Monday, March 31, 2008

There and back again

This morning I left at 6am for Estonia. The bus was nice and empty, so I slept most of the way there. I had no trouble getting across the border, although it took a while and I was cranky.

My ticket said that I would be in Estonia at 10am, and my clock said 11am Russian time, so I assumed that meant that Estonia was one hour behind. When we arrived, however, the clocks around town said 9:00. Hmmmm...Maybe they hadn't changed their clocks yet, which happened yesterday in Russia.

I got off the bus and it was a beautiful spring day, so I decided to go find the fortress that I had seen from the border and take some photos. Yes, this time I had a working camera!

I basically felt like I was in Russia, except that everything was really quiet and still and cars stopped for pedestrians.
There are a lot of WWII memorials around like this one:

I found a path down to the river on the border.

The fortress ended up being pretty boring close up.

I found the railroad trestle more interesting...

After I had explored for awhile, I headed back towards the bus station to check out the town. I noticed that all the clocks were still 2 hours behind Russian time even though they were supposed to be 1 hour behind, so I wondered if my return ticket had the wrong time. It was very confusing. I even asked someone and she said the same thing, 12:00 (versus 2:00 in Russia).

Finally I went to the bus station to make sure. I walked in and the clock said 1:00. One hour off from the other clocks in town. I asked the man at the counter, "Is it 12:00 or 1:00?" "1:00," he said, pointing at the clock and sounding irritated.

Oh well, at least I hadn't missed my bus.

Before I left, I visited an Orthodox church. Because a Russian experience wouldn't be complete without it....

On the way back I crossed the border really easily. The funny part was that at the border crossing I saw one of my friends from St.Petersburg, driving with her parents. She came over and we chatted. So much for scary Russian border control!

I slept on the way back too. Sleep is good.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Today is my father's 63rd birthday! (Oops, I spoiled the secret) Happy Birthday, Dad!

Here and there

No internet on Friday, gone for the weekend, and leaving for Estonia tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. (You can read about my first Estonia trip here).

Hopefully I'll be back tomorrow evening...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Russian literacy

Recently while riding in the metro I sat across from an elderly gentleman. He was not very well-dressed, with mismatched clothing and old sneakers. But then he reached into his bag and pulled out a book, and this book was carefully contained in a plastic book cover. The way he handled the book, you would have thought it was his most treasured possession (maybe it was a library book?). And then he began to read.

The Russian Federation actually has an almost 100% literacy rate, and is a few ranks higher than the U.S. (the country of Georgia has 100%! found on Wikipedia...).

At any given moment when I look around in the metro, probably 75% of the passengers are reading. Maybe it's not all classic literature-I see plenty of tabloids around. But, the people all pull out their reading glasses, produce some reading material, and dig in. Even if it's rush hour and we are all squished up against each other, you can feel a little shift in the crowd as someone reaches into his/her bag and pulls out a book.

I only take a book with me if I can spare the weight. Sometimes I have to make do with reading my students' textbooks. But usually I have trouble concentrating, or trouble balancing while hanging on to my purse with one hand and my book with the other. It's a skill I'll have to work on.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hymn #7

I was a little surprised that my recent hymn e-mail featured "God is so good." I thought of it as more of a praise chorus than a hymn. The hymn compiler wrote that he doesn't like the repetitive nature of the song, and suggested an alternate version with more text. I don't always like repetitive songs much either, but it is possible to get tired of proclaiming God's goodness?

God is so good,
God is so good,
God is so good,
He’s so good to me!

He cares for me,
He cares for me,
He cares for me,
He’s so good to me!

I love Him so,
I love Him so,
I love Him so,
He’s so good to me!

I praise His Name,
I praise His Name,
I praise His Name,
He’s so good to me!

-author unknown

God cares for orphans, Part 5

In our New Family program we have a few families who have been moving forward in their commitment to specific children.

Alina was one of our first participants and was quite committed from the start. It didn’t stop her that she’s 25, single, and shares an apartment with another family. Alina's faith is a great example. And it has confirmed part of the vision of this program-to help people who already have this calling to help orphans, but need someone to walk them through the process.

During our early group activities, Alina noticed two siblings, the younger of three total. As she attended our meetings and began to complete paperwork, she always had them on her heart.

Nastia, Danya, and Nikita’s mother suffers from schizophrenia. She visits them, but can’t care for them. She knows this and is contemplating giving up her parental rights permanently so that they can be adopted.

After taking the younger kids out individually for special outings, Alina then moved to involving all three. She has admitted that it’s a little more challenging with the oldest boy since she doesn’t know him that well, but he likes being included from time to time. They all go out somewhere together or visit Alina’s home and cook a meal.

In the future, Alina may be in a position to become an anchor parent for the kids. Through the “anchor family” concept, she would in essence “adopt” them, claiming ownership and becoming a permanent connection. They would have assurance that she will never abandon them. But because legal or practical concerns might prevent them from being adopted officially and living with her full-time, they would continue to live in the orphanage or somewhere else, and visit her whenever circumstances would allow. They would have a home.

Photo: Ivan Tsaryevich

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Looking forward to looking back

I was reading through my old prayer journal again, seeing if there was anything relevant to my current situation in life. There were some situations that were just downright unpleasant, and I’m glad they’re over. There were other situations that God wonderfully redeemed, and I was pleased to see how He answered my prayers. But even the pleasant situations that I was reminiscing about are not very relevant to my life now. I’m content to be looking back on them, now in a different season and with different issues to focus on.

People sometimes pray, “God, thank you in advance for….” God does answer prayer. But we don’t know what the answer will be. I don’t know if it’s productive to thank Him “in advance” for a healing or a salvation. We don’t know that that will come to pass. What we have are the promises in His Word. We can thank Him in advance for listening and for correcting our desires.

I am looking forward to looking back on my current life in a few years. I am looking forward to seeing what God has done. There are a few trials that I wish would pass more quickly. It’s like when you have an exam looming ahead of you. You know that you will not die from it and you know that it will not go on forever, and that after the end, you will be totally free and not have to face that same trial again. But first….you have to struggle through.

Heaven is one thing to look forward to. But we can experience deliverance in this life, too. David writes, I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD. (Ps. 27:13, 14) There may be hardships that God will not remove, such as physical illnesses, unfulfilled desires, or a “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Cor.12:7) But we can see the goodness of the Lord and experience His grace, and that will give us joy. And we don’t have to wait until the answer comes before rejoicing. The promises have already been given to us.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More photos

Here is a row of kiosk-style shops, a dying breed in St.Petersburg. A lot of shopping now is done in big supermarkets. I have to say that I like self-service, but on the other hand, where do you go if you need just one item and don't have time to stand in line for hours? It was kind of handy in the past, going up to the window and getting a loaf of bread while you were waiting at the bus stop.

I draw the line at meat. You can't see it very well, but the display cases in this kiosk are stacked with different kinds of meat, just sitting in the open air of the shop. You point to which specimen you want, and they hand it to you through the little window.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

This week in amateur photos, #2

Housework, aka I paused while mopping the kitchen floor to admire the way the light was hitting the clean laundry.

I get it from my mom. :)

Monday, March 17, 2008

English for whom?

Recently I had a lesson with Galina, and she showed me some books that she had gotten for free from the library at the orphanage. I began looking through and noticed a few mistakes. When I looked at the publishing information, I saw that the books had been printed by Russian companies in the end of the Soviet Union. I was going to suggest she not use them, but then I noticed that the grammar presentation was decent.

There were also some texts that looked like they could be good for generating discussion. But the content of some of them was….interesting.

Example #1:

Red Square

"Moscow is the capital of the Soviet Union. The streets and squares of the city are wide and clean. Red Square is in the centre of the capital. The Moscow Kremlin is dear to the hearts of the Soviet people. It is well-known to all the people of the world. It is the seat of the Soviet government. You see the national flag of the Soviet Union on the Kremlin Palace. The Kremlin is a symbol of peace and democracy."

Reading on, I found a text about the Prodigal Son. I thought this would be perfect to generate discussion about the Gospel. Alas, no.

Here is an excerpt:

"Rembrandt was the greatest Dutch painter of the 17th century. His masterpieces are kept in all the big museums of the world. There are 26 paintings of his at the Hermitage too. 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' is one of them. In this canvas the artist used the subject of an ancient legend. The picture portrays the meeting of an old father with his son, who has been away from home for many years. With the help of light the painter emphasizes the face of the old man, who has lost eyesight in the long years of wait. The old father is feeling with his hands the figure of his son who is kneeling before him. His son has just returned home and is asking his father for help. The son's poor clothes and his shaven head show that he has gone through many hardships, has seen poverty and want. He has lost faith in life, in future and in happiness. But his kind father is ready to help him."

"In this picture Rembrandt emphasized the humanistic idea of closeness of people, their readiness to help each other in need. This picture was painted in 1668 at the end of the great master's life."

Lieberman et al, English for Art Students, 1989

The original story, that the painting is actually based on:

Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.

13"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So he got up and went to his father.

"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'

22"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

25"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'

28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'

31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

-Gospel of Luke, 15:11-31

On second thought...I could assign her both passages and ask her to do a comparison. Hmmmm.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Brotherly Advice

How did early missionaries accomplish so much? Here is one key: By abstaining from frivolous activities!

This is an excerpt of a letter from Hudson Taylor to his beloved sister, written while on the mission field in China.

"There is one thing I would specially warn you of the greatest curses I believe of the present day-the practice of novel-reading. If you value your mind and soul, avoid it as you would a dangerous serpent. I cannot tell you what I would give to be able to forget certain novels I have read and to efface their influence from my memory. And I firmly believe, though some would deny it,....that no Christian ever did or ever will read them without injury,.....very serious injury too, if the habit is indulged in. It is like opium-smoking, and begets a craving for more that must be supplied. Better books are neglected, and no one can estimate the mischief that results. Few, I believe, could honestly ask God's blessing upon the reading of a novel, and few would venture to assert that they read them to the glory of God. I dread them for you especially as a temptation to which you are constitutionally disposed....for you and I resemble one another very much as to temperament.....The only safety lies in avoiding them as one of Satan's most subtle snares. (Taylor, Hudson Taylor in Early Years: The Growth of a Soul, p.379)"

It's interesting that Hudson Taylor mentions valuing your mind, because I would have asked the question "what about developing your mind?" He apparently thinks that can happen without novel-reading. Perhaps it's imagination that will suffer, but is that a bad thing?

I suppose the key phrase that I agree with is that "better books are neglected." Does anyone really have enough time to read both novels and the Bible to their satisfaction?

Friday, March 14, 2008

What's missing

I have a new teenage girl whom I tutor at the orphanage. After completing her English assignment together, she showed me a poem that she had written in Russian for a composition class. It said something to the effect of:

"Living in the orphanage,
there is no mother when you wake up.
There is no one you can ask,
'Can I stay in bed a little longer?
Or is it time to get up for school?' "

(Major paraphrasing, as I don't remember the exact words).

The kids know what they are missing, even if many years have passed since they've lived in a family. Their counselors feed and clothe them, help with homework, give them advice about difficult situations in life. But at night the counselors go home. No one tucks the children in individually and wakes them up with a motherly touch. This absence is felt even by a "grown-up" fourteen-year-old girl, who in a normal family might already be reaching for independence.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hymn #6

Here I am, Lord

I, the Lord of sea and sky,

I have heard my people cry.

All who dwell in dark and sin,

My hand will save.


Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me.

I will hold your people in my heart.

I, who made the stars of night,

I will make their darkness bright.

Who will bear my light to them?

Whom shall I send?


Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me.

I will hold your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of snow and rain,

I have borne my people’s pain.

I have wept for love of them.

They turn away.


Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me.

I will hold your people in my heart.

I will break their hearts of stone,

Give them hearts for love alone.

I will speak my words to them.

Whom shall I send?


Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me.

I will hold your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of wind and flame,

I will send the poor and lame.

I will set a feast for them.

My hand will save.


Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me.

I will hold your people in my heart.

Finest bread I will provide,

'Til their hearts be satisfied.

I will give my life to them.

Whom shall I send?


Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me.

I will hold your people in my heart.

To listen to the melody, go here.

Words and Music by Daniel L Schutte© 1981
Genesis 46:2"And God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night,and said, Jacob, Jacob. And he said, Here am I."

I had this hymn written in my prayer journal from sophomore year of college after a missions-oriented Intervarsity meeting. I like the words and call-and-response style of the song. But when I was meditating on it, I also had the conviction that when serving in another country, it's easy to place oneself in the role of Saviour. It's important to note that in the song (and in life), the Lord is the one who saves, sends, makes, breaks, provides, heals. We are the ones who respond and go, but all we can really do is open our hearts and wait for Him to move through us.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Meditation, part 2

To continue an earlier post, I wanted to mention this quote from Charles Spurgeon.

"I like to open the Bible and pray, "Lord God, let the words leap off the page into my soul; make them vivid, powerful, and fresh to my heart."

"How are we to handle this sword of 'It is written'? First, with deepest reverence. Let every word that God has spoken be law and gospel to you. Never trifle with it; never try to evade its force or change its meaning. God speaks to you in this book as much as if he came to the top of Sinai and lifted up his voice with thunder.
I like to open the Bible and pray, 'Lord God, let the words leap off the page into my soul; make them vivid, powerful, and fresh to my heart.'"
Our Lord Himself felt the power of the Word. It was not so much the devil who felt the power of 'It is written" as Christ Himself. The manhood of Christ felt an awe of the Word of God, and so the Word became a power to Christ. To trifle with Scripture is to deprive yourself of its aid. Reverence it, and look up to God with devout gratitude for having given it to you. "
-Charles Spurgeon, Spiritual Warfare in a Believer's Life (P.81)

I found some of his sermons at I'm having a little trouble connecting to the site, though...

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Men, Part 2

This post is actually about Women's Day, but I like the "Men" title better.

International Women's Day was on March 8th. After my Saturday lessons, I celebrated Women's Day by going out and buying myself a skirt, so I could feel a little more like a lady. :)

In the evening I didn't feel like sitting at home, so I went to a free classical music concert featuring a piano/violin/cello trio playing Schubert and Tchaikovsky. It was very relaxing.

I got home and fell asleep before midnight (although I kept being woken up by text messages which had been delayed by holiday traffic). On Sunday morning I didn't have to rush because the guys at church had taken responsibility for worship and childcare, so I didn't have any rehearsing or set-up to do. In the metro people were still laden with flowers and gift bags. Apparently the holiday was continuing.

At church the men led worship and then we listened to a women-themed sermon which began with a poem about the ideal "Russian woman" who is all sweet and hospitable at home and then the next moment can be found out in the fields swinging a sickle. But the sermon was actually based on a different text, Proverbs 31. Biblical, yes. But attainable? I'm not sure which model of the "ideal" women is more realistic. :)

We were also treated to Psalm recitation, serenades, and other musical numbers. I made a little video (see the end of the post) with some excerpts. English-speakers should recognize the first song!

Another one of the songs was dedicated to the little girls at church. Most of the families have daughters. A few families have boys, but those families come less often, so it often seems like we have only girls! The guy who sang the song for daughters has a 3-yr-old. She and another 3-yr-old often roam around during the service. In and out, in and out, following after each other or looking for a "stray" parent. An endless loop. When the song for daughters began, they had been out in the hallway, but soon entered the room. They glanced at the wall where a slideshow had begun. "That's me!" one shouted, recognizing her photo. They both got up close to the slides, pointing and shouting with joy.

It was an "audience-participation"-friendly concert. At the end, we finally got to find out what was in those mysterious boxes, as the men passed out chocolate to the ladies. It was a good holiday.

Denis waves goodbye:

Our bachelors :)

Watch the video!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Enigmatic Russia

One of the things that is confusing to me about living in Russia is how people are not informed about the developments that happen in everyday life. Things have a way of appearing and disappearing out of thin air.

Maybe these are just experiences of life in a busy city? I'm used to a small city where everyone knows what's going on. Or, at least, they discuss events so earnestly that everyone finds out. But here...

1) I have left my building and am headed for the metro. Across the street, thick smoke pours out of a building. People walk right by, staring at their feet as always. There are no fire-fighters or police or anything. The building burns down.

2) I go to my favorite convenience store to pick up some lunch. 24 hours ago it was a fully-functioning mini-grocery store. Today, it is...closed? For good? A peek through the windows shows empty shelves. What happened?

3) I'm waiting for the tram (or the trolley/bus/you name it). It is nowhere in sight. Was there an accident? A delay? Other forms of transportation come and go, and not a word about what happened to the ones that aren't showing up. Should I keep waiting?

4) The grocery store. The one in my neighborhood is, shall we say, not my favorite. But it's close by, so I go there. Normally, there is very little fresh produce. Recently, I added "tomatoes" to my list with a question mark, not expecting there to be any. But when I got to the store, there was a fresh supply of red, ripe tomatoes, along with cucumbers, different fruits, and carrots (which are also usually lacking). I was in shock about this huge selection, which contrasted with the usual situation. What happened? Where did all this food suddenly come from? And, another question, where did the brand-new flat-screen tvs come from? Why does the store constantly run out of basic staples, yet have brand-new technology? I am so confused.

5) Around the neighborhood, little improvements sometimes appear from time to time: a newly painted bench, new playground equipment, or the new mailboxes, as was the case in my old building. And yet, the non-functioning elevators are forgotten. I just wonder sometimes, who makes the decisions about what should be fixed first? And is there preference given to what is more visible (benches) over the hidden yet important factors that affect the quality of life (having a working shower)?

6) I'm not sure I have ever seen a "hard hat area" sign in Russia. At construction (or demolition) sites, it does not seem to be the practice to post signs about hazardous conditions or instructions about what to do. Today I was walking down the street and there was an open collapsed manhole in the middle of the street. There was a long stick standing in it, presumably to warn pedestrians and motorists.

One theory of course is that Americans are simply starved for information. We demand it. We're used to media frenzies surrounding every minor event. And we're also afraid of lawsuits, which explains our thoroughness in labelling every potentially dangerous or controversial situation. But, I rather like being informed. It seems like a good idea to me. Media reports can of course be false, but there needs to be a standard method of getting information out, rather than waiting for rumors to spread among the people!

In other news, I'm getting ready to go to Congo (the DRC) in May. I'll be staying in Kinshasa, the capital city. Here's something I found out recently:

" The name comes from the Kongo word kinsasa, meaning 'why are things happening this way.'" (Sorry, I forgot the source) Apparently the Congolese are puzzled about life as well!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Men, Part 1

I’ve been discovering how much I dislike non-religious holidays. I love Christmas and Easter, and I like Thanksgiving because I can at least direct my thanks to God. I dislike New Year’s. I can tolerate Valentine’s Day because it holds some fun traditions and it’s a good opportunity to show people that you care. When you live in your native country, you at least have the nostalgia and feelings of ritual to associate with the holidays. But when the holiday is new and you don’t have special traditions, it can seem meaningless, and celebrating can seem like a stressful obligation.

Last week a Russian holiday was observed. Officially it’s the day honoring defenders of the Motherland, a tribute to men who have served/are serving in the army. Unofficially, it’s “Men’s Day.” Being consistent with my dislike of ambiguous holidays, I was feeling irritated, for a few different reasons: 1) I wasn’t sure how recognizing men who have served in the Russian military is related to my faith. 2) I didn’t know how to “celebrate.” 3) The wretched, horrible drinking that went on.

I didn’t witness the drinking myself, I only witnessed the aftermath. Riding in the metro early on Sunday morning, I began to notice the youth making their way home after a long night. On any other weekend, it might have seemed “normal.” But it seemed tragic that a holiday honoring the courage and strength of men would reduce them to a state of being weak and hung-over.

I was almost at church and passed two men, one drunk, the other propping him up. Trying to redirect my thoughts, I reminded myself that I was going to a meeting where there are Russian men who love the Lord. I arrived and was filled with peace as men led worship, helped care for the children, imparted knowledge through the Word, and in other ways served the rest of us.

It is the Lord who has the strength to defend Russia from the powers of darkness, but He equips those He calls, and uses them to carry out His will on earth. And Russian men are a part of that calling. I'm thankful for that.

5 years later

 After my latest  weird dream sequence , I found my mind wandering to an alternate scenario where our church never split up . I did the math...