Monday, September 27, 2010

I Miss You, Kazakhstan

I now blog at if you would like to start the next chapter of this crazy book I call my life.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Blank Pages of My Story


I can’t help but marvel at the absurdity of my life. I’m a young guy, and a year or so ago I thought I had it all figured out. How comical that thought is now. I entered university with a beautiful girlfriend, a goal of getting my degree in 4 years, and the plan of being a pastor the rest of my life.

I started feeling different my sophomore year of college. My friends were different, and I wasn’t enjoying school nearly as much as I had the previous year. Then my mind started churning with new ideas, my old, simple views crumbling to pieces. My girlfriend and I broke up. It was sad, and I decided I was done with emotions.

I needed something different so I signed up to teach English as a missionary in Kazakhstan from January to June. That’s where this blog begins and ends. I learned more on my own overseas that I ever will in a classroom. I didn’t know where Kazakhstan was or what it was like, but it sounded like a good chance to “get away from it all.” The real kicker to the whole story was when I went to Barnes and Noble before getting on the plane to fly half way around the world—after all, I needed some reading material for my 6 months abroad. I grabbed a few books that I had been leafing through for months, and then I grabbed this yellow book that one of my best friends recommended. She was a big Donald Miller fan, but to be honest, I didn’t quite trust him. I was scared he might just be another one of those hopeless liberals, so I wrote him off—that is, until this yellow book made it with me to the checkout counter. I exhausted my Christmas gift cards, loaded my suitcase full of books and went out on a new adventure. When I got to Kazakhstan the first book I pulled out was this yellow book—A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. My first thoughts were that the title was too long, but I dove in and got lost in this man’s ideas. At the beginning of the book he talks about how we don’t remember most of our lives. This freaked me out and I wanted to make sure my Kazakhstan trip was well documented. This blog and the 5,500+ pictures and videos on my computer wouldn’t exist had I not read this book. I can honestly say that this book changed my life. I make everyone close to me read it, because I feel they’ll understand me better. That same best friend also sent me off with another Donald Miller book and I appreciate his work more than any other author at this point, but enough with the flattery. I don’t want Don to get big head or think I’m trying to sucker my way into winning a contest or anything.

As my trip was nearing the end and I was hugging all of my students goodbye I began to be afraid—afraid of my unknown future, afraid that my story would become boring in going back to my regular life in America. But, Kazakhstan changed me. Reading Million Miles changed me. Now I’m a character and I want all the good stuff like rainbows, happiness, and true love, but I’m trying to take life one day at a time. Right now, I’m working towards completing my college degree, but not in theology as I had previously planned. I respect pastors to the utmost and think they have one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. I think I could be a pastor someday, but right now I just want to get some more experience before I start trying to relate to the general population. When I was in Kazakhstan I realized I was arrogant, and I hate arrogance. So now, I am pressing on trying to be humble. Freshly back on American soil, I am taking a break from my expensive, private, out-of-state university, and doing some time at a local community college. Instead of working in a rare job that nobody understands, I’ve applied at the local BestBuy and In-N-Out Burger. My goal is to meet new people, to really invest myself in building relationships and to see the beauty in God’s kids. The whole putting others first thing—I’d like to be more like Jesus, and Jesus put others first.

As for the next few pages in the story of my life, well, like I said, I’m looking to get this college degree so people think I’m legit. I want to travel and become more ‘international’ while making a difference in different individual’s lives. While I still don’t know exactly what I want to do when I grow up, I’m getting a better idea. Looking into publishing, business communications, and who knows—maybe even writing. I’m learning that I’m just as lost as all the other teenagers out there and I’m okay with that.

I’m almost done here, but I have to take a moment to talk about a specific part of my story. One of the best parts of my Kazakhstan experience was before I ever left America. I got stranded in Tennessee because of visa complications and ended up staying with this friend of mine who had recently adopted 6 kids. They were all brothers and sisters who would have been split up had my friend not stepped in. His wife and him also had one little girl of their own and one that will enter the world in about a month from now. So, for a little over a week I lived in this house where there was never a dull moment. I fell in love with these kids who called me “Uncle Kyle” and truly discovered the joy of children. I experienced pushing them all on the swings and running with them through the park. So if you ask me how I want to live a better story this is the first thing that comes to mind—I want to adopt kids! And lots of them! Who knows, maybe someday I could even work for/with an orphanage.

When I got home I told my parents (I made them read Million Miles) about this conference They told me to go, but I knew there was no way. (My Dad has been out of a job, and I had been volunteering for the past 6 months.) However, I had about 400 bucks left to my name, and my mom told me that if this is something I really want to do, then I should buy the ticket. She said that it was all part of living a better story; that if I spent the money on the ticket then I would be forced to find my way to Portland. (My parents are so awesome!) So, I decided to hop online and buy the ticket before the logical part of my brain turned on. I have my ticket to the conference, but still have no idea how I’m going to get to Portland or where I will stay when I get there, but the main thing is—I will get there! (I looked at it as a birthday present to myself—I’ll be turning 20 on September 28th!) Hopefully Don will have some compassion on me, and fly me out to his beautiful city! I am really hoping to get some clearer direction for my life and learn some amazing pointers on how to make the story of my life be the story I want, and a story worth reading.

Living a Better Story Seminar from All Things Converge Podcast on Vimeo.

When I view my life as a story, I get very excited, because I love movies and books. I can’t wait to fill up these blank pages with excitement. I’m on an adventure with the God of the universe—nothing could be more exciting!

I realize that I’ve been pretty vague and very wordy so let me sum this up:

Kyle Stiemsma is a well-known author and speaker who runs several orphanages around the world, but what he is most successful at is loving his ginormous family. At least that is his dream. In order to get there he is going to have to plow through this broken world filled with uncertainty, embrace his emotions, humble himself, and intimately connect with the God of the universe. He’s going to have to get through school and educate himself while making connections with the right people. He's going to need to practice and refine his skills, learn to take harsh criticism, and make a buttload of money. Winning the lottery certainly would help. As he travels the world and makes new friends, he'll see the value in each human being. The blank pages of his life intimidate him, but he is determined to fill them with tear-jerking victories of a world that is a better place because he lived.

The End.


It all happened so fast. Sitting on a plane bound for Phoenix, Arizona I honestly don’t know what to say, or think, or feel. I suppose I am feeling a wave of many different emotions so my mind has just shut them all down. It is almost like I feel nothing. Yes, I am very excited to see my parents in a few hours, but I just don’t know what to feel. The night before I left, I felt like I should feel sad, but it was like I couldn’t feel sad. Now I feel like I should be excited, but I can’t. I just can’t feel anything right now. Right now (I don’t know if it is all the in-flight movies, or the C.S. Lewis book I’ve been reading) I feel as though Kazakhstan was just a dream. Like these last 6 months never really happened. I feel as though I’m going home after being gone just a short while. The feeling of not feeling is very peculiar.

In other news, I decided to go horseback riding on Sunday. All the trotting made my butt very sore and since I have been sitting on a plane for the past 20 hours, you can imagine how it is feeling now. I can’t wait to be out of a plane. The process of traveling used to really bother me. I used to hate long car rides and flights, but now they don’t really bother me. I can see myself in the future sitting on a plane like I am now, typing away at my computer. The future... Now that is something that I have been trying to put out of my mind. Never before in my life have I been so unsure about my future plans. Now, however, I look forward to discussing them in depths with some close friends and my parents.

I feel like I should go out with a bang, like my final blog should say something super profound or have a heartwarming story. But, I am honestly at a loss for words. I feel like it shouldn’t be over, yet it is. I don’t know if I’m ready to get back into the monotony of school, yet I am. I feel like how I felt on my flight to Kazakhstan—completely uncertain about what was ahead of me, but holding onto the hand of Jesus and diving into the adventure.

Earlier I was fearing that I would forget Kazakhstan. That since these past 6 months have felt like a dream, I would soon forget all of my experiences. When I really think about it though, I know this is not true. I have over a thousand pictures and these 150 pages of blogs reminding me of all my experiences. I have changed.

Steven and I decided to put on the same clothes to go home as we had on when we left to Kazakhstan (that is, except for Kazakhstan t-shirts) and we were joking in the taxi on the way to the airport that we are going back as we came. Yelena smiled as she told us we are going back completely different. She’s right. I’m going back the same on the outside (also save the hair) as I came, but on the inside I am different. How have I changed? What is different about me? I honestly am not sure. I think it will take some time to find out. Once I’m back in my “natural habitat” the people who used to know me well will call out all the differences and I will be able to see my “new” self more clearly.

So what about Kazakhstan? I could write a lengthy book on all my experiences, on all the things I learned, and the wonderful people I met. But in the great picture of life, Kazakhstan is like one page in my book. However, it will be a treasured page—a glowing page that I will go back and read frequently. I made friends there that I will have for the rest of my life and experienced things that I will be talking about until the day I die. As for you. Whether you read a few blogs, or you were a faithful follower, I want to say thanks. I told you straight out that this blog was more for me than it was for you, but I hope you enjoyed the ride and were able to get something out of it. I really enjoyed sharing all of this with you. I suppose now I will make a new blog, for a new adventure. It’s time to turn the page.

Waves of Emotions


As I sit here typing my thoughts I am truly lost in a sea of emotion. Ok, I’m really not that emotional, I’m just trying to be poetic. But, I do have many feelings right now, all of them knocking me from side to side. Feelings of excitement for going home, feelings of sadness for saying goodbye to my students and friends, feelings of fear for the unknown future, feelings of anxiety for going back to a life that has now become foreign, and feelings of ecstasy for being able to see my parents and loved ones back home in just a few days.

All of these emotions are bubbling up like a fountain and each drop is fighting to get higher than the other.

Kid's Camp


I am constantly kicking myself for not keeping a better record of all that went on during the 2 weeks of kids camp. Steven, Veronica and I put on a program for a kids summer camp at a local Kazakh public school. We got to feel what it would be like to teach 5-7 graders. We did this for two weeks. We had to start at 10, which required us to wake up and be out the door by 9 (something that we are certainly not used to in Kazakhstan. All of this was followed by teaching classes as usual at night. Mondays and Wednesdays were especially bad because we had classes from 3:30-9:00pm including this early morning program. I suppose this sudden surge of busyness, and the fact that I couldn’t connect to my blog is the reason that I am writing about this now.

Most of these kids were lower level English speakers, but pretty good for their age. Like in every class we had our smarty pants kids who communicated at an Upper-Intermediate level while other kids had no interest in learning new languages barely communicated at all. We split the group of about 40 kids into 3 groups; each of us teachers leading one. In just two weeks I really connected with these kids. Being a teacher is fun and rewarding, but it is also the hardest job in the world. Coming home from teaching, you feel completely warn out, beaten, and exhausted, but you don’t get to relax. You’re job is not over because you have papers to grade, lessons to plan, on top of assignments and tests to create.

God bless teachers!

Monday, June 21, 2010

ASTANA and the Southbound Train


This past weekend was quite possibly one of my best in Kazakhstan. Veronica, Steven, and I decided to venture across the country on the train and see the capital city of Kazakhstan—Astana. For starters, Steven and I didn’t know where the train station was, and we were waiting in our apartment for Veronica. However, there was a change of plans that we were unaware of so at the last minute we realized Veronica was at the train station. We started walking towards where we heard the train station was and couldn’t find the bus we were looking for so in a panic I flagged down a taxi and paid him a little more than I should have, but I was happy I did it because he brought us right to the front door. We ran up to the train, tried to find our wagon number, and hoped that Veronica had made it on. After showing our passports we hopped on and found Veronica.

I had once taken a small train to the Grand Canyon for fun with my parents and grandparents. They surprised all of us and it was great fun, but this was my first real train experience—with the beds and everything. On our way to Astana Yelena (our boss) was wonderful and bought us tickets on the nice Spanish train, so we got to enjoy some luxury and it only took 12 hours. On the way back, we had to pay our own way (except for Veronica, she flew back early because her boyfriend was going to be in town) and of course, we chose to buy the cheap train tickets on the crappy train. The crappy train wasn’t so bad, the worst part was that the air conditioning was broken. So we had to fight with the window and prop it open with a water bottle still to have our compartment feel like a sauna. The cheap train made several stops so it took us 20 hours. The Spanish train wasn’t bad at all because we left at 8:00pm and arrived around 8:00am so it was just like sleeping in a small, shaking hotel. On the way back our train left at 2:00pm and arrived at 10:00am. It finally started to cool off around 8:00pm and I was able to breathe again. For the first several hours I just laid in my bed with a towel, trying to read and wipe the sweat off my body. You would never believe how hot it was.

When we arrived in Astana we had no plans except that we had tried to make some vague sleeping arrangements at our church conference that operated out of the city. So we got out of the train station, hopped on a bus, and got out at the first sight of something interesting. The first interesting thing was a big orthodox cathedral. We wanted to go inside, but we found out that they weren’t finished building it yet. So we saw all of the big buildings in the distance that made up the “new part” of the city. Astana is only about 10 years old. The president moved the capital to this city and renamed it Astana (which means Capital in Kazakh). Now he is pouring tons of money into making it an impressive and sought after city. I must admit the buildings are impressive, but it seems as though there are no people yet to fill them. I’m pretty sure they are building faster than people and businesses are coming, which I think could cause some problems pretty soon. But anyways, we walked all over the city and through big parks, occasionally sticking our heads in the sprinklers trying to cool off. The climate in Astana is ridiculous. In the summer it gets over 40 degrees C while in the winter it gets below -40 degrees C. That is crazy. We first came to a big pyramid they call “The Palace of Peace and Accord.” We got to tour this pyramid and go to the top where they have a ring of chairs and translation booths for when Kazakhstan has peace conferences every 3 years. It was actually pretty neat. We then walked across the river, having a great view of the Kazakh “White House” where the president lives and continued to just walk, seeing everything, with no plan or schedule. We ended up touring some fancy and expensive Chinese hotel acting like we were considering a stay in the place, but it cost over $400 a night so there was no real consideration going on. We then came to the famous tower of Astana which is on all the Kazakh money and tourist signs. The real name of it is hard to pronounce so we just called it the Chup-A-Chup which is what people here call suckers or lollipops. We went up inside of it and got a great view of the city and then went down walked a whole bunch more, until we hopped in a taxi to go to the MEGA center (which is like a big, fancy mall, they have one here in Almaty too). There we replenished ourselves with some lunch. Veronica and I got a whole bucket of colonel’s fried chicken at the KFC and some amazing frappucinos from a coffee shop. Since we were both vegetarians, and both had given up on it when coming to Kazakhstan, we had determined that before I left we would indulge in some good old fashioned fried chicken. And we did it. We polished off a whole 16 piece bucket along with some French fries. It was amazing.

After lunch we headed across the street to the national aquarium. It was pretty cool. They have a very large shark tunnel, and for being the largest landlocked country in the world have a good collection of ocean fish. We also paid some extra money to go on a 5D ride which was like a cheesy motion ride that I used to ride in Las Vegas as a kid. I always loved them and even this cheesy one was worth it. It was Veronica’s first time in an Aquarium and in a motion ride. She is older than all of us (by a lot) and it seems she has done the least as far as the crazy fun stuff goes, so we have had a blast introducing her to all the crazy attractions of the 21st century. The three of us have a blast in whatever we do.

After the aquarium we got in touch with Altyn, a former teacher of our center who had just moved to Astana a few weeks earlier. She offered to pick us up and take us to the conference since we had no idea where it was. She had planned to pick us up in a few hours and in that time we had to get Veronica to the airport. We tried to find a bus because we heard that taxis were super expensive. We walked a ways, with no luck of finding a bus. We didn’t know where the airport was and on the bus map it didn’t look so far, but when we offered the cab driver 800 tenge he laughed and told us it was very far. So I ended up negotiating a taxi for 1200 tenge (less than $10) and we put Veronica in this taxi with a weird looking guy and said goodbye. Our cell phone is broken and since we leave next week we didn’t bother getting it fixed or buying a new one. Veronica decided to leave us with her cell phone and we were just going to hope that everything went well. As I watched Veronica drive away I thought, “What in the world were we thinking?!” Putting an American girl, who doesn’t speak the language, into a taxi with a creepy looking guy is a recipe for disaster. But, all we could do was pray at that moment and sure enough, everything turned out fine. She got to the airport on time and got back to Almaty safely to spend some time with her boyfriend. Steven and I now had some time to kill before Altyn picked us up. The first thing we did was look for water, it was an incredibly hot day and neither of us felt as though we could get enough to drink. We then meandered through a little more of the city, but moving slowly because by this time our feet were aching and our bodies had had enough walking. We went to the Central Mosque of Astana, took our shoes off and walked inside the beautiful building. When we got inside I really liked what I saw. There were a few tables and some chairs and then a huge wide, open space. There were people off by themselves chanting a prayer or two in the corners, while others grouped together and seemed to have casual Quran studies. In that moment, I thought it would be great to have a church like this. Just a big open area where people could take off their shoes, study their Bibles, and pray. For a moment I was pondering how my churches would react if we just took out all the pews. Maybe Central Asia is getting to me, but I am a big fan of sitting on the ground.

After the mosque we went to the nearby market to pick up some bread. The next day was to be Sabbath and we didn’t know when or where we’d get a chance to eat again. So I stuffed a couple loaves into my bag and soon Altyn arrived to give us a lift to the place we were staying. The conference was described to us as “simple” and simple it was. In Almaty you’d think the Adventists were like Catholics, because we have nice buildings and all the church members seem to be pretty well off. In Astana it was not the same. The building was old, the beds creaked, and the rooms were filled with a stifling heat. Nevertheless we slept well. After a day of nonstop walking through an unfamiliar city, absorbing countless rays of the blistering sun, we could have slept anywhere that had a flat surface. A choir group was in town singing at church so the “hotel” at the conference office was filled with women. When we finally decided to come out of our room they insisted on serving us some breakfast (which was soup and bread) and we were very grateful. After that we sat through church and didn’t understand more than 10 words of what was going on. But, the people there were amazing—genuine and nice, welcoming and happy to have you with them. After church we went to Altyn’s mother-in-law’s house for lunch (again soup and bread, but this time with pizza!). The house we went to was unbelievable. Mike’s (Altyn’s husband) mother is an artist. Like a real, legit artist. She runs some sort of school out of her house and has countless paintings. The walls were covered with her work, and not only the walls but the ceilings too. Also there were more pictures stacked in every corner. The piano was painted and every room filled with art work. It was a really nice house. After lunch we had to rush to the train station to catch our train back. Mike gave us a ride, brought us to our wagon, talked to the conductor, showed us to our seats and made sure everything was alright. Him and Altyn treated us very well and were such a blessing to have in our crazy, unplanned adventure.

Anyways, we made it on the train and in some ways I liked the cheap train better than the expensive train. The people seemed to be friendlier. There was this older Kazakh woman in our compartment. She understood a little English and we understood a little Russian and so we were able to make some good conversation. She was the sweetest woman, always offering us nuts and food, coffee and tea. We began to feel very safe in this train because we knew that she wouldn’t let anything happen to us. Eventually two police men came into our car and wanted to see our passports. We showed them, but they were in no hurry to leave. They tried to make conversation, talking way too much. I tried to relax and just talk with them, but I certainly do not trust the police here and was never able to let my guard down. Most of the conversation was light, but they wanted to see our pictures and started talking to us about money. I was nervous, but good old train mama (that’s what we started calling her because we couldn’t remember her Kazakh name) was there and I knew she would fight for us. They eventually left and we were finally able to get some sleep. The day was ridiculously hot, and all the bed came with was a sheet. I thought this would be fine until I woke up in the night with the freezing wind blowing through the window. I shut the window and went back to sleep. Sleeping on a train certainly isn’t an easy thing to do. I woke up frequently because of the noise and bounce that comes with traveling. But, all in all I think I like trains much better than airplanes. I spent hours just looking out the window, enjoying the scenery, and literally seeing the world.

I now feel like I’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see in Kazakhstan. I’ve seen much of the country by gazing out the windows of trains and buses. I’ve experienced village life, as well as city life. I have seen the mountains, as well as the Capital.

Coming back on the train was interesting. Although I knew I was just going back to Almaty, I felt as though I were saying my goodbyes to Kazakhstan. I felt as though I was going home. After all a week is going to fly by and pretty soon I will be in the arms of my mom and dad and eating my favorite American food. I was sitting in that train contemplating going home. I’m at a stage in my life where it’s difficult to pinpoint where home actually is. If someone asks where home is for me I will unthinkably say Phoenix, Arizona and I suppose that is because it’s where I spent most of my years growing up and because that is where my parents and brothers are. But really, I’ve only spent maybe two or three months out of the year there in the past two years. I feel like I have homes in Tennessee where I go to school, in Northern California where I spend my Christmases and parts of my summer, and now in Kazakhstan where I have lived and grown for the past six months. One thing is for sure, home has nothing to do with location, it has nothing to do with buildings and belongings. Home, for me, is all about people. My home is where my loved ones are waiting to welcome me with open arms back into their community.

Am I excited to go home? Absolutely! But, I do recognize that upon going “home” I will be leaving a “home” and I may never see many of these people again. Goodbyes suck, but thank God for reunions. I’m looking forward to a big one coming up here soon—a really big reunion where the goodbyes will be done away with. I think after that reunion I will finally be able to tell you the meaning and the significance of the word “home”.

до свидания


до свидания is Russian for “Goodbye.” Today was Emily’s last day in Kazakhstan. After teaching last night we headed over to a small, old-style roller rink on the other side of town. To get there we hopped on a bus after work (it is never easy to find a bus late at night) and we got on the craziest bus possible. It took us for a loop all around the city and finally dropped us off in some crazy part of town we didn’t know. Luckily, we just kept walking and came to some familiarity. It wasn’t long before we joined everyone and tied on our quad skates that were very popular before my birth. We skated around to some pop and disco music. It was my first time skating like that and so I was trying new things and trying to learn how to do the cool moves the other guys were doing. I failed, but it was fun anyways. We had planned after that to go back to the girls’ place and stay up all night partying, but everyone wanted to go home after we got done skating around midnight. Needless to say, we didn’t stay up all night. We went to their apartment and took part in the few hours of sleep we had available until we had to wake up to see Emily off to the airport. We woke up early, Emily got in a taxi with Brian, Veronica, and her luggage while the boys (Steven, Orken, and I) hopped on a bus. By the time we were almost there we got a call and heard that her flight had been delayed (something I’ve noticed is quite common at the Almaty airport. It was delayed until later that night.

Emily was in Kazakhstan for an entire year before getting on that plane. She loves this place, you can tell. Life is so simple here in Kazakhstan, at least for us volunteers. Sure we have the occasional plumbing problems, and the normal inconveniences that one has living outside his/her homeland, but aside from that we have to show up to work, teach some classes, and then do whatever we want to do. We don’t make a lot of money, that is for sure, but we make enough to have fun, and occasionally buy some imported peanut butter. Life in America, at least my life, never seems to be simple. I’m sure it is because I make it this way, but it always seems to be filled with a good amount of uncertainty, difficult decision making, friendship drama, financial trouble, overly busy schedule, and more lovely parts of this mess we call life. I was thinking about this and all of Emily’s mixed feelings she wore on her face seemed to make sense. Not only was she leaving many good people, and her familiarity, she was leaving a simple life, going into the uncertain future.

I love communication, and I love getting inside people’s heads. I empathize with people, not always for the good reason that I care so much as the fact that I find people hugely interesting. And so I found myself trying to get into Emily’s head as she was going through this crazy time. I was trying to feel her feelings and then it hit me that in just two weeks, these feelings will be more real to me that I might want them to be. So very soon I will be the one saying the goodbyes and stepping into the complexity of normalcy—stepping into the uncertainty that lies before me. It’s quite frightening, but I guess all I can say is: Bring it on!

Saturday, June 12, 2010



So for the past week or maybe more Steven and I have been without any hot water. This is common in Kazakhstan because we are on a central heating system. So for 2 or 3 months out of the year, during the summer months, they get to work doing repairs and construction. At first the girls didn’t have hot water and we were told that we would have it until we left. We laughed and politely rubbed it in their faces, but it wasn’t long before we were served. But, this morning I sit writing this earlier than I want to be awake, having no water at all.

In one of the books we teach from it talks about meeting your neighbors the usual soviet way. The soviet way is meeting your neighbors very early in the morning because there is a leak in your apartment building and they are having water drip through their roof. This has happened to Steven and I before. But, tonight was different. At 4 in the morning our door bell was going haywire. Someone was out there ringing, ringing, ringing. I lay in my bed, in shock from just waking up and unable to understand what was going on. I couldn’t hear any water running...We hadn’t taken more than a 2 minute shower (because of the cold, COLD water) and that was the morning before. So I laid in my bed letting my thoughts get the best of me. I thought for sure I was in trouble. It must have been the KGB sending us a warning that they were after us. Ok, ok so maybe not that dramatic. I thought maybe it was a burglar checking to see who was home or looking for an easy entrance. I couldn’t understand the fact that it was 4 in the morning. I drifted back to sleep after about 15 minutes of worried fright. I had a dream that I was telling people about the crazy ringing at 4am, but nobody believed me. In my dream, I had just dreamed the whole thing. However, not more than 2 hours later the doorbell rang again. This time the guy rang it in pulses for about a minute and then laid on it for over a minute. I got up, trying to move quietly so he didn’t know I was there. I was angry, but at the same time worried. I figured I was in deep trouble now. He finally gave up after an unusually long time, and I decided it was time for my morning bathroom break. As I went into the bathroom I saw the entire floor flooded with water and the toilet leaking a tiny, tiny little trickle. I sighed, and headed for the phone to call Yelena. She didn’t answer right away so I spend a few minutes frantically worrying about what to do and praying for some wisdom. They rang, but I can’t answer the door. The only thing I can tell them is “Sorry, I don’t speak Russian” and that doesn’t help resolve big conflicts.

Anyways, I grabbed all the towels from the linen closet, got on my hands and knees, on the disgusting bathroom floor trying to slop up as much water as I could. I turned the water off right away, but as I turned it on for a quick second to wash up, I realized they had already cut our water. Luckily we had a Sprite bottle in reserve for times like this. So this morning, after a crappy sleep, a load of worrying, and about 30 minutes on the bathroom floor...I’m tired...I’m annoyed...I’m ready to go home!

(This isn’t saying that I won’t miss everyone here and that I still don't have mixed feelings about leaving, I’m just ready to get back to my own home and the American plumbing system :)

Behind on Blogging!


Today I realized how behind I am on blogging! So many great things have happened and I have failed to record them both for you and both for my future records.

I should have told you about how Emily’s boyfriend, Brian, has come to Kazakhstan. He’s been here almost two weeks and in just a few days him and Emily will be leaving us. It will be sad.

I also should have told you that last Friday we went to a little theme park called Fantasy World. It was just a fun little park where we rode some freefall rides, little rollercoasters, and a bunch of twirling, spinning things that made me feel a little woozy. It was funny because we went there after some other plans fell through. The park was just across the street. When we got there we found that the summer camp we had just come from teaching at, had taken all the students there so it was like a continuation of work, but nonetheless fun to hang out with the kids. Speaking of this summer camp I just realized that I have not yet talked about that, but that is a different blog entry for later.

I also need to mention that last Sabbath I preached. It was on very short notice, but I ended up having enough time to prepare. I talked about kids, and childish love. Something similar to the first blog entry I ever wrote on here. You can check the archives in case you missed it. And after church we went and had some delicious Lagman, and then headed up to Kok Tubye. Kok Tubye is a cool place on top of a mountain that overlooks the entire city. We took a gondola across a little part of the city and up to Kok Tubye. We watched the sunset and were able to see all of Almaty. This place is marked by a huge radio tower thing, but filled with different attractions, carnival games, and shops. We rode on a giant swing (it’s a Kazakh tradition), shot some crossbows, rode a mechanical bull, and all sorts of other fun stuff. I’m working on getting a video up here shortly.

And of course, last Sunday we went to the mountains. I think this was the first time that I went to the mountains and had the fullness of Spring thrust upon me. We hiked up a boring road for quite a ways, but then followed a large, flowing stream of snowmelt up this amazing valley-like area which was overflowing with greenery. Trees, bushes, flowers, with steep green mountains rising on both sides of us, snow covered peaks in the distance in front of us; it was a little taste of heaven. We actually didn’t hike too far, but stopped for picnic and then headed back in order to miss the rain. One of the things we did was cross the river on an old pipe that ascended from the ground, went over the river and above the valley for a little ways. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the greatest idea. The pipe wasn’t that large, our feet were wet, and it wouldn’t have taken much for someone to slip and fall to the raging waters below, braking a few bones and possibly worse. But, it’s over and nobody is hurt so it couldn’t have been that bad of an idea.

Things are really winding down now. This week we will be having usual classes, but saying goodbye to Emily. On Thursday we will be leaving by train to spend some time in the capital of Kazakhstan—Astana. After a long, long time on the train and a short time actually in the city (by our choice—we hear there is not much to see there) we will be back for only one more week of classes.

I have many mixed feelings, and am once again sulking in the fact that all I ever do is say goodbye. But, that is my life right now, at this stage, in this age. Thrusting from one crazy adventure to the next. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The big question I am asking: What now, God?

God and Religion: Why am I a Part of this Mess?

June 12, 2010

Recently I’ve been pondering some big questions. In our day we here so many negative things about religion and I myself have been an avid critic. So many people these days claim to love God while thinking that religion is corrupt, man-made, and just shy of worthless. So I decided to force myself to really think of what I thought religion should be. After all, if I’m going to criticize something, I better have an idea of how to better it. Thinking about religion got me thinking about bigger questions like “Why do I follow God?” and “What Would My Life Look Like without God?” And so I decided to dabble down some thoughts and have been asking some friends to the same. I think these are important questions for us all to answer. So take some time and think hard about the following questions. God is too big for us not to have questions.

Why do I follow God?

Many people argue that God is a crutch and I think this is sometimes true. I know sometimes I treat Him as only a crutch. When I can’t stand, He props me up, but when things are good, He can stay in the closet. But if I wanted a God solely for holding me up, I think I would be Jewish. Or maybe Muslim. I’m not saying anything against these religions, I’m just saying I think Christianity is the hardest religion to choose. Some people might scoff at that and say I’m tearing down grace, but I believe in grace 100%. The thing about Christianity is that all our beliefs are based on this crazy, radical, intense God. This Jesus who came to earth and shook things up so much that we are still talking about Him all the time 2000 years later. The problem with this is that our Jesus told us to follow Him, to be His disciples. In other words we are supposed to be crazy, radical, and intense. Jesus loved everyone around Him so passionately and so freely, and He wants me to do the same. That is not easy. I got some pretty hefty expectations to live up to. Yes, if I fail His grace covers me. But, the point isn’t about failing, I have to and I want to try to spread this insane love all over this desperate planet. While many people have turned Christianity into a lame, but somewhat comical show—going to church every week with their nice, pressed clothes; not saying the “F” word out loud in public; and trying to get a word of prayer in before they fall asleep—this is not the Christianity that was meant to be. The Book we Christians claim to follow tells us simply and plainly that religion is about caring for the widows and the orphans—in other words, the people in this world that have no one to help them.

That is one of things I like most about the gospel. It compels us to live better lives. But these lives, while more meaningful, are also much more difficult. This image that we are created in, is that of a crazy God. Sometimes I wish I could just be a selfish bastard and climb high up on the career ladder, make a butt-load of money, attend church occasionally, and feel ok with my life. But, I can’t. I’ve been enticed by the love of my Creator, and have fallen into the most difficult religion.

I follow God, because all my life I’ve felt like He’s followed me. I’ve tried to stray, honestly, I have. But this world is too amazing and people are too complex for me to say there is no God. I see evidence of a God of love everywhere, but primarily in my own heart. Love—genuine, extraordinary, Christian love—is pretty cool. I want it. I want the orphans and the widows, the homeless and the desperate, to feel it. I follow God because like, Peter, I don’t know where else to go. Nothing else works. Sure, I’ve got questions. I’ve got more questions than I really know what to do with. But the thing about God is that I can get so lost in Him that the questions just don’t matter. That doesn’t mean they go away, but when I look up into the starry desert sky all of my big time philosophical questions just don’t even seem worthy of asking. When I gaze at hundreds of different shades of reds, blues, purples, and oranges splashed across the sky as the sun retires for the day, I realize that God is so big I could probably never ask the right questions anyways. When I hike up a mountain and look down to the wondrous landscape below, or kneel down and pick a tiny, but ever so intricate flower, I am humbled. Sure I have big questions and sometimes they torture me. They dance through my head with a speed I cannot keep up with filling me with an uncertainty that I seemingly cannot contain. But I follow God, I wrestle with these questions, waiting for another moment when my thoughts grow still, and I realize for the millionth time that my questions are really not that important.

So it is my goal that I would be able to get so close to God that questions don’t matter. I know the questions will never go away and I think that is a good thing, but I just don’t want them to matter so much. I want to realize that God is huge and He is love. This is why I follow Him. This is why I follow Jesus.

What would my life look like without God?

This is an interesting question and I think it is the most difficult one to answer. As a child I was taught about Jesus. I was catapulted into a church and everything felt right at that age. When I was young I decided that God had called me to be a pastor; to tell other people about His love. Since then I have been like the ocean, coming back to and going away from God as the heavy waves run to and then withdraw from the sea shore. Without God I wonder how different my life would really be. God does provide the basis for my moral compass, and if He was out of my life, I suppose I would probably be nothing short of a man whore and a thief. Now I know I would still have morals, but how closely I would adhere to them, I honestly don’t know.

Without God in my life I would also obviously be pursuing different things career-wise. I’ve always been interested in business and I’ve always been a great liar. I probably would have dreams of being a CEO or something and having a lot of money. But, who knows. I also think that I might be just as misdirected and lost about my future. I’ll have to think about this one a little more

What is my ideal religion?

I want to see a religion that stops at nothing to share the love of Christ. A religion whose first priorities lie in caring for the widows and the orphans. Service—unrelenting, undying, unconditional, complete abandoning, all consuming service. Service that is motivated by love and big enough to define one’s life. I want to see service extend beyond the walls of our own church to the people that make us squirm in our seats. I want to see religion seek out druggies, homosexuals, prostitutes, homeless people, and hungry children; stopping at nothing to show them the love of Christ. I want to see a religion that makes people uncomfortable, but content to the core. I want to see a religion whose beliefs are rooted in the Bible and blossoming with its hope. I want to see a religion that has its eyes focused on the Great Day Jesus returns, but has a heart for the needs here and now, all around us. I want to see a religion where it is ok to be wrong and ok to say, “I don’t know.” More than anything I want to see a religion united—united in passion for this extreme God; united with a love so strong; united with One mission—proving the existence of God without ever saying a word and making His love real in this world.

What do I want from religion?

I want to learn to worship—to worship without restraint. I want freedom—freedom from human expectations and freedom from conflict. I want to feel safe in the arms of my fellow believers and have a place where all worries get left at the door. I want to feel like I am surrounded by multitudes that love me like Christ loves. I want to be able to give the fullness of myself to a cause. I want a religion that will promote healthy families as the basis for a healthy world. I want to be held accountable while never being judged. I want to know that they have God’s best interest in mind when they think of me, and never lead me in a wrong direction. I want a religion so strong that it supports questioning and holds onto doubters. I want a religion that not only waits for God’s children to come, but one that goes out in search for them. I want a religion that stops worrying about numbers and stops rejoicing over conversions. I want a religion that makes disciples—disciples with as much passion as the 12 after Jesus had resurrected. I want a religion that is marked with passion, and known for their love, with all the glory going to God.

What do think religion should be?

I think religion should be a group of people that hold beliefs similar, but not the same, as ours. I think religion’s face is the church, which is the bride of Christ. The same bride that He spent praying would have unity and finish the work He had started. I believe religion is us—those of us who have decided to choose the difficult, straight, and narrow way. It is people, who are overcome with the goodness in this world, reflecting the goodness of God, consumed with love and fighting, not to bring God’s kingdom to this earth, but trying to share His love with others before this war comes to an end.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fearing to Fail


This past week I had a conversation with a friend and read a couple articles dealing with failure and the fear of failure and I thought, “I’ve never been afraid of failure.” Now, I’m not saying I’m not afraid of anything, because I do have my fears, but failure is not one of them. In my early years of high school I didn’t have set goals for college and my future. Later in High school I determined which university I wanted to go to and what I wanted to pursue. I don’t think I ever once thought about failure. Even now, as I am rethinking my life and pondering what direction I should go, I do not fear failure. So that got me thinking further, “Am I being cocky? Why couldn’t I end up failing miserably? Why am I not afraid?” I guess this seems like a strange thing to think about, but it really got me going. I think it could have something to do with my wild imagination and unrelenting, sometimes annoying optimism. I imagine the different scenarios and no matter what happens I know that I could make it fun and exciting, and I know that I could change things if I wanted or if necessary. It could also have to do with the fact that I have no wealth hoarded up or expectations that I feel pinned to. But, I came to some sort of conclusion that I don’t fear failure because I don’t really need to. I’m not going to fail. This may sound a little too self-confident, and maybe a bit on the cocky side, and maybe it is, but it’s true. I have amazing parents and amazing family and friends for that matter who will stop at nothing to support me. They believe in me, they believe that I will choose the right path and that I will succeed in whatever I do. Why do they believe I will succeed? I suppose for the same reasons that I know I will not fail. I’ve got God on my side. Even when I do fail, it’s just like falling and scraping my knee. I get back up and keep going, knowing that my God is already healing my wounds and carrying my heavy baggage. If God calls and God empowers and God loves, seriously—how can I fail? I can’t. Now I do fear other things like not following God’s leading or ending up with a job that I hate or a marriage that has more downs than ups. But, with all this, I know the end result will be good—it will be more than good.  God has a purpose, He has a calling, and while I may be in a wandering and questioning sort of state I know that I will fall upon His best in His timing. I will not, I cannot fail.

Another Eventful Escapade


As another weekend flies by, I am not really sure what to think. Starting this next week I’m getting a couple more classes and having to start a kids summer camp English program. That means that some days I will be working from early morning to late night. While I’m sad to give up my reading time and my wake-up-whenever-I-want way of life, I am excited to get back into the working mode. I haven’t had much demanded from me since I’ve been here and while I have relished the free time for reading, writing, and thinking, I have not been challenged and thus, I have not done too much growing. Sure I’ve grown, but not in the push-myself-to-accomplish-difficult-tasks way. I don’t want to get back home and be appalled by having to do a full day’s work. This was after all my Sabbatical and now it is coming to an end.

This weekend was yet another crazy eventful escapade. Saturday we were in charge of church and we enjoyed listening to Emily preach for the first time and share some things she’s learned in the year she’s been here. Her boyfriend got in on Sunday and so she has been on cloud 9 as she is packing her bags and enjoying her last couple weeks in Kazakhstan. After church we went to the fancy Opera House and watched a Ballet. I’ve never been to a ballet before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. All the girls seemed to be thrilled by it, but most of the guys I talked to said it was oozjas (horrible). Turns out, the ballet is definitely more of a woman thing. I enjoyed it, because it was new and because I got to put another Kazakhstan experience on my page, but ultimately it was weird. The first act was a shirtless man wearing tights doing these nasty sexual moves while prancing around the stage. We were all kind of wondering, “What did these people bring us to?” The second act had a man and a woman who were doing crazy sexual dances, but were quite funny and entertaining. Then there was a Romeo and Juliet style dance and a Don Quixote style dance and all these other dancers that featured twirling dancers and intriguing music. After intermission the “real” ballet started and it seemed to be a story of a woman with three lovers or something and a little demon and in the end she died and her demon died with her and the three men were all standing together. As you can tell, I have no idea what they were trying to get across, but it was entertaining nonetheless. I came to the conclusions that ballets are really sexual and children should not be allowed in the theater.

Today however, we did not have to sit through any crazy dance performances. We woke up early and headed to the monthly craft fair. We spend about an hour there and I bought a few things to give to some people when I get back. However, I am really trying to hold back because I don’t want to have overweight bags when I get on the plane to go home.

After the craft fair we went to meet some people. Of course, everyone was late, including us. We waited, got on a bus and drove far, then got in a taxi, which ended up circling and going back to where we started, and then we looped around a few more times to finally arrive at our destination. This was the result of a lot of disorganization of a company we used. Anyways, our destination was some field with some old buildings and rubble with a van filled with guns and cameo suits. We went paintballing! I’ve never gone paintballing in the States. Too much money, always looked painful, but in Kazakhstan I got the opportunity to go for cheap and without all those overdone American safety regulations. So we got in our cameo suits, put on our masks and started out with some capture the flag. The first round I was put on the front lines and we charged forward. I didn’t last long though, before taking a shot to the face. The ball hit my mask and splattered red paint along my goggles which was kind of freaky, but luckily didn’t hurt at all. However, I was dead and had to wait for the next round. The second round I chose to hide out in some building, but when I saw the building didn’t go through I had to leave. On my way out I got some guy hiding in the bushes, and felt proud of my first paintball kill. So I crept towards their flag and got to their “base”. Inside I could hear a bunch of “enemies” talking and waiting for someone to disrupt them. I knew I couldn’t take all of them so I decided to just bolt for their flag and run as fast as I could to my base. Unbelievably, I made it. That has always been my style, whether it be in video games or real life. I like to make strategies, but when it comes down to it I like to see the “flags” in front of me, abandon all reason and precaution, and just go for it. So we were tied and we started a new game. This time we were in a building and the other team had to try and steal our flag. I killed many people this round and we ended up winning. The next time we switched roles and we ended up winning that one too. So everyone was either out of bullets or tired. Finally it came down to Steven and I versus 5 Russian guys we didn’t know. The guy told us we were survivors and everyone else had a mission to kill us. It was pretty much a glorified hide and seek with guns—amazing! We found the best spot in this building and once they found where we were they tried to get us, but only ended up being showered with our paint. Steven and I came out victorious. It was a blast! But after running around in the heat of the day, wearing heavy cameo suits and carrying around our guns, we were exhausted and in serious need of water. I think after today, I have a newfound respect for our soldiers in the Middle East. They have to walk around with a ton more crap than I had on today and in an even hotter climate; and after waiting in a room with my special mission, hearing gunshots all around me, waiting for the enemy pop up so I can shoot them—Mercy...I’m glad I’m a missionary and not a soldier. That’s all I have to say. But, I thoroughly enjoyed the battle, the adrenaline, and the mission. It was a kind of adventure that I believe men crave.

After getting all hot, sweaty, and nasty we went to a fancy mall (that is very popular here, but that I’ve never been to) and had dinner at some pizza restaurant in order to say goodbye to Emily and one of Emily’s students that is going on a work/study program to America. All these goodbyes are starting and I still have a month left!

So with all this busyness piling up and all these goodbyes welling up I think this last month is going to fly by especially fast. My feelings are of course mixed. It will be bittersweet, but I have had, and keep having, amazing experiences here that will never leave me.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Mormons


So yesterday I was late for work so I decided to hop on the bus in hopes that it would get me there faster than my own two feet. I got on and sat down, pulled out my phone and texted one of my students. These four guys walked on the bus all in white shirts and ties. I chuckled to myself thinking, “These guys look like Mormons.” Of course, I’m in Kazakhstan so I didn’t think they really were Mormons, but then the bus started moving. I gave up my seat to an old Diadushka (Grandpa) (this is strict custom here) and was standing near where they were sitting. Soon two of the guys got off the bus and I heard them speaking English. Not only did I hear them speaking English, I heard them speaking English with an American accent! So I stood there, but I knew I had to go talk to them. I mean it’s not every day you meet other Americans on the bus in Almaty. So I went over and asked if I heard them speaking English. They said yes and I asked where they were from. One of the guys, he looked about my age, said he was from Utah. Of course the thought popped in my head, “My goodness, they are Mormons!” But we kept talking introduced ourselves and talked about our business in Almaty. I told him I’m a volunteer English teacher and he told me that he was doing service with his church. Knowing the answer, I thought I would ask anyways, “Oh really! What church are you with?” Sure enough—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He immediately asked if I had heard about them taking the opportunity to share his good news and I told him that I study theology. We were both interested and the conversation would have probably gone on but my bus stop came up and I was already late.

It didn’t matter who they were, it was nice to get that reassurance that I’m not the only crazy American in this crazy city. I have always admired Mormons. While I think their beliefs are a little off, they show incredible determination in all aspects of life, but especially in mission. They believe in their message and it affects the totality of their lives. They are family-oriented and other than polygamy from a few bad apples, you never hear of many Mormons involved in scandals. So I was excited to meet them. We had been in Almaty for around the same amount of time, but I was getting ready to leave and I knew this kid had another year and a half if he was like other Mormons I’d met. I would have loved to talk more with them; I probably should have gotten their phone number or something. But, regardless, it made for a pretty cool day.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Occupation: Lover


In my nearly 20 years of life I have had many experiences. I have seen many different places and had opportunities to interact with people from different cultures, mindsets, and upbringings. Everyone goes through life with different motives, with different goals and aims. Some people are working to get enough money to buy a new car or a bigger house while others are working to please their spouse or their kids. Some people are working to survive while others are trying to pursue causes bigger than themselves. Now, I think everyone wants to pursue a good cause. I know many teachers and these are people certainly not motivated by money, but people that I believe truly want to make an impact in the lives of children and young people. Nearly everyone, no matter where they’re from or how they were brought up, lives their life wanting to contribute something to this world. The problem I have is when I look around and see so many people satisfied with their lives.

That may sound strange, because satisfaction is a good thing. It may just be my crazy youth-plague mind, but as I ponder my future the last thing I want is satisfaction. Satisfaction causes stagnation and stagnation causes bacteria and fungi to build up. You never want to drink out of a puddle of water that has been still for months. It is probably a nice green color with fuzzy things floating and bugs swarming around. Many people live their lives, go to work, and develop a routine that they will keep up for years. The only time their lives are interrupted is through some sort of tragedy. Personally, I don’t want my life to have to be shaken up by tragedy. I don’t want to be a nasty puddle of water; I want to be a stream that is constantly flowing, bringing life to the things and people that surround me.

I’m not saying that we should be miserable and unsatisfied all the time. I believe in happiness, and even more so I believe in contentment. Extreme happiness is great, but you’ll notice that when you have a big dose of happiness it fades and then you feel like your life is boring and you become miserable. Happiness has the same effect as cocaine. What we really need is contentment—a strong, bold contentment that rejects satisfaction.

I have been pondering my future—what I want “to be when I grow up” and I have to say that I don’t think I like any of the outcomes. I don’t want to “be” one thing. I don’t want to “be” a pastor, or a doctor, or a teacher. I want to “be” me and “do” all sorts of different things. I read an article about some guy who marked his occupation “lover” because he had no real career. He just did things to help others and love on them. So I think I want to be a lover. I don’t want to be defined by my career. I want to be defined by my character and my faith and then from there follow opportunities that allow me to spread God’s love.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Another Great Weekend, but Only 5 More Left!


When April was ending I was freaking out at how fast the time was going by. As May begun I realized I was on the downhill slope. Now, things are really wrapping up. This next week will be Emily’s last week teaching and on Friday her boyfriend will be arriving to spend her last two weeks with her and then they will leave together in the middle of June. Those two weeks are going to be weird for all of us because they will be the beginning of massive change. I hate to say it, but I’ve gotten pretty comfortable in Kazakhstan. Almaty has become my city. Although I can hardly say I have a routine, I have developed some norms. When Emily leaves it will just be weird, especially because that means that Steven and I will be marching home right behind her. It’s also hard because I know that Emily has spent a year here working hard, and I feel like I haven’t really done too much. 6 months really is too short, but I know it is time for me to return home. It would, however, make it easier if there were people coming to replace me. The English centers are in big trouble as it looks like they will go months without new teachers. So I kind of feel like crap leaving them behind when I technically could stay and help a little longer. But, again, I feel pretty strongly that it’s my time to go home. The moral of the story, six months is a very, very tiny particle of our vapor of an existence.

This weekend was quite eventful. On Friday, I went to the National Museum with Steven, Emily, and some of my students. We saw a bunch of old stuff, a bunch of display cases, and some cool stuff regarding WWII and Kazakh cultural history. There was also a trade fair happening inside the museum, but nobody really bought anything. It was fun. I really enjoyed hanging out with my students seeing that my days with them are numbered and honestly, I’ll probably never see them again. The next probable meeting will be somewhere in the skies on that Great Day on our way up to be eternal neighbors. But, that could be a really, really long time. That thought kind of depresses me. I really like my students.

On Saturday, instead of going to church, I went to a rock concert. Ok, ok, it wasn’t really a rock concert. It was an awareness/benefit concert for a special needs orphanage in the area. As I saw pictures of some of the children, I also felt some sort of regret for not doing more while I was here. I could have been volunteering other places instead of settling for my 4 hours a day, 4 days a week job. It was at the “Guns & Roses Pub and Grille” which was a lot like an American “Applebee’s” or “Chili’s” and they served Gloria Jean’s Coffee. When I arrived there I was shocked at the fact that everyone was speaking English. The place was filled with members of an International church and volunteers for the orphanage. Most of the people there were English or American. To be honest, it was a little uncomfortable. I hope this isn’t a preview of what my reverse culture shock is going to be like. After the concert I went over to Emily and Veronica’s for a little while and they had many of their students over. I taught some of them how to play American card games and we had pizza, but I couldn’t stay too long because I had to catch a bus and get home.

Today we went to Kapchaguy, which is the nearest body of water that is large enough to actually use boats and swim in. One of my students, Alla, finished graduate school and so we decided to celebrate. We all met up at NewBridge and drove for about 2 hours or so to a nice place near the lake. At our center there is a security guard guy named Max. He was our driver for the day. Within minutes of getting in the car with him we were petrified. We dug frantically looking for seat belts. All was laughing thinking that we were crazy. (In Kazakhstan it is very uncommon for people to use seatbelts unless they are sitting in the front seat). But we found our seatbelts and closed our eyes. I have not been in a driving situation that scary since travelling to India. Max was born in Kapchaguy City and so he knew where to take us and how to show us a good time. We went to a nice area near the water where there was no other people around. After laying out our blankets we ate some food, drank some juice, and set up some fishing poles. Max was trying to catch us some fish, but finally gave up and went to buy shashlik. In the meantime, while Max went to the city, Alla was arranging for a banana boat to take us for a ride. I was excited to go, but I realized that I had left my bathing suit in the car and Max wasn’t going to be back for awhile. We waited a long time laying in the sun and walking along the water, living up our few hours of complete relaxation. He finally got back and we ate some shashlik, I changed my clothes, and the banana boat guy maneuvered up to our “beach”. We all got on, knowing that the final result of this ride was going to be a catapulting into the cold water, only to get out of the water and into a cool, breezy day. The guy drove us around in a pretty sorry looking boat around the lake, but luckily the sorry looking boat had a pretty powerful engine. So we enjoyed some nice views and the exhilaration of water flying out beneath us. Finally he drove us back to where we started and at the last second made a sharp turn that flipped us all into the water. Once wet, Emily, David, some cool British guy named John, and I decided to swim out to an island. Once realizing it was farther than we originally anticipated, John went back, but we kicked our way to the island. We then decided to run all the way around it. The island was pretty neat. It was bigger than it looked and was filled with some sand dunes as well as a little shack that could have fit maybe 5 people maximum. We were jumping off the dunes when I said, “I just want to roll down these things.” As I went to jump, I got to close to the edge and tumbled all the way down. I got my wish and it turned out to be a blast. When we finished running around the island, picking the stickers our of our feet, and avoiding the trash heaps, we were pretty much dry and dreading the fact that the cold water once again was waiting for us. This time, however, we had no choice. So we swam all the way back and had to bear the cold both of the water and the wind when we got out. Of course, the extremely temperature-sensitive locals were shocked that were swimming in the early Spring when the water was still a little bit chilly. It was well worth the chill, and we enjoyed a little more sunshine and a little more food before packing up and going home. As we were packing up we ran into one problem. David and Gina lost their keys to their car. We searched and searched and searched, but to no avail. David finally concluded that he must have gone swimming with them and they must have fallen out of his pocket. Him and Max went at the car and decided to hotwire it to try to get it back home to the spare key. Sure enough, they succeeded. It was definitely my first time seeing people hotwire a car as well as get the steering wheel completely unlocked. Impressive.

So now that this weekend is over, things are really feeling like I’m on the edge of a steep downward slope. 5 more weekends in Almaty and then I’ll be home. It’s a weird thought. How thankful I am though, for every ounce of this experience. The sun has been setting later and later. We walked home tonight and it was still a little light out at about a quarter past nine. I always find this crazy seeing as I’ve lived in the southern States all my life. As the days get longer and the sun shines more, it is just a subtle reminder of how I need the Son to shine a little brighter, a little longer in the days of my life. I am still doing a lot of searching, and I am more excited than ever to trust God with the blank slate of my near future.

Weekend Adventure: Shymkent


Seeing that over a month has passed and I never finished talking about my adventure to the country/Turkistan/Shymekent, I thought I would continue despite my tardiness...

At the top of the mountain we had an incredible view of the entire village and saw the steep mountains, and the vast empty desert. Up on the top of the mountain Emily actually had cell phone reception and got in touch with another friend who was trying to find us. He ended up arriving in the village which surprised all of us, seeing that he basically had to follow a blind trail, with no reception and vague directions. We went back to the house, ate some more traditional food, with more delicious salads. We rested, did some knitting, chatting, watched a movie in Kazakh, and then hit the pads (beds). After bearing the cold night we woke up early, had a quick breakfast of undercooked, fresh eggs (delicious!) and then headed to the road to catch our bus. It was a minibus, like the kind of van that holds 12 passengers or so. Except this was Kazakhstan style. Most of the seats were taken out and we fit about 32 people in there. Again on each other’s laps and squished into the corners. We went on the bumpy roads again for about 3 hours this time heading towards Shymkent instead of Turkistan.

Shymkent is a city that is despised by most Almaty residents. The Southern region of Kazakhstan is looked at as the “barbaric desert.” If any of you has seen the wildly exaggerated movie, Borat, you will remember that he makes a bag and tries to kidnap Pamela Anderson. While this is exaggerated for the humor of Hollywood, this really does happen in the regions of Shymkent. If a guy likes a girl, he kidnaps her. Don’t worry, the guy and the girl usually plan it and it is like some quirky way of popping the question. The girl can choose to leave him and go back to her own family, but it is considered disgraceful. Luckily, before going to Shymkent I hadn’t heard much about the city, so I was able to enjoy it without judging it. It really is a beautiful city, with well kept streets and good weather. People from Almaty will tell you that the reason the city is so well kept is because the locals are not true Kazakhs. They are mixed with Uzbeks and they are hard workers. This is the main reason people from Almaty hate the people from Shymkent. Central Asia is fascinating. These countries we see on the map don’t mean anything; they are a result of Europe and the Soviet Union drawing lines. Central Asia is all about tribes, and strong ethnic/cultural prides.

When we got off our minibus we got our bus tickets to go back to Almaty, went to the bathroom, and got everything adjusted. We left our bags on the bus so we could do some exploring. While we were waiting for everyone to finish in the bathroom there was some “bumpin” music playing. Of course, Emily and Veronica can’t stay still when they hear music like that and so they started dancing. Nazira joined in and we had girls dancing all crazy right in the middle of the bus station. There was this big, old lady that saw and joined in from a distance as well. The whole situation was just one heck of sight. As if speaking English and looking American didn’t make us stand out enough. Pretty soon a car pulled up and some police men called out. Nazira talked to them, and sure enough they wanted documents. They thought we were all crazy people hyped up on drugs. They threatened to take us to the police station, but Nazira, like all good Kazakhs do, argued with them and they went away.

We had more than a few hours until our bus left so we hopped on a regular city bus and wandered the city. The first thing I noticed was that everything was cheaper. Buses cost 35 tenge instead of 50. We ended up walking by this mall and went inside. With its 3 stories, many stores, and shiny escalators I almost thought I was in America. But, after being in the country and living a radically different and crazy life for a couple days, an American-style mall just wasn’t attractive so we left and walked around the city looking for a good place to eat. We ventured around a lot of the city, but everything seemed to be closed, which was very frustrating seeing as it was the middle of the day. Business owners do not fight for your money outside of America, if they like you, they serve you, if they don’t, get out. And if they want to close their place in the middle of the day it’s cool. Who cares if you lose out on a few customers? Just the other day I was buying potatoes and when I took a bad potato out of the bag and told her it was no good, she grabbed the whole bag out of my hands and just gave me my money back. I just don’t understand it. We walked for awhile and came to this park where we shot some pellet guns and rode on some shady ride that was sparking and shaking and spun around via big fans strapped to the top. After the park we continued walking and finally found this nice Turkish place where we were graced with amazing food! I got this pizza-like-thing that was sort of a loaf of bread covered in cheese, vegetables, and meat. We all had our fill and then decided it was time to get back to the bus station. Instead of taking the bus back like normal people we decided to walk. Did any of us know the city? Nope. But, it was okay because we had people with us that could speak Kazakh and ask for directions, right? Not really. We walked around, completely unsure if we were going the right way, counting down the minutes until our bus was supposed to leave. Emir (Nazira’s 6 year-old boy) was smashed. He was too tired to go on so I he did rotations from my shoulders to my back to my arms; something that has become very common whenever he goes anywhere with us. But, we made it back to the bus in time and it wasn’t long before we were bumping up and down on the horrible cross-country roads back to Almaty...

Fading Inspiration and the Tiny “Big” Lake


So I’m trying not to lose inspiration to write, but after nearly a month without being able to post these blogs, my motivation is almost gone. It is crazy to think that I am down to 5 and a half weeks before taking off and restarting my life back home. Emily only has one more week teaching after this and then some serious changes are going to start in our centers. We have no new volunteers coming, at least not for a while. I feel like June is going to be incredibly busy and slip right from under my feet. So with only 10 days being left in May I feel like I should start packing my bags.

This weekend we took another extraordinary hike into the mountains. On Saturday night we stayed at the girls’ apartment because we had to wake up really early and they live much closer to the bus stop. So after waking up at 6:30am we got ready, ran up the street because they were repairing the roads, got on a bus, realized it was going the wrong way, got off the bus, ran back up the street, got on the right bus and met our group incredibly late. We took another bus up into the mountains and then began our hike towards Big Almaty Lake. Everyone I talked to said that Big Almaty Lake is a beautiful area so I was excited. We began trekking up a long dirt road for hours and then came to a big mountain with a large pipe running up it. We began up the mountain and walked along the pipe until we reached the lake. It took about 9 hours and was quite intense. When we finally reached the lake, the guard stopped us and told us we couldn’t go near it. That was quite disappointing seeing as we just spent 9 hours working our butts off to get there. But, with a little Kazakh persuasion/corruption skills we got to go on the dam and look at the lake. Big Almaty Lake should probably be called Tiny Almaty Lake. I guess I had put up my expectations to high, but this lake was really small and you were only allowed to view it from a distance. We did however find a nice area to picnic and the surrounding area truly was beautiful. We were in the midst of the warmth of Spring, lying in the lush grass, but right in front of us were majestic mountain peaks still covered with loads of snow. Even though the lake was slightly disappointing, the hike was well worth it and my sore butt muscles the next day were a small price to pay for the large amount of fun we had.

The city right now is in full bloom. You can’t look around without filling your eyes with a healthy dose of greenery. Tulips line the roads, the delicious aromas of different flowers fill the air, and the once trash-filled, ice covered, mud fields are now covered in lush grass. Since I am from the desert I have never really experienced all 4 seasons in their full glory. Going from winter to Spring is nice.

Family Fun Day, Victory Day, and Mother’s Day


Yesterday I had quite an eventful Sunday. I haven’t been able to get on blogger at all in the past few weeks and it makes it very difficult for me to get motivated to write when I can’t post anything. But, here I am again forcing myself to write about my wonderful weekend.

English Sabbath School was in charge of church again this weekend and instead of letting the girls handle everything as usual, I actually tried to plan the service and delegate the activities. It was a quiet Sabbath with the usual church service, but Veronica preached which made it interesting.

On Sunday all of Kazakhstan and the entire former Soviet Union held their hammer and sickles high and proud as they celebrated 65 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany. Also on this day, those in America were celebrating some of the most important people in their lives—mothers. For me, not being in America with my mom, and not really being able to attach myself to Soviet pride was caught up in another activity—family fun day.

Family Fun Day is something that we decided to have in a joint effort with our church and with our English centers. So we rented a 50 person bus (and ended up having like 70 people) and headed for the mountains. We drove about an hour and a half to a beautiful area that I had never been before. Our bus was going along, but would stop kind of randomly for reasons I never quite figured out. One time it stopped and we took the opportunity to get out and go see what was around. Veronica, Orken, and I took off toward the fast moving river and found a bunch of people, celebrating Victory Day of course, making Shashlik and having parties of their own. We found a cool bridge made out of planks and cords and took the opportunity to run up and down it, jump frantically, lean over the edge, and make fools of ourselves. Pretty soon more people came over from our group and we were all playing on the rope bridge. With more people, and more fun, came the rangers to yell at us. So we got off the bridge and the bus was packing back up. We got to our destination and broke out in the activities. We divided up into two teams. I was the Capitan of the “White Team” and we fought hard against the “Red Team” playing in three-legged races, hot dog eating contests, relay races, and egg races. My team came out victorious. After the activities everyone kind of went off and found something to do. Some played soccer, others played cards, while others stuck their feet in the river and soaked in the intense rays of the shining sun. I did my fair share of soaking in the rays and sticking my feet in the cold river, but I also chased some kids around, threw them up in the air, and all that good stuff. We brought a giant pot and they made plof; a lot of plof! Plof (in Kazakhstan at least) is a dish made mainly of rice mixed with vegetables, raisins, and dried apricots. It is sort of fried and quite delicious, but definitely foreign to my American taste buds. One time during the day these old ladies (I heard they were kindergarten teachers) pulled up in a car, blared some bumpin’ music and started dancing. Of course, Veronica and Emily along with a group of their students made their way over and Veronica, in her black skin once again stole the attention of the crowd. They were all dancing, taking pictures and going crazy. Meanwhile, Emir (a six year old boy that I’ve mentioned in previous blogs) and I hung out by these 2 people making shashlik engaging in very basic conversation with a lovely language barrier. We had a really great time, but by 4:00 we were on the bus and headed back. We got back to NewBridge (the place I work) and then walked home at about 6:00. The sun was still shining and Steven and I got to walk through the memorial park we walk through everyday, but this time it was filled with people celebrating Victory Day.

We walked through the park, took pictures with the flower-covered monuments, and embraced the lively culture that was swimming around us. Street performers were out and at their best, children were running around with their new toys, and everyone was in high spirits celebrating the peace that a previous generation didn’t have the pleasure of taking part in. It is so interesting to be on this side of the world and hear the stories of things like World War 2. Americans fought in the war, several of our brave soldiers died, but America never experienced the war like they did here. After all, our big and beautiful country is on the other side of the world and the only attack we experienced was Pearl Harbor. The Soviet Union was penetrated and sieges were made on big cities like Leningrad. People here fought to protect their sons and daughters, their wives and their lives. American soldiers stepped in out of support for freedom and to help nations like the Soviet Union conquer the forces of the evil Nazi reign. We didn’t necessarily fight to protect our homeland, but fought for the protection of others. The elderly people here walk around in their uniforms displaying their huge pride. They have stories, actual stories about attacks on their cities and the fights they engaged in. The history of this part of the world is truly fascinating and it was so exciting to be able to experience it this year. I find it interesting how freely nations like Kazakhstan still display the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union so proudly. They never saw it as being conquered, oppressed, or held in captivity. They saw those times as good, but different times. Nobody I’ve talked to is eager to say that the Communist era was better or worse than things are now.

I had a great weekend, but lost some sleep with the thought that I only have 7 weeks left in my time here. My boss is trying to get me to stay longer, and while I’m praying about it, I’m ready to go home. I was bummed out I didn’t get to spend Mother’s Day with my Mom, but I did get to Skype her and I will be home before I know it.

Falling Water


I haven’t blogged in forever. I don’t know what is wrong with me, but some resistance has built up in me and I’ve had no motivation to spend time with these keys, or these blank pages. I’m finally forcing myself to write, it doesn’t matter what it says, I just have to get back into the habit. Because I lack motivation when I cannpt post anything

I woke up this morning to large, furious rain drops pounding against my window. It is kind of depressing to get out of bed and stare into a grey sky, but I got out of bed anyways and I am allowing my mind to be penetrated by these raindrops. I am allowing their pattering sound to clear my thoughts.

On Sunday, we went to the mountains. We woke up early, met at the bus stop and headed toward Medeo, which is a place we’ve been several times, but from Medeo we hiked to Budakovka. It was quite a hike and an avalanche had covered the warm, blossoming mountains with fresh piles of icy snow. Needless to say, my feet were wet. By the time we reached Butakovka everyone was tired and we had lunch. We traveled with a huge group, almost 10 people. When we were through with lunch half the group broke off and traveled down the mountain. The other half of us went up to find a waterfall. Nazira and Emir joined us as well as Orken and 2 other students from AELC (the center that the girls work at). We followed the stream and of course, my feet got soaked as I helped Emir jump from rock to rock. We finally made it to the waterfall and it was incredible! It wasn’t a huge waterfall, but it was a good size. None of us could help playing around in the water and it wasn’t long before I was completely drenched. We filled up our water bottles and then laid out on rocks trying to dry off in the warm sun. I found a nice solitary place with a rock and I closed my eyes, soaked in the warm rays, and listened to the water crash against the ground beneath. Once we realized that it was getting late we headed down. We missed the bus so we had to keep walking down the mountain trying to get to the next bus stop within the city. Emir (who is about 6) got really tired like a little child would after hiking 10 hours and so I had to carry him much of the way down. We ended up walking quickly through the dark windy mountain roads trying to get to the city. Surprisingly we found a bus and got home long after 10. It was 14 hours from when we left the house to the time we got back to the house. Over 11 of those hours we were moving, up hills, down hills, through streams, across rigged, rocky slopes. It was an incredible day. When I got home I thawed out in the shower, still very wet and now cold, and as the hot water hit my body I was suddenly aware of all the cuts, scrapes, scratches, and sunburns that my body had acquired throughout the day. Reaching that waterfall was like a little slice of heaven. I will never forget that day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

His Precious Princess


As I’ve said before, while in Kazakhstan I’ve been trying to figure out some big important things in my life. One of those things is romantic relationships. I was reading a book today called, “When God Writes Your Love Story” by Eric and Leslie Ludy. It’s a good book, sometimes a little too sappy for my taste, but full of great reminders nonetheless. In the book they write about a wedding they attended and how they imagined Jesus standing there proudly, applauding with tears in His eyes for His “precious princess.” I felt a flood of emotion come over me as I pondered those two words; God’s “precious princess”. My mind went back to some relationships I’ve had in the past and I couldn’t recall ever treating a girl like the princess of the God of the universe.

My brother always jokes that if he has a daughter he is going to be a terror to any boys that try to woo her. As men, we know the filth of men. So his plan is one that we envision of crazy rednecks; sitting on his recliner in his boxers cleaning his shotgun. He will grunt as he asks the nervous boy what time he plans to have his daughter home. As the young man, with sweaty palms responds, “umm...10:00 sir.” He will cock his freshly cleaned shotgun and correct the foolish boy. “How about 9:30.”

Meeting the parents of your new or prospective girlfriend is always difficult. You desperately want their approval and you also want to know that you can get along with them. If you really want to be a gentleman then you will go ask the girl’s parents for permission to “court” her. This in itself can be horribly humiliating; trust me! But, today I was struck with awe. Someday when I finally meet that beauty; the incredible girl that I choose to spend the rest of my life with, I will not just be proposing to the daughter of great (or not so great) parents, but I will be proposing to a daughter of God. Sure, this may not be an uncommon thought, but it hit me today with full force. When you are with a girl, you want to honor her (at least you better!). You want to honor her parents by having her back on time and keeping your respect in their eyes. I’ve been in relationships and I’ll admit there were times when I didn’t have her home on time. There were times when honor slipped through the cracks, and I now realize why. I wasn’t viewing her in all the glory and splendor she deserved. Had I been fully convicted that this was God’s precious princess, I would never have even had the thought of taking her home late. I would have had her in the door at the proper time, with the proper greeting and farewell to her parents. I would have worked harder to make our time together more special and I would have treated her like she deserves; a precious princess of the Most High. My fellow men: we have precious princesses of the King of Kings all around us. Treat them as their glory calls for. Remember who their Daddy is.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Crossing the Bridge


I stood at the edge of the long, tattered rope bridge. I have always hated bridges, and this was perhaps the most frightening one I had ever seen. As I put my foot on the first plank, I prayed anxiously, “God! Give me a sign, something to assure me that you’re right here with me!” All of a sudden a beautiful white dove flew out of the forest on the other end and soared gracefully through the sky above me. My confidence was boosted and I was ready to conquer my fears. I took a few steps forward until my foot slipped and I fell to one knee. The bridge swayed violently from side to side. “God! I can’t do this. Help me! Give me some indication that I’m going to make it to the other side!” Another dove soared high above me, but I kept praying, “Lord, I need to know you’re with me.” Suddenly three doves came out of nowhere and fluttered around me, seemingly helping me to my feet. I now knew without a doubt that God was on my side and that I would get safely across. I took several bold steps and even though the bridge shook beneath me I remained confident. When I got past half way one of the boards completely gave way and my leg fell through. The splintered wood cut my skin and I dangled there hopelessly. My face was forced downward and I noticed for the first time the raging waters beneath me. If I fell, it would be certain death. “God. You have abandoned me. I need you. I know this is the bridge that I was supposed to cross, but I’m going to die. I cannot move on unless you give me a sign and assure me that you are with me.” The plank in front of me started to jiggle and I noticed writing starting to appear. It said, “I promised that I would always be with you. I told you I love you, I have sent you signs, but signs will never be good enough. You have to learn to trust me.” Humbled by the Lord, I managed to lift my leg from the broken plank and I began to crawl towards the nearing end. Tears were dripping down my face as I pushed my body further and further. I could hear the rope stretching and as I made another push the rope on one side completely snapped. The bridge shook violently and teetered to one side. I held on for my life, knowing that I would never make it, even though the end of the bridge was right before me. “Thank you Lord, for bringing me here to die!” I screamed bitterly. “I just wanted to know that you were with me, that you hadn’t abandoned me, but I see it clearly now.” I gazed up and noticed a man walking out of the forest glowing with a brightness that I had never before seen. He walked over to the edge, knelt down and reached out His hand. “I have always been with you, I gave you the signs you asked for and they have proved meaningless. Even now, I am appearing to you in physical form and this will not be enough. Take my hand.” I wept bitterly as I hung in the air, grasping the rope and the planks. “No!” I told Him. “How do I know you’re not going to drop me? How do I know that you’re strong enough to lift me?” Tears streamed down my face and joined the raging waters beneath me. “You know who I am. You know that I’m strong enough. You are about to die, take my hand!” “Prove it!” I howled. “Prove to me that you are strong enough.” The man’s eyes filled with tears. “It won’t help. There is nothing I can do to prove my strength to you. You have to trust me. Remember the doves, the writing, I am here. Please, take my hand so that we can get away from this mess.” I stared at His shining hand that was stretched out toward me and could hear the rope stretching on the other end. I was running out of time. I would have grabbed His hand, but He wouldn’t show me He was strong enough. Tears streamed down His face as the rope snapped. I clung to the plank and fell to the crashing waters beneath.

Signs will never be enough. Audible voices, prophetic dreams, writing in the sky will not build our faith; it will only make us dependent on things we can always rule out as coincidences. We must learn to trust Him. I am tempted to pray for signs, to pray for assurance, but Jesus said, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” Signs will never be enough.

Echoes of Grace


A long, long time ago God created this beautiful world. He poured His love into a creation that He created in His very own image. A long, long time ago God saturated the soil of the earth and the soil of men's hearts with an astonishing type of love. When men ignorantly rejected that love, that love wouldn’t die. A long, long time ago God shouted, with a shout that only God can shout. He shouted one word that would quench the thirsty, fill the hungry, and heal wounds of every kind. That one word is GRACE. God shouted this word and it flew through the blades of the green grass, rang in the deepest canyons, resounded though the wide valleys, and reverberated off the most majestic of mountains. When beauty should have shriveled, it thrived. When men were supposed to fall, they flew. This was a long, long time ago, but even today, thousands upon thousands of years later, this word still echoes through our world. As I was walking down the polluted streets of a torn down world, I saw the radiant smile of a mother as she watched her little girl chase little birds, giggling uncontrollably; echoing grace. I saw a bride marching through the park with her new husband, bound by love; echoing grace. I saw a student smirk with understanding, finally grasping the difficult concepts; echoing grace. I saw a child trip and fall, scraping his knee, only to find a hand above him; echoing grace. I heard a song with the instruments harmonizing to produce a sound that filled me with peace; echoing grace. I ate a food, prepared with simple ingredients, bringing a pleasure to my tongue; echoing grace. I saw the sunset, closing another day, painting the sky with hues of red, purple, and gold. My heart swelled as I realized I was seeing more than natural beauty; I was seeing yet another echo of grace. This world is damaged, filled with screams of pain and confusion, filled with the tears of uncertainty and the sighs of monotony. This world is hurting, but I see smiles despite the pain; smiles that echo the same word that was spoken the moment the creation began to crumble. Grace. It’s more than a word, it’s more than a means to a life eternal. Grace. It is that beauty that lies in front of you, that love that you cannot contain, that smile that lifts in spite of your circumstances. It is the simple pleasures that get you throughout the day. It is that tingle that shoots up your spine, and that breath that calms your tired soul. Grace. It was spoken a long, long time ago by the only One capable of saying such a word. Today it echoes all around us, reminding us that we are more than just another creation, reminding us of the love within us and the astounding love outside of us. I hear them, I feel them, I see them, I smell them, I taste them; these echoes, these echoes of grace testifying of a love so much greater than myself; a love that cannot be stifled; a love that will last forever.