Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Summer of 2008, Ligonier, PA - Part 1

Being an introductory post to this topic, this may be a little dry.

This summer, I was a Summer Camp Counselor at Ligonier Camp & Conference Center in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. It's a Christian Summer Camp of the traditional summer camp variety, if that makes any sense, and it is a pretty awesome place. I ended up there for the summer because a friend of a friend said they needed more guys, and I needed a summer job. They really did need more guys, and I am incredibly glad that I was there.

LCCC, as it is called, is actually a fairly complicated operation. There are three Camps: Summer Camp, which runs all summer; Next Level, which is more intense/extreme, exclusive to older campers, and only runs the first third of the summer; and On The Edge which is outside groups like church youth groups coming to Camp. There are Summer Camp Counselors, Next Level Counselors, Wilderness Staff who run all kinds of activities, Counselors In Training (CITs) who are High Schoolers who love Camp so much that they'll clean the toilets, Next Level CITs whose job remains a mystery to me (not that they are idle, I just don't know what they do), and a whole bunch of other staff, some of whom live and work at Camp year-round. I was a Summer Camp Counselor, and this meant that every Session I was placed in a cabin with at lesat one CIT or Co-Counselor and up 10 boys, and collectively we were a "Tribe". I was specifically a "Unit 2" Counselor, and this meant that my youngest was 8 years old and my oldest 13, but mostly they fell in the 10-12 range.

Camp is divided into "Sessions", which are either one or two week, and kids come to Camp for a Session. Sometimes kids stay for more than one Session, but that is rare. Anyways, two-week Sessions are less popular than they used to be, but a lot better than one-week Sessions, because there is just a lot more time to do awesome stuff. Camp is, as you might expect, very structured; a typical day at Camp runs something like this:
  1. Staff Meeting in the Dining Hall. Sometimes this closed with singing, other times with a little devotion or sermon type thing from someone.
  2. The kids come down for breakfast, having been woken by their CIT.
  3. At the end of morning announcements, we disperse for our morning rotations, which were decided at the staff meeting. This might mean...
  4. Bible Study!
  5. Prison Dodgeball against at least one other Tribe. The best games involved as many Tribes as possible.
  6. A "Skill", such as Archery, Riflery, Frisbee, Swimming, Volleyball, Hockey, Basketball, the Craft Hall, etc. When it's Skill time, counselors trade tribes and teach kids they don't know very well.
  7. Now we would all return to the Dining Hall for lunch!
  8. After afternoon annoucements, we all go to our Duty Areas (haha, I said doody!), which meant cleaning up some section of Camp.
  9. Rest Hour. Oh we love Rest Hour.
  10. If this is a one-week Session, it's time for another Skill. If this is a two-week Session, it's usually time for Electives! Electives are little classes, such as Target Sports, Guitar (which I taught), Boom Whackers & Stomp, Gospel Choir, Drama, Fitness, Swimming, etc. Sometimes in a two-week Session, it would just be extended Action Options. What does that mean? See below.
  11. Now it's time for Action Options. Many kids believe Action Options to be Free Time, but many Counselors have called it, in jest, Calvinist Free Time. This is to say, you only think you have a choice. The kids get to choose what they're gonna do, but it's from a limited set of options, such as The Rec Deck (Foosball, Ping-Pong, Chess, & more), The Pavilion (Basketball, 4-Square), The Pool, The Hub (the Camp Store), The Craft Hall, and maybe something special, like Chubba-Chubba-Can-Can (a game which I will not explain at this time).
  12. Dinner! Yum. Dinner also closes with the Run-On Skit, which introduces that evening's Wide Game. This year, the skits were all about Indiana Groans and the Legend of the Crystal Flamingo (Gasp!)
  13. After Dinner, everyone descends down a massive hill to a flat field to play a Wide Game, which means a field game. Selections include: Gold Rush, Medic, Ninja Warfare, Spy vs Spy, Predator, and (new this year) Siege. I do not have the space to explain them here.
  14. After Wide Game, there's a little bit of downtime, which means a trip to the KYBO ("Keep Your Bowels Open", aka the bathroom).
  15. Then it's time for Club, which is a lot of loud music (generally about Jesus), jumping up and down, hand motions, maybe a Silly Skit, maybe a Scripture Skit, or maybe Club Talk.
  16. Bed. Finally. Well no, first, evening devotions. One time I was able to give a little talk/sermon in which I connected Judges 3 to 1st Corinthians 12. Look them up.
  17. Now the kids would go to sleep, or else get in trouble and lose some priveleges, and we Counselors would sit out on the decks and chat quietly, or go to the KYBO and brush our teeth or take a shower.
  18. Bed. Finally.
Now, not every day was like this, but that's a standard day. I woke up at 6:30, cause Staff meeting was 7:30 and I am really, really slow in the mornings, and I'd get to bed around 10 or 11 I think. It's not like it's easy to stay up when there are hardly any lights around.

I will be writing a lot more about this, that's for sure.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I don't do what I want to do

I have had a lot of schoolwork to do this past semester, and a lot of extracurricular activities to accomplish as well. Some of these extracurricular activities are things like leading a Bible Study, and that involves Jesus, and I try and put Jesus-related-things at the top, never mind the confusion of what is Jesus-related, what isn't, and how everything really is and ought to be. This has, however, left me with even less time to do my schoolwork than I normally have. To make matters worse, I have frequently found myself lazing about, talking to people, playing computer games or doing other things, instead of doing my schoolwork, which really does need doing. My Biology TA and my Russian Professor can attest to this, as I have not turned in a whole lot of homework in those classes. One of my friends has been constantly talking about terrible this semester has been, and I am apt to agree, at least on this front.

I said that I try to put Jesus-things at the top. Yet at the same time, how often do I read the Bible? Let me explain, for those not in the know. Christians think that regularly reading the Scriptures is a good idea. We think that "all Scripture is God-breathed, and thus useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." God says to Joshua, after Moses dies, that he should meditate on "The Book of the Law" day and night, and it should never depart from his mouth, and he should be careful to do what it says, so that he will be prosperous and successful. Jesus says we should build our lives on the foundations of his teachings, like a wise man builds his house on firm rock, not on shifting sands. We take things like this to mean that reading the Scriptures regularly is a good idea.

The thing is, I don't read the Scriptures regularly, but I say that I want to. The same goes for all kinds of things. I say that Jesus is right, I should pray, fast and give to the poor, but I only do one of those with any frequency, and that's because praying is easy. (If praying is easy, am I doing it wrong?) These are all very concrete things, almost a check-list. Let me go on, then. I'm supposed to love God above all things, then love everyone else, even my enemies. I agree that this is how I should live, yet my deeds do not match up with this. There are definitely people in this world that I dislike, there are even people I like to some extent that I don't treat the way I should. I look to other things for satisfaction; I don't find satisfaction in God. I don't live the way he wants me to live, I don't love the things he loves, and in general I find that I do not love God with all my heart, soul and might. But I say that I believe that I should.

Do I not believe, then? They say that actions speak louder than words, and I think it's true that your actions betray what you truly believe. If you ever find a church that says all the right things, then acts in a lot of wrong ways, you might want to think about leaving. They might say the right words, but that doesn't mean they believe the right things in their hearts. The problem here is that sometimes I do the right thing, so it is not as if I can claim to clearly be believing the opposite of what the Bible teaches. The very fact that I care what the Scriptures teach might be a good indication that my belief is not all a lie, a sham to trick Christian girls into dating me or something.

I used to only think about Romans 7 in the context of lust and, in particular, pornography. This is understandable, because that is a big issue to try and think about and deal with, and one that sometimes seems to have no hope. But if that is all I was applying it to, I was missing out on a lot. The Apostle Paul is wordy, as usual, but here he's talking about how Christ purifies our hearts, yet we still sin. In verses 15 through 23, he says the following.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Well now. That is pretty much a description of the problem I outlined above. As much as it seems a little thing, I really do think it is wrong of me to not get the work done that I'm supposed to get done. Sloth is one of the traditional seven capital sins, and for good reason; it's easy. Furthermore, it's easier in today's society, as I can attest. Paul, however, does not leave the issue here. He, and I read this as a cry of desperation, says:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
That is quite a statement, I think, calling himself "wretched", but I also think it's accurate. To find yourself doing the things you do not want to do and to find yourself not doing the things you want to do is pretty shocking, worrisome, gut-wrenching, etc. It feels awful.

One time, I talked with my friend Alex about this. I don't remember why, the context, or anything like that. I think we were in his car, maybe. Either way, we did talk about how long Paul goes on and on about his problem, the problem of sin, yet doesn't provide a very lengthy explanation of the solution. He says one sentence in answer to his cry for deliverance, then moves on. Alex said that Paul does this because the solution is very simple, at least in the basics, the part that you really need to know. So who will save me and you and Paul from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
That is a great comfort, and it's true too.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Although my family lived in two different apartments for the first two years of my life, and although we lived in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England from when I was 3 til I was 6, the earliest firm memories that I have associated with the term "home" are of our row house in Woodlawn, Maryland, about 3 blocks away from the official city, where we lived for a little before England and then afterwards until October 2002, my 10th grade year. Despite being residents of Woodlawn, though maybe the Post Office was confused about this, we always wished we lived at least in Catonsville just to the south, home of a lower crime rate, or, better yet, Howard County, the next county to the south-west of Baltimore County. Howard County contains Ellicott City and Elkridge, where my Mom lived during her High School years, and thus my gradnmother's house; as well as Columbia Presbyterian Church, in Columbia, and thus the majority of our closest friends. We tried to move away for years, but it never really came together until 2002, when we ended up in a single-family home in the southern end of Columbia, right in the very midst of some of the people we had been friends with since before even England. Despite having wanted to leave Woodlawn for years, I distinctly remember sitting alone in the tiny room I had called my own since sometime in middle school, still painted a pastel yellow from when my sister, Elizabeth, picked its color at a very young age, and, on the day of our moving out, crying.

After we moved out, we lived with our friends, the Springs, for a week, waiting for the contract on our new house to be finalized. This sticks in my mind as an incredible act of love and hospitality, allowing a second family to share their home with them for a week, and a really good example of how Christians ought to treat each other.

Then we moved to Columbia, as I said, where my family still resides to this day. This was where I first became really aware of my issues with comfort in new situations. When I first arrived at Atholton High School, as well as at my simultaneous introduction to NavYouth, a Christian youth group and High School ministry of The Navigators in Columbia, I was very quiet. Three years later, by the time of my High School Graduation, this was not nearly as true, and I was generally a much friendlier person for it. I guess it took a long time, but I had become a lot more comfortable in Columbia.

In August of 2005, I became a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), living in Patapsco Hall, among a lot of people I had never met. Though incredibly near to the familiar places of my youth, it was still assuredly a place I had never been before, and I found myself, for the most part, just as quiet and seemingly unfriendly as when I moved to Columbia. It took me a year and a half, or thereabouts, to find myself comfortable, talkative and at home at UMBC.

This summer, I am a Summer Camp Counselor at Ligonier Camp & Conference Center, in the Ligonier Valley, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I remember, just 5 weeks ago, moving into a cabin in a place I had never been before, among people I had never met, and being very quiet. This past Saturday, at the Staff Say-So, a time, after the kids leave, for the Staff to stand up and tell stories about the past week, I told about a revelation I had had concerning my attitude and the nature of what we do here, and a lot of other things. I had this realization while sitting on the toilet, so I made sure to tell them this, and that that place is where I get some of my best thinking done. This was the Next Level Counselor's final week here, Next Level being a semi-simultaneous camp run out of the Lodge, and later someone told me that that was how the Next Level crew would remember me, as talking about the toilet. Though I'm not sure this is true, as I hung out with them several times, I realized I wouldn't be disappointed if this turned out to be the case. My standing and telling them story in such as fashion is a pretty good indicator that I am comfortable here. But unlike UMBC, I am not sure I would call this "home".

Living as a Counselor here means that I'll only have slept in Columbia, Maryland for 12 nights this summer, if my count is accurate. Though many of my possessions still reside there, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of it as home. The dishes aren't even kept in the same places anymore, making it incredibly frustrating any time I am asked to help unstack the dishwasher. When the few other staff from Maryland ask where I'm from, I tell them that I grew up in Woodlawn, my parents live in Columbia, and I live at UMBC most of the year. Sometimes I feel like a nomad, like Abraham, other times I feel a permanent resident of a college campus. The latter is clearly not true, as my approaching graduation will no doubt reveal. American Christians have been known to affix trite bumper stickers to their cars, warning you that the rapture will severely impede traffic, or that their home is a mysterious place called "heaven". While I think the theology behind the first is wrong, the second is a lot truer. We, as Christians, are told to live as foreigners in this world, in it but not of it, something like Israel those 40 years in the Wilderness. While I suspect the more accurate term for our proper dwelling place is the New Jerusalem, while will descend from Heaven (the third one, if we go with the old and wrong understanding of celestial spheres which Paul held) onto the New Earth, this is not of much importance. Why is this place, which I suppose Jesus is preparing right now, and has been for some time it would seem, to which I have never been, my home?

One of the reasons I am able to think of UMBC as home is because it contains a sizable collection of people I know well and love, who have become something like family to me. I have only known many of them for two years, three at the most, yet it feels like much longer, and I will be grieved at the parting of our ways.

That which chiefly holds me back from calling Ligonier home is familiarity. Despite being on staff for several weeks, there are many places on Property to which I have never been, and simply so many things which I do not know. Maybe this will change by the end of the summer, and though I can walk around to many places in teh dark of night, it still carries that air of unfamiliarity which repulses the name "home".

The issue of why it becomes increasingly difficult to refer to the home of my parents as "home" is a tricky one. Are there not people whom I know well and love? There are: my family. Is it not familiar? Admittedly less and less so, as the example of my mother rearranging the kitchen cabinets demonstrates, but it is still no foreign land. I think, instead, that the difficulty arises in the amount of time I actually live there each year, a decreasing number to be sure, and the amount of time that I anticipate living there in the future. A few days after Camp but before School, Winter Break, Spring Break, and then I graduate, shortly after which I really ought to depart.

These three, then, may reveal just how I can call heaven (or the New Jerusalem, rather) my home. The place will be packed full of those whom I know and love, for we are all grafted into one vine, adopted into one family, heirs of the King, our Great and Glorious Father. It will be familiar, I believe, as God will make all things new, the world free of sin, how it ought to be. Lastly, the days we will live there are countless, and not just because it becomes difficult to count days when there is no more night, thanks to the light of the Lord God dwelling among his people.

Let me tell you, "home" is a tricky and meaningful term.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I don't know anything

At the risk of sounding a little bit like Donald Rumsfeld, I want to tell you about the things I knew that I don't know, the things I thought I knew but I don't know, and how I don't know anything.

There's a lot of things that I definitely don't know. I don't know what grades I'm going to get this semester. I don't know what I'm going to do with my life. I don't know who I'm going to marry, and that assumes that I will. But worse than all those things, I don't know how to make myself do what's right, and that assumes I know what the right thing to do is.

When I was a child, I would not eat red fruit, whether or not I had actually ever tried them. A few weeks ago, I had some strawberries, and they were pretty good. I used to be confident that I was really smart, and really good at Computer Science on top of that. I have a GPA of 3.28, which, while not bad, is less than I used to have, I assure you, and I rarely get As in CompSci classes anymore. It's hard for me to admit, but I thought that I had a lot of things all figured out, that I knew what to do, when to do things, and all about myself and the people around me. When I am alone, walking to and from various places, or on the toilet, or in the shower, I will frequently imagine future conversations I might have with my friends, even predicting what they will say and coming up with responses, so that I can come across as eloquent and clever when we do talk. Sometimes I'm right about what they'll say, I won't deny it, but I'm never all right and my predictions are pretty weak to begin with, never mind that it says some pretty weird and potentially bad things about myself that I do this. I like to think that I have my closest friends all figured out, and I put the people I don't know as well into neat little categories, stereotypes, which strongly affect how I think about them and how I treat them. Not only do I suspect that this is morally wrong, but it doesn't work. I don't know everything about the people I think I've got all figured out, and they constantly surprise me with revelations about themselves, and I am surprised even more so with the process of opening my eyes to the people that I've filed away into stereotypes. I went for a long time not realizing this, and that's the way it goes with lots of the things I do that are wrong, and even some of the things I think are right; I don't know that they're wrong. I don't know all of what is right or wrong, all of what is good or bad, or anything even close to that. I thought I knew, but I've become convinced that, when you get down to it, I don't know anything.

I have, for better or for worse, in my mind, an idea of what is my ideal future. In my ideal future, I am married to some beautiful woman with whom I make several babies, and I suppose this is all well and good in the eyes of the Noahic covenant. Most importantly, however, is that I own a farm, most likely a potato farm. A discerning mind will guess that my ideal future is me in the idealized world of my ancestors, the old Ireland which is apparently after we've gotten potatoes from America, but before there was a Pototao Famine, and definitely not the Ireland that existed with high infant mortality rates and low life expectancy. I'm sure it's not entirely Ireland, I really like Maryland, but that's the image that I've got in my head. I also have ideas about other ideal versions of things. I think that if the history of the Church had gone how it should have, there would have been no Catholic-Protestant schism in the 1500s, and there would have been no East-West schism in 1054, and we would have a parish system with bishops and all, with a whole bunch of patriarchs, and every Sunday I would go for a liturgy that had a time for prayer where everyone in the church prayed all at once, out loud, for awhile. But why stop there, with church history? Why not just dictate how the entirety of history should have gone? If I had my way, sin would have never entered the world.

Can I say that that's wrong? Sin is wrong, and the cause of many evils. Wishing that it had never happened, how can that be wrong? But on the other hand, God is sovereign over everything, not just over the here and the now, but He has been sovereign since before there was time. He allowed sin to happen, and none of his deeds are ever wrong. A paradox? Maybe. I don't really understand why God allows bad things to happen, though I've heard some people say that it's so that he can fully demonstrate his love through the death and resurrection of Christ, and that starts to make some sense, sometimes.

I am not going to own a farm in the future, or at least it is not looking likely. We Christians talk a lot about what God is calling us to do, even if some of us are really terrible at listening. Terrible at listening though I may be, I don't think God is calling me to own a farm and all the rest of that idyllic, agrarian fantasy. I do not know what he is calling me to do with my life, though I wish he would tell me, but I don't think I'm called to own a farm. Now, I could go off on my desires and do all the right things that would result in me owning a farm, but that's not the point. People in the Church did what they wanted and look where we've ended up. Adam did what he wanted, and look where that's gotten all of us. My desires, though sometimes rooted in good motivations, do not always yield good results. Wanting to provide food for others is good, but that doesn't necessarily imply that I should go own a farm. I hope you don't think I'm saying that all my desires are good, that all my motivations are good. I'm only realizing that even the good motivations don't always yield good actions.

This has gotten way too long, so I'm going to wrap it up. What I've been trying to get across is this: I do not always know what is the right thing to do. I am fully capable of tricking myself into using good reasons and intentions to support wrong actions. I don't like this, because I still want to do the right thing, but this implies that someone has got to tell me what to do, and I don't want that at all. This is where those bad motivations start becoming really apparent. I don't want to listen to God, because I want to do whatever the heck I want to do. It's my life, who is He to tell me how to live it? This is starting to sound awfully familiar, like one of those sermons where they talk about why Adam and Eve ate the fruit, or like C.S. Lewis's Perelandra, which is the same thing. I think that doing what is right is really important, and not doing what is wrong equally so, so the idea that I don't know how to do that is frightening. If I don't even know how to do that, I don't know anything! Thanks be to God, then, that He is willing to tell me. The next trick is remember to ask Him, and then listen, but that is not something I am prepared to write about yet.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Transportation in Ukraine, summer 2006

We went a lot of places while we were in Ukraine, and this meant we did a lot of traveling. Some of our means of transportation were quite standard and expected, others were not.

In order to get to Ukraine, we flew, with Lufthansa, by way of Frankfurt. Upon reaching the airport, we got into a large blue van owned by Randy. When going to and from Vasiliy's house and the rest of the city, we generally took the Metro, though one time Valentin drove. We also used the buses once, and the trams as well. In formerly-Soviet countries, these have these awesome trams that roll around on tracks, getting power from overhead lines. You get onboard, and a lady sells you a ticket. You then have to take your ticket and stamp it in a little metal stamping device, so that the ticket is known to have been used. They also have electric buses that run off of the tram-power-lines, while still retaining the ability to change lanes. We took a little boat tour of the Dnieper, so that Dick could sit down and have a meeting with a friend, and, strangest of all, we took a little trip on the funicular. I am pretty sure that this last one was just so that we could have the experience, not that we really needed to. Dick does that kind of thing.

I have already written plenty about the trains that we took, so I won't talk any more about those. Once we got to Sevastopol, Kostia met us at the train station, to take us all to the Camp. How did he do this? With a UPS truck, of course! Big, brown, and possessing plenty of room for people and their baggage, this truck took us to and from the train station, to and from church, and into Sevastopol to see the city on Sunday as well. It was hot, it was sweaty, but it was also pretty cool to be able to say "I am riding in the back of a UPS truck!" I have no idea where Kostia got it, or why he had it, but it had a German slogan on the side. The return trip from Camp was way more crowded, because we had a bunch Ukrainians with us, and our ridiculous American baggage seemed to have grown. It was incredible.

To get to camp, you had to get to the beach. To get to the beach, you have to take a ferry from Balaklava. There are two ferries, owned by the same people, named Jupiter (well, Yupiter) and Mercury. They're pretty good ferries, I thought, and they weren't usually too crowded. I haven't talked nearly enough about Kostia, so I will tell you that every day he would hike/run over the mountains into town, buy lots of food, and then bring it all back on the ferry. It was a lot of food to keep all us campers fed. The ferry was not the only boat we used, as we did get a tour of the Submarine Base Tunnel in a little motorboat. It was a pretty small boat though, and it almost doesn't count.

There are only two other forms of transportation, besides the obvious use of our legs, that I can think of. To get from Balaklava to Yalta to see the Botanical Garden, we took what they call a Marshrutka, a mini-bus taxi. On our way back from Ukraine, we had a several hour lay-over in Munich, where we hung out with Paul's friend Dominik, ate delicious sausage, and saw a big Catholic cathedral with lots of statues and no paint but white. To get from the airport into the city, we took the S-Bahn, which turned out to be a very nice commuter train/subway. Once, while waiting at the station, a lady came up to Adam and asked him about why the #6 train was delayed. Despite his half-forgotten knowledge of German, Adam was unable to answer. Thankfully, Dominik and Dick were there to inform the lady both that Adam did not speak German, and the reasons for the delay, which had just been announced.

This is what we looked like after traveling. I mean, really, it's after a long hike, but we felt like this a lot. Except Paul, who is almost never too tired to not be able to do that thing in photos. Oh man.

I think this might be the end of my Ukraine posts. I don't have much else to say about it, that I can think of, and the videos we took, upon further inspection, are not likely to be of much interest to the casual reader. I hope these were good posts, and I might be writing more in the future, about other things, but only if I feel like it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lviv and church art, Ukraine, summer 2006

Ukraine is a country with a weird problem: Russians. No that's not fair. Ukraine is a country split down the middle. In its eastern half, everyone speaks Russian. In its western half, everyone speaks Ukrainian. Should the country be European or Russian? It's a big question, as exhibited by that famous Orange Revolution.

The city of Lviv has been known as L'vov, Lwow, and Lemberg in its history, Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and German. Lviv is the big city in the far west of the country, having even been part of Poland before the Second World War, and is sometimes called Ukraine's Western Capital. Everyone speaks Ukrainian there, which was strange for us, because Russian is quite commonplace in Kyiv, is the overly dominant language in Crimea, was the defacto common language of the Camp, and is the one of the two languages that Dick speaks. When Yulian gave sermons at Camp, Dick had to guess at the meaning, because Yulian is from Lviv and only speaks Ukrainian.

We went to Lviv for a day, by train of course, with Vera and Tanya, who had never been to Lviv themselves. Yulian met us at the train station, later rendezvousing with his mother, who then proceeded to give us a tour of the city. Yulian's mom was really happy to have foreigners to take around and show her city to, and was probably more excited about the whole thing than we were at some points. Her narration was delivered in Ukrainian, and Yulian would translate into broken-English, or Dick would guess at the meaning, or maybe Vera and Tanya would do some Ukrainian->Russian translation and then Dick would translate to English. I'm not sure which of those methods took place, but we got the basic information well enough.

Yulian's mom took us to a lot of churches. I mean, yes, we saw the Opera House, and, for some unknown reason, a pharmaceutical museum, but I mostly just remember churches. Ukraine is, as you might expect, mostly East Orthodox. They actually have two rival churches, one loyal to the Moscow Patriarch, and one not, and it only gets messier from there. Yulian himself is a deacon, at least I think that's what you might call a priest-in-training, in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. As best as I understand, the "Ukrainian" means that it's centered in Ukraine, and "Greek Catholic" means that it's in full communion with the Pope (You know, the Bishop of Rome) but with Eastern style rites, not Western like most Catholic Churches. It's quite the mouthful of a name.

Anyway, the first church we saw was St. George's Cathedral, a very important church in the UGCC (as Wikipedia so handily abbreviates it). Architecturally and art-wise it was a bit much for my tastes, with a lot of gold and stuff, but that's often the way it goes over there. Inside they have one of the few official copies of the Shroud of Turin, so that was cool to see, whether or not I'm convinced on the Shroud's authenticity, which I sometimes am. I do not know what order we saw things after that. We saw the exterior of another big Catholic church, which had a plaque in Latin, Ukrainian and Polish commemorating when Pope John Paul II came and visited. We went to an Orthodox church which, instead of having lots of fancy carvings, had been painted to look as if it had fancy carvings everywhere. We also saw an Armenian church, whose murals, while all over every possible surface as in other churches, were noticeably darker than others we had seen. Adding to this the Protestant church in Kyiv, the Lavra, St. Andrew's, the really old church in Kyiv, the little chapel on the mountainside on the way back from Yalta, the big one in Sevastopol by the Roman ruins of Chersonesos and the Protestant church meeting in the former-Soviet-school in Sevastopol, and I think it can be said that we saw a lot of churches in Ukraine.

Orthodox churches have a lot of thin candles on circular wooden holders, and people light these as they pray. Sometimes they require pants for men, skirts and head-coverings for women, and sometimes they don't. They seem to understand that tourists want to see these things, so they tolerate us, but they don't let you take pictures. This makes me sad, even though I guess I understand, because the art is beautiful. Adding the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, and a monastery near Melnik (but not the really famous one), both in Bulgaria, and I've seen quite a lot of Eastern-style Church Art, and I am thankful. This is an art that never went through the Renaissance, so even though the artists, at least at the rebuilt and restored cathedrals, probably know how to paint photo-realistically, they do not. Common things to paint included the Trinity, the Apostles, the Gospel Writers, Archangels, and Seraphim. God the Father was depicted as a stern looking old man with a tremendous white beard. God the Son, Jesus, sometimes had his cross with him. God the Spirit was generally shown as a dove, I think. Sometimes the gospel writers had their traditional symbols with them, sometimes not. My favorite was the Seraphim, shown as six magnificent wings, two stretched upwards, two inward over the center of the hidden figure, two downwards over the hidden feet, and sometimes a face might peek out. I am sure I am not going to be able to convey this fully, but entering a church and seeing all these things painted on the ceiling and walls is incredible. I am definitely against the veneration of icons, because I fail to grasp how that isn't worship and thus idolatry, but at the same time I can see how the beauty of these paintings surrounding you reminds you of the beauty and majesty of God.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sleeping on trains in Ukraine, summer 2006

While in Ukraine, we traveled by train 4 times. We went from Kyiv to Sevastopol, back to Kyiv a week later, from Kyiv to Lviv the next night, and back again the night after that. There might have been a night in between returning from Sevastopol and going to Lviv, a night spent sleeping on wood floors, but I am not so sure. Either way, we took a lot of train journeys, for a man who had never done so before in his memory.

The thing about train journeys that take anything more than a few hours in Ukraine is that they like to do them with sleep. The way Dick tells it, it is their custom to get on a train, go to bed, wake up, get off at their destination, and that's the way they like it. I can't say it's a bad idea, honestly, in terms of efficiency and making sense, but trains are not the easiest place to sleep, I found.

In first class, you have two beds per cabin. In second class, you have four beds per cabin. In third class, which Dick called "karnye platz", you have a whole lot of beds in a train-car and no security. He stressed that we, as foreigners, were not even considering traveling that way, period. We were okay with this. There were 9 of us, so sleeping arrangements were as follows: Randy, Nick, Kendyl & Nicole in one cabin; Linda, Adam, Paul & myself in the next; and Dick with some Ukrainians which we didn't know in the next. For the Lviv trip, we had Vera and Tanya with us, instead of Randy & Nick, so that was an easy sleeping situation to work out.

Cabins are small affairs, as you might expect, but you can cram a lot of people into those things. Thus, we were quite capable of fitting as many of ourselves all into one room if we really wanted to, and there was much Uno playing. Nick, who I guess was probably somewhere in elementary or middle school, I really can't tell, hung out with us, and Randy, Dick & Linda sat in the other room and talked about whatever it is that they wanted to talk about.

Food is available on the train, of course. On one of the trips, we ate dinner in a Dining Car, and I don't really remember what we ate, but it was okay. There was beer to be had, though I didn't have any. Randy, a Southern Baptist, definitely did not have any. I remember Dick telling us that he wasn't going to drink if Randy was in the room, out of respect, like Paul says to do with meat and vegetarians. So he waited til Randy left the room to order beers. But then Randy came back later, and Dick offered him some. So I have never quite known what to think about that. Also readily available was tea, and we had a lot of that. But the funniest thing I remember is eating breakfast. It's not like they had breakfast for us. But along the way to Sevastopol, there are a lot of stops to make at little train stations in other towns and cities. So what you do, after you're all woke up, is you get off the train real quick, buy some food from one of the vendors waiting to sell you your breakfast, and then jump back on. We had corn on the cob and some kind of melon for breakfast.

I know some of you are going to give me grief for talking about toilets, but it's an integral and unique part of the train experience. I'll try and make this quick. When you hit the flush lever, the metal bottom of the toilet opens up on a hinge, and your excrement falls away onto the tracks. Yes, that's right, the tracks. You can hold the lever down, thus holding the bottom of the toilet open, and look down and watch the tracks and gravel rushing by beneath the train. They lock the bathroom for some distance on either side of visiting a station, to prevent you from making the area around the station smell really awful.

Once night comes, you want to sleep, because you've walking all over a foreign country and not sleeping in comfortable places. So you fold down the top beds, put the sheets on all 4, and go to sleep. The thing is, it's really not all that easy to sleep, even then, at least not for me. These are not quiet, smooth trains. They're pretty bumpy, and go thunkity-thunk a lot, and I really did have a hard time getting some shut-eye. On the other hand, we were all pretty tired.

I never did mention how dishes were washed at camp, but it wasn't entirely satisfactory. It was just a series of tubs of water, with varying strengths of bleach in each, and some scrubbing. Maybe this worked okay for the first half of the dishes, but by the end of a meal that water was pretty disgusting and not very cleansing. The women-folk brought their own personal dishes, which they washed with their own cleaning cloths, but we men ate from the communal pile of bowls. We men also all got sick. Paul got sick in his stomach while at camp, Dick was sick in his bowels when we got back home, I was sick in my bowels (Yes, I mean more than is normal) when we got back home, but Adam was sick in his stomach on the train. I can not remember which train ride this was, probably the one back from Sevastopol. It is not easy to sleep when one of your friends keeps going to the bathroom to vomit, and then gets a little bit on your pillow. Just a really tiny bit though. I was so tired that I looked at it, noted that I should not move my head in that direction, and closed my eyes.

I want to close by just making sure that I say that I really liked the whole Train Experience. I would recommend it. I would do it again. But it wasn't easy or comfortable.

That is actually a remarkably accurate and good description for the entire Ukraine trip.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Mostly about Kyiv, summer 2006

I didn't finish telling you about Ukraine, you know. But I'm going to start at the beginning this time.

I can't remember when it was that we started hearing that there would be another trip to Ukraine, but I knew I wanted to go. So when I was asked if I wanted to go, I admit, the decision wasn't very hard to make. I prayed about it, sure, but it was one of those situations where you pray about it already hoping he doesn't say No. I'm not sure that that's a good thing, but I don't know.

We flew out of Dulles to Frankfurt, where we had coffee. I had never had coffee before, this was dark German stuff, and I didn't particularly like it. But we needed the caffeine to keep us going. We then flew from Frankfurt to Kyiv, where we were picked up at the Airport by Randy, a Baptist missionary, and Valentin, one of the MCF (Military Christian Fellowship) guys. Valentin is Vasiliy's assistant, and Vasiliy is the president of the MCF or something. They took us all to Vasiliy's apartment, I think, where Vera and Tanya, Vasiliy's secretaries, fed us. Oooh that was good food. There was borshch, and some sort of dish made from cabbage. Before Ukraine, I didn't like cabbage, but that food changed my mind completely. Then Kendyl and Nicole went off to Randy and Helen's house, Helen being Randy's wife, where they would be sleeping. Dick and Linda either slept on Vasiliy's bed, or on some sort of guest bed, and Paul, Adam and I had the floor of the living room, or whatever you call the room with lots of books, a sofa and chairs, and the television. I didn't bring any kind of ground-pad or air-mattress, so it was just my very thin sleeping bag between me and the hardwood floor, but I found that I am quite capable of sleeping like that, even if I do ache in the morning. This was particularly good news, given how I'd sleep in Crimea.

We mostly just walked around Kyiv for the next day or two. I'm pretty sure we did some tourism that first day also, come to think of it. We saw Independence Square, where the Orange Revolution took place, which was pretty cool to get to see. Unsurprisingly, there were political speeches being made, trying to convince people to vote for this candidate or another. We saw St. Andrew's Church, which, to be quite honest, is pretty ugly and not worth the effort that it takes to get all the way up the hill. We saw a very, very old church building, which may or not be a reconstruction, and was a lot better looking than St. Andrew's. Unfortunately, I don't think we went inside either of those. At some point, it all begins to run together with what we did after camp, so I might as well tell you about that too.

After camp, we returned to Kyiv, and at some point were given a tour of the Lavra, a very old and very large monastery and cathedral. Some of the art in this place was incredible, like the things we saw in Lviv, which I haven't talked about yet. Apparently the Lavra, or at least parts of it, were torn down by the Soviets, but it's all been rebuilt in the short amount of time since then. Once you get inside, every wall and ceiling is painted, great big paintings of God, Angels, Apostles, Saints, etc. When I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, back in 2004, in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, I was impressed, but on this trip to Ukraine I really got to see a lot of this amazing art hidden within Orthodox churches. I will talk a lot more about this later, I assure you.

Now, Vasiliy's house is not in the center of the city. It's farther out, but Kyiv has a very useful metro system, so every day that we were just wandering around Kyiv, we'd get on at the Poziaky station, on the Green Line, and head into the city. You buy little tokens at a booth, a job always handled by Dick or one of the Ukrainians, and that token admits you to the Metro, one flat rate for no matter how far you're riding. You then put the token into a little turnstile, which is always open, but will snap shut on you if you try and go through without putting a token in. In rush hour, this part was pretty awful, with masses of people all packing through these little gates. That's where Dick got his wallet stolen. Then, at least at all the underground stations, you get on an escalator and descend. Some of these stations are incredibly deep, deeper than the stop near the Zoo on the DC Metro, so the escalator ride can take a very long time, passing by plenty of advertisements as you go. The train cars are blue, and don't necessarily stay in the station very long, but we never lost anyone, though I did have to push Kendyl in once, as she hesitated seeing how packed the car was. I should mention now that while in the metro system, and really you should stick by this rule as much as possible in Kyiv, you don't smile. Just don't do it. You probably look like an American, or at least a foreigner, already, and smiling is only going to make it worse. Stand still on the metro, don't really look at anyone, and make sure you look disinterested and stern at all times. This is a difficult feat, but I got pretty good at it. You just have to think about people dying. Paul was okay at it, but he would laugh when he looked at Adam. Adam was good at it, but Dick said that he still didn't look right, because his eyes "danced." Kendyl and Nicole were pretty bad at this, and kept giggling. I am pretty sure Dick and Linda were pros at it, certainly Dick. I never checked.

I often found myself taking the rear-guard position for these metro journeys, with Dick leading of course. I've never decided if this is because I knew that it needed to be done, or because it eased my nerves knowing that I could be sure that no one was getting lost behind me. Probably a little bit of both.

We ate at a restaurant called "Puzata Hata", which means "Fat House", several times. It's one of those places that is half way between fast-food and slow-food, and it advertises itself as being traditional Ukrainian food. Their borshch wasn't very good, but the rest was fine. McDonald's happened once, of course, because it was convenient, and there were a few other places we ate at that I've forgotten the names of.

There was one Sunday that we were in Kyiv, and we visited an English-speaking church in the city, that met in some other church's sanctuary when it wasn't being used. It was tiny, and pretty boring, I thought. But it gave foreigners of all kinds a place where they could worship in some sort of common language, so it's good that it exists. The church we visited in Sevastopol seemed a lot more alive, but I couldn't understand a word they said.

Leaving Kyiv to come back to Maryland was quite the trick. We had to be at the airport at 4am or 5am or some equally awful hour. But it was okay, because there was Randy with his van, despite the hour, and there was Valentin to help us, I think, but maybe not because his wife had just given birth, and we all got out the door just fine. Without their help, we couldn't have gotten anywhere, ever, I suspect. Valentin, in particular, would help us carry bags wherever we went, helped us get to the pharmacy to buy some sudafed, drove us here and there a few times, and more. We were very thankful for him.

On the way back from Ukraine, we had a long layover in Munich, which I'll talk about some other time. Eventually we got back to Dulles though, and then I slept a lot.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Camping in Ukraine, 2006

Let me tell you about Ukraine.

I went to Ukraine in the summer of 2006, which is almost two years ago, and I was only there for two weeks, but I talk about it all the time like it was yesterday, and like I was there for months and months. It was fun, because I got to read signs in Cyrillic all the time, and I love that.

We stayed in Kyiv, the capital, for a few days; camped near Balaklava, in Crimea, for a week; only one day in Lviv, sleeping on the train on both nights for that visit; and little times in Kyiv to fill in the gaps. We also spent five hours in Munich, but that isn't much. The camp in Crimea was the main thing, so I'll explain about that.

Every summer, the Ukrainian Military Christian Fellowship has a camp in Crimea, where whole families, whose fathers are in the Army (I'm not sure how their armed forces are structured, really) and are usually Christians, come and live in tents. Most people live there for a few weeks, some for the whole summer; we were only there for a week. This guy at my church, Dick Barnes, is heavily involved with ACCTS, which co-ordinates Military Christian Fellowships, and does a lot of work with the Ukrainians. He took his wife, Linda; one of the college guys from church, Ryan; and Ryan's cousin to the camp one year. And so in 2006, he took his wife and five of us. My friend Adam and I lived in my little two-man tent along with all our bags and my guitar, and it was smelly. This was either the fault of my laundry, my guitar case, or both.

Every morning at the camp, we'd wake up to the sound of someone chopping wood, because the wood-chopping area was right next to our tent. The idea that Kostia is swinging a large axe with an insecure handle is one heck of a way to wake up, I assure you. Next, I would stir, the guitar case would fall over and hit me in the head, I'd groan in pain and Adam would chuckle. Then Dick would come around to tell us to wake up. I think he knew that Adam and I didn't need much reminder. The girls, Kendyl and Nicole, he would tell sweetly, because Dick is like that. Then he'd get over to Paul's tent, which honestly should have held all three guys, but that is another issue mostly stemming from the over-concern of parents and their air-mattress purchasing habits. Anyway, Dick would go over to Paul's tent, and sing "Goooodmorning Paul" a few times, and then shake the tent. Sometimes it worked, but never within several minutes. One time Paul was sick, so that was a-whole-nother can of worms. Not long afterwards, we'd hear Vasiliy walking around, shouting into his megaphone, telling everyone to get up, breakfast would be soon.

Breakfast most mornings was kasha, I think, which meant some sort of porridge-like-substance, with some kind of fruit thrown in here and there for flavor. Also, tea. Kasha and tea were the staples of most every meal, and I'm glad of it. The tea was often lemon, and delicious, while the kasha was sure to fill your belly. Lunches had more food I think, some kind of sandwich maybe. Dinner had meat patties on time, and varenyky another time, which was amazing. At night, a snack time would be had, of which I chiefly remember bananas. They eat a lot of those in Ukraine, actually. In Kyiv, nearly every street vendor stored his wares in boxes which were clearly labeled for the shipment of bananas. I can't blame them, really; bananas are delicious.

I can't remember what order we did things at the camp. At some point in the day, we would do a Bible study. I feel like we read one of the Peters, or James. I wish I could remember where I've put the composition book that contains the meager journaling that got done while there, as it might help with some of the details, but such is life. Dick led our studies, seeing as we don't speak Russian or Ukrainian, and so it was the seven Marylanders, plus Randy and his son Nick, Baptist missionaries from Tennessee. We sat under the same tree nearly every time, I think, and it was nice to have the chance to sit among only people that you could understand, and nice to have the chance just to sit, and nice to have the chance to read the Bible together too.

Swimming in the Black Sea every day was a must. If you didn't swim every day, and there was one day in which we didn't, you felt really dirty and gross the next day. So swimming it was, and thankfully the beach was a five-minute walk from camp, at the most. We could see some ships out on the sea sometimes, and there was always the ferry going to and from town to watch, as the beach was best accessible by boat, but mostly we swam around and threw jellyfish at each other. The Ukrainians were nice and would play with us even if we couldn't talk to most of them, and so it was good to have something we could do together. I was and still am pale and bad at swimming, but I had a good time anyway. Two or three times while at the camp, we used shampoo on our hair while swimming, but mostly we just let the Sea wash us. It's not a real bath I guess, but it worked well enough for our purposes.

We would also go on what was referred to as Excursions. This is either one of those funny words that Dick uses because he used to be in the Army and is involved with the Boy Scouts, or one of those funny words that you use because it's a cognate with Russian. I'm better on the latter. Excursions were fun, and always involved lots of walking. The Black Sea is geologically young, as far as I understand, and so the mountains nearly run straight down into the water, with just little beaches made of rocks at the bottom sometimes. Consequently, we went hiking twice, once up to an overlook with an incredible view to the East of camp, the other time to a fortress that had been used in both World Wars, to the West of camp, right on the mouth of the harbor. This was a longer hike, to be sure, but worth it once we got to go poking around inside an old Soviet bunker, complete with machine gun bullet marks. It had everything you could want except for dead Nazis. We took pretty clearly marked paths to get there, but Vasiliy decided to take a shortcut back. This ended up being more of bushwhacking down steep inclines, and I'm pretty sure Vasiliy was just making it up most of the way, but we eventually popped out onto our beach and made our way back to camp, quite tired.

Another time, we went to the botanical gardens in Yalta, with a bunch of the Ukrainians, which meant a long bus trip and then a lot of walking around to see interesting plants, statues of Lenin and other famous people, and many group photos at Dick's insistence. That was an alright trip. The best excursion, probably, was to the formerly-secret, former-Soviet Submarine Base. Literally carved out of the inside of the mountain, this giant network of tunnels had room for several submarines, even the ability to repair them in dry-dock. They're getting funding to slowly fix the place up, repairing things and repainting things, so that the very small section you can currently walk through looks quite nice with warning stripes and labels, while the tunnel itself, which is accessible by boat tour, is quite dirty and could probably do with some maintenance. It's amazing how big the thing is. If you're even near Sevastopol, the big city near Balaklava, make sure you see this.

Every night, there was campfire time, or the equivalent thereof, since the fire was fairly well bound within a clay hearth. Everyone would sit around like at a meal time, and there would be singing, and some sort of testimony or sermon or something of that sort. Twice, we did skits that Adam knew from working at Camp Hemlock. When we first got there, there was this big guy leading worship. I feel like his name may have been Aleksei, but I am probably completely wrong. They invited me to play guitar with him and the other guy, whose name I have definitely forgotten. Even though I was unable to decipher their Ukrainian guitar chord notation, the chords were the same once you went to finger them, and so I was able to just barely keep up with them, sometimes. It was incredible, being invited to play with them just hours after getting to the camp, and he was killed in a car accident just a week later. When we found out, I didn't know what to do, other than to just be sad and pray.

It was frustrating to be surrounded by all these people you couldn't really talk to. When people gave sermons, we got whatever rushed translation Dick passed our way, if we got anything. When Yulian, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic deacon, did morning chants and liturgy, we had no idea what the meaning of his singing was, only that it woke us up before Kostia even got started on the wood. The only songs we could all sing together were the ones that exist in both languages, and these were primarily songs that I would bring up, not the ones they were picking. This is most definitely why I'm now in my second semester of Russian classes.

We were not without friends. Roman and Svyeta were two folks our own age who spoke English, and the Army officer whose name we always forgot also spoke English. Really, anyone who spoke English was plenty friendly, and even some of those with whom we had to have translators and gestures. In particular, for me at least, was Sergei, who played the violin. He could play "The House of the Rising Sun", and I could play the chords, or sometimes we would just jam, and so we performed at Camp Fire Time at least once. That was really cool, to be able to hang out with him. Roman taught Adam and I how to say "Я плаваю", which sounds like "Ya plavayu", and means "I swim", but it is hard enough to learn Russian in a class, much less while swimming. Svyeta taught me some things about their alphabet, and was just generally really good at being our friend and aide in crossing the language barrier. One little girl, Rita, who did not speak English, was sometimes annoying in her desire to follow us around, but was also willing to be our friend from the moment we arrived, a rarity, and taught us words like "кошка" (koshka), which means cat. Our other good friend was a kid named Taras, and I can't really say much about him, other than he was willing to hang out with us, and that was enough.

One night, after camp fire, we went out into the woods with some of the other "young people", as Dick would call us, and sat on blankets by a cliff, overlooking the sea. We sat around and talked, as best we could. After we sufficiently made moves against one of the Ukrainians that looked ready to put the moves on Kendyl, they asked us what we thought about what Yulian had preached about that night. Apparently he had talked about the evils of mini-skirts, or something. It was really difficult to try and explain what I think about modesty, never mind that whatever I had said had to be translated.

One of the most remarkable things, I think, was that the camp had Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants present. I am pretty sure it was mostly Protestants, but all three were definitely present. A few times, we even had visitors from some other Bible camp, teenagers that were hanging out with a missionary from New York. Despite these differences, I can only think of one time when I sense any ill-will across denomination lines, when an old lady visiting from another camp started making loud comments at Yulian about something that Catholics and Orthodox disagree on, and Vasiliy had to step in and talk about how we are united in the love of Christ. That was really good to see happening somewhere.

I never really figured out why we went. I am sure that God had his reasons, but he's never told me. We shared our testimonies, sang a few songs, and did some skits. We hung out with some people, sometimes, and talked with them about whatever or nothing at all, when we were able. We saw one of the ministries going on there. I am never sure if we were there as observers or assistants or what. But I am sure that it was Good, I am just not able to articulate the particulars maybe.

I will have to write about the rest of the trip, some time, because this only covered camp. I have, included, below, a video we made while we were packing up, giving a tour of the camp.