Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Back from the Great Odyssey

Dear Friends,
This story is about God answering prayers in an amazing way in the last months at BMA.  If you asked me what the three biggest things to pray for were, I’d say -- kids coming to Jesus, the school getting more committed, full-time, Christian staff, and the building.  This Spring, God has really moved on all three fronts.  First I will update you on some of the biggest headlines.  Then I would like to tell a detailed story about something wonderful Sharon and I did last week with my homeroom class.  
We simply can’t count how many kids came to Christ in May.  We know that shortly after the retreat (“Catch It”) which we asked friends to pray for, at least five kids (first year and second year) made first time commitments to Christ.  We also had talks with several students who said things like, “I thought I was a Christian before, but now it’s real” or, most poetically, “I am like a child in her mother’s womb -- I know I’m going to be born soon.”  The reason for the exciting season is, of course, God’s work.  The practical details are, as usual, all about the working of the body.  The student-led retreat was a huge factor. Dave Patty (Josiah Venture founder and BMA parent) was a guest giving exemplary teaching on the gospel, and I was a guest giving my salvation testimony.  The Christian students themselves were the main witnesses, leading worship, encouraging their friends, and praying faithfully.  In school, Jonny Lobel and I have been able to give a series of clear and pointed Bible classes with clear challenges.  Another remarkable development is in Frydek-Mistek, the town fifteen minutes north of us from which we draw about 15% of our students.  One of our BMA kids, 18 years old, felt led by the Holy Spirit to begin an evangelistic work in the city.  He got help from his home church, and this work has morphed into a new house church which draws many of our students who are new born or seriously considering faith.  The name of the group is Iskejp (which is Czech transliteration for the English work Escape) and they have meetings on Thursdays and Sundays.  I was a guest teacher for part of a Thursday meeting -- about 20 participants, all younger than 20 except for elders sent by the home church -- and my teaching was only a small segment of the evening.  There were hours for worship, small groups, doctrinal training and, of course, silly games.  In other words, all of these faithful believers, young and old, are doing their parts and God is pleased to grant blessing to the whole body. 
As for teachers, I can’t be too specific at this time, but I can report that we are expecting two more key players on the team in September, including a new American missionary and a very godly European sister.  These two have the potential to deeply impact the students, but also greatly bless Jonny, Petr and me who have had the key responsibility for the ministry thus far.
In the first week of June we heard that our regional government has given approval on the contract for our building.  This was the political step, and we had considered it the most difficult hurdle.  There is one more step in July, but we believe it to be a formality.  Even formalities need prayer!  So this is where we stand:  We have a unique opportunity to buy the building we occupy from the government, at a bargain price, by means of a no-interest loan for ten years.  The payments will be something like three times the regular rent we have been paying, but friends and supporters have already begun to pledge significant help.  Our situation is stabilized:  We are going to be able to stay in our building, and begin to repair it.  Thanks to some generous gifts, we expect to be able to begin work on windows and bathrooms this summer.
Now the long story.  In the first week of June, Sharon and I co-led my home room class’s annual trip.  If you know anything about me as a teacher, you know that field trips have traditionally been one of my great weaknesses.  They always make me very nervous.  There’s the kids’ behavior to manage, especially at night.  There are all the travel details: buses, trains, tickets, receipts.  Unfortunately for me, one of the key expectations -- maybe I should say commandments -- for any home room teacher in high school is that HE SHALL LEAD A SPRING TRIP.  Last year, Sharon and I took the kids to a little inn in a big forest where we had a very sweet time of sports, games and hikes.  This year, after much debate, my class elected to go to Prague, our beautiful capital.  This was an interesting decision.  The kids in my class constantly demand excitement and entertainment, but as soon as plans are made, begin to complain about the high price.  In this case, we agreed on a trip that would be four days and three nights away from Frydlant, and a cost ceiling of 2000 crowns total, all included.  That is about $120.  I worked very hard to find cheap or free attractions in the capital.  I booked rooms in a youth hostel, but even this wouldn’t have worked if one of our students didn’t have a granny with a big house just outside of Prague.  She agreed to let all 21 of us sleep on floors (or in her garden) for no charge on the first night of our trip.  
The trip began on Monday morning.  To get to Granny’s house in the little village of Černiky, we shepherded the kids onto and off three trains and a bus.  Of course, I got a few more gray hairs making sure that all the teenagers found the right platforms at the right time and that no one was left behind in a bathroom or snack shop.  We arrived in Černiky at about one in the afternoon, tired and hot and hungry.  I had spoken to the Granny on the phone, and was sure that she was kind and enthusiastic.  However, I had expected a rustic situation with a lot of work ahead of us.  As we tramped through the village to her front gate, I kept thinking over my plans to entertain the kids, and kept wondering if we were going acquire enough food for everyone.  The village had one main street, no businesses except a shabby little pub, one greenish pond beside a curious Catholic shrine, a small kids’ playground and lots of overgrown fields.  
Granny and Grandpa live behind a huge, medieval wall.  I really didn’t know what to expect when they unlocked the little wooden gate to welcome us through.  Inside is an amazing compound.  Grandpa told Sharon that a long time ago, this was housing for hunters who worked for the farm.  They have renovated a bungalow, and walled off a quad between barns, high walls and neighbors.  They have a perfect lawn, a spectacular garden full of blossoming flowers, interesting miniature trees and sturdy antiques like ironwork from abandoned church buildings.  They had also erected a marquis tent for the 21 of us, and proceeded to fill tables with a delicious Czech lunch.
After we were all overfed, the owner of the pub invited us to use the volleyball court on his back lot.  We played volleyball and “nohyball,” with comes from the Czech word for feet -- you play volleyball with your feet.  I did a decent job of volleyball, but my nohyball skills are nonexistent.  
In the evening there were sandwiches and pastries, and then some games and skits organized by the students or by me.  I have had success creating new games for my class based on American reality TV shows.  Last year these kids really enjoyed my “Project Runway” and “America’s (BMA’s) Biggest Loser.”  This time I had planned “Survivor,” expecting that we would be in a sort of wilderness environment on the edge of town.  Seeing as we could hardly ransack this beautiful garden for scraps with which to build lean-tos or bear traps, I designed a new game which I called “The Apprentice.”  I explained a little about Donald Trump.  Then I assigned volunteers impossible tasks as business assistants.  For example, in one scene, my poor volunteer had to get two business partners to  agree on a project name and sign a complicated series of contracts.  The “business partners” were a suspicious Pole who only spoke Polish (played by a student who lives on the border) and a rowdy Texan unable to speak Czech (played by Sharon -- don’t worry, her Czech is fine).  
Late that night, some boys got a guitar and sat around a fire singing old Czech folk songs.  I tried hard to understand, but only got snatches.  Then I sat for awhile with another student, a Christian, who is perfectly friendly and fun-loving by day but who told me he had no interested in the folk songs of his homeland because, in his opinion, they are all so pessimistic and self-pitying.
The next day, we caught a bus and a train to Prague.  I proudly led my troop across town by subway, and we found the hostel.  For those of you who know the city, our hostel was in a great neighborhood in between the “dancing building” (here’s a nice shot of it on the web: http://www.dsgnwrld.com/20-super-strange-buildings-from-around-the-world-15303/dancing-building-prague-czechrepublic-9/)   and the church building where the assassins of Nazi overlord Heydrich hid after they were wounded.  
In the afternoon, we enjoyed a great picnic at Vyšehrad, the site of a 13th century fort and now a celebrated chapel and graveyard.  The kids dined at various haunts along Vaclavské Naměstí (Wenceslas Square) and most signed up for a long walk to see Prague by night.  
The next day, we went to the National Museum and the Zoo.   By now, my kids were exhausted and declined my offer of a strategy game across the zoo grounds.  (Why were they so tired?  In true Czech School Trip fashion, this trip featured a total of 6 different trains and 4 different buses, not to mention 11 different subway trains and many miles on foot.)
I lingered with Sharon watching her favorites, the elephants, and then went to commune with my favorites, the Komodo Dragons.  (In case you didn’t know, Prague has two, and is the only zoo in the world where they have been successfully born and raised in captivity.)
After much debate, the kids elected to go to a shopping mall for fast food dinner.  In the food court, I put together a ring of tables and 21 chairs so that we could have a special discussion that I had been preparing them for over several days.
I told them that this last dinner would represent the half way point of our journey through BMA together -- it’s the end of their second of four years.  I said that each student would have to answer one of three possible questions.  
  1. What is the most important thing you have learned in the last two years?
  2. How have you changed personally and spiritually in the last two years?
  3. What has BMA not done for you yet that you hope it will do for you in the next two years?
The students were faithful and each one answered. A few were a little self-conscious, but everyone took it seriously and everyone participated.  This is where I felt like the many days of hard work on this trip began to pay off.
Four students elected to answer the third question.  These included some of the kids getting the best grades in English, and they all said the same thing: they want me to teach more English vocabulary.  This has always been a sore point with me.  Elementary schools here make students memorize long lists of everything -- dates, elements, even insect intestinal parts (Lucy’s 8th grade biology) -- with no context or application.  English class in elementary school usually emphasizes the learning of vocab lists.  So, by contrast, I emphasize new things: expression, mastery of verb tenses, practical application, creativity.  But for the first time I was able to hear the constructive criticism I was being given and I am going to find a way to meet the students’ call.
Answers to number two were all interesting.  Several talked about growing closer to God.  Most of these were kids whose faith I already knew about.  I am so thankful!  In my class, one girl came to Christ last month.  Most of the ones who were already believers are growing.  
Most special to me on this night were a few answers to number one.  Let me try to describe one student without giving a name.  Every teacher has students whom he knows he isn’t reaching very well.  For example, the sense of humor that works so well with 95% of the kids fails to delight the last 5%.  Favorite creative techniques that inspire most of the class seem to make these students bored, frustrated or confused.  The student I’m thinking about just didn’t seem to click with me or my teaching style, and worst of all, was aggressively the least interested in Bible class.  It’s been a long time now since anyone threw a Bible on the floor or leered at me while holding the Scripture upside down.  That was the first two years.  Nowadays, opposition is limited to rolling eyes, impassive faces, appearing to sleep on the desk or, most commonly, staring dramatically out the window.  The student I’m thinking about used these methods to check out each time I brought the Bibles to class.
But on the last night of our trip, this student shocked me by saying that the biggest thing of the first two years was learning about God -- especially through new Christian friends, peers who were good listeners, caring and loving, and also committed followers of Jesus.  This student has started to seriously listen and consider the gospel.  After that frank admission, three other unbelieving students said the same thing.
The third adult on our trip -- excuse me! Several of my students are now technically adults, since they’ve passed their eighteenth birthdays -- was Lukaš, our main Czech language and literature teacher.  He was a great asset in Prague, not only because he really knows his Czech history, but because he is ready and willing to do anything necessary to serve the students.  However, Lukaš isn’t a believer yet.  We pray for him constantly.  The kids pressed him to answer one of our questions, and he came up with something really intriguing.
Lukaš told us that in his experience, his own culture is based on fear.  Generally, Czechs have been used to doing things because of fear of the next level of authority.  On top of each authority was a higher authority issuing its commands also based on fear of a still higher authority, all the way up to some kind of authoritarian government.  I could certainly see his point.  For example, I still bristle at the memory of the secretary at the courthouse where the last stage of our adoption process is stalled.  She had a little chit of authority and wanted to enjoy its full value by intimidating Sharon and me, making high speed, complex demands and then ridiculing us because of our Czech.  
Lukaš maintains that Czech schools are all about fear.  The students only work because of fear of their teachers -- not love, respect or even interest.   The teachers operate in fear of their administrators.  Administrators live in fear of inspectors, and the inspectors work in fear of the government.  But Lukaš says that at our school, he has seen something new and different.  He is astounded by the freedom, love and respect in our BMA culture.  He loves the new experience of being among people who work hard because of their love for kids or their passion for education.  We pray that he will discern something even higher that is motivating us.  

Sharon and I were completely exhausted after our four day odyssey.  However, we were very thankful for the close contact with the kids and the clear evidence of God’s working in my class.  Thank you for praying for our school and our family.  The journey continues, but this was a great mile-marker.