Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Climbing Up"


Ah! If only I could describe to you the joy of the Kazakhstan mountains. Today we spent the day hiking and playing in the snow. Today we climbed above the clouds and unleashed our playful spirits. The mountains here in Almaty are much like Colorado. They are huge mountains that stare majestically at the crowded city, except you cannot usually see them from the city because of treacherous smog. As we climbed higher and higher on the gorgeous, pure white, snow-covered paths, the view just became more and more breath-taking. As we reached a certain point it looked as though a gray ocean was washing up against the glorious snow-capped mountains that stood beneath us. It was then that I realized that gray ocean was covering the city in which I currently reside. That gray ocean was actually pollution-saturated smog that hovered over Almaty. That gray ocean is the source of my every breath during the week. I realized that I was breathing fresh air for the first time in over 2 weeks. The fresh air was delicious. Americans don’t realize just how clean and green our country is. I’ve been to some big cities like L.A. and Chicago and the air there is pure oxygen compared to Almaty. I realized that even if America went totally “green” it wouldn’t do much because a great deal of the rest of the world is pouring out thick, black pollution. Just thinking...

Anyways, the mountains were amazing. The hike up was a bit difficult and strenuous, and our final destination was cold. It was actually cold the whole time, but we were moving the whole time so I was actually hot and ripping off my layers. The way down though, was a blast. We ran and slid on our feet. We rolled down the steep hills and pushed each other on discarded pieces of plastic. It was so much fun, but after being so crazy, I ended up with snow all over my body, which then melted, which then meant I was completely wet and thus cold. This was the case for quite awhile seeing as we had a prayer meeting to attend right when we got down. It was an amazing day and an incredible night even though I was freezing and had to deal with wet clothes hanging from my body. When I got back to the apartment (which was another adventure in and of itself. Let’s just say it involved a taxi, walking past a bunch of shady business like normal, a crying woman on the sidewalk, and a big group of troublesome looking guys in our neighborhood. I value my life here and am constantly asking and thanking God for His protection. I don’t take it for granted.) I took a wonderful hot shower and got into some dry clothes. I then got to video chat with my whole family (mother, father, brothers), which meant so much to me because I haven’t been able to do that since I’ve arrived here. Now, I sit here writing this trying not to pass out. It’s been a long day, but an absolutely amazing day. I have to work tomorrow, but luckily not until 5. I feel refreshed tonight. A feeling I have not felt in a long time.

I’ll leave you with this tonight: If you’re life seems to be full of pollution, if you have to fight with every breath you take, then climb up. There you will find that the suffocating pollution will just look like a beautiful ocean that fails to penetrate the majestic mountains beneath you. When you “climb up” you will find fresh air and although you may not understand it all, or have the strength to respond to it, you can revel in the beauty of the pure, white snow and the tall, magnificent trees. You can get in touch with your childlike impulses and just simply have fun. “Up” is where you truly feel alive.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Judging Value and Staying Safe

Today I went to church. I’m not going to lie I was kind of spacing out during a lot of it. Church here lasts a good 3 and half hours and that is beyond my attention span. But, I enjoyed the service. One group of people grumbled about the speaker’s message and found a bunch of fault in what he said, but I didn’t pick up on it at all. Maybe I haven’t been here long enough, maybe I was spaced out, or maybe they are just bitter. Bitterness seems to run deep with much of the group here. Since we arrived I have heard nasty things about many people and while I understand there are scars of emotional hurt, it’s a bit exhausting. I could tell before I even stepped foot in this country that I was stepping into some drama and drama it has been. I won’t go into details, but I will tell you that I have chosen to take every comment and suggestion lightly. I like all these people so far, and all of them have been very kind to me. I will continue to like all the people here until I have a reason to be skeptical. It is just a reminder that the church is filled with white-wigged people that love to carry around gavels. The liberals say the conservatives are not accepting while the liberals shut out the conservatives and the conservatives say the liberals have strayed as they themselves have no love inside them. Religion is a mess, simply because people are messy. Relationships are messy.

After church we went to a friend’s house. A very nice woman, who was an SM here years ago, fell in love and got married and hasn’t left Almaty since. We went over to her house and made pizza out of sliced bread, ketchup, cheese, and a bunch of other tasty toppings. It was surprisingly good. Ketchup? Yeah, it worked. Then we had ice cream and talked and pretty soon it was late. We had another cab adventure. Burnie talked to the cab and they dropped him off and continued to take Steven and I to our place. On the way there, nothing looked familiar and my anxiety heightened. I think I mentioned this before, but if not, everyone in Kazakhstan is a taxi. When you hold out your hand random people will stop and make a few extra tenge on their way home. So, even though I don’t necessarily feel safe on the buses, I really don’t feel safe in a taxi. Just the thought of me putting my life into this strangers hand is a bit unsettling. So nothing looked familiar on the way to our place and my thoughts started drifting. I imagined this guy taking us to the outskirts of town and holding us hostage, or pulling out a gun and demanding money that I didn’t have. But, pretty soon the familiarity of nearby mosque came into view and all my worry was wiped away. The nice cab driver tried to joke with us, but because I don’t know Russian I just awkwardly laughed and handed him the money hoping he would be satisfied with the amount. I know I said all of this and now people (like you mom) are worrying that one of my nightmares are going to come true. They won’t. Every day I am reminded at the friendliness of these people and the protection that I have from my God. I have this bad habit of thinking people are generally bad. It’s not true. I am trying to convince myself that most people are good people. Sometimes as a foreigner and as an American, I tend to think that everyone wants me, that I am some prize to be taken advantage of. But, in reality most people look at me and think, “Oh, a foreigner.” And move on with their life. Most people recognize reality, that I am just a guy that’s not from around here. Just a guy. I’m not going to make anybody’s dreams come true, nobody is going to get rich by robbing me, and I certainly am no prize. It’s funny how pride can lead you to think you’re something better than you actually are. All of us, we’re just run of the mill (Try explaining that idiom to your students!) people and the only value we have is the value people place on us. I place high value on those I love. The people that love me place high value on me, I’m sure. Love makes us valuable, without it, we’re nothing special, just another guy, just another girl, just another foreigner, just another stranger. Think about your value, if it’s not the high value you long for, get out there and be loveable.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Theology and Government

So I know that I’ve already blogged today, but I needed to have an update on how the rest of the day went, if not for you, at least for my memory. Friday club went well tonight. Last week we prepared and got to the office and nobody showed up. This week we had 3 people. It was quite exciting. After reading through the dialogue from the Chronicles of Narnia, we watched the movie and then discuss. We got to forgiveness and talked about that for awhile and then ended up with the Golden Rule. It’s about a 25 minute walk home and our boss lives very close to us so we generally walk together. On the way home we were talking about Islam, something I am always eager to learn about. She said a phrase that I have heard her utter once or twice before. She said, “Theology and Religion is what divides people, it is God who unites them.” It is an odd thing to say, but devastatingly true. How is it that the study of God and the practice of relating to God divides people while God Himself unites people? It’s a funny thing to think about.

So with that and with the discussion about the Golden Rule I started thinking. My thoughts are this: theology, like government, is best kept small. When government starts getting large, they start to get all up in people’s space. They start many new projects and initiatives which are poorly managed and unable to be funded. Government, when it gets too big, will end up collapsing on itself. Theology is the same way. We come up with all these doctrines and all these ideas and pretty soon we think we have God figured out with our poorly defined thoughts. We are quick to have a strong will, but unhurried to have a soft heart. The more ideas you have about God, the more your ideas are probably false. That’s what I love about Jesus. The guy lived simply. He practiced what He preached and loved on everyone He could. He had His ideas about God, but they were all relational. He wasn’t obsessed with facts, because when it comes to God, there are no “facts.” He is and that’s that. What else can you really be absolutely certain about? So what is the point? The point is that I want to see Christians start living out the Golden Rule. You can find the Golden Rule in many other religions, but it is usually in the negative: “Don’t do to others whatever you wouldn’t want done to you.” A good rule, but Jesus is a radical guy and took it one step further. He said, “Do to others, as you want them to do to you.” That means that you have to get your hands dirty and mess with relationships and get involved with people. I want to keep my ideas of God basic and simple. If I get too many ideas, they are likely to come crashing down on me. And personally, I don’t want trillions of dollars in debt like the US government.

Specks of Grace


I can’t help but smile as I sit writing this in my kitchen, next to the furnace, with the curtain of the window wide open. The picture is completed by the steaming cup of mint green tea that sits on the table beside me and helps to keep me warm as the snow falls outside. Looking out the window, my eyes follow the tiny little specks of frost that are falling all around.

I just got back from the supermarket. A real, live supermarket. Normally, we do our grocery shopping at the bazaar where you are constantly being pushed and shoved and fighting to communicate without knowing the vendors language. Today, today was different. We went into a warm building, with shopping carts. We grabbed stuff off shelves and then proceeded to have them scanned at a register. I never really realized just how convenient grocery stores are. Anyways, we stocked up and enjoyed the Wal-Mart like store. You can get everything there and at a good price! It is just like Wal-Mart in that we got everything we need except fresh produce. Produce is best when you buy it from the guy on the street that picked it out of his garden earlier the same morning.

The snow is special today. As we were walking to and from the store I held out my hand and allowed all the little white flakes to fall gently onto the tightly woven strings of my gloves. As they landed I could see their little patterns. Some looked like stars and others like fancy crystals. I have never actually been able to see snowflakes before. I just saw nice looking white dust falling all around. It is so cliché to talk about God’s cleansing when you see the snow fall. Sometimes I just roll my eyes and think “Here we go again.” But today Psalm 51 went through my mind over and over. “Wash me white as snow and I will be made whole” are lyrics by John Foreman that are based on Psalm 51. It is a beautiful song that is on repeat as I write this and enjoy the powdering of the trees outside. Even though it is cliché, today it hit me in a very real way. Almaty is a wonderful city. You can find anything you want here and it will never fail to surprise you. However, like any large city, especially any city in a foreign country, there is a lot of pollution. The air above is usually a toxic gray and the sidewalks are covered with trash, dog poop, and other mysterious gross things. A week ago I was ready for the snow to be gone and to be able to walk on pavement again. I was ready for the cold to go away and planning a welcome party for spring. Earlier this week, it warmed up, the snow started melting and things were as I was hoping for. It was then that I actually saw the dirty roads. It was then that the filth of the crowded city was revealed. I quickly was praying for more snow, more clean-looking white powder to cover up the mess that lies beneath. Winter may be cold, but at least it’s clean. Sometimes we feel as though God’s cleansing is too cold. It requires us to choose Him instead of our earthly vices. Being without your vices can make you feel cold, but when the snow is falling it covers up the trash that we leave laying around. I don’t know about you, but I have some trash in my life. I’m not perfect. The sidewalks of my life are covered in cigarette butts and animal feces and that is only the beginning. So even though it might be slippery and it might feel cold, today I am praying that God covers up the messy city of my heart with a thick layer of His purity and His grace. As I looked at those beautifully crafted snowflakes that fell on my glove and admired the detail of creation, I was reminded that these are more than cold, white flakes. They are more than frozen droplets of water gliding to the ground; they are little specks of grace and they tickled my face all the way home.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Disappointments, Friendship Deeds, and Ticking Clocks


Today was a long day. Having the internet in our apartment has made my sleep schedule change dramatically. This thing is bad for my health. Anyways, today we finally made it to the U.S. Consulate. I finally got my certified copy of my passport so the next time I get caught by the police they will have a hard time pinning something on me. I am running around the city legal now. We ended up walking around the city for a long time today looking for the consulate and when we finally found it I was a bit disappointed. I guess I was expecting this beautiful building with a big sign that said, “Welcome Americans!” while people that spoke perfect English served me free Starbucks coffee and French fries. But it turns out that the consulate is in some bank and it has really heavy security and is staffed with mostly non-English speaking locals. Bummer. So after we got our certified copies we headed over to AELC (there are two centers here in Almaty. The girls teach at AELC which is on one side of town and Steven and I teach at NewBridge which is on the other side of town) to pick up some materials for Friday Club (I’ll explain Friday club in a second). Anyways at AELC this guy walks in looking for prices and details about the center which is not uncommon, but we happened to leave at the same time as him. Turns out his English was very good. His name was Azamat. It’s funny how people work here in Kazakhstan. You talk with them for a couple minutes, they ask for your cell phone number and business card, and next thing you know you are friends and plan to call each other for lunch sometime in the near future. He actually followed us to NewBridge so we talked the whole way and he paid for our bus ride. It turns out he is getting his MBA here in Almaty and is wanting to open us an English school in his hometown. Before I came here Emily told me that you meet the most random people here. That proved true today. Business cards are like friendship deeds here. If someone is your friend, you give them your business card and you carry around all of your friend’s business cards. It reminds me of the card you get in monopoly when you buy a property, that’s why I call them friendship deeds.

So today concluded another week of teaching. Some people might call me lazy for working 4 hours a day and 4 days a week, but I think it is wonderful. Thursdays are like Fridays because I don’t teach on Fridays. However we do have Friday club. Friday club is an “extra practice” type of thing where we read and watch Narnia and sneak in some spiritual thoughts and ideas. We have a meeting every Friday with our boss and then go over to the center. So it’s like I work 5 days a week, sort of. No, I really do have to work, I promise, because there is the “behind the scenes” stuff like making quizzes, grading papers, crafting up homework assignments, and preparing the lessons. But, I don’t work too much. I think this is the first time since my childhood, save summer vacations, where I don’t feel completely stressed out. I actually feel like I don’t have too much on my plate. I am actually making room for reflection and thinking and reading. Life is delicious right now even though I miss my loved ones and my beloved familiarity. I’m tired, and a bit cranky. I have to clean up this apartment tomorrow and go grocery shopping.

Nobody showed up for my extracurricular “video class” today so I had an hour and a half to do nothing. I had a raging headache which I tried to cure with caffeine. I was sitting at the desk when I laid my head down on my arm. My ear rested just above my watch and I became entranced with the “tick, tick, tick.” Normally the thought of every tick being a reminder of the death of a second of my life, a second that I’ll never be able to get back, scares me. But tonight it was comforting. Like every tick, instead of a reminder of the death of time, was a reminder of the birth of time. Every second was a fresh start, a new beginning, a blank canvas waiting for my brush. I’m here and I’m painting a better picture with all of these new experiences. It feels good. What are you doing with your blank canvases? You better decide quick because they don’t stick around long. “Tick, tick, tick, tick”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Trusting in God - An Abstract Reality

Today we not only got our wireless router installed which meant that I could finally contact my parents and my grandparents. It was amazing being able to hear their voices and share my experiences with them. I love the 21st century and all of its glorious technology. I am so glad I’m not a missionary back in the 1800s. Yes, I’m spoiled, but when you have such wonderful people in your life it is important to stay in touch with them. However, it is currently 12:30am. This is what the internet does to you. It destroys your sleep. It’s ok though since I’ve been averaging at least 9 hours a night. I have learned that there is such a thing as too much sleep, something that is easily forgotten in the college rush.

I had tortillas today. We went to the girls’ apartment and Emily whipped up some delicious Mexican food. Yes, Mexican food in Kazakhstan. She had to make the tortillas herself because of course there is no such thing as a Kazakh tortilla. She gave me the recipe, I’m eager to try it out. Cooking has been one of Steven and I’s greatest challenges. It is a whole lot of trial and error. We cook a lot of potatoes. Potatoes are easy and are good for growing young men. We have made some nasty potatoes though. Up until the other day, we peeled our potatoes with a knife. When I asked my boss where I could pick up a peeler she got a puzzled look on her face and said, “Why would you want one of those, you can just use a knife.” Silly American! So I was going to post up here a frantic sign that said “SEND ME A PEELER” but I was walking on one of the streets that is covered in little vendor tables near my house and on a random table I saw a peeler, a little, red, plastic peeler. I immediately grabbed it and yelled at the man, “Skolka!?” (Russian for: How much?) and he said a number I couldn’t understand. I started playing with my fingers so he knew I couldn’t speak Russian. He held up one of his fingers. I handed him a 100 tenge (about 66 cents) coin and said, “Da?” (Russian for: Yes?) and he said, “Da.” It was one of my happier moments here in the great country of Kazakhstan. I went back to the apartment skeptical of the quality of this outrageously cheap peeler, but after peeling my first batch of potatoes I can tell you that it is the best 100 tenge I have spent so far. This thing is like the Titan Peeler with a sharp, two-sided blade. I want to have my boss over so I can show her why a peeler is so important. Have you ever used a knife to peel potatoes? It’s awful, at least from this spoiled American boy’s standpoint. On this journey of mine, I have been praying that God would peel off the thick skin of ignorance and self that I am coated in. The thing about peeling, however, is that it requires a sharp object and sharp objects tend to do some damage. Those potatoes don’t look the same after I attack them with my brilliant, red tool. It makes me think, if Christians claim to be peeled by the grace-filled blood of a Savior then why do they look like dirty, unpeeled potatoes? (The potatoes here in Kazakhstan are extremely dirty!) We may pray that God peels back the layers of selfishness, but once that sharp object gets close it is much easier to run away and hide in the garbage. So what am I saying? That God wants to cut you? Not quite. Here’s what’s on my mind: I once prayed that Jesus would “bring the rain” that He would be completely in charge and prepare me to handle anything. Then the rain came and I cursed Him. Coming here, I told Him to bring the rain. The rain came, and I cursed Him. Today, after getting over my culture shock and telling him to bring the rain once more, the clouds started forming above. I’m not cursing Him, but I’m giving him the look, the look that questions His authority. I can’t let God be God and that is a problem.

My thoughts are scattered tonight and I am in need of a prayer session. Not just a prayer session, but one of those prayer sessions like Jesus had. I once preached a sermon on Jesus’ radical prayer life, but I can’t remember the last time I actually could call my prayer life “radical”. Trusting in Him is a funny thing. It is so abstract and yet so real. It seems so naïve and yet it seems like the only option. God is crazy and relentless. If the love that looms inside of me didn’t testify to His existence my faith might falter. But, I got a lot of love inside and it had to come from somewhere. Jesus was so much like His dad. I think I could use a little more crazy and an extra dose of relentless passion.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My loves—Coffee, Language, and the Internet


As the excitement of the newness dies down, I am finding it a bit difficult to write tonight. I am starting to really get into my role as a teacher and love it more every day. Sure, during the day I don’t look forward to work, but every night I come home energized and accomplished. However, today was an excellent day because we finally got internet in our apartment so now I can actually communicate with everyone back home. I’m a bit worried that all of my reading time, writing time, and thinking time will go down the drain now that we have internet, but I am going to discipline myself. I didn’t go half way around the world to get more of the same. I came here to experience life in a completely different way. My boss came over today so she could talk to the cable guys in Russian and she politely whispered to me and asked if I could make her some coffee, some real Starbucks coffee. I just smiled. Any woman that wants to sit down and discuss language with me over a cup of coffee is a woman after my own heart. So, nothing too exciting happened today, other than the arrival of our internet. I’m tired, I have to wake up early, and everyone has been complaining that my blogs are too long. So I’ll keep this one short, just for you.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood


I just got back from work. I love teaching. Some nights however, it’s a drag. Tonight, was not a drag, but I was hungry the whole time so I kept looking at my watch. Even though I have only taught my students a total of 3 times, I feel like I am already seeing progress and getting to know them individually. I love my level 1 class. I told them today that they were good students and one of the older man said, “No, we just have a good teacher.” Oh! The man melted my heart right then and there. The thing about Kazakhstan is this: I’ve only been here a little over a week, but I already feel deeply rooted into the community here. A week ago I would have told you that I live in a Soviet dump of an apartment in a slum of a neighborhood, but now I tell you that I live in a cozy little Soviet apartment in a great central location. I mean honestly, how many people do you know that can say they have lived in old Soviet housing? (Unless you are from Kazakhstan and reading this, then you yourself are probably sitting in an old Soviet apartment). Anyways, today Steven and I bought a really cheap cell phone so we could give back the one we’ve been borrowing. We found a girl at the market who could speak very broken English to sell it to us. She asked me what I was doing in Kazakhstan and I told her I was teaching English. She asked me how she could improve her English and I smiled and told her to join my class. I got her number and as we walked away she shouted, “Don’t forget me!” It was quite romantic really. So I’m like a walking advertisement.

I was at work and I was thinking about coffee. Then I thought about how I wanted to relax. I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll swing by Barnes and Noble on the way home.” Oh wait. No I won’t. I’m in Kazakhstan. So tonight I’m feeling a dose of home sickness. Between missing my mother’s birthday yesterday and having thoughts about sweet American cafés, I’m wanting the comfort of home. But at the same time I am loving my work here too much to leave. I finally have the Russian alphabet down and can’t give up on that either. So the moral of the story is that God is good. He makes you happy where you are, but keeps reminding you that there are better things waiting.

People, People, People


Today we went on an excursion to Baraholca (again spelling is relative). Baraholca is known as the city inside the city. It is a giant sort of mall that is known for all of its Chinese knock offs. I guess there is a joke that the Chinese export everything to Baraholca and then go shop there to get the best prices. (Keep in mind that I am only a stone’s throw away from China). Anyways, I finally got some hiking shoes/boots. Things are starting to melt around here which means that puddles and mud abound. Also, I want to get into the mountains and do some hiking so I am pretty excited that I finally got my boots. In Baraholca there is a ton of people. On the bus ride back there was a ton of people. So many people that I couldn’t twist, turn, move my feet or anything. I was standing sandwiched between a hundred different strangers. We were all touching each other way more than any of us wanted to be touched. But, that’s just how it is on Almaty buses. After we got off the bus we went to Ziloni Bazaar and guess what, it was Sunday which is the biggest market day of the week, so there was a ton of people. By the time I stammered into my apartment I didn’t want to see another face. I was so sick of people and so nauseated by being in crowds (I hate crowds, especially in foreign countries that don’t believe in personal space like we do in America). I realized just how many people are in this city and then I thought about how many cities there are in the world, many with a much greater population than here in Almaty. There are just so many people packed onto this little floating, spherical rock that we call Earth.

As I was thinking about all these people my mind started going crazy. I thought about how on this day a whole bunch of years ago a lovely woman gave birth to a lovely little girl and that girl grew up fell in love with a wonderful man and then proceeded to give birth to a little boy. And somehow those two people found each other and their genetic makeup produced me. I’ve heard the motivational speakers talk about sperm many times and how I am a statistical impossibility and sure, it makes me feel special for about 5 minutes. But, after today I am truly amazed at the fact that I am here, that I happen to be one of these billions of people that are stuck on this floating rock. Life is interesting, but what amazes me the most is how big God is. He is so big that He knows each and every person that bumped into me at the market today (that’s at least 500 people!) and He takes the time to count the hairs on their head, love them with all His majestic Being, and even execute a costly and painful plan so that He might be able to play to them forever. I am one of these billions that Jesus died for. I am one out of billions, that is not very special. But, to the God that knows each and every one of these billions I am special, and that makes me feel pretty darn special. But, I still hate crowds. I could go on and on at this point about how Jesus told me to love everyone as He has loved me and how after seeing so many people I am completely blown away by this command. But, if you’ve read this far, your eyes are probably getting tired and I have more things to talk about.

I don’t know if you caught the part earlier, about how a certain little girl was born on this day many years ago, but yes, I was talking about my mother. It’s my dear Mother’s birthday today and I am feeling quite sad that I cannot be there to celebrate with her. I can’t even post this yet so she can see I am saying happy birthday. That’s been the worst thing about this place so far, not being able to communicate with anyone back home other than 5 minute internet spurts while I’m at work. The computers there don’t make internet easy either. Everything switches back and forth from Russian to English. Anyways, the moral of the story is I’m missing my mom today. God chose to bless me with the perfect mother. I really can’t put into words just how special my mama is. Yes, I am a mama’s boy, and you would be too if your mom was as amazing as mine. So the moral of the story is: HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!!

...Thou Art With Me


Today was Sabbath. It’s funny because normally when I am at school I drink in the Sabbath and get my long-awaited rest, but this week wasn’t so exhausting and demanding so Sabbath was just a nice reminder. Church here starts at 2. I haven’t had to get up early the whole time I’ve been here in Kazakhstan. Church was long, but I really enjoyed it. After church we all got together and decided to have an American experience....Pizza Hut! (Yes, Steve, I made sure to grab you a menu) Even though its only been a week since we got here, I started to miss familiar tastes really quick. Pizza Hut was, like anywhere outside the US, really fancy. I got a menu for my brother who manages Pizza Huts back in the states. That was exciting. When it came time to go our separate ways, we all had a different direction to go. Steven and I walk to work every day and have only ridden the buses a few times so it’s fair to say that we are still learning our way around. We saw the number 65 bus coming on the other side of the street so we ran over and caught it. I asked the lady “Ziloni Bazaar?” (Which is a huge market that we live very close to) and she said “Niet, niet (which means NO in Russian) and then kept saying a bunch of stuff we couldn’t understand. Finally she pointed the opposite way that we were going and Steven and I realized that you shouldn’t cross the street to find your bus. So she let us off without charging us and we walked back to our bus stop. We got on and after spending about 10 minutes on the bus the conductor shouted out “Ziloni Bazaar!” along with a bunch of other Russian words that I couldn’t understand. I looked at Steven and wondered if this is where we were to get off, but everything looked so unfamiliar. Before I could act on anything the bus started moving. I went to the conductor and asked “Ziloni Bazaar?” and he looked angrily at me and started speaking Russian. I could tell he was saying, “You moron! I just said Ziloni Bazaar! Now its behind you.” So we got off at Siahat (all my spelling of these places is relative). I remembered people talking about Siahat. How it was downhill from Green Market (Ziloni Bazaar) and a major bus station. Steven and I didn’t have a clue where we were. I remembered seeing it on a map and was pretty confident I could get us back to our apartment, but the thing is, it seems the further “down the hill” you go in Almaty the worse the area gets. Steven and I were walking at night, in an unfamiliar place, dressed in our church clothes. I felt like I was in the perfect situation to get mugged. But, I told Steven to stop speaking in English and we continued to walk. (When you speak English it is very easy to tell that you are a foreigner). So we did our best to blend in and navigate through the eerie streets of Almaty. The whole time I was praying, I didn’t know what to pray exactly, but I was praying. I was very careful to avoid certain groups of people and stick to lighted, main roads. It really brought the Psalm to life, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” As we got to Ziloni Bazaar I breathed a sigh of relief, but we weren’t home safe yet. I thought it best to stick to where people are so we took a certain route. I realized that those people were in trouble with the police. I didn’t want to have another encounter with the police! So we shut up and walked around as nonchalantly as we could. Anyways, we ended up getting home. We ended up feeling God’s grace and protection. We probably were never in any real danger but it sure was an experience and livened up our story. God is good all the time...All the time, God is good. Don’t forget, He is with you even in the darkest, craziest looking places, He is with you.

1 Week Down – 22 to Go!


So today is Friday. This means that Steven and I have officially been in Kazakhstan for an entire week! So far, so good. I am loving the experiences I am having here and really enjoying the people I am surrounded by. It is so different than my normal life in America and that is exactly what I was looking for. When I first got here I remember thinking I was going to die, that these next six months were going to be awful and I gave God the whole spiel on how He had made a mistake and how He doesn’t have a clue what He’s doing. Us humans are really good at telling God when He is right and when He is wrong. We like to make deals with Him and we tell Him that He is in charge as we whisper into His ear which direction to turn next. If God gets annoyed, then I’m sure we have become His most annoying creation. We are like cockroaches telling a master chef how to prepare his dish or like men trying to tell a woman how to give birth.

My mind takes me back to the end of November when Steven and I first made the decision to go as Student Missionaries. We were talking in the darkened hallway of the dorm sometime past midnight and were incredibly excited. We weren’t sure, but we felt confident that God was leading us to Kazakhstan. Why Kazakhstan? It’s quite simple really. We went to talk to the Student Missions coordinator, told her that we wanted to go in January to a place that had an urgent need and she handed us a flyer that said “Urgent Need in Almaty, Kazakhstan.” That just about did it. It’s interesting however, because I have walked by many posters that tell me to do all sorts of things and I usually just smile and don’t think much of it. In fact, at Southern it is my job to design posters to try to get people to go on short term evangelistic mission trips. Usually I hang up about 40 posters, about 2000 people see them and I get excited if 1 person comes in. 1/2000 is awful odds. But, think about it, when is the last time you walked by one of those “We Want You” posters and decided to put life as you know it on hold and go. It sounds crazy and that is exactly what it is. I think if people paid more attention to posters (or anything offering opportunity) and actually thought “maybe that is for me” then monotony would not have such a tight rein on all of us. More people would be living better stories. I’ve been reading Donald Millers book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and I must say it is phenomenal. Go buy it and read it. It is my prayer tonight that Christians everywhere would be unsettled with a once-a-week expression to God and unsettled with a constant, monotonous routine. Get up, get out, and do something ridiculously crazy. Follow the Spirit wherever He decides to take you and trust me, He knows what He’s doing.

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Survival!


Yesterday as we were walking to work I saw a man digging through one of the garbage heaps that lie on the side of the road. I felt sick as I realized he wasn’t looking for thrown out treasures, but for food. I watched as he pulled out half-eaten pieces of bread and threw them into his bag. When I got here I changed a $100 bill—just one “Benjamin”. And because food is so cheap here according to our American standards, I don’t think I have used up three-quarters of it. When I go to the market I can easily pick up 2 kilos of Potatoes for just about a dollar. But, it is clear that this man didn’t have any “Benjamins” to change. So why him? And why me? Why does he have to live the life of a beggar while I live the life of a spoiled American teenager? It simply isn’t fair.

I went to feed the homeless once while I was at Southern. I was very apprehensive about it, but in the end I was really glad I went. They were some of the most grateful homeless people I had ever encountered. Afterwards, however, a severe pensive state had washed over me and my friend who went with me. My friend and I spent hours in the car talking about how life simply isn’t fair—how God isn’t fair. It doesn’t make sense that I am in a great situation where I my IQ is high enough to go to college and I somehow can get the tuition paid while there are others who suffer from mental retardation, the never-ending cycle of poverty and other brick walls. We sat in the car that night pouring out our emotions. Why us? Why were we the ones going to a private college, sitting in a nice car? Why weren’t we the ones out on the street scrounging for our next meal? We arrived at what I believe to be the only possible conclusion—God is love. Sounds strange, doesn’t it?

Love cannot be stuck in a tube and tested in a laboratory. It cannot be hooked up to a machine and examined. It is more than a fading emotion; it is a force. A force deep within every human being driving them to do good and seek the One who has first loved him. Love requires risk. When God created human beings in His own image, He risked everything. Love is worth any risk. He risked war, He risked suffering. This means that every time I walk the streets and I see the hungry, frail body of the beggar or the misunderstood face of the mentally disabled, every time I see the bruises of the beaten or the emotional scars of those who have been taken advantage of, every time I see these people, I am reminded of God’s relentless love. I am reminded that God would rather have the pain that goes with love than the abolishment of love. God gave us freewill to use to love Him and each other as well as to feel the exhilarating and exuberant joy that comes with being loved. As strange as it sounds, the reason for suffering here on this earth could only be logically be blamed on one thing—love. Some people have taken their freewill and used it to bash their neighbors against walls and hurt innocent children. It has become a sick and vicious cycle that extends to the generations to come. Each human has the chance to visit the deepest parts of the valley of suffering and if I were to stop my thoughts here, we would all be better off by jumping off the cliff of remorse. But, my thoughts do not end there. Because we have been to the lowest areas of the valley, I know that once I get on the top of the mountains before me, I will know peace, joy, and love better than any other creation. I have a promise that one day all of these tears will stop flowing and all of these bruises will stop aching. All of the scarred tissue will be repaired. Was it worth it? Enduring the pain for the sake of the existence of love? The God of the universe thinks so.

(Sabine, this is now that story you were asking for)

My “Jacob” Sabbatical


I would love to tell you that I decided to be a student missionary because I am super connected to God and He whispered in my ear to go, but that’s not true. I would love to tell you that I decided to be a student missionary because I want to do everything in my power to advance the gospel and reach out to the people of Kazakhstan, but that’s not true either. I would love to tell you that I became a student missionary because I’m adventurous and I want to journey across all of the farthest lands, but that’s not true either. Sure, there is some truth in all of these, but none of them are the main reasons for my coming here. You see, many people view me as a spiritual leader and I am honored to be viewed in such esteem, but I am just an ordinary teenage boy who struggles in his own battles and fights for a stronger faith. I love doing the Lord’s work and being used by Him, but He does not use me because of my great talents and abilities that is certain.

Truth be told I came to Kazakhstan to run away. Run away from a terrible life? Not at all. Run away from certain people? Nothing of the sort. I came to Kazakhstan to run away from monotony and comfort. To get out and live a better story. College is great, but it is tiring when people are always telling you what and how to think. Dictating what to read and how to spend your time. I know it is necessary and all of my professors have good intentions, but I needed time to escape and think my own thoughts. I needed to experience God in my own way, not the way an institution tells me. Before I left I joked with some people that this was to be my Sabbatical where I was going to read and write and think deep thoughts. So now I’m here. How is all of this coming? Well, I certainly am busy. Teaching English is not for the faint of heart, but a Sabbatical it is. Right now I am sitting in my kitchen typing this and enjoying the view of twisted tree branches sagging down as they try to hold up their burden of several inches of snow. I am sitting here, next to the furnace, and sipping on my tea as I reflect on my first week here. That is something that I think most Americans, and other cultures, rob themselves of—time to reflect. Reflecting is one of the single most valuable things that a person can do. Sure, it’s a bit scary as you venture off into the realms of your own mind and dig up past experiences, but without our experiences, we have no character and without our character, we are just a mass of water, some other squishy stuff, and bones. So far, I am loving my “Sabbatical.” As for my walk with Love, it is coming along. I’m learning to walk by faith, to trust in Him even when I don’t “feel” anything special. Believe it or not, missionaries don’t get this crazy spiritual high once they get off the plane. It’s quite disappointing really. But, believe me I have already had many prayers answered and have learned to rely on Him so much more. But, I haven’t seen the Red Sea split apart yet and no chariots of fire have shown up outside my apartment. Regardless, I am on the slow journey to discovering my story and getting to know the Author a little better. God is not a simple Being that we can cram into our Western way of thinking or into any human thinking at all. I am working to get to know this amazing Creator the way He wants me to know Him without the ropes of doctrines and words, of preconceived notions and personal ideas. It’s just Him and I now, one on one, and I will not let go until He blesses me, and this time, I am wrestling for more than a name.

I'm a Teacher!


Today I had my first full day where I was the teacher. Gina had something she had to take care of so it was all me. At first I was a little intimidated, but it didn’t take long for me to get in my groove and start to love what I was doing. When I came here I was asking God if teaching could be a potential career of mine. My mother is a teacher and a darn good one. I have always loved the idea of educating people. I want to teach people how to fish so that they don’t starve to death. That is how I view my work here in Kazakhstan. When these people learn English new opportunities are going to fly in and they will be able to be more successful. I’m not doing the typical mission work. I’m not a Wycliffe translator in New Guinea or an orphanage worker in India or a nurse in South America, nope; I’m just an English teacher planting tiny little seeds. Instead of preaching with my mouth I am now learning to preach with the glow of the Spirit that shines around me. This is, after all, how I think God would rather have it. When we open our mouths, whether we’re with a group of friends or standing behind a pulpit, a whole lot of nonsense tends to fly out. Sure there are some good inspiring words somewhere in there, but I think God smiles a lot more when we keep our mouths shut and let Him do the talking. I’m teaching English, I’m learning silence.

Also, today I finally finished unpacking!

Frozen Snot


Today I got to experience my 30 minute walk in the brutality of Almaty weather. I can’t say that I ever remember a time where the snot in my nose froze to my nostrils. It was quite an experience. Cold weather really doesn’t bother me as much as some. An interesting fact about the people of Kazakhstan is that they take the cold very seriously. Women are forcefully cautioned to keep their pelvic region warm or else they will surely never be able to have babies. Also if men don’t keep their neck warm they will have no voice. Living in another country is interesting. It is definitely new and exciting and broadens your views about everything. Culture is a marvel that I don’t really know how to comprehend. Everything we do, everything we think, everything we feel is interpreted by our culture. That is why coming to live in Kazakhstan is so different. Even though there are other humans that work to meet the demands of life just like us their mind is programmed so much different than ours. I recently read a book and it described it as trying to run Mac software on a Windows computer. You get an error message. I was trying to print a guide for the Russian alphabet today and I got an error message. It was in Russian. Every day as I walk through the city and talk with new people, as I buy my groceries from street vendors and ride the frightful buses my mind fills up with error messages. All I can do is click OK and move on. After so many error messages most people will probably give up and just go back to the computer that they are programmed to, but what makes this trip different is that I am good friends with the programmer. Even though it is not easy, the programmer can take me, ordinary Mac software and transform me to run on any operating system. God gives me an incredible amount of strength everyday and I notice more and more prayers being answered. Yes, there are many error messages, but I can click OK all day long.

English, Police, and Frosty Weather


Today we started our first day of work. Teaching English will definitely be an experience and a lot of work. After spending time shopping at the market with Gina we had lunch and dove into training. The place where we work is about a 30 minute walk and by the time we get off work there are no more buses. After snowing all night last night, we got to experience that walk in ice and thick layers of white powder. The walk there was nice and we enjoyed the beauty of winter wonderland, but the walk home in the night was a different experience. Tonight we actually got stopped by the police who were obviously looking for handouts. They made a big deal of us not having our original passports on us and were thoroughly enjoying watching us freeze. I lost the regular copy of my passport that had my visa and migration card so as they checked David and Steven’s copies I was frantically praying that they would overlook mine. Sure enough, God is good—all the time! Who knows what would have happened if they didn’t see my visa on the copy. Luckily for all of us David had a business card of a local police captain and once the officer caught glance of that we were apologized to and sent on our way. When it was all said and done it was a great reminder that we are in desperate need of God. Today it was -12 C and tomorrow is planned to be the coldest day of the year. I can’t wait!

Welcome to Almaty!


Kazakhstan! We made it. I wish I could tell you just how crazy life has been these past three days have been, but words just couldn’t do this situation justice. Steven and I arrived Friday morning and we hit the ground running. Friday’s adventures included an introduction to our glorious, huge, and luxurious (not really) new apartment. Steven and I live together in a 1 bedroom apartment (locals call it a 2 room because they include every room that is not the kitchen or the bathroom and we have a living room). When I first stepped into the apartment I just about died. I didn’t think it was possible to live in a place like this, especially for 6 entire months. But, three days have passed and already I am getting used to it. I figured if I came here and lived the same way as I do in everyday life back in the states then I would forfeit every experience that God has in store for me. This whole journey is supposed to be about getting out of my comfort zone and surely my comfort zone is nowhere to be found. To be honest, it is one of the most miserable things ever, but I can feel the growth tingling within me already. In an experience like this Paul’s words about rejoicing in our sufferings takes real meaning. As one of the other SMs here put it, back in the states I had God, here in Kazakhstan I need God. No longer do I experience spiritual “disciplines”, I experience crying out to my God in bitter helplessness. However in all the chaos of new surroundings I am comforted by a wonderful group of people who I have come to know and appreciate very quickly. After church on Sabbath we went over to Gina and David’s borrowed apartment (which is super nice) and had a spectacular dinner with some amazing brothers and sisters from the Russian/English church that we attend. After stuffing ourselves we got so lost in the good conversation that the buses stopped running back to our place so we decided to just crash on their couch. Sunday (today) started very early. Veronica, Steven, and I hopped on a bus at around 7 in the morning and ended up passing our stop and getting lost. We finally hopped in a taxi (Fun Fact: Anyone with a car is a taxi in Kazakhstan—just stick out your hand and someone will be more than happy to give you a ride and take your money) and made it back “home” about an hour later than we wanted to. From there it was a quick breakfast and shower then off to the mountains to go ice skating. We went ice skating with the other SMs and a few new people. We went to this massive, outdoor ice skating rink and by the end it was snowing quite hard. I should mention that to get to the mountains, we take a bus, however, not just any bus. We take normal city buses that cram people closer together than sardines in a can. I learned rather quickly that there is always room for one more. It was 45 minutes each way and every part of my body seemed to touch a different person. Claustrophobia? I’m pretty sure the Kazakhs have never heard of such a thing. Anyways, after all of this we went to the market to pick up some groceries, got back to our apartment and were supposed to head out to prayer meeting. Turns our Steven and I couldn’t muster up the energy to open the door and were nauseated at the thought of another bus ride. So we checked in early and I ended up getting in bed at 7:00pm! Oh it was amazing to finally get to sleep. So this is just a brief description of all of the action that was packed into our first few days. Hopefully jetlag will wear off soon and we will be able to get settled in.


The internet people just came and its official--Steven and I finally have internet in our apartment!! So that means that all the blogs I have written and not been able to post will be posted now. I will include the actual dates so you can follow what has happened these past few weeks.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Up Up and Away

Just to give everyone an update, our flights are confirmed, our visas are approved and we are ready to go! Steven and I will be flying out tomorrow, Wednesday, around 5:00pm and landing in Almaty, Kazakhstan around 5:30am Friday morning. Oh yes, the traveling will be miserable and jet-lag is guaranteed. Luckily, we will have the weekend to recover. You can be sure that more posts are on their way as I get settled into my new way of life.  Reliance on God becomes a necessity from this point on.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Delays, Complications, and Childish Love

Right now I should be settling into my temporary home in Almaty, Kazakhstan, however, I am sitting in a lovely home of a friend in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This last week should have been filled with adventure and chaos, with defining moments and new beginnings, and that it has been just not in the area I had planned. My flight was scheduled to leave on January 6th, but Steven and I had some visa complications and will not be leaving until our visas are approved and in our hands which I am hoping is Wednesday, January 13th. At first I was upset that my plans were interrupted and that I was not getting to get to my destination in time, but once again I am reminded of God’s perfect timing. This past week I have had the privilege of staying with Daniel and Anita who are the proud parents of six new adopted children. These children are all brothers and sisters who were fortunate enough to be picked up by such wonderful and godly parents. With seven total children in the house, life is never boring. Every morning I go upstairs to the excited screams of little girls and the boisterous laughs of little boys. I have gotten to know each of these children individually and feel like I have had my own “mini-mission” before my long foreign mission. I have had the privilege of chasing these kids around the park, pushing them all on the swings at the same time, watching movies with them, and eating meals with them. Sometimes I wonder if I have been a help to Daniel and Anita or if I have just been winding the kids up and taking up space. Regardless, they have treated me so well and I have been had the privilege of spending time with them all.

No matter how many times I read it or think about it, I am always perplexed by the Biblical phrase “God is love.” These three words have a meaning so deep that my human mind only begins to scratch the surface. God is the definition, the source, the embodiment of love itself. The concept really gets weird when I think about how I am loved by love itself. I have done nothing to deserve the unending and passion-loaded love that God loves me with. God does not love me because I am loveable. God does not love me because of who I am, but because who He is. The first day I arrived, after meeting the kids for the first time and playing with them for a couple hours I went to bed. When I awoke I saw stuffed under my door a hand-drawn picture that said the words “You are the coolest boy ever.” I smiled as I realized it was from a boy that I had spent only a couple hours with, from a boy that hardly knew me. He may have envied my height or the privileges that come with my age, but to think I was the coolest boy ever was pretty extreme. As I went upstairs I was bombarded with hugs and smiles, bombarded with childish love. I gazed into the eyes of these children who I had barely met and realized that they loved me, not because they knew me or though I was deserving of their love, but because they are children and that is what they do. Children love unconditionally and without reason or cause. They love deeply and crave the attention of their beloved. They stand up for the ones they love and are consumed by a passion that seems almost incomprehensible. This is the love of my God. This is the childish love that He has for me. This is the love that I am to take to Kazakhstan, the love that I am to be consumed with and freely give to everyone I come into contact with. Jesus said that we have to become like a child, He said to love others as He has loved us. So let’s unleash this childish love that God has stored up within us.