have some friends. In high school my social thirst was quenched through NCFCA and youth group, but I still wanted for opportunities to share my convictions through relational pathways. So my first semester of college blew my mind; there were so many potential new friends! And this mindset led to some G0d-ordained conversations in the 24-hour room of library. And as my fear lessened the same thing happened at work, and testimony grew from that. But when commencement ended and I found myself officially graduated, what happened then?

Don't get me wrong, my summer was well-spent. The expeditions to rural hiking trails, the ritual of movie nights, basketball and tennis, beach days, coffee dates, sleepovers, talking by the fire's glow, fireworks and food. I stockpiled a lot of happiness. But how often did I bring an outsider into these social escapades? . . . with some shame I answer, seldom.

Yeah, I had to come halfway around the world to realize what it means to show kindness to strangers. It's not just the poetic anonymity of paying the toll for the person behind you, but also the uncomfortably direct invitation: "We are doing this, would you like to join us?"

I think I actively avoided doing that sort of thing at home, because I assumed it would be awkward and uncomfortable. This is 100% a correct assumption. You think it's uncomfortable to invite strangers to do something with you? It's even more uncomfortable when you're crossing cultures. My blush reflex has been getting a workout since arriving here. It's less of a question if I will make a cultural flub and more of a question of when and how many. But I credit Intervarsity and my staff worker for teaching me a golden, simple truth that is proving itself here. Ain't no one ever died from awkwardness. Embrace the awkward. If you push hard against it, it often surrenders something precious.

A thing so effortlessly typed, written from the quiet solitude of my desk where I sit alone and comfortable inside my head. A thing far more strenuously exercised, when I am tired and afraid and selfish. But I will lift you up in the seeking out and inviting in of those "outside" if you will do the same for me. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Follow the Leader

One of the greatest things about our flat and its location is its close proximity to the grocery store. Norma is not just visible from our flat but is a mere five-minute stroll out of our courtyard. We've been to lots of different markets around our neighborhood, but Norma is where we do almost all of our food shopping, because its proximity to our flat makes walking home with arms full of grocery bags more tolerable. But also it's cute and small, and the staff know us by now, and they tolerate our inability to order meat or our insistence on paying with plastic. So we love Norma. 

Frequently on our trips to Norma we pass people begging on the sidewalk between our apartment building and the grocery store. Usually it's either two young girls or an older woman with a small boy. They puzzle me because they don't look like Russians or Kazakhs, and they're often dressed in colorful, maybe traditional-looking clothes. We think they might be Roma, but we don't know the language well enough to ask them. So usually when we pass I just nod and mumble "Здравствуйте," and then on the way back from the store we'll give them something from our bags, a loaf of bread or some apples or something.

Today I made a quick trip to Norma to grab some ingredients for chicken noodle soup. Because 'tis the season, folks! It's already dipped below the freezing point here. I got a bag of carrots, a bag of potatoes, a bag of noodles, a loaf of bread, some green onions, and a carton of eggs for just over 500T, about $3USD. I love how cheap food is in this country! And you don't have to pay extra for GMO-free because it already comes that way! 

I didn't see the older woman and the little boy sitting in their usual spot because the sidewalk had been closed for construction. (That's another crazy thing about Karaganda, how they build buildings. Brick and mortar, bit by bit. Remarkable.) I was caught by surprise when the little boy appeared from out of the brush, but I pulled the potatoes out of my bag and handed them to him. "Пожалуйста," I muttered, inwardly mourning my complete absence of Russian conversation skills. 

As I walked through the courtyard back to our building I simultaneously marveled at how cheap food was and mused about the little boy and the older woman. Potatoes are cheap, and so it seems to me that these beggars ought to be able to buy at least simple food. Were the potatoes I gave them really what they needed? If only I could have asked what to get them. (Баклажан, eggplant, is the only produce I know.) Maybe they needed clothes instead? But the little boy's tattered shirt was a key element of his pathetic appearance, necessary to garner more donations. What if he was a victim of a Slumdog Millionaire kind of situation, "pimped out" by the older woman to make money? What if my potatoes were more of a salve for my conscience than of any benefit to them?

I had pondered myself into a tizzy by the time I reached our flat, completely at a loss for how to approach the older woman and the little boy next time I passed them. Do I give them money? Buy them meat? Find them hats and scarves? Ignore them? Find a new route to Norma? Oh Father, why is loving people so hard?! . . . and the answer came quickly, quietly, directly.

It is not my job to judge their begging as innocent or nefarious. It is my job to follow my Leader. To greet them as I pass. To share what I have when they ask. Doing is better than thinking. I don't know who they are, I don't even know what they're saying, I just know what my Leader has told me, to give to the poor and the widows and the orphans. Okay, I can do that. Loving is actually a lot easier than I think it is.

And this is what I'm in the process of learning every day here. To look to my Leader for guidance instead of being wise in my own eyes. To stop relying on myself to get through each day and instead look to the Giver of life. He will show me the way if I will ask it of Him, and He will direct my steps if I submit them to Him. He has been in this city infinitely longer than I and He knows these inhabitants infinitely deeper than I. He knows what they need so much better than I, and so it is on Him that I must rely.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Bringing back teatime

When the colonies succeeded from Great Britain, we gained a good many things as a new country. A democratic system of government, tempered by checks and balances. Fair taxation levied with adequate representation. A lot more geographical space and an accent all our own.

Did we fully count the cost of what we would also in turn give up?

I gather that teatime did not leave the continent with the redcoats, and that this tradition persisted until it became out-moded and impractical during the height of the industrial revolution. (Just kidding, I actually know nothing about the history of teatime in the United States. I liberally assume this eradication.) And while it is still common in the USA to meet a colleague for coffee, or talk over dessert and hot beverages at one's home, teatime as we once knew it has ceased to exist.

What I propose, then, is that we bring it back.

Sitting down with a comforting hot beverage. Supplementing your drink with bread & jam, or a slice of cake, or a few cookies, or a little sandwich. Taking the time to sit and be recharged. Engage in diverting conversation. Maybe I've been too engrossed in James' The Portrait of a Lady, but what part of that does not sound like a good idea?!

I cherish the teatimes we've been enjoying in Karaganda. Of course, we're not limited strictly to tea. Hot chocolate and coffee frequently make appearances. And we're not so rigid about the time either: sometimes we take a cup at the school, sometimes in the afternoon if we've had an early lunch, or sometimes in the evening if we've had an early supper. On occasion we have teatime while we play Settlers of Catan, or we pass our teatime with conversation and reflection. Even solitary teatimes are a comfort to me; I pause what I'm doing and take solace in a hot beverage and daydreaming. It's lovely, and sanity-inducing.

I can't wait to begin befriending our neighbors and students so that we can invite them to take tea with us. I think teatime may have a place in the fabric of habit in my future, and gladly.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Too good to be true

As I stare at the Excel sheet I'm typing into, frequently glancing at the top registration card on the stack next to me, it hits me afresh. I am only struggling to input the names into this file because they are foreign to me. I am only typing this roster because I will be teaching these endearing souls how to improve their English. I am living in Kazakhstan. Is this real life?!

It seems to me this is the best job in the world. Here I am, living in a charming city full of friendly people, meeting bright-eyed students who wish to do great things, paying sixty cents a day to ride the bus, and teaching classes at night which preclude me from having to wake up early. There are so many rich additions to life here: we have teatime and toilet closets and integrated public transportation. And there is not so much to miss from western culture: we have peanut butter and fine chocolate and ketchup. We have even begun running into people we know on the sidewalk! The only piece missing is to find a coffeehouse.

The rose-colored lenses will come off in due time, I think. I don't mean to sound like some saccharinely optimistic Lisa Frank butterflies and rainbows caricature. It's just that this is all such a supreme privilege, and I want to preserve these feelings for when it is thirty degrees below zero and the ache of missing Rhode Island cannot be contained. I want to remind myself that there is much to love about Karaganda, so that I will be less in danger of forgetting it.

Conducting placement interviews has sufficiently whetted my appetite to begin teaching. In most cases, one really only needs to talk with a student for 90 seconds to get a feel for their comprehension and speaking ability, but in practice I spoke with each for as long as I could keep the conversation rolling. I never tired of hearing their aspirations to one day visit London (an aspiration I share!) or their puzzled rebuttal of the concept of a "dream job" ("You work at the job you receive!") or their summer adventures paired with back to school woes (the young boys are particularly crestfallen over this.) I like them all so very much, it seems all too fortuitous to be offered such agreeable students. 

I asked the very last student I interviewed, "What are your goals? What plans do you have for your life?" She furrowed her brow, maybe confounded by the word "goals." I clarified, "What do you want to do in the future?" She seemed to understand this. "Well, I like Karaganda." I couldn't stop myself from smiling widely and replying, "So do I."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What to do when "your low self-esteem is just good common sense."

A friend's Facebook status popped up on my newsfeed. I asked Bet, "Hey, what's moralism?" She's a pastor's kid, and also a person with a diversified knowledge base, so she fields a lot of these questions from me.

"Hum, it could be like legalism, or like excessive fixation on morals?"

The status said "He's been working to kill my moralism for years. Tonight I saw clearly the huge victory He has won in me!" Snaps to that! I love hearing testimony about His victory. Which is what had prodded my question; victory over what? In my attempt to clarify my understanding of the term, I stumbled across this article by Tim Keller on the Resurgence. "Underneath all of our behavioral sins lies a fundamental refusal to rest in Chr!st's salvation." I was like, oh, huh, right, okay. 

Then I started watching Spanglish. As a rule I don't watch Adam Sandler movies, part habit after generally not being allowed to watch them as a teenager, and part snobbery after a professor pointed out what low-brow humor they usually contain. But we're in Kazakhstan, with still a week to go before we start teaching classes, and the movie selection is limited. 

There's the part where he goes, "Guilt, you know that word?" -- "Of course!" She says. "We're Catholic!" This movie made me laugh. The way Deb talks, and describes herself: "Laid back, yet, meticulous!" How Flor accidentally throws the ball for the dog. The way John rambles to his staff. Hilarious. But I cried so much, too. The transformation from joy to hurt when Bernie realizes her mom bought her clothes a size too small. When Cristina scorns her mom in public. How John comforts his daughter.

But Deb, oh Deb, this character who tries so hard, who reads all these parenting books and keeps herself busy with events and pampers her housekeeper's daughter and exercises like a mad woman. She tries so hard, but she's just a screw up. And you just kind of pity her because she's so miserable but she doesn't get that trying hard is not going to fix her misery. Hence the zinger her mom dishes out, "Your low self-esteem is just good common sense."

I've been trying so hard this week. Trying hard to be cheerful. Trying hard to work on Russian. Trying hard to be a good roommate. Trying hard to serve my teammates. Trying hard to make the administrators glad that I've come. Trying so hard to prove to myself that this was a good idea and that I will be good at this. (I don't know why it matters to me that I be good at this. Lower those expectations, Hay.) But I feel a little bit like Deb, as in, let me do all these things and then everyone (and Jesus) will love me. I don't know if that's what moralism is, but either way I would appear I've got a tenuous grasp on the joy of my salvation.

Keller writes, "If we aren’t already sure G0d loves us in Chr!st, we will be looking to something else for our foundational significance and self-worth. . . . We are looking to something else to give us what only Jesus can give us. " Hm. You know when you don't expect Him to call to you in an Adam Sandler movie? That's when you've forgotten that He's everywhere! 

It rained in Karaganda today. I woke up to a drizzly sky that let the sun through intermittently. The capricious turn of weather reminded me so much of New England. Bet and I walked to Magnum Cash & Carry in the afternoon and it felt glorious. Crisp and blustery air on my arms, ambivalently dark sky overhead, and how fresh everything felt, with the dust and pollution dispelled by water. Five minutes after we arrived back safe in our flat, the floodgates opened. The bus stop fell over. People were blown down the street. The gutter burst in our (third floor) entryway and flooded our front hall. It was like a hurricane outside. And we were safe inside. 

Look up at the rain, a beautiful display of power and surrender. What do you do when you realize that your efforts and trying are moralizing idolatry? That you are your own best reason for feeling low? Remember His faithfulness. Great is His faithfulness.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

я не понимаю

I had a professor my last semester of college who tried to explain to the class what learning was. (Our actual topic was the rhetoric of courtroom dramas, but we stuck to that theme somewhat loosely.) He asked us what we hoped to learn in the upcoming semester and then turned our answers back on us. "If I'm doing my job right," he told us, "You'll learn things you didn't know you didn't know."

I feel this way about living in Karaganda.

I feel it when I tune out the conversations of the people at the bus stop, because I can't understand what they're saying. I feel it when I try to Google something and I realize I exclusively frequent sites hosted in the west. I feel it when I strain to look at the signs and circulars, attempting to decipher what I can't read. I feel it when I stalk the aisles of the grocery store, examining unfamiliar spices and attempting to fathom how they're used. I feel it when I stare at stores or establishments from the outside, trying to figure out what they are on the inside.

I know that I don't know stuff. But I don't know exactly what it is yet. When you're in a new culture, your only frame of reference is the culture you left across the ocean. You just don't know what it is you don't know.

A few days ago we visited Рамстор, a supermarket that occasionally stocks peanut butter and in general carries more western-style food. Because it was lunchtime, and because I had turned down a meal at Mac & Dak (Kazakhstan's version of McDonald's), I resolved to find something from their prepared food section. And so I proceeded to order a slice of pizza . . . entirely in sign language.

In retrospect this wasn't necessary. Pizza is pronounced much the same in Russian as in English. I know the word for "one." The price was even written in a little card next to the pie. The obliging and amused smile of the girl behind the counter made the whole encounter more funny than humiliating, but I left feeling that this was not a sustainable way to conduct business out in public. As a child I learned how to read because I was frustrated I couldn't read the signs I saw out the car window. A similar motivation drives me to my Russian study every night. I want to make sense of the society around me, and I want to be able to make myself understood. 

Not sure what this sign over the bear cages at the zoo says, but I'm sure its meaning can be inferred.
The language barrier aside (and from within our flat it all but vanishes), so much about Karaganda feels similar to my home. I close my eyes and can imagine myself back in the USA, maybe even RI. The hum of traffic outside the window, my daily morning Nescafe, the buy-in-bulk supermarkets, the nightly Big Bang Theory & Settlers of Catan teammate bonding time. And the things that are different (the toilet closet comes to mind) I could easily get used to. (Like seriously, I don't know why I didn't realize this when we were in France last summer, but having the toilet in a separate room from the shower is the best idea!)

I bank on the promise that the longer I live here, the more I will learn. And though my instruction is not strictly academic anymore, the prospect of learning though exhausting still thrills me. It's a different kind of back to school season. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

There is no fear in love

I can't believe how rapidly the days are ticking by now that we're in week three. Each day is as full as ever, with worship and group time in the morning, followed by TEFL baseball (our homework game) and TEFL instruction before lunch, and culture or spiritual cultivating in the afternoon, and practicum prep before dinner, and practicum followed by debrief followed by various activities (tonight, swing dancing!) at night. Yeah, it's pretty busy. But this Saturday the first teams depart for Vietnam. And next Sunday, my team gets on an airplane. Man, that came up fast! We switched dormitories on Tuesday, and we forecasted as we rolled our luggage between buildings, "Next time we take our suitcases down this path, we'll be headed to the airport."

Practicum prep in the CIS team room.

In one of our workshops this afternoon we talked about Bible studies in our host countries. How to respect the "no proselytizing to minors" law, reasons to host a study, the difference between eisegesis and exegesis, et cetera. The instructor talked about how he had found himself the teacher of a kids' church, how rewarding it was to take them through a study of the entire Bible, how he trained them to memorize verses and know the word. But my eyes filled with tears as he talked about the six kids in his very first class, how they had walked away from the faith and even how he had attended one student's funeral. How do you disciple youth, pour yourself so intentionally into others with faithfulness, knowing that so many will walk away?

(I have never wondered this about the students in Ignite. Even though I saw so many students walk away. Even though I saw so many youth leaders lose hope. But I think forward to my students at the language center, the friends I have yet to make, the trick dates and the dinner parties. I theorize about being used, people hanging out with me just for my language skills, being manipulated. I am not so cynical to expect it, but with anxiety I acknowledge the possibility.)

The workshop instructor asked the class how it was possible to maintain hope after the arguably "failure" of the kids' church, and they gave some great answers. If it mattered to just one student, it was worth it. His word does not go out void, seeds were planted. Those who turned away made the conscious choice to do so. And these answers were a comfort. But the instructor asked, what is the greatest way you can love someone?

Share the good news, we murmured. 

The truth that gives life, sharing this with faithfulness is true love. 

The older I get the more certain I become that loving fully and whole-heartedly will eventually mean heart-break. It hurt to hear of those first six students who had studied the whole Bible in their youth and hidden His word in their hearts had also turned away. But does that mean he ought never have poured into them? Of course not. I think of my teammates, newly married and in adorable love. Sometimes they get annoyed with each other, it's true, but does that mean they ought never have married? Of course not. Love will eventually break your heart. And if it doesn't then you're not doing it right. 

And perhaps the reverse applies: if you try too hard to shield yourself from heart-break, you may miss many, many opportunities to love deeply, richly, truly. Is not love-given so much more important than collateral pain accrued? Why are we so afraid of the heartache when loving others is the very thing He has called us to? When I look forward to this year overseas, coming upon me oh so swiftly, I know I must give my whole self to this process. To be fully present. To be completely invested. To be intentional and purposeful and free with loving

Loving without fear of how it will hurt. 

So much easier said than done. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

From coast to coast

In our TEFL instruction session this morning I was overjoyed to see a shoutout to my homeland; we used New England for a sample activity. I felt a little swell of pride as I gushed about clam chowder and coffee milk, the backdrop of our national independence and Gilmore Girls. It was my little corner of the world, my New England, with the autumn leaves and the maple syrup and the rocky coastline and the pilgrim reenactment villages. 

After session, I tripped out of the building into the balmy sunshine. I eat my dinners to go sometimes; as much as I love the chaos and community of the cafeteria, I love sitting under the palm trees and watching the parrots fuss. The spongey grass makes a better seat than a chair ever could and the blessed absence of humidity in the air has made my hair more cooperative than ever before in my life.

Some things are strange to me. The bizarre plants that look like they belong in a western film. The way complete strangers greet each other on the street. Calling highways freeways. Horrendous LA traffic. It blows my mind to watch Ironman 3 and consider that the story takes place (theoretically) just twenty minutes away. Or the rumor that Danny Puti of Community hangs out at Intelligensia Cafe just two miles away.

I don't know. I guess I forgot Pasadena was a real place, and not just a good story.

I like how different from New England it is. And I like that it makes me love New England more.

Friday, July 19, 2013


I am so excited. Is there a better word? There must be a better word. Why, oh language, is it that I have not mastered you to explain this effervescent anticipation frothing inside of me?! This is it, this is lift-off, this is the beginning! The idea is becoming reality. The rubber is meeting the road. I'm really going! And this makes me feel just giddy, that this is really happening and that I would be so privileged. I find myself asking over and over, is this real life?

So I'm leaving for a month of training, and then in August catching a flight to Kazakhstan. My church supports a worker who got his start on the field through the very same agency and the very same language school through which I'm headed out. Because he has already walked this same path he has been a source of invaluable information and cheering encouragement. He wrote me this week, "Try to see what God is doing in you as you prepare to go, since this is part of your training, and not just a means to an end."

This is why I chose to be with Ignite Serves Providence the week before leaving. When I woke up Monday morning and frantically packed a bag, it didn't feel like a good decision. I left the house panicked about how much still was left to be done and overwhelmed by the idea of exhausting my stores of enthusiasm and perseverance during the week's heat wave. Surely this was too careless a preparation for stepping blindly into something I've never done before. But some time after we had finished washing the dust out of our living quarters, maybe just as we were met with effusive thanks from the men staying at The Urban League, something inside me clicked into alignment. I remembered.

It floods my heart with all kinds of warm fuzzies when I think about the privilege it is to serve and to share. To hug little girls and prove Jesus loves them by loving them oneself. To listen to a homeless man's life story and offer hope for the future with a cold soda and hot meal. To approach strangers and ask them the hard but humble questions about how they came to believe what they believe. And the students! To work alongside brothers and sisters who are growing in love right before your eyes! To watch them face their fears, risk their comfort, push through fatigue, and work so hard . . . I can take no credit for the understanding unfolding in their hearts, but I am proud, so proud, of how they have sought Jesus in this work.

Passing out water in Kennedy Plaza during the heat wave.

And what better send-off could I have asked for? A reminder in my own backyard of why I'm going half-way across the world. A model for how God wants to move through us to love and reach other.

I've been haunted all week by this quotation from Perelandra, "In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless he bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?" A girl so guarded, so skeptical, so preoccupied with analysis and pro/con lists, how will she learn to obey by doing simply what He asks? Answer, practice. And it is an unfathomed privilege to be starting this adventure. 

Last week I was looking back, mourning the interruption of the community I hold so dear. This week I am looking forward, anticipating the faithfulness of a God who would work through me, and will teach me to do His will.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


I guess no one really loves good-byes, and me, yeah, I hate 'em. And now I'm coming full force with their obtrusive reality as my departure ticks steadily closer. I am, to say the least, emotionally overwhelmed.

I've been trying to write about this for weeks, but I can't seem to force the words out. Another reason to hate good-byes. What is there to say, really? That I feel oxygen-deprived when I think of the experiences I won't share or the conversations I won't have or the people I won't see? That I feel a tightness in my chest when I think of the relational distance my physical distance will breed? That I feel like throwing up when I think of verbalizing the love I've felt?

Nope. It's no big deal. I won't see you for a while. So it goes. 

Truthfully, I'm grieving. I know I can trust this misty future to a God who is infinite in faithfulness and goodness. No, it is not the uncharted water of new beginning that terrifies me. Instead it's the heart-rending end of so much I have held so dear. The end of after-school Ultimate games at Pine Hill Farm, the end of LOST marathons with Sarah, the end of Sunday morning giggle fests with the junior high girls, the end of weekend movie nights, the end of long drives home in the middle of the night, the end of the comfortable (oh, but numbing) routine I've carved for myself. 

I am being dramatic, I know. A year away does not alter the fabric of my life. It is very possible, or even likely, that the things I leave will still be there when I get back. I'm young, but I've lived long enough to at least start to suspect that change is slow and subtle, not swift and severing. And that's yet another reason to hate good-byes: they imply a permanence that is not reality. Why must we bother with the farewells when most partings are really see-you-laters? If this is not the end, why do I have to get all worked up about it? 

Because closure. Because punctuation. Because people deserve to know what they have meant to me. And I had better find some way to tell them. Just in case.

Friday, July 5, 2013

1 Corinthians 13:12

One of my least favorite days of the year, Independence Day, has of late turned my favorite. There's something about wandering between brownstones, laying in the grass, eating from food trucks, sweating unholy amounts, talking and playing games with precious people, cramming into subway cars, and watching the most magnificently beautiful fireworks the modern world can conjure. A new family tradition has brought me so much joy. "This is my favorite part!" I would announce periodically, as though I had zero concept of the exclusionary implications of the term 'favorite.'

But standing on the subway platform waiting to switch trains, a horrifying thought dawned in the back of my mind and rose into my outlook. I was not jubilant, I was not miserable, I was not anxious, I was not content. I just was. Which meant that something had to be wrong!

Surely there was something to feel guilty about: things I ought not to have said, things I ought to have planned better, thoughts I should have swept away, thoughts I should have brought to mind. There were so many things to be stressed out about: fundraising and follow-up phone calls, packing and medical arrangements, the van's screwy transmission and empty gas tank. I gazed down the empty platform, wiped the sweat off the back of my neck, and wondered, "What on earth is wrong with me?Why do I feel so normal?"

So I took a moment to remind myself that sometimes it's okay to just be.

In my obsession with mindful living and in the throes of my right desire to be each day more like Jesus, I get a little carried away sometimes. I drink in the high highs and wallow in the low lows because I mistake the extremes for poignancy. As though there were something particularly profound about irrational happiness or erratic despair. I somehow came to believe that if I was neither euphoric with the satisfaction of living rightly nor despondent from the conviction of my shortcomings then I was doing something wrong.

And it's true, that the choice between life and death is always before us. It's true that each day carries a million different reasons to be glad and a million different reasons to grieve. Certainly Independence Day shows this, in the multimillion dollar pyrotechnics contrasted with the exploited homeless jingling change, in the triumphant #BOSTONSTRONG banners contrasted with the makeshift marathon memorial, in the unity celebrated from the loudspeaker contrasted with selfish disregard for others on the ground. I find much meaning in these highs and in these lows.

But not everything is an existential crisis.

There is no need to despair when the meaning can't be found. It is good to live with care to the consequences of my values, attitudes, and beliefs, but it is also good to stand on subway platform and just be there. To laugh with friends, and to take a walk, and to get on the train and go where you're going. I am finite, and I will not catch every shred of meaning in every experience. I will not even come close. John Tagliabue wrote once, "The ordinary blankness of little dramatic consciousness is good for the health sometimes." And I think that may be true.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cheer up, church

I was watching Friends and Monica was talking about some horrifying thing Chandler did, and Rachel remarks, "I always knew there was something weird about that dude. But you promised to love him no matter what." And the laugh track signals to us the absurdity of a committed love; this is why dating exists! So we can vet out people's flaws before we decide to spend our lives alongside them! We know no one's perfect, but we try and get pretty close. We seek out people who are stable, well-adjusted, good communicators, even-tempered, whatever. We have a concept that healthy exists, and we're trying to get to that state.

But the wonderful and infuriating thing about grace and our God who gives it is that we don't have to be perfect.

Just like spouses learn to love each other through financial hardships and emotional trauma and annoying pet peeves, God is faithful to us, freely giving us a love we're not worthy of. Sticking by us despite our dysfunction.

And I've been thinking about what this kind of love and grace looks like not just on an individual scale in my own corrupt heart, but on a corporate level. Oh Church, dear bride of Christ. Are we not the height of dysfunction?

We get down on the Church all the time. Particularly in the west (though I don't doubt dysfunction is a global and even universal thing), where our culture is so markedly incompatible with the teachings of Jesus, it's like our favorite pastime to criticize the body. And granted, we've got lots of problems. We're diseased with consumerism and universalism and bigotry and a pathological lack of unity. There're volumes that could be (and have been) written about the Church's shortcomings. And there's absolutely a place for self-examination.

But I've been thinking lately about cutting the Church some slack. How can I expect from a body of believers what I have not mastered myself?

Charlie Peacock has a great song about this: the Church is so much worse off than we think. There is so much we've gotten wrong. So many mistakes we've made. So many utter failures. (Aren't you tired of hearing about the Crusades yet?!) But still, the more the understanding of our sin grows, the greater our appreciation of His grace swells. The Church is sick, because it is made up of people who need the Great Physician. And if you stop right there the story's pretty bleak, because just like no betrothed would blithely walk into a marriage to a violent alcoholic, why would someone sign up to join a leper colony of fellow corrupted sinners? If we have a concept of what holy is and a desire to get there, why do we get mixed up in church at all?

Because the story doesn't end with the Church's incomprehensible inadequacy.

There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. [Romans 8:1-2]

This grace is real in my life. This is what's changing me and shaping me and it's within this context that self-examination is so sanctifying. I am flawed, yet He loves me. I am stubborn and lazy and fearful, yet He loves me. I am dysfunctional, yet He loves me. And oh dysfunctional Church. He loves His bride in the very same way. Is not that grace astonishing?

So when I hear church horror stories or watch videos like this one, when I sit in my own church and feel the judgment coil in my stomach, I hum it to myself, "Don't despair, grace is near. It's just like God to choose the loser, not the winner." Cheer up. The sins of the Church have been forgiven. There's no space for cynicism here. Let the full force of our need grow our gratitude for magnitude of His grace.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Seeing the old new

I want to see the familiar in a novel light. To glance around my world and absorb all those things that daily sit before me but frequently allude my attention. I want to see old things in new ways.

I feel this way singing along with Ingrid to Steve Green songs: "First John four, verse sixteen, G-o-d is l-o-v-e!" And this is the very word of God.

I feel this way watching Lord of the Rings, watching Frodo's weary resistance and Sam's unflagging encouragement. How I see the struggle and support in this world of sin.

I feel this way talking to people I haven't seen in years, joyfully discovering that experiences that got left behind are not disintegrated in memory. People value and remember.

I feel this way sitting in the blessed air conditioning of my mom's mini van, knowing the gears are clicking so much swifter these days, that this as I know it will soon adjust.

I am experiencing the joy in reflection and remembering, cultivating in these trenches I laid when these memories were first planted. I am seeing the old growing into something new, and I am understanding that vitality is wisdom, and it is good that we not forget.

A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hmán, as if pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. [Out of the Silent Planet, CS Lewis]

Friday, June 21, 2013

The highs and lows of fundraising

Let me just say, I am no stranger to asking people for money. As a veteran of many short-term missions trips, I have sent out letters, I have mulched yards, I have baked good. I am familiar with the fundraising squirm, and it has sent me into tears more than once. And because of this I once speculated that my fundraising might be over for good. Hah.

So let me just say, fundraising is the WORSTEST. I mean, it's great. Officially, I love fundraising because it allows you to stay connected with people, build relational bridges, and serve God in community, which is what the Christian walk is all about. It teaches humility, trust, and dependence on God to provide. All that is true. It's so true. I believe that stuff. But sometimes fundraising is the WORSTEST.

I hate that it requires skill. I hate that there's a rhetoric, a way of speaking in some kind of missionary code that makes your fundraising sound more socially acceptable and less pathetic. I hate that you have to be a pep squad, getting people excited about your scary unknowns while they get to stay home and be awesome with each other while you're far away. I hate that sometimes "follow up" is creepy, and feels like you're hounding or nagging people, and taking the role of a telemarketer. I hate that my coach refers to fundraising as a job even though I know that's what it is, and I know that's totally okay. It makes me feel like a timeshare sales rep rather than a worker for Jesus.

Let me draw a comparison. We had some solicitors come to our door this week. They were selling magazines as job training for underprivileged youth, and the money they raised went to scholarships for higher education. A perfectly noble and legitimate enterprise. But oh, it was painful: the twenty-minute sell, the reasoning and the manipulation. I almost wanted to buy a magazine just so they would go away, and so I wouldn't have to deal with that guilty feeling in my chest.

And I don't want other people to feel like that when I'm fundraising.

I got a text from my mom's old roommate, asking when I was available so she could get together with out family. (My schedule is the most limited. Adjust to the most restricted variable. LSAT logic games strategy. Anyway.) I didn't reply right away because I wasn't sure, but later when I came to her name on my support letter address list I grabbed my phone to send her some dates. I wanted to text her before she got my letter, because I didn't want her to think that I was only getting together with her because I wanted her to support me.

That is the farthest thing from what I want! I don't want anonymous checks or donations from distances, I want a support network of senders who care about English students in Kazakhstan. I want people to give because they believe that God is in this and God will work in me. (And if they pray it so, it will be so.) I will not see God at work without these commissioners, these partners, these senders. I am needy. And so I don't want to fundraise as thought I am impersonal or removed or self-sufficient. But this is an introvert's worst nightmare. I am feeling overwhelmed by the network of people I want to love and engage and build community with, and I am overwhelmed by the kindness and support my network has shown me. It's the best and the worst thing about fundraising. Where there are people there is love and love is such a very hard thing.

And so, though a phone call with my fundraising coach left me in the depths of despair today, she left me with this morsel of encouragement.

Satan's biggest lie is that you're asking for this money for yourself. You're not. You're asking people to join in the vision God has given you for making a difference in people's lives and making Jesus famous around the world. And Satan knows that's a beautiful thing. Don't let him make you feel guilty for seeking partners in this work. 

Today I am thankful for community.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Use Twitter for good, not for burns

I got in a Twitter war with one of the students in youth group today. Sunday's usually a pretty Twitter-filled day for me, because I like to tweet things that resonate with me from the sermon or the lesson. This is usually not to distracting to anyone (although there was that super awkward time where I finished sending a tweet, only to look up and see the pastor staring at me) but because of my habit of sitting in the front, my phone-fiddling is usually pretty visible to the room. I don't try to hide that I'm on my phone. I forget that other people don't know I'm tweeting about the lesson.

So this student saw me on my phone during the lesson, tweeting about the year of jubilee and God's thoughts on wealth inequality. He called me out on it over Twitter and like a total n00b I took the bait, and we went back and forth for a bit, until he released this zinger: "Yes, you'll teach the whopping 2 people that look up to you that tweeting is more important than God's word. #CalledOut"

Aaaah, hashtag burn

It burned, it really did! What I had thought was our typical banter seemed to have evolved to a legitimate rebuke . . . even if it was over social media. But still, hashtag harsh! We were dismissed to small group and I turned to the junior high girls ready to complain, "Waaah, this punk hurt my feelings!" And they were like, "Can we please talk about the lesson instead?" And the conviction burned even more! 

Still, I found him after youth group and laid out my case. 1) I was tweeting something relevant. 2) This student was tweeting me during the lesson; hypocrisy! I was big-time on the defense, talking fast to save my face and spluttering at his audacity. And while he was laughing at me and maintaining his position, it began to dawn on me . . . I was being ridiculous.

Okay, whatever, I don't feel convicted that using my phone in Sunday school is wrong. I feel like I have freedom in the Spirit to tweet away. Fine. But sometimes I forget that not everyone in youth group is like me. Sometimes I forget that there are kids in that room who hold their faith quite loosely, who use their phones to converse with their friends and feed their distraction from the word being served. Sometimes I forget that the example I give is not based on my intentions but rather my actions. Tweeting in church is #NBD to me, but I need to take the message my actions are sending far more seriously. 

The student was totally right. 

Even now, hours later in the safety of my home, I feel squishy with shame over how poorly I received his rebuke. How defensive I was, how indignant I was. How my concern over something someone tweeted at me communicated to the junior high girls in my small group the exact opposite of graciousness and humility and self-control. Instead of letting it roll I got all worked up. Over a little tweet. Oh, que vous sotte. It's a wonder they even let me be a youth leader. But you can be sure, no one's going to catch me touching my phone in youth group ever again. Baby steps.