Tuesday, November 29, 2005

a second helping of thanksgiving

So one benefit of being so far away from home and in a place that doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving (at least as we know it) is that nobody'll stop you if you want to celebrate Thanksgiving twice. We did the day of thanks as a full ESI team two weeks ago (hopefully you've already seen the pictures). And last Saturday we Sokolovers threw a little Den díkůvzdání of our own.

And how many thanks there were to give. Like for the familiar holiday eats: mashed potatoes and gravy, greenbean casserole, fruit salad with raisins in it (alas, no brocolli), pumpkin pie and even---yum---backgammon pie like Mom makes it. Sadly there was no turkey (but roasted chickens filled in nicely) and none of the infamous rolls (see previous blog), but I did try my hand at a Czech take on Granny's sourdough dressing---and thought it certainly wasn't like home, it still tasted pretty good.

I love Thanksgiving with the ESI team---I've passed two in a row with them now---but as everyone filtered in for the feast Saturday afternoon, we all remarked how this actually felt the way Thanksgiving is supposed to. Family and friends lying around, laughing and getting fat together.

And another thing: my refrigerator is still full of leftovers. Yes sir. This was the genuine article.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

far from home without a roll

So it's the fourth Thursday of November already and a little past 2pm, which means that nine hours from now, nine time zones away in California, my family should be sitting down, spread throughout my Aunt and Uncle's (apparently) recently remodeled house to take in a first helping of Thanksgiving dinner. Usually we arrive in waves, what with different sets of in-laws to hit up first, but by 6:00 or 7:00 everyone should be there for pie---or perhaps a fourth helping of Granny's stuffing and a fifth---or sixth---of Uncle Ben's rolls.

My Uncle Ben's rolls are perhaps the greatest part of Thanksgiving in his house. The "recipe" is my Great Grandmother's. By the time I knew her (e.g. I was born), she had made her rolls so many times that she knew the mixture by heart. To this day I'm not sure that a hard copy ever existed---so that when she passed away a number of years ago, for a while my stomach hijacked my heart, and I felt just as bereft of these rolls as I did my dear grandmother.

The best way to eat Uncle Ben's rolls is to wait for the second round and then eat them buttered with a slice of ham in the middle. I always make two of these sandwiches at a time. But they're good with gravy, too, and when mopping up the juices left all over your plate after any given helping of dinner.

This is my third consecutive Thanksgiving away from home. A huge Youth Convention put me in San Diego in 2003. In 2004 I was in a Czech bordertown with 50+ other North Americans. And this year I'm in Sokolov, one week after meeting up with 30+ Americans in another little Czech town for a one-week-early Thanksgiving. That first year I was away, my family, well aware of my passion for rolls, made a slideshow of everyone but me having their fill. I believe there were at least six or seven different shots of my cousin Neil in roll-ecstasy.

I don't know if they have something in mind to torture me with this year, but whether they do or not, out of necessity I've steeled my stomach against roll hunger-pains this year, and will distract myself with a roasted chicken or leftover pumpkin pie or something. Uncle Ben offered to make me a special batch this summer when I was home, but I never took him up on it. I suppose I forgot. So it goes.

Saturday we're having a second, mini-Thanksgiving in Sokolov---Beth, Christie and I hosting Grant, another American teaching living here this year not with ESI, and Chrissy, coming in from Prague with a pie. I suspect we'll make too much food; we've already planned Sunday to be a leftovers day. Lucky me, I guess, to have two Thanksgivings in as many weeks, but alas---two Thanksgivings without rolls. When I count all the Thanksgivings I've had since rolls have been absent, including last October's Canadian Thanksgiving, that's five Thanksgivings.

I suppose I have a lot to be thankful for. But would somebody please pass the rolls?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. You're in my prayers today.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

in everything give thanks

So here's the next installment of the newsletter I send out to supporters. It's got some pretty important stuff at the bottom, that partly explains my absence from the blogging world recently.

In Everything Give Thanks – Notes From the Czech Republic

November 22, 2005 – (22. listopadu 2005)

WINTER IS HERE

Snow like cotton balls swirled outside my window Sunday morning as I drank my breakfast coffee before church. It's over a week late by Czech reckoning; no doubt my teammates would be annoyed to hear it from me again, but November 11th is the traditional first snowfall of winter in the Czech Republic, the day when Saint Martin rides in on his white horse. It's a poetic, if inaccurate, way to forecast the weather, really. And it does make one wonder: if Martin comes in on a white horse, then what's all this white stuff they leave behind?

Can you say that in a missions newsletter? Moving on.

A QUICK PLUG

Pardon me this quick plug: remember to check out pictures with this link: http://community.webshots.com/user/aguaviva312 And now, for those of you who can never get enough email from Central Europe, I give you a weblog featuring some of my continuing adventures teaching English, living in the family of God and figuring out what it means to be a missionary. You can get there by following this link: http://www.czechdream.blogspot.com/

READING THE PSALMS

This year the ESI Czech Republic team (all 30 of us) has been reading the Psalms together. We've been reading one psalm together each week; it's a way to stay together even as we're spread across the country.

Next week's psalm is number 105, a memory of God's faithfulness to his promises and how he rescued his people from Egypt and the wilderness.

Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name;
make known among the nations what
he has done.

Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.

Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the
LORD rejoice.

Look to the LORD and his strength;
seek his face always.

TO BE HONEST

To be honest, this past week has been one of the most difficult in more than a year's worth in Sokolov. Last week my teammate and roommate, Hank, decided that he needed to return home to the United States. Although we knew about his struggles, the news was sudden and a shock to all of us. Unfortunately, this has been a very public affair and we've been left to pick up a lot of pieces, both in our now-smaller team and in the wider community, including at his school, which now must cover a full load of classes.

We're left with a lot of questions. We're piecing together what happened, we're slowly sharing the news with the people around us, answering questions as best we can. We're praying about the possibility of a new ESI teacher coming soon to take his place. We're praying for Basic School #2. We're asking how we can support each other in the new way things are.

I must confess that this has been pretty hard on me. By God's grace alone I don't feel any bitterness towards my brother, but I'm struggling with a lot of uncertainty and loneliness these days. The three of us have some real grieving to do—and Hank, too. Only the Lord heals wounds like he must be carrying today.

SOME THINGS TO PRAY FOR

· For Beth, Christie and I, who have lost a member of our family

· For Hank, whom I believe was deceived and now needs healing and gracefully-given truth

· For Basic School #2, especially Hank's former students

· For the possibility of a new teammate, who may or may not be coming—that this would go by the hand of God

· Still for our health and good spirits as winter has set in

· Still for Sokolov and ISŠTE, that God would continue to open doors for us to talk about him to students, friends and colleagues

So I come back to Psalm 105—less to end this newsletter on a positive note, but perhaps more as a reminder to you and to me that God is indeed faithful in some pretty dark and painful situations. And as a reminder that even in the darkest, bleakest parts of the psalms, collectively they all point back to God's faithfulness and call us to be thankful.

Thank you for remembering to pray for us. I'm truly thankful that God loves me enough to have people talking to him about me. Take advantage of this season to be thankful both in the light and in dark places—it's part of the good work of

Making Him Important,

Joel

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

some thoughts on usefulness

As Christians, we are not called to be useful---at least in the way we may think of usefulness. I kicked and pouted my way through a year of sin, pain and spirit-death last year getting that truth planted into me. I think I made an analogy to some people that in retrospect, I feel like I was a Barbie doll last year, and God, pleased that I'd agreed to go along for the ride, took to ripping my limbs off one by one.

"I'm sorry, I can't use this. It has to go."

"But you said that I would---"

"I can't use this. It has to go."

"But it always worked before when---"

"I can't use this. It has to go."

"But him over there, he's got that and---"

"I can't use this. It has to go."

"So why'd you even bring me here if I can't even---"

"It has to go. Trust me."

Being useful sure feels good. I like making people happy, and I like looking responsible and feeling needed, and I like meeting goals and standards I set for myself. And sometimes I think I can stand back and say that I think it was God who was doing the using, and that feels good, too. But are we guilty of putting our feeling useful and effective ahead of our trust in the Lord, the Maker and Craftsman of Tools? After all, he never needs us for anything and does splendid things---without us.

Straining to do what's right and to genuinely meet the world's real needs is a holy calling we all have. It's important not to be lazy, not to settle when we can serve and think and love better. But we are first called to live in perfect relationship with Christ, who isn't after perfecting us so that angels will ooh and ahh---or the people around us, or us, for that matter. Thinking about ourselves and whether we're being useful or not hinders God's purposes; he's getting us to the place where he can use us. And at the beginning and the end, his is the only measure of usefulness that may stand.

Monday, November 07, 2005

talking shop

So this weekend I went to a TEFL conference in Plzen, a biggish city about an hour-and-a-half south of Sokolov famous for brewing especially bitter beers and for not being rescued by the communists in World War II. Although it sounds like an aromatic blend of Turkish tea, TEFL is actually a shop term for "Teaching English as a Foreign Language," which, of course, is my current occupation and avocation.

I attended a few of these last year, but this sucker was the biggest such conference I've been to yet, with a couple hundred teachers in attendence from all over this part of the country, including three of us from humble ISSTE. There were lots of fascinating little seminars to attend, including one called "I am a Canadian," where the speaker (a Canadian) explained that the single most distinguishing feature of a Canadian is that he is not an American. Apparently a lot of Czechs have trouble with that one. Apparently a lot of Americans have trouble with that one.

I however, have lived with a Canadian and am dating a former ex-pat. There. Canadian by assocatiation.

Mostly these things are ways for textbook publishers to corral lots of teachers past display tables full of exercise books again and again, which we did. Again and again. Some of us were taken in by catch-phrases like "multicultural emphasis" or "graded levels" or "nouns and verbs," but I stayed strong, collecting business cards and filling up my complimentary canvass bag with free samples...of textbooks.

Textbook free samples are exactly what my students are looking for in a textbook: something flashy that's short and too cheap to bother covering in brown paper bags. Which saves them a lot of trouble, as brown paper bags haven't caught on in the Czech Republic. Oh, for civilization to come set us free.

Or at least Albertson's.

Friday, November 04, 2005

a proctor's prayer

any questions?
please begin
good luck

help me to focus this time
and use this time to pray for them
watch over them closely
more than I can during a test

his mouth is moving
he's talking to the other guy
it's the first test, got to make an example
he needs a pen
he's giving him a pen
okay
just glare for a bit

i'm putting them in front of your face
shine your grace on them
and open their eyes to see

she's getting something from her bag
what is it
it's water
water is okay for english class

walk down this aisle with me
touch them on the shoulder
whisper your big love in their ears
and open their ears to hear

is she wearing a...
yes
stand somewhere else

protect them
people want to use them, break them
and he wants to sift them away
pursue them, catch them
soften their hearts to...

that answer's too short
look: it says complete sentences
yes
that's better
(but it's still wrong)

thank you for the seeds
that have been planted before
help me to
shoo away the birds, move away the stone
pull up the weeds, not stamp the soil down myself

he's got writing on his arm
what is on your arm
excuse me, mr. teacher, it is mathematics
oh
do not cheat for mathematics, too

lord, these are your students
thank you for lending them to me

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

all the best at your birthday

So by this time, two-and-a-half months into the new blog, pretty much all of the readers (all six of you) know that it's my birthday today. So far, as birthdays go, this one is a bit better than the last one.

Last year I was two-and-a-half months into a new country, distracted and disoriented, and wading through Super Tuesday, a marathon that began weekly at 5:30am and didn't quit until 9pm. Fortunately, I had terrific teammates that took care of me, shifted around my schedule, and gave me a surprise party of sorts, where I learned that I had been elected President of the United States (I frequently share my special day with poll workers) and that Honza the hamster was my running mate. We have yet to be sworn in.

This year I'm more prepared, and to fit with local custom, I baked myself a cake this morning and took it in to the office. It's not a bad system, I think. This way, people forget your birthday, but at least they've got cake to swallow their guilt with. Frank said that tomorrow he will "improve" the celebration. I hope he means more cake.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

some 15 minutes...

So my hometown Sokolov has made the map, it seems, because of a unique ecology project. Read for yourself, from a news service based out of South Africa:

PRAGUE - A Czech town has built a €1 500 (about US$3 800) bridge to protect a handful of squirrels from a busy road, but do not know if they will use it, the town's mayor said on Thursday.


The seven-metre high cable bridge, attached to two trees, spans a road that divides a large park in Sokolov in the west of the country near the German border.

"We think this construction is unique in the world. I myself witnessed two dead squirrels on the road in the space of two months and I felt we had to do something," Sokolov mayor Karel Jakobec told AFP.

At the moment the park is home to just three squirrels.

Squirrels are a protected species
"The idea is that instead of going down trees and crossing the road to get to the other side of the park the squirrels will go up and across. But we don't know yet if it will work," he added.

The town is spending a total of 290 000 koruna, most of it donated, on the park including a row of trees and shrubs along the road.

"We have already arranged for two more pairs of squirrels to be brought from an animal rescue centre and we are hoping that the squirrel population in the park will now grow," added Jakobec.

Squirrels are a protected species in the Czech Republic.

"Some people in the town think this is nonsense and we should be spending money on people rather than squirrels... but it's not," insisted the mayor. - Sapa-AFP

I think I saw one of the three squirrels when I was walking in the park this Spring. No word on whether this squirrel was the last victim before somebody did something about it. I ran a search on Google about the "sokolov squirrel bridge" and it seems that people are reporting and blogging about it everywhere from London to South Africa to New Zealand and on a hundred other silly blogs like this one---and all about my little home-away-from-home.

I'll update this blog soon with a picture of the bridge.