Friday, February 26, 2010

Don't Eat at Short Tables

We enjoyed a couple of important meetings on Friday. The first was a chicken and mashed potatoes lunch with an update from AB. We postponed the afternoon tour of Astana for a short retreat to the King Hotel to repair some jet-lag. And we met later with B., the local director of the organization.

AB picked us up again at 6pm to drive along Astana's unlined roads to B's house. En-route we met a a young, on-fire Occupational Therapist from Amsterdam who is considering a move from the outreaches of Kazakhstan to join the good work of Green Pastures. When asked, this guy (sorry, my jet-lagged brain is losing names) expressed displeasure with some compromises of the "church" in his home country of the Netherlands. This guy seemed to be the real deal, though, giving it all up to serve God and others in a very foreign country.

AB dropped us at the newer home of B. and A. and their 4 children. B. is the director here. We got acquainted over snacks of nuts and dried fruit before we hustled off to a Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra performance. We found some cool pyramid-shaped building called something like The Center for Peace and Understanding.

The performers, outfitted in classy, fur-lined native dress, performed on dombras and an entire string section. As they played, I thought that the music would provide a fantastic soundtrack for a movie. It really was very professionally done and, surprisingly, pleasing to the ear.

We stepped out of the concert early and headed back for a great meal prepared for us at B.'s. I tried to sit on the floor cushions surrounding a short dinner table. I found that I can still cross my legs! However, by dessert time my right leg was asleep. And by the time I stood up to leave, you couldn't convince me I had a right foot. It took me three tries to slip on my right shoe.

By the way, what's with the painful tingling when a limb "wakes up"? Why can't it just wake up in a painless way instead of shouting, "Hey, dummy, NEVER do that to me again!?"

I don't think my grimaced smile convinced our hosts that I really did have a good time.

Hope in a Concrete Apartment

Green Pastures never got a review from me in this blog, so let me pause here and do that now. Our first appointment on Thursday morning was a stop at Green Pastures, a humanitarian service for disabled children under the age of 17. Green Pastures regularly handles over 200 cases of autism, head trauma, downs syndrome, cerebral palsy, and more. Yes, all in a 3 room, refurbished apartment!

But, Green Pastures is nothing like its name. Buried on the 2nd floor of a crowded concrete apartment complex we walked through the multi-locked steel plate door (common in KZ) and up some cracked tile steps to a 2+ bedroom apartment. This converted apartment is a beacon of HOPE for parents of disabled kids who have no real help for their struggling children. A small bedroom is their "administrative office" and another bedroom is sparsely outfitted with some rugs, pillows and random items that can help the children here. Another room boasts a donated, but new, powered physical therapy table.

In fact, Hope is one of the organization's names for this agency. Staffed with real professionals, I couldn't believe this talented line-up: a registered Dr. from Astana, an MD from Singapore, other supported physical therapists and support staff from Germany, KZ, and volunteers from the local fellowship. The parents of these patients stubbornly refuse to follow the advice of the majority of medical professionals who routinely shuffle these cases to neglectful government facilities. Or, worse yet, they regularly misdiagnose the condition of these people and prescribe too much of the wrong kind of medication.

Green Pastures' staff members, many of whom find support outside of KZ, build long term relationships with their patients' families in order to bring them to the One who gives true Hope.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Half A World Away

We finished up in the Orakoy, waterfront, district in Istanbul (see pic) and shuttled off to catch a plane to Astana.

Now we're officially, and exactly' 12 time zones away from Ames...Halfway Around the World! When I was a kid, there was a saying that if you drilled a hole down far enough and crawl through it, you'd end up in China. None of my friends at the time knew there was another country to the west of China, or what it was called. I'm there now, and its called Kazakhstan (land of the Kazakhs).

The 5+ hour flight over 4 time zones from Istanbul was uneventful, except for the fact that we checked in around 6:30am at the King Hotel amid flurries of snow. My travels are starting to remind me of a bad Jr. High sleep and strange food.

The King Hotel is spacious compared to the closet (called a double room) we stayed in at the Erboy Hotel (actually I really liked the Erboy. Mahmed, a waiter in the hotel's restaurant, really made us feel welcome).

The trip from the Astana Airport (modern, with typically unsmiling passport agents) featured a quick tour of this Boom Town of Central Asia. Our taxi driver drove at double the speed limit but would interrupt his tour guide chatter to suddenly slow down. Then he would speed up again. He explained that there were speed traps along the route and he would slow down just as he passed them, only to build his Mercedes up to ramming speed once again. Somebody ought to write a book on impractical government ideas.

We passed all kinds of new buildings; most notably a gold crowned mosque, built by some Saudi sheik. Scattered along this route my jet-lagged brain remembers slurred descriptions of embassies, oil ministry buildings, a new soccer stadium, and a bicycle track. Although who knows what we really passed at 120km/hour?

We slept til noon. and had breakfast (or lunch?) at 1pm Kazakh time, after which I tried to catch up with my emails and take a quick nap. AB met us at the hotel at 4pm to grab a cup of coffee with one of his partners, referred to here as M. (sorry for the name abbreviations but the Kazakh's are snoopy about partners like this, if you know what I mean ;-).

M. runs a real retail business that helps people learn English and find connections with you-know-who. We enjoyed an interesting conversation with this servant.

Then we hustled a few blocks over to AB's 4th floor apartment in his Volkswagon SUV where we dropped some gifts on him, like Slim Jims, taco seasoning, and a chunk of cash donated for AB's van repair/purchase fund from some caring Ames people. His kids are totally delightful and you can tell immediately that they have had a lot of love...all 5 of them!

Others of our particular persuasion showed up for some tea and desserts. Then we (actually, They)sang two songs in Russian. What a great group! Medical people, students, fellow workers, new people, professional people all joined together. This was their first night for this type of meeting so they let us Americanos join in their 2-Truths-And-A-Lie Game. Most of them are conversant in English and Russian, so we all had some good laughs. They then worked on signing people up or organizing something, although I'm not sure what it was?

AB dropped us off at a popular Kabob place where I downed some lamb-kabobs (not my favorite) and some mashed potatoes. We walked 15 minutes in sub-zero cold to get back to the King Hotel.

Tomorrow, we'll meet up with more partners and get a tour along with a concert!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Days 3 & 4 in Istanbul

Jeff and I met with D. and A., veteran "workers" in Turkey. Through their in-the-trenches insights and my casual observations from touring around the old city, we discovered a few things about this place:

1. Essentially everyone is culturally Muslim (obviously).

2. The Muslims proselytize using booklets and spiritual guides in their mosques.

3. They brush their hands back and forth to express something that is denied or dismissed. (its hard to explain this)

4. Even though Constantinople (Istanbul) was the seat of the Christian church for over 1,000 years, any remnants of Christianity was erased. We saw one church (St. Sophia, now a historical monument converted to a mosque) and some Byzantine ruins. The rest is covered over or wiped clean. There are only about 3,500 Christians in this country (Turkey) of 70 million. Jeff and I had a great discussion with D. and A. over plates of fish. "What about the "Lamps" of the Seven Churches of Revelation; have they been removed?" D. explained that there are two believers in one of those cities (Smyrna), and handfuls of the faithful in the others. The city associated with modern day Ephesus, Selcuk, has about 150 practicing Christians. "If the Lamps haven't been removed, they are only dimly lit." A "church" here in Turkey is comprised of perhaps 8 people and a lay leader. Some of these pastors are the fruit of D. and A.'s work in the 80's and 90's.

5. Honor and Shame run deep here. B. reminded us that this is a Shame-based culture.

6. The people are generally noble (proud) and they don't want a hand out. A friendly Turk helped us get the right ferry token and I wanted to pay for his token also (only $1), he wouldn't take it. This is understandable, but we even tried to tip the taxi driver more and he wouldn't take it!

7. I've seen people selling packages of Kleenex, but no beggars.

8. There is no persecution here but there is certainly harassment. Each person is assigned an identification card that states one's religion. One Christian young girl applied several times for a driver's license. Her request was rejected each time because her identification card indicated that she was a Christian. A friend of hers inquired with the agency's supervisor who upheld the denial for a license based on her religion. D. and A. said that Christians lose jobs or are denied work because of their faith. There is no overt persecution, but the Turkish government does make it hard to proclaim Jesus.

9. Years ago, the Turkish government legitimized churches that own a building (usually decrepit older structures). Most of those churches are the old brands of orthodoxy. The real hurdle here is that any other church without a building is not legitimate. Protestantism is viewed as a kind of cult.

10. The Grand Bazaar is...bazaar! (see pic) This underground Turkish flea market features hundreds of meters of windy, shop-lined walkways. Vendors aggressively hawked and bartered their wares, everything from jeans and perfume to scarves, rugs, and jewelry. Rather than allowing myself to get annoyed by these persistent salesmen, I decided to go on the offensive, and it was fun! One teen tried to get me to come into his shop to sell me some jeans. He had the fashionable jeans with factory stress marks (holes) in the legs. I asked him why I would want to buy jeans with holes? He laughed, kind of.

Next stop: catch the red-eye to Astana, Kazakhstan.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Conversation with B.

B.'s story:
Chapter One: Move an 18 year old Turkish Muslim woman half way around the world to Iowa.
Chapter Two: Bring her to Christ through a believing cousin.
Chapter Three: Nurture her faith through a college ministry.
Chapter Four: Call her to full time ministry.
Chapter Five: Move her back home to Turkey to reach her people.

But B's story reads more like a romance novel than a history book. Its a story of how God drew and wooed a tender heart to Himself.
Since most Turks aren't very welcoming to the Christian faithful(that's an understatement), I can't mention B's name in this post. But I can tell you that B. is a fireball; outgoing and zealous for her people to know and love Jesus just as much as she does.

She's zealous and jealous. Jealous for the emerging Turkish church to be pure and to not be swayed away from Jesus. I silently prayed for B. as we were sipping strong Turkish cay (tea) at Camlica Peak (see pic). Sitting nearby were women who proclaimed their faith with a head scarf. And if it is worn in a particular way, those scarves become Badges proclaiming their devotion to a certain political/religious sect (kind of like female gang signs? Is there such a thing as a Turkish Home-girl? Is this what it means to be from the 'hood'? (I digress).

B. doesn't have a badge. Her outward distinctions are a contagious smile, exaggerated hand motions with occasional soft hand claps, and a meditative "amen" (pronounced 'ah-main') used to humbly acknowledge a compliment thrown her way.

As I left B. I wondered, "What can one fragile young woman do in a major city of 15 million Muslims (Istanbul)?" This city is a huge megalopolis (yes, this is a real word. I don't know what it means, but its a pure-dee real word). This place with lots of buildings and people strategically rests at the connecting point of Europe and Asia."

Actually, B. also wonders what good one person can do. She dismisses any suggestion that her small team is out-manned by millions of Muslims. With a small shake of her head and an earnest, determined spirit she says, "I am hopeful that God will do great things. I need to be patient and love the Turkish people."

After a taxi ride back down brick streets to the 'feribot' (ferry) and a quick exchange of hugs, it was like God had used B. to man-slap into me a more determined spirit (I don't want to be sexist here ladies, but a man-slap is usually harder than a lady-slap).

So, thanks for the unintentional rebuke, B. I evidently needed it.

Tomorrow, Tuesday: the Grand Bazaar (some kind of underground shopping mall where vendors get really mad at you for not buying their stuff), the Blue Mosque, and another place that is unpronounceable (like everything else around here).

A Conversation with Tolga

I half dozed through the wailing call to 6am prayer in Istanbul. I was reminded of yesterday's conversation with a rug dealer, Tolga, who earnestly expressed his displeasure with blending politics and religion. Tolga reminds me of my nephew Levi, long black hair with a Genghis Khan kind of look. In fact, Tolga said that Mr. Khan was his ancestor, and that the American Indians were also of his expansive lineage and would play a key role in the end of the world.
Tolga is from the biblical town of Ephesus, farther south in Turkey. Not having a rug sale yet that day, he invited us into the back of his shop for tea. I think Jeff, my travel buddy, thought I was permanently jet-lagged for agreeing to sip tea with a stranger. Anyway, we sipped and talked.
Tolga lost his father when he was 17. He traveled to Japan with a "friend" who left him homeless there for 3 months. He made it back home, but somewhere in his story, a 70 year old American missionary to Turkey started working with him (since 2005) to bring him from his blended brand of Islamic/Indian folklore to Jesus.
Tolga isn't a Jesus-follower yet. But, I can't help but think that our chance meeting on the streets in the old city is a part of God's plant/water/reap strategy.
When Tolga found out that we are Christians, he called his American missionary friend, Daryl Richman (sp.), in California. This dear Christian missionary briefly filled me in on Tolga and asked me to read something encouraging about the Christian life to him. Jeff recommended the book of Ephesians, since Tolga is from Ephesus, and I read aloud. The passage is about how Tolga's elders in the first century were reminded by Paul that they were disobedient. But, by God's infinite mercy, He led them to His grace in Christ.
We barely escaped Tolga's shop without buying a rug. Hopefully, more on Tolga in a future post.
Next stop...Berna at the ferry landing in Uskudar.