Saturday, January 31, 2009

Advice for missionaries

I had been thinking of writing a missionary post anyway, and then missionary-blogs posted a writing assignment, so I decided to participate. In a few days (after Feb. 1st), their site should have some other entries listed, so that you can read about some different perspectives.

As a missionary in St. Petersburg, Russia, I’m writing this from the perspective of living in another culture. I’ve skipped the decision-making/preparation phases and moved right into how to behave after you've arrived. However, these tips could be used when choosing a mission to partner with, as it's important to find like-minded teammates. I also don’t have much experience with “unreached” people groups, so some of this only applies in cases where a local church is already established.

Here are just a few thoughts that immediately spring to mind:

1- Learning the language is a given in contemporary missiology, but there should be guidelines. Use discernment as to what situations are good for language practice and what situations are better for using an interpreter. If you do have to use an interpreter, try to listen to both languages and compare, using it as a learning experience. And above all, pray for the Holy Spirit to equip you. I was amazed in the early days when I would come home from a meeting and think to myself, "How did I just communicate with someone all day in Russian?"

2- Humble thyself in a way that builds other people up. If you are just being a stupid American (Norwegian, etc.), you may lose some of your pride, but you are not building up others. If you are trying out a few words in the local language just to be cute and make people laugh, that’s also kind of a stretch. But if you are putting to death your sinful pride and making a genuine attempt, it will help you build relationships. At the same time, letting the people you are ministering to communicate in their own language means that they will be more at ease. This applies to many aspects of cultural exchange, not just language. Wear the local costumes, eat the local food, etc., but don't draw attention to yourself in the process. You are not a hero. If you genuinely like something, pay a compliment, but don't act as though you are in a zoo looking at some exotic animals. If you have to make a cultural comparison, do so in a way that doesn't make others feel inferior.

3- Ask for advice. Sometimes it strikes me how ironic it is that we sit and discuss missions strategies endlessly and try to devise ways to reach a certain culture, when we could just ask a native person. When writing something in another language, ask someone to proofread it. When generating ideas for ministry, ask for opinions. Ask “how am I doing?” Or “is there anything I’m doing that’s inappropriate?” Proverbs 15:22 says, Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed (NIV).

4- Don’t make assumptions about intellect or spiritual maturity. The person/people you are serving may be more educated than you. This is another reason to learn the language. I once had a calculus professor who was not a US native. He spoke English with an accent, and students assumed he was “not all there” and played jokes on him. Yet he likely had a Ph D and was an intellectual giant in his homeland. That’s an extreme case, but my point is that factors like accents and mannerisms can be misleading. Also, if you are in a Christianized nation, someone might know the Bible better than you or even have more missionary experience. He or she might know better what it’s like to be persecuted. So don’t assume that what you are preaching is new information and that you are providing enlightenment.

5- Constantly evaluate your devotion to Christ. Test your heart, and ask God to test you. Think about whether you are acting on your emotions or on the Holy Spirit. Think about whether you are acting out of love for people or love for Christ. Both are good, but love for Christ is more important.

6- Be observant in order to more effectively deal with awkward situations. It is impossible to memorize all the rules immediately. If you look around, you will see that there is a certain way of doing things. Yet, even among members of the same culture, uncomfortable situations arise. What if you really can’t swallow what is put in front of you? What if you suddenly need to use the bathroom? What if you feel embarrassed because you were late? These are all facts of life, and you shouldn’t feel traumatized if you face a similar situation. Watch what other people do, and if you can’t figure it out, discretely ask someone whom you know. If you are prone to worrying about it, always have an emergency plan. Regardless, don’t worry about being human. After some practice you will learn how to quickly look around and by observation do as everyone else does. And if you still find yourself making mistakes, learn how to make heartfelt apologies.

7- Pay attention to what is valued, and try to adapt accordingly. Maybe they are very careful to keep things clean, or say thank you. Maybe children are highly venerated, maybe the elderly. Maybe New Year’s is a big holiday, or it could be Christmas instead. Or it could be some obscure holiday that you didn't know existed until you wake up and everyone is home from work and congratulating each other and you are confused. You will notice differences and think to yourself, “I wonder why they are paying so much attention to __________ and neglecting ___________.” There is often no logical explanation, just like in your own culture there is none. Accept it and try to adapt as best you can.

8- Make friends. Surround yourself with people who will protect your weaknesses and affirm your strengths. Pursue fellowship with other missionaries who will understand your struggles but not constantly distract you with thoughts of home. Foster relationships in a church body, in whatever format seems appropriate to your situation. Meet regularly with people who will hold you accountable. Learn to confess sin and weakness, to at least a few trusted people. It will help you once you have moved beyond the honeymoon period and are in need of counsel. If you didn't do this from the very beginning, it's not too late to start. Proverbs has some good advice about seeking the right kind of companions and friends.

9- Don’t be ashamed. This is similar to #6 where I advise you not to fear awkward situations. There is a difference between being humble and being ashamed and cowardly. God didn't make a mistake when He made you. He made you to be born in one country and possibly to serve in another; to have this gift and not that one. You have a message to share, whether it is a sermon or a simple word of encouragement. He lets you experience weakness in order to bring Himself glory. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says, But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.

10- Your turn! Do you have anything to add?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Meeting the TESOL participants

I actually got out of the house today! And before lunchtime!

I went to visit my trainer from my TESOL certification program that I completed in August. I got there in time to meet the current trainees before they went to lunch. On the way over, I had practiced giving "expert" answers to questions about teaching ESOL. I had been practicing in my head.

Unfortunately, they did not ask the questions I was expecting! Someone asked "Why Russia?" which gave me an opportunity to go back to the summer camp days and do a brief summary.

The trainer asked what paid jobs for foreigners can be found in Russia, other than teaching English. I drew a complete blank and started babbling about "90 days" and "visas." So much for encouraging future travelers!

Then a girl asked if having the certificate had opened up career opportunities for me. I didn't mention that no one has asked to see my certificate yet, but I said that it opened up more professional positions as opposed to just tutoring or volunteering. And I mentioned that the certification provided good classroom preparation, above all.

The class was finishing up the "Cultural Awareness" module, and I observed for the last half-hour. They watched a video clip that I had seen. I can't seem to find where I blogged about it in the summer, if at all , but it portrayed the conversational styles of different cultures, comparing them with bowling, basketball, and rugby. I'm not going to comment on which sport corresponds to which culture. You can make your guesses. :)

Some of the women (the class was all females) seemed actually shocked at the suggestion of labeling people this way. They called it stereotyping, even racism. Many of them appeared to be young, liberal college students, and I imagine quite concerned about being politically correct. I do understand how wrong it sounds to say that "_________ are timid" and "____________ are always interrupting." But when you see it in action and aren't used to it, it helps you observe what is normal and abnormal behavior for someone from a certain culture group. And, as the trainer pointed out, it helps with classroom management to be able to observe which cultural groups are more or less outspoken. But she was very diplomatic and explained that of course there were other factors, such as gender, personality, etc.

I walked home along the college campus and enjoyed catching glimpses of student life: the campus "grunge" style with sweatpants tucked into boots; the practical jokes such as a snow fort labeled as a dormitory annex. Stereotypes help things make sense, sometimes.

Getting ready to return

I will probably keep mentioning visa stuff on here, but I wanted to change the focus.

For the past year, obtaining a visa has been the major theme. And even when I finally get to go back to Russia in a month or so, I'll be spending a lot of time planning my next visa move. I guess it's the season that I'm in.

I feel a little bit like I've been robbed (or robbed myself) of the higher purpose. Just like finding a job, moving, dealing with illness, these dilemmas are the facts of life. We do have to pay attention to them, and we do have to sometimes put other activities on hold while we deal with them.

But I don't want to forget everything else. I feel like it's been pushed aside, but it's still there. I was watching a movie about a custody battle, and I could feel the compassion for the orphans rising up. I couldn't remain indifferent, television or not.

I might have to change my vision a little, but it will come back.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The economic crisis gets personal

The "crisis" has come around to my little corner of the universe. I'm going to give some background information, but if you know all this, scroll to the end for an update.

August 2007- I receive my usual 12-month multi-entry business visa (charity purposes) with no restrictions.

October 2007- New visa law is passed, but is a bit vague. Will I have to leave in November since I got my visa in September? Will it apply to our kind of work, since we're non-profit? Are there going to be any amendments?

Late 2007- Looks like it applies to us, although my current visa is still good under the old regime. Time to start looking for options before it runs out.

June 2008- I found a place that will get me a work visa sometime in October 2008. I just have to get a 3-month visa for the gap period.

August 2008- 12-month visa is expired. I'm in the U.S. getting another business visa, 3-month this time since I can't stay any longer than that.

September 2008- enter Russia, start new job.

October 2008- no work permit yet. That's okay, I still have another month.

November 2008- 3-month visa is expiring. They are saying December now for the work permit. I'll go to the States and wait it out.

December 2008- Now I'm hearing February for the work permit.

January 2009- I won't have the work permit until April, so I'll have to get another 3-month visa until then. But am I allowed another 3-month visa before the 90-days are up?

And here's the latest:
-we have lost our clients due to the economic crisis. There is "no work" for our teachers right now.
-no work means no work permit. No work permit means no work visa. It's back to square one!
-I need a work visa or a student visa. Or I can come and go every 90 days. I've begun Googling "work for missionaries in St. Petersburg" yet again. My own blog comes up. Not very helpful! Working had seemed like the better option since I've been teaching anyway. However, with the lack of job opportunities I am not sure anymore. Hopefully there will be clarity soon...
-In another month (end of February-beginning of March), I can get another 90-day visa to Russia and try to figure things out while I'm there.

You know, maybe it's a good thing that I didn't get a work permit. It would be kind of useless with the job loss.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Introductions, part 2

It's time to continue with my list of favorite blogs and why I read them. Read part 1 here.

The following are a few sites in Russian that I personally recommend. They provide an opportunity to get a taste of Russian culture from the perspective of Christians who live there.

1) Mimohodom is the website of my church in St. Petersburg. Features include movie and book reviews, articles on matters concering the church, observations about society, and helpful links.

2) Andrey is one of the contributors to mimohodom, and has his own blog, where he writes book reviews, discusses philosophical and theological questions, and recommends interesting tools for personal discipline.

Here are a few sites maintained by adoptive parents:

2) Jill is the adoptive mom of Lolita, one of my former students at the orphanage, and blogs about Lolita's new life in the U.S.

1) I forget how Annie and I found each other's blogs. We must have a mutual blogging friend or something. Anyway, Annie is a Catholic mom who blogs about her adopted Russian children.

3) I'm just adding this blog now. Tim was a Young Life leader and they are in the process of adopting two little boys from Haiti. They could use your prayers!

And finally, here are some blogs that aren't related to me personally, but are fun to read.

1) Amy is the mother of six children, but that's not all she writes about. Along with entertaining anecdotes of her family's move to a farm, she provides a fresh outlook on many moral issues that Christians face today.

2) Recipezaar is my favorite cooking website because it has lots of photos, is easily-navigable, and shows ratings. I always sort by the highest rated recipes and then I feel like I'm getting something that has been well-tested. This brownie recipe is definitely a winner.

3) Boundless Webzine is a Christian singles' website sponsored by Focus on the Family. You can find articles about many current events, along with the inevitable questions that young Christians face. There are interesting discussions on the blog page, although you have to wait for comment moderation.

4) Young Ladies Christian Fellowship is self-explanatory, but they basically exist to encourage young ladies. However, they are careful with what they publish and the site is refreshingly free of the idle talk that sometimes infiltrates women's fellowship.

5) Biblical Womanhood is mostly about homemaking and child-rearing. Its author, Crystal, is always sharing ideas about staying organized, saving money, fostering spiritual discipline, and managing toddlers, all for the glory of God. I can't always relate to all her posts, but I'm storing up ideas for later!

So those are the blogs I read. Let me know if you have any recommendations or if you have a blog that I've somehow missed.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Epiphany/90 days is a whole season

90 days is a long time. I was doing the math, and if I do have to stay out of Russia for 90 days, then I can go back around March 1st.

Do you know what March 1st is? March 1st is the first day of spring in Russia. That means that I, in effect, skipped winter in Russia!

(This photo was taken at the end of February a few years ago. Doesn't exactly look like spring is approaching)

So thank you, Russian government. It was very kind of you. However, I don't want to skip summer. So hopefully I will have a long-term visa by June!

My desk is getting cluttered...

Yes, that's a nativity set I have out. I hit the after-Christmas sales on Amazon and finally found one I liked.

The only problem is that I wanted to take it to Russia, but I'm not sure how I'm going to fit it in my suitcase! As you can see, it's not exactly miniature...

P.S. See that little door behind the nativity figurines? That's where the animal lives. There's another door next to my bed and two more in the corner. Today I woke up at 3am to lots of noises. It sounded like a feeding fest or something.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Misha gets adopted

I received confirmation that Misha's adoption went through and that he is already with his new family. Praise the Lord! I know that the wait can be hard. When kids are waiting to be adopted or are unsure of their status, they sometimes become withdrawn. It's like they don't want to invest any more energy in current relationships or activities since they are going to be leaving (I can relate!). When you have a clearer timeframe, it is easier to treasure your last moments with people. But when you don't know, it can be very confusing.

Welcome to the U.S., Misha!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dobson and Bundy

As January 23rd is the 20th anniversary of his interview with Ted Bundy, Dr. James Dobson will be appearing on Fox News tonight (Friday) to recall that conversation, in which they discussed pornography's role in Bundy's life.

I wasn't aware that this interview had taken place, but when I did a quick search, most of the articles I initially found actually disputed Dobson's claims and said that Dobson had either lied about the interview or been manipulated by Bundy.

I was surprised to find comments denying the existence of porn addiction and opposing Dobson's attempts to limit the distribution of porn.

Dobson has been quoted as saying:
“No, not everyone who uses pornography becomes a murderer, but there are serious consequences to pornography addiction. Studies done since my conversation with Bundy have documented corrosive effects on marriages and families, such as increased marital distress and risk of separation and divorce; decreased marital intimacy and sexual satisfaction; and a devaluation of monogamy, marriage and child-rearing." (from Focus on the Family)

But people are angry that their "freedom" is in jeopardy because of people like Dobson. The irony is that seeking "freedom" makes us slaves to sin.

Anyway, I just wanted to mention the interview in case anyone wanted to watch it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Introductions, Part 1

I decided it's about time to introduce my favorite blogs. There is a reason I read each one, so I will dedicate a few posts to explaining why they are interesting to me.

1) Leaves and Seas. Mary and I met through my blog and then we met in real-life when she came to St. Petersburg to volunteer in a transitional "family" home for orphans. She accompanied me to one of the orphanages during her stay. Now her blog continues as she decides what to do next.

2) I met the Bulls through my blog as well, and they spent about the same time period as Mary in another of the transitional homes. The Bulls have four kids, and the husband and wife were able to procure student visas in order to extend their stay in St. Petersburg. They share a lot of fun cultural observations as well as their heart for orphans.

3) Pastor Steve is the pastor of my sending church. Although he was installed when I was already in Russia, I enjoy listening to his sermons when I'm home and experiencing the energy he brings to our fellowship. He hasn't updated for awhile, but by looking at his past posts and the discussion, you can get an idea of the spiritual and culture climate that I grew up in!

4) Masha is a dear friend from Russia who probably knows more about American culture than I do, and has a great sense of humor. She started a blog in English which I HOPE she will continue when she finds the strength and energy!

5) Mthatha Mission is by Jesse, a former classmate from elementary-high school. He works with a medical mission in South Africa. Jesse is a great writer and he updates frequently. I can appreciate many of his observations as a fellow missionary, even though his daily activities are a bit different from mine.

6) Mustard Seed Missions is my church's ongoing outreach in Haiti. Brothers and sisters from my church partner with Haitian Christians and visit regularly to provide medical care, humanitarian aid, etc.

7) This blog by another Elizabeth is no longer being updating. However, I think her writing is so insightful that I will leave this link up as long as the posts are accessible. Elizabeth lived in the same transitional home that later hosted Mary. She writes from her heart about the ups and downs of trying to provide foster care to Russian orphans.

8) Shelly is a good friend of mine who was a Young Life leader while I was in high school. I still hang out with her when I'm home. Her blog is mainly personal family updates, and I like reading it while I'm in Russia, although Facebook has become a more accurate source. :)

9) My friend Ruth is a kindred spirit from college. She's just returned to the States from Korea, and her husband recently entered seminary. Her older posts are about teaching English in Korea, and current posts focus more on family updates and readjusting to living in the U.S.

10) McArtsy (otherwise known as Emily) is my beloved older sister. She writes mainly about finding moments for creativity in her life. You can see some of her art on her blog and also on her Etsy page.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Note to blog authors: If you want me to remove/correct the info about your site, let me know.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Impressions of the inauguration

I was touched by the inauguration today overall, but certain aspects left me thinking...

-The kids that are little now won't remember a time before we had a black president. Imagine that!

-I hadn't seen a lot of coverage of Obama during the campaign. He strikes me as reserved; very hard to read. That could be a plus as he seems good at holding his tongue. But I hope he will loosen up a little too sometimes.

-Everyone seemed amazed by the speech. I think it was well-written but I didn't really hear anything new. He basically reiterated what he had said a lot during his campaign.

-I'm sad about what is going to happen with abortion laws now.

-I think for raising national morale the inauguration was a success, and Americans are generally in a state of euphoria. But I'm wondering about foreign relations. I care about domestic policies too, but as I live overseas a lot of the time, I think more now about how the U.S. is regarded abroad. I think that people in other nations are hopeful about the changes Obama will bring. But Obama's message was very "We're number 1." If he talked about brotherhood, it was more in a sense of between Americans. He did mention helping starving countries, and it is important to recognize that role as a wealthy nation. Yet it didn't seem to be along the lines of cooperation and negotiation.*

-The benediction was interesting but didn't seem very reverent. It was definitely in the spirit of tolerance and "we are all one." I was confused during one part when the reverend said, "Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will." (excerpt of transcript courtesy Federal News Service) Now, whose will was he talking about here? Is he implying that we all pray to the same god?

-I suppose it makes me uncomfortable that Obama is being hailed as a kind of savior. As he was speaking and everyone was cheering, I thought about how I don't really like to say "amen" when it's not in a church setting. If the person isn't standing on the authority of the Scriptures, can I fully support his ideas? How do I know whether or not President Obama is following the Lord?

But I don't have to know everything in order to be able to submit and pray for him.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. -Rom. 13:1

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. -1 Timothy 2:1

*EDIT: After publishing this, I took a look at the transcript of the speech. And I was wrong about Obama not mentioning cooperation.

He said:

"Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet."
Earlier in the speech, he had said:
"And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more." (emphasis mine; transcript courtesy ABC News)

It's this "ready to lead" phrase that I was referring to in terms of "we're number 1." It's possible that he meant we should be initiators of peace, rather than that we are the greatest. So I can't really be sure. But I think that Americans need to be careful of their speech, because we really do come across as arrogant sometimes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The effects of having lived in Russia

Here are my most recent observations, continuing the series which you can find here and here.

These are my own observations...

-Your cursive r's come out looking like p's.

-When someone asks if you want something, instead of saying, "Yes, I do," you say, "Yes, I want." (At least, that's how it comes out in your head as you translate from Russian to English)

-You can't remember how to write a check (I suppose that could be true for an ex-pat anywhere).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Things I miss about Russia

The other day I was going downstairs and someone said, "Oh, you're done with your shower." Yes, I was. But suddenly I wanted to be in Russia and hear someone say to me, "S'lyokim parom!"

That's my own transliteration, by the way, for С легким паром.

With the s, l, and y there it's quite the consonant cluster and pretty hard to pronounce. Then after a brief vowel sound there are a g and a k together. Impossible!

The first word means "light" and the second word means "steam," and you are basically congratulating someone after he/she comes out of the bath. The Russian banya (which is like a sauna, but different) had (has) a lot of steam, and that's where the term comes from.

I still haven't been to a banya. Hmmmm, I'll have to remedy that sometime in the near future.

When we were at camp we used to say it because the communal shower rooms there get pretty steamy with the heat from the boiler. We made up our own translation: "Congratulations, you are clean!" It's a pretty rough translation, but it worked for us. :)

(Ирония судьбы или) с легким паром is also the name of a classic Russian film that I had to watch in college. I had only studied Russian for about two years at that time and didn't understand much, but the professor did a good job of explaining. Now I can understand it on my own. :) It's an entertaining movie.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Girly stuff

My sister Anastasia is getting married this summer, and I spent the day with her at a bridal expo. We don't get to spent a lot of time together, so it was fun. Nastia got to wear a sticker that identified her role in the wedding.

We went around to all the booths collecting information and free gifts. I dutifully sampled all the cakes while Nastia looked at brochures and interviewed potential videographers.

There were tons of products and services that I never would have even thought of. We saw dresses modeled on a runway, dance demonstrations, caterers, tooth whitening services, ring cleanings, midwife services (not kidding... but no demonstrations, thankfully), honeymoon tour agencies, fancy chair covers, hair/makeup artists, dj's, etc. We checked out a few limousines as well as a "party bus."

We also sampled a photo booth that you could rent for your wedding. You get instant photos of your guests which they can then potentially paste into the guestbook accompanying a note.

Here we are wearing our complimentary lei's that we got at a hula demonstration. I think it goes great with my Russian winter coat...

A mother and daughter were running a tattoo/caricature station. Nastia sat for a caricature while I sampled some more food.

It's not a very close resemblance...

I can see how it would be easy to get carried away. I could imagine planning a simple, frugal wedding and then hitting the bridal expo and getting tempted by all the offerings. I mean, how could I resist a chocolate fountain or a ride in a horse and carriage?

Even in a time of economic crisis, consumerism manages to prevail...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What the world needs

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. "Peace, peace," they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:11, NIV)

Sometimes I wonder, what is this thing called "peace" that everyone is talking about? What do people mean when they say they wish for "world peace"?

Have you ever been to a peace rally? If so, why? And how did you feel, standing there with everyone else? Did you feel united? If so, united by what? And for what purpose?

Since I watched the Lord of the Rings Trilogy recently, I have been thinking about war and all the different dynamics. One of the things that strikes me about the story is their clear goal and how much they will risk to fight for it.

But another thing that strikes me is that each side is fighting in earnest. It's easy to hate the orcs or the goblins, those scary and ugly creatures, while rooting for the cute, furry ones.

But Sam (or Faramir in the film version) makes an interesting observation about a southern fighter who had been recruited by Sauron and lands practically in their laps, having been killed by a ranger.
It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace - all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind. (Book IV, chapter 4, The Two Towers)

There are a lot of war movies which also capture this well. An example which I saw recently is Joyeux Noel, in which the point of view of three different countries is portrayed: as schoolchildren learning geography, as soldiers fighting for a cause, as mere humans experiencing fear and suffering.

The point is that, as it says in the Bible, our battle is not against flesh and blood. If we say we are fighting against evil, we can't mean another country. Because another country, no matter how corrupt, is made up of humans, who are not our true enemy.

When I'm invited to pray for peace, I feel a little uncomfortable because in an "interfaith" environment, I'm not sure whom the others are praying to. That makes it a little hard to come together to pray.

I'm also not always sure how to pray about peace. Of course it is a worthy goal, but I'm not sure that there will ever be peace on earth. In the account of Jesus' birth, the angels proclaim, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." (Luke 2:14,NIV) There is no promise here of peace to all.

Returning to Jeremiah, I don't want to be a false prophet who tells people it's safe when it's not. Or that lighting a candle and holding hands will help somehow. I don't even want to tell them that a peace treaty means progress, when they haven't made peace with God. Maybe it's important to support their ideas and share their pain. I'm certainly not going to shut the door in their face and say that I don't support peace or that it doesn't matter that people are out there dying. But I want to do more than just sympathize. I want to tell the whole Truth of the victory that has already been won and of the peace with God that won't be achieved by human efforts. And of the life that awaits us beyond the grave, if we believe. The message should be "Peace, peace...with the God who loves us and whose Son is preparing a place for us, if we believe."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Prayer rooms

My church held a 24-hr prayer rally this weekend. The goal was to come together in prayer. People signed up for time slots or just dropped in when they were able. The point was for it to keep going.

The prayer rally started on Friday evening and I went in on Saturday afternoon. There was one room set up to be the room where you prepared your heart, whether you were coming from work, home, etc. There were a lot of little touches like cds of worship music to use, Bibles and books on prayer, paper for taking notes or drawing, curtains for privacy, etc.

After the preparation room, one could wander into a second room to join others. There wasn't a lot of conversation going on, just continual prayer, but some participants were sharing quietly about what God was putting on their hearts. There were lists posted of possible needs to focus on: Global and local issues, church issues, individuals, healing, guidance, and others.

As people finished, they just got up and quietly left.

I like that there was the preparation room. Sometimes all we need to enter into prayer are those practical details, like a quiet room. Nothing fancy.

I liked how the sanctity of the atmosphere was respected. It felt good for once not to hear any frivolous talk or gossip (and not to participate in any), but to hear only silence or soft voices of Christians having fellowship.

Sometimes when I enter a church meeting I'm torn between wanting to sit down and focus and wanting to be friendly and greet people. Of course a third option is if I'm participating in the service and then I don't have much of a choice! It makes sense to spend time preparing at home, but let's be honest, a lot of things can happen between when you walk out the door and when you get to church.

I am not sure about the 24-hr part since it's not a typical situation. But I like the idea of having a quiet place always available for prayer.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What's in the news

Christmas is over; time to move on to other interesting topics! Our local newspaper today featured a piece on the theory of evolution. The front page was devoted to a story about a local college instructor who is campaigning for awareness about evolution. He's concerned that his native country of Pakistan and other Muslim countries are missing out by not making it a regular part of the school curriculum.

He comments,
We simply cannot afford a mass rejection of evolution by 1/6 of the world’s population. Muslims are already behind in contributions to science and technology. If they reject evolution, there goes the hope that they could catch up. How many geniuses in this large population could we lose because of a culture that rejects evolution?* (A1)
I was a little confused by what this man meant about not being able to "afford" it and "losing" geniuses. What does he think is at stake? Another of his comments was interesting, though. Part of his rationale behind desiring to educate Muslims about evolution is that by association they see evolution as an atheist and/or Western idea.

"If evolution is associated with atheism or appears as a choice, either evolution or religion, then there is no question-people will accept religion."* (B6)

I can understand how frustrating it can be when you believe in something and everyone ties certain stereotypes to it and won't even listen to what you have to say.

I do associate evolution with atheism. I have encountered defensive non-believing scientists on many occasions. I remember my biology teacher saying, "They want us to call it a 'theory.' But it's not, it's a fact."

Paired with the above article was a question and answer session with a non-believing author of a book on evolution. Mr. Werth is apparently convinced of the importance of evolution. As he says, “Talk to any biologist and they’ll tell you there is no understanding of biology without evolutionary theory…” ** (B6)

He explains how Christians have gotten in the way of evolution being universally accepted in the U.S. It's interesting to hear about the "battle" from his viewpoint.
It’s all to do with the power of religious force in our society…First, they put forth creation science (a move to use scientific facts and fossil records to discredit scientists’ versions of the history of the Earth and man’s creation), but the court struck that down. There’s no science in creationism. Then they developed the idea of intelligent design…but that didn’t wash at all because it didn’t have any scientific theory.

Then there was the Dover case (which tried the legality of forcing teachers to educate students about intelligent design as an alternative to evolution) in 2006, and that was really the last gasp of intelligent design. The judges said no, (intelligent design) cannot be taught side by side with evolution. ** (B6)
"Developed the idea" of intelligent design! As if the Bible hadn't been around before that and we suddenly invented it for the sake of argument!

Is this an important topic for Christians? I think it's rather telling when the front page of the newspaper as well as additional pages can be devoted to Darwin. It's also interesting that conservative Christians are seen as opponents of modern education. Darwin followers write articles like these, assessing how many people have accepted the "truth," how many have denied evolution and slipped away, which obstacles make it hard for the "truth" to be made known to all and accepted.

Doesn't this all sound a little like us when we talk about Christianity? It just seems a little like religion to me. Any kind of knowledge, when it takes the place of God, or, when it claims to have authority over God's word, is dangerous, in my opinion.

*Palpini, Kristin. "Darwin's Disciple." Daily Hampshire Gazette. January 10-11, 2009.
**Palpini, Krisin. "Why Darwin's theory slipping in U.S.-a talk with Barry Werth." Daily Hampshire Gazette. January 10-11, 2009

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A look back at Soviet medicine

I figure a trip to the library is a success if at least one book (out of 5-6) is a good read. This time I enjoyed "Inside Russian Medicine: An American Doctor's First-Hand Report," by William A. Knaus, M.D. (New York: Everest House, 1981)

The book is an autobiographical account of an American doctor who is sent to Russia to accompany an envoy of Americans traveling with an exhibition. Since a delegate once died on the trip, they now must have a doctor with them at all times.

From the inside cover: "When a member of [Dr. Knaus'] group fell ill, he insisted on accompanying him to the hospital, and thus became one of the very few American doctors to work in a Russian hospital and operating room. Fascinated by the contradictions in Russian medicine that he found, Dr. Knaus made several return trips to study the Russian medical system."

The book is a treat because while Dr.Knaus is an expert in his field, the account is quite personal. While he is clearly competent, the average person can pick up the book and enjoy it without needing knowledge of medicine. I also admire the author's expertise in Russian language and culture. It's evident that he is having a lot of one-on-one talks with people, and this direct contact enables a wealth of fellowship. I can tell by his use of Russian terms that he knows Russian well. Instead of using an approximate English equivalent of terms which really are untranslatable, he simply describes the word in its context in Russian culture, and continues to use the Russian term throughout the book. I like that approach.

Here are just some of the interesting things I read about:

  • The frequent and long hospital visits (as compared to the U.S.), including mothers who have just given birth. I think this is still true. Don't American mothers get out in a day or two, if there are no complications?
  • The incredible organization of the Soviet healthcare system and the repercussions of everything having to be done as according to the "plan."
  • The practice of not informing patients or giving them minimal information, including with regards to diagnoses and procedures they are about to endure.
  • The hierarchy of doctors and nurses; why doctors were (are?) considered ordinary citizens, employees of the state, and not elite professionals (meaning they live in the same conditions as everyone else, and their practice is not run like a business).
  • The rationale behind taking off outer clothing when entering a hospital, and changing or covering up your shoes (this is still the rule today).
  • On-the-spot operations (including an at-home appendectomy) that may seem hasty compared to our customs, but may be life-saving or even cut down on care needed at the hospital.

This book is not for the faint of heart. However, I'm squeamish, and I got through it, probably because the book is so fascinating.

I cannot judge the accuracy of Dr. Knaus' claims. However, the book is mostly a first-hand account. Unless he is lying, you can't argue with a first-hand account, although I don't know how representative his observations are of Soviet Russia as a whole. I also don't know what remnants there are of the Soviet system in Russian medicine today. My feeling is that certain traditions were introduced into the culture which were once observed out of necessity and now remain, despite modernization in other areas. Knaus expresses curiosity at times but is very respectful and non-judgmental towards the Soviet system. While reporting on negative phenomena such as abortion and alcoholism is unavoidable, Knaus also commends many aspects of Soviet society.

Another interesting feature of the book is towards the end when the tides are turned and a Soviet envoy of doctors visits Knaus in his workplace. And it's their turn to be surprised and ask questions.

The Russian doctors are amazed, for instance, at the care put forth to try to prolong the life of an old man who will probably not survive.

"Isn't it difficult to stop treatment once you've started?"
"Yes," I admitted, "It is very difficult, sometimes impossible."
"So how do you kтow, and why do you begin? This patient is eighty-one years old. He's had a good, long life; why add to his misery now?"
"But I am trying to save his life." The Soviet doctor shook his head slowly.
"That is the difference," he said, speaking softly at first. "That is the difference. In America you think medicine can do everything. In Russia we understand its limits." (pp.349-350)

In his concluding statements, Knaus makes a few generalizations about Soviet medicine. But they are very general.

"...past observors [sic] have referred to the Soviet medical care system as either an enormous success or a colossal failure. It truly is both. As a national program aimed at conserving scarce resources while providing basic services, it is a qualified success. From the perspective of a patient in need of special attention or individual emphasis it is frequently a failure." (pp.356-357)

I would love to read an account of the current Russian medical system. I know so little about it.

A day of answers

Yesterday I had a productive time at physical therapy (for hip pain). The only thing missing today was an answer to the visa question.

January 7th, Russian Christmas, is about the time when I'm usually back in Russia. Of course, if I were there instead of here, I wouldn't be going to physical therapy. But I was getting a bit antsy, wondering what I am going to do for the rest of the time and for how long. I didn't have any more answers than when I arrived, almost a month and a half ago!

I've been wondering if I should think of alternatives, but none really appealed. I did start a draft to another potential employer today, but I didn't send it. My brother suggested picking a time period ("say, 6 months") and just finding a way to occupy myself during that time. But I really didn't want to think that far ahead.

A few weeks ago I got a reply to my email (which had been marked urgent), with my boss agreeing to talk to me on the phone. However, she didn't leave her number. After another week or two, she sent a text with her number. For the past week or so I've been calling and getting no answer. Today I finally sent a text from my cell phone asking her to call me. And she actually did!

Apparently, we have gone through 3 different companies trying to get the work visas done. But the final one is supposedly a sure-bet and they are projecting to have work visas ready at the end of April. In the meantime, my boss said she would order a 3-month visa for herself and for me. She said the invitation would take a "few weeks." That sounds conservative to me, but we'll see.

I might be back in Russia within a month.

Comment on comments

While I'm trying to fix technical problems with another post: FYI, I switched the commenting on this blog so that the comment box shows up right under the post rather than the pop-up window. I'm not sure why this should make a difference, but it seems more convenient.

I've noticed that blogger designs in general don't seem to encourage discussion, although I'm not sure exactly what the problem with the format is. Obviously content is the main thing, but I visit a variety of blogs and the blogger ones always seem a little low on comments. Anyway, I don't know enough to mess with coding, but if you have any tips or tricks, let me know.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


I added a little tool to my sidebar for learning Russian. It's the "Russian audio word of the day." Even if you're not learning Russian, you can still have fun clicking on the arrow and listening to how strange beautiful Russian sounds. Of course, there are better examples of Russian, but this will get you started. I wonder if I can find a "Russian phrase of the day" application?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Simplicity: Myth or Reality?

I’ve read a few books recently about people visiting the Amish and being amazed by their “simplicity.” Somehow, I remain skeptical. I wonder, just what is this “simplicity” that seems so desirable and elusive?

We marvel about the simplicity of life when we go on vacation or visit another culture. Oh, how nice, they hang their laundry outside and it just dries in the sun. Oh, how yummy, a simple meal of rice and beans. Oh, how luxurious to turn off my cell phone for a few days.

We can learn from others’ ways of life, but does that mean it is better? Or is it merely a case of “greener grass” on the other side? Maybe what is actually attracting us is their contentment, not the way of life, which may be just their calling.

One of the books I read recently is “Plain and Simple.” As the author observes Amish farming life, she is enthralled by its “simplicity.” But I’m not convinced. It sounds fairly laborious and stressful to me. One of her examples is being able to appreciate nature:

“It was a magic moment as the caterpillar artfully dropped its skin, all the while holding onto the leaf suspended in air by one filament. A light green, glistening cocoon emerged… Magic without TV.”*(Bender, 108)

I understand how this sounds appealing, but for those of us who don’t live on a wildlife sanctuary, it’s not a daily reality. I do think it’s possible to find more active ways to learn than watching TV, via books, crafts, etc. But that takes time, and we typically have little to spare.

Thanks to blogging, we have access to many interesting accounts of people pursuing various methods of simplification: moving to a farm, trying to use all solar energy, growing their own food, not using plastic, making their own clothes, etc. But it seems to me, these changes bring up new challenges and complications.

When we talk about simplicity, sometimes we mean minimalism. And when we wish we had a simpler life, we really mean “easier.” We mean that we want less worries, less to think about. And we want a sense of purpose that isn’t cluttered by vain pursuits. An idle life and a busy life can be equally unfulfilling, if we aren’t pursuing the right path.

But aside from material possessions, is there really that much that we can give up? If we divide our time into work, church, housework, and social time, will there really be much left over? Have you ever tried fasting from TV, Internet, etc.? What was the result? Maybe you picked up a book for the first time in years, spent more time with your family, or went to bed earlier. Or maybe the time was quickly consumed by other necessities, like cleaning a room that you had neglected.

Yes, there are little ways to save time here and there, and it’s worth examining our habits to see what we can cut out. But can we achieve “simplicity”?

When I’m in Russia, a lot of time is spent on the road. A lot of people get home late from work, and then the phone calls begin. Going to bed late just isn’t avoidable. I’m tied to my cell phone and computer as a means of keeping in touch with people. I’m certainly guilty of wasting time and procrastinating, but among the activities that I’m strongly committed to, there aren’t many times when I can say “No.”

If you think back to a time when your life was different, before you made a certain decision, do you regret it? Would you regret it if you eliminated something intense, yet fulfilling, from your life for the sake of simplicity? Do you regret having children? Entering law school? Taking a certain job? I know for sure that my life was pretty ordinary before I started going to Russia. But without that, what would I be doing now?

In "Freedom of Simplicity," Richard Foster gives an interesting example of how different ways of life allow for different forms of simplicity. “The life of St. Francis gives us a healthy model of celibacy. (Examples of unhealthy celibacy abound in the history of the Church.) This matter of the single life should not be taken lightly. To be quite blunt about it, celibacy is necessary for some forms of simplicity. Francis could not have done what he did if he had not been single. Nor could Jesus.” **(Foster, 61) Can a man with a family say, “It doesn’t matter whether I eat tomorrow”? Can a pilot on the verge of making a transatlantic flight say “I don’t need to sleep tonight”? It’s clear that we have to worry about (and by that I mean take care of) our physical needs, to an extent.

In the Bible, I found that while some references to simplicity (especially in the OT) have a negative connotation tied to being foolish and silly; other references are often attributed to Christ and a word that could mean sincerity, singleness, humility, generosity, and even bountifulness (in the sense of giving). “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere (simple) and pure devotion to Christ.” -2 Cor. 11:3

When I think of sincerity, I think of being decisive. Doing something in sincerity means that I’m committed to it and know that it is the right thing to do. But there is no implication that it will save time or make my life easier.

What we can’t eliminate from our lives, we can give to the Lord. And where we can’t find rest, we can find rest in Him. “You can rest when you get to Heaven,” a church leader once told us in college, as we grew tired while planning for a conference. I thought that was a little harsh. But in some ways it’s true. We are not promised an easy life here on Earth, but having an eternal perspective can give us strength.

The Lord knows when we’re guilty of misplacing priorities and when we are simply working against obstacles such as weather, health, and other people’s schedules. And He will show us if there’s something we can give up. Sometimes I am even glad when I’m sick or when plans get cancelled, because I feel that the Lord knew I needed a day off. Or if something is cut out of my life, I am thankful that the decision was made for me.

Ironically, I find it difficult to define simplicity in brief terms. And it has taken me a good chunk of time. But I don’t regret this reflection. I hope you don’t, either.

*Bender, Sue. "Plain and Simple -A Woman's Journey to the Amish." San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1989.

**Foster, Richard J. "Freedom of Simplicity." San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1981.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Notes on Russian notes

I miss Russian paper. I remember the days when we communicated with Russian pen-pals whom we had met at camp. Receiving a letter in the mail was doubly special because it was so interestingly wrapped.

First, the airmail envelope was nice and light. The address, if we could decipher it, seemed to be written backwards! Region, then city, then street, then house#, etc. The paper inside was equally light, and contained flowery Russian script on a grid like the kind you see in Math class. If the paper didn't have lines, then lines had been formed carefully with a ruler, and then erased.

At first, I found the Russian graph paper hard to write on. All the extra lines got in my way. When I went to Russia, I even took my own college-ruled paper with me. I once bought little notebooks for my English students, with fun designs on them. I didn't pay attention to what kind of paper was inside, and the kids complained that they didn't know how to write without the little squares.

But eventually, I got used to writing in the grid, and that is the kind of paper I prefer now. I was glad when I got home and my brother had left some graph paper that I could use.

Of course, most work is done on the computer nowadays. But still, for taking notes, I prefer the Russian way.

The Preposterous Claim

While reading the local newspaper today, a piece on Christmas caught my eye. It was entitled "Whose Child is This-The Philosophical Shortcomings in the story of Jesus' Birth." I prepared myself for an attack on Christianity.

The article did indeed question many aspects of Christ's birth. They seemed like the usual arguments as to how illogical the incarnation appears. I was a bit annoyed at both the author and the newspaper editor for publishing what seems like a weak redundancy of the same old protests against Christ's divine nature.

But I have to admit, the article speaks the truth, if you are measuring by human logic. It concludes,"The claim that the babe of Bethlehem contained the energy that created the universe defies understanding. To take that claim seriously upsets all our calculations." *

Whether it is meant to be provocative or not, I have to agree with this statement. We would be doing the Lord a disservice if we tried to contain him within our human minds. Expressing our wonder at his vastness, our failure to fully comprehend how He works-this is all to His glory.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. -1 Cor. 1:25

*Robinson, Don: "Whose Child is This-The Philosophical Shortcomings in the story of Jesus' Birth." Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 1, 2009

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...