Friday, January 20, 2006

i am a bus driver

Except for his sweeping Slavic moustache that looks like a dry snowplow from the driver's side windshield, I don't think I ever would have noticed Ladislav if he hadn't stopped the bus just for me one Sunday.

I was late leaving for church and would have had to run all the way down the hill---15 minutes at runner's pace---without ice---when I saw the bus turn the corner and head towards the bus stop across the street from my apartment building. I changed course, swerving across the street towards the bus stop, pushing hard to make it in time. I was thirty meters off when I heard a honk behind me, accompanied by a bus rolling in close to the curb, stopping short of its prescribed stop with thirty meters still to go.

I smiled, mumbled a sincere "Děkuju", paid my fare and found a seat. The snowplow moustache hid any reaction, as though this were nothing unusual. I've run for buses that have left me behind with only a few more steps to go.

All kinds of people talk to Ladislav on the bus. And not just Czechs, but the Vietnamese people and the Gypsies, too. And they smile and speak loudly as they get on and off the bus and sometimes they linger by his window and talk as he drives. I watched a whole Roma family board his bus once and even the littlest one spoke something to the bus driver.

I don't really know if his name is Ladislav, but I do know that people react to him in a different way. Is he just a bus driver? What do I know.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

the date

So we got the news yesterday. We have a place for the wedding. Sit tight, loyal readers, for this is Official:

Chrissy and Joel will be married on Saturday, August 5th in Costa Mesa, California. And to stop the rumor before it spreads, Needham Chapel does not figure into those plans. Yet.

Now all we have left is everything else. Tak.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

for once then, something


It's not often that I understand much of what goes on at church here in the Czech Republic. After attending the Czech Brethren Church in Sokolov for a year and a half now I have a pretty good grasp on the order of the service---when to stand up, when to sit down, when we're going to pray, when we're going to sing. I even can figure my way through some of the announcements. But as for the preaching, the praying, most of the singing and almost all of the interaction with members of the congregation, I'm mostly in the dark.

Those parts of the sermons that I do understand usually are not particularly edifying. Like today, the pastor was talking about television and I can tell you for sure that he mentioned TV stars and a sports program. A few weeks ago there was some mention about Christmas shopping, and sometime before that there was something about World War III. For all I know he could have been predicting its coming, but he's a pretty even-headed guy, so I doubt it.

Once I understood the first three sentences completely. He was talking about Paul writing to the Romans, and I was so shocked and delighted that I was tracking that I sat straight up and leaned forward, probably with a frightening look of concentration on my face. But after that it was just another stream of sounds that meant little to my foreign ears. It's a bit like fishing without a hook, really. Sometimes you get a bite, and you tug to hold on, and you pray that that fish just doesn't let go, too.

I had to give up my need to understand what was going on in church here a long time ago. I had to give up a lot of things I thought were pretty essential to a church-going experience. Like this business of "getting fed," for one thing. I think looking at how much good preaching, good music, good training and good time spent with other followers probably isn't the first thing we should be thinking about. A church full of people can't really give us what we're looking for, anyway.

All the same, God gives us milk and meat when we put ourselves in front of him, ready to recieve, humbly. And this morning was one of those Sundays when something in church sprang out and lit my eyes. "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called," read the pastor's son this morning from 1 Corinthians chapter one. "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth."

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things---and the things that are not---to nullify the things that are, so that no one can boast before him. It is because of Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God---that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore as it is written: "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."

For once then, something. Like the pastor told me after the service (his English and my lowly Czech), fear isn't in the hands or the feet, but only in the head. But Christ himself is our head. We are weak and fearful, but God is perfect and enough. We would do well to brag about that. If only to ourselves.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

a happy new year newsletter


Št´astný Nový Rok
!

ABOUT CHRISTMAS

Read some December posts on this weblog for stories and pictures from the holidays in and around Sokolov!

IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW...

...my girlfriend of more than two years, Chrissy Reid, who’s teaching with ESI for her first year, and I got engaged December 2nd in Prague (again, see the weblog for details). We’ve started to talk about wedding plans, and hope to be married in early August in Southern California.

...Chrissy and I, along with five other ESIers had ourselves a little Roman Holiday during Christmas vacation. We spent three days in this beautiful city overfull with more history than anybody can really keep track of. Among our wanderings we found our way into the Vatican (St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel), out to the Colossuem and the old Forum, and into several tasty Italian restaurants.

...you can see pictures of the proposal and our trip to Rome on this page and on Webshots.

A NEW YEAR IN SOKOLOV

Well, the holidays are over, and as of today I’m kind of relieved. The holidays were great this year—with lots of time spent celebrating with students, friends and colleagues in Sokolov and fellow ESIers, too, but it’s good for life to settle back to normal, too. For one thing, it means that nobody will be giving me little boxes of Christmas cookies anymore (no joke, I must have received a dozen or so boxes filled with hundreds of festive little cookies baked by everybody’s Czech grandmother—I really didn’t eat anything else for two weeks). It also means that the Czech Christmas carols that get rooted it my brain won’t be playing in the grocery store anymore. And more importantly, it means that the threat of being wounded or deafened in the annual New Year’s Eve vigilante-style, free-for-all fireworks party has passed (or at least been somewhat diminished).

And it also means that school is starting again. It’s the middle of a snowy winter and everybody resents ending a vacation—I’m gonna have some unwilling students to pull back into shape, to put it lightly—but I’m grateful for the new start.

And it’s more than just the start of a new semester—it’s also the final lap before maturita—the required leaving-school examinations all of my fourth year students must take in May. Many of them will choose to take a maturita test in English, and I’m going to offer as much help as they’re willing to accept. And many of them will choose not to take a test in English, meaning that partly out of fatigue (and laziness...) and partly out of necessity, many of them will just stop putting much effort into English class. Having both groups of students in each and every lesson can be quite trying.

SOME DARK TIMES

Honestly, I'm usually not one to say that my problems---even lots of them---are the result of spiritual attack. I do believe---and strongly---that we are in the midst of a spiritual battlefield and we have a cunning Enemy. I've read about it in the Gospels and in other writings in the Bible, such as in Ephesians. But most of the time I think that my circumstances and I are quite broken and messed up enough to take the blame for most of the problems I can think of; winter blues and my own selfishness, for example, would account for most of them.

Nevertheless, the way this year has progressed has stripped away much of my hesitance. My teammates have been experiencing persistent nightmares since training began last August. Individually, we've been confronted with some temptations that have never been significant problems before. And as you know, our fourth teammate, Hank, abruptly decided to leave about a month ago under circumstances that are rife with some dark deception. Furthermore, there's an atmosphere of confusion all around these circumstances, which only heightens my concern.

And I'm reminded that this is indeed a dark place we've come to. That the Enemy is here and does not want to give up ground. That his smartest weapon is to divide us and discourage. And I'm reminded that we reflect the light of Christ in this dark place. Please pray that we would keep our lamps trimmed and defogged.

And also remember us as the hunt for a new teammate and teacher at Basic School #2 continues after Hank’s departure almost two months ago. We’re in an awkward time of ambiguity (I mean, more than usual) but are trusting that God is working for our best and the best for candidates under consideration.

PRAYER REQUESTS

· For a strong start for a new semester

· For refreshed creativity (and patience) in preparing my students for maturita

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

· For grace to trust and obey Christ more deeply in this spiritual battlefield

· For Chrissy and I as we prepare not only for our wedding, but for our marriage

· Still for our health and good spirits in the middle of winter

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

As one of my students reminds me, New Year’s is really just another day like any other. And he’s right—the work of changing and growing happens all around us on every normal day. But I hope that you are able to participate in the special significance we’ve all decided to give this time of year and use it to reflect upon God’s faithfulness in bringing us through a year that has now passed and to look forward to his blessings (even the ones that don’t feel very good) in this new one now arrived. I pray that you would enjoy this new beginning as a way of

Making Him Important,

Joel

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

our roman holiday

So the day after Christmas, three separate groups of ESIers converged on the city my Czech friends call "the belly-button of the world." To us native English speakers, that city would be Rome, Italy, a city which we call "the eternal city." But honestly, except that Rome is just so stinking old, I think I prefer the Slavic interpretation.

But don't get me wrong: we had a great time in Rome and walked many a mile on its cigarette-decorated streets. And if the bounty of thousands of years of mighty and ignoble history weren't enough, Rome was also significantly warmer than our Czech Republic homes. And that alone made any Roman my friend...and countryman.

After locating our rather seedy hostel, five of us hit the streets around sunset, making our way to Trajan's Market and the old Roman Forum, both in picturesque disarray. I don't want to diminish how cool it really was, but basically, if it were any other city in the world, the only real response would be "and you still you haven't cleaned this up?"

The sign said this is the place where Peter and Paul were imprisoned before they were martyred. It was kind of surreal to be there and didn't look all that comfortable.

Stephen, myself and Ben, entertaining other tourists with our silent pantomime of a gladiator fight in front of the Colosseum on our first night in Rome.

We probably waiting under signs like this---showing us to the entrance of the Vatican Museums---for almost two hours, all the while being accosted by postcard and umbrella vendors. But we spent our first full day mostly at the Vatican, wandering through one of the most incredible museums in the world and later at St. Peter's Basilica the church building that could rightly be capitalized as The Church Building.


And here's Laura (1) putting on some fabulous "statue camoflage" (do you see her?), (2) making me smile again, and (3) being a good sport and putting up with my silly picture demands. The lovely display behind the lovely Laura is part of the aptly named "Room of Busts." And that's pretty much what it was. Lots and lots of statues of the heads of people who are now dead. But hey, they sure made it fun, huh?

And though we weren't allowed to take pictures of the actual work, here's a decent giftshop mock-up of part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One could find lots of amusement plunking all the exposed adam's apples of tourists gaping up at this marvel, but mostly I was just a potential plunking victim myself the whole time.

Emily enjoys the fine service and hospitality of another friendly Italian waiter.

A crystal blue sky over the Colosseum. Did you know that the Colosseum was named after the big statue of Nero that used to be right next to it, the Colosso? Well, there's a fact to go with the postcard picture.

And here's us looking at the facade into the Pantheon, one of the most incredible spaces I've ever stood inside of. Originally a temple built for the worship of all of the Roman gods, its stones and marble were saved from scavengers when it was converted to a church. Honestly, as much as I bring my 21st spirituality and aesthetics into any experience, this place evoked more of a sense of the sacred than any of the opulent churches I've seen scattered across Europe. I don't have a good enough picture of the inside. Sorry.

Monday, January 02, 2006

marking tests

So first semester grades are due this week, which means Mr. Agee’s English classes have been writing tests for the past two weeks. As a teacher, giving tests is like polluting your water with mercury. Tests give you a break in the flow of weekly lesson plans, and class by class it doesn’t feel like much damage has been done, but by Friday your desk is choked with piles of tests. And though it make you lose sleep, appetite and quite often, your hair, you must drink the water.

School starts tomorrow, so today I’ve been hunched over the kitchen table, probing test after test with a green pen, weeding out errors and adding up points. It’s numb work, but to keep myself amused, I wrote two of my friends into the test questions, having my students describe pictures and figures about them, so that when this day arrived I’d have plenty of ingenious responses to enjoy.

This round of tests has been unwittingly sponsored by Kyle Booterbaugh and Sam Keyes. Kyle, you provided the personal information for a mock passport. Sam, you graciously provided your lovely face as a passport photo. And gentlemen, here are some of the ingenious things some of my students had to say about you:

Kyle is high.
*Kyle looks like my mom.
*Kyle looks like white Jimi Henrix.
Kyle has a medium nose.
Kyle looks like E.T.
Kyle looks like a karate master.
Kyle looks like a bad cop.
Kyle looks like Kyle.
Kyle is muscle and very building man.
Kyle has very hypnotic eyes.

* These two appeared on the same test. Ergo, Honza’s mom looks like...