Lollygagging with Londoners

The stoic guardsman outside Buckingham Palace.

The picturesque double-decker tourist buses.

The red tele booths that beckon new callers.

It’s all a bit romantic, and quite unrealistic, really. Of course, the media is going to fluff everything up a bit, and paint a picture of a scene quite different from reality. But what it misses out on is the real heart of London — the people.

This creative bridge is only open to people crossing the River Thames.

This creative bridge is only open to people crossing the River Thames.

There’s the friendly university student interested in world cultures. The aspiring businessman on the tube in his trench coat. The two Brits at the pub having a laugh. And the homeless man that roams the street, looking for a little conversation as much as anything else.

Riding on the Tube in London, you quickly realize that people don’t really talk to one another. They read. They check Emails. But talk? Especially not to strangers.

Yet my first Tube ride I struck a conversation with a friendly businessman who was off to an interview at a big firm. He asked me about America and was interested in what I was doing in London, what my impressions were. It may have been a quick one, but he offered his full attention and courtesy.

On my second Tube ride, I began scribbling down some notes about the culture and the people. A young black woman eyed over my shoulder, and when I got off to tour Hyde Park, she followed me off and started to pick my brain about culture.

“What do you think about London? Are there any good books you would recommend?”

The London Eye, a big tourist attraction, sits on the bank of the River Thames.

The London Eye, a big tourist attraction, sits on the bank of the River Thames.

The eager learner and avid reader, she was fascinated by all things that make the world go round. We began talking about religion and spirituality — typically somewhat taboo in London — and she really opened up.

“You know, I don’t really know what I believe. There’s so much out there, I really want to learn more.”

Then, there were the two Brits at the pub who openly invited me into their conversation. We talked of football, culture, jobs, religion. It felt like good friends having open conversation about life!

Heck, they even offered to buy me a drink!

The famous "Big Ben" watchtower peers over the Westminster borough.

The famous “Big Ben” watchtower peers over the Westminster borough.

And lastly, the homeless men that roam the streets, who are not so much begging for money as they were begging for attention, for someone, not something. I stopped a few times to give some money and have a conversation. They were very open and seemed absolutely blessed by our small one-minute conversation and the occasional prayer or “God Bless”. Their eyes perked up and a smile cracked across their worn lips, “Well thanks mate, you too!”

The culture may be vastly different, but the same principles of humanity apply. People want to be noticed, cared for, appreciated, loved.

That’s the beauty of London that I’ve seen. It far surpasses the Gothic towers, the immaculate bridges and the spacious parks. It’s the kind of beauty that a camera can’t capture, because it’s living.

The bright sun site colorfully over the horizon of Westminster.

The bright sun site colorfully over the horizon of Westminster.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Paris

I arrived on the ugliest day in Parisian history in over half a century — three armed gunmen attacked a small, liberal-leaning newspaper for their dealings with the prophet Muhammad. It was an ugly, sad day in the city of love.

Yet, the entire day I traversed the city, these facts were completely unknown to me. I checked into my hostel and was ready to hit the city. I was in Paris! My gosh — I’ve only dreamed of so much.

I talked with the hostel attendant for quite some time — learned about his family background, his interests, ignoring the news in the background, presumably discussing the horrific shootings that happened a few hours earlier.

When I left the hostel, I traveled the 2-mile route to the Notre Dame and I knew something was different. There was a sense of hopelessness and loss in the air — but I didn’t know where it was coming from! I stopped by and talked to a few homeless people, gave them a few euros and gave them a pamphlet in French about hope in Christ. For when there wasn’t hope, then there was.

The walk to the Notre Dame boasts beautiful architecture, cute shops and nice scenery.

The walk to the Notre Dame boasts beautiful architecture, cute shops and nice scenery.

Then I passed a group of over 100, some of whom shook signs up and down reading, “Je suis Charlie”. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it had something to do with the air of hopelessness I was feeling. Throughout the afternoon, I just kept feeling called to pray, to pour my heart out over the city. My heart-felt prayers filled the air around me.

When I finally got the Notre Dame, the atmosphere changed. I was awestruck — like, in the real sense, not the way in which it’s overused. Dumbfounded. I walked inside and saw the beautiful sanctuary. “How can you not see this is about GOD himself?” I asked myself. It was beautiful, and it glorifies the One, True God! It was so incredible I started crying! I sat in the pews and continued to just pray over the hopelessness that I felt earlier.

The beautiful Notre Dame de Paris and the Christmas Tree.

The beautiful Notre Dame de Paris and the Christmas Tree.

Then, I made my way to the Louvre. As I walked through the city, the atmosphere of oppression reigned. But when I escaped into the depths of the glass pyramid, it dissipated. Through the beauty of ancient sculptures, famed paintings and the cultural immersion of languages and cultures, hope again was amidst us. The paintings, many of which featured the work and life of Christ, restored my hope and peace and I yet again found myself speechless.

“Look what he did for us up on the cross!” I would think. “Yet, he’s still alive! He’s living even today!”

The Louvre has three wings full of precious, famous paintings, like the Mona Lisa.

The Louvre has three wings full of precious, famous paintings, like the Mona Lisa.

Then, I made my last journey to the famed Eiffel Tower. I saw it from some distance away and thought, “huh, I thought it would be bigger.” Well, that was when I was still 30 minutes away! Once I finally got up close and personally, it towered over me like a giant. The tower that reigns over Paris, over France, reminding them of the rebellion, of their freedom.

And that’s where it hit me. The Notre Dame. The paintings in the Louvre. They could be about God, they should be, but they’re not. They’re about architecture. They’re about artistic prowess and beauty. And the Eiffel Tower isn’t like the church steeples that hope to display God’s glory in the highest. It’s there to display the glory of France, and the supposed freedom found in government.

The Eiffel Tower sits lit up as a beacon in the night sky.

The Eiffel Tower sits lit up as a beacon in the night sky.

There’s a reason that when I stepped outside I felt the oppression in the air. It wasn’t because of the police sirens, or the protests. When I woke up the next morning to texts and emails repeating the refrain, “please tell me you’re okay,” and then checked the news a shock went down my bones. I couldn’t believe it. I almost started to cry again, but this time not out of beauty. I had seen the good and the bad of the city, but this was ugly. Real ugly.

If liberty and freedom are found in a government or a political philosophy, then they’re bound to be shaken. And on January 7, France’s liberty and freedom were shaken. You could feel it in the air.

But what if we had a liberty, a freedom, a peace that couldn’t be shaken? What if, the beauty didn’t end at the church building or the paintings? What if these were only earthly representations of a higher, heavenly hope?

The light shines so clearly in the darkness. Are we in focus enough to realize what the light is?

The light shines so clearly in the darkness. Are we in focus enough to realize what the light is?

I’m banking my life on it!

Remembering Russia

When we left Russia, five of our closest Russian friends brought us to the airport. Saying goodbye was tough. We didn’t want to leave, and they didn’t want us to either.

And as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t promise I would be back. I pray that I would be able to return…but I don’t know what my life has in store!

My solace was that these memories and these friendships will last with us forever. And for many of our friends there, we can have peace in the fact that we get to spend eternity with them when we are reunited with Christ!

Until then, we hold onto those memories. So our team leader, Chip Cowsert, made us a video to help us remember what God did in Russia!

Part Three: Don’t Worry, Live on Purpose

Sure, it might sound corny: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I thought so too.

I mean, so many people say it wihtout meaning, without passion: “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay,” or “Just be happy — as long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”

One thing about our generation is that we are skeptical. “Well, why is it going to be okay?” “How can I just ‘be happy’ if I feel miserable?”

We have reason to be skeptical of a theme like this. And that’s why it’s so perfect.

As I’ve reflected on our time at English camp in Russia, I’m amazed at how much fun we had. We sang, danced, played games and built lasting friendships. I’ve gotten to share stories and memories from camp with friends and family, hardly able to hold back smiles and laughter.

But if it was just a fun time, it would be kind of disappointing. A fun week is great, but we’ve got another 51 weeks in the year often times where we do things that aren’t fun. So how can we be happy during that time?

The campers started to address this when we left camp. “I don’t want you guys to go!” they exclaimed. “We’ve had so much fun and we don’t want it to end!”

I didn’t want it to end either! Yet, I knew it had to end. So then what was my comfort? That my joy didn’t have to be dependent upon my life’s events and the people around.

On the last night of camp, we got to talk about our life purpose — why we’re here on this planet and what we’re supposed to do in this life. So much of Western culture tells us that what makes us the happiest is pleasing ourselves. 

Here’s the radical part — the part that makes our somewhat corny theme all come together. That’s not what God says brings us joy. It’s not our pleasure, our events, or even our friends and family. The thing that makes us the happiest is seeing the glory and majesty of our Creator! 

“You have made known to me the path of life; in your presence, there is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

On the last night of camp, I got to share a story, a story of a boy who worried so often. When fun times would end, he would get sad. Every Sunday, he would lay awake at night beause he didn’t want to go to school.

But something changed. He met people who had true joy. It didn’t waver when they had school, or when they stopped doing fun activities. It remained. And it helped them actually love other peole and care for them, asking for nothing in return.

He wanted this joy, this worry-free life. So he decided to investigate the hope that impacted those around him.

This was my story and I got the privilege of sharing this with all the campers. To me at least, the camp theme isn’t corny — it’s what brings me hope daily.

When I have to leave my friends, I don’t have to worry. I’ll be reunited with many of them again! When the fun times end, the God of joy follows me wherever I go. And when I’m faced with death, like we all will be, I don’t have to fear — I’ll be reunited with my Creator for eternity!

That’s the only reason I can live without worry and be happy. That’s the only reason such words can carry true meaning instead of falling to the side, lifeless. It gives me purpose. It gives me life.

That’s my prayer and hope for my fellow campers. That these words “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” would carry true meaning in their hearts. That they would live on purpose, too!

Part Two: Don’t Worry, Be Open

It can be very difficult sometimes to have deep relationships in America. So many people have acquaintances, but few have true, reliable friends.

This is becasue in order to have a deep friendship, you need to have trust, which requires openness. You have to be vulnerable.

In fact, in her TED Talk, Brene Brown said that based on six years of research, embracing vulnerability was the true key to happiness. You can watch the video here to learn more from Brown on this interesting topic.

I was shocked at how willing the Russian students were to be open and vulnerable before us.

Camp members engage in casual conversation, meeting new people.

Camp members engage in casual conversation, meeting new people.

A main component of our time during camp was small group conversations. This served not only as an opportunity for the students to practice their English, but also to engage one another in real, deep conversations.

We discussed recreation, family & friends, work and purpose. Each day got deeper and each day Russians were there, answering honestly and being vulnerable before our American team who they had just met.

When we got to the day where we discussed purpose, I was surprised the kind of answers we received. This often isn’t something we share in America — discussing deep things as purpose and hope seems like a waste of time or too personal for some people.

But not for these students.

My small group during our selfie competition.

My small group during our selfie competition.

Several students answered and said they found purpose in wanting to love people, or in raising a family. They wanted their gravestone to read, “Loved God and Loved People.”

Others simply didn’t know. “Honestly, I’ve never thought of that before. I don’t know what my purpose is or why I’m here. But I want to find out.”

Their openness challenged me a lot. I wondered how our American culture had challenged me to stay closed, trying to reduce my vulnerability. But this isn’t life.

I got the opportunity to be open in front of the entire camp and share my testimony of how God gave me purpose in my life when I was lost less than four years ago.

My life was so similar to many of these college students in Russia, just wanting to have fun and live life to the fullest. That’s what life is about, right?

But suddenly, I became terribly unsatisfied. With everything. It was at that time that I started studying the Bible and God gave me purpose in His Promises — that there is more than this life! That we have eternal peace, joy and strength in Jesus! That we were created to love God and reflect His glory to people around the world!

Our small group celebrating after we won a competition!

Our small group celebrating after we won a competition!

The students’ openness challenged me and allowed me to be open and real before them in sharing my story. I’m thankful for their openness and pray that the people who are searching for their purpose would find it.

For God says, If you seek me with your whole heart, you will find me (Jeremiah 29:13).

Part One: Don’t Worry, Have Fun

Russians have few reservations about anything. They just jump in and have fun, which is very different in American culture.

The first day we got to camp, we started playing some games, singing some songs and dancing. In an American camp, you would be lucky to get 50% participation in some of those activities, especially on the first day. And it wouldn’t be passionate.

But Russians just jumped in and enjoyed it! “Russians just like to have fun,” one of the students said. “We just do it.”

We taught them how to do the Cupid Shuffle, a very popular line dance, and we were just going to show them in front of the group. We didn’t expect them to jump in.

One minute into the song, everyone in the room was cramped onto the stage doing the Cupid Shuffle together. They were dancing, smiling and laughing. They didn’t care if they weren’t good dancers or if they looked silly. They just had fun without reservations. Don’t Worry. Have Fun.

Students dancing outside during free time.

Students dancing outside during free time.

During free time one day, we got a big futbol game together and almost the whole camp was involved. There were over 20 players and almost 20 people watching. It was pretty incredible to see the unity, especially during an event that wasn’t organized. This sort of unity would seldom happen in America when you can choose what to do.

We put on some basketball jerseys that they brought, some almost too tight to wear others hanging down to our knees. But it didn’t matter. We just wanted to play.

Throughout the game, people stayed involved and the fans kept cheering. Even though the quality of futbol wasn’t great, the students were full of passion, energy and fun. It didn’t matter if they were good or not.

Our group playing volleyball on another free day.

Our group playing volleyball on another free day.

But by far the most surprising thing was our skits. I’ve been in camps or school activities where we have to do skits. It never ends well. It’s awkward, nobody wants to get involved and everyone just acts like they’re too cool to do anything. But really, they’re afraid to look silly or to be the kid that likes drama.

It wasn’t the case with my skit group. Everyone was involved and added value to the skit. We had dancers, singers, actors, mimes, videographers — the talent was unmatched by any group I’ve ever been a part of.

The result was a wonderful performance about a puddle who wanted to become an ocean. We included the audience, added humor, used jokes from camp, made a creative storyline and even wrote an original song. I was so proud of my group, their creative genius and their willingness to be involved. They weren’t worried. They had fun!

Our skit group gathered together for a selfie.

Our skit group gathered together for a selfie.

So many things that we did this week wouldn’t have been possible in America. It wouldn’t have been successful. It wouldn’t have been as fun. It reminded me that our preoccupation with our reputation and what people think about us so often cripples us and robs our joy.

We made the camp theme “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but the Russians lived it out.

Because silly group pictures are just so much more fun!

Because silly group pictures are just so much more fun!

Intro: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

Today marked the end of our English camp here in Orenburg, Russia. We had 66 people attend from all walks of life, some high school students, some college students, some families with small children.

Because of Orenburg’s proximity to other regions in Russia and “the Stans” as I like to call them (Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, etc.), the population is very diverse. This provided for an even richer cultural exchange during our camp.

Our daily schedule included English conversation times, fellowship during meals, games and competitions, music and worship and of course everyone’s favorite: Banya!

Today is our recovery day from all the madness: eat, play, speak, banya, repeat. That went on for days, with a few hours of sleep tucked in there occasionally.

We discussed the topics of recreation, family & friends, work and purpose. Each day built on itself and so many people left with a lot of questions unanswered. “Wow, I’ve never thought about that before,” said one student about her purpose in life. “I will have a lot to think about now.”

It brought true joy to my heart to see so many young people so open-minded with a yearning to discover their purpose in life!

This week was so much more about learning English. It was about having fun. It was about building relationships. And it was about asking tough questions we usually don’t even ask ourselves.

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” we sang together. But we cannot just command ourselves to do this, and catalytic camps don’t last forever. We need something deeper that can provide this happiness that won’t run out. I hope and pray that these people I’ve grown so close to would find this joy!

Since I’m running on less than four hours of sleep, I decided to make this post shorter and leave my more articulate thoughts for later posts, when my brain has caught up with my body.

Stay tuned for a three part series on our experience at English Camp: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.