Friday, February 27, 2009

Life update and plans

Hmmm, the past few times I've written about my plans on here, they've changed. So I will mark these as tentative.

I have been dealing with a few issues over the past few weeks (months?), which have now been settled.

1) Stolen identity. I didn't really think of it that way, but it sounds more dramatic. The money is back in my checking account, and I have a functioning debit card.

2) I received my Massachusetts ID in the mail quite promptly. Of course, now I have my passport back, but it's nice to have an alternative around just in case.

3) I received my Russian visa in the mail today, 3 weeks to the day from when I mailed out the application. I had ordered a processing time of 5 business days for the invitation and 7 business days for the visa. So if you add a few days for transit time, they did just what I asked.

FYI: I used Travel Document Systems (NYC branch) for my invitation and visa. I had to exchange a few phone calls with them before applying, for clarification purposes. As soon as they received my application, they called to get some missing information from me. They also were gracious when I had to switch credit cards over the phone. I still need to inspect my visa one more time, but it seems like they did a pretty good job.

Plans for 2009:

  • Feb.27-Mar.1-Washington, DC
  • Mar.3-Leave for Russia
  • Mar.4-Jun.2-St. Petersburg, Russia
  • June-Estonia? Don't know how I'll get my next visa...
  • June-Dec.-Possibly stay in St. Petersburg with a student visa.
  • July-Possibly travel to Massachusetts for Nastia's wedding.
  • Dec.-Home for Christmas/Visa renewal?

Lots of questions, but also some answers. God is good.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The next season begins

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Silence is then kept for a time, all kneeling.

If ashes are to be imposed, the Celebrant says the following prayer
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

The ashes are imposed with the following words

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

-from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 265 (emphasis added)

Thinking of the children

I'll be in Russia in less than a week. I recently started to look forward to seeing the orphans again. I wonder how they'll receive me.

I thought about Liosha, who missed me last time I was gone.

I also thought about a little girl from the second orphanage. She came up to me once and asked if it was okay to say "Hi." I said yes, thinking she was smart for knowing that it was an alternative to "Hello" (she was only 6 or 7).

Then I heard the same little girl joyfully announcing my answer to others. And I realized that she equated saying "Hi" to addressing me informally. She looked up at me adoringly as if it had just sealed the friendship. And after that, she would always run up to meet me with a triumphant "HI!"...

A book I read recently about the famous Dionne Quintuplets reminded me of some of the orphans I know. The Dionnes were essentially institutionalized until their father protested and they returned to the family at age 9. But it was already late for them to bond and they remained alienated from their family, living at home yet missing the nursery which they (reportedly) described as a happy place.

A Russian orphanage may not be a palace or smother the kids with as much attention as the Dionne kids received. But the orphans often remember their childhood with pride and fondness. Along with the trials of childhood, they cling to memories of their groupmates and beloved caregivers. They hold on to prizes won in different academic and cultural events.

It is a perplexing dilemma. Children in the orphanage, of course, should be given a happy childhood. But promoting the orphanage as ideal encourages them to be content with less than normal circumstances. When they enter the world, as did the Dionne sisters, it is a shock. They miss the "comforts" of the orphanage, such as routine, having all their food cooked for them, being with the same group of friends, etc. And the blessings of the outside world, mainly various freedoms, seem strange and difficult to face.

Just as the Dionne quintuplets grew up to fall in love and have their own families, many orphans will turn out just fine. But I can't help feeling that something has been stolen. And I wish I knew how to give it back.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


One of the reasons I dread doctors' appointments is the conversations that must take place in order to receive the appropriate kind of care.

First of all, there's the compulsory "How are you?" when the doctor enters. According to rules of etiquette I should say "Fine, thanks"...but aren't I supposed to be on my deathbed, since I begged to get this appointment?

The conversation with the doctor goes against instinct because at all other times of life you are trying so hard NOT to complain, and here if you have any hope of success, you must describe all your symptoms in detail.

Even for someone who has no problem complaining, there's the intimacy aspect. I don't know this person. No matter how friendly, I have no desire to share with him/her the personal details of my life! I don't want to show vulnerability to this stranger.

I am pondering this after receiving the report of a specialist I visited a few weeks ago. I was personally a bit disappointed at how it sounded on paper. First of all, he reported my pain as "mild," yet I recall marking it at least "moderate," and I don't recall him asking me to rate it verbally.

I remember, after describing the pain, that he said, "So it doesn't affect your everyday life?" and I was stunned that he had come to that conclusion, as if he hadn't heard what I had just said. Maybe I should have squeezed out a few tears, or lain on the floor moaning?

I ran into a similar problem when I met with the physical therapist the first time. I reported that I was experiencing pain, but my facial expression was very guarded. He led me through some painful movements without asking if it was okay, and I finally broke down and he began to understand the depth of the problem.

After that, we worked together to communicate and come up with a solution. But there were still times when he would be twisting or pressing and I just blocked out the pain. Then he asked if it hurt and I said yes and he said, "You're supposed to tell me!" I had to try to be more expressive.

But when you have only one shot with a specialist, who is a stranger, it feels completely unproductive.

However, I realize that pain is relative. There were plenty of people in the waiting room in very bad shape. Granted, they were elderly. But I was able to step back from my own situation a little bit to see that I didn't have the worst problem in the world.

The doctor included some interesting notes about my manner.

"Displays subdued mood during encounter." We laughed at that; I get it from my dad. I didn't understand what this meant and why on earth I would be energetic and cheerful upon visiting a doctor!

The next line said, "Affect: depressed and flat." Now that was upsetting. If I had known he was writing that, I would have responded, "How would you feel if you described your chronic pain to your doctor and he didn't think it affected your everyday life?"

I know this doctor has a good reputation, and if there were something serious, he probably would have found it. But somehow I didn't even care about the clinical aspects of the meeting. It was the emotional aspects that stayed with me. It's like going to the dentist and enduring the procedure, then crying over them telling me I don't do a good brushing job.

Again, I have to remember about perspective. My problems aren't bigger than anyone else's. It's the same thing with the economy. Who cares about downsizing your home when other people are starving?

But this isn't God's message to us. He may humble us by showing what we have to be thankful for, but He sees all of our little cares and worries, and He promises to protect us. We don't have to deal with problems by telling ourselves (and each other,) "that's not such a difficult problem, you shouldn't worry about it." We deal with problems by trusting God, and by encouraging others to trust Him.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Word study

In a recent series on dealing with habitual sin, our pastor mentioned that "to confess," in the original, means "to say the same thing."

Today I was trying to translate a passage from John 1 (with the help of a dictionary), and I ran into a Greek word I did not know. The first part was "homo" (same). The second part contained "logos" (word). Same word? I could not think of a verb that would correspond in meaning.

I resorted to the dictionary. There it was, "to confess." Now that I've run into it twice, maybe I'll remember it...

In order for something to be "the same," it must be compared to something else. To me, confessing is when God first convicts and then you agree with Him. God says "You've sinned," and you say, "Yep, that's true, I've sinned." Sometimes you are just agreeing with something stated in the Bible. That's the way I understand it, anyway.


My old (that is, former) college roommate came to visit over the weekend. It's hard to believe that almost 9 years ago we were little baby freshmen.

When we first met, I think Laurel and I were both a bit wary of each other. But as time went on, we grew more comfortable...

Pretty soon we were good friends.

My college experience would have been dull without her!

Laurel is now working as a copy editor for Redbook in NYC. I'm so proud of her. We're all grown-up!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Missionary reports

I was recently reading a missions magazine (it doesn't really matter which one), and found myself somewhat...bored.

It isn't that reading about other people's experiences isn't interesting. But somehow, what I'm looking for does not often correspond to what has been published. And it is odd to read about my own occupation (if it can be called that), without finding recognizable traits.

The typical missionary magazine contains reports from the field, updates on specific ministry areas, biographies of missionaries, and comments on missionary methodology. They give the impression that they are meant more for the sender, to know what he is supporting, or for the prospective missionary who is inexperienced and soaking up whatever information he can find. The information may be accurate; the stories poignant, but just how representative are they of everyday life on the mission field?

When I was a child, I heard missionaries speak often in my church. A few times a year we even called a missionary via speakerphone, and the whole congregation had the experience of hearing from a real live missionary in the field.

I loved hearing those missionary stories. But I never really stopped to ask questions, because I never pictured myself in that role.

When I came to the point where I was picturing myself as a missionary, I already knew it would be Russia, and I already was a short-term missionary. I had been to summer camp several times. Now I had to find out: could I manage everyday life? I needed to know where Russians bought groceries, how they did laundry, how they bought tokens for the metro. Once I knew about some of these details, I could picture myself living there.

When you learn about these simple elements of daily life, it takes the mystery away, as well as the romance that can cause disillusionment. Of course you haven't yet penetrated the soul of the people. But it is still a big step. When I was in Congo, I didn't get that far. I visited a few Western grocery stores. I was driven everywhere in a rental car. When I did visit a village, I didn't have enough language to perform any of the usual communication or negotiations. I am not talking about travel ethics, I am merely noting the different degrees to which you can experience a culture.

When I hear a missionary sharing about his/her experience, I begin to zone out because of the questions that arise in my mind. When hearing about someone teaching or holding any kind of gathering, I wonder, Where did they find the space to do that? How do they pay rent? How do they get along with the government? When hearing about feeding a group of people, I wonder, Where did they buy the food? How did they carry all the groceries? How did they go about inviting people? When hearing about a Bible study, I wonder, What percentage of the population is Christian? Do they normally possess Bibles? Do they have the Bible in their own language? In what language was the Bible study taught? Who leads the Bible study? Who attends? Is it culturally appropriate?

Maybe they aren't appropriate questions for a presentation, but I think they are helpful in certain contexts, when communing with other missionaries, or with people who would like to be able to pray for the ministry very specifically, and would like to be able to picture details of scenarios.

I am guilty of rather detached writing myself, when I write reports. I feel that people want to hear about numbers, salvations, events, things that look good on paper. I must carefully formulate prayer requests. That is partly why I have this blog. I can write a little bit each day, and it doesn't have to be a grandiose report each time. I can just write down ordinary observations, from life. And then when I go to write a more formal report, I can glean from these notes.

Some of my favorite missionary "publications" to read are the letters of past missionaries. There they pour our their true feelings; they explain about their worries: strife among missionaries; misunderstandings; sickness; heartache. Of course there are positive reports too, when God answers requests and teaches new lessons and provides abundantly. I still write long personal e-mails to a few people, and there is no substitute for that individual interaction.

I am glad that some missionaries have the opportunity to blog. It allows them to share some simple facts of life. It allows others to ask questions.

I know that blogging sometimes become oversimplified. You get tired of reading about how many loads of laundry this person did today, or how angry that person is about what his neighbor did. This is all fine as long as you call it what it is, and think carefully before devoting part of your day to this activity. My blog is meant for friends and family, so I include certain details. If it is interesting or beneficial to someone else, I am glad.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The REAL Real History of World War II

I recently read a book about WW II. But meeting an eyewitness was much more interesting. Just when you think the War is something confined to history books, you meet a veteran...

I took my shoes to get fixed so that I could have them before going back to Russia.

I went to the only shoe repair place in town. The original Polish owner of the family business shuffled slowly over to the counter to help me. He said they could fix it and we set the time and price. Then I mentioned that I needed them because I was going to Russia.

A light came on in his eyes. "Russia! It's cold there! You'll freeze." He said that he had worked with Russians in a P.O.W. camp during the War. The winters, he said, had been cold, 55-60 degrees below zero. I explained that I was going to St. Petersburg, and would dress warmly.

We asked him how long he had been in America. "I came over in 1949. I was 27. Today I'm 87." I felt like a dumb kid and didn't know what else to say. I felt humbled.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Update on passport renewal while abroad

I e-mailed the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg with a question about passport renewal, and they responded very promptly.

This is what they said: "Thank you for your e-mail. You are welcome to apply for a passport renewal. Since your current passport is valid for less than two years, we can return it to you without canceling."

If that's true, then it's possible that I could get a new passport, then keep the old passport with the 90-day visa, while applying for a new LOI with the new passport. That would be very convenient.

I'm hoping to get this taken care of as soon as I get back to Russia, so that I'll have the new passport for starting the next visa process.

Teen pregnancy and the fate of youth

I might be preaching to the choir here, but I am finding it hard not to comment on the interview of Bristol Palin, teenage mom.

I hadn't paid much attention to the news reports about Bristol Palin because I felt that it was their family's business. I don't think it should have gotten so much publicity, and I don't think it had anything to do with Sarah Palin's campaign.

However, as you know, Bristol Palin herself appeared in an interview, and I am glad that she is keeping the dialogue open, whatever her motivation.

In the interview, Bristol sounded like any first-time mother. She was tired from lack of sleep, a bit dazed from how her life had changed...yet totally in love with her new baby. Other than the teenage lingo, you would have thought Bristol was just another celebrity mom, visiting a talk show.

Bristol tried to make a reference to abstinence, but the interviewer seemed to be more interested in the lack of contraception involved, and in the poor teen having to "grow up too fast."

Sure, it's become a challenge to make room in life for this unexpected development. But as Sarah Palin notes, the outlook is good. Bristol is a "strong and bold woman, and she is an amazing mom," Palin said. "And this little baby is very lucky to have her as a mama. He's going to be just fine." (CNN)

The tragedy is not that a woman had to change her priorities to make room for a baby. The tragedy is that two young people were not able to resist temptation.

The message that the media gives is, oh dear, another teenage girl will miss her prom because she's too busy changing diapers.

The message that is missing is that extra-marital sex is a sin at any stage in life and has severe consequences-emotional, physical, and spiritual.

Sarah Palin, an advocate for abstinence in the past, has now been quoted as saying, "Get beyond the ideal of abstinence. Hey. Life happens. It's not the most ideal situation. Certainly you make the most of it."

Life happens? Is that how you define sin? Oops, I committed adultery. That's life. I'm sorry I lied to you, life happens.

I understand the need to be diplomatic. It's not helpful to judge, or offer unsolicited advice. I understand that it's not polite to ask an unmarried girl raised in a Christian home why she went ahead and had sex. It's better to compliment her on how cute her baby is and to offer sympathy on the challenges she's facing.

I understand that it's hard to talk about these things. But we have to, if we want to encourage the youth. Otherwise, they will begin to believe lies: "I don't have to tell anyone. " "No one else seems to feel bad about this." "Everyone else is doing it and they don't seem to have any problems."

High school and college students face a lot of temptations. One thing I learned from those years is that there is no such thing as tolerance in the Christian walk. Christ said, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters." (Luke 11:23) If a friend is not helping you flee sin, he's leading you into it. One day you might be cool for being different, but the next day those same admirers are at your door, testing your limits.

Perhaps Sarah and Bristol Palin's comments are "abstinence-only" approach in sex-ed is "un-realistic." Because although schools might tell kids about the consequences, they are not going to provide them with the spiritual discipline needed to succeed.

Proof of identity

I decided to try getting an official ID card since I don't have a driver's license and I get tired of carrying my passport around everywhere.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles has the requirements listed on their site. It was a little hard gathering enough documentation since I don't have my passport right now and I don't have any debit or credit cards. I presented my social security card and birth certificate. For proof of residency I had brought two pieces of mail: a bank statement and a health insurance statement. The bank statement had a P.O. Box, so it didn't count. The health insurance statement was already 30 days old, which was technically not recent enough, but they accepted it.

I also didn't have anything with my signature on it, but I had signed the social security card shortly before we got there, and they accepted that, even though I technically should have had 4 forms of ID, not 3.

The ID cost $15 and I have a temporary one until they send the real card in the mail. I'm not sure how long it is good for.

The bank is working on getting the money back into my checking account. I went in today and asked them to order my new debit card so that I could have it before leaving for Russia.

I also took care of a few charges that I had made on my debit card before discovering the fraudulent activity.

One of them was my Russian visa, and I was worried that the visa would be delayed if the payment hadn't cleared. But when I called, they hadn't processed the payment yet and were fine with taking the credit card number over the phone.

The other place I had to call was the doctor's office, and I got a very nice nurse who ended up wishing me a nice trip to Russia. My check hadn't been deposited yet, so I gave a credit card number there, too.

So, everything is going okay.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Real History

I'm not a history buff, but when I saw this book in the new book section at the library, its glossy illustrations enticed me.

And why not learn more about WW II?

I studied it a few times in school, but it is such a vast topic that there is still a lot I don't know, and that which I knew, I've forgotten...

I am going to be lazy and use the product description on Amazon as a starting point for discussion. Added emphasis and subsequent comments are mine.

"As with the series’ first entry, The Real History of World War II remains authoritative, non-academic, and appealingly designed with illustrations, maps, and more."

-"Non-academic"? If that's true I'd like to see what academic looks like. For me it was like a textbook with pictures. Perhaps this means that he wrote the book independently and not as part of a research project.

-the illustrations are great, but the maps didn't help me other than in providing more eye-candy. They look like scanned images. When I'm reading about a war, I have a hard time understanding the territorial issues without a visual aid. The maps in the book are poorly labeled, difficult to see, and limited in size.

"Axelrod brings you right into every theater of the war, one by one, capturing all its most compelling events before moving on to the next."

-While I can't attest to accuracy, I was shocked by the number of individual battles in individual locations that were fought. I am sure that we did not cover all that in school. I admit to skipping a few of these sections, because it was just SO much information.

"If, today, we see World War II as a titanic clash of good and evil, Axelrod effortlessly looks beyond this schism, putting facts above political interpretation in order to uncover the conflict’s roots and ramifications. He concisely explores the war’s ideological, nationalistic, and economic causes; probes the motivation of those involved, including Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, FDR, and Truman; and looks at its enduring political, global, social, and technological legacy."

-Axelrod's objective attitude was one of the most appealing features of the book for me. I was always taught that there were essentially two sides to the war, split into alliances of 2-3 countries each. Now I've learned a little more about the intricacies of the international relations involved, and the fluidity of who was working with whom. I've absorbed into my brain a few more examples about both the good and evil in the motives of all parties. It is hard to call any country heroic, while being aware of the atrocities that were employed. However, that doesn't mean that soldiers fighting for a cause that they believed was right should be denied honor. It's a complicated matter, but I'm learning that there are many points of view to each historical event.

"The fresh insights and forthright analyses, the sidebars on such subjects as trivia and alternative histories, the eyewitness testimony and quotes, and the revealing, edgy attitude make this a pleasure to read like having an enjoyable conversation with a favorite teacher."

- I did find the sidebars entertaining, although it often presented a dilemma: keep reading the main plot or pause to read the sidebars?

Other comments:

-I was naturally focusing on information about the U.S.S.R., as well as the U.S.A. I was surprised that there wasn't more coverage of the Siege of Leningrad. It was featured in a few sidebars, but didn't get much mention in the overall account. The chapter on the Soviet front focused mainly on the battle itself and not on what the citizens were facing. It may have been the author's choice to keep it that way so that the continuity of the battle history would not be interrupted.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Off topic

Now that Valentine’s Day is safely past, I have to get this off my chest.

I have noticed that in romantic films, at the moment when the guy and girl meet for the first time, one of them is: 1) Engaged to someone else, 2) Happily dating and/or dating around, or 3) “Married” to one’s job.

The plot consists of one or both individuals simultaneously dumping their "awful" former pursuits while falling in love with the new person. As if life before that moment was pointless.

Often, this first love is planted there to make the storyline more interesting. I think it is put there to form a “damsel in distress” scenario, so that Mr. Right can swoop in to the rescue. Appealing? In a worldly way, yes.

However, I sometimes feel sorry for that first love who was planted there. Screenwriters make sure to call attention to a few flaws, that are almost not flaws at all. For example, he's too boring and has his life all planned out. Or, she's too needy and wants to be with him all the time. Or, it was the parents' pick and not one's own.

I would almost rather choose the steady, reliable option than the new, exciting one. Or work out conflicts rather than running away with someone I barely knew.

That moment when he/she chooses the "right" one spoils the movie for me. The day (or an hour) before, she was in the arms of someone else, and he doesn’t seem to care one bit since they're SO in love. Is that realistic? I think it would make me a little uncomfortable, in either role.

I am not saying it’s a sin to have dated a few people. I just wonder why the 4th option is never mentioned: single and happy. Is it so impossible to find a single person who has no ties at all, but is simply…waiting?

Russian visa questions for ex-pats

I am going to post some questions here related to passport renewal. If you are living abroad, this might relate to you. I'm hoping we can have some information exchange.

My current passport expires in March 2010. I still have a full year. It seems like it would be convenient to just take an extended Christmas break to renew it.

Unfortunately, that won't work for stay in Russia. When I apply for a Russian visa, the passport must be valid for 6 months AFTER the next exit date from Russia. This means that I cannot order a visa that will be valid beyond September 2009, until I get a new passport.

Additionally, when I order a visa, I must have the number of the passport that I will be using to get the visa. Therefore, I must have the new passport before ordering even a letter of invitation, a potentially long process.

In the worst case scenario, I could spend up to two months waiting for documents (okay, I didn't really do the math, but you get the idea):

-2 to 3 weeks for a new passport,
-3 to 4 weeks for a new invitation to Russia,
-1 to 2 weeks for a new visa

Since I've just spent 3 months out of Russia, this makes me want to look for a quicker option. Of course, all of those services could be expedited, so that it would only take 3 weeks or so for all the steps. But that's a lot of money and a lot of expediting, with potential for delays. Keep in mind that airline tickets also have to be purchased in advance, corresponding to the visa dates.

Here are a few options:

1) Order a second or temporary passport which I can use to get my next invitation and visa. Then, the next time I'm in the U.S., get the real new 10-yr passport.

I'm not sure if this service is even offered right now. If it is, does it apply to travel in Russia?

2) Renew my passport while in Russia. On the website of the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, it states: " The American Citizen Services Section at the Consulate General accepts applications to renew expiring or expired passports or replace passports that have been lost, stolen, or mutilated (damaged)...Overseas posts accept passport applications and electronically forward them to the National Passport Center in the United States. The full validity passport is then sent back to the Consulate to be issued to the applicant. The turn around time for this process is usually 5-7 calendar days."

That sounds too good to be true. So here's a question: What happens to the visa that is in the old passport?*

If anyone has any experience with this or thoughts, please let me know!

Balance all this with the 90-day visa rules and you've got yourself a complicated situation. If I had known I was going to be here for 3 months, I could have done it. But I thought I would have a visa any day, so I didn't have quite enough information to make the use of this time. Too late now.

*Update here:

**Another update:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lewis on love

What else would I write about on February 14? Nothing mushy, though.

My sister brought a Valentine's cake for us to share.

A few days ago, I recalled this quote from C.S. Lewis:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
I remember coming back from a short-term trip to Russia. Christ’s love had done new works in me and through me. I am not talking about romantic love in this case. It comes in all forms. But I came home and crashed. I felt like I had been deceived. What was the point of loving and leaving? I felt like I was suffocating, and I never wanted to experience it again. Except that, without the pain, I wouldn’t have experienced real love. And instead of staying locked up, I went back to Russia. To stay? No one knows.

Not all situations end in a crash, but, as Lewis says, there is always that possibility. But it's worth it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

North American and Russian nature

Yesterday we had spring-like weather and there was a lot of melting.

I didn't let the dog get too close to the edge because I was afraid he would fall in the river and get stuck under the ice. And I didn't want to have to jump in after him.

I managed to find a birch tree so I could pretend I was in Russia. I searched for quite a while before I finally found one.

The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.
Who may ascend the hill of the LORD ?
Who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to an idol
or swear by what is false.
He will receive blessing from the LORD
and vindication from God his Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, O God of Jacob. -Psalm 24: 1-6

The Shocker

We have been speculating on whether or not the KGB spies on my blog. But I've just experienced something potentially worse.

I had found a good deal on plane tickets and went to the bank to see if I had enough money in my checking account to pay for it (I forgot how to check the balance online).

Imagine my surprise when the little slip came out with the amount printed on it: -2000 dollars. Ummm. That was not what I was expecting.

I walked away thinking about what to do. Was it really possible that I had overdrawn my account so drastically?

I went back to the ATM. I saw a description of the "mini-statement" feature and decided to print that out to refresh my memory. I had paid some doctors' bills recently, ordered documents, etc. But I think I would have noticed spending $2000+.

What was odd about the mini-statement was that it showed identical amounts being withdrawn several times. For example: -150.13, -150.13, -150.13, -150.13, -210.07, -210.07... Well, that was clearly a mistake. I had not incurred those expenses.

I started to go into the bank, then realized that I didn't have ID since my passport is at the Russian Consulate in NY. But I found a copy in my purse and approached the teller. She was confused about the charges and directed me to customer service.

So I sat down with a lady who seemed fairly busy but competent, and as she looked everything up, she noted that the withdrawals had all been made at an ATM in Moscow in the past 3 days. WHAT?

Basically what this amounts to is a significant amount of fraudulent charges from my checking account...and someone in Moscow is responsible? I don't even know how they got my account number, but I am assuming it must have been through online purchases made on my computer since I have never let my card out of my sight.

Once we established that I had not been in Russia when the transactions were made, nor anytime in the past 2 1/2 months, and that my card has been with me at all times, I signed a form disputing those charges.

Then the employee helping me totaled up the expenses on an adding machine. She made some mistakes the first time and as the amount got up to 9 digits, I'm sure my eyes must have grown rounder and rounder. Then she tried again and the total came out to over $3000 in fraudulent charges.

Then I watched as she took out a pair of shears and snipped my dear debit card to pieces. She gave me her contact information and I walked home, processing the news.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A plea to teachers

We need to bring grammar back into American schools.

Today I was writing a note and began to write "Yours and _____'s health." Then I switched it to "Your and ______'s," which seemed correct, but sounded awkward.

And what if you were including yourself in the phrase? "His and my car." Obviously "our" sounds better, but how do you get more specific and still sound correct?

The strangest mutations probably stem from the lack of a distinct "you plural" form in modern English.

Let's try a little noun declension.

1) Nominative/Subject: How do you communicate that you mean you plural and not singular? I refuse to say "y'all," but I accept "you all." I also think that "you guys/ladies/women/men/etc." all sound okay, when used in the appropriate context (our pastor recently clarified that when he says "You guys," he means all of us.)

2) Dative/Indirect object also works out okay with above forms (I want to give you all a gift. I will talk to you ladies tomorrow).

3) Genitive/Possessive...Problematic! The proper form is "your." Take out your pencils and begin. Here the plural of the object helps us understand that the owner is plural.

BUT what if the noun cannot be pluralized? House, car, etc. There's only one object or a collective object but it is possessed by multiple persons (people?). Your house. Okay, but whose? Yours and his? Your and his? You and his? You and your brother's? Yours and your brother's?

Unfortunately, I don't think that the phrases used in points 1 and 2 will suffice.

You all's, you guys's, you women's. Nope, won't work here. It's a dilemma.

Teachers, we need to be taught this in school!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reading material for missionaries

The post that I wrote for missionary blog watch is now up, along with the other entries. It's all organized in a link list. They are redesigning their site, and it's much improved.

I haven't read all of the articles yet, but it's a good way to get a lot of different perspectives all in one place. And they already have the new writing assignment posted (just scroll to the bottom of the page), so if you have a missionary blog, you could participate. If you've already written about the given topic, I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you submitted a previous post.

Sorry for all the links! It seemed like the easiest way to get information across.

"Gifted Hands" gets my thumbs-up

My parents and I were looking for something decent on tv the other night and caught the end of the Ben Carson story on TNT (which, by the way, is airing again on Thursday, February 12 @ 12:00AM ET ).

It was about to start again from the beginning, so we decided to keep watching. We could tell the movie had some Christian values in it, but we were flabbergasted when our young hero dropped to his knees and begged God to help him with his temper. It has been a long time since I saw an act of repentance on television!

The movie was good, but I decided to investigate a little to see if it was close to life or if it had been sensationalized. I didn't have to do extensive research online, since I quickly ran across a very informative post on a Christian blog. I suggest checking it out. As an added bonus, it turns out that Dr. Carson avidly defends his belief in God as the Creator of the universe, and openly challenges Darwin. This is timely, as many are celebrating "Darwin Day" this week. It is refreshing to hear of a Christian in the science/medical field.

I found that the movie was fairly factual (although it does say "based on a true story," so I'm sure there are differences). I would like to read the autobiography as well, to learn more about Ben Carson's journey of faith.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Panic and progress

It took me a fair amount of time to put together my Russian visa application. I had done it several times before, but I was using a new company that had some additional requirements.

I don't know anyone who LOVES doing paperwork, but I know some who are good at it or don't stress too much.

I hate filling out applications because I get stuck on certain questions which seem ambiguous and/or grammatically flawed. I also panic if the line is not long enough to fit very important information. And I can't get past it. I cry over about 90% of applications because I don't understand the questions and feel like an idiot.

For example, I was required to fill in (out?) an itinerary for the travel company (even though I don't have a plane ticket yet because I was waiting for them to give me a time estimate, which they wouldn't give me until they had received my documents and reviewed them).

The itinerary form said something like: Enter _______ on _________
by __________________.

Now, of course, it makes perfect sense. On the first line you put a destination, on the second a date, and on the third a form of transportation. But when I first looked at it and thought of all the words that could follow "on," I panicked (in my defense, it would be helpful if the statement was a complete sentence, like "The applicant plans to enter __________ on ______ by______.")

This is all a way of saying that my invitation and visa are already being processed! And that, my friends, is progress. The next step is a plane ticket.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A sampling of churches

Is it a violation of ethics to borrow a bunch of 14-day books, not expecting to return them on time? I read all week, but I still have a pile...

Here is one that I finished. Yay!

Sundays in America was written by New England novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea. In this particular work she travels all over the country, but I think that her Massachusetts political leanings come across...

Sundays in America is subtitled A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of a Christian Faith, and that's a pretty apt description of the book. Shea is emerging from having grown up Roman Catholic, and after not being involved in a church for several years, decides to go on a journey exploring various Protestant congregations (I would argue here that several of the churches, such as an interfaith gathering, are not technically Protestant, but that is her stated goal).

As the author begins to visit churches, she notes very thoroughly her first impression upon entering the church, including decor, dress code, racial make-up, and attitude towards guests. As the meeting progresses, she records her reaction to each part of it. Shea's descriptive skills are superb. For example, she uses groups of words to distinguish a certain person or object which she encounters, and uses this language throughout the vignette, so that it becomes familiar to us. "...I rest on blue-green upholstered cushions and stretch out in the kneelerless space behind a middle-aged local couple and a man with his own Book of Mormon in a tiny leather cover that closes with a snap...The man with the snap Book of Mormon tells a neighbor that he is originally from Minnesota, now working in Boston." (65-66)

I hadn't read any of Shea's work before, and found her style refreshing. In the beginning, I was struck by her openness and optimism. She approached each visit with a childlike curiosity, and walked away with something positive to say about each experience. One visit leaves her less than impressed, yet she is determined to learn something...“That is it. A tidy hour in wording and mind-set from another time. Yet I sit. I wait. I want something to sink in. The walls’ words on health and healing remind that we all have an expiration date, and I grab that as today’s souvenir.” (40)

Even when describing situations that many of us would criticize, Shea chooses words very carefully. She seems so eager to embrace everything, that I wondered what she could find fault with, if anything.

A few chapters into the book, I learned what it was that she found objectionable. One female pastor seems to have hit on a sensitive topic.
Shea describes, "She turns to Isaiah, bemoaning sinner. Isaiah says woe to those...woe to those...We could say the same today. She singles out those promoting the homosexual agenda, abortionists, killing off the next generation, an athletic team accused of rape, a minister's wife charged with murder. Here it is, all around me, and I'm glad I know my way to the door. This is take-no-prisoners fundamentalism, an ultraconservative movement born a century ago at Princeton Theological Seminary that stresses rigid belief in every letter of every word of the Bible, rejection of opposing views, and disdain for the secular." (27)
Just as Shea had her moment of truth in the church, I had the same moment of truth reading her book. Here it comes, the liberal view.

I increasingly noticed Shea's embrace of liberal churches, using words like "inclusion" and "love" to describe them, while her disapproval of references to hell, sin, and homosexuality became evident.
A heavy side dish of disappointment in an otherwise pleasant morning is the reality of the fundamentalist viewpoint. Behind the happy shirt and face, this is still someone who sees gays and Jews as doomed and who believes that a woman's right to choose is wrong." (145)
About halfway through, the book gets a little monotonous as the reader has figured out by now the author's preferences. I've come to expect her focusing on whether or not she is warmly greeted, and on the number of children and people of color in the congregation. She'll mention the sermon topic and maybe glean a useful piece of information or two, but she'll close her ears if she hears anything too conservative.

In the beginning I wondered if Shea would eventually renew her relationship with God. But as I became acquainted with her viewpoint, I began to doubt that she would come to a conclusion that I would agree with. She seemed to not understand that God could both comfort and discipline, both unite and divide. Though her book claims to be a search for "Christian" faith, she seems to have a misunderstanding of what that is.
"...the past year has distilled for me the qualities I'd need in a new church home: a community that welcomed me warmly, didn't give a whit about my politics or lifestyle, gave tons of whits about the social justice needs locally and beyond, contained little-to-no hierarchy, allowed congregants a say in decisions..."(307)
I certainly hope that my church family would care about my lifestyle. What's the point of community if we're not helping each other make good choices? My list would look a bit different...

It's been awhile since I was in Shea's place, evaluating churches. Like I said, I certainly would have different criteria than she. I felt a little resentful at her judgments that focused on first impressions. But on the other hand, a candid impression can be very informative.

Sundays in America is helpful in understanding what a church visitor notices. I am not sure how helpful the information is in ordering a church service, since there is a limit to how "comfortable" you can make people feel, especially if they don't share the same views. But it can help us to be more sensitive towards guests and to be careful to prepare them and explain to them different aspects of our service.

I also think that an aspect of Shea's search is common to what many of us look for in a religious congregation: we look for people with the same views as us. We look for people with whom we can share something and alongside whom we can worship as brothers and sisters.

Shea, Suzanne Strempek. Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008

Friday, February 6, 2009

Missionary preparation and relationships

When I wrote some advice for missionaries, the real assignment on the missionary-blogs site had been to write advice for those still in the "before" stage, to help them in making decisions and becoming prepared.

When I face a question like What basic advice would you give to someone just starting out ? I draw a blank. How can I tell someone else how to live his life? Can you really break down your life into a set of instructions? I certainly can't do that by drawing on my experiences. It would seem very amusing and frustrating for someone else to try to mimic the path that I have taken.

Here are just some of the questions that are up for debate: Should a missionary have formal Bible training? What about cultural training? Is it necessary to hold a college degree? Is it better to go alone, or with a team? Single, or married? With a missions organization or independently? Should a missionary plan to stay his whole life, or plan to train others to replace him? Show me a rule, and I can find you an exception. Missionaries sometimes act non-conventionally out of unleashed passion for the Gospel. Along the way, they learn discipline, and this is sometimes even the first lesson, leading to growth.

But you cannot train missionaries by telling them to go out recklessly and make big mistakes in order to learn discipline. That would be a strange piece of advice. An example of a non- conventional approach is Bruchko, the story of an extraordinary missionary to South America. Would I take advice from him? Yes and no. I was dismayed by his seemingly irresponsible actions in the beginning: leaving on his own, disagreeing with missionaries who had more experience, and not having any reliable financial support. Yet his devotion was deep, and his ministry bore much fruit.

I’m not always good at encouraging potential missionaries. This is partly because missionaries in different stages of adaptation don’t always see eye-to-eye. I found an article a few years ago that I enjoy concerning these different stages. You can see how easy it would be for a missionary in the romantic visionary stage to meet with the missionary in the tired, disillusioned stage and come to a point of conflict. On the other hand, a new missionary can bring fresh energy, while a more seasoned one brings wisdom and discernment. So they can certainly complement each other.

The single most reliable principle I can think of is trusting God to lead and correct. Sometimes I am completely unwilling to change my plans until I receive a clear sign. I am unwilling to give up on a plan until there is a clear obstacle, and I'm unwillingly to move forward until I sense a nudging. Of course I make mistakes and don't always see the signs right away, but I pray, "Lord, if that was a sign, I didn't get it. I need something more obvious." For example, "Lord, I'm going to the orphanage today unless the counselor calls me or the metro stops running."

This helps in pursuing your life's calling, or your calling for a particular season. The seed of an idea begins to form, and you start to act on it, and then you take another step in another direction and get feedback, and all the time you are checking in with God, looking for His blessing and discipline. You can't learn that in a class, and you won't find a complete plan in the Bible, since God doesn't reveal everything all at once. The answers only come from continual fellowship with Him.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What to give Russian orphans

Unfortunately, this is going to be a rather materialistic post.

I made a promise to the kids...that I would bring them something from America. I very rarely promise special treats, let alone from a specific place. What was I thinking? The kids have all they need materially, although many of their worldly possessions are rather uniform and impersonal.

But I was going to be missing some of their birthdays, as well as a few holidays, and I wanted to give them something to look forward to. So I made a promise. I am really just thinking of some kind of souvenir that they will find interesting and fun.

But now I can't figure out what that present should be. If it's candy they will eat it all immediately. Clothes are boring. They receive stickers at their lessons regularly. Christian paraphernalia is a bit tacky, and they don't exactly need something that says "Jesus loves me" all over it in English. I think that something like a box of markers would be more interesting: it's longer lasting and has more possibilities. But if they all get the same thing, they will fight over whose is whose. It must be something that I can get in 10-15 different versions.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Too late

I was searching for something non-trashy to watch on television and paused on PBS. A drama was on and I could see rolling hills and 19th century costumes. I hoped it was something uplifting like Jane Austen, and not Tess of the D'Urbervilles which seemed to be on each time I chose this station. The tv guide described the movie playing as something like, "A girl struggles to improve her life after sorrowful circumstances." That sounded hopeful.

As the film continued, however, I knew it had to be Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Yet I hadn't read it since college, and hoped that the ending was happier than I remembered. Perhaps I just wasn't remembering correctly. What I do remember is that after taking 19th century British Lit., I decided not to major in English. No offense to British Literature or the course itself, but the themes were so dark, or at least we were encouraged to interpret them that way, that I could not imagine myself spending 4 or more years devoting my life to analyzing other works in a similar way.

Meanwhile, I didn't get my happy ending. I walked away feeling deeply disturbed. I had trouble falling asleep. Was it because I'm conditioned to expect happy endings? But I don't think a satisfying ending has to consist of a fairytale wedding. The problem with Tess was that, for all the mistakes made, there was not one act of redemption.

I found the overarching theme to be that everything happened too late. Love declared too late, forgiveness and reconciliation too late, restraint or initiative shown too late, information passed on too late. As each scene happened a step behind, I wanted to scream at the characters, "It's not too late! You can still make it right." But they never did. It seemed so much the opposite of the Gospel.

When I wrote my essay on Tess, I'm sure I must have picked a religious theme, as I often did (to the disapproval of my professor). But at the moment I can't think what that theme might have been.

I think the book is unnecessarily depressing, yet perhaps it is realistic of a life lived without hope. I mourn for those who live like that, who have not found security in anything lasting, and therefore continue to make rash decisions out of desperation. The current economic situation may be one catalyst of that. It makes me want to open up my eyes and see who is suffering around me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A furry guest

I glanced out the kitchen window this afternoon and saw an unexpected visitor.

(The photo is fuzzy from zooming in) We called animal control just in case it was unusual for an opossum to be wandering around in the daytime. They said it was probably fine, but we should watch him to see if he's walking as though he's drunk. If he is, it could be rabies. But probably not.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Russian food and American entertainment

You know you've lived in Russia too long get pel'meni cravings. Nastia managed to find some for me at a Russian store in a neighboring city.

Unfortunately, they were just so-so. A big hunk of dough with a little pea-sized ball of meat inside. The second time I made them, I fried them up with some scallions after boiling, and that added flavor.

I find that pel'meni quality has a big range, in general. So it's not surprising.

In other news, I watched the Superbowl this evening. I invited my sister over, but we agreed not to make a lot of junkfood since we seem to do that every time we get together and then get tummyaches. We ended up with soup, fruit, and pita crisps with hummus. The ice cream sundae doesn't count...

Anyway, watching the Superbowl was rather amusing because it ended up being my sister, her boyfriend, my dad, and me. All of us except my dad had a book nearby for when we got bored. Not because it was a boring game but because we're not exactly "terrible towel" folks. My sister and I, known for our athletic prowess, tried to learn some new lingo and generally follow the score.

Me: "Oh, they have ___ points?"
Sister: "Yeah, they got the touchdown, and know (moves her leg slightly as if to kick)."
Me: "The field goal?"
Sister's boyfriend: "No, the extra point. The field goal is something different."

The game was exciting in the end, and passionate exclamations could be heard in the room such as "This is getting interesting" and "I've never seen THAT before." Mom was hiding out in the kitchen until it was over and later claimed she hadn't heard "a peep" from the four of us. I guess we're just quiet people.

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...