Friday, January 24, 2014

Thundergrace Five-fold

You know what gets me so mad?

Every time I try to pour into another person, I end up getting blessed double what I have tried to give. 

This is just so infuriating. 

I’ve been not necessarily in a funk, but I’ve been terrible homesick. I know I have no reason to be; I had a visit from home, for goodness sake. I have all the comforts of modern living, I want for nothing, and I really do love this place! Sincerely! 

So each morning, I laugh at my sleepy face in the mirror, I play my happy music, I greet the day with a smile, and I hope that this will be the day I stop counting the weeks until I can walk around the reservoir woods or squint my eyes at Block Island on the horizon. Maybe this will be the day I am one-minded to the icy ground I stand on.  

It’s funny that the only time I’m not thinking about how many weeks are between me and Logan airport is when I’m teaching. He knows the depth of my pansy status and He is intimately familiar with my flabby resolve, so He’s been raining His grace to abound that much more over my mopey homesick outlook. And He’s been doing it in the place I love most, the classroom.

Thundergrace One: This week, in each of my classes, my students asked (completely and entirely out of the blue, seriously, all I was doing was sitting quietly, staring at my fingernails, because I have a commanding classroom presence, yo. #sarcasm), “Teacher, are you a Chr!stian?” And some variant of this conversation replayed with different students: “Do you believe in G0d?” and “Who is Chr!st?” I was baffled, completely flummoxed, as to why these kids were so suddenly asking these questions. It’s illegal to prosthelytize to minors, particularly from the authority of the classroom, so when I recovered from my shock I answered laconically to keep the questions coming. “See here!” it’s like He’s saying, “Of course I am on their minds!” And to be one who is given the chance to speak the powerful name of J3sus is a shining hot privilege.

Thundergrace Two: I have this one class, eighth graders, and I’ve been struggling to win them over. Each class is a bumpy ride and I leave feeling “meh” and a little bit defeated, like I have failed to do well by them. I’ve felt, a bit useless in this class. Like I’m letting these students down. At the end of one such class this week, their local English teacher tells me how she’s noticed improvement with these students and their speaking abilities since starting my class. “Thank you,” she said to me. “They are not so nervous to speak because of you.” She is a reserved and enigmatic woman, and so her praise was a delightful surprise. I think I floated out the door, I was so happy to hear this. 

Thundergrace Three: I was nevertheless dismayed because my favorite class ended this week. They were my first class ever, business English, and by some stroke of good fortune they became the most fun and cohesive classroom I’ve ever beheld. They made me look forward to the school week because I could go to class and laugh with them, and I didn’t want this semester to end. What blew my socks off though, was the realization that they had enjoyed our time together as much as I had! Our last class they brought me to tears because they presented me with a framed sketch drawn by one student and a bouquet of white roses. They took me out to dinner and promised me we were not saying good-bye, and that we would continue to meet together for fun. 

I was so humbled by their thanks and this gesture; their regard I didn’t deserve. 

Thundergrace Four: So now that business English has concluded, I’ve kicked off the new semester with my very first class of public speaking students. There were butterflies in my stomach as I stood in front of them and began to speak. What if they thought I was lame? What if they thought I was wasting their time? What if they couldn’t understand me? What if they didn’t like each other? But an hour and a half later my fears were all but quelled. I beamed as the students joked with and helped each other. I did a silent cheer when they laughed at my jokes. I was relieved when they followed my instructions with complete comprehension. It was an awesome first class, and I’m brimming with optimism over what this course could be come. 

Thundergrace Five: I went for coffee with a friend of a friend I met back in the fall. When I met her I felt as thought I was supposed to talk to her, and so we exchanged contact information and made those sallow promises to meet, and, I never followed through. At my sister’s prompting (slash awesome kick in the pants speech) I . . . answered her when she texted me, and how many months after our first meeting we finally sat down and talked for hours. I left our conversation positively buoyant. This sweet girl bought me some real coffee and gave me some of the socialization I had yet to be able to find.

It makes me mad, because the infernal pride that’s slick through my soul feels as though I did nothing to bring about these good things. I’ve been a homesick stick in the mud who has only reached out to others in the most feeble and anemic sense. It’s not equitable. I should be blessing others, not be blessed by them! But there’s the small sliver of sanctification in me that is smiling with that knowing smile, murmuring, “To give abundantly is His prerogative.” I am still foolish enough to have the audacity to be surprised when I am blessed by Him. As though blessings are only earned. As though I am too accomplished for grace. 

Bet and I were talking, “We should go shopping tomorrow.” 

“Yes,” she agreed, “I could really use some retail therapy.”

“Me too,” I sighed. 

Bet laughed at this. “Why?!” The implication being that I had been having a fantastic week and ought to have been in no need of any sort of catharsis, retail or otherwise. And in that moment I saw how greedy and needy and adverse to feeling bad I am. I did not want to be cheered or comforted by the blessings I received this week.

I confessed to my Father at the start of this week, “I know You love me, but I’m struggling to accept something I’m so grossly unentitled to.” I left it at this, weakly resolving this week to bolster my faith and meditate on the truth. Instead I got hit with a tidal wave of affirmation from people (acquaintances! precious strangers!) who I thought I came here to validate. Of course I don’t deserve the support of my students and people I’ve only just met. But that’s what makes it grace, eh? Undeserved favor. And He’s dousing me with it. 

Brendan Manning writes, “The gifts are not determined by the slightest personal quality or virtue. They are pure liberality.” He gives good things, because that’s what He does. Goodness is His very nature. So I guess what I want to say is, look at all the cool things He did for me. Ebenezer. He's making it rain grace out there.

Monday, January 13, 2014

I will go

A year ago this time I was in a post-Urbana funk. I was spending my mornings in a social justice class and my afternoons cuddling a crazy little baby child and was positively panicky about how I would find a way to serve G0d in the upcoming year. I felt burdened by all I had heard about the need, and burdened by all I had received as a blessing of my upbringing. It was smothering, this sense of urgency; I was so afraid of wasting my time just living for myself. 

At Urbana I had stopped waffling over whether it was more sensible to stay home and work before going to law school. I drank the Kool Aid and checked the box; my gap year would be spent overseas. Doing what, only He knew, but the commitment was made. Sixteen thousand people around me sang with earnestness, “I will go, send me!” The people on either side of me, my sister and one of my best friends, both stood at the call to give their lives to cross-cultural work. I remained in my chair, wishing I could share the same leading and conviction they felt. I didn’t, and still don’t, feel that call to spend my life overseas. But I envied the simplicity of such a life. 

I got hooked up with TeachOverseas impossibly fast. I filled out the application in a day, was interviewed the next day, offered a position two weeks later, and had signed on just shy of a month from when I first stumbled across their website. It was something simple, even easy, something that I felt I could manage. I didn’t really think, I just did, and that suffocating urgency lifted from my head. I was finally doing what I had said I would do, I had made good on my commitment. My parents saw it differently, as an unstrategic diversion from my career goals, and perhaps they were right. Being here, doing what I’m doing, it doesn’t make much sense outside of “I wanted to go and here was a need.”

And it’s amazing how rewarding it is to fill that need. Even when I get discouraged about how few faith conversations I get to have or how few people I’ve befriended, I’m buoyed by those small successes when students use a vocabulary word I taught them months prior or when students email me and thank me for our classes. There are still many, many ways that I fail my students or lessons that I completely bomb, but to see progress and to feel effective in the position I came to fill, it makes me so happy. I really enjoy what I’m doing, and the love I feel for these people and this place is both nonsensical and unabating. My time in Karaganda has been a loofah for my soul, rubbing away at those jagged parts and showing me His heart.

But now I need to decide if it’s time to head home or not. Should I continue the work here, or continue with the plan that’s been maturing in my heart since I was a senior in high school? I bemoaned to Bet, “If I stay here I’ll know that at least outwardly I’m doing m!nistry.” That’s my favorite thing about overseas work: even if you’re not doing exactly what He’s called you to, at least you’re halfway there. You’ve put yourself out there. You’ve taken that risk. And for many people that’s the hardest part. But I can’t help feeling like a fraud, because the choice to come here was not a hard one for me to make. As it turns out, I’m struggling with a different kind of “I will go.”

So I got a phone call from Michigan State College of Law. They wanted to give me a full academic scholarship. I was pumped about the ego boost for just a few seconds and then utter despair washed over me. Michigan. No, I do not want to go to Michigan. No, I am not going to leave this city that I love and return to the United States just so I can spend three years in Michigan. Nope. Not Michigan. And I was so confused, doubting the call I thought I felt. At Urbana I believed I had found confirmation and blessing on this plan, a green light from the Almighty to set my hands to serving the immigrant community in Rhode Island. I felt peace to pursue this plan. I thought He had blessed it. 

So why was the best offer on my plate for Michigan? 

As I vented to Bet late one night, “It’s just so dumb because deep down I just have this intuition that this time next year I’ll be at Michigan, and I hate that!” But it was at the moment of this ugly confession that peace began to seep in. I imagined Him telling me, “Little girl, I know you’re confused and surprised, but if you think this is My will, why are you fighting it? Don’t you believe I will give you only My best?” And I kicked back a bit, asking why now, why Michigan, why did I come to Karaganda at all, why the call to Rhode Island? Why don’t I understand? And then He was like, “Why don’t you trust Me on this.” And man, the peace that comes with that is positively narcotic. 

Knowing the will of G0d is tricky business because He gives us so much freedom in following Him. It’s strange to me that the decision to come to Karaganda was much more easily made than this struggle over law school. How do I know with such assurance that I’ll end up at Michigan State? I’m not sure I could even explain. There is no Twelve Step Plan to Pleasing El Shaddai. There is no follow the yellow brick road and you’ll reach the promised land. There is only loving Him. There is only relationship. There is only drawing nearer to Him and following His heart. 

I am still waiting to hear from a few law schools. I am still searching for confirmation that I should indeed leave Karaganda. I am still keeping an open mind that this time next year I will not be in Michigan. Maybe He will yet provide the sacrificial lamb for this decision. (Because apparently I’m Abraham and Suffolk Law School is Isaac? I need to rethink that metaphor . . .) And maybe I’m mistaken about the draw to MSCL. But I’ve cashed in all my angst over this choice for a refocused perspective. I must hold loosely to comfort, quibble not over clarity, and accept His leading eagerly. Where He says, I will go. For my delight is to serve my Father. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Managing the Missing

This morning Bet and I Skyped with a girl potentially looking to teach in Karaganda. She asked us plenty of great questions, and it was joy for me to take the opportunity to remind myself how rewarding and exciting it is to be here. But then she dropped this question on us.

How has it been being away from home? she asked.


It’s strange how my homesickness has warped these past three weeks. It was rough right before we left for Bishkek: I was distressed that I wouldn’t see Sarah and Stuart until they’d already been in the country three days, I was disappointed that the Christmas vibe was elusive and couldn’t be conjured, I was discouraged that summer seemed so, so far away. I poured so much anticipation into Sarah & Stuart’s visit, and I told myself that so long as I could make it to that reunion, I would be fine and the homesickness would dissipate. With tunnel vision I waited for my visitors. 

And when they were here it was a little bit like home was here. 

But when they left it felt a little bit like something had died. 

I just hadn’t thought that far ahead. I hadn’t prepared for their departure. I hadn’t accounted for the possibility that their leaving could and would intensify my homesickness and that I needed to look for relief outside of connection to home. My head keeps telling me that June is not so far away. I’m halfway there. I’ve spent more time here than stands between now and my departure. This second semester is going to fly by. Nevertheless, it sounds positively horrendous that I’m counting the months until I’m homeward bound, I mean, that’s not becoming of a girl who came here trying to die to self and serve others. 

But I love my home and I don’t think this is bad. 

It’s a happy homesickness, you know? Like, this hurts so good, it’s proving to me that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve been missing the dumbest things, like chocolate chips (because chopping up chocolate bars is such the inconvenience) and thick aluminum foil (as opposed to the tissue-thin kind here) and lines. Like I really miss standing in a line and not having a dozen people ask me to hold their place or try to cut in line or flat out ignore the presence of a line because they’re old/pregnant/pretty/important/in a hurry. The quirks of this place that charmed me at first are beginning to make my teeth grind.

But when I reprimand myself I also realize I’m living the dream. Working part time, living for free, experiencing a different culture, and learning to lean on Him who sustains me in so many new ways. The landlord came to check our water the other day, and she chattered at me in Russian when I answered the door, and I was surprised I understood her when she asked why I wasn’t wearing any house shoes when it was so cold. These are the little happinesses I experience every day, the triumph of giving someone directions or cooking a new cut of meat or seeing the vibrance of His glory on display in the sparkly crystals of decimated snowflakes or the messy devotion of His willing servants. 

The greatest irony is the quiet knowledge that when the clock runs out and I leave for the summer, I will miss Karaganda and its aluminum foil and its lack of lines and its astoundingly wonderful people with as unrelenting an intensity that I miss my home now. Missing is a blessing, because it offers itself as proof of love.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What's it like living in -35 cold?

It’s not so much that the quality of the cold is any different. Cold is cold. It’s not a different kind of cold, there’s just more of it. It’s the cold you know and love, just with the intensity turned up. So instead of being able to tolerate the icy air on your seven minute walk to the bus stop, you hit the outside air for five seconds and you feel like you’ve been out there for an eternity. 

The feeling of snot frozen inside your nose is a sensation unlike any other. Usually in the cold my nose runs like a faucet, but once you hit this kind of cold cold your nose gets bone dry because the second you step outside any liquid in your body turns into a solid. When you inhale the coldness of the air freezes all of the precipitation in your throat. 

It’s a perpetual state of not being able to feel your extremities. When you’re out in this cold you’re not even really sure you still have a face because you can’t feel that it’s still there. You yank to open the heavy metal door into your apartment building and your fingers burn like you’ve scalded them on a stove. Your toes feel like little logs.

Weather is not so much of an issue when you’re on break from school and can spend endless hours working from home, or more importantly, inside. But when you’ve eaten every edible thing in your house the hunger compels you to make the frigid walk to the market. It’s funny how the store that seemed to delightfully close in summer is now obnoxiously far away in the winter. I fleetingly considered riding the bus around the block just so I could get out of the wind. The cold makes you irrational like that. 

For a few weeks there it was worse back home than it was here in the tundra. It was hitting negative three some people’s thermostats while we were enjoying the balmy twenties. But in a flash it changed; you could watch that mercury fall and we’ve been shivering ever since. With the polar vortex hitting the northeast hard, just know that I feel your pain. Or rather, I empathize with your icy numbness. What’s it like living in one of the coldest places in the world? It’s an adventure.