Saturday, May 30, 2009

White Nights 2009

I'm leaving for the States in a few days! But the weather in St. Petersburg has been just tantalizing lately. I suppose it is best to leave with pleasant impressions!

Here are a few photos I took around 10pm last night, after worship practice (okay, my friend took them).




I asked Vanya to capture some of the blue sky, and this was the result:



Friday, May 29, 2009

A Psalmist to sample

A few years ago, my mom introduced me to the music of Marty Goetz, a Messianic Jewish musician. His tunes are set to Psalms and other scriptural themes, and are quite pleasant and worshipful.

But what drew me in was watching his concert DVD. With some artists, what you get in concert isn't going to be much different from what you get on CD. But Goetz has a gift for storytelling and interacting with the audience. As he imparts knowledge about his Jewish heritage, it is clearly something he has not just memorized, but lived. I get choked up hearing him speak of holidays like Passover and Chanukah, and there is a reverance in his voice that testifies to his love for Yeshua.

Please note that I don't consider perfomance skills to be a mark of godliness. But if they are present, why not use them in ministry? God took a secular career and used it for His glory.

Check out Marty Goetz on YouTube, or buy the DVD, if you have the opportunity!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

No more pencils, no more books...

My Russian visa expiration coincides with the end of the school year. The kids are feeling antsy and packing their bags for camp.

I was trying to plan a final lesson for the orphanage, and felt lethargic and uninspired all morning. I didn't want to embark on a "what are you doing this summer" kind of topic.

With an hour to go, I had a few ideas, and went off to the orphanage armed with a birthday snack, a board game for reviewing all the old material, craft supplies, and certificates for finishing the course.

Thankfully, I left the house in plenty of time. When I got to the train station, my train was leaving 13 minutes earlier than usual, and the next one was canceled. I was in time for the first one, and used the train ride to finish writing questions for the board game.

The kids were in the playroom watching MTV (or a Russian equivalent, I don't know what the channels are called). The boys were in there too, and they hadn't been coming to class, so I decided to scratch the review. The birthday girl was not there, so we enjoyed the snack without her.

I decided to get out the craft supplies. The girls had been asking me for earrings all the time, and I had recently reclaimed some belongings from the apartment where I used to live, including jewelry-making supplies. So I told them they could make some earrings if they wanted. They grabbed and whined, but stayed busy for close to an hour, so maybe that means they were happy?





The boys hung out for a little while, making bracelets and other manly things out of wire. Then the kids decided to start testing my limits and asking me to play with my cell phone.





This is me sternly saying no (for some reason I remind myself of my mother here):





I made myself walk slowly to the bus stop so I could enjoy the nice weather. These hand-painted signs are one of the distinct features that I notice in Russia. You see them in stores, forms of transportation, and parks like this one. It always gives me a sense of nostalgia as though I'm in school or living in another time.




It's a lovely little park.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Glad I didn't take the tram today...

...there were about 10-15 of them lined up on my street as far as the eye could see, waiting for some sort of maintenance (you can see 5 in this photo. Or maybe it's 3 since a couple of them have 2 sections).



When I left the house again about 20 minutes later, they were gone, as mysteriously as they had appeared....

Monday, May 25, 2009

The busy/idle seesaw

I was crying out to God about getting everything done, when the thought came to me: "This is a blessing."

Indeed, when I recalled my worries about idle thoughts, loneliness, and just laziness, it was an answer to prayer to have so many opportunities surface. It did not leave me a spare moment to think about all the questions I will have to figure out eventually.

I think it is part of God's mercy when He "distracts" us sometimes, even if it is through the development of new problems and cares.

As I've mentioned before, I don't think the mere act of keeping busy is necessarily an effective tactic for righteous living. Sometimes there really are issues that we have to wrestle with before we can move on. Sometimes we really do need to observe a time of stillness, so that we can learn patience. And I don't think that agreeing to every opportunity that comes along is good stewardship of our time and gifts. But as John Piper mentioned in his sermon for singles, pouring oneself out really does help one become less introspective. Our problems don't seem so severe when ministering to someone else.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Made it

I'm not sure how, but somehow I managed to fit a 4-day conference into the past week along with substitute teaching, regular teaching, and church activities. It makes me wonder how I could have thought my normal life was busy...

I wanted to just share some impressions of the conference. The theme was on teaching lifeskills to teenage orphans and graduates. Two ladies came from a church in Ukraine to lead the seminars. One of them was originally from Mexico. She brought some interesting cultural elements to the atmosphere. :)

The conference initially left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, here we were talking about all the familiar issues: how children end up in the orphanage, how they suffer developmentally, what all the consequences are. I didn't need a conference to remind me of that. But at the same time, there was a sense of everyone speaking the same language. Anyone can visit an orphanage a few times and make some generalizations about life there. But everyone at the conference had exptensive experience and had made more specific observations that we could all relate to.

I was completely humbled by our seminar leaders' wisdom and insight. They keep these conferences small on purpose so that the atmosphere will be more personal. They said at the very beginning that the materials which they had authored and brought to share with us are not a "program"; they are simply tools to use in our relationships with youth. I'm still not sure how/if I will use the textbooks I received, but I do know that my heart was touched.

Here are a few nuggets we talked about:

-Not opening wounds if you aren't prepared to be involved in the healing process. For example, if you're going to initiate a conversation about the child's past, you had better be ready to be a good listener and also to discuss whatever issues come up. And you need to be ready to protect the child's trust.

-How discipline relates to the cycle of testing that the children will put you through. If you don't reward good behavior, the child may resort to bad behavior. If you don't correct bad behavior, you also miss a chance to give a child guidance and let him know that you care.

-Being patient when a child hurts you and realizing that it is coming out of his past and not related to you personally.

-Being careful (women) about how you dress/act around teenage boys in the orphanages. Modest clothing and all that. Simple advice, but a female volunteer in their ministry had been raped, so it isn't something to take lightly. I'd already made various observations for myself, but I was quite grateful to our guests for sharing so explicitly. I have never encountered that level of detail at a conference before.

At one point we began to watch a video as part of one of the lessons. We had already seen excerpts of various videos, so we were never really sure what we were going to see. This one turned out to be about adoption. There were adults sharing about how specific children had touched their hearts. I felt myself getting teary, even towards the end after I realized that I had seen that particular excerpt before!

Then I looked around the room and saw all the shoulders shaking, and the hands reaching for tissues. It was as though our emotions had been put aside while we talked about practical matters, and now the crux of the matter was revealed. A young man sitting near me had been joking around just a few minutes beforehand, and now tears were streaming down his face.

I think that adoption stories make almost anyone cry with their poignancy. But there was a different feeling in the room, because you knew that for each child featured, each person in the room had loved at least a dozen similar to him.

By the end of the conference, I had spent some time with other Christians who work in orphanages in St. Petersburg. Some I knew already; others were new acquaintances. We all had a lot of the same concerns. And there was no sense of competition. Competition is when I come to the orphanage and they say "You're our 3rd English tutor today." But when it comes to loving children, I don't think there could ever be redundancy.

Since we received a contact list, I hope that there will be more cooperation between everyone involved in this kind of ministry. We will have the summer to plan and pray, and to build up new ideas and strength for the fall.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Back to reality, part 2

This post is going to sound like the one from last summer, when I emerged from the fog and thought I had everything figured out. However, I haven't quite emerged from the fog yet this time. If you get lost, scroll down to the bottom and read the summary of my plans.

I am facing a situation of too many variables. I keep waiting for there to be something constant.




How I abandoned the first plan


I arrived in March on a 3-month visa. The plan was to look for a job immediately so I could get a work visa. But "looking" quickly turned into simply waiting for something to happen. It was a red-light situation that I faced after considering the fact that I could work for either a big-name company or something related to Americans and missionaries. For example, there was a missionary school that I could apply to, but I'm not sure if I want to live in Russia and teach Americans and other foreign children. That seems a bit ironic. I'm also not sure if I want to work for a big company. I would rather help some smaller organization to succeed, but unfortunately the smaller companies don't have the money for dealing with all the paperwork that it takes to hire foreigners.

I had a feeling the answer would come on its own. And in the meantime, there was a lot to squeeze into 3 months without worrying about things like jobs and housing.



How another idea started to form

At some point, residency status became more appealing than a work visa, for obvious reasons. I put the job search on hold because I didn't want to commit to a job and then have to interrupt it while taking care of paperwork.

According to the laws, I don't have "grounds" for getting residency status. No Russian spouse, children, personal property, etc. That means that I'm subject to the quota, which gets renewed after the New Year. It's doable, but it's something that requires a lot of time and energy.


How my summer plans developed

So now another question remained: What to do with the 6 months between my current visa and the end of the year?

This time, a student visa did seem to be the better option. I could sign up to take some classes June-December within an individualized plan. As a result of the course, I could take an official exam that would prove my Russian proficiency at a certain level.

Meanwhile, two of my sisters began planning for their weddings in July and September. I was facing the necessity of a visa trip somewhere in June, then two more trips before the end of the year. I could make the visa trip in Finland or Estonia, but a 3-month visa would not allow me to go in and out of Russia several times.

An idea arose: "Why don't you just go home?" and I didn't want to listen to it, but I decided to give it some thought. On the one hand, I want to be here as much as possible. Life "on the road" is not for me. At least, it's not what I would choose. However, the earth did not stand still the last time I was gone. Summer vacation is always a pretty disrupted time anyway. I would prefer to spend it all in one place, doing something productive.

So I began preparing myself for leaving again for a few months.


How confusion arose once again

In the midst of getting plane tickets and making summer plans, a Christian friend from Serbia (who lives here) called me unexpectedly.

"I have found the answer to your prayers," he said. "There is a company who will hire you and give you a work visa. Tell me your home phone number, and they will call you."

So I found myself talking to someone from this company. It sounded interesting, but I hadn't been looking for a job. And I was preparing to leave the country. It was all so confusing.

"Do you have certification?" the lady asked. "TESOL." "Great!" When I told her I was leaving in a few weeks, she said that they could find another position for me if this one got filled before my return.

So now I am back to thinking of the work option again. It would be nice to have the stability of a full-time job with visa support included. However, I wasn't really looking for a full-time job. I like teaching a few days a week, not every day. I stay quite busy. What about my other commitments? I am going to a conference this weekend on orphanage ministry. That seems like odd timing as well, since I am leaving. None of it makes any sense.

Also, I still want to take steps toward temporary residency. After all, a work visa is still something temporary. What happens if my position is terminated? I will have to start the search all over again.

Obviously, a great many questions still remain.

Here is the summary for anyone who didn't follow that...

Short version:
-In the U.S. June-September
-In Russia September-December
-Possibly applying for temporary residency in January, while on a student or work visa

Any questions/comments? :)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Back to reality

It's time to blog about the other side of life....all those questions that I've been avoiding. The reality is that I'm leaving for the U.S. in less than 3 weeks.

But before I explain further, here is the story about my plane ticket.

My visa expires June 1st, so there is no flexibility about when I have to be out of Russia. However, I have been very busy lately. I can keep up with daily commitments, but it is very hard to find time for things that require a lot of thought, like travel plans, e-mails, and phone calls.

So I had grabbed a few minutes here and there to look up plane tickets on Expedia, but didn't have time to sit down and order them.

About a week ago, I found a nice price on tickets through British Airways. But I didn't purchase them. I'm not a "right away" kind of person, especially if a large sum of money is involved. I also do not like to abandon prior commitments just because something else has come up.

So I put "order plane tickets" on my list of things to do when I found the time. And I prayed each day for that opportunity to surface.

A few days passed, and I sat down to make the purchase. But when I looked at the search results, the price had gone up by $200+. I was really mad that I hadn't bought them earlier. And to make matters worse, June 1st seemed to be the cut-off. The tickets for June 2nd were still selling for the cheaper fare. But I could not leave even a day later. I wanted to take my stupid visa and rip it up.

So I decided to wait a little longer to see if anything would change. And I prayed about it. You know, it wasn't even so much about the money as feeling guilty. I had set my priorities carefully, but it felt like I was being punished for being indecisive or disorganized.

Yesterday morning I prayed one more time and sat down to settle the matter. When I checked online, the price had gone down $100. That seemed like an answer, so I got ready to make the purchase. But I decided to click "refresh" one more time. A message popped up announcing a price change notification. The tickets had gone back to their original price. I had to laugh.

So God answered my prayers. Thanks to everyone else who was praying, too.

I know that plane ticket prices go up and down on certain days, and it seems almost like playing the lottery. But God is still in control. Proverbs 16:33 says, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord."


To Be Continued...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dangerous pleas

Jeremiah 42 started out innocently enough, with a prayer request. This sounds promising, I thought. I am always looking for ways of praying more effectively. Johanan and some other officers asked for some instructions from the Lord, due to the fact that their numbers were dwindling and they were scared.

Then it got a little problematic. Johanan, et al added a little plea to their prayer....please, God, we'll do anything You ask, if only You'll give us an answer.

But the Word that returned through Jeremiah was a hard one to hear. God did tell them what to do, but they were prone to disobedience.
"O remnant of Judah, the LORD has told you, 'Do not go to Egypt.' Be sure of this: I warn you today that you made a fatal mistake when you sent me to the LORD your God and said, 'Pray to the LORD our God for us; tell us everything he says and we will do it.' I have told you today, but you still have not obeyed the LORD your God in all he sent me to tell you. So now, be sure of this: You will die by the sword, famine and plague in the place where you want to go to settle. (Jeremiah 42: 19-22)
Now, what exactly was that "fatal mistake"? Was it insincerity in prayer? Were they too late for God's mercy since they were already disobedient in their hearts? Were they too hasty about wanting answers?

I think a part of it is that God does not want us to swear. He wants us to surrender to Him, yet we owe Him more than words.

Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned. -James 5:12

And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. -Matthew 5:36

What would have made a better prayer? Perhaps it's better to pray that we desire to obey Him, rather than promising we will do it.

At any rate, God knew the motives of Johanen's heart, and what he was really asking. He knows our hearts as well, and will answer accordingly.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Shenanigans

As it gets closer to summer, my friends and I take advantage of the nice weather to go on various excursions. We look for new and interesting experiences.

Last weekend's exploration involved tree-climbing, roller-blading, and communing with ostriches in a mini-zoo. If you've never heard ostriches making noises, you're in for a surprise.

Yesterday after church we decided to visit the Oreshek Fortress, which was the site of many historical negotiations, as well as serving as a political prison.

To get to Oreshek, we took the metro, then a bus. Once we were in Shlisselburg, the final step was to take a boat over to the island. The ferry wasn't in operation, so we hired a motor boat to take us all over there.


To get into the fortress, you are required to join a tour group. While we waited for the next tour, we had a picnic lunch. The weather was nice; sunny for the most part, but with a few rain drops to settle the argument over whose weather forecast had been more accurate.




We followed along on the tour and learned all about the different towers, battles, and eccentric prisoners who had stayed there.



After the tour, we were allowed to explore on our own. Some members of our group had been there before, and knew of interesting places to check out, which may or may not be open to the general public.




It was getting late and we didn't want to spend the night on the island, so we left the fortress and found another motor-boat back to the mainland. This sunlight was captured about 7pm. It's very light here!




Before we left Shlisselburg, we did a little more climbing.



The picture below makes me laugh every time I look at it. Only a few people had brought cameras, which is why I had to take all the photos above on my cell-phone. We asked a certain member of our party to take a group photo with one of the few cameras, and this is what he came up with. This was not planned, we really were not looking at the camera. Not a single one of us. I guess we needed a better cue.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

May 9 and my knight in shining armor

My morning commute was interrupted yesterday by a roadblock. I saw lots of policemen and a camera crew, but there didn't seem to be an accident. As I got out of the bus to continue on foot, I remembered that I was near the "Piskarevskoye" Memorial Cemetary, which contains the graves of about 470,000 WWII casualties, about 420,000 of those- civilians. I heard the booming of the loudspeaker in the distance as a memorial service was getting underway.

Today is May 9th, "Victory Day" in Russia. When I was young, I had never heard of this holiday, although I'm sure I memorized the date in History class.

It's a big Russian holiday, especially to those few veterans who remain. But it isn't my story to tell. If you want to know more (about the history, not just the holiday), there are plenty of resources on the the Internet. I published a YouTube video on here earlier accidentally, and there are others like it. Or better yet, ask a Russian friend what the date means to him and his family.

Something about Russian patriotism is frightening to me. The fluttering of the Russian flag gives me goosebumps. It's not that there is anything inherently wrong with the idea of "homeland," I just will never quite grasp the Russian understanding. I don't think I will ever have that same "it's in my blood" feeling. There is such a rich culture of poetry and music here that I just don't have in connection with my native country.

Anyway, I suppose we are all patriotic, to a certain extent. While recalling things that make me feel patriotic, I think first of sports. Then I think of men in uniform. Isn't there something about a man in uniform? (There are exceptions here, especially in cases where authority is abused)

I suppose I like to know that someone is willing to fight for my safety. It doesn't really have anything to do with my country of origin or where I live. This verse comes to mind: "The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still." (Ex.14:14) Now, this is not meant to downplay the courage of men or imply that there is nothing to do. But my God is the only hero whom I can truly count on.

I believe that Christ already has the victory, but that doesn't mean that we will not face battles of various kinds. He himself warned that it would be difficult. So I need to know that the Lord is on my side, my main defender.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Russia-A Love Story

As I meet new people on here, I realize that a lot of you don't know my story. Maybe I have told bits and pieces of it along the way, but I have never told the whole story in one place.

The time has come. Of course, there is no way to capture it all at once, but I'll do my best. Then I'll file it under "key posts."

July 1996

I feel old, reminiscing. I was 14 that summer and heading to Russia for the first time. We had been invited to a place called "Camp Karavella." We were the first team to visit that camp, and our church had never sent a team to Russia before. It was a first for everyone. It was a curious meeting.

I don't remember much from that trip, although my teammates could tell stories of friendships that were formed. I experienced a lot of culture shock, as well as amazement that such an exchange could take place.

I didn't know any Russian, and I didn't particularly know how to use an interpreter. Besides, what was there to say? I am a reticent person, and I don't like making small talk. I found other ways to bond. I remember many times looking into the eyes of new friends there, and finding understanding hidden there, beneath the confusion of different cultures.




Summer 1997-2000

We were invited back to Karavella the next year, and for many subsequent years. Karavella was the place where I grew up, in various ways. I can mark how I was changing by recalling the fruit of each summer there. And my Russian peers were going through growing pains at the same time.

We went to Russia to preach the Gospel, and we did this by way of friendship. I know that this doesn't always work. Sometimes motivation is incorrect; sometimes the methods are incorrect; sometimes we are too fast or too slow; misunderstood or failing to understand.

But the friendships we formed were real. The tears and the smiles we shared with our friends there were real. The conversations about God were real. When I meet with old friends from Karavella, they have fond memories of that camp. They were kids there, and then became counselors. Now their own kids are campers or even work there. And we have this shared experience.



My heart

I remember feeling how God was changing me. As I became bolder and took more initiative, I also felt more burdened, sharing in the responsibilities. I remember walking through camp and seeing people as though God had peeled off the layers and was showing me their hearts. He was inviting me to go deeper. He was clearing the way for me. I watched the youth respond to the Gospel message. I saw on their faces how it penetrated their hearts.

I also was becoming more culturally sensitive. Now I could speak some Russian, and had a new level of understanding. I understood that we were not just honored guests. We brought challenges with us. It was not easy to accommodate us, and it was not easy to make room for the message we had brought. There were believers in that camp, but it was not a Christian camp. It was a former Pioneer camp. There were strict laws about evanglization. I felt that conflict.
Journal entry 7-16-01

"There is a conflict here, but somewhere underneath there is hope. Help us uncover that hope. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11) What is the truth? The truth is that we are your children. You sent your son to die for our sins. You love us and you are faithful and just. You are forgiving. You called us here to serve you. And serving you means serving others. It means respecting our leaders. It means being faithful in our responsibilities."
And I faced inevitable times of doubt.
Another journal entry from the same summer:

"Oh, Lord. I need to talk to you. I'm in one of those low spots...I'm not sure what to do or if I even need to do anything other than wait for your healing and your comfort. I guess I'm frustrated about being shy. It's hard for me to make friends. I know that reaching even one person makes a difference to you, but I need to feel like you're really using me."
Each summer, we went back to the U.S. after our trip. I felt awful that summer when we left. I thought of the new believers whom we had told "you're now a part of the Body of Christ." What Body? We were now in the States and they were back at camp or in the city with their families. They weren't connected with anyone. At least, not that we could see. We could only pray for them to find other believers in St. Petersburg.

And besides that, I missed Russia. I had an awful feeling of grief that produced wrenching heartache. It seemed, this way of life was not of God. I felt deceived. "How could you let me love like that and take me away?" I asked Him. It was baffling.

I have had a few other experiences in life when it felt like I loved too hard. I remember feeling devasted after graduating from college and leaving all my friends and church. It felt very final. I wondered why I hadn't held back a little. After all, I knew that I would be leaving after 4 years. Why hadn't I been more careful?

And I feel that way now. I love some people so much that it scares me (and others, not enough. But that's another issue). God comforts me and whispers, "I know." But He doesn't make it go away or make love less of a risk.

Back in the summer of 2001, I felt as though everything was very wrong. And I decided that there would be no more short-term missions for me. I was sure that I would die of heartache if I had to experience that again.

No more camp

I didn't go back for a few years. One year I was busy, another year I was in St. Petersburg, studying abroad. That was an interesting look at life. I was staying with a Russian host family, and hanging out with fellow students from my university. It was very different engaging in secular activities in Russia, rather than being there for a missions trip. Though I lived in the student bubble, I became a bit more independent, and got a taste of the city.

I continued to study Russian during the school year. I prayed for Russia. In the meantime, my parents had adopted 2 teenage girls from one of the orphanages we were familiar with in St. Petersburg. Now Russia was with us all the time.

When I was at university, I felt twice removed from Russia, despite it being my course of study. No one understood what I had experienced. But of course, it wasn't their fault that I couldn't explain it to them. When I opened my mouth, nothing came out, and tears formed in my eyes.

The next step

Senior year. I was graduating soon. My father had formed an organization to do full-time work in St. Petersburg, rather than just in the summer. Over eight years we had formed many contacts. There were young people in need of counsel, and there were orphans in need of attention. I began to think of going over there to serve alongside Russian Christians.

I am not sure how I eventually made the decision. I just took one step after another, and let the Lord lead. The doors were open. I remember people thinking that I seemed uncertain, because I wasn't running around shouting something emotional about the vision I had. Maybe I was uncertain, but I was trusting in the Lord.

2004-2005

I committed for a year. After a few months, I knew that it was going to be longer. Therefore, I devoted that time to building a foundation. I found a church. I met as many people as I could who had the same goals as I did. I became grounded in the Word. I searched for opportunities and asked questions. I learned how to buy groceries and do laundry and mail letters and ride the public transportation.

And then, I decided to stay.

Sometimes, I think of Russia as a person. She has impacted my life in so many ways. She has brought me joy as well as pain. Sometimes I wonder if we will go our separate ways. I want to be faithful to her, yet my first love is Christ.

One day I wrote in my journal, "I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. (Isaiah 38:15b) I think this pretty much sums up how I feel about living in Russia." Perhaps this is accurate. But it is not only anguish. There is a sweetness and contentment when I feel God's presence with me here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It does exist!

Fellow missionary bloggers have just received their residency permits. I'm still gathering information about that option. It's encouraging to see someone else have success.

http://mikeandkaren.blogspot.com/2009/05/permanent-residency-at-last.html

A glimpse


My roommate's mother has been visiting, and I haven't had much opportunity to blog. Not to mention, my computer is at death's door.

There has been a lot going on in the kitchen while Olga Borisovna is around....





She's trying to fatten us up.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Christian terminology

Do you ever hear a word used so often and in so many contexts that its meaning becomes obscure? This happens to me sometimes with words used frequently in Christian circles.

It happened to me recently when someone was praying. Bless this, bless that, we bless You, Lord.

Now there was nothing particularly wrong with this prayer except that I found myself wondering about the meaning and origin of the word "bless." Do we use it too liberally? What synonyms could we substitute to make our speech a little richer?

Here are a few of the phrases that I hear a lot among American Christians. I hear similar phrases in Russia, but this word study is going to be in English.

"I am so blessed." (expressing thankfulness)

"You are such a blessing." (acknowledging that God allowed someone else to be a positive influence)

"Bless you. "(wishing health or another good outcome in someone's life)

"We welcomed our newest little blessing...." (children as blessings)

"Let's bless the food." (offering thanks and asking for favor)

"We bless you, Lord." (honoring the Lord)

In short, I think of a blessing as "something good" that comes from God. When we bless someone, we are praying for God to bring him something good. When we call someone a blessing, we mean that our lives have been made richer because of something he/she has done. We might give someone our "blessing" to show approval, thus confirming that a certain plan is bound to succeed (in a Christian sense we might mean that we believe it is the will of God).

So if a blessing comes from God, why do we bless His name? He doesn't need something that comes from Him in the first place.

It turns out that this word means not only to bestow favor upon someone, but also to praise. To me this is confusing, but looking in the original Hebrew (for example, Psalms), the same is true there.

Here's a quick look in the dictionary:

To Bless

–verb (used with object), blessed or blest, bless⋅ing.
1. to consecrate or sanctify by a religious rite; make or pronounce holy.
2. to request of God the bestowal of divine favor on: Bless this house.
3. to bestow good of any kind upon: a nation blessed with peace.
4. to extol as holy; glorify: Bless the name of the Lord.
5. to protect or guard from evil (usually used interjectionally): Bless you! Bless your innocent little heart!
6. to condemn or curse: I'll be blessed if I can see your reasoning. Bless me if it isn't my old friend!
7. to make the sign of the cross over or upon: The Pope blessed the multitude.

My conclusions:

-we do not always realize the depth/range of meaning of certain words that we use often (see observations about the Holy Spirit)
-we should be ready to explain the meaning of words that we use, especially in connection with our faith. Another religion might use a similar term, and we need to be able to differentiate.
-we should be ready to express what we mean in other words, to make our language richer, more understandable, or more specific

Saturday, May 2, 2009

My thirst for knowledge

I have mentioned before how everyone reads in the metro here.

I've run out of thinner books to read, and I can't bring any extra weight with me. And besides, sometimes I prefer taking a snooze (or rather, my body decides for me). But I was desperate for something to read the other day. I dug through my purse and found some Greek flashcards from one of my previous attempts at memorization. They were the usual mix of 1) nouns that I already know, 2) obscure verbs that I'll never memorize, and 3) articles that I can usually figure out from context. Pitiful. I thought wistfully of learning more.

The young man sitting next to me was looking over my shoulder. "Are you studying Greek?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Latin is easier." I agreed.

"But the easiest was Hebrew." That was surprising. I didn't ask for more information because it's too noisy in the metro and it seemed too intimate to be yelling into a stranger's ear. But I was impressed.

As I walked along the platform, the old passion for languages rose up again. I've been reviewing some Russian verbs recently, but it doesn't seem to help my conversational skills. And besides, Russian doesn't hold the same intrigue (sorry, everyone).

Sometimes I find "helpful" sites for studying Greek, but I end up bookmarking them and saving them for later. I spend more time exploring how the tools work than actually using them. The best way is to just sit down and study.

Flashcards are a good way to keep busy in the metro (or anywhere), but of course it takes a little preparation work at home. I don't like ready-made flashcards because they don't offer my brain any exercise. It's better to write them out myself.

I wasn't sure what passage would be good for memorization. But for now I've chose the Beatitudes. It seems fairly easy since there are pairs of phrases, clear content, and a lot of repetition.


1ιδων δε τους οχλους ανεβη εις το ορος και καθισαντος αυτου προσηλθαν [αυτω] οι μαθηται αυτου

2και ανοιξας το στομα αυτου εδιδασκεν αυτους λεγων

3μακαριοι οι πτωχοι τω πνευματι οτι αυτων εστιν η βασιλεια των ουρανων

4μακαριοι οι πενθουντες οτι αυτοι παρακληθησονται

5μακαριοι οι πραεις οτι αυτοι κληρονομησουσιν την γην

6μακαριοι οι πεινωντες και διψωντες την δικαιοσυνην οτι αυτοι χορτασθησονται

7μακαριοι οι ελεημονες οτι αυτοι ελεηθησονται

8μακαριοι οι καθαροι τη καρδια οτι αυτοι τον θεον οψονται

9μακαριοι οι ειρηνοποιοι οτι [αυτοι] υιοι θεου κληθησονται

10μακαριοι οι δεδιωγμενοι ενεκεν δικαιοσυνης οτι αυτων εστιν η βασιλεια των ουρανων

11μακαριοι εστε οταν ονειδισωσιν υμας και διωξωσιν και ειπωσιν παν πονηρον καθ υμων ψευδομενοι ενεκεν εμου

12χαιρετε και αγαλλιασθε οτι ο μισθος υμων πολυς εν τοις ουρανοις ουτως γαρ εδιωξαν τους προφητας τους προ υμων

(Matthew 5:1-12, Westcott-Hort NT)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Lament

“Lament is the lost language of worship.” –Michael Card

I’ve been hoarding an old cassette entitled “The Way of Wisdom” by Michael Card. The tracks are all songs based on Psalms and the books of Wisdom.

One of the tracks is the “Job Suite.” Now that I have done in-depth studies of Job over the past few years (in my personal study and in my small group), I have a better understanding of the progression of discourse.

In Card’s rendition, there are clear pauses when a different person is about to speak (note that there are no direct quotes from the “friends.” Instead Job summarizes their part in his lament). Although the voices are the same, you can hear the difference in the roles.*

I am so thankful that Job is included in the Bible, and that the story is told from beginning to end.

In a 2006 article in Christianity Today, Card shares some great insights about what is missing in our worship. He notes how contemporary Christian music (namely American) has a lot of good aspects, yet is missing an element of lament –we celebrate that we are found without acknowledging that we were ever lost.

But worship isn't just about music. Even if if you don't like Michael Card's style, he has an important message about making our very lives a continual act of worship, especially those painful times.

From the interview: "A friend was out on a pastoral call when a drunk driver hit his car and paralyzed him. He was lamenting when he powerfully experienced God's presence. When the immediacy of that presence started to leave, he cried out, 'You don't have to heal me. Just don't leave me.' He realized he needed God's presence more than God's provision."

Read more here.

*I didn't find a version online, but you can find the lyrics on the Internet as well as purchase the album.