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.