Podcast episode 6: What’s in a name? How Herzegovina was named.

It’s been eight months. I have finally uploaded a new podcast. This one is epic, long, dark — it’s the story of Herzegovina and how it got its name. I hope you enjoy it. The transcript is below. Have a great day!


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Podcast episode 5: Winter but Never Christmas – Stories of Sarajevo in Winter

This is the first podcast in a while. 🙂 I apologize for the radio silence. Things have been busy. The recent holiday season gave me time to put this together, and I hope you like it. It’s a mishmash of stories having to do with winter in Sarajevo — the land where it’s often winter, but never Christmas.

The transcript is below; here are some helpful links mentioned in the podcast.

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Book for life: 10 Questions to Diagnose your Spiritual Health

In my last post, I gave a brief review of Celebration of Discipline, a book I’ve read several times. For me, Celebration falls into a category I call “books for life” — books that can be read and re-read, and that give new insights with each new reading. Here is another book that I believe will benefit anyone who is interested in deepening their spiritual awareness.

10 Questions to Diagnose your Spiritual Health

At first glance, this title seems kind of strange. It seems strange that one would talk about spiritual health as if it can be diagnosed so easily, the way a doctor might diagnose an infection or a cold. It might seem somewhat judgmental — here’s a man that thinks he can size you up, see if you’re up to par.

However, from the first pages, Dr. Whitley establishes that his goal is to humbly help believers see the things that Scripture says every believer ought to experience. His words never give the impression that he is looking down on those who have not or are not experiencing the various things he talks about — rather, he continually counsels the reader to seek the Lord and pray for these things, so that they too might experience them.

Here are the questions:

  1. Do you thirst for God?
  2. Are you governed increasingly by God’s word?
  3. Are you more loving?
  4. Are you sensitive to God’s presence?
  5. Do you have a growing concern for the spiritual and temporal needs of others?
  6. Do you delight in the bride of Christ?
  7. Are the spiritual disciplines increasingly important to you?
  8. Do you still grieve over sin?
  9. Are you a quicker forgiver?
  10. Do you yearn for heaven and to be with Jesus?

From the introduction:

So whatever the present state of your spiritual health or the rate of your spiritual growth, let’s begin by “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), and “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). May the Lord be pleased to use this little volume to help you “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).

There is a recognition throughout the book that, while we may read endless books and try with all our might, it is God that brings lasting change. Yet Dr. Whitley clearly communicates his desire, that the Lord would work through his words to change the reader and bring his life closer in line with that of Jesus.

I highly recommend this book for small group discussions or personal study. It is small and easy to digest, but it is full of wisdom and encouragement for those who wish to go deeper in their walk with God.

How to go to America

I’M GOING TO AMERICAAAAAA!!!

I’m a bit excited. My family and I are visiting the U.S. next month. I take my family to the U.S. every other summer to visit grandparents, attend a family reunion, drive…

We end up doing a lot of driving. And, now that I have kids in school, we are basically limited to the month of July. The America Trip used to be so simple, back when we had fewer kids and none of them were in school. Now, it’s gotten so complicated that I feel like I need to hire an assistant just to organize all the tasks just for this one trip. Here are some things that go into the making of The America Trip. 

Airfare

We have three kids, which means we have to buy five tickets to fly to the U.S. Any fluctuation in the price gets multiplied by five, so it gets pretty expensive.

It’s also funny that our friends where we live assume that we are going to America for a vacation. Flying in planes for 8 hours with 3 small human beings who think it’s funny to slap you in the face is not my idea of a vacation!

Borrow a Car

A car is a necessity in the U.S., but since we don’t live there anymore, we don’t have one. So, getting one — and sometimes, two — that we can use to go back and forth is a chore. This time, though, we were able to find a company that rents to people like us for a discount. Hopefully, this will be a solution we can use again in the future.

Clothes

Certain clothing items are just not available in Eastern Europe, so we do have to use the time in the U.S. to find what we need. Whatever it is — whether it’s some special brand of socks or a good waterproof jacket — it needs to be good enough to last until the next time we visit.

Food

Yes, that’s a picture of peanut butter. I can’t explain it, but peanut butter is one of those things that Europeans will never understand about the U.S. You can actually find it here, but it’s just not very good. So every time we come (which isn’t often enough) we try to bring back a couple of huge jars of Jif.

 


This photo of Bangkok Baking Company – at the JW Marriott Hotel Bangkok is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Hamburgers

Hamburgers are another thing that America just does better than anyone. I’m talking about a good pub burger here — not Burger King (although Burger King has its place). While it’s definitely not something you can take back to Europe with you, the good hamburger is a thing that we miss about the U.S. very much.

Phone

This is a rare moment where I advocate something that seems like something you’d hear on Dave Ramsey: we buy cellphones in the U.S. every 2 years — full price, no-contract, factory unlocked — and take them back to Eastern Europe with us. There are several reasons for this, but I’ll start with a general financial principle: If you buy a phone in this way — even though these phones can cost $500 and up — it’s almost always a better deal over the life of the contract than getting the phone under a contract with your wireless provider.

After getting the new phone, we sell our old phone on eBay, which has an amazing program for selling your smartphone. In fact, if you have a model that’s not too terribly old, they will format the listing for you, recommend the settings for the sale, and then guarantee the price that you will get it, based upon the average price for that model of phone. If you end up having to sell it for less, they will give you eBay credit for the difference, which you spend on eBay to buy other things you need.

Last time I was in the states, I sold my 2-year-old iPhone 5 for more than the average price (about $120), in less time than eBay had told me it would take. Then I sold my wife’s phone for less than the average price, and as promised, they sent me eBay credit, which I used to buy phone chargers and headphones.

Family

This is one of the main reasons we go to the states — to see uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins — and this is something you definitely cannot take back with you. The time is short, but the memories last a lifetime.

 

Work

There is a lot of actual work that we do while in the U.S., and it requires our family to do quite a bit of traveling. Lots of people, churches, and organizations contribute to our work and we need to visit with as many of them as we can. Sharing with others about the past two years is one of the most important things we do.

Rest

There are a lot of things we do while in America, but rest isn’t one of them. We schedule a week of vacation, immediately after we return from the U.S., near our home in Mostar. This has become a special time for our family to regroup and be refreshed before the next school year comes.

I am beginning to get excited.

Give to those in need and become the one in need

I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’…

I can still remember the day when my good friend sat down with me in a Starbucks in Atlanta and said, “I want you to come back to Bosnia with me.” He was going there to work with the organization that I currently work for, and he was overtly recruiting me to with him. I had lived in Bosnia for a short time right after college, a period during which many surely thought I was sowing my wild oats. I’d get the travel bug out of my system soon and come back and settle down.

But as soon as I heard “come back to Bosnia”, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt a burning desire to go back and help build something meaningful. We mulled the decision over for about a year, but my wife and I eventually decided to go.

Learning a new world

The U.S. can be very different from the rest of the world. Living in Eastern Europe has been an adventure in adjusting to new cultural norms. But somewhere in the process of acquiring a new language and learning new customs, people tend to change. We’ll always be foreigners, but we’re no longer the same people that left the U.S. in 2010.

Yes, there are new habits and tastes that have developed, but most important is the new awareness that has resulted from our time overseas — awareness of ourselves that we would not have had, had we stayed home.

I’ve learned how to survive — quite well — without all the creature comforts available back home. My children speak a different language fluently. I speak a different language. I’ve learned organizational skills I never would have learned had I stayed in my old job. And the young people I have worked with have given me more than I’ve ever given them.

The last shall be first.

In this upside-down world in which we live, I think the principle arises that might not have been as visible before. When one ventures out to help others, often the giver benefits more than the receiver — but in ways that were unanticipated before. The one who helps might gather up clothes to donate to the needy, but in that process they gain an understanding of the things that people truly need. Or, they gain lifelong friends in the process of teaching an English class. Building a staircase might serve a temporal need, but the knowledge and skills gained in the process are valuable for a lifetime.

In the end, the givers become the receivers, the first become last, and those who give help discover just how needy they are.

The secret to living here is becoming clueless

Spurred by my recent post about what you all are apparently buying, I just went over to Amazon.com to take a look at their Best Sellers lists. Apparently, a lot of you want to make sure you know everything about The Legend of Zelda. I know it’s probably those nostalgic Gen-Xers that are finally buying things for themselves now that their kids are old enough to spend most of the day at school and not throwing these on the floor.

I admit, I am oblivious.

The point is that I didn’t know about any of this until I purposefully went online and googled [Best selling things on Amazon 2017]. I have been in ignorance for a long time, and I haven’t noticed. “Oh, but you aren’t any more,” you may say. Yes, but I would have to keep on visiting the Best Sellers lists regularly, and I know I’m not going to remember to do that.

It does take a while to fully leave the compound, but once you’re fully out, you’re out. Whether you realize it or not, at some point, I’ve realized, you cease to consume the culture as you did before, and there is little you can do to get back to the place where you are “up” on all the things your old friends are doing, sruggling with, enjoying.

Disasters, sadly, are not disastrous anymore.

My first taste of this was during my first stint overseas, when I lived in Sarajevo for 2 years from 2003 to 2005. I had some inkling that I was no longer aware of current events in the United States, and so I signed up get CNN’s headlines emailed to me. Then came Christmas, 2004, and I got an email with this subject:

Tsunami in Indian Ocean reported; 10,000 believed dead or missing

Thirty minutes later, I received another email. It’s subject read: “Tsunami in Indian Ocean makes landfall in Indonesia, 25,000 believed dead”. Another thirty minutes went by and I received yet another email, this time with the subject: “Tsunami makes landfall in Indonesia, 50,000 believed dead.” And the emails kept coming every few minutes until the numbers of casualties reached the hundreds of thousands.

The tsunami made headlines, of course, in the local papers in Sarajevo, but I didn’t read Bosnian very well at that point. And for me, that was the end of the disaster. I didn’t watch much TV, because every channel was all in Bosnian, and I had a job that took up most of my time. It was an event that happened one night, and then was over.

I would stay in Sarajevo continuously until mid-August, 2005. And as I came back to my home in Atlanta, the entire Southeast U.S. was bracing for yet another disaster, Hurricane Katrina. As I flew in, people were talking about it. But I didn’t really get it. I had not been exposed to the 24-hour barrage of coverage that my friends had. I had not been subject to hours of talk about the geography of New Orleans and how it was basically a fishbowl.

The storm hit, but I was still in my jet-lagged haze, transitioning from two years of living overseas.

I was still trying to get my head around the idea that, for the past year, everyone I knew had been watching what had happened in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and all the other nations in the Indian Ocean. In the last year, everyone I knew had viewed countless news pieces about the Tsunami; many had given money, a few had gone on mission trips to help. And I had been completely clueless.

I was embarrassed that I had been completely unaffected by the incredible disaster that was the Tsunami of 2004. And on top of that, another enormous event was happening, and I was again caught off guard. I felt as though a significant part of the last several months had been stolen from me.

Being present somewhere means being absent somewhere else.

And this was the beginning of one of the great lessons of my adult life — if you want to be 100% present, if you want to go “all in” on something, if you want to devote your entire self to any one thing at any point in your life, it will be necessary to give up something in some other area of your life. For me, the cost of devoting myself to my work in Bosnia meant that I had missed out completely on some very important things back in my home country. People had gotten married; some had moved away; many were wrapped up in new struggles and challenges; and I had missed out on all of it.

What made it hard, I suppose, was that I never made a decision to miss out on all this stuff — it just sort of happened without me. And yet, after some contemplation, I realized that it was all for the better.

What kind of worker would I have been, had I tried to live with one foot in America and one foot in Bosnia? What kind of friend would I have been to the people I met in Sarajevo, if I constantly talked as if I was not really present, there with them, in my mind? Not a good one, I reasoned. And so it goes on, even today.

Being present means being absent. You can’t be everywhere at once, and at some point you learn to accept that, and you learn to pick your battles. You can only win the battles that you are in.

 

Mountains are great. If you have water. (Story of another travel adventure in Kozara, Bosnia)

Back in 2015, I was asked to go find a hotel where my organization could host a retreat for all of our staff. So I made a few calls and charted out a 2-day trip around the country (Bosnia-Herzegovina is small) where I would make a big loop and visit several hotels that had conference rooms. Suffice it to say, the trip was a complete bust. Some of the hotels completely forgot I was coming, Google Maps apparently wanted me to disappear completely, and on the second day my car broke down — 100 miles from my home.

I managed to catch Elena in a pose. In focus.

In the end, we chose a hotel that I had not visited on that trip, and decided after our retreat that it had been too expensive and we wouldn’t go back. Then, last year we went to the hotel where I am now, Hotel Monument, on a mountain in northern Bosnia. It turned out to be great — it’s a hotel on top of a mountain, with lots of woods, hiking trails, a huge WW2 monument (hence the name), and a big conference room. It was good enough that we decided to come back for the second year in a row. In a year when there’s apparently been a huge, nasty drought.

So this year they didn’t have water. At least, not all the time.

When I arrived, the woman at the front desk said, “Just so you know, we’ve been having problems with the water pressure on the [European] second [American third] floor. It hasn’t rained in several weeks.”

Right. We woke up the next day to find that the water had been turned off completely.

The hotel. It at least looks nice.

I felt sorry for them. Apparently, there is some kind of break in the water system in the village at the bottom of the mountain, and it impaired their ability to have running water 24/7. So, the water turned on from about 7:30 until about 10 in the morning, on again during lunch time, and then again for a while in the evening.

Think about it — kids who wake you up at 6:30, and nobody can take a shower. Sweaty kids in the afternoon who can’t take a shower. No instant coffee in your room in the morning.

Tyler found a tank. Naturally, he thought squatting was the best way to pose. It’s a slavic thing.

Well, maybe not having the instant coffee isn’t that bad.

But it was bad enough that there will not be a 3rd consecutive team retreat at Hotel Monument. And that’s a shame.

It’s a shame because it was a great place for kids. My 8-year-old son and his 9-year-old best friend (who has the same birthday as him) can go and play in the woods unsupervised for just about as long as they want. Tonight he rode on the back of a motorcycle. Then he watched a movie with other American kids his age. If you’re a kid (and don’t really care about the lack of water because your dad can just buy you juice from the cafe) it’s a wonderful time.

Tyler also found a gun. Kozara is pretty cool.

It’s also a shame because coming here helps our entire staff team to connect more deeply with the country where we live. In WW2, there was a small group of Partizans that fought against the Nazis, who took this mountain at one point during the middle of the war. The Nazis came back with tens of thousands of troops, and laid siege to the mountain, against a Partizan force of only 3,000. The Partizans were able to inflict heavy losses on the Nazis, but they ultimately lost the battle. The Nazis lost 25,000 men but took the mountain, and had most of the survivors rounded up and sent to Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia.

This was cool. I’ve deciced Hannah looks like her grandmother.

It was also a shame because the disappointing aspects of doing business in Bosnia and Herzegovina were on display in a very obvious way, brought out because of the unexpected scarcity of a normally plentiful resource. The hotel staff kept the lights off most of the day, in an effort to save money. A kitchen inspection happened one morning, so they just delayed everyone’s breakfast until 9am. Day after day, coworkers complained about the lack of water. And on the last morning, I was asked if I could have everyone leave an hour early because the hotel “needs the rooms” (I apologized and said no). I was disappointed because the surroundings were so beautiful, and I wanted things to work out, but forces of nature seemed to be pulling us apart.

The aforementioned monument, and Tyler

We made the best of it, and as a family, we had a good time. I am glad we went, and we had some memories we won’t soon forget. With mixed emotions, I felt as if I watched while another chapter was brought to a close in our story of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Racism is the killer of the will. Be willing.

America has had a tough week. Never mind that MLK was an American. Never mind that we went from segregated schools and “colored” bathrooms in the 1950s to electing an African-American President roughly 2 generations later. Charlottesville is where we are now. And where we are now doesn’t look very good.

The enemies of the will are walking about.

The will: it’s a posture, an attitude, a way of living. A willing person takes life as it comes and doesn’t keep count of what they deserve, or whether they’ve gotten a fair shake. A willing person looks at the hand they’ve been dealt and fights tooth and nail to turn it into a winning hand because they know the alternative is not acceptable. People are counting on them. Life is precious. And every minute they spend being un-willing is a minute not truly living.

So what does it mean to be un-willing?

Bitterness.

Bitterness is that ultimate killer of the will. Bitterness says, “I’ve got a bargaining chip in the game of one-upmanship, and the only way it’ll be taken from me is if it’s pried from my cold, lifeless hands.” The thing is, every moment we hold onto that chip, our hands get a little bit colder and less lively.

When have we seen bitterness this week? If the photo of the crowd of men carrying tiki torches is not an example of mass bitterness, then I don’t know what is. That image is an incarnation of bitterness, a terrible visual representation of the attitude that grasps for bargaining chips in every imaginable nook and cranny of this life, and spreads its sickness wherever it goes. That attitude does not help create a healthy society.

Dishonesty.

Honesty is the ultimate ally of the willing; it’s opposite is present wherever bitterness thrives. Dishonesty enables us to create fictions that venerate us and our kind, and to spread lies against an enemy that in reality does not have the power to harm us.

What has been dishonest? We, the members of the majority culture, have been caught up in a seemingly benign dishonesty for decades, that has allowed us to think we can save face, and avoid the consequences of our history of sins against the minorities living among us.

Willing people don’t back down from the truth because they know they can’t. The truth is just another part of life that they take by the horns, just like everything else. But they take it because they know that if they can face their history, they will not be doomed to repeat it.

Fear.

Fear is the enemy that dooms us to inaction. It takes our dishonesty and bitterness and uses them to encase us and cement us down — ensuring that no matter how bad our situation becomes, then one thing we will never, ever do is change. 

Where is fear? Fear is the barrier that keeps us from seeing past the next step. Fear prevents us from seeing that living people are more important than stone and metal, and that another type of will — good will — at times is more valuable than the gold domes in our capitols. It paralyzes and prevents the chance of a step in the right direction.

Be willing.

Honesty, courage, and action — those are the allies of the willing. Those are the things that we need now, more than a statue, more than a carving. Regardless of how we got here, this is where we are. Individually, we’ve got to find the will to let go of the things that hold us back, and take hold of a future that will bring people together.

A review of Blace, Croatia: The GREATEST vacation destination in the world. ever. It has KITEBOARDING.

For the third summer in a row, our family took our summer vacation to the coastal paradise of Blace, Croatia. We love this location, and we’ve come to love vacation too. If you’re looking for a place off the beaten path, Blace is a great choice.

First, a bit about Croatia in general.

Croatia has enjoyed incredible success as a tourist destination since the breakup of Yugoslavia made it an independent country. It’s got almost the entire western coast of the Adriatic Sea within its borders, and lots of old stuff that people love to come and look at. You can see your feet through the water (which is always a draw for Americans like me and my wife, who only saw beaches on the Atlantic Ocean before moving here), and the water is so salty that it’s really easy to float.

So, over the years, I’ve seen every part of Croatia, and I’m completely over it. I’m done with the never-ending search for that beautiful, pristine beach destination. I’ve been to Makarska and every town on the Makarska Riviera too many times to count; I’ve spent weeks in Split; I’ve driven out to Orebic and seen Peljesac. I’ve stayed in Rovinj; I’ve done day trips to Opatija. I did youth camps 3 times in Zadar. One summer I went to Dubrovnik. 3 times! So, I’ve seen every part of Croatia, and I eventually decided I was done playing that game — I just want a place where I can swim in the beach and I don’t have to do anything. Blace is what we found, and we are deeply satisfied with it.

Blace, Croatia. We’ve taken 3 vacations in this spot. Note the kiteboarders.

There’s nothing in Blace.

There’s nothing in Blace, and that’s why we go there. There’s no ATM (if you run out of cash you have to drive back to Opuzen and use the ATM at the Konzum), no tennis courts, no beach volleyball courts, no hotels, no fancy restaurants, no clubs blaring techno music at night. It’s just a tiny village with a couple of beaches.

All that said, there is plenty in Blace to be excited about. There’s a huge, sandy beach outside the town that draws kiteboarders and has a huge campground across the street. There are no permanent buildings out there, so you can’t stay there, unless you want to camp. But you can go there during the day, since it’s about 0.5km from the town of Blace.

There’s also the main beach in town, which has two sections — a small one on the town’s little peninsula (see aerial photo), and another larger section. Separating the two sections is a guest house with a small concrete dock that people love to jump from.

But Blace has Kiteboarders. That’s something you probably don’t see at your beach.

Kiteboarders give Blace that little bit of novelty that makes it interesting. Apparently, people come there to learn, since theres a Kiteboarding school that operates there. When the wind picks up (which is fairly often), kites suddenly appear in the air. It’s amazing to watch.

More kiteboarders. This is at the big SANDY beach next to the village.

This is a dead-end road across the bay from the sandy beach. Kiteboarders like to congregate here and wait for wind.

Blace has plenty for people who just want to go to the beach.

If you go to the beach so that you can walk the strip, go to the movies, and rent mopeds, then Blace isn’t great. If you go to the beach to, er, go to the beach, then it’s perfect. Because that’s all you can do there. And that’s why we go every year.

There are two bars that serve pizza and hamburgers. We go to one of them about every other night for food. There’s a tiny market where you can buy fruit and snacks for sustenance. There are paddleboats you can rent for ~$5/hour. It’s fun.

Tyler at the docks, waiting for our pizza to be done.

Blace has nature.

Blace is only an hour away from our house in Mostar, and the drive out is beautiful. The area is at the mouth of a river, which means there is a very large marsh area around the village. It reminds us a little of Saint Simons Island, GA, where my wife’s family lives.

Because of the marsh, this is one of the few places in BiH and Croatia where you can consistently see wildlife around. There are egrets and cranes, pelicans and sea gulls, and last year a Dolphin swam all the way in to the beach and swam around with some of the vacationers.

The ride out to Blace is really beautiful. There are farms and houses in the marsh that depend on the abundance of water from the river delta.

This aerial photo is from some travel website. Just so you get the idea. You can see the “Mala Neretva” (Little Neretva) river emptying out to the sea at the top of the picture.

A place for families

One of the reasons we like Blace so much is that it is a perfect destination, in our opinion, for young families like ours. The village’s small size means it is free of the distractions that bigger places have. There is no ice cream on the beach, no fast food, no clubs — there are simply less things to grab your attention, which means that you can more easily focus on spending quality time together and swimming in the nice clear water.

The person you want to be: an introduction to willing

There’s a man in the neighborhood who has no education, but works three jobs to support his wife and kids. He’s dirty and sweaty when he gets home, but he has a smile on his face, and he somehow still has time to invite you over for dinner.

There’s a cancer patient who is always smiling and full of energy, even when she’s completely drained. She’s making jokes and talking to you about her friends — not her chemo.

There’s a young family with a down syndrome daughter, who invites you into their home and prays for you. Their daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, but they take every challenge with determination and pride.

We know these kinds of people exist. Every day is a challenge, and while they probably wish things were easier, they don’t hold anything back. They’ve put everything out on the table, because they know that life is simply better lived that way.

What is it about these people? Why are they attractive to us?

Is it possible to become like them, even if we don’t have cancer, a down syndrome child, or a manual labor job?

The thing about these people, in my opinion, is something I call will.

It’s not the results. These people never would have chosen the hand they were dealt.

It’s not desire. Most days, these people have to do things they really don’t want to do.

But one thing they are: and that is willing.

They know what they have to do, and they go do those things willingly. They hold the door for people, they practice hospitality, and they are kind — even though they have more than enough reasons not to be.

This is willing: it’s an attitude, a posture, a way of thinking.

I believe we can learn from these people. I believe that, if we examine the lives of people that face life willingly, then we’ll find lots of things we want to copy, that we can copy. And I think eventually we can become people who are a little more willing than we are now.