Friday, January 16, 2009

Behind the prayer letter

This post is going to be extremely long and detailed, so if you don't read it I won't be offended. Even my closest friends (NATHANAEL) have confessed to me that they probably won't get to an e-mail longer than about 2 short paragraphs long. I am overstepping that length by... a lot. What this is, however, is all the thoughts behind my previous prayer letter, which I whittled down into a more bite-sized 2 pages long. This was the process behind my prayer letter writing – I set some time aside, sat down on my bed, and wrote down in my journal everything that I've been doing the past few months. From this HUGE journal entry I wrote the previous prayer letter (send me an e-mail if you didn't get it). So, if you want the details behind my prayer letter (MOM), to better know how to pray for me or to get a slightly less polished-and-refined version of what's been going on... work your way through THIS... I hope you enjoy :)


Every good prayer letter should probably start with the truth. I'll start there, and work my way deeper into it, until I've kneaded through every bit of it like a lump of dough, leaving no small clumps of crumbly unmixed flour.

I hate those little crumbly clumps of unmixed ingredients.

On the other hand, I probably won't be able to share these thoughts from start to finish in a prayer letter. It's got this nice, clean, simple, one-page format that I really don't want to break out of for fear my thoughts will run on incessantly without respect for coherence, conciseness, or precision. I heard today about a family who writes 15-page prayer letters. That's thorough. I could probably do that. Should I do that? Would anyone read it? Or even care?

Since I first stepped off the plane on the morning of July 10th of this year, walking out into the warm humid air of Guatemala City, I've written 240-167=73+240+8-2=240+79=319 pages in my journal, counting this one. Of those 319 pages, I imagine maybe 80 are actually relevant to my surrounding circumstances. OK, I'll be generous – maybe 100. I have often regretted the fact that so much of my writing concerns things so distant from my present reality and what's going on around me. Mostly just disconnected rambles. But maybe that's part of why I write – to keep all those thoughts somewhere else so I can more fully engage with my present reality.

So – 100 pages of writing that relate to my past 4 months and blauh umph inglebot days abroad. Can anything good come from that mess?

Without even checking the thoughts I've recorded in my journal, I know the largest part of my past 4 months has been spent in language school. If I want to broaden that to include “Spanish learning” in a general sense, that's where pretty much all my time's been spent on. Add one more flavour to the recipe – cultural studies, and that pretty much covers everything but sleep. Classroom time only lasts from 7:30-1:00 M-F, then there's some homework or tutoring afterward.

So... how can I conjure up something interesting out of language studies? Well, in truth I don't need to conjure up anything from my perspective, but I don't know that everyone is as interested in voiceless stops, bilabial pops, indirect objects, reflexive pronouns, and subjunctive mood as I am. That type of stuff fascinates me. And it also fascinates me that I'm learning all these obscure phonetic and grammatical terms in another language. I sometimes feel I know enough grammar now to teach English – only in Spanish. I learned what “Pluscuamperfecto” was in Spanish before I knew the equivalent in English.

Which, I must add, is really exciting and I'm pretty proud of it. On a recent mission trip with my local Spanish church here, we went to Talamanca, the area I visited a year ago when I first came to Costa Rica. This time I printed off some study guides on the local language, Bribri. They were written as part of an on-line resource put out by the University of Costa Rica, so they were all in Spanish. I was pretty excited as I read through the first few lessons and understood the phonetic terms they were using. A few months ago I wouldn't have understood those terms, let alone the spanish used to write the language lessons.

I enjoy learning. I operate very well in a traditional classroom because learning new things fascinates me. The thing is – language learning extends far beyond the classroom. Sometimes, doubt fills me when I realize how useless grammatical knowledge is in actual conversation – which is what I'm aspiring to achieve. Grammar knowledge, during conversation, accounts for nada. You can imagine the reaction from a Spanish speaker when I ask them what the “pluscuamperfecto de indicativo” form of the verb is, or when I ask what situations to use subjunctive mood in. I don't know what the pluperfect conjugation is in English, nor do I know the first thing about subjunctive mood. In fact, I've been re-learning parts of English grammar so I can understand what I'm trying to say. I think I discovered I've always used the subjunctive mood incorrectly – in English. Oh how I wish it was not so.

No importa, what was I talking about? Conversation. Despite my good grades on tests and decent understanding of textbook grammar, I can't think quickly enough to tell a child to stop biting me, because “morder” is a stem-changing verb, commands are a special mood all their own, and the informal “you” conjugation of a command is an exception even to the pattern, PLUS I have to use a direct object pronoun, which also changes position in the sentence depending on whether the command is positive or negative.

Needless to say, about 5 minutes later I've encoded the grammatically correct way to say - “You, don't bite me!” (No me muerdas!). However, the time for its significance has past, and I'm left with teeth marks on my arm.

This might sound like complaining. It was at one point... it isn't really any more. I realize now how difficult it is to learn English, especially because our phonetics rules are so contextual and flat-out inconsistent. In Spanish, there are 5 vowel sounds for the 5 vowels. In English there are 5 vowels as well – with at least 12 vowel sounds. I can read Spanish pretty well – eventually – and self-check myself. In English that would be nigh impossible.

I should mention my fascination with subjunctive mood as well. It's one of the final grammatical hurdles we have to cross – and it's used far more in Spanish than in English. But it's fascinating. Indicative mood is the simplest, and it deals with facts and anything that exists in reality. But subjunctive mood opens up the world of hopes, desires, dreams, doubts, feelings, and things contrary to reality. Subjunctive mood totally opens up your possibilities to communicate. If I want to remain speaking in flat terms only in the realm of what is and never bridge into what could be, what should be, what could have been, then indicative mood is fine. But clearly – if I want to talk about God's desires for us, about the feelings we create in Him, about doubts and about hopes and passions and desires – this special mood of speech is necessary if I wish to communicate about these topics.

Which brings up another thing that is often on my mind. MAF sets aside this first year for language study, but it's a little unclear the level I'm supposed to achieve. All truth be told, I could probably function, albeit in a very limited manner, without delving into the more difficult forms of speech.

I'm not doing this because I have to. And I'm not doing it just to function, either. I already talked a little about my fascination and wonder with discovering a new language – and rediscovering my own. I know that I have to be at a higher level to do activities with kids. And talking about spirituality and love (not just religion) happens at the most difficult level of all. I think I should probably make a rather personal confession here, as a passionate, obsessive, hormone-filled young single male, that one of the strongest driving motivations that pushes my language learning is the desire to have an intimate, personal conversation with a Spanish-speaking girl, if I happen to fall for one. That's my ideal – that's the level I aspire to achieve. Which I feel is a rather audacious ambition. Let's face it, it's a level difficult to achieve even between people who speak the same language since birth. I know. I've watched couples try and communicate. I've made my own feeble attempts. And this type of communication happens on a level even deeper than linguistically – it happens on a cultural level as well, on a contextual level – even on a spiritual and core-value level. That type of communication is beyond my ability to achieve on my own, I'm aware of that. And I suppose I should clarify that this goal is not directed toward any specific person I know at this time. But neither do I feel it is just some generalized aspiration. I feel... more as if it's a passion of faith, or hope, perhaps. I feel more comfortable talking about hope than faith, because I always feel like faith implies some sort of certainty or assurance or inner alignment with divine will. Sometimes I feel OK about talking about faith in the past. Or... I've heard people use faith as a verb – faithing. That seems closer to how I think of it; it seems closer to faith acted on in a spirit of hope and petition – not so much out of conviction and certainty.

Whatever, semantics aside, sitting face to face with an intelligent, beautiful, animated Spanish-speaking girl my age and not being able to express how I feel inside kind of taps into a deeper, stronger motivation to learn every mysterious and elusive aspect of the Spanish language. Perhaps that ambition is forged more out of hope than any concrete reality at this point, which, incidentally, places it in subjunctive mood rather than indicative mood, which brings this little tangent back to the beginning in a nice, unraveled, conclusive sort of way.

(The word for a great desire in Spanish is derived from the Arabic “ya Allah!” and means “Would to God...” or “May God grant...” Sorry, another diversion into interesting language tidbits.

Can any more little clumps of dough be worked out of language learning?

It's a real trip to read portions of the Bible in Spanish. I had to get a simpler version to start with but I'm beginning to understand larger portions more quickly, which is a real thrill. There are a couple of things that really grab your attention - like why is the word "holocausto" used for "burnt offering" in the Old Testament?

Same with any sort of reading. I read an interview with Sonia Chang, the daughter of Franklin Chang, a Costa Rican who went into space I believe. Anyway she's a state senator, if I remember right, in the U.S. For the State of Massachusetts.. I got through an article on new trends in consumer-level digital cameras. I read through the first few chapters of a Harry Potter book in Spanish. And I read an interview with Woody Allen about... movies or politics or something. In Spanish AND English. This is exciting.

I tried to read something by Isabelle Allende, one of my favorite authoras, but it will be a while before I can get through one of her books.

Yes, I'm aware there's a grammar error in the title of my blog. I'll get to it when I get to it.

So... language learning is fun. What more?

Travel. Lots of it. Almost every other weekend I travel to different parts of this beautiful country. Last weekend was the first time in a LONG time I stayed at home – and I relished it. I was exhausted and needed a break.

Let's see, where all have I been – Puerto Viejo (Playa Cocles, where the majority of people are of Afro-Caribbean descent); Bocas del Torro, Panamá (to renew my visa and scuba dive); Hot springs near Volcan Arenal (Palmares); Cot, outside of Cartago; La Basilica in Cartago, y Las Ruinas; Monteverde (Quaker meeting house); Manuel Antonio; Jaco; the crosses above San José; the Nazarene seminary (pretty much in San José), twice; UCR and Ulatina (San José); Bambu (in Talamanca on a mission trip with my church here). I've traveled out the wazoo. Pouring $$ into that Costa Rican tourist economy. Actually, we travel pretty cheap, traveling in public buses, staying at hostels. Bus tickets cost less than $5 from here in the city to the coast. Hostels are between $5-$14/night. Still, transportation and entrance into the parks adds up. I think weekend trips end up costing about $50.

There's a good group of us singles that travel together. That's a huge blessing and answer to prayer – and it's been a LOT of fun. People in the hostels are often very friendly and hospitable. We've only had a few problems with security.

Puerto Viejo was really nice. It was our first big trip, so maybe I idealize it, but that was probably my favorite beach. Manuel Antonio was nice as well, albeit rather crowded. The sloths, monkeys, and racoons were the highlight of that trip. Monteverde was incredible as well. I really want to go there again. It was probably the most peaceful and tranquil place we visited. Next on my list, though, is to ride the train. And visit a college friend who's living in a cloud forest down near Manuel Antonio, hosting biology students doing research on the wildlife here. Crazy that I ran into this friend again so many years after he was my peer counselor in Nampa, Idaho.

Traveling has been fun. I hope to make a Google Earth Tour dealio mapping out all the places I've been.

Looping back non sequentially to language school, I've been SO fortunate to have classes from the teachers I do. I LOVE them... such great people, and very talented instructors. One of my teachers, Graziella, shared her testimony with us. In a sense, she touched on something I mentioned earlier, except from a teacher's point of view. She sees her job as more than just work – for her it is a ministry. She feels that training missionaries in good Spanish is a way of extending the gospel of Christ into places she could never go. Her motivating drive is that some day she will see people in heaven who are there because one of her missionary students who was able to communicate Christ's love to them using Spanish. That is her reason for teaching at the language school – and it shows. She is an excellent teacher and I get the impression she spends a lot of time outside of class preparing study guides, flash cards, and exercises to help us learn better. In fact, Graziella is one of the several people in whom I saw this type of love-fueled service, a passion for her job that stems not from obligation or penance or apathy, but out of a fervent love for God and his kingdom to grow. I have seen that in many people I meet here. It's inspiring.

In any case, a classmate wanted to record Graziella's testimony to share with his church. When I heard that I immediately thought of all the camera equipment I had lugged down from Idaho to use for interviews just like this. I brought everything in the next day, and helped capture her testimony on video for Stephen to show at his church. Most helpful, I think, was the mic which really isolated her voice from the classroom racket of neighboring students. Anyway, I gave Stephen the video to edit and he used it to show at a missions meeting at his church back in the U.S. People were very touched by it – especially Graziella's story. I will post it if(when!) I get a chance. (Actually, Steve just posted it on his blog. Click here to see his post about language school and the video he made about language school at ILE - including Graziella's testimony)

Incidentally, there have been numerous situations like this where I feel God provided sort of “fly-by” solutions for technology to function and help augment some sort of story that held great merit on its own. I can think of 2 other situations off the top of my head where tools were available that were not normally there to help share good stories and images with others. Despite all the work I've done with computers and multimedia, I still think it's a total miracle when anything works, even after months of preparation. But this is something different. Things lining up like that are either a miraculous surprise or part of an intentional plan. Or both.

So anyway, I was able to help Stephen with his video. I've done a few small videos to help others out as well. I get to help run PPT's sometimes in chapel. I try and help my host dad, Carlos, with some web evangelism work he's doing, and eventually we figure things out together. I realize that tech talk in English is hard enough to translate into normal language as it is – how much harder in Spanish! I tried to explain things to my grandmother in plain English - “it's running slow because it's like your sucking a milkshake through a straw and a piece of fruit clogs it up. Just be patient, your computer sucks as fast as it can.” I feel that explains it very well. In more than one sense. Without going into bandwidth, megahertz, packet collisions, or whatever might be bogging things down. But I can't conjure up analogies like that yet in Spanish.

By the way, why do I sit beside my computer writing this out by hand, when I could be typing it?

Journaling must be done by hand.

And LAST, but certainly not least, is La Carpio. “The Cave.” I could talk for a long time about that place, but I don't want to spoil it by trying to hard to explain things I can't really figure out how to word clearly. On Thursdays I join a group of language students who go to a rather run-down, rough part of town to do an after-school children's ministry. There are all sorts of comments I hear about this particular area that sometimes make me feel like I'm supposed to feel like ministering down there is risky and bold. But it never feels that way to me. The missionaries serving down there have done a good job of forming good relationships with the surrounding community. In the first place, the building we meet at has a small sort of cement area under a tin roof (like a small activity room), a room with a weight set and instruments, and a brand-new computer lab for the kids. On top of this place – offered as a location for the local gang-bangers to practice soccer, learn breakdancing moves, learn on the computer, practice music, and do kids activities – is a cross made of square iron rebar. Oh, and this building is located “in it,” not on the main road where most of the churches are, where it's paved and the bus stops and police patrol. Mmmm... it's a rough area for sure, but Haiti kind of sets a standard I haven't seen matched.

Whatever the case, working with the kids is awesome. It's pretty chaotic and not really very organized, but it kind of reminds me of the Salvation Army kids club I left back in Nampa. I haven't quite put my finger on why working with kids impacts me so strongly, especially if it's only once a week. Sometimes I think about making it a larger part of my ministry. I subbed part time in the Nampa before I came – not because I needed the money. I don't know – I tuck it in my mind and the faces of the kids in my heart and sometimes wonder if I had a chance to do it full time – would I? Could I? Should I? Or is that a “tangential” interest? Not quite sure, but even such a short time doing it brings balance, and a peace, to my life. After going, I often feel exhausted. Fully drained. Sometimes even sad or depressed. But... a tangible peace. Like... an 'I could die now' peace. Or... an 'I can live now' peace. I feel I've used up all my last reserves of emotion. I have no feeling left, it has all diffused into the afternoon spent with kids, but I'm left with an iron will to face the next day and function it with some sort of purpose. I don't really feel any emotion or engagement by the end of the day. But I do feel a peace.

Again, I'm babbling about things I can't explain in any language. Dostoyevsky said it best. And simplest, which is saying something for him.
The soul is healed by being with children.

So, that's La Carpio. I enjoy it. I love the kids. Especially Valeria, Jaison, Moises, and Emmanuel. They are good kids. They are diamonds in the rough. Would to God that they cling to God's path for them.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


January 4, 2009
  • ~ 6:00 PM:
    I decided I should fly to Guatemala this week to renew my tourist visa which will expire in about a week, so I don't cut into class time at the language school. In addition, I could take the GRE exam since the closest place it is offered is Guatemala City.
  • 9:19 PM:
    I wrote a friend in Guatemala (Elder) and told him there was a possibility I would be flying in next week, and asked if there's a chance he could put me up for a few days.
  • 9:35 PM:
    Elder replied, stating that his house was open and I could crash there for a few days.
  • 9:36 PM:
    I sat down and thought for a few minutes about my next week. Then I started seriously studying for the GRE.
January 5, 2009
  • 11:10 AM:
    I purchased my tickets on-line to leave for Guatemala City, Guatemala at 2:45 on January 7.
  • 12:09 PM:
    I received confirmation of a GRE testing appointment I set up about 10 minutes before.
January 6, 2009
  • Jogged. Studied. Ate lunch. Did practice exam #1.
January 7, 2009
  • ~ 9:45 AM:
    Felt the room start to sway back and forth gently. Irma yelled out "temblor" in the other room and I just sat expressionless waiting to see what would happen. The tremor died down after about a minute and I kept on reading. This was actually the first one I've felt, having slept through or not felt all the other major ones in the past few months.
  • 2:45 PM:
    I left the gate at the San Jose airport and flew to Guatemala.
January 8, 2009
  • ~12:15 PM:
    Started the GRE.
  • 1:21 PM
    I begin the second part of the GRE - analyzing an argument.
    Earthquake of magnitude 6.2 hits about 35 km northwest of San Jose.
  • 3:16 PM:
    I call Elder to notify him I'm done with my exam.
  • 5:15 PM:
    I discover an earthquake hit back in San Jose.
  • 5:59:47 PM:
    I contact my host-family back in Costa Rica via Skype and find out they're OK.
  • 6:59 PM:
    I publish this post.